AtlantaFalcons.com catches up with ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas to get his expert opinion:
AtlantaFalcons.com: Give us your thoughts on the NFC South Division. Do you think the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints are still the team to beat, or have the Atlanta Falcons improved enough this offseason to overtake them?
Pat Yasinskas: For the moment, I've got to stick with the Saints as the favorite. They've get a championship team pretty much intact. However, history has shown it's very difficult to repeat as the top team in this division. No team has ever won the division in back-to-back seasons. If there is one team that can challenge the Saints, it's got to be the Falcons. I'm not saying they definitely will overtake the Saints, but it's at least possible.
AF: Do you think Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens can co-exist together in Cincinnati?
PY: No. I've been covering this league for a long time and one thing that always has rung true is that wide receivers are a different breed. As a general rule, the better they are, the flakier they are. Take two guys like that and put them together and I think it's a formula for disaster. I covered Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson in Carolina. That didn't work, and Ochocinco and Owens might be even stronger personalities than Smith and Johnson.
AF: What are you hearing about the NFL's impending labor situation?
PY: Still far from being out of the woods. But I've at least detected some slight optimism from different sides in recent weeks. For months before that, there was nothing encouraging. I think it still will drag on, but my guess is something eventually will get done in time for there to be a 2011 season.
AF: You've been in Falcons camp for a few days. What are your thoughts about Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and the rest of the 2010 Falcons?
PY: Very positive overall. The Falcons managed a 9-7 record last year, despite having a bunch of injuries to key players. They're getting healthy now, and they've added some new players. I really like the core Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff have assembled. There are a few questions still to be answered, but there's no question this can be a very good team.
AF: You spent time with new Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson. Is he the piece the Falcons desperately needed in their secondary?
PY: Dimitroff and Smith are very deliberate guys and they made it a point to go out and get Robinson. That's only going to help in a division where you have to face Drew Brees and the Saints twice a year. Robinson should make the entire secondary better. A lot of people overlook this, but I think having Robinson also will help the pass rush. His cover skills might make quarterbacks hold the ball an extra split second and that should make the defensive line better.
AF: What's your take on the Brett Favre situation in Minnesota and do you think he will play this season?
PY: I'm scheduled to cover the season-opening game between the Vikings and Saints, and I will be shocked if Brett Favre isn't on the field in the Superdome that night.
AF: Give us a paragraph or two about the other three teams in the NFC South — New Orleans, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Can the Saints repeat, who will emerge as Carolina's starting QB and how much improved will the Buccaneers be in 2010?
PY: Let's start with New Orleans. They're the champions, unless or until somebody knocks them off. Their offense is as good as ever and their defense might be even better than it was a year ago. Most recent Super Bowl champions have been hurt by losses in free agency and/or assistant coaches moving on to become head coaches. The Saints didn't have much of that. There's continuity here.
I have no doubt Matt Moore will open the season as Carolina's starting quarterback. The Panthers felt Moore's play late last season showed he at least deserves a shot and I was impressed with Moore in camp. Let's face it: With Carolina's running game, the Panthers don't need Moore to be John Elway. They just need him to be competent. The flip side is, Coach John Fox is on the hot seat. If Moore struggles, his chance could end and rookie Jimmy Clausen is waiting in the wings.
I'm not saying Tampa Bay will get the same result as the Falcons did in 2008 when they made a surprise run to the playoffs. But these Buccaneers remind me a little of those Falcons. They've got some good young parts in place (quarterback Josh Freeman, rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Barrett Ruud) in place. You can see Tampa Bay's formula at least taking shape. The Bucs will be competitive this year.