Continued from page 1

Mike Shanahan is hoping to snap a longstanding cycle of mediocrity in Washington. The idea that he’s choosing between John Beck and Rex Grossman at quarterback, however, doesn’t indicate the team is poised for a major leap forward.

___

NFC NORTH:

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The Packers didn’t make any significant additions through free agency. If they’re going to repeat, it will be largely with last year’s cast. Jenkins and left guard Daryn Colledge left as free agents but the Packers get back playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley, reliable running back Ryan Grant and promising young safety Morgan Burnett from injury.

The Bears should be very good on defense but will have to score more to continue as contenders _ and that starts with doing a much better job protecting Cutler. Drafting right tackle Gabe Carimi was a step toward that end, but perhaps not enough. Two warning signs for the Bears: They shouldn’t expect to have as much good luck with injuries as they did last season, and the new kickoff rules encouraging touchbacks (sorry, Devin Hester) could hurt them more than any other team.

Instead, the Packers‘ biggest challenge in the North could come from the Lions, a team ready to shed its reputation as divisional doormats. Already strong up front on defense with Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions will be tough to stop if rookie tackle Nick Fairley can return quickly from foot surgery. A good defensive line can cover for a suspect secondary, and they’ll have to in this case. Again, any serious run by Detroit will require Stafford to stay healthy.

The Minnesota Vikings still have big-play threats on both sides of the ball. But unless Donovan McNabb is able to find some magic late in his career, it feels like this team’s window to contend is closing.

___

NFC SOUTH:

Trying to stay on top of what should be a fiercely competitive division, the Falcons went all-in with the drafting of wide receiver Julio Jones _ adding yet another big-play option for Matt Ryan.

Atlanta’s addition of free agent defensive end Ray Edwards should help a defense that struggled to bring pass-rush pressure. The secondary must improve behind him.

Right behind the Falcons are New Orleans and up-and-coming Tampa Bay.

The Saints waved goodbye to Reggie Bush but still might be a better running team than they were last year. New Orleans signed free agent Darren Sproles and drafted Mark Ingram. The Saints also beefed up their defensive line, hoping to improve their run defense.

The most intriguing team in the division could be Tampa Bay. Josh Freeman was impressive in his first year as a full-time starter, completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. If Freeman’s upswing continues and other young players mature quickly, especially up front on defense, the Bucs could contend.

The Carolina Panthers have a new coach, Ron Rivera, and a new quarterback, Cam Newton. Thanks to the lockout, neither one had the benefit of an organized offseason program. Not a winning formula.

Story Continues →