Atlanta Falcons - I believe that this year the Atlanta Falcons take the crown of the NFC South away from the Saints, even if it is only for this season. Atlanta will be putting the reigns of the offense in Matt Ryan's hands more than ever this season and it could produce some real fireworks. Matt Ryan was a Top 10 quarterback in most major statistical categories in 2011, and he will have more weapons to work with in 2012. While some of those weapons are past their prime, two young players on their offense have not even reached their prime yet. I expect Jacquizz Rodgers to make a significant impact this season, as people will realize that he is a capable inside runner as well as a scat back. But it will be the continued development of Julio Jones that will make this team a scary offense. Jones' main goal will be to take care of his body so he can play in all 16 games, if he does expect him to have Pro Bowl numbers this season, in only his second year as a pro. Roddy White may garner more targets and receptions, but it will be Jones that is the more dynamic player in the ATL.
New Orleans Saints - I fully expect the Saints to have a lot of struggles this year leading to some frustrating peaks and valleys. Drew Brees is still going to be fantastic as he leads a powerful offense, but this league is too hard for them to have season as successful as last, under the current circumstances. Now I think that it goes without saying that Drew Brees will be the most impactful player on the team, with Sproles probably finishing 2nd. But I don't want to go after the low hanging fruit with this pick, so instead I am looking to the defensive side of the ball for this Game Changer. As much as I like Malcolm Jenkins in the Saints secondary, the nod here goes to 3rd year cornerback Patrick Robinson. Robinson was considered by some the purest corner in the 2010 draft, but his stock dropped down to the end of round one. Considered some what of a project (for a first rounder), Robinson flew under the radar a bit in his first two seasons. But according to Pro Football Focus, Patrick was ranked as one of the Top 10 QB-Beaters in 2011. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a paltry 59.3 passer rating when facing the 7th ranked Robinson (Darrelle Revis topped the list with a 45.6 opposing passer rating). I expect Robinson to continue to develop and make significant strides in his third year as a rising star for the Saints.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - I love the disciplined, no non-sense approach that Greg Schiano is using in Tampa Bay. With that being said, I am afraid that within a couple years he will be out of the league, heading back to college. I say this because we have seen very few recent coaches, who focus on discipline and holding grown men accountable for their actions, last in the NFL. I love Tom Coughlin's style, but many coaches with that approach don't succeed in today's game. Placing that aside, this team has quite a few holes still, but there are some bright spots on the roster. One bright spot that I am very excited about is Vincent Jackson. I think that if he stays healthy he can have a profound impact on this offense. But I am holding out my Game Changer for rookie running back Doug Martin. When Martin was being scouted the general buzz was that he was very similar to Ray Rice. That is a hefty compliment, but when you watch him move through traffic you can see a lot of similarities of his vision, balance and quickness. One such play that most of us have seen is his first preseason action where he got flipped over and landed on his feet. Not only did he land on his feet, but he maintained balance and darted up field without stumbling or any hesitation. Most scouts say balance and vision are the two most important traits for NFL running backs, and Martin appears to have both. Even in a shared backfield, a healthy Martin will have a monster impact on the Buccaneers.
Carolina Panthers - Cam Newton is the man in Charlotte and everyone knows it. No matter if he progresses or has a sophomore slump, he is still going to be key to their offensive engine. So with that I won't waste any time, as we jump to the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers defense was pretty bad last year as they ranked 26th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed. This won't be fixed in just one season, but first round selection Luke Kuechly is more than capable of having something to say about it. I was hesitant to rate Kuechly so high prior to the draft because I was concerned it was pre-draft hype from a great combine. That wasn't the case though, not even close. In fact Kuechly was a stud at BC where he led the nation in tackles as a sophomore and junior (He only finished 2nd in the nation as a freshman). So then I got to watch him play this preseason against Houston and he was very impressive. The youngster is still a tackling machine who knows how to get ball carriers on the ground quickly. But it's more than that with Kuechly. He shows excellent movement and depth in his drops in the passing game. He is instinctive. He trusts his eyes when he makes reads and he just fires, and when he gets there - he makes plays. I anticipate Kuechly having the type of impact, as a rookie, that Brian Urlacher and Brian Cushing had.