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Post-lockout success for Pack, Pats; 49ers, Titans will struggle

The loss of offseason work due to the lockout will challenge the planning and preparation of scouts and coaches, but teams with bulletproof blueprints and established rosters will enjoy a sizable advantage over their opponents when the regular season opens.

On the other hand, teams in the midst of transition due to coaching or quarterback changes could find themselves suffering growing pains as a result of not having a typical offseason.

Let’s take a look at the teams in the best and worst situations heading into training camp following the lockout:

Five teams set for success

Green Bay Packers

The defending Super Bowl champions are poised to get off to a fast start with their deep and talented roster. The team has few big-name free agents set to depart, and the return of several key players -- Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Morgan Burnett -- could make them even better in 2011. With a handful of young players (Sam Shields and James Starks) set to take another step forward in their development, the Packers enjoy a sizable personnel advantage over their opponents. If the remarkable Aaron Rodgers can continue to play at an all-star level, it is hard to pick against the Packers’ chances of enjoying a serious run at back-to-back titles.

New Orleans Saints

No team took better advantage of the players-only workouts than the Saints. The Drew Brees-led unit has forged a bond through the sessions that will allow them to get an early jump on the opposition when the regular season commences. Although there are some explosive skill players -- Reggie Bush and Lance Moore -- who might not remain on the roster, the offense is set to roll with the head coach and signal-caller in sync. Defensively, the Saints have several upgrades in place that should get the unit back to the ranks of the elite under the ultra-aggressive Gregg Williams. If they can find their rhythm quickly early in training camp, the Saints are viable contenders in the NFC.

New England Patriots

The presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick make the Patriots perennial favorites to win the AFC under any circumstance. The team’s offense features several veterans, so the unit shouldn’t skip a beat when camp opens up. Although their young, emerging defense will need some time to find their identity with a potential free agent or two set to come onboard, the ability to rely on a high-powered offense for the first few weeks of the season should keep the Patriots ahead of the game.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers are in good position to take advantage of the lockout and avoid the slow starts they’ve become known for. They return a number key weapons on a team that featured the league’s top offense and defense in 2010. Philip Rivers, in particular, should help the team get off to a fast start due to his uncanny ability to get outstanding production from his receivers. While the defense must adjust to the presence of new coordinator Greg Manusky, the retention of the same defensive system should alleviate the transition and allow the Chargers to continue to thrive in 2011.

New York Giants

Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin have assembled a roster that has few glaring weaknesses. Eli Manning has a talented cast of receivers to target in the passing game, and Brandon Jacobs anchors a physical rushing attack that should rank among the elite. With Perry Fewell still in place to tutor a defense that started to show its teeth near the end of the season, the Giants have all the pieces in place to emerge as a frontrunner on the heels of the lockout.

Five teams set to struggle

Denver Broncos

John Fox took over a team filled with holes, and the abbreviated offseason has prevented him from executing his plan to rebuild. The Broncos must resolve their quarterback dilemma by deciding on Tim Tebow or Kyle Orton, and Knowshon Moreno’s struggles at running back must be addressed. Defensively, Fox must find a way to flip a roster that is aging at several key spots. Free agency will be an important part of the equation, but it will be hard to get so many new faces on the same page in a six-week period.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have been regarded as a darkhorse selection to win the weak NFC West, but Jim Harbaugh has a lot of work to do to get the team ready. Alex Smith must be re-signed immediately to give the team a viable solution at quarterback, and several decisions must be made to upgrade the defensive line. Nate Clements and Aubrayo Franklin might not be a part of the team’s future plans, and San Francisco must identify productive successors to have a legitimate shot to compete in the division. Throw in the daunting task of mastering new offensive and defensive systems in a shortened preseason, and it is hard to predict a division title for the 49ers.

Arizona Cardinals

Of all the teams desperate to solve their quarterback woes, the Cardinals top the list. The offense struggled behind Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall, and although it appears Kevin Kolb is on his way, the learning curve for the fifth-year pro figures to be a steep one considering his move to a vastly different offensive system. The defense is also transitioning to a new system under Ray Horton, and the team needs to continue to find the right personnel to fit the scheme, specifically at defensive tackle. With a host of changes anticipated on both sides of the ball, the expectations for the Cardinals should be tempered.

Tennessee Titans

Few within the organization expected Jake Locker to start immediately, but Kerry Collins’ surprising retirement is making it a very likely scenario. Granted, the team could sign Matt Hasselbeck to serve as a mentor, but even a veteran could struggle operating in an unfamiliar system without a full offseason to acclimate to the changes. On defense, Jerry Gray is attempting to shake up the scheme left behind by Chuck Cecil, but the team lacks the horses to consistently get after the quarterback. With Jason Babin set to depart via free agency, the Titans must add another young pass rusher.

Carolina Panthers

Ron Rivera faces the challenge of rebuilding a franchise behind a young quarterback. His first decision will be choosing between rookie Cam Newton and second-year QB Jimmy Clausen to be Carolina’s starter. Although it is not uncommon to have a quarterback competition heading into the camp, the decision between unproven players in an unfamiliar system presents a huge challenge. Defensively, the Panthers face similar obstacles. The team still needs to add a veteran at defensive tackle and a proven pass rusher opposite Charles Johnson (if he re-signs) to set the foundation. Throw in some tough free-agent decisions at linebacker (Thomas Davis and James Anderson), and there is a lot of work to be done before the Panthers can even think about fielding a competitive team in the NFC South.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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