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Panthers, Steelers, Broncos most vulnerable division champs

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The start of the 2015 NFL season is still several months away, but there's one thing we can say with near certainty: There will be turnover among the defending division champions.

Of course, predicting just how much turnover we'll see is a trickier proposition. Still, with the draft done and most major free agents signed, we can identify which divisional winners from last season are the most vulnerable. Below is a look at all eight divisional champions from 2014, ranked according to their chances of being overtaken by the competition in 2015:

1) Carolina Panthers

Biggest threat in the NFC South: New Orleans Saints

The Panthers, who managed to claim the division with a losing record (7-8-1) last season, could end up starting two new tackles in signee Michael Oher and fourth-round pick Daryl Williams, and that might spell trouble. How will Cam Newton -- he was sacked 81 times over the past two seasons, and wound up missing time in 2014 with various injuries -- hold up? He spent a lot of time running for his life last season, and you can only duck and dodge so much before it starts to wear on you. Greg Olsen had a career year, cracking the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, but he's also 30. Can he keep producing?

I think the Saints will pose a significant challenge behind Drew Brees, who I expect will return to form after something of an atypical year. Ultimately, I see Carolina falling prey to New Orleans.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest threat in the AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger had a phenomenal 2014, setting career bests in completion percentage (67.1) and passing yards (4,952). I'm just not sure we can count on him hitting those high-water marks again. When you succeed like that, opponents tend to adjust, game-planning different tactics to stop you. I also worry about the looming absence of running back Le'Veon Bell, who is facing a three-game suspension to start the season. We saw how much the Steelers struggled in their playoff loss to the Ravens when Bell was out. Yes, Pittsburgh signed veteran back DeAngelo Williams, but he's 32, played in six games last year and has averaged just 4.1 yards per carry over the last three seasons.

Finally, the Steelers face a daunting challenge in the very tough AFC North, as they're just one of three teams -- including the Ravens and Bengals -- who could conceivably win the division. At the end of the day, I like the Ravens' chances the best.

3) Denver Broncos

Biggest threat in the AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs

Peyton Manning says he's healthy -- but he's also 39, and no one can play forever. Historically, when quarterbacks hit the wall, their completion percentages go down and the interceptions go up. Might Manning forestall the inevitable for another year? Sure, but the odds are starting to stack up against him. I also wouldn't dismiss the loss of Julius Thomas; he's a very good tight end. What was once a supercharged receiving corps has lost a fair amount of firepower over the years, with the departures of Thomas and Eric Decker and the decline of Wes Welker (who remains unsigned). I'm interested to see how No. 1 receiver Demaryius Thomas responds this season. It'll help if Emmanuel Sanders can repeat his off-the-charts performance from 2014.

The Kansas City Chiefs have shown they can win, and they made a great addition over the offseason in Jeremy Maclin, who really brings a lot to the table. Plus, quarterback Alex Smith plays better than most people think. The Chiefs have a good shot to unseat the Broncos.

4) Dallas Cowboys

Biggest threat in the NFC East: New York Giants

With DeMarco Murray in Philadelphia, can a combination of Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle keep the running game going? Can Tony Romo, who had an awesome 2014, produce like that again? How will the Cowboys respond to a vastly improved division? The Redskins took a step up in free agency and the draft; rookie Brandon Scherff will boost their offensive line, and I think Robert Griffin III will be a better quarterback than he's been the past couple years. The Eagles are tough to pin down, given the uncertainty at quarterback, but they have a good system and an upgraded pass defense. The Giants, meanwhile, really helped themselves this offseason, notably with the acquisition of former Cowboys special teams star Dwayne Harris; the clash between these two teams in Dallas will make for a great first Sunday night game of the year. I still like the Cowboys to finish on top, not least because of their dominant offensive line, but the fight will be difficult.

5) Indianapolis Colts

Biggest threat in the AFC South: Houston Texans

Andrew Luck has been everything to the Colts, who got nothing out of the running back position last year. If they can get a semblance of a ground game going in 2015 -- and I think they will, with veteran addition Frank Gore -- they'll have helped themselves significantly. Offseason addition Todd Herremans should improve the offensive line. Indy took some heat for drafting Phillip Dorsett in the first round, given the apparent surplus of pass-catching talent now on the roster. But presumably he was the highest-rated player on the Colts' board, and I don't think you can ever fault anyone for taking the highest-ranked guy.

Houston looms in the division, with an excellent coach in Bill O'Brien and a strong defense led by J.J. Watt. But the Texans have a serious hole at quarterback, and I don't think they'll be able to overtake Indy and Andrew Luck.

6) Seattle Seahawks

Biggest threat in the NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

The Seahawks were in a pretty good spot before they landed tight end Jimmy Graham. They had a stellar quarterback in Russell Wilson, a running back in Marshawn Lynch who always keeps Seattle in the game, and a defense that is top-notch, especially against the run. The 'Hawks did lose a solid coach in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who left to take the head job in Atlanta. And they do open with two on the road, including a rematch of the NFC title game in Green Bay. But this team is just too good not to overcome those obstacles.

As for the rest of the division, the Arizona Cardinals' fate is tied to quarterback Carson Palmer -- if he can stay healthy, they should be pretty stout. I don't think the San Francisco 49ers will be a factor, and the St. Louis Rams are a question mark. Jeff Fisher has some good players, but the possibility of a move to Los Angeles could be a distraction, especially if it's announced sometime this season. Think of the 1995 Cleveland Browns, who were 4-4 at one point -- and went 1-6 after their move to Baltimore was announced in early November.

7) New England Patriots

Biggest threat in the AFC East: Miami Dolphins

Noise of the sort that has surrounded New England in the wake of Deflategate might affect other teams, but Bill Belichick will not allow it to impact the Patriots. Yes, they're facing a four-game stretch without Tom Brady, and it's going to be tough to go on the road to Buffalo. But I still see them starting the season 2-2 at worst. Everyone seems to be worried about the turnover at cornerback -- with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington all out of the picture -- but the only real loss there is Revis. Browner and Arrington are replaceable.

Everybody else in the division got better this offseason, with the Dolphins figuring to be the most serious challenger to the throne. So I don't think New England will run away with the AFC East as easily as it normally does. But I still see the Pats as the favorites to take the division yet again.

8) Green Bay Packers

Biggest threat in the NFC North: Minnesota Vikings

The Packers did everything they needed to do this offseason, keeping tackle Bryan Bulaga and receiver Randall Cobb in the fold and picking up some young talent in the draft. Green Bay's receiving corps is stacked, and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, of course, is as good as any quarterback out there. The biggest thing that held this squad back last season was former tight end Brandon Bostick's unfortunate special-teams gaffe at the end of the NFC title game, but that was just the most visible mistake by a unit that struggled in 2014. Not coincidentally, Green Bay made a change at special teams coordinator, replacing Shawn Slocum with Ron Zook. It'll be interesting to see how things play out with Tom Clements taking over play-calling duties from head coach Mike McCarthy.

The Vikings will be better than they were in 2014; I actually see them finishing second. But I think the Packers are the most complete team in the NFL, and thus, they fall at the bottom of this list.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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