NFL season preview – NFC South

 

1. Atlanta Falcons

There isn’t much to dislike about this team.  Good coach, good QB, amazing set of WR’s, good TE, good running game, solid defense.  They do just about everything well, but they haven’t done anything great.  This season they look to shed the label of playoff underachievers. 

Matt Ryan has been very good, but hasn’t taken the next step that many thought he would.  After his amazing rookie season most experts believed he would join the league’s elite in short order.  3 playoff appearances in 4 years is great, but more has been expected.  And the fact that they got humiliated in the last 2 playoff games they played leaves them facing a ton of pressure to finally get over the hump this season.  But while Ryan has to step up he might be in a great spot to do so.  Julio Jones now has a year under his belt and has been incredible all through training camp.  Roddy White is still a legit number 1 wide out in this league, but Jones is so good that he may steal that gig anyways!  Add to Jones being a candidate to break out, new OC Dirk Koetter is a guy that is looking to make this offense more explosive.  He wants to enhance their vertical game, he wants to focus less on the run (which is good because Michael Turner has reached that magical age of 30), and he will likely use Jacquizz Rodgers similar to how the Saints use Darren Sproles in the screen game.  This is likely Tony Gonzalez last year, but he can still play. 

Not only did the Falcons get a new OC, but a new DC as well in Mike Nolan.  I’m not a big fan of the personal they have on that side of the ball, but Nolan has an amazing track record.  John Abraham’s 1st sack was on Otto Graham, Lofa Tatupu had a great rookie season for the Seahawks 7 years ago, they did bring in former Pat and Eagle Asante Samuel but much like Abraham he is on the wrong side of the hill. 

So we will see how this defense performs, but the offense is good enough to overcome those troubles…at least during the regular season.  The playoffs could once again be a different story.

 

2. New Orleans Saints

Bounty gate was the story of the offseason in the NFL, and I think it will be a cloud that will hang over the Saints all season.  Sean Payton is one of the best coaches in the NFL and his presence will be sorely missed.  But they do have big time talent, especially on offense. 

Brees is one of the best, Jimmy Graham emerged as one of the best TE’s last year, Marques Colston is a big sure handed WR, Darren Sproles is an amazing weapon out of the back field for them and is scary in space, and former Heisman winner Mark Ingram had injuries to deal with during his rookie season but if he can stay healthy he could be a beast at RB.  So you look at all of that on offense and how can things go wrong?  Well, you need the right play caller.  The right guy pushing the right buttons and that was Payton.  A big problem to overcome. 

And then of course perhaps the bigger problem will be the bounty-less defense.  With no incentive to make tackles why will they?  Ok that is pretty presumptuous to say.  But the fact of the matter is this defense will be hurt big time.  No more Gregg Williams (say what you will about the bounty system) is a big loss, however Steve Spagnuolo was great with the Giants and employed a very similar system to Williams.  No Will Smith (insert bad joke here) for the first 4 games hurts their pass rush a lot so 2011 1st round pick Cameron Jordan will need to step up.  Curtis Lofton is a great replacement for Vilma in the middle, and while I like their secondary at safety, there isn’t much to love at corner. 

Going to be an intriguing year for the Saints with a ton of distractions that I believe could leave them on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

 

3. Carolina Panthers

Even though I didn’t have a platform to say it at this time last season, I wasn’t a believer in Cam Newton.  Beyond the fact that he had no time in the offseason to work with the coaching staff and learn the playbook, he was a 1 year wonder in college.  There were a lot of red flags with this kid, and all he did was set records and look amazing. 

So the Panthers look set at QB for the next 12-15 years provided he stays healthy, and trust me that will be the next question.  He has more than enough talent to be strictly a pocket passer in the future, but with how much he runs he will leave himself open to taking a lot of big shots.  Look at Ben Roethlisberger.  He’s not “Big” Ben for no reason, but he runs a lot and it seems every year he is more and more banged up at the end of the year.  That is my concern for Newton down the line, but right now he is incredible.  But then if Newton is so amazing then why don’t I have them higher ranked?  I don’t like what he has to work with.  Steve Smith was rejuvenated last season, but he’s 33.  1 of David Gettis or Brandon LaFell will have to step up for this team at WR.  Greg Olsen has the talent to be a top 10 TE in the league, but he has always left people wanting more, which is kind of the story with all Miami TE’s.  However Olsen is still very good and is far and away their best threat in the red zone.  The running game should be great with Williams and Stewart running behind a great offensive line, but it left people wanting more last season.  Williams is getting up there in age so this may finally be the year Jonathan Stewart starts becoming the workhorse. 

The defense fell apart at the end of the 2010 season, and so Ron Rivera was brought in as head coach and viewed as a guy that could help get the Panthers back to elite status on that side of the ball.  The D-line is definitely a work in progress, Jon Beason is their best LB but he is coming off a major injury, and the secondary isn’t anything to get excited about.  However the move I loved was 1st round pick Luke Kuechly.  Listening to experts talk about this kid he could be special and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rivera, who was the Bears DC in 06, seen a lot of Brian Urlacher in this kid. 

This team is on the right path, but they won’t get there this season.  I expect something like last season, perhaps 7-9.

 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This isn’t your much older siblings Bucs….I know, that line doesn’t really entice me to watch them either but it’s actually a good thing.  I couldn’t stand watching Bucs game during the Dungy/Gruden, Sapp, Brooks and Lynch days (no offense Brian, but I hope you got really offended). 

I’m a big fan of Josh Freeman.  He had a set back last year but there aren’t too many QB’s that don’t have those years, he should be fine.  They spent a lot of money this offseason making sure he had the proper help getting to elite status too.  Vincent Jackson was a huge addition at WR, Carl Nicks was a huge addition to the o-line.  They got rid of Kellen Winslow who could be a bit of a distraction at TE and brought in veteran Dallas Clark.  They traded back into the 1st round to get Boise State RB Doug Martin who has the ability to do everything.  So the offense is pretty loaded going forward but they will need time to gel. 

And while it’s a breath of fresh air for the Bucs to potentially have an explosive offense, Bucs fans are really missing guys like Sapp, Brooks, and Lynch…although they still have Ronde Barber to celebrate.  Adrian Clayborn was a steal with the 24th pick in the 2011 draft so he is a good start on the d-line.  Gerald McCoy SHOULD be the anchor of that line but has battled injuries in his first 2 seasons.  Going with Mason Foster to man the middle last season was a total disaster.  Either he will need to step up in that spot or they will need to find someone that will.  The most exciting part of the Bucs defense in my mind is 7th overall pick Mark Barron out of Alabama. 

While they might not be Sapp, Brooks and Lynch, I would suggest that Clayborn, McCoy and Barron could have the makings of a pretty great defense.  The offense could pick them up, but I don’t think it can overcome many short comings.  Pieces are there, but its a tough division to get out of the cellar in.

 

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