With my look at the NFC West in the books (or on the blog), it's time we turn our attention to the dirty south... that is the NFC South. This division has a lot of interesting storylines going into the season: Sean Peytons return in New Orleans, Cam Newton and if can he bounce back from an average season last year, can Atlanta finally get over the hump and make a Super Bowl push, or can the upstart Buccaneers get back to the playoffs and beyond with their two All-Pro additions this year.
As I just said in the paragraph above, the Falcons are all but set as a team but they have yet to push over that hump to make the Super Bowl. They are a year older and the window is starting to close a little more. Let's see if the Falcons made enough moves to break through. The Falcons did nothing to improve on offense really. Getting Tony Gonzalez back was a big coop for them, but really this will likely be his last year and he is a major part of this offense. They signed away Steven Jackson from the St. Louis Rams, who will take over for Michael Turner. In a way it's just a slight upgrade, but don't expect Jackson from 5 years ago. He will be a capable back with Rodgers assisting him in backfield. The wide receivers are set and form the best pairing in the NFL. The offensive line is where the questions of this team lay. Resigning Sam Baker was a smart move, but they extremely overpaid for him. He got All-Pro money for a fringe Pro Bowl caliber player. Releasing Tyson Clabo is going to hurt too. Hopefully the next man up can protect Matt Ryan, or Matty Ice is going be taking a lot of ice baths this year.
This year will be a mixed bag on defense. Their defensive line took a hit, losing solid pass rushing specialist John Abraham. Replacing him with Osi Umenyiora is pretty much a wash, minus the leadership Abraham already had on the team. The corners on the team are going to be the big question in the ATL. Letting their two of their three starters from last year go and replacing them with rookies Desmond Trufant (who has the pedigree of his brothers),and Robert Alford from Southeastern Louisiana. These rookies will be tested quickly in the pass happy NFC South. Expect this defense to go as far as the rookies go. My expectations for the Falcons are a little murky. They have all the talent to push for a playoff spot and a deep run in the playoffs, or they have the chance to be knocked off the top of the NFC South. The Buccaneers, Panthers, and Saints should all be a lot better this year. I expect 9-10 wins, but who knows if that will be enough to make the playoffs out of the NFC South.
The Carolina Panthers will only go as far as Superman (aka Cam Newton) and their running game can take them. Last year the sophomore semi slump hit Newton. He had numbers comparable to his rookie year, but the fumbles killed him. If he can limit the turnovers and get some help from any wide receiver not name Steve Smith, he should have a year that tops his rookie season. The Panthers really only addressed the depth of their receiving core in the offseason signing Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. They added depth, but did not give them any other solid weapons other than Smith and Greg Olsen. They must hope for Brandon Lafell to make large gains in production to help Cam out. If not, it will be The Cam Newton Show again. I haven't even spoken to the mess of the Panthers quadrillion dollar backfield yet, who couldn't have produced any less they did last year. Jon Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will need bounce back years in the worse way. If one of them struggles in mini camp this offseason expect one to be cut, with Mike Tolbert picking up that guy's slack.
Carolina's front 7 on defense is one of the most solid units in all of the game after the offseason. The draft was kind to them, letting Star Lotulelei drop to them and double dipping on the athletic Kawann Short in Round 2 to solidify their defensive line. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are a solid duo on the outside, fantastic pass rushers and solid against the run. The real strength (when healthy) is the linebacking corps lead by... well I can't choose who I think is better. So, Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason will both be mentioned as the unquestioned leaders of this defense. Those two men are a scary combination and there are very few teams with 2 better linebackers. Only the 49ers come to mind. If Thomas Davis can also finally stay healthy, that front 7 will be dominate. The linebackers are very rangy and solid against run. The BIG - and I can't underestimate that enough - problem that the Panthers have is in their secondary who - outside of Captain Munnerlyn who is really a number 2 corner - have nothing at safety or corner. Carolina better hope their front 7 is good enough to mask the back end, or teams will eat their secondary alive. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the division they are in will eat them alive in the passing game. I see a 4-6 win season coming.
New Orleans Saints
Sean Peyton's return to the sidelines in New Orleans will get a ton of headlines this year, but the focus should be on the retooled defense. That will be the key for the Saints to get back to the playoffs this year. The offense will still keep chugging along as long as Drew Brees is the man slinging the football. The running situation is a volatile one, with no one man taking the bulk of the carries. Look for the Saints to try and get Mark Ingram to finally be the man in New Orleans. If not, it's running back by committee again with the explosive Darren Sproles doing a little bit of everything for the offense. They added a little more receiving depth with the drafting of Kenny Stills out of Oklahoma, an absolute burner who will help their vertical game. But expect Brees to pretty much still sling the ball to whoever is open and just march up the field. Tight end Jimmy Graham is top 3 in the game. He is a threat all defensive coordinators must account for and, with the addition of Ben Watson, gives the Saints that look most teams are going for now: two big athletic tight ends to catch the ball making Brees that much scarier. Losing Jermon Bushrod at tackle is going to hurt, but the selection of the raw, but talented Terron Armstead will lessen the blow. Maybe not so much this year, but in years to come.
The big news on defensive side of the ball is the complete change in scheme from 4-3 to 3-4 that Rob Ryan will bring with him. The Saints will have a solid front 3 in Cam Jordan, Akiem Hicks, and draftee (and big mountain of a man) John Jenkins from Georgia. For making the switch only this year, this front is a solid start and good base to work from in the 3-4. The big question is if the line backers can make the switch. Most of the team's line backers are more suited for the 4-3 scheme, or in Will Smith's case, the defensive line. Losing Victor Butler already to an injury is going to hurt. Expect early struggles, but to be a fine unit for the team later in the season. The secondary, which was a big problem, shouldn't be as bad this year with the drafting of Kenny Vacarro, and the signing of Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh. Don't expect an elite unit back there, but they have some play makers and won't be as bad as last year. Like Atlanta, being stuck in this ultra competitive division will limit wins and make every game late in season a must-win to sneak into playoffs. I am looking at a 9-10 win season for Saints as well. This division will be a dog fight all the way until the end.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The most difficult team in this division to peg are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have all the potential/ talent in the world to be contenders for a Super Bowl berth, or have the potential to have a high draft pick next year. It all starts with signal caller Josh Freeman. He has all the gifts in the world: a strong arm, mobility, and durable. But he makes terrible decisions when pressured, and can throw a turnover in the blink of an eye. Freeman needs to be more stable this year for the Buccaneers to move forward. If need be, he can hand the ball off to the Muscle Hamster, Doug Martin. He had a remarkable breakout season in his rookie campaign. One of the better runners in the league, Martin can do it all. The problem is the depth in the backfield. If something were to happen to Doug, the cupboard is bare for a runner to take his carries. The Buccaneers need depth in the worst way. Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson are one of the better 1-2 punches at receiver in the league, but once again behind them there is a lot of questions. Tampa has a lot of young bodies and need some to step up and show something. The tight ends in Tampa are questionable at best. Luke Stocker needs to mature and show something or might be buried on the depth chart. Free agent signing Tom Crabtree will need to show off what he can do coming from Green Bay. The offensive line is healthy. Expect Davin Joesph to come back hungry after being injured all of last season and the same for Carl Nicks. These are two road graders who could propel Doug Martin into the stratosphere.
Even more maddening is the defense who has the talent to be a top 10 defensive unit in the league, but needs its young players to mature and produce. First and second round picks from 2011 Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers will need to live up to their draft statuses. They have shown flashes off being Pro-Bowl caliber players when healthy. Up the middle, Gerald McCoy finally had his break out season and no longer is under the shadow of Ndamukong Suh from Detroit. The question is who will start next to him coming out of camp, where there is a bunch of middle of the pack veterans and late-round draft pick Akeem Spence fighting for a spot next to McCoy. The line backers for Tampa are solid, and led by underrated potential break out player Lavonte David who was a heat seeking missile last year tackling everything that moved. Mason Foster in the middle of the defense does a solid job, but the other line backer spot will be a fight once again for a lot of players who all have a chance to slide in the spot for the Buccaneers. Now, here is where things get interesting. Last year, the Buccaneers were first against the run and last against the pass. Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson were both brought on board in the offseason to remedy that. Along with the drafting of John Banks in the second round, and another year of maturity out of Mark Barron, the secondary has the chance to become one of the elite units in the NFL, propelling the Buccaneers forward. Here is another hard prediction to make. The Buccaneers have the chance to be really really good or really really bad. I expect either a 6-7 win team if they don't live up to their potential; if they do, a 9-11 win team. It really could go either way sorry to say.
Next up we take a look at NFC East. Just as many questions as the South, but with a lot more exposure. Is RG3 healthy? How will Chip Kelly adjust to the NFL? How will Tony Romo respond to his massive exposure? Will the Giants get their two wideouts locked up?
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