Looking forward to next season and predicting how teams will do has become very hard due to the parity in the league.
One reason for this is everyone doesn’t look at the big picture. Often a team's schedule, salary cap room, etc. are forgotten when forecasting a teams’ future.
I am going to try to forecast the 2009 NFC South and give factual reasons for the rise or fall of teams therein.
First, let’s do a team-by-team look at the division in alphabetical order...
While the Faclons' future seems bright, nothing is for certain. Look at last year—Atlanta and Miami were both coming off abysmal losing seasons and teams like Green Bay and Cleveland seemed to be on the rise. Hmm.
Atlanta and Miami both made the playoffs and Green Bay and Cleveland had losing seasons. A whole lot can happen in one year and a division can get much tougher. Tougher is the word for what the schedules in the NFC South are going to be next year.
Atlanta seems to be in good shape as far as the salary cap goes. Right now they are supposedly around $20 million under the salary cap. That number can increase if any players are jettisoned and will go down once Michael Vick is back in the picture.
It’s a definite that Vick will either be traded or cut by Atlanta before next season. Hopefully the team will be able to trade him so they can at least get something out of the deal. If not, and he is cut after June 1, then the team can spread the cap hit over two seasons (saving cap room this year). Basically, the Falcons should have plenty of room under the cap to sign free agents.
Atlanta also is in good shape as far as the draft goes. Atlanta has seven picks in the draft. One of their picks was traded to Denver (a conditional seventh-rounder, which could go up according to playing time of Dominique Foxworth). They have an additional fifth-round pick from the DeAngelo Hall trade with Oakland last year.
The team will be losing a few starters from defense but is set on offense except for maybe a tight-end or possibly offensive linemen. The starters who may be gone on defense include Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Michael Boley, Grady Jackson, and possibly Jamal Anderson.
I believe the team will try to retain Dominique Foxworth, and possibly resign Jackson and Milloy to one-year deals. There will be quite a turnover on defense but with the draft and free agency the team should be able to fill or upgrade all their needs.
So far, so good, for the Falcons but now comes the downside. The team is young and is only going to get younger. Will this hurt the Falcons or help them? Only time will tell on that one.
The bigger issue is the tough schedule the Falcons (and the whole NFC South) face this coming season. Atlanta’s strength of schedule for 2009 is number four in the league, with a 58.8 opponents' winning percentage.
The NFC South faces the NFC East and the AFC East divisions next season.
If Atlanta is successful again in free agency and the draft then they should be very talented and much better on defense. This offseason will give the young players on the roster time to mature and grow and could mean spectacular results next season (or they could regress like Green Bay last year).
Couple this with the stability (finally) of the coaching staff and Atlanta could be looking at their first back to back winning seasons in franchise history. It is going to be tough for all the teams in the South, but I feel Atlanta is primed to contend for the NFC South crown.
The Panthers are the reigning NFC South champs and had a good season before getting mauled by Arizona in the playoffs.
The good news for the Panthers is they have very few free agents this offseason. The two big ones are DE Julius Peppers (who has already stated he doesn’t want to return to the team) and OT Jordan Gross. These two guys have been really important to the Panthers and will be sorely missed if they leave. Other than that the team will be pretty much intact from last year’s playoff squad.
Another thing that may hurt the Panthers is the draft. They only have five picks, with no first or seventh rounders. This, coupled with the fact the Panthers are only $9 million below the cap, could give some reason for concern.
Also, the Panthers have had a great deal of turnover in the coaching staff this offseason, which could end up being a good or a bad thing.
The Panthers face the number-two strength of schedule next season, with their opponents' winning percentage at 59.2 percent.
Jake Delhomme had an up and down season last year and the team will hope he rebounds in 2009. Because of these things I really find it hard to pick this team to win the South in 09—but anything is possible.
The positives are they still have the team pretty much intact and have a monster ground game. Offensively they should be set if Delhomme plays well (and they don’t lose Gross), but they do have needs on the defensive side of the ball—especially D-line.
The super-talented Steve Smith always helps the team out with his spectacular play, so you can never count this team out.
The Saints are coming off an up and down year in which they were decimated with injuries. The team will probably jettison some players to free up cap room since the team is reportedly $5 million over the cap at this time.
The biggest free agent the team could lose is Jonathan Vilma. The team wants to re-sign him, but there is a problem. The team owes their second-round pick to the New York Giants and if they resign Vilma before free agency starts, then they would owe their first-round pick to the Jets.
Don’t look for the team to let that happen, since they only have three picks in the draft to start with. They have a first-, fourth-, and seventh-round pick as they traded away their other picks.
The Saints have a few holes and it does not look like they will be able to fill them given their cap and draft woes. The team faces the eighth-toughest strength of schedule this coming season with opponents' winning percentage of 55.7 percent.
The team has a lethal offense but has questions at running back and will likely lose Devery Henderson to free agency.
Defense is the main place where the team is lacking and may be helped by the addition of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. Williams had a brief stint as the defensive coordinator last year in Jacksonville but didn’t have much impact. If the team improves any much of it will hinge on Williams ability to improve the defense.
The outlook for the Saints is bleak but if the defense can improve they may be able to make some noise next year. However, too many question marks and a brutal schedule does not give much of a positive outlook.
The Bucs are the biggest question mark in the NFC South heading into next season. The team started strong last year but faltered down the stretch just when it looked as if they were primed for a playoff berth.
Anyone else notice that this team hit a brick wall as soon as Monte Kiffin said he was leaving? The stout defense all of a sudden did not show up for those last few games.
Alas, the Bucs who seemingly could not miss the playoffs were knocked out. Next thing you know Jon Gruden and the general manager are gone. Now the Bucs have a new GM, head coach, and other changes in the staff.
The team has a number of starters who are unrestricted free agents, so it looks as if the Bucs roster will go through an overhaul. Among those free agents are Jovan Haye, Kevin Carter, Phillip Buchanon, Jermaine Phillips, Jeff Garcia, and Antonio Bryant.
The good news is that they are reported to be over $40 million below the salary cap. The team also has a full compliment of picks in the upcoming NFL draft. Look for Tampa Bay to be major players in free agency and if they have a good draft they may be a surprise in
Another rain cloud in the forecast, though, is that the club has the fifth hardest schedule in the league (58 percent opponent winning percentage).
This team is really hard to figure out at this point. The changes in coaching staff and the front office could be positive or negative—it is too early to tell at this point. The main question is will the loss of Monte Kiffin haunt the team in 2009?
There are a number of other questions, though, for the Bucs. Will they finally get a franchise starting quarterback? Other holes are at running back, wide receiver, defensive end/defensive line, etc. The team would like to resign Antonio Bryant, but will Joey Galloway be back?
With so many question marks and turnover next season it is hard to foresee what will happen. My thinking is that Tampa will have a down year in 2009 but may be a force in 2010.
Or who knows? The way the league is anything can happen so don’t count the Bucs out.
So with everything laid out on the table here are my predictions for the NFC South for the 2009 season (as of right now...this could change after FA and the draft). The division will be hard-fought once again, with all teams being tough at home.
The division will probably come down between Carolina and Atlanta, again with possibly different results. Atlanta barely wins the division, Carolina comes in second, Tampa third, and the Saints fourth.
Given the hard schedule that the teams face next year don’t look for any of them to have over ten wins. 9-7 could win the division.