2012 NFC South Preview: Can the Atlanta Falcons Unseat the New Orleans Saints?
Overview: Probably the most competitive division in the NFL. The Saints are always competitive with Drew Brees and that loaded offense, but the Atlanta Falcons are perennial playoff contenders too. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are an upstart team, and since the Carolina Panthers found their franchise player in Cam Newton, who knows how far he can take them?
Carolina Panthers (3rd in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 6-10)
I love what Carolina did in the draft, picking up Luke Kuechly. He’s going to be one of the best tacklers in the NFL for a long time, and tackling is a skill that’s more of a sure thing than any measureable. Him and Jon Beason can form a truly fearsome linebacker duo.
For now I’m slotting them at 6-10 because I don’t know if Cam Newton goes through that sophomore slump. History says he will, and the statistics for quarterbacks that produce great on the ground in one year will falter the next. And we don’t need to go back that far, either. Just look at Michael Vick last season, who produced just one rushing touchdown compared to nine the year before.
However, if Newton can be even better then he’s an MVP candidate and Carolina improves on this projection.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4th in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 8-8)
What an absolute disaster last season was for the Bucs. Josh Freeman looked awful, taking a huge step back. He goes from 25 touchdowns to six interceptions in one season, to 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions the next season. Will the real Josh Freeman please stand up?
It’s not like the offensive line was the problem, as they allowed just 32 sacks (22nd in the league), and 64 QB hits (28th in the league). The problem was the skill position players that they were lacking. Tight end Kellen Winslow had a subpar year, failing to produce after the catch. Running back LeGarrette Blount tip-toed in the backfield, averaging just 4.2 yards per carry after he had 5.0 the year before, and he finished with less than 800 rushing yards and just five touchdowns. And wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a sophomore slump in the worst way.
Now they have added Doug Martin, a guy I really love and somebody who has been compared to a Ray Rice in terms of his pass-catching chops, and his great feet. He also excels in pass blocking. Him and Freeman will team him up with newly signed tight end Dallas Clark, an upgrade over Kellen Winslow. Add in Vincent Jackson—one of the biggest and fastest deep threats in the league—and Carl Nicks as a run-blocking guard—possibly the best in the league—and you’ve got the recipe for an offense that will be much better in 2012.
New Orleans Saints (1st in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 10-6)
I just think Sean Payton’s absence and this whole Bountygate scandal affects a team’s psyche more than you think. If anyone can make it work, it’s Drew Brees. The last time we saw a quarterback get doubted under considerable pressure of an ethics scandal was Tom Brady’s 50 touchdown season in 2007.
But there’s turmoil in New Orleans, as opposed to the loading of arms in New England in 2007. They’ve lost their leader on defense, Jonathan Vilma. Carl Nicks, perhaps the best guard in the league, bolted for Tampa. And Robert Meachem’s stretching ability on offense will be missed.
This could blow up in my face and the Saints could not miss a beat in 2012. But the Bountygate scandal stands to affect this team’s stability.
Atlanta Falcons (2nd in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 13-3)
It’s their time. I think Matt Ryan is ready to take a big step with Julio Jones healthy and in the fold. Roddy White and Jones will form the best receiving duo in the league, and tight end Tony Gonzalez always seems to forget how old he is.
On defense, they added Asante Samuel to play one of the primary corner slots. The Falcons were in the bottom half of the league in passing yards allowed per game because they couldn’t get enough cover guys out there. Now they have a solid nickel package to throw at Drew Brees.
I’m a little concerned about them not drafting a big back to replace Michael Turner. Maybe Turner has some tread left on his tires, and maybe Jacquizz Rodgers can be a Darren Sproles-type for Matt Ryan. But with the Saints’ uncertainty, the Panther’s youth, and the Bucs being unproven, I like the Falcons to run away with the NFC South in 2012.
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