NFL Preview 2012: Predicting the NFC South
The NFC South got a monkey wrench thrown into it once the New Orleans Saints' bounty scheme was made public by the National Football League.
In a division that has seen the Saints stay near the top, the loss of head coach Sean Payton and several players, such as Jonathan Vilma, has opened the door for the rest of the division to possibly dethrone the Saints.
The Atlanta Falcons should be improved as they've moved on from Mike Mularkey's run-first scheme and have switched to Dirk Kotter's air raid offense to better utilize their weapons.
The Carolina Panthers will cross their fingers and hope that Cam Newton will survive the dreaded sophomore slump that has eaten up other rookie phenoms.
And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin a new era with a risk as they've plucked Greg Schiano from the college ranks to help give the team some structure.
It's a division that is once again loaded with talent and any team could earn the automatic home playoff game that will become useful in January.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers entered 2011 as a team that many thought would take the next step. After going 4-12 in 2011, the Bucs had young playmakers and a quarterback that was going to evolve and take the next step.
Of course, things didn't play out that way in Tampa.
With that, the Buccaneers decided to let the players' coach Raheem Morris go and replace him with a strict disciplinarian in Greg Schiano.
Schiano has already made his stamp on the Bucs as he's made the team wear suits to games and has held very meticulous and organized practices. Schiano has also made it clear that he wants to run the ball a ton, so he went and got a Ray Rice clone with his first round pick in Doug Martin.
The Bucs have made changes elsewhere as well as they added a premier run blocker in Carl Nicks from division rival New Orleans and a new target for Josh Freeman (16 touchdowns, 22 Interceptions in 2011) in Vincent Jackson (1,106 yards, 9 touchdowns) from San Diego.
The defense also made a solid move by adding safety Mark Barron to a unit that should be better than it was a season ago.
The Bucs are taking a gamble with their additions and their hiring of a former college coach. Normally, college coaches don't have success in the NFL, but Jim Harbaugh was an exception to the rule one season ago.
If Schiano can whip this team into shape, then they can finish much higher in the tough NFC South.
3) Carolina Panthers
Many people weren't sure if Cam Newton could be a franchise quarterback when the Panthers selected him with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Newton destroyed those thoughts by setting a rookie record by throwing for 4,051 yards and 35 total touchdowns (14 rushing).
There are two trains of thought when it comes to Newton's rookie campaign. There's the thought that Newton did all of this while not having OTA's and practices during the lockout.
But there's also the thought that Newton tailed off toward the end of the season and wasn't putting up the same insane numbers he was at the beginning of the season.
Whether or not Newton can survive the sophomore slump will determine where the Panthers will go this season.
The Panthers have plenty of weapons offensively to help Newton as he still has Steve Smith (1,394 yards, 7 TD) and a two headed rushing attack featuring DeAngelo Williams (836 yards, 7 TD) and Jonathan Stewart (761 yards, 4 TD).
Carolina will also rely on their defense which has added the tackling machine Luke Kuechly who lead the NCAA in tackles during his four seasons at Boston College. His arrival will help heal a linebacking corps that has been torn to shreds in recent seasons due to injuries.
The Panthers are another team with sleeper potential in the NFC, but they'll go as far as Cam Newton can take them.
2) New Orleans Saints
Before I get too deep here, let me clarify what I'm saying. Do I believe the Saints are going to miss the playoffs? Nope. I just don't think they'll win this division and it's not because they'll be missing their head coach the entire season.
Drew Brees is an absolute machine that would make an excellent coach someday from what he's learned from Payton. He's also one of the best leaders in all of football. So that leadership void that everybody thinks the Saints are going to miss isn't going to be that big after all.
My concern is where the player suspensions come in. Yes, they added Curtis Lofton (159 tackles with Atlanta), but they lost their best defensive player in Jonathan Vilma (57 tackles in 11 games) to a year-long suspension.
The Saints will also lose pass rushing defensive end Will Smith (6.5 sacks) for the first four games of the year as well.
Although there is a slight (and I mean slight) possibility that these suspensions could be reduced or take a similar turn to the Pat and Kevin Williams saga in Minnesota several years ago, those are two big blows to a defense that was suspect to begin with.
If the Saints are without two cornerstones on defense, Brees (NFL record 5,476 yards and a career-high 46 TD) and the rest of the offense is going to have to have a season better than what he had last year which is just plain absurd to expect. But—as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL—it's not completely out of the picture.
1) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have had a good offense over the past several seasons, but they haven't had a great offense because they weren't getting enough out of their tools.
This was especially true in the passing game where Roddy White (1,296 yards, 8 TD) and Julio Jones (959, 8 TD) put up big numbers, but could do so much more.
That's where new offensive coordinator Dirk Kotter comes in. Kotter has installed a change in philosophy in the Falcons' playbook that will turn this team from leaning on Michael Turner for roughly 300 to 350 carries to throwing the ball to Jones, White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez (875 yards, 7 TD) more frequently.
This is exactly what the Falcons needed to do to get the most out of Matt Ryan, and they appear to be ready to have Ryan take that next step similar to what Eli Manning did for the Giants last season.
Their defense has some flaws, but they can get to the quarterback thanks to John Abraham (9.5 sacks) and they're able to defend the pass with the tandem of Billy Grimes and the newly-acquired Asante Samuel.
The advantage the Falcons have over the Saints isn't much, but the change in offensive style should allow this team to take off and claim the NFC South title.
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