The NFC South was one of the least competitive divisions during the 2012 season, despite the amount of talent present.
The Atlanta Falcons won the division by six games with a 13-3 record and were the class of the conference. After the Falcons, it was a three-way tie for second, with the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers finishing the year at a mediocre 7-9.
This year won't be as easy for Atlanta.
New Orleans will have head coach Sean Payton back on the field, and Rob Ryan will certainly improve a defense that broke the NFL record for yards allowed. Cam Newton should bounce back from his sophomore slump, and Carolina's young defense could culminate into one of the better units in the division and the league.
Tampa Bay has revamped its secondary, which now hinges on the knee of Darrelle Revis.
Are the Falcons still the team to beat? Will Steven Jackson give the dirty birds another asset in the running game? Can Carolina take the next step from being a young, talented team to winners? Can Revis Bay exile receivers similarly to Revis Island? Will Sean Payton's presence and play calling spring the Saints back into the postseason?
All of these questions, and more, will be answered in my NFC South preview.
The Atlanta Falcons had one of the most proficient offenses in the NFL last year. Matt Ryan had a plethora of options, which resulted in an excellent aerial attack. Atlanta averaged just under 282 yards per game through the air.
Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez combined for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, giving defensive coordinators nightmares along the way.
Atlanta lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Despite coming just one win short of the Super Bowl, the Falcons moved past a large barrier by winning the first playoff game in the Mike Smith and Ryan regime.
During the offseason, Atlanta swapped one veteran running back with another, letting go of Michael Turner and bringing in Steven Jackson. Turner rushed for only 800 yards on 222 carries last season and his workload gradually decreased as the passing game became the face of the offense.
Atlanta also let go of defensive end John Abraham but brought in former Giant Osi Umenyiora. Atlanta addressed its secondary woes in the draft by selecting Washington Huskie Desmond Trufant with the 22nd pick.
We all know the Falcons have one of the most potent passing games in the league, but the play-calling was pretty unbalanced. Ryan had 615 pass attempts last season (an average of 38 throws per game), compared to just 378 rushing attempts (24 rushes per game).
Atlanta also ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards, with just 87.3 yards per game on the ground. That could change with Jackson in the backfield. He has accumulated more than 236 attempts in every season since 2007 and has had at least 1,000 yards in each of the last eight seasons with St. Louis.
Durability also has been less of an issue for Jackson, who has missed only two games since 2009 after missing 11 games between 2004 and 2008.
The Falcons will run the ball a bit more with Jackson in town, but this team is still a pass-first offense. The Falcons have an excellent tandem of consistency and dynamic playmaking on the outside with White and Jones. White has had at least 85 catches, 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns since 2008.
That's a model of consistency if I've ever seen one.
Jones, on the other hand, brings an explosiveness to the field. Thanks to his blazing speed, Jones has averaged 16.2 yards per reception since entering the league in 2011. He also had 486 yards after the catch and 17 grabs for 20 yards or more in 2012.
Don't forget about Tony Gonzalez. Gonzo was planning on retiring after last season, but who can blame him for sticking around after the year he had? His 93 catches, 930 yards and eight touchdowns were all season highs with the Falcons. He has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Ryan's development and is poised to have another solid season in what could actually be his final year in the NFL.
Atlanta's offense is young and only getting better. With his contract extension out of the way, expect to see more development from Ryan and another excellent year from the Falcons' offense.
Defense was definitely the weaker side of the ball for Atlanta. This unit gave up an average of 365.6 yards per game but only let up an average of 19 points because of its 31 takeaways.
Asante Samuel re-emerged as one of the top corners in the league during his first season in Atlanta. Samuel defended 19 passes and picked off five of them, leading the team in both categories.
Other than Samuel and free safety Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta's pass defense was lacking, which is why it drafted Trufant in the first round. Trufant will likely replace hard-hitting Dunta Robinson as the team's second cornerback.
The Falcons recorded 29 sacks last season, but 10 of them were by Abraham, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals earlier this week. His replacement, Umenyiora, only had six sacks last season and was the odd man out on the Giants defensive line.
But other than switching Abraham for Umenyiora, the rest of the front seven remains intact. Sean Weatherspoon is a young, improving linebacker, while Stephen Nicholas recorded a career-high 97 tackles in 2012. Along with young middle linebacker Akeem Dent, Atlanta could have one of the better 4-3 linebacker groups in the league.
Atlanta's defense won't be the strength of the team, but if Umenyiora can re-establish himself and Trufant can make an impact right away, the Falcons could have a very solid defense.
The Falcons have the 15th-toughest schedule in the league, according to NFL.com, and by season's end, it could rank as one of the five or 10 most grueling slates.
The NFC South will be much improved, and I expect Tampa Bay and New Orleans to take big steps next season (we'll get to them in a bit). Outside of the division, Atlanta will face some daunting opponents: New England, Seattle, Green Bay, Washington, St. Louis and San Francisco.
This year will be a true test for Matt Ryan, as he will face plenty of good cornerbacks on the schedule. Luckily, the Falcons have plenty of weapons for opponents to worry about.
The Falcons are still the class of the division, but it definitely will not be as easy as it was in 2012. The NFC South will prove to be one of the most talented in football, especially on offense, and Smith's defense will be relied on more than ever.
If Atlanta can get through its tricky schedule, it will be more than ready for a deeper playoff run.
The Carolina Panthers were expected to take a big step forward but instead took a slight step back in 2012, going 7-9 and finishing tied for second in the NFC South.
Carolina's season was defined by losing close games. Seven of the team's nine losses were by six points or less. The young Panthers just couldn't get it done in crunch time.
Franchise quarterback Cam Newton didn't suffer an overly significant sophomore slump, but his rushing scores decreased while his fumbles went up. Newton wasn't bad last year, but he wasn't as dynamic as he was in his rookie season and brought up unwarranted concerns about his attitude.
Ron Rivera's young defense showed signs of improvement but was still too inexperienced to be elite. Luke Kuechly is one of the top linebackers in the sport and led the league with 164 tackles last year.
Carolina didn't have a very busy offseason, but it brought in experienced role players such as Domenik Hixon, Chase Blackburn, D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence. Carolina's biggest splash was in the draft when the team selected defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to help solidify the defensive line.
The Carolina offense goes as Cam Newton goes. Through Weeks 3-7, Newton scored only five touchdowns but had six interceptions. Carolina lost all five games. During Weeks 14-17, Newton had seven total touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Panthers ended the season on a four-game winning streak.
Carolina's biggest issue is the lack of a stable running game outside of Newton, who led the team with 741 yards. Carolina's backfield is extremely crowded, with Newton, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert each getting over 50 carries last year. Stewart missed seven games with an ankle injury and rushed for only 336 yards.
Williams took the reins as the starter in Stewart's place but ran for only five touchdowns and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. Tolbert averaged only 3.6 yards per carry but did score seven times, which was second on the team behind Newton.
The Panthers' biggest issue on offense is their thin receiving group. Steve Smith is the obvious go-to-guy in passing situations, but Carolina doesn't have much else on the outside. Smith was targeted 138 times, which was more than any receiver on the roster this year combined (not counting Louis Murphy, who signed with the Giants this offseason).
Despite the wide receiver woes, Newton and tight end Greg Olsen showed very nice chemistry on the field. Olsen caught 69 passes for 843 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
Newton should be better in 2013, which means a better year for the Panthers offense as a whole. If Carolina can get a full season from Stewart and Williams, it could have a surprisingly scary trio in the running game.
Head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive guru and his unit finally showed strides in 2012. Led by Kuechly, Carolina ranked 10th in the league in yards allowed. Youth and inexperience killed Carolina in big moments, but overall it was a pretty good year for the Panthers defense.
The Panthers have two of the best defensive players in the NFL in Kuechly and defensive end Charles Johnson. He and defensive tackle Greg Hardy combined for 23.5 of Carolina's 36 total sacks. Lotulelei could be an excellent complement to Hardy as a stop-gap defensive tackle and may bring a slight boost to the pass rush.
The Panthers may also have a healthy Jon Beason returning to the lineup. The Pro Bowl linebacker had played only two games in the past two seasons because of recurring knee injuries.
Carolina also has a potential stud at cornerback in Josh Norman. The third-year defensive back had 73 tackles along with seven defended passes and an interception. The veteran presence of Florence could help him blossom into a top cornerback.
This defense has a lot of promise. Kuechly and Johnson are proven stars. Hardy, Lotulelei and Norman could all develop into great players, and if Beason can stay healthy, the Panthers could have an elite front seven.
The secondary will be a bit of a concern, but another year under its belt and some veteran leadership could take Rivera's defense to the next level.
Carolina is one of the most intriguing teams in the NFL. There is so much potential on the roster and a little more poise and experience could go a long way for them.
Newton has gone through the ups and downs of being in the NFL and should come back stronger after a disappointing season. The problem is he can't do it all. Williams and Stewart need to step up their play, and Brandon LaFell must emerge as a reliable second option.
Olsen could have a breakout year if everything goes well around him. He might not be in the Jimmy Graham or a healthy Rob Gronkowski grouping, but he could rise into the upper echelon of tight ends this season.
The defense will be the unit to watch. The front seven could be dominant if Lotulelei develops and Beason gets back to his old form. Norman, Florence and Captain Munnerlyn could bring some nice depth to the cornerback position.
Unfortunately for Carolina, it has the toughest schedule in the league. This is a pivotal season for Rivera, who has gone 13-19 in two seasons with the Panthers. He must find a way to get the most out of a talented roster, or else he may be unemployed.
The New Orleans Saints' Bountygate scandal brought plenty of harsh consequences to the franchise, but the yearlong suspension of Sean Payton was the biggest blow.
The Saints' play reflected the absence of their leader and play-caller. Although Drew Brees and the offense still scored almost 30 points per game, the defense was the worst unit in the league. New Orleans allowed over 7,000 yards last season, which calculates to over 440 yards per game.
All of the adversity and defensive struggles were too much for Brees to shoulder, and the Saints finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
New Orleans quickly fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and hired loud-mouth Rob Ryan to try to resurrect one of the worst defenses in NFL history.
General manager Mickey Loomis, who was also suspended for Bountygate, brought in cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Victor Butler. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Butler tore his ACL during OTAs and will miss the entire season.
Loomis also had to replace tackle Jermon Bushrod, who signed with Chicago this offseason. He brought in Jason Smith to fill that void, along with tight end Benjamin Watson, who may see some looks in two-tight end packages.
New Orleans used the 15th pick in the draft on Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and brought in tackle Terron Armstead to compete with Smith and Charles Brown.
Payton's absence didn't kill his offense as some had expected. That's because Drew Brees wasn't suspended.
New Orleans still threw the ball effectively and relied on Brees to win games. This heavy reliance led to 43 touchdowns but 19 interceptions from Brees, the latter being his second-highest total for a season.
Per usual, the Saints didn't have much of a running game in 2012. They ranked 25th in the league with an average of 98.6 yards per game. Mark Ingram led the team with 156 carries for 602 yards and five scores. Pierre Thomas got his share of the action, rushing 105 times for 472 yards.
Darren Sproles was the most utilized running back but for different reasons. Sproles only had 48 rushing attempts but caught 75 passes. Sproles is used as an extra receiver out of the backfield and was third on the team with seven receiving scores.
Of the actual receivers, Marques Colston is the guy. Colston caught 83 passes for over 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns. Lance Moore became a reliable second wideout, catching 65 passes on 105 targets.
Jimmy Graham was Brees' favorite target last season. Graham caught 85 passes for 982 yards and nine touchdowns. He is the top tight end in the league and should see even better numbers in 2013.
With an offense as consistently good as the Saints', it is hard to say how much the unit will improve. All of the weapons are still there, but losing Bushrod at left tackle could be a big loss on the line.
As long as Brees is behind center, New Orleans will always have a big advantage through the air. The return of Payton should be a nice morale boost and may bring a few wrinkles to an already fine-tuned machine.
If the offense is a fine-tuned machine, then the defense is an old, broken-down clunker.
Ryan has his work cut out for him. The defense he is inheriting allowed 28.4 points per game last year. The Saints were 31st in pass defense and 32nd in run defense.
The good news? Jonathan Vilma will be back for the entire season and Vaccaro and Lewis could add some much-needed assistance to the secondary.
The defensive line is a huge problem for the Saints. The line only had 26 sacks last season and was gauged in the running game. Cameron Jordan was the only bright spot on the line, recording eight sacks last season. Ryan will need to see more from Brodrick Bunkley and Kenyon Coleman.
Vilma should help fix the running defense with Curtis Lofton, but former defensive ends Junior Galette and Will Smith will need to get accustomed to their new position, outside linebacker
New Orleans won't transform into a top defense in 2013, but with a new coordinator and some fresh faces, the Saints could get back to a respectable level.
Although Payton will be back on the sideline, it doesn't guarantee the Saints a playoff spot. The offense should be slightly better, but the defense will be the unit under fire throughout the year.
The schedule doesn't do the team many favors, either. New Orleans has the third-toughest schedule in the NFL and will play some of its toughest games on the road against Chicago, New England, Seattle and St. Louis. The Saints also will welcome the 49ers to the Superdome, which is no light task either.
If newcomers Vaccaro and Lewis can make an immediate impact, the secondary will be drastically better. New Orleans did not do much to improve its front seven, other than getting Vilma back for a full season.
Switching from Spagnuolo's 4-3 to Ryan's 3-4 should be a breath of fresh air in the Big Easy, but it is unknown whether moving Galette and Smith to outside linebacker will pay off or blow up in Ryan's face.
Expect another great season from Brees and the offense. With Payton calling the shots, New Orleans should be just fine when it comes to scoring points. There are too many weapons in Colston, Graham, Moore and Sproles for defenses to overcome.
Whether or not the Saints can keep their opponents from scoring will be the difference between a playoff spot or a high draft pick.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the bumpiest seasons under first-year head coach Greg Schiano. After starting the season 1-3, Tampa stormed back to win five of six to get to 6-4.
Then, the bottom fell out. Tampa Bay lost five straight games to fall to 6-9 and out of the playoff race.
Josh Freeman had a much better season in 2012, but his 17 interceptions were his demise.
Tampa Bay also found a running back in Doug Martin, who rushed for 1,154 yards and 11 scores in his rookie season. Vincent Jackson had an excellent inaugural season with the Bucs, catching 72 passes for almost 1,400 yards and 11 scores.
Defensively, Tampa Bay was on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The Bucs had the best run defense in the league, holding opponents to just 82.5 yards per game on the ground. For how superb Tampa Bay was at stopping the run, it was just as horrendous in stopping the pass. Tampa Bay had the worst pass defense in the NFL, allowing 297 passing yards a game.
The Buccaneers did plenty to improve their pitiful secondary by trading for shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis and signing safety Dashon Goldson. Despite some major acquisitions, Tampa Bay will definitely miss the veteran leadership of Ronde Barber, who retired during the offseason.
The Bucs also extended wide receiver Mike Williams for six years and $40.25 million. Williams caught 63 passes for 996 yards and nine scores in 2012 and was a great complement to Jackson on the outside. Tampa Bay did lose tight end Dallas Clark and could have a timeshare at the position between Luke Stocker, former Packer Tom Crabtree, and former Jaguar and Raider Zach Miller.
Tampa will also have left guard Carl Nicks back in the lineup, who is one of the best offensive linemen in the league when healthy.
The Buccaneers traded their first-round pick to New York in exchange for Revis, but the team did draft cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round.
Despite a disappointing season, Tampa Bay did have one of the better offenses in the league. The team ranked 10th in passing yards and 15th in rushing yards but hurt itself with 23 giveaways.
There is plenty of young talent at the skill positions on this roster. Freeman has plenty of raw talent and showed it in 2010, when he threw 25 touchdowns and only six picks in his second season. Martin came out of nowhere to be one of the best running backs in the league, and the receiving duo of Jackson and Williams is one of the better combos in the NFC.
Tampa Bay's offensive line is also one of the strongest in the league, but right tackle could be a weak spot. Demar Dotson and Gabe Carimi, who the Bucs traded a sixth-round pick to Chicago for just after OTAs began, will compete for the starting job.
It will be hard for Martin to repeat his incredible rookie season, but that isn't to say he won't be much worse. Consistency eluded Martin, who only had six games of at least 95 rushing yards but five with 56 yards or less.
One of Martin's greatest qualities is his ball security. Martin fumbled only one time in 2012—something that should be admired in a workhorse running back.
Whether Martin is superb or not, Tampa Bay's offense will hinge on its quarterback. Freeman proved he can be a decent starting quarterback, but whether he can take Tampa Bay on a playoff run remains to be seen. The weapons and the running game are there, so Freeman has nobody to blame but himself if the offense doesn't produce next season.
Tampa Bay brought in North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the draft, so if Freeman struggles through another season, don't be surprised if his job is in jeopardy next year. The pressure is on.
Tampa Bay's defense may be one of the youngest, but it is loaded with potential. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy finally stayed healthy for the entire season and had a nice year, recording 30 tackles and five sacks. Mason Foster and Lavonte David are two rising stars at the linebacker position and the secondary should be drastically improved with the additions of Revis, Banks and Goldson.
Health will be a big question for Tampa Bay. Revis' knee will be the major story, but if Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn can both get healthy, Tampa Bay may have a ferocious front seven. Clayborn missed 13 games with a torn ACL, while Bowers missed six games.
The Bucs ranked second-to-last in the NFL in sacks, which is a big reason for the struggles against the pass. A healthy Bowers and Clayborn could bring a great amount of athleticism to the pass rush.
Tampa's secondary could go from one of the worst to one of the best in a matter of a season, depending on how well Revis, Goldson, Banks and Mark Barron mesh together. In a division with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton in it, the secondary may be the most important group on a defense.
There is so much to love on Tampa Bay's defense. The team was already the best against the run, thanks to Foster, David and McCoy. A healthy Bowers and Clayborn can only help against the run and should add some pressure in passing situations.
The secondary raises the most questions, but it also makes me salivate over what it could become. Goldson and Barron will be a great tandem at safety, while a healthy Revis could take some pressure off of Banks to acclimate himself to the NFL right away.
Banks will also have the luxury of learning and working with one of the best corners in league history, which can only have a positive impact on his development.
If Schiano's troops can stay healthy, it could be one of the best units in the NFL.
The Buccaneers could be this year's breakout team. Freeman has everything he needs to succeed and must prove that he is a playoff-caliber quarterback. Martin, Jackson and Wallace are all excellent weapons, but Tampa Bay might lack a safety valve at tight end.
The offensive line could be one of the strongest in the league, but Carimi may bring his struggles from Chicago to central Florida if he is given the starting job.
The defense went through an extreme makeover, especially in the secondary, but if the talent and potential materializes, Tampa's defense could become the strength of the team.
Tampa Bay's schedule isn't too tough, but games against New England, Seattle and San Francisco will be measurements of how far this team has come along over the course of the season.
The talent and potential is there, but now it is time for Freeman and the Bucs to fulfill expectations.
1. Atlanta Falcons 12-4
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6
3. New Orleans Saints 8-8
4. Carolina Panthers 7-9
This division is very hard to pick. Each team has its share of fantastic playmakers: Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Doug Martin, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston, Steve Smith, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams all play inside this division.
I expect the NFC South to be one of the best divisions in the NFL.
Newton may be the best playmaker in the division, but there just isn't enough around him. The running game is an unknown, and other than Smith and LaFell, there isn't much depth on the outside. Look out for Greg Olsen, who could become a top-10 tight end in 2013.
Carolina's secondary isn't great, which will be a major issue in this division. Josh Norman is developing into a nice player, but Drayton Florence is out of his prime. Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson are two top-25 defensive players, and a healthy Jon Beason could give Carolina one of the premier front sevens in the league.
New Orleans will be better with Sean Payton returning, but Rob Ryan won't fix this defense in one season. There are too many unanswered questions at the linebacker position, with Will Smith and Junior Galette moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in Ryan's 3-4 scheme. Kenny Vaccaro could be a great safety in the future, but the Saints secondary is still a problem.
The Saints offense will be as good as ever, but if Brees can't put up 35 points per game, New Orleans may have trouble keeping up with opponents.
Tampa Bay is one of my teams to watch in 2013 because there is so much talent. Martin will be tested in his second season now that teams have game film on him. Jackson and Williams could combine for 2,000 yards next year, but the tight end position is a big issue.
Josh Freeman has the ability to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but if nothing else, he must limit his turnovers. With Mike Glennon waiting for a shot, Freeman will need to perform in 2013.
Tampa Bay's defense is extremely intriguing. A healthy Revis could be a gigantic advantage because of his ability to shut down top receivers. White, Colston and Smith better hope Revis doesn't get back to his old form, or else they could be in for some rough couple of games.
A healthy Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn could give Tampa a fearsome pass rush, while Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Mason Foster plug holes in the running game.
Atlanta is still the class of the division, although it won't be nearly as easy as last season. The Falcons just have too many weapons on offense and the defense should be better—especially if Umenyiora can make a large impact.
Bold statement coming: Matt Ryan will be an MVP candidate in 2013. He will carry Atlanta to the top of a tough division and could lead his Falcons even further.