June is just around the corner but is it ever too early to anticipate the up-coming NFL season? I don’t think so. This is the point where I evaluate each team in the NFC South division and make my predictions on how they will finish in 2009.
Last year the NFC South was the most competitive division in the NFL. Some people argue that the South was also the best in football. I don’t know if it was the best or not, but the competition that played out from game to game in the South was intense as all 4 teams made playoff runs, 2 came up just short, and 2 found their ways in. So let’s break down the NFC South teams alphabetically and where I think they stand in 2009.
The most surprising team to me last year was the Atlanta Falcons. Coach Smith had all cylinders working last season and Atlanta made an improbable run to the playoffs. At times they dominated and looked like the best team in the NFC. Michael Turner and Matt Ryan again will be looking to ride the wave to the post season. Trading for Tony Gonzalez opens the passing game more for Ryan. Mike Peterson should help the defense for Atlanta as well. Peria Jerry should be a monster for Atlanta on the defensive line.
The Falcons in my opinion had the best draft of the South in 2009. They took care of defensive needs by a large margin. Some big names to look out for include Peria Jerry (DT), William Moore (S), Christopher Owens (DB), and Lawrence Sidbury (DE). Getting Sidbury as late as Atlanta did exemplifies how great a draft this was.
Atlanta has the tools to go far in the NFC and should be a major contender for the division. Keith Brooking was a big loss for Atlanta but the team they will put on the field in 2009 is hungry and Coach Smith could be one of those “keeper” coaches. Sam Baker and Curtis Lofton are proof of which direction this team is heading. I believe the Falcons will contend for the divisional crown from start to finish. 2009 Prediction: 11-5.
The Carolina Panthers return 21 of 22 starters from a 12-4 team. They also return the entire package of what I consider the best running game in the NFL. I look for great things from this team in 2009. The schedule is much more difficult this year than last year and it will be more of a challenge. There is however three big questions looming over this team.
1: Is Jake Delhomme really healthy as he claims to be? Delhomme at one time threw one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Last season was his first season back from Tommy John surgery to his elbow, and he struggled throwing the deep pass.
2: Will Peppers hold out? Since the divisional round loss to Arizona Julius Peppers has been in hiding. He won’t even return calls from his teammates. The Panthers placed the franchise tag on Jules preventing him from free agency and he didn’t like it. Drafting DE Everette Brown from FSU would help if Peppers decides to pull a no show.
3: How will the defense fair under new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks? Last December and January, while the Panthers offense rolled, the defense decided to vanish. Can Ron Meeks get the most out of the Panthers talent?
Salary cap restraints kept this team from signing big name FA’s, but I thought they drafted well and they look for yet another good season with Coach Fox at the helm. 2009 Prediction: 11-5.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS:
New Orleans returns an explosive offense yet again to the table. There is little doubt that Drew Brees is not only the best QB in the division, but top 5 in the league. I see this offense putting up ridiculous numbers in 2009. I think the re-signing of Jahri Evans (OG) was huge for N.O. Last season the Saints ranked a dismal 28th in rushing. I don’t expect the same result in 2009, even though McAllister is no longer a Saint.
The Saints caught a lot of scrutiny regarding their lack of success in the 2009 NFL Draft however in my own personal opinion I thought they drafted very well. Two of the players they drafted will have immediate impacts for the Saints in my opinion. Malcolm Jenkins (FS) out of Ohio State and Chip Vaughn (SS) out of Wake are no brainer picks. Some may question the reach for Stanley Arnoux (LB) out of Wake, but when you only have 4 picks in a draft and LB was such a huge need, you are almost forced to reach. I thought the Saints did well in the draft.
Free Agency was okay for the Saints. They added some defensive players. Darren Sharper (S), Paul Spicer (DE), Rod Coleman (DT), are all older players but when your defense struggled as bad as the Saints’ did adding this kind of talent certainly will not hurt. The re-signing of Vilma was huge as well.
I like this team to improve from their 8-8 record in 2008. But I still think their defense will kill them in 2009, and they’re lack of a consistent running game will put even more pressure on Brees. 2009 Prediction: 9-7.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS:
The last 4 games for Tampa Bay last season were pathetic. They rode the wave to a 9-3 record, and sunk like a pirate ship to the depths of the seas at the end of 2008. This caused such an uproar in the Tampa area that Gruden was axed and the groundwork for rebuilding started taking place. Although many fans of the franchise argue that this team is not in a rebuilding phase, and that they will be better than most believe in 2009. Let’s look at why they think that.
Tampa Bay entered the 2009 draft with many needs. In my opinion this team missed out on opportunities to get a RB and a LB in this draft. They did however address the needs at QB and DL with Josh Freeman (QB) out of Kansas State and Roy Miller (DT) out of Texas. Was trading up for Freeman a reach for Tampa? We’ll know in a couple seasons. But for now I say why not? After all, isn’t Vinnie Testaverde the last franchise QB this team had? To me there best pick was Kyle Moore (DE) out of USC.
Tampa unloaded some weight in the off season. Gone are Derrick Brooks, Ike Hilliard, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway and Cato June. In-comings include Byron Leftwich (QB), Derrick Ward (RB), Ryan Sims (DT), Angelo Crowell (LB), and C.J. Byrd (DB) just to name a few. Not too bad a group of players coming in. Tampa also traded for Kellen Winslow (TE).
Looking top to bottom of the 2009 roster you might think Tampa is re-structuring the franchise. The Bucs gutted the coaching staff as well, and hired new General Manager Mike Dominik. There’s just not quite enough there to believe they can make a playoff run in 2009. But I do believe that teams who come into Tampa expecting an easy win might under-estimate them enough to take home a loss. 2009 Prediction: 6-10.
2009 NFC SOUTH CHAMPIONS: CAROLINA PANTHERS!!! The Panthers sweep the Saints, the Bucs, and split the series with Atlanta to become the first ever back-to-back Champion of the NFC South. Once again it will be a classic dog fight to the finish.