2009 Players to Watch: NFC South

Matt ShervingtonCorrespondent IIAugust 4, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 10:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers runs against Gerald Hayes #54 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 10, 2009 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Justin Blalock, Atlanta Falcons

In the 2007 NFL Draft, Justin Blalock was picked up early in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons, much to my dismay. I had wished the Steelers would have either reached on him or attempted to trade up in the second for him, but neither happened.

However, while reviewing his rookie season, I thanked the Steelers for not drafting him because his rookie season was horrible in every way possible. Unfortunately, in 2008, Blalock had a conversely good season and was good enough to make one of my All-Pro teams.

So the question is, which is the real Blalock? The worst starting guard in the NFL in 2007 or the All-Pro of 2008?

Mike Peterson, Atlanta Falcons

I used to be so high on Mike Peterson. In 2005 before I officially recorded my AP awards via a blog, I had him winning the Defensive Player of the Year as he had the best numbers in every major linebacker categorization. Unfortunately, since then he has had a string of injuries and hasn’t been the same player.

As a result, he was allowed to explore free agency this offseason and landed in Atlanta where he will replace long-time Falcon Keith Brooking. While his DPoTY-caliber days are behind him, who is to say Peterson won’t display that type of skill from time to time? That’s what I’ll be looking out for this upcoming season. Curtis Lofton will need his leadership next to him.

DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers

DeAngelo Williams had the best season, on paper, of all halfbacks last season. His 20 touchdowns from scrimmage were ridiculously good, and his 1,700 yards from scrimmage weren’t half bad either considering he split carries.

The question is, however, was it a one-year thing?

And Panthers fans, before you get on me, I can ask the same thing about Michael Turner, but I’m higher on Williams’ ceiling, hence the writing about him. Was last year just a touch of things to come or did Williams “luck,” for lack of a better word, into such a great season?

Brad Hoover, Carolina Panthers

As you watch Williams and Jonathan Stewart run to day light next season, make sure you pay attention to the formations they do it out of. You’re probably going to see a lot of I-Formation with a fullback lining up in front of them. That fullback is Brad Hoover.

Hoover was the best fullback in the league last year, and with the talented backfield running behind him, I don’t expect that to change next season. So why am I saying to watch Hoover? Well because I think he deserves the respect he wasn’t getting last season. He’s a typical grind-it-out-but-never-get-respect player.

Chris Gamble, Carolina Panthers

For the last four or five years I keep hearing people mention this guy as a top-15 cornerback and, in some cases, as a “shutdown” cornerback. However, he’s a zone-coverage specialist who has never really shined in my opinion.

He reminds me a lot of Lito Sheppard; a zone-coverage player who can get turnovers, but don’t ask him to be your best coverage corner or you’re going to hurt because of it. So maybe this is just for me so that I can watch him more intently than I have in the past, but I just don’t see it when watching Chris Gamble, and I’m wondering why some people apparently do.

Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints

Marques Colston is an interesting watch. He stormed onto the scene with one of the most impressive rookie outings for a wide receiver since the merger and followed it up with a good second season. Unfortunately he was injured last season and as a result became an afterthought in the minds of many because Drew Brees still continued to produce good totals.

Colston, however, deserves the respect of a top-15, if not top-10, wide receiver, and he won’t be getting it next season unless he produces akin to this sophomore season and even then he might not get it. Don’t let Marques Colston become the forgotten wideout.

Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Pierre Thomas stepped up big for the Saints last year after injuries to the halfbacks. Even with Reggie Bush returning next year, Thomas looks to be the “runner” of the two and will line up to take the carries and for good reason; Thomas is suited to be a guy who can run outside and between the tackles.

While he might not be as good as Bush in space and cannot be as effective of a receiver as Bush, he can do what Bush does and line up in the slot or catch screens, etc. With both Thomas and Bush in the lineup, the Saints have dual threats, and you can bet that the Saints will take full advantage of the talent they have in the backfield.

Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I’m telling you that in the 2008 season, Barrett Ruud was better than both Patrick Willis and Jon Beason. You’re probably not going to agree, but watch the film and you probably would. With that said, I believe Willis will be the better of the two in 2009, but that doesn’t mean you should sell Ruud short. Ruud will continue to play at a top-seven level next year even though the Buccaneers are currently in the middle of a rebuilding mode.

Ruud has amazing coverage abilities, can run sideline to sideline, is good at crashing the line of scrimmage, and can create turnovers. There’s nothing you can ask of a linebacker that Ruud cannot do. I find it funny I’m endorsing Ruud here when in 2007 I thought he was overrated and average. Watch Ruud next season; you’ll be in for a treat.

Tanard Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

My Defensive Rookie of The Year for the 2007 season Tanard Jackson fell into the mediocrity normally associated with a Tampa-2 safety and went unnoticed by many. A lot of people on Football’s Future know of Jackson, but outside of that forum a lot of people are ignorant to his capabilities and how good he is. So this part is mainly for people who don’t post on Football’s Future; take the chance to watch Jackson in action next season and notice that he, like Ruud, is the focal point to that defense.