NFC South Preview

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NFC South Preview
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Over the next few weeks I will be previewing the NFL in detail, division by division. I'm going start with the NFC South since my rooting interest, the Carolina Panthers, are in that division.

I tried to be as objective as possible.

1. Carolina Panthers (projected record: 11-5)
vs. Philadelphia W
@Atlanta W
@Dallas W
BYE
vs. Washington W
@Tampa Bay W
vs. Buffalo W
@Arizona L
@New Orleans L
vs. Atlanta W
vs. Dolphins W
@ NY Jets L
vs. Tampa Bay W
@ New England L
vs. Minnesota W
@ NY Giants L
vs. New Orleans W

3 Things I like

1. The offensive line—
Carolina has one of the best left-right tackle tandems in the league in Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah. Gross is a perennial pro bowler and Otah emerged, as a rookie, into one of the best young right tackles in football.

The rest of the line isn't quite as flashy, but they get the job done. They make it very easy for the players behind them

2. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—
These two might be the best running back tandem in football.

If DeAngelo is really the DeAngelo we saw in the second half of the season last year, then he might be the best back in football. Even Adrian Peterson can't break long runs as routinely as Williams.

Stewart provides a nice contrast to Williams, but people forget that this guy is fast too. He is the complete package with speed and power mixed into one.

Stewart could very well work himself into the class of elite running backs this year if he gets more carries and stays injury free.

3. The underdog factor—
As a Panthers fan, I can tell you that they always play better when they aren't expected to win by the mass media. Even though they won the division last season, most "experts" are picking New Orleans or even Atlanta to win the NFC South.

There just aren't very many people picking the Panthers. This is the situation they thrive in.

Just like last season, they weren't expected to win the division, but look at what they did.

While history is not on their side (they've never had back to back winning seasons), the underdog factor is.

3 Things I don't like

1. The QB situation—
Oh, do I remember Jake Delhomme's five interception game in the playoffs? Yes, it is fresh in my mind.

But, I'm not worried about Jake's game. I think he'll put up numbers like 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. I think he will play with a chip on his shoulder from the Cardinals game, and he will be motivated to have a good season.

I'm worried that he'll be injured. The 2007 season was a complete disaster when he went down. They don't have even a solid backup.

McCown isn't reliable, and as much as I like my man Matt Moore, he isn't a good NFL quarterback. They needed to go out and some kind of insurance this offseason. There were plenty of solid backups on the market, but they passed.

Delhomme is 34 and due for injury. Now he isn't a great quarterback or anything, but if he goes down the Panthers are in trouble.

2. The defensive line—
A week ago this might have been a plus, but losing Maake Kemoeatu (out for the season) to injury slots Damione Lewis and Nick Heyden as the starting defensive tackles.

And neither of those guys is 6'5" 350 pounds.

When Kemoeatu went down at the end of the year last season, the Panthers were torched on the ground. Could it mean the same thing this year? Probably so.

One position on the D line is set in stone though. But Julius Peppers, always one of the league's premier defensive ends, is coming off of a long contract dispute, and publicly announced his desire to play elsewhere. Could this affect his play?

The other end position will go to last year's starter Tyler Brayton, or rookie Everette Brown. Brayton is just average and who knows about Brown, but there is certainly a lack of certainty on the defensive line.

3. Coaching—
As a Panthers fan I have grown tired of their coaching. They have yet to put together back to back winning seasons and John Fox is still employed as the head coach.

They continue to stick with Jake Delhomme as their QB without any backup plan. Another thing is that sometimes in very important games they totally take Steve Smith out of the gameplan.

I remember a few years ago, while getting stomped by Seattle in the NFC Championship game they talked about using Smith as a "decoy." They still do that in some games.

I have a question. Why would you use the one of the best wideouts in the NFL as a decoy?

They need to get Dwayne Jarrett a little more involved this season. He had amazing talent at USC catching the ball. At least use him in the red zone.

Quick Summary: The Panthers will ride their strong running game to an NFC South division title. They will lose in the Super Bowl to the San Diego Chargers.

2. New Orleans Saints
(projected record: 10-6)
vs. Detroit L
@ Philadelphia L
@ Buffalo W
vs. NY Jets W
BYE
vs. NY Giants W
@ Miami L
vs. Atlanta L
vs. Carolina W
@ St. Louis W
@ Tampa Bay L
vs. New England W
@ Washington W
@ Atlanta W
vs. Dallas W
vs. Tampa Bay W
@ Carolina L

3 Things I like

1. Drew BreesBrees is the best quarterback in the NFC hands down. He reads the defense like few others in the league and can really spread the ball around.

He didn't have his number one target in Marques Colston for half of the year and still threw for 5,000 yards. Crazy.

I don't think he will put up quite as good numbers this season, but he should get around 4,500 yards, 30 TD's, and 15 interceptions. He will continue to be a very good, consistent quarterback and will lead the Saints to playoff contention.

2. Offseason moves—
The Saints defense was horrible last year and they did a lot to improve it. The secondary was the focus of their offseason moves. They grabbed Darren Sharper from the Vikings and drafted Malcolm Jenkins in the first round of the draft.

Sharper can still be an effective player who can cause turnovers and be a difference maker. He won't be the pro bowler he was earlier in his career, but he will be effective.

Jenkins is a good sized corner with speed who could start right away, although usually cornerbacks take at least a year to develop. It's not necessarily a move to help them a lot this season, but it will in the future.

3. Depth
—The Saints are one of the deepest teams in football, especially on offense.

Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush provide a nice contrast and third stringer Mike Bell still has some juice. He was a quality back in his rookie season in Denver.

Their receiving depth is amazing. One could make the argument that Marques Colston is top-10 wideout in the league. Lance Moore showed last year that he is one of the best number two wideouts in the league.

Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem are two of the best deep threat receivers in the league.

Bush is also one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL. If Jeremy Shockey comes to play this year, they will have a top tier tight end as well. No wonder Brees almost broke Marino's yards record last season.


3 Things I don't like

1. Running backs—
A lot of people will say that Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush are one of the best running back tandems in the NFL. I have to disagree.

I have nothing to back this up, but I feel that Pierre Thomas was more of a half season wonder than a top NFL runner. I think he'll be lucky to score the nine touchdowns he had last year, even while being a feature back this year.

As far as Reggie Bush goes, isn't it time to call him a bust? He has not been an effective pro running back up to this point. The Texans have to be saying "I told you so."

Bush has never had more than 581 yards rushing, more than 3.8 yards per carry, or more than six TD's in any season he has played. He has been a decent receiver out of the backfield, averaging more than 500 yards per season, but that's not all the Saints expected when they got Bush.

If you can call Greg Oden a bust in basketball, it's time to call Reggie Bush a bust in football.

2. Defense—
The Saints did much to improve their defense in the offseason, but it is still a weakness. Jonathan Vilma is the only guy who remotely scares an offensive coordinator. The rest of their players as purely average NFL starters.

Charles Grant and Will Smith were once formidable pass rushers on the ends, but have since dropped off after with being caught using performance enhancers.

Jenkins and Sharper were good additions to the secondary, but neither is a huge game changer like an Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu that the Saints desperately need.

3. The hype—
Just like the Panthers don't play well when there are high expectations on them, the Saints don't either. Since their magical 2006 season they have yet to post a winning record and were favored by most sources to win the division both of those years.

They are yet again most NFL experts' pick to win the NFC South.

I'm not usually a big believer in superstitions and all of that, but the NFL seems to follow trends more than other leagues and this has been a trend for the Saints.

Quick Summary: The Saints will get out of the gate slow, but behind another great Drew Brees season they will go 10-6 and lose in the Wild Card round to the New York Giants.

3. Atlanta Falcons
(projected record: 7-9)
vs. Miami W
vs. Carolina L
@ New England L
BYE
@ San Francisco L
vs. Chicago W
@ Dallas L
@ New Orleans W
vs. Washington W
@ Carolina L
@ NY Giants L
vs. Tampa Bay W
vs. Philadelphia W
vs. New Orleans L
@ NY Jets L
vs. Buffalo W
@ Tampa Bay
L

3 Things I like

1. Running backs-
Michael Turner had a huge season last year and I don't think he will have quite as good a year. But the reason I really like their running backs is Jerious Norwood.

It's crazy he's not getting more than 100 carries per year. His career yards per carry is 5.8! Give the guy the ball!

Why rush Michael Turner 30 times a game, when you can rush Norwood more and take some of the burden and injury risk off of Turner?

Norwood needs to find a starting job somewhere because he is the real deal. He is 5'11" 209 pounds and is as fast as a zebra. He is the next Michael Turner, in that he will become a starter somewhere else and become a star after backing up a star running back.

2. Tony Gonzalez—
Gonzalez is just what this offense needed. He provides Matt Ryan with a guy to throw to when his down field threats of Roddy White and Michael Jenkins aren't open.

Gonzalez is still one of the best tight ends in the game too. Just because he is 33 doesn't mean he cannot be a top tight end. In fact, he could end this year with the most touchdowns of any tight end. Actually I believe he will.

He had 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns with Tyler Thigpen throwing to him. TYLER THIGPEN!

I'd say Matt Ryan is quite an upgrade from Tyler Thigpen.

3. John Abraham—
The Falcons defensive line is awful, but John Abraham holds them together. When he got a sack last year they were 8-1.

When he did not have a sack they were 3-4.

He is the lone difference maker on the defense and needs to be a force like last year. He needs to get 15 sacks for this team to be contenders for a playoff spot.

3 Things I don't like

1. Defense—
It seems to be forgotten than Atlanta's defense was not good last year at all.

Mike Peterson was an okay addition, but he isn't a game changer. They also lost three of their top five tacklers from last year, including team leader Keith Brooking.

They have only gotten worse from last year and will not improve on the 11-5 record unless several young players step up and turn into pro bowl caliber defenders.

2. Young QB—
I like Matt Ryan and think he is a good quarterback, but I'm not sure he can win in a come-from-behind situation or a big game situation. He was never in a situation in college where a national championship birth was on the line, and he failed in the playoffs last year.

He played bad in all of the Falcons' losses last year, throwing a combined three more interceptions than touchdowns in all of them. He might have to step it up a little more this year, and I'm not sure if he is ready to take a franchise on his back.

3. Players coming off of career seasons—
Atlanta has a lot of players on the offensive side coming off of career seasons.

Michael Turner, Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Matt Ryan, although a rookie, all succeeded at levels as yet unseen in their careers. I don't think you expect improvement on all of those guys' seasons.

I definitely see Turner taking a step back and Jenkins and Ryan staying about the same.

The facts are that they need those two guys to be better than last year to have last year's success because their defense is worse. And I don't see a lot of improvement in those guys.

Quick Summary: The Falcons offense will be about the same as last year, but the defense will be horrible. Bottom five of the league. They will finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(projected record: 6-10)
vs. Dallas L
@ Buffalo L
vs. NY Giants W
@Washington L
@ Philadelphia L
vs. Carolina L
vs. New England L
BYE
vs. Green Bay W
@ Miami W
vs. New Orleans W
@ Atlanta L
@ Carolina L
vs. NY Jets W
@ Seattle L
@ New Orleans L
vs. Atlanta W

3 Things I like

1. Derrick Ward—
Derrick Ward is this year's Michael Turner. I'm saying that now. He won't put up quite as gaudy numbers but I'm seeing 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns for him this year. Not quite Turner like, but none the less, a great year.

If you play fantasy he will be a huge bargain. He is the sleeper of the year. He had 1,000 yards and only two touchdowns for the Giants last year playing behind Brandon Jacobs. The only reason he had two touchdowns was because they were going to run the 6'4" 250 pound Jacobs down at the goal line.

Ward is perfectly capable of converting those opportunities and will get goal line chances this year. Look out world, another stud running back is in the NFC South.

2. Youth movement—A lot of times this is a bad thing, but Tampa needed this. They might have been better this year with guys like Jeff Garcia and Derrick Brooks, but for the long term, or even next season they are better off with the new direction of this team.

They have a promising rookie quarterback in Josh Freeman, a star in the making at corner in Aqib Talib, and a stud middle linebacker in Barrett Ruud.

Their future is promising, but maybe at the cost of some wins this year.

3. New coaching—
Jon Gruden was a good coach, but I think it was evident last season that Monte Kiffin was the glue of that team. Once he announced he was leaving to help his son at the University of Tennessee, things fell apart for the Bucs.

The players now have a young coach who helps put a new face on the franchise. I expect the system to be very run heavy.

And having a new coaching staff will be good for the young players to adjust to as the coaching will receive more criticism and can shoulder the load a bit better in that respect.


3 Things I don't like

1. Rebuilding—
I do like that the Bucs are trying to get younger, but when you rebuild you are sending the fans a message that "we are not doing much this year." That's never a good thing.

It's usually not a good thing when a team totally overhauls its coaching staff either.

Again I do like their moves for the future, but this year will not be good for them. There's something about Florida teams and rebuilding I guess.

2. Quarterbacks—
Last year Jeff Garcia was great for Tampa, but he is gone and they have no clear cut number one quarterback on the roster.

They have rookie Josh Freeman, who is not quite ready for the NFL. Byron Leftwich is on the roster, but the whole NFL starter thing hasn't worked out for him in the past.

They also have Luke McCown, who isn't an experienced NFL quarterback either.

Leftwich looked good as a backup for Pittsburgh last year, but was run out of Jacksonville after faltering. I really don't think Josh Freeman will ever be a good quarterback, let alone this year. I also don't think McCown will lead them to a winning record.

They really do not have any great options.

3. Injuries—
All of the Bucs skill position players have an injury history. Leftwich, Ward, Graham, Bryant, Clayton, and Winslow all have had careers damaged by injury. Ward is not as bad as the others, but he has missed games before and has never handled the load he'll carry this year.

If all of those guys can stay healthy they could actually be competitive, but that is a huge stretch.

Quick Summary: The Buccaneers will not be as bad as some think, but will still finish 6-10 and miss the playoffs. The will be a very tough out for everybody they play.



-ATG

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