NFC South Preview: Tradition of Surprises Will End in 2010
What more is there to say that hasn't already been said about Saint Brees? He truly elevated himself into the top NFL echelon and now has a ring to prove it.
Falcons' QB Matt Ryan is the best "young" QB around. He had an incredible rookie year leading a team seemingly destined to a top 5 draft pick to the NFC South title and a playoff berth.
Injuries hampered his 2009 season but he still put up solid numbers of 3000 yards, 22 TDs and 14 INTs.
Both Moore and Freeman are promising young players. Freeman looked the best of the 2009 crop at times but was horribly inconsistent, having terrible games against the Bucs, Jets, and Falcons.
Moore was solid for his starts but only attempted a mere 140 passes at 61.5 completion percentage with 8 TDs and 2 INTs.
The X factor in the equation is Panthers rookie Jimmy Clausen, who came from an NFL offense at Notre Dame and will turn out to be a star, giving the edge to Carolina.
Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams are the best combination of backs there is. Williams is the more dangerous option in the open field but Stewart is a deadly goal line back as his 10 TDs suggest.
There is nothing to split these two backs in terms of numbers, with Williams posting a slightly higher average but Stewart gaining more yards after first contact.
The fall off for Michael Turner was perhaps predictable. 375 attempts in 2008 led to a far higher vulnerability to injury, which is exactly what happened.
Turner is one of the best pure RBs, and he is complemented perfectly by Jerious Norwood who picks excels in the passing game on third down.
The surprise package was Jason Snelling, who filled in admirably when Turner was down, giving the Falcons a valuable contingency plan.
The Saints' Pierre Thomas is an underrated player. Sean Peyton likes to throw the football as well as spread it around meaning his numbers were limited to just 150 attempts for 800 yards at 5.4 yards per carry.
Thankfully, Mike Bell is gone, leaving Thomas a larger share of the workload with only Reggie Bush spelling him.
Bush's high rushing average was helped in a large way by the spreading of defenses caused by Drew Brees, but he is a good receiver and return specialist.
Tampa's Cadillac Williams is better than his numbers suggest. The Bucs' weak O-line limits their ability to run the football meaning Williams posted 816 yards at 3.9 a pop although his 500 yards after contact suggest he was running hard.
Tampa's most dissapointing player in 2009 was likely FA signing Derrick Ward. Ward simply didn't reveal the ability he had flashed in New York on his way to just 400 yards rushing at an avg of 3.6.
Receivers (WRs and TEs)
All teams in the NFC South have solid receiving corps although none stand out. The Panthers just snag the top spot because of potential. Brandon Lafell was of the best WR prospects in the class and he'll likely challenge for immediate playing time. Steve Smith is still a dominant receiver even if he should be more careful playing flag football and QB/WR Armanti Edwards is an intriguing prospect (even if I think Carolina gave up too much to get him). Dwayne Jarrett is still a major dissapointment and is in a make or break year. None of the Panther's starting TEs are well known players but Gary Barnidge was promising in limited action posting 240 yards on a mere 12 receptions with an impressive average of 8.8 YAC.
The Saints love to spread the ball around. Marques Colston was the leading receiver with 1,000 yards with 9 TDs. He will be dissapointed however that he dropped 10 balls in 09. Robert Meachem also performed admirably and amazingly failed to drop a ball the entire year although he isn't as dangerous in the open field. Devery Henderson also posted solid numbers going over 800 yards although he'll be dissapointed by his 5 drops. At TE the oft-injured Jeremy Shockey is a libility as a run blocker but is a reliable target in the passing game registering 550 yards. Dave Thomas has similar attributes although he features in the backup role.
There has to be some concern over the Falcons' receiving situation. Roddy White is a very good and consistent receiver posting 1150 yards but the Falcons' lack a number 2 option. The Falcons didn't address the position in the draft until Kerry Meier in the 6th round and Michael Jenkins is certainly not the answer. No other player surpassed 200 yards and Brian Finneran was predictably injured. There is an indication the Tony Gonzalez may be finally wearing down. He posted his lowest number of yards (850) since 2002 despite a far more talented QB for most of the season although his reception total (83) remained high. Justin Peele is a nice run blocker.
Tampa's decision to double dip at the WR position was a good one. Arrelious Benn has all the physical attributes attributes to succeed and could become a very good player if he improves his concentration. Mike Williams was a risk in the 4th round because of questionable character concerns but he has first round talent. The two rookies will pair with promising slot receiver Sammie Stroughter who posted 320 yards on 31 receptions and 135 YACs. Kellen Winslow is a very good receiving option at TE but simply gets abused in the run game. 77 receptions for 900 yards and 5 TDs are very respectable numbers however. The Bucs could really do with a receiving TE, Jeremy Stevens is an awful player.
The Saints have one of the best interior lines ever assembled. Jahri Evans got a huge payday with he definately deserved but for the fact he is an OG. Carl Nicks and Jonathan Goodwin round out a purely dominant unit. The OTs are less impressive with Jon Stinchcomb struggling in the run game and Jermon Bushrod just generally being pretty awful. The latter allowed a ridiculous 9 sacks, 9 hits and 32 pressures in 618 pass blocks. 2nd round pick Charles Brown was solid value although his neck injury may be the reason for an apparently inexplicable fall.
The Falcons line is a mixed bag. Sam Baker failed to improve in his second year in fact regressing in pass protection to the tune of 5 sacks, 4 hits and 28 pressures. Things don’t get much better as you move along the line where LG Justin Blalock got abused at times allowing 3 hits and a pressure against Miami and 2 sacks, 1 hit and 3 pressures against Washington. There is rapid improvement after that however with C Todd Mclure who is one of the better ones in the league along with the solid Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo at RG and RT respectively.
The Panthers unit features a couple of pro-bowl calibre players in Ryan Khalil at C and Jordan Gross at LT. Gross only played half the season however and when he did he didn’t look like his former self allowing a disappointing 6 sacks, 5 hits and 11 pressures in 280 snaps. LG Travelle Wharton and RT Jeff Otah were also both below par although thankfully none came close to the awful play of RG Keydrick Vincent whose season was epitomised by destruction at the hands on the Williams Wall in Minnesotta.
The Bucs’ likely have the worst line in the league. The most annoying thing for Tampa fans is that players like Donald Penn have talent but their lethargic attitude means they consistently perform poorly. Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trublood and Zuttah and Jeff Faine simply aren’t very good players and the Bucs lack any established backups to speak of as well as failing to address the position in the draft.
With the additions made by the 1st and 2nd rounds of the NFL draft the Bucs may have elevated their D-line group to the top in the division. Gerald McCoy was a surefire top 3 pick while Brian Price fell because of unfounded background concerns. They will be partnered with the little known Stylez G White whose 8 sacks, 11 hits and 21 pressures in 320 pass rushes was incredible. White can also hold his own against the run. There is still a hole at the other DE position with only 7th round pick Erik Lorig added in the offseason.
The Falcons line has a couple of studs in DE Jon Abraham and DT Jonathan Babineux but Abraham’s age has to be a concern. His numbers in 2009 were again very impressive and he came to play against both the run and the pass but he is now getting up into the mid 30s. Kroy Biermann was especially impressive as a nickel rusher but the question remains over whether that will be his upside. The Falcons took a calculated risk in the 2008 NFL draft opting with Peria Jerry who came with injury concerns. Unfortunately for them Jerry did go down and if he can’t stay healthy or prove he can play at the NFL level there will continue to be a weakness for Atlanta at the other DT spot.
The loss of Julius Peppers may not be as significant if Charles Johnson and Everette Brown continue to show the talent they possessed in 2009. The Panthers continued the theme of giving up future firsts and acquired Brown in the 2nd round and he certainly showed potential in the pass rushing department. The interior of the line remains a significant problem however
with Damione Lewis struggling against the run and Hollis Thomas wearing down.
The Saints line is very average with the overrated Will Smith still struggling against the run and only bringing just above average pressure. Sedrick Ellis has thus far failed to live up to his draft status and Remi Ayodele isn’t much help next to him. The Saints are hoping 4th round pick Al Woods turns out to be a solid starter although his production at the college level was disappointing for a player of his talent. Thankfully the washed up Charles Grant is gone to be replaced by perhaps the best run stopping DE in the league in Alex Brown although he offers little rushing the passer.
The Panthers defense is led by the dominant Jon Beason who is a major force against the run as well as limited opposing QBs to a rating of 80 into his coverage. Partnering him on the weakside is former S Thomas Davis another of the league’s most underrated players who has great versatility. If he can recover for the start of the season from being replaced on IR in 2009 then this duo will again be formidable. James Anderson and Na’il Diggs are both solid options for the strongside.
The Buccaneers group are also very impressive. Geno Hayes is a very good blitzer and run defender at WLB while Quincy Black excels in coverage. They sandwich the impressive Barett Ruud who does tend to be a little overrated and could improve his pass rushing ability. The Bucs also look to have a steal in Dekoda Watson taken at 217 overall who should provide depth.
The Falcons have another of the league’s top MLBs, something that appears to be a feature of the NFC South, in Curtis Lofton. Lofton exploded at the start of the year but did seem to regress as the season went on, especially in coverage, although his work against the run was impeccable. Mike Peterson had clearly lost it so the addition of Sean Wetherspoon was a smart one as he can provide some much needed leadership to the defense. Stephen Nicholas is a solid option at SLB even if he does struggle a little in coverage.
The Saints lost Scott Fuiita who while less than ideal certainly wasn’t the worst starting SLB and replaced him with a guy who struggled in Jacksonville in Clint Ingram. Unfortunately for the Saints Scott Shanle remains who was simply horrendous in every department in 2009. Jonathan Vilma is another overrated guy. He is the best coverage LB there is but gets too easily pushed around in the run game and isn’t a great blitzer.
The reason the Saints went from 8-8 in 2008 to nearly perfect in 2009 was the addition of CBs Jabari Greer and expanded role of Tracy Porter. The dip in form for the Saints coincided with injuries to these two players and their return permitted the superbowl run. The addition of Patrick Robinson in the 1st round was therefore a strange one especially considering I thought Chris Cook and Amari Spievey were better prospects. The resigning of Roman Harper and Darren Sharper were also important the latter especially if Malcolm Jenkins plays FS anything like he played CB in 2009.
The Falcons splashed out big on FA CB Dunta Robinson but the move brings risks. Robinson has a history of injuries although considering the issues Atlanta had at the position in 2009 the move is understandable. Who mans the other CB position is still unclear although whoever it is they are unlikely to play well if 2009 is anything to go by. The Falcons do have two promising safeties however in Thomas Decoud and Erick Coleman although the latter did seem to struggle against the run.
The Bucs have one CB position set with Aqib Talib but they really lacked a number 2 in 2009. Hoping to solve it they added CB Myron Lewis in the 3rd round. The safeties Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson are both incredibly underwhelming against the run leading to the addition of Sean Jones however the FA signing did seem to struggle with missed tackles himself in Philadelphia.
The Panthers lack much ability in the secondary. Chris Gamble seems to be done while Richard Marshall was ok in coverage. Captain Munnerlyn conceded too many penalties in 2009 and isn’t the most ideal nickel CB. Charles Godfrey is at least solid at S but his partner Chris Harris is a liability against the run.
Its difficult to see the Saints not winning the division unless Drew Brees gets hurt. Having said that the Panthers could surprise if Jimmy Clausen is a s good as he can be. The Falcons aren’t far behind either whilst the Bucs are doing a nice job of retooling their defense although the offense remains a year away from allowing them to become a serious contender.
New Orleans Saints : 11-14 Ws
Carolina Panthers: 8-11 Ws
Atlanta Falcons: 8-10 Ws
Tamp Bay Buccaneers: 3-5 Ws
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