2008 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

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2008 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

It is just the preseason, so no one get too excited. People seemed less upset with my AFC South projections, so frankly, I have less to say before we get to the NFC South. I had some relevant ideas, but I got them out yesterday, so we won't rehash.

I do believe Tampa and New Orleans are two of the five or six best teams in the NFC (Tampa with or without Brett Favre). I believe New Orleans to be a top-three team, and in this division, they could be sitting at a No. 1 overall seed, if they can keep their offensive and defensive backfields healthy.

That being said, let's get to goin'.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2007 Record: 9-7)

Offense: First and foremost, this is a different team if it has Brett Favre. Since No. 4 apparently has no intention of ever putting on a Buccaneer uniform, Jeff Garcia is the guy...at least for now. There, we got that out of the way. Thank God.

It may actually be for the best in Tampa. Garcia was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL last season, despite not exactly having Rice and Owens to throw to. Joey Galloway somehow continues to blow by opposing corners.

The Bucs drafted blazer Dexter Jackson from Appalachian State to understudy Galloway, while providing the only other deep threat on this roster. Between Michael Clayton, the aging Ike Hillard, and huge Maurice Stovall, Jon Gruden has to hope one emerges as a consistent and reliable possession receiver.

Stovall has been impressive in camp so far and may even find himself in the starting lineup by mid-season.

Despite his love for concocting creative offensive schemes, Jon Gruden’s teams have boasted a solid running game over the course his tenure in Tampa. They brought in center Jeff Faine to bolster a young offensive line, plus Warrick Dunn to supplement Earnest Graham in the backfield until Carnell “Cadillac” Williams comes back from injury.

Dunn says he doesn’t want to just be a scat back in this offense, but with the Cadillac apparently coming out of the shop earlier than expected, he may not have much of a choice. With Graham, Dunn, and Williams, the Bucs boast one of the deepest and most versatile backfields in the NFC.

If the Bucs find a No. 2 receiver, this offense could be outstanding.

Defense: The defense that gave the name to the trendiest defensive scheme in the league has quietly reloaded and will once again be stellar. Ronde Barber remains a solid corner, and because of the “Tampa 2” scheme they play, he will not be as exposed for his dwindling speed.

Phillip Buchanon mirrors him on the opposite side and the super talented former Miami Hurricane may have found his rightful place in Tampa. Behind them, rookie Aqib Talib and former Patriot Eugene Wilson provide tremendous depth in for this secondary.

Safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson is perhaps the most underrated safety duo in the league, and Jackson was actually one of the catalysts for Tampa’s defensive resurgence last season. He looks like a star in the making at safety.

Former 49er Marques Douglass was signed in the offseason to bolster this defense upfront, and while rushing the passer is not his specialty, he finished last season with 70 tackles and plays with a great motor. Second-year player Gaines Adams on the other side looks poised for a breakout season at end and has limitless upside as a pass rusher.

Barrett Rudd, Derrick Brooks, and Cato June make up a stellar linebacking corps, who may be unspectacular now that Brooks is not the playmaker he once was. However, this group is solid and fundamentally sound. They won’t miss tackles in pursuit and have the athleticism to cover opposing tight ends.

This defense may not be the Warren Sapp defenses of the late '90s, but this Bucs D was excellent last season and should be even better in 2008.

Overall: Dexter Jackson brings some pop in the return game and the offense. With Cadillac and Graham in the backfield, Jeff Garcia won’t be asked to win games, something he appears no longer capable of doing. The defense will have them in every game they play. In a weak division, with an incredibly easy schedule, the Bucs are an 11-win team and will be in line for a playoff appearance as long as Gruden doesn’t rest his starters too long.

 

Atlanta Falcons (2007 Record: 4-12)

Offense: Mike Mularky was brought in to take care of an offense in shambles last season. The Falcons went through what seemed like a dozen starting quarterbacks, none of who really played particularly well. Enter Boston College quarterback and third-overall pick Matt Ryan.

Currently listed third on the depth chart, Ryan is technically behind journeyman Chris Redman and perpetual under-achiever Joey Harrington.

If Ryan has one thing going for him, it is that he is used to throwing to mediocre receivers. Atlanta has Roddy White and that is about it. Even White is inconsistent at doing much of anything except going deep. Michael Jenkins has never developed into the kind of playmaker they expected, and Joe Horn is finished.

Don’t forget one of the best tight ends in the league Alge Crumpler will be playing in Nashville this season with Vince Young.

To make matters worse, none of the backs on this Falcons roster have ever been “the guy.” Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood have always been the “other guy” and will certainly split carries again. It won’t help that they’ll be running behind one of the weakest offensive lines in the game.

Let’s just say Matt Ryan’s mother will be praying her baby boy rides the bench this season while the Falcons develop an identity and hopefully improve upfront.

Defense: Head coach Mike Smith was brought in to bring toughness, discipline, and defense to a Falcons team that didn’t really have any of those things under Bobby Petrino (while he was there).

To be fair, Jim Mora Jr. was an excellent defensive coach and did enjoy some success defensively in Atlanta. Part of the Falcons’ struggles were Petrino-inflicted and the others were that this defense just doesn’t have much talent.

DeAngelo Hall, the Falcons' best defensive back is in Oakland now. Von Hutchins was brought in from Houston to replace him. Bringing in a defensive back from Houston is like bringing in an information specialist from the Bush administration: He's not exactly going to help you much.

The Falcons like second-year corner Chris Houston, but at safety, Atlanta is old and slow with Lawyer Milloy. While Erik Coleman was solid for the Jets, he isn’t exactly a playmaker.

The strength of this defense is at the linebacker position. Keith Brooking may be 32, but has had over 100 tackles the last seven seasons. Michael Boley on the other side possesses solid athleticism and has some upside. The key will be Oklahoma rookie Curtis Lofton.

He is a thumper on the inside and will really benefit from having veterans on the outside around him. If he can lead this defense, it should be somewhat improved, at least against the run.

The defensive line is a stark contrast from what coach Smith had in Jacksonville. John Abraham and Jamaal Anderson on the edges are solid, but the interior is soft. Having the strength of Lofton will help to some degree, but the front four will have to get pressure to protect the secondary. Without guys like Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, Smith will have his hands full.

Overall: Don’t be surprised if Matt Ryan sits the entire season. The Falcons have no shot at this division or a playoff berth, and Atlanta would be better off to sit him while this team develops an identity.

New coach Mike Smith may bring a new attitude to this team, something they sorely needed, but he didn’t bring Maurice Jones-Drew, John Henderson, and David Garrard with him.

I don’t see very many winnable games on this schedule. Getting back to four wins will be tough, I would expect more like one or two. This team will be in serious rebuilding mode in 2008.

 

Carolina Panthers (2007 Record: 7-9)

Offense: The biggest piece offensively for the Carolina Panthers should be back in 2008. Jack Delhomme has been in and out of the lineup the past two seasons and only played in three games during the 2007 season. That was a team that went 7-9 without him, thanks in part to the play of super-speedy receiver Steve Smith and the outstanding running abilities of DeAngelo Williams.

To help Delhomme and Smith, the Panthers brought back long-time Panther Muhsin Muhammad and, most importantly, D.J. Hackett to play opposite Smith. Hackett has been slated to start, and his big frame and versatility will preclude defenses from focusing their pass defense around Smith, who can score from anywhere on the field.

Carolina also added rookies Jonathan Stewart and Jeffrey Otah to an offense that struggled to score points. Stewart, a big, bullying back from Oregon, has great size and speed and boasts a powerful, while not overly physical style.

He will run away from you just as often as he will run over you. With him and Williams in the backfield, no matter who the QB is, this offense can run the football.

Adding Otah will only help. Otah possesses a massive frame and will be a bulldozing run blocker for this team at the right-tackle position. With an NFL body and NFL power, if Otah can contain the edge rushers in the NFC, he will have a long career opposite Jordan Gross on a rebuilding offensive line. 

Defense: Defensively was supposed to be where John Fox made his money as a head coach. This team has underperformed the past two seasons, in large part to the inconsistent play of Julius Peppers. Once considered the best defensive player in football, Peppers has fallen off the NFL map and will look to regain his form from a season ago, when he was coming off three-straight double-digit sack seasons.

Jon Beason was a pleasant surprise for the Panthers in 2007 with 140 tackles. In fact, Beason got the only two votes eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis did not get after the season.

To play alongside him, the Panthers poached one of the few quality defensive players on the Bengals roster when they acquired Landon Johnson. Converted safety Thomas Davis rounds out a superbly athletic and talented group.

The defensive backfield has been a struggle in Carolina ever since the late '90s. Chris Gamble has excellent ball skills but lives up to his name and takes too many risks. Ken Lucas has been a quality player for the Panthers, but he still gets beat too many times (and not just by his own teammates).

However, safety remains the biggest question on defense. Nate Salley and Chris Harris make up an inexperienced group with less-than-desirable coverage skills. Having Julius Peppers back on track should help, but this group will need to improve to beat teams like the Saints, who can throw the ball all over the field.

Overall: With Jake Delhomme back and a ton of young talent brought in offensively, this team could be dangerous in a season or two. 2008 will bring some inconsistency, as those inexperienced players grow, but ultimately, this team could be rolling by November and fight for a playoff birth.

9-7 probably won’t be good enough to get into the playoffs, but the Panthers could still sneak in. There is playoff potential on this roster.

 

New Orleans Saints (2007 Record 7-9)

Offense: Sean Payton, by his own admission, got a little too cute with Reggie Bush. Instead of designing special plays and packages for Bush, Payton realized he just needed his star running back to be comfortable with the system and schemes.

The talent would take over from there. Getting Deuce McAllister back and healthy will be huge for the Saints offense and for Bush, who will not have to take the pounding inside.

The Saints have had solid offensive-line play the past two seasons, but inexperienced Johnathan Goodwin takes over at center, arguably the most important position on the offensive line. Goodwin was strong in the time he did get, but it will be interesting to see how quickly he brings cohesion to this group up front.

Opening holes for Deuce and Reggie, as well as protecting Brees, will be paramount for a team that relies so heavily on its offense to win games.

With the secret out on Marques Colston, the Saints expect one of the other talented youngsters to step up in their receiving core. Lance Moore played well in the time he got, but lacks much explosiveness.

Terrance Coppers and Devery Henderson have that explosiveness, but both struggled to stay on the field last season. Getting second-year player Robert Meachem in shape will be crucial, as the former first-round pick will be counted on to produce.

Trading for Jeremy Shockey does alleviate some of the stress on the young receivers by giving Brees the receiving threat down the seam that he had in San Diego with Antonio Gates. Shockey will not only produce for himself, but he should open up the outside for the speedy Henderson and Meachem to get deep, while Colston works underneath, using that huge frame.

Defense: Clearly the Achilles heel of the 2007 Saints, much like the 2006 version, was defense. Jonathan Vilma, Randall Gay, Dan Morgan, and Bobby McCray were all brought in during free agency to bolster this group that gave up big play after big play in the passing game. Dan Morgan is gone already, and McCray won’t start, but Vilma and Gay’s success will be the key in improving this defense.

Vilma joins Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle at the starting linebacker spots. Vilma immediately becomes by far the best player of this group and a guy capable of 160+ tackles on this team, particularly with the big bodies up front.

This group will likely struggle to guard top tight ends, but luckily for them, there isn’t a tight end even in the upper half of the talent pool in the NFC South.

Gay comes in to start opposite Mike McKenzie, who has been the only steady DB on the Saints team the past several years. Gay was a key contributor in passing situations for the Patriots' Super Bowl teams, and if he can adjust to a starting role, it will give Jason David a chance to focus on being the third DB, something he is more suited for anyway.

If David struggles in the nickel as much as he did starting last year, do not be surprised to see talented Indiana rookie Tracey Porter take some take away from David on passing downs. The play of Gay, David, and Porter will likely be the indicator for success in 2008 defensively.

Despite major deficiencies on defense, the Saints are not at a lack for talent up front. Will Smith and Charles Grant form an elite edge tandem and will be a problem for quarterbacks in the NFC.

Questions along the interior prompted the Saints to move up and snag USC defensive monster Sedrick Ellis in April’s draft. Ellis has not been in camp and has yet to sign a contract, but assuming he gets some game action before the season, he could be a huge contributor.

Ellis has the size and strength to anchor a run defense, but also the quickness and leverage to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback. Hollis Thomas is 34 and Bryan Young is an average player. Ellis should be getting serious runs by mid-season.

Overall: The Saints have as much talent as any team in the NFC, even with problems on defense. Injuries prevented New Orleans from repeating as NFC South champions and from making the playoffs. Sean Payton is too strong a coach, and this team has too much talent to be held down for long.

Some luck in the health department, plus most of their tough games at home could translate into a 13-3 season and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

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