Matt Ryan looks to retake the NFC South
by Nick Sero
With the 2010 NFL season fast-approaching, Fantasy Football Sportal is all over the season previews for all eight NFL divisions, while covering all 32 NFL teams.
In our division-by-division breakdown, we took a close look at every team, and give our insight on how 2010 could shape-out for each squad.
The NFC South is home to the reigning Super Bowl champs, but in this carousel of a division the leader one year often finds them self in the middle of the pack the year after. There are rebuilding years ahead for the Buccaneers and Panthers both far gone from their Super Bowl appearances, while the Saints and Falcons have strong offenses and bright futures. Will the carousel finally come to a stop, or will their be a new NFC South champion?
Read on for expert football analysis:
Atlanta Falcons (1)
The Falcons were supposed to be rebuilding in the post-Vick era. Head Coach Mike Smith didn’t get that message, if not for some draft day smarts/luck. Smith has back-to-back winning seasons under his belt in his two seasons and a NFC South crown as head coach in Atlanta. Injuries took their tole on the Falcons who were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises two years ago. Added talent in the secondary and a healthy lineup could help bring Atlanta back to the promised land.
The sophomore slump hit Quarterback Matt Ryan in 2009, although not too hard. Despite missing three games with toe injuries, Ryan threw for 22 touchdowns. His progression as a quarterback isn’t complete but a good third year is on the horizon. Ryan hit a slump midway through the season throwing the majority of his interceptions in just a few games. Ryan is another year older and wiser int he Atlanta system and should only progress. Chris Redman is the backup and won’t win any games, but he can keep you from losing. A solid running game will surely help Ryan this season.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Michael Turner was leading the league in touchdown rushes. A high ankle sprain hampered Turner’s 2009 and ultimately hurt the entire Atlanta offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey loves to run the ball, and the offense is hard to stop when it is running smoothly. When there is injuries and they aren’t, however, things start to unravel. Jerious Norwood is a speedy, deceptive back that is a nice compliment to Turner’s running style. Norwood also missed time last season suffering three concussions. It seems like Norwood is at his best when Turner is at his best. The two are a deadly combination when things are working out. One issue the team faced last season was an inability to run against 3-4 alignments. There were some key injuries along the line if it is any excuse, and it is the same offensive line that helped Atlanta get to the second best rushing offense in 2008.
Matt Ryan’s best friend on the team is home run threat Roddy White. In fact, their very first hookup, Ryan’s first completion, was a 70 yard touchdown bomb. The Falcons showed just how pleased they were with White’s ability by rewarding him with a $60-million contract before last season. White led the team with 11 touchdowns and notched his third straight 1,000 yard season. The Falcons need Michael Jenkins to step up as the #2 receiver, however. Jenkins has yet to prove he is worthy of the second spot, but the team has yet to find a good enough replacement. The Falcons thought about bringing in TO in the off season, but again will stick with Jenkins. This is a make or break season for Jenkins, who only posted 635 yards and one touchdown.
Tightend Tony Gonzalez will go down as the best tight end in the history of the game, for how long, however, no one knows for sure. Gonzalez is Ryan’s best target in the middle of the field and is very reliable. Gonzo added six more touchdowns and 867 receiving yards to his phenomenal career statistics, but ended the season one catch away from 1,000 in his career. Despite being 32-years-old, Gonzalez has proven he can continue to play at a high level, although eventually he will have to come back down to earth.
The Falcons defensive trouble started in the middle. Defensive end John Abraham couldn’t build on his strong 2008, posting only 3.5 sacks. Much of the blame was put on the injuries to the interior. Rookie Peria Jerry was supposed to step in immediately and help penetrate from the middle. An early injury kept Jerry out for the majority of the season. The linebacking group is fairly decent, but could use the run and coverage support of Sean Witherspoon to translate to the NFL. The secondary had issues last season as both Tye Hill and Chris Houston let the defense down. Both are gone this year and the addition of Pro Bowler Dunta Robinson gives the team it’s best corner since DeAngelo Hall.
New Orleans Saints (2)
They are the Aint’s no more, with their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history under their belts. It is very hard for team to repeat as Super Bowl champions especially when they have stiff competition from a division rival like Atlanta. The Saints do have one of the best coaches in football with Sean Payton and his gutsy play calling. The Saints finished only 25th in total defense but their aggressive style caused many turnovers and helped make the Saints the team they were. The question is now can they continue to get the ball? If they don’t cause turnovers like they did last year, the pressure will really be on Drew Brees and the Saints offense to stay hot.
Brees is an elite quarterback that will routinely throw for 4,000 yards. The best part about his 2009 was his record breaking 70.6 percent completion percentage. There isn’t much to say about Brees that hasn’t already been said, and with a complete set of healthy receivers at his fingertips his numbers could even improve. Backing up Brees will likely be Missouri product Chase Daniels who has almost no experience in the regular season.
The Saints have been vowing to balance out their attack in the past, although I’m not sure why. If it’s broke, it don’t need fixin’, right? Well, offensive guru Payton would like to see the Saints run the ball more, which will be hard without bruising Mike Bell running the ball out of the Saints backfield. Bell was the second leading rusher for the team in 2009 but is now an Eagle. As a group, the running backs had stelar numbers. The combination of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Bell gave the team over 1,800 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. A big help will to the run game will be the return of fullback Heath Evans who is a very capable run and pass blocker.
The Saints deep receiving corp is led by Marques Colston. Colston led the team in every statistical category that counted for the receivers and had nine touchdowns on the season. Devery Henderson is also very good and even had his best season in 2009. The Saints love the playmaking ability of Robert Meachem had a handful of big game changing plays in 2009. Lance Moore struggled with injuries but should be back and healthy to give the Saints one of the most athletic group of receivers in the NFL.
The tight end group is also full of talented receivers. Jeremy Shockey is still a tough nosed tight end that can block and make the big catch, while David Thomas added another 350 receiving yards on the season. One player the Saints are very interested in is rookie Jimmy Graham, a former Miami basketball player who is the tallest target on the offense.
The Saints defensive line was very strong last year, end Will Smith recorded 13 sacks and tackles Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove gave a very strong punch in the middle to help. Charles Grant suffered a numerous injuries last year but is gone and former Bear Alex Brown will take his place. Linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle exceed everyone's expectations, but the departure of Scott Fujita leaves a big question mark. The secondary gave up a ton of yard but also recorded 20 interception on the year. All four cornerbacks had an injury somewhere in the season. The question is if the secondary can continue to ball hawk, because if not it could be a very long season for the defense.
Carolina Panthers (3)
The Panthers declined to extend the contract of head coach John Fox making this his, inevitably, his final season as the Panthers head coach. Carolina management has made it clear they are trying to rebuild by getting rid of just about every 30-year-old on the roster.
The quarterback position is up in the air to start the season. The likely starter will be Matt Moore who had an impressive 4-1 record in 2009, throwing eighth touchdowns and only two interceptions in that run. The Panthers organization isn’t too sold on Moore as their quarterback of the future however, adding Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the second round and Tony Pike from Cincinnati in the sixth round. Clausen could make a serious push for the starter position thanks to a decent grasp of the Carolina system. Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson worked with former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis in New England.
The running back tandem of Carolina may be the best in the NFL, maybe in history. The combination of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first tandem in history to record 1,100 yards a piece. Stewart adds the muscle to Williams’ speed and agility. The only issue with the running game will be the loss of fullback Brad Hoover. Hoover was a stellar run blocker and will be replaced with Tony Fiammetta who isn’t as good as Hoover is.
At the receiver position there is only one worth naming, 31-year-old Steve Smith is one of the best in the business. Smith broke his arm playing flag football at his own youth camp, his second break in less than two years. Smith should stay one of the most consistent and prolific receivers, no matter who his quarterback is. The Panthers don’t have a reliable second receiver on the depth chart, however. Dwayne Jarrett will be listed as the #2 to start the season, but the Panthers have three rookie receivers that could make a push. The Panthers spent both their third round picks on receivers Brandon Lafell of Louisiana State and Armanti Edwards a former quarterback for Appalachian State.
The tight end group is good, but not great. Jeff King is a very good blocker and will continue to help Williams and Stewart. Dante Rosario is the best receiving threat the team has at the position but the Panthers don’t throw to their tight end often enough for him to be a household name.
The defense won’t be the same without five-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers rushing off the edges. What most don’t realize is that the Panthers also are losing their two starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. The line will be pure youth, and should have its bumps and bruises as the team will shuffle repeatedly until they find the right fit ... if ever. The Panther linebacking group is very good. Jon Beason is one of the best in the business and Thomas Davis would have had one of the best seasons for all outside backers in 2009 if not for an ACL tear. Davis should be back and ready to go to start the season with former Penn Stat standout Dan Connor playing at the opposite backer position. Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are two very good corners and the safety position is strong with Charles Godfrey and new starter Chris Harris.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4)
The Bucs are looking at a long season that will likely include blackouts for the first time since their new stadium was built in Tampa. Coach Raheem Morris is in his second year trying to rebuild a Buccaneer team that has gotten worse every year since winning the Super Bowl.
Josh Freeman threw 18 interceptions in 2009 as a rookie starter, as the Bucs went on to 3-13. The coaching staff was sure that the young quarterback would rebound and do even better this season but, unfortunately, Freeman broke the thumb on his throwing hand in the preseason. Freeman isn’t incredibly accurate and a bum thumb can't help, but he needs to learn when to make the smart decision more than anything.
Cadillac Williams came back with a story book-esque story after rupturing both patella tendons in his knees and his future was in jeopardy. After coming back half way through the season Williams emerged as the best back on the team and will be the top back to start the season. When the Buccaneers signed free agent Derrick Ward from the Giants he was highly coveted, but now it appears as Ward will simply be the change of pace back for the Bucs as the two split carries.
The Buccaneers have no proven outside threat at the receiver position, but they have a lot of upside in youth filled receiving corp. Mark Clayton is the top receiver and has underperformed every year since his breakout rookie campaign in 2004. Sammie Stroughter started to look like a dependable receiver in rookie campaign last year before a rough ending that landed him on IR in the final two games. So far this off season, however, the two rookie acquisitions Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams have been impressing coaches and fans. The Buccaneers also traded for Reggie Brown in the off season, and he could inevitably be the odd man out. The Buccaneers could end up having a very athletic and talented receiving corp if Freeman can read NFL defenses and certain players start living up to the hype.
The Buccaneers traded their second round pick for Kellen Winslow last year and it payed off. Winslow ended the season with over 800 yards receiving, leading the team. Winslow is one of many Tampa players proving that determination can help anyone rebound from injury.
The porous run defense in Tampa was a main issue going in to the of fseason. There was no question the Bucs would take a defensive tackle in the draft, it was just a matter of who. When Ndamakoung Suh was taken first overall, the Buccaneers took another incredibly talented defensive lineman in Gerald McCoy. The Bucs went for defensive tackle again in the second round taking Brian Price from UCLA. Both of the young men are expected start on the defensive line this season, and although there will surely be bumps and bruises along the way, the run defense can’t get any worse. Barrett Ruud led the team in tackles with 205 at the middle linebacker spot. With the addition of McCoy and Price in front of him, Ruud will surely have another stand out season. When Derrick Brooks left the Buccaneers no one thought it would be an easy transition at the outside. Geno Hayes wasn’t exactly a Brooks clone, but he did provide great play taking over for the future Hall-of-Famer. Aquib Talib is a rising star at corner back and will playing opposite of Ronde Barber who is still performing at a high level. Free safety Tanard Jackson is another rising star but he will miss the first four weeks after violating the leagues substance abuse policy.