There was a time several years ago when the NFC South was considered one of the most difficult divisions in the NFL. The Bucs defense terrorized the league, Jake Delhomme was leading the Panthers to a Super Bowl and Michael Vick made defenders feel silly and slow.
Delhomme’s elbow blew up and the Falcons struggled to cope with Vick’s abandonment. The NFC South was far and away one of the worst divisions in the NFL a year ago.
But what about this year? Is there hope for a turn-around of sorts for the dixieland division? If there is, it’ll depend on the following players, this year’s preseason All-NFC South first team:
Brees had a great statistical season in 2007 and should put up even better numbers this year with the addition of Jeremy Shockey.
RB: Deuce McAllister, Saints (for the lack of a better option)—Seriously, the current running back crop in the NFC South is nothing short of embarrassing.
I understand Deuce’s knees pop more than bubble wrap, but he’s the only tailback in the division (besides Warrick Dunn) who’s ever made a Pro Bowl. And if Deuce is healthy, he’ll assuredly be the starting running back for New Orleans on opening day. The same can’t be said for Dunn.
I can’t in good conscience put Earnest Graham or Michael Turner ahead of McAllister at this point. Assuming Deuce makes a full recovery from offseason knee surgery, he’s much better than both these guys.
WR: Steve Smith, Panthers; Marques Colston, Saints—Despite his two game suspension, the mercurial Smith will still manage to put up monster numbers next season. He’s a better athlete than any cornerback he lines up against which means he’s almost always open.
Colston is a quit killer. He’ll have eight catches for 90 yards before you even realize he’s suited up. No. 12 is developing into one of the best young receivers in the game.
TE: Jeremy Shockey, Saints—Here’s another position that wasn’t even close. Shockey could very well be the best tight end in the NFL, let alone the NFC South. And with a new change of scenery (and an added chip on his shoulder) he should play like a man possessed in New Orleans.
LT: Jamaal Brown, Saints—Brown proved his prowess in 2006 when he was named to the Pro Bowl as the starting left tackle for the NFC.
Last season he struggled with injuries and his production dropped. Now healthy again, Brown should have no trouble picking up where he left off in 2006.
LG: Arron Sears, Bucs—Sears made a big splash last year as a rookie, starting all 16 regular season games and one playoff game. He received several All-Rookie honors while helping the Bucs offense to one of their best season in club history.
At 6’3, 319, Sears has the ideal size for run and pass blocking.
C: Jeff Faine, Bucs: Faine, a former Saint, is a passionate offensive lineman. He spent the past two season in New Orleans as the fiery leader of one of the top offensive lines in the NFL.
Faine is an intellectual player who commands the respect of his fellow offensive lineman. He should fit in well in Tampa Bay.
RG: Jahari Evans, Saints—Evans, much like Sears did last year, burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2006. He was pegged as a starter on his first day of camp two years ago and hasn’t missed a start since.
Evans is quick enough to pull around the edge on running plays, but really excels in protecting the passer.
RT: Jordan Gross, Panthers—Gross has been the model of consistency for the Panthers since they drafted him in 2003. He’s started every regular and post-season game since he came into the league five years ago.
That kind of dedication earned him the franchise tag from Carolina this year.
DE: Julius Peppers, Panthers—Everyone knows Peppers had a down season in 2007. The question is: Was that a fluke or is Peppers losing a step after six years in the league?
It’s a tough call, but I think I’m leaning toward the former.
DT: Jovan Haye, Bucs—You probably haven’t heard of Jovan Haye; I know I hadn’t until I researched for this article.
I included Haye on this squad for two reasons. First, he totaled 97 tackles last season. As an interior defensive lineman, that’s an enormous amount of tackles. Plus he had six sacks.
Second, well…can you name anyone who’s better?
DT: Chris Hovan, Bucs—I put Hovan here because I just didn’t feel right putting an unproven Sedrick Ellis on the first team. Ellis may turn out to be the best defensive tackle in the division by the end of the year. Or he may be a bust.
Until we find out, it’s safe to say the venerable Hovan is the best of the rest.
DE: Will Smith, Saints—Now safely locked into a lucrative multiyear deal with the Saints, Smith can devote all his attention to playing football.
Smith has been the best defensive player in New Orleans for the past few seasons. There’s no reason to think he won’t keep it up.
LB: Barrett Rudd, Bucs—For the first time in 10 years, Derrick Brooks isn’t the best linebacker in Tampa. That title now rests on Rudd’s shoulders.
Rudd racked up 169 tackles last season as a first year starter. He’s an energizer bunny-type player who always seems to be in the middle of every play.
LB: Jonathan Vilma, Saints—A lot of the Saints’ success this season will depend on if Jonathan Vilma can play on a Pro Bowl level after offseason knee surgery.
If Vilma is 100 percent healthy, he’ll be a force in the Saints 4-3 defense, a defensive system he thrives in.
LB: Jon Beason, Panthers—If it wasn’t for fellow rookie Patrick Willis of the 49ers, Beason would be a household name entering the 2008 season.
But because Willis stole the show with an NFL-high 176 tackles, people tended to overlook just how good Beason was as a rookie. He led his team with 160 tackles and finished second in the voting for defensive rookie of the year.
CB: Ronde Barber, Bucs—Just because he’s old doesn’t mean he can’t still play. Barber has been the class of the NFC South for as long as he’s been a Buc.
Even at age 33, Barber can still go toe-to-toe with the best receivers in the NFL.
CB: Chris Gamble, Panther—Well I know the Saints and Falcons can’t offer anything worthwhile to the cornerback discussion, so that leaves us with the Bucs and Panthers.
Since I already put Barber on there, let's throw Carolina’s best cornerback onto the first team.
Gamble is good for at least 3-4 interceptions a year and usually covers the opponent’s best receiver.
S: Tanard Jackson, Bucs—Yet another rookie who started from day one and didn’t disappoint.
Jackson is a hard hitter who showed good ball instincts last season. Receivers going over the middle this year would be wise to locate Jackson as quickly as possible.
S: Roman Harper, Saints—Harper finally started living up to his athletic potential last season. Towards the end of the year you could see things really start to come together for him physically and mentally.
Now that he’s got a full year-and-a-half of starting under his belt, he ‘s poised for a break-out season.