In a segment I plan to do with each division leading up to the regular season, I will attempt to break down each teams most pressing issues. This includes position battles, injuries, defensive and offensive needs and much, much more.
Let's start off with the stacked NFC South.
After coming off of a magical 13-3 season that ended with an embarrassing and disappointing loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Atlanta did well in addressing their issues in the offseason. To upgrade their offense, they went nuts on draft day to move up 20 plus spots to draft Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. On the defensive side, Ray Edwards was plucked from Minnesota to help relieve some of the pressure off of John Abraham and improve the Falcons pass rush.
The Falcons took their new additions to the Georgia Dome for their preseason opener against the visiting Dolphins Friday night. Edwards didn't play as a precaution to his offseason knee surgery, but Julio Jones did and he did not disappoint.
Julio had two catches for 43 yards and even had an end around running play for another 12 yards before he was pulled for the night. The kid is electric and had an incredible burst of speed with the ball in his hands.
There really wasn’t much to complain about at all with the first team offense as they jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead with the starters in there. Great debuts from Matt Ryan and Henry Douglas, as well as Michael Turner and Jason Snelling who both look ready for the regular season.
The defense looked pretty sharp against Matt Henne with two interceptions in the first quarter. Brent Grimes pulled in one, proving that Atlanta bringing him back on a one year deal was incredibly profitable. That one will be a huge win, as Grimes looks ready to pick up where he left off in his stellar 2010 season.
All in all, the first team looks season ready, but the depth still has plenty of concerns. The backup quarterback situation will be ugly if Ryan misses any time and there are still major holes in the secondary. Dunta Robinson’s ineffectiveness in 2010 should be a huge concern, but Dominique Franks should be a big contributor this year after not cracking the rotation in his 2010 rookie season.
The biggest move Carolina made in the offseason was deciding that Jimmy Clausen wasn’t their quarterback and drafting Cam Newton No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft. Make no mistake about it, this is the beginning of a rebuild for the Panthers and their new first time Coach Ron Rivera certainly has his work cut out for him.
Game one of the rebuilding process took place against the New York Giants in a game that was much hyped as the pro debut of Cam Newton. Talk about an athlete. Cam had some bad throws and his accuracy is still at the college level, but he did what you want to see out of a rookie in his first NFL game—he showed flashes.
While completing eight of his 19 passing attempts for 134 yards, Cam had an above average debut against the Giants defense. Jimmy Clausen also didn’t play terrible and Derek Anderson drew mop up duty. It remains to be seen if Cam will be the starter by day one of the 2011 season, as he still has a long way to go. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he is behind center on opening day.
The running game was about par for the course, as you would expect with two really good running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. There will be some growing pains with this offense for sure, but I don’t think this is the side of the ball that will hold them back in 2011.
Thomas Williams had a good game with a sack and seven tackles. Other than that, this is obviously where the team needs to improve. Their secondary gave up 240 yards per game last season and did little to remedy their secondary in the offseason. Sean Considine is serviceable, but far from a game changer and Chris Gamble only got another year older. Keep an eye out for R.J. Stanford out of Utah as a surprise late-rounder who has a shot to crack the rotation as a rookie.
The Saints didn’t appear to be suffering from a Super Bowl hangover too much in 2010. However, a brash of injuries late in the season led to their crushing loss on the road in Seattle to end their repeat hopes. In the offseason, they decided to cut ties with the overpriced Reggie Bush and drafted Mark Ingram out of Alabama as a replacement. They brought back their key free agents and added some good players through free agency and the draft and look ready to pick up where they left off after their 2009 Super Bowl run.
Their first preseason game went about how you would expect—explosive offense coupled with a serviceable defense. The first team offense abused the Niners defense by jumping out to a 17-3 halftime lead with Chase Daniel—not Drew Brees—leading the way. But the most encouraging thing for Saints fans is that Mark Ingram looked like a natural fit in Sean Payton’s offense. One long run as well as a touchdown in his NFL debut has to have Saints fans salivating at the thought of him, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas holding down the backfield. You have to believe that Drew Brees was smiling about the thought.
The defense looked dominant, but one has to wonder how much of that should be accredited to the poor Niners offense. Still, the New Orleans defense accumulated six sacks and two interceptions as they controlled the field all night. I seriously lost count at how many three-and-outs they forced, but it was likely in double digits.
In short, the Saints should be considered one of the three biggest threats in the NFC this year, as they don’t have too many weaknesses on paper. Health is always a big concern with some of the older players on their roster, but I still could see them heading back to the big game this winter.
Never have I seen a team do so much with so little. It was well publicized after the lockout ended that Tampa was so far under the cap that they needed to spend some serious money just to get to the required levels. Yet, this was a 10-win football team in 2010. If their preseason opener is any indication, they’re looking to take it to the NFC South favorites Atlanta and New Orleans in 2011.
Josh Freeman picked up where he left off last year with a stunning first quarter performance that saw him throw for 73 yards on a cool nine of 13 as well as running five yards to score. Backup Josh Johnson also had a big game with 165 yards of total offense as well as a touchdown of his own. Zipping out to a 15-0 halftime lead, it would be more than the Tampa defense needed against the Chiefs who failed to crack the scoreboard.
The Bucs' defense had no problems shutting down a Chiefs offense that plainly looked under prepared. Kyle Moore had two sacks and Dekoda Watson added 1.5 of his own. To be honest, it’s tough for me to find anything wrong with Tampa Bay’s debut. They couldn’t have played better.
In short, this is going to be one heck of a division race. With all eyes and expectations on the Saints and the Falcons, the Bucs have the opportunity to sneak into the discussion while those two worry about each other. Meanwhile, the Panthers will enjoy the opportunity to play spoiler while rebuilding against all three.
This should be a fun division that will be black and blue by January.