Predicting the 2011 NFC South Winner
With what is shaping up to be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the NFC South has three legitimate teams with the ability to win the division and make a playoff run: the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As for the Carolina Panthers, they appear to be headed in the right direction, though the Panthers are a couple years at best from being real threats to their NFC South counterparts.
Some NFL divisions are easier to rank, such as the NFC East, where there is a clear front-runner, in this case, the Philadelphia Eagles. In the AFC, look no further than the North division where one can take their pick at either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens.
The NFC South is up for grabs, and that means one thing and one thing only. An electrifying divisional battle is in store.
4. Carolina Panthers
2010 Record: 2-14 (0-6)
2011 Prediction: 4-12 (0-6)
After a dismal 2010 season where the Carolina Panthers only prevailed victorious two out of 16 tries, 2011 can only get better.
The Panthers will be led by two new faces. Head coach and former San Diego Charger's defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and rookie quarterback and 2010 Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton (assuming he beats out Jimmy Clausen).
The Panthers grabbed Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and although Newton has a lot of critics, I'm a believer in the young quarterback.
Newton flashed potential in his first-ever NFL preseason game, and despite a less-then impressive stat line (8-of-19 for 134 yards), the potential was evident.
Carolina made more big moves in the offseason, re-signing linebacker Jon Beason and defensive end Charles Johnson, while also locking down running back DeAngelo Williams. Bringing in free agent tight end Greg Olson should be a huge lift for Cam Newton in the passing game.
For the Panthers to have any kind of success on the offensive side of the ball season, it's a must that the running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart mimic their successes from 2009, where both rushers accounted for over 1,000 yards on the ground.
Much of that success rides on whether or not the passing game can posses any kind of threat to opposing teams, and I'm not confident it will.
Newton should be able to improve on an offense that ranked dead last in the NFL last year, though fans expecting to see fireworks every week are going to be disappointed.
Defensively, the Carolina Panthers are not quite as bad off. The Panthers have a premier pass rusher in Charles Johnson and a linebacker in Jon Beason who is a tackling machine. Head coach Ron Rivera loves to blitz, and with a capable defensive line and linebacker unit, the Panthers main concerns will be in the secondary.
If veteran corner Chris Gamble can get back to his shut-down defensive ways, Rivera should feel a bit more comfortable calling blitzes.
Carolina is clearly headed in the right direction, but the development of Newton is going to take time and the offense overall is just too far behind their three divisional opponents and most of the NFL for that matter.
The Panthers will need to rely on their defense to keep them in games, which they might be able to do at times, but for fans of the Carolina Panthers, it's going to be another tough year.
3. Atlanta Falcons
2010 Record: 13-6 (5-1)
2011 Prediction: 11-5 (3-3)
This prediction is sure to upset many Atlanta fans, but give me a chance to explain myself.
The Atlanta Falcons are a good team. They may not be great in any one area, but they are good in nearly every area.
That being said, the Falcons squeaked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice in 2010 and won seven games that were decided by seven points or less thoughout the season.
I'm not discrediting the Falcons for any of those wins, in fact, it's great when a team can pull out close victories, but I think with Atlanta struggling to close the door on opponents, it will inevitably catch up to them in 2011.
This is by far the toughest stretch of Atlanta's schedule, and as crazy as it may sound, the Falcons could realistically could be a 1-4 team heading into week six.
As far as personnel goes for the Atlanta Falcons, there's a lot to like, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones will be teaming up with Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White to catch balls from the steady Matt Ryan. Throw in running back Michael Turner and the Falcons' offensive attack.
The Atlanta Falcons biggest offseason move came when they signed Ex-Minnestoa Viking defensive end Ray Edwards. Edward's posted eight sacks for the Vikings last season, and at only 26 years of age, Edwards best football is upon him.
Atlanta's defense should once again be a middle-of-the-pack bunch in 2011.
With Michael Turner now being 29 years old (the age where most running backs begin to show decline), Matt Ryan may have more put on his shoulder in 2011
The Falcons' pass offense ranked 31st in pass completions of 20 or more yards, so if Michael Turner does show signs of slowing down this year, this will be a stat line that the Falcons will have to improve upon.
Mix that in with what looks to be a tougher schedule from start to finish, and I don't see the Falcons matching their win total from 2010.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2010 Record: 10-6 (3-3)
2011 Prediction: 11-5 (4-2)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the surprise team of the NFL after they finished the 2010 season with 10 wins, despite winning just three games the previous season.
Most people seem skeptical of Tampa Bay and view last year's success as anomaly, though I see it more as a sign of things to come.
To say the Buccaneers are a young NFL team is an understatement. Of the 74 players on the Tampa Bay roster, only three are over the age of 30 creating a bright outlook for the future of Buccaneer football.
What is even better is that the future is now for the Buccaneers, and they're only going to get better as each game passes.
Leading the youth movment for the Buccaneers is third year quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman threw for over 3,400 yards during his sophmore season while connecting on 25 touchdown passes but most importantly throwing only six interceptions.
Mike Williams had one of the most prolific seasons for a rookie receiever in resent memory for Tampa Bay; hauling in 65 receptions for 967 yards with 11 touchdowns and Williams should once again be Josh Freeman's No. 1 receiving target.
Lining up across from Mike Williams will be fellow 2010 draft pick Arrelious Benn. Benn struggled last year and finished the year on the injury reserve, but he showed flashes of potential as the year went on so Benn and Williams should form a dynamic receiver duo.
Running the ball for the Buccaneers will be second year back LeGarrette Blount. Blount, who went undrafted in 2010, was picked up and cut by the Tennessee Titans before finding a home in Tampa Bay.
Blount was one of the biggest surprise of the NFL in 2010, finishing with over 1,000 yards despite not receiving more then 11 carries until week four. LeGarrette Blount looks to be in line for a big year and will give Tampa Bay a balanced attack on offense, something they have lacked for sometime now.
Defensively for Tampa Bay, their are a few question marks or at least areas to monitor for the Bucs.
One area the Buccaneers struggled with in 2010 was getting pressure on the quarterback. Tampa Bay finished the season with only 26 total sacks, good for second to last in the NFL.
To address the need for pass-rushers, the Buccaneers grabbed Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers with their first two picks. Clayborn and Bowers should both start from week one, and if they can gel with Gerald McCoy and Ron Miller/Brian Price, the Tampa Bay defensive line will be much improved from 2010.
Rookie linebacker Mason Foster will have a lot on his plate filling in for the departed Barrett Rudd at middle-linbacker, but Quincy Black and Geno Hayes will make the transition easier for Foster who was a first team All-American as a senior at Washington University.
Tampa Bay just missed the playoffs in 2010, and although they will no longer be able to sneak up on teams in 2011, their young core will have one more year of experience under their belts, and I like them to build off of last year's success.
1. New Orleans Saints
2010 Record: 11-5 (4-2)
2011 Projection: 13-3 (5-1)
For the New Orleans Saints, there was no sequel in 2010 to follow up their 2009 Super Bowl victory, in fact, the season ended on a sour note as the Seattle Seahawks eliminated New Orleans in the first round.
This year, Drew Brees and the Saints should be more focused and with no real losses on either side of the ball, look for New Orleans to improve upon their 11 wins from last season.
Drew Brees will once again have one of the leagues best receiving corps to throw to with Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.
The running backs for New Orleans were all over the place last season, so some consistency at the position could go a long way for the upcoming season.
If Pierre Thomas can return to his 2009 form where he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, the Saint's offense would be that much more lethal. Outside of Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chirs Ivory and rookie first-round pick Mark Ingram are all capable runners, with Ingram obviously possessing the most upside.
With the departure of Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles should fill the role that Bush left behind, and I anticipate Sproles having a bigger impact on the Saint's offensive scheme then Reggie Bush ever had.
The Saints defense will once again be a quick and aggressive bunch, led by linebacker Jonathan Vilma who has accounted for at least 105 tackles in each of his past three seasons with the Saints.
Will Smith should continue to be a force off the edge for, while Sedrick Ellis should build off the most productive year of his career in 2010 where he recorded six sacks.
The secondary for the Saints could be the strongest unit on the entire Saints roster. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter form a capable duo at the corner position while Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper fill out the free and strong safety positions respectively.
Jenkins had a Pro Bowl type year in 2010, recording 64 tackles, 12 pass deflections and two interceptions, so expect No. 27 to be a key component in the success of the Saint's defense throughout the 2011 season.
I like the Saints roster from top to bottom more than that of the Buccaneers or Falcons. They're more experienced and the schedule lines up nicely.
The toughest game the Saints will play outside of the division on the road will come Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. Other then that one, the away games are noticeably manageable with the next toughest game appearing to be Week 15 against the Vikings.