Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

NFC South Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 5, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish.

1. Atlanta Falcons – The turnaround that the Falcons made last season ranks right up there with Miami as one of the most stunning in NFL history.  The franchise had hit rock bottom after losing franchise centerpiece Michael Vick to the dogfighting fiasco.  The organization also had a black eye because of that.  Atlanta was bad enough in 2007 to warrant picking third overall in the draft.  Last year, despite a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach, the Falcons finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.  Ev en though they lost in the first round at Arizona, the fact Atlanta made the playoffs after the previous few seasons was nothing short of incredible.  This year, the Falcons appear to have the pieces in place to be even better.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had such an outstanding rookie season that Falcons fans forgot about Vick in a real hurry.  Many people had questioned the selection of Ryan with the third overall pick last year, but the Boston College product showed from the word go that he is more than capable of leading an NFL team.  I mean literally from the word go, because the first pass of Ryan’s career was a 62-yard touchdown.  From there Ryan hit the ground running, making excellent decisions, showing great arm strength, an ability to find multiple receivers and an ability to absorb an NFL offense very quickly.  Ryan also proved to be very durable, and the Falcons are confident that he will be even more improved with the offseason work he has put in.  Ryan’s outstanding season was coupled with one by receiver Roddy White, who had by far the best season of his four year career.  White was rewarded in the offseason with a lucrative contract extension, and he will be paired with longtime Falcon Michael Jenkins.  Atlanta only strengthened the passing game with the addition of arguably the best tight end in NFL history, tabbing Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City.  Gonzalez is certainly up there in age, but his ability as a receiver and a blocker in unparalleled among tight ends in the league.  His presence will cause all kinds of matchup problems for opposing defenses.  Atlanta also has good receiving depth with Harry Douglas and Brian Finneran.  This offense is potent enough with what we’ve talked about so far, but factor in the running game and it might be unstoppable.  Michael Turner finished second to Adrian Peterson last year in rushing, going over 200 yards in a game twice.  Not bad for someone who toiled as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego.  Turner showed without doubt that he is a bona fide starter in the league, a back who is a threat to score at any time.  With Turner leading the running game and the passing game expected to be potent again, Atlanta’s offense will be very good indeed.  Oh yeah, and the offensive line gave up just 17 sacks last year.

The defense is still a work in progress, but the Falcons do have a Pro Bowl pass rusher in John Abraham, who recorded 16.5 sacks last season.  However, he didn’t get much help on the other end from Jamaal Anderson, a 2007 first round pick who has yet to be an impact player.  Atlanta hopes that first round pick Peria Jerry of Ole Miss will help strengthen the defensive line.  The linebackers will have a new look, with longtime veteran Keith Brooking headed to Dallas and Michael Boley gone to the Giants.  The Falcons did sign Mike Peterson from Jacksonville, and the Falcons are confident he will bounce back with a good season this year in new surroundings.  2008 second round pick Curtis Lofton is also expected to make an impact.  The secondary will feature two rookies (safety William Moore of Missouri and cornerback Chris Owens of San Jose State), so it will be definitely be tested, especially early in the season.

The Falcons are set at kicker with Jason Elam, who is entering his 16th NFL season.  Last year Elam made 29 of 31 field goals, including two game winners.  (Denver has to feel very dumb for letting him leave).  Punter Michael Koenen also has a very strong leg, and proved to be an effective weapon for the Falcons in terms of dictating field position.  The return duties are expected to be handled by Jerious Norwood and Harry Douglas, both of whom are solid but not spectacular.

I don’t think there is much question the Falcons have risen to the top of this division.  They will face some stiff competition, but I think the additions they have made will put them over the top.

9072. New Orleans Saints – The Saints have to rank among the disappointments of last season.  New Orleans had everything in place for a massive breakout season, including talent on both sides of the ball.  Instead the Saints stumbled to an 8-8 finish, the very definition of mediocrity.  They battled all kinds of injuries and inconsistency.  They also turned out to be very deficient on defense.  The Saints feel the additions they have made will help.  With everyone healthy this could once again be a dangerous team.  Then again, it remains to be seen how it will all fit together.  Either way, the Saints will certainly be very exciting to watch.

The Saints may have their question marks, just like any other team in the NFL, but quarterback definitely isn’t one of them.  Drew Brees had one of the best seasons in league history last, year, throwing for over 5,000 yards and just barely missing breaking Dan Marino’s record for single-season passing yards set in 1984.  Brees put up these numbers despite missing players around due to injury most of the season.  His ability to throw downfield accurately makes him a talent, but couple that with his ability to extend plays in the pocket, and you’ve got arguably the best quarterback in all of football.  Brees will no doubt be very excited to have his receiving core back and healthy.  Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both outstanding route runners and both have an ability to make big plays down the field.  Colston was severely hampered by a thumb injury last season, although he still managed 64 catches despite missing five games and playing hobbled in several others.  He is now healthy, so defenses will not strictly be able to key on Moore.  The two together will be very dangerous, along with Devrey Henderson.  Tight end Jeremy Shockey was largely a disappointment last season since coming over from the Giants, but he was slowed down by a sports hernia and an ankle injury.  The  Saints hope being more familiar with the offense will help him be more productive this year.  The running game was also hampered by significant injuries last year to Deuce McAllister.  McAllister is now gone, having not been retained by head coach Sean Payton.  New Orleans will now rely on Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.  Thomas was a surprise last year and emerged as the primary back, and the Saints hope that he’ll be able to handle those duties again this year while they use Bush in a more complimentary role.  Thomas doesn’t possess great speed but he can run between the tackles.  Bush’s ability as every down back is still in question, so this could be a good arrangement for the Saints, particularly if they get more big plays out of Bush when he is fresh.  The offensive line returns intact after allowing an NFC low 13 sacks last year, so that is definitely not a question.

The offense is good, we know that, but the biggest problem in New Orleans last year was the defense.  The Saints made a big effort to address that by signing six free agents on that side of the ball, as well as using their first three draft picks on defensive players.  Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant return from last year (Mainly because they have big expensive contracts) so the Saints will be needing them to produce.  Paul Spicer was signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, so he could well end up being a starter at one of the ends.  Defensive tackle will continue to be a battle between holdovers Kendrick Clancy and Sedrick Ellis, and newcomer Rod Coleman, signed from the Falcons.  The Saints hope the new blood will combine with improved play from their existing linemen to create more of a pass rush and better ability to stop the run.  The Saints also actually have talent at linebacker with Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma.  the group is solid but not spectacular, and should be the same again this season.  The secondary gets a big boost with the selection of Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round of the draft.  I would be shocked if he’s not an opening day starter, being that the Saints got scorched for lots of big plays a year ago.  The Saints also boosted the secondary by raiding the Vikings for veteran safety Darren Sharper.  Sharper is a good run stuffer, a big hitter, and has a knack for being around the football.  His presence will significantly improve the secondary in New Orleans.

The Saints have tremendous confidence in kicker Garrett Hartley.  Hartley arrived in week 10 last year and made all 13 field goals, and was also perfect in extra points.  Punter Greg Pakulak also arrived in week 10 last year and possesses a very strong leg.  The return game also has few concerns with Reggie Bush a threat to score every time on punts, and the speed of Courtney Roby on kickoff returns.

New Orelans has the look of a team that could really break out.  Then again, they have had that look for several years.  They did make the NFC title game in 2006, but have been a real non-factor since.  The Saints will be in the hunt for the division, but they need to put it all together and stay healthy to end up on top.

3. Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were largely a surprise last year, finishing 12-4 and earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs.  Everything came crashing down in the divisional round though when they got blown out on their home field by Arizona, 33-13.  That defeat really soured an otherwise impressive season by Carolina, and it created a lot of question marks heading into 2009.  The Panthers didn’t make very many offseason changes, and fans are hoping that means a repeat of the 12-4 record, and not  repeat of getting hammered in the playoffs.

Many Carolina fans are scratching their heads about the five year extension signed by quarterback Jake Delhomme in the offseason.  The extension includes about $20 million in guaranteed money.  Not bad for a guy who is 34 years old, but he is coming off the worst performance of his career in the playoff loss.  Delhomme threw five picks in that game and also lost a fumble.  This is not to say that one game defines a season or a career, but he had a really bad game at a really bad time.  The Panthers have confidence in Delhomme despite that game, for they love him as a locker room leader and game manager.  He is 14-6 over his last 20 starts, so Carolina is confident Delhomme will bounce back with a good year.  He does have one of the best receivers in football to throw to in Steve Smith, and that never hurts.  Smith had over 1,400 yards receiving last year despite missing two games, and he will counted on for another big year.  Smith is such a tough matchup that most defenses can’t cover him one on one.  Muhsin Muhammad also returns for another year, and although he is getting up there in age, he still possesses the ability to be a good complimentary receiver.  The tight ends are average in Jeff King and Dante Rosario, so a lot of the onus for big plays in the passing game will be on Smith.  The running game is outstanding with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  How Williams missed the Pro Bowl with a 1,500 yard season and 20 touchdowns is beyond me (not to mention he averaged five yards a carry).  Stewart also proved to be a nice compliment, so the Panthers have two backs capable of handling a heavy workload.  Fullback Brad Hoover also is great at helping at the offensive line open up holes.  The offensive line is also in good shape, having set a team record for fewest sacks allowed last year.  The running game will certainly be key for the Panthers, and if they can get some plays from Smith mixed in, they could prove to be a difficult attack to stop.

The defensive line will be impacted one way or another by Julius Peppers.  Peppers finished with 14.5 sacks last season, and is clearly the anchor of the entire defense, but he has made it clear he wants out of Carolina.  The Panthers have essentially ignored this request, making for an interesting locker room dynamic.  No one is exactly feeling sorry for Peppers, who will make $16 million this season.  It will be interesting to see how Peppers plays this season if he is continually unhappy about being a Panther.  It will also be interesting to see how his teammates react to his unhappiness.  Perhaps this why Carolina took a defensive end, Everette Brown of Florida State, with their first pick in the draft.  The rest of the defense is solid, anchored by linebacker Jon Beason.  Nai’ll Diggs also provides an ability to make plays at the linebacker position.  Cornerback Chris Gamble had trouble with Arizona’s receivers in the playoff game last year, but he has shutdown ability, and is the leader of the Carolina secondary.  The safeties are very average and that could expose the Panther D to some big plays.

Kicker John Kasay believe it or not is an original Panther, having kicked in Carolina since the franchise’s inception in 1995.  He made 28 of 31 field goals last year so he still has ability.  Punter Jason Baker is also very solid.  The Panthers’ best kickoff returner is actually Steve Smith, but they aren’t about to use him there when he is so sorely needed at receiver.  Ryne Robinson will get the first opportunity to return kicks this year.

The Panthers are no question a talented team, but they are definitely aging.  The question marks on defense, especially the attitude of Peppers, make it difficult to see them back in the playoffs.  They will be in the hunt, but will need some breaks.

4, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – To say that the Buccaneers are a team in transition is a big understatement.  This team appeared to be in great shape last year, starting 8-4 and ready to make a playoff push.  Things derailed quickly however, as Tampa lost its final four games, including a blowout loss at home to San Diego, and a disastrous home loss to the horrible Oakland Raiders in the finale.  The Bucs missed the playoffs, and thus sweeping changes were made.  Coach Jon Gruden was fired, replaced by defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.  Several veteran players were let go, a clear sign that the team is in rebuilding mode.  Oh, and just this week offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was fired.  Jagodzinski had come over from Boston College, but didn’t even last long enough to coach a real game.  You know things are bad when a coach is fired based on the meaningless preseason.

The fact the offensive coordinator was fired tells you all you need to know abut the state of this offense heading into the season.  Quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese were both let go, meaning Tampa Bay has a lot of mediocrity at the position.  They did spend their first round pick in the draft on Josh Freeman of Kansas State, who has great size at 6-5 and 248 pounds.  Freeman has the ability to make plays with his feet but needs work on learning to throw in the pros, thus the plan is not to play him right away.  That leaves holdover Luke McCown and veteran Byron Leftwich to battle it out for the position (as of this point no starter has been announced for week one).  Leftwich played well in Pittsburgh last year filling in for Ben Roethlisberger, but it will be interesting to see how he fares if he is named the starter, for he didn’t exactly wow anyone in Jacksonville.  The receiving core sustained losses as well as veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard were not retained.  Anotnio Bryant and Michael Clayton are back, and will be depended on heavily to help the quarterback.  Bryant is actually a very underrated receiver and has Pro Bowl talent, but Clayton has largely been a disappointment after a good college career at LSU.  Kellen Winslow is a very talented tight end, but has not been able to stay healthy.  If he can, his presence could be vital for this offense.  The running game will also have a new look.  Many Bucs fans were upset the team released Warrick Dunn, but they did sign Derrick Ward from the Giants.  Ward came out of nowhere last year in New York and had an outstanding season, and he will be paired with Earnest Graham, who started to emerge as capable back last year.  The Bucs also hope Cadillac Williams will return to the field at some point this year.  Williams has battled two devastating patellar tendon injuries the past two years, but if he is his old self he could be dangerous.

Defense has long been a staple in Tampa, but that will have a new look too.  Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has been the face of the franchise for ten years, was released in a cost cutting move.  Just the fact he is not there alone means this defense will look different.  (As a side note it is equally stunning that Brooks has yet to find a new team).  Veteran linebacker Cato June was also not retained.  The front seven will rely on a lot of youth, including draft picks Roy Miller of Texas and Kyle Moore of USC.  Both are expected to start along the defensive line.  The Bucs will also rely heavily on veteran tackle Chris Hovan and linebacker Barrett Ruud to keep the young players in check.  The secondary is still anchored by cornerback Ronde Barber, who seemed to be the only one to survive the veteran purge.  Barber still tied for the club lead in interceptions last year, and is part of a good cornerback tandem with Aquib Talib.  The safeties however are very mediocre, with Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson expected to start.

Kicker Matt Bryant actually provided three game winning field goals last year, but he doesn’t have the length strength that other kickers possess.  He was just 2 for 10 from 50 yards or more last year.  Punter Josh Bidwell is solid, which is good because the Buccaneers may need him often this season.  Michael Clayton and Clifton Smith are expected to handle the return duties.

The Buccaneers are a team in disarray.  It is highly unlikely that they will compete for a playoff spot.  Especially considering the division they play in, it might be too much to ask for them to even be near .500.  It does look like it could be a rough year in Tampa Bay.

Coming next: the AFC West

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One Response to “NFC South Preview”

  1. […] NFC South Preview « Reid Fischer's World of Rants […]

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