During the regular season the NFC South was one of the strongest divisions last year. Three teams finished over .500, including the league's biggest surprise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, that didn't translate to success come playoff time, where both the Saints and Falcons suffered embarrassing losses. Not many people had the Falcons winning the NFC South last season, but I am proud to say I was one of them. With how jubilant the Saints were about winning their first Super Bowl, I knew a hangover was inevitable. This year the pressure is now on the Falcons, while the Saints have remained under the radar. Eyes will be on the Bucs to see if they can continue to make strides against a tougher schedule this season. The Panthers are awful, but will still prove to be interesting as it is only a matter of time before the Cam Newton era begins.
1. New Orleans Saints
2010 Record: 11-5, 2nd place NFC South
Head Coach: Sean Payton (6th season New Orleans, 53-33 career)
Key Additions: RB Mark Ingram, RB/KR Darren Sproles, C Olin Kreutz, DE Cameron Jordan, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Shaun Rogers, DE Turk McBride, LB Will Herring
Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey, DT Anthony Hargrove, CB Randall Gay
2011 Outlook: The Saints had a ton of free agents but were impressively able to keep the core of their team together, while also getting better. On offense they should remain the same high powered team they have been the last few seasons. QB Drew Brees put up video game like numbers, but the problem was those crazy numbers included a career high of 22 interceptions. Part of that was caused by the running game struggling through injuries. The Saints addressed that by letting Reggie Bush go, and drafting bruising RB Mark Ingram. They also brought in lightning quick Darren Sproles, so the loss of Bush will likely not be noticed. The Saints best moves come on the defensive side of the ball. Adding Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers should drastically increase the pressure that the Saints put on the quarterback. After being able to cause turnovers in bunches in 2009, the Saints saw those numbers dip in 2010. The schedule is very manageable and with the off-season moves they made I expect the Saints to be a Super Bowl contender in 2011.
2. Atlanta Falcons
2010 Record: 13-3, 1st place NFC South
Head Coach: Mike Smith (4th season Atlanta, 33-17 career)
Key Additions: WR Julio Jones, DE Ray Edwards
Key Losses: OG Harvey Dahl, WR Michael Jenkins, WR Brian Finneran
2011 Outlook: 2010 was a feel good season for the Falcons that ended on a miserable note when they were embarrassed in the playoffs at home. It might have felt a little better when the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, but it had to sting that it didn't even appear the Falcons belonged on the same field as the Packers. The Falcons made significant additions on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. They traded a kings ransom to move up and select WR Julio Jones. QB Matt Ryan now has two threats at wide receiver, as Jones joins the accomplished Roddy White, and let's not forget about TE Tony Gonzalez. The running game is strong with bowling ball Michael Turner trucking defenders, and also because of a strong offensive line. The huge signing on defense was Ray Edwards. The Falcons pass rush was weak last season and that was never more exposed than when Aaron Rodgers carved them up in the playoffs. Edwards joins John Abraham to give the Falcons fearsome pass rushers on each end. I expect the Falcons to have another winning season under Mike Smith but I think they will see a dip in wins this season. They made moves that gave them better talent than last season, but they won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2010 Record: 10-6, 3rd place NFC South
Head Coach: Raheem Morris (3rd season Tampa Bay, 13-19 career)
Key Additions: DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Da'Quan Bowers, P Michael Koenen
Key Losses: RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud
2011 Outlook: With such a young team the Bucs seemed to be about three or four years from truly being competitive. Then last season, on the back of a soft schedule, they shockingly won 10 games and almost made the playoffs. Expectations are now very high for a team that is still very young. I had my doubts about QB Josh Freeman but last season he showed the signs of someone that will be a Top 10 quarterback for years to come. Other emerging stars were haymaker throwing RB LaGarrette Blount, and WR Mike Williams. Both Williams and Blount had character issues surrounding them and still do to an extent, but there is no denying their abilities on the field. TE Kellen Winslow soldiered his way to a solid season last year, so Freeman has plenty of options. The concern is if any of those guys go down to injury, the Bucs don't have the depth to adequately replace them. Questions remain defensively as team leader Barrett Ruud left, and the Bucs drafted on the defensive line to try to help a defense that was awful against the run. DE Da'Quan Bowers had been talked about as a number one pick, until health concerns dropped him to Tampa in the second round. He could end up being an absolute steal. The Bucs are still a team on the rise but the schedule isn't easy this year and because of that, I see them finishing .500 this season. However, the future is still very bright as the Bucs are well under the salary cap and will have plenty of money to spend if they choose.
4. Carolina Panthers
2010 Record: 2-14, last place NFC South
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (1st season Carolina, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB Cam Newton, QB Derek Anderson, TE Greg Olsen, TE Jeremy Shockey, WR Legedu Naanee, K Olindo Mare, LB Omar Gaither, S Sean Considine
Key Losses: QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, TE Dante Rosario, K John Kasay
2011 Outlook: The Panthers were dreadful in 2010 with some of the worst quarterback play the game has ever seen. Because of that the Panthers took the risk of drafting Cam Newton. Newton was an incredible player in his one season of college football, but the questions that plague Tim Tebow, also plague Newton. Can he translate his athletic skill and become a top flight quarterback against the highest competition? The Panthers decided to keep the core of the team together, despite the awful record last year. To the surprise of many they ponied up the money necessary to keep RB DeAngelo Williams, despite having Jonathan Stewart at their disposal. Many also expected WR Steve Smith to be gone, but he is back and hoping to rebound from a career worst season. They significantly upgraded at tight end, trading for Greg Olsen from the Bears, and signing Jeremy Shockey. For a 2-14 team, the Panthers weren't terrible defensively, even finishing 11th against the pass. However, they were on the field a ton as the offense could do nothing. The hope is the presence of Rivera and the addition of Eagles failed defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can help improve a unit that struggled against the run. This season is merely an experimental one for Carolina. Newton will get a chance to play and learn the ropes, and the Panthers will continue to be one of the worst teams in the league. But hey, they should at least be a little more bearable to watch.