Monday, August 11, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC South

Sean Payton proved to be the real MVP of the New Orleans Saints as his return to the sidelines coincided with another playoff season for the Saints. The Saints lost some weapons on offense but as long as Drew Brees is throwing the ball, they will remain high powered. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a strong coaching hire in Lovie Smith, and are hopeful that he is the one that can return them to their glory years of the 2000s. The Atlanta Falcons plummeted to just four wins last season and are eager to prove that their struggles were just a one year aberration. The Carolina Panthers came out of nowhere to win the NFC South last season, but are basically replacing their entire wide receiver corps and enter the season with a ton of question marks.

1. New Orleans Saints

2013 Record: 11-5, 2nd place NFC South
Head Coach: Sean Payton (8th season New Orleans, 79-43 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: FB Erik Lorig, WR Brandin Cooks, CB Champ Bailey, S Jairus Byrd
Key Losses: RB Darren Sproles, WR Lance Moore, C Brian De La Puente, DE Will Smith, ILB Will Herring, CB Jabari Greer, S Malcom Jenkins, S Roman Harper

2014 Outlook: The Saints were a tale of two teams in 2013. The Superdome version of the Saints was an unbeatable juggernaut. The road version of the Saints was a pedestrian unit that lost more than it won. They did manage to win a playoff game in Philadelphia but weren't able to win at Seattle. For the Saints to have realistic Super Bowl aspirations this season, they need to win the NFC South and also try to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. 35-year old Drew Brees made news when he said he thought he could play until he is 45. Who knows if that is the case but one thing that is true is his play hasn't deteriorated in the least yet. It seems that as long as he and Sean Payton are teamed up, the Saints will always be dangerous on offense. The Saints are saying all the right things about wanting to be able to run the ball this year, but their true identity always seems to be a team that prefers to pass the ball. Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are all capable backs, but none of them are above marginal. Lance Moore was allowed to leave via free agency so Kenny Still steps up to the number 2 receiver slot. Marques Colston remains the Saints #1 receiver but he had a disappointing season last year, capped off with an incredibly stupid play he made in the playoffs to end the Saints season. The Saints drafted Brandin Cooks, another speedster wide receiver that could make their offense even more dangerous. The Saints most dangerous weapon though is TE Jimmy Graham. The Saints got him signed to a long-term deal and the key to slowing down the Saints is slowing down Graham. Graham was invisible for most of the playoff game against Seattle and the Saints offense scuffled. The Saints are a pretty strong unit on the offensive line, with their best players being left guard Ben Grubbs and RG Jahri Evans. I admit to not expecting the hire of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator last season to make much of a difference but I was wrong. The Saints had nowhere to go but up after the 2012 debacle but what Ryan was able to do in a season was still very impressive. The Saints let some defensive veterans go but did bring in Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey. Byrd comes in with high expectations and should help immensely while Bailey is a question mark. Bailey showed his age last season and it will be interesting to see how he fares when he has to match up with a Vincent Jackson or Roddy White this season. The Saints are strong on the defensive front, led by Cameron Jordan and Brodrick Bunkley. Junior Galette is the Saints leader on the linebacking corps and coming off a 12 sack season. The Saints were excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback last year and with another year under Ryan's system could be even better. Journeyman Shayne Graham is the starting placekicker as Garrett Hartley missed his way out of town. Tomas Morstead is a strong, dependable punter the few times he is called upon. With the upheaval the Panthers went through this off-season, the Saints clearly seem to be the class of the NFC South. I expect them to reclaim their first division title since 2011 and make some noise in the playoffs this season.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2013 Record: 4-12, 3rd place NFC South
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (1st season Tampa Bay, 84-66 career)
Key Additions: WR Mike Evans, QB Josh McCown, TE Brandon Myers, LT Anthony Collins, RG Oneil Cousins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Michael Johnson, CB Alterraun Verner, S Major Wright
Key Losses: QB Dan Orlovsky, WR Mike Williams, OT Donald Penn, G Gabe Carimi, C Jeremy Zuttah, CB Darrelle Revis

2014 Outlook: It's the start of another new era in Tampa Bay. Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman are gone, replaced by Lovie Smith and Josh McCown. McCown is coming off an impressive season when he got inserted into the Bears starting lineup for an injured Jay Cutler. The Buccaneers offense will also be helped by the return of Doug Martin from injury. Martin never quite got on track last season before going down, and will be looking to reclaim his title as the "Muscle Hamster". The Bucsz have some depth at running back with Mike James and Bobby Rainey backing up Martin, as both saw significant playing time last season. The Bucs also feel they have a pretty solid 1-2 punch at receiver after drafting Mike Evans out of Texas A&M to go with Vincent Jackson. I didn't think Jackson would make much of an impact at Tampa but even with subpar quarterback play, Jackson has been worth the money the Bucs gave him a few years ago. Brandon Myers is the new starting tight end and hoping to rebound from a disappointing season with the Giants. Tampa did some pretty major retooling of their offensive line, bringing in three new starters with Anthony Collins, Oneil Cousins, and Evan Dietrich-Smith. Tampa Bay feels they have talent on defense and Smith will be the coach to get that talent to reach their potential. DT Gerald McCoy is excellent, and the Bucs are hoping for stronger seasons out of DE Adrian Clayborn and free agent acquisition from the Bengals, Michael Johnson. Lavonte David is a standout at linebacker, but his fellow linebackers Mason Foster and Jonathan Casillas are question marks. The Bucs ended the Darrelle Revis era after just one season and replacing him in the lineup will be Alterraun Verner. S Dashon Goldson was a major disappointment in his first season in Tampa Bay, and might have been made to look better than he really was because of the talent that surrounded him in San Francisco. The Bucs special teams are nothing special, pun intended. Punter Michael Koenen is overpaid, and Connor Barth returns after missing the 2013 season due to injury. I think over the long-haul the hiring of Smith will pay off but it will take time for him to implement his system and way of doing things and get result. I think the Bucs can certainly improve upon their 4-12 mark of last season, but not enough to earn a playoff berth in 2014.

Prediction: 7-9

3. Atlanta Falcons

2013 Record: 4-12, last place NFC South
Head Coach: Mike Smith (7th season Atlanta, 61-40 career)
Key Additions: RT Jake Matthews, QB T.J. Yates, TE Bear Pascoe, RG Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester
Key Losses: RB Jason Snelling, TE Tony Gonzalez, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud

2014 Outlook: The wheels fell off fast in Atlanta in 2013 and the Falcons went from the precipice of playing in the Super Bowl to one of the worst teams in football. Injuries played a huge role in that, most notably losing stud receive Julio Jones for most of the season. However, before Julio even went down the Falcons were scuffling. Matt Ryan still had a strong season, completing 67% of his passes and throwing for 26 TDs but on the negative side he threw 17 INTs and definitely needs to cut back on that number this season. Not surprisingly, RB Steven Jackson battled injuries all season and couldn't be counted upon. Jacquizz Rodgers is too small to be a featured back, so the Falcons drafted Devonta Freeman out of Florida State. The Falcons tout one of the best receive corps in football with Roddy White, Jones, and Harry Douglas. White appears to be fully healthy this year, which wasn't the case for pretty much all of last season. Douglas got to see an increase in touches and playing time when Jones went down and made the most of it and is a very strong #3 receiver to have. The Falcons convinced Tony Gonzalez to come back for one last chance at the Super Bowl, but instead Gonzalez returned to play for a horrific team. He is retired now and being replaced at tight end with something called a Levine Toilolo. They also signed Bear Pascoe to serve as Toilolo's backup. The offensive line was a mess last season so the Falcons made that position their number one priority in the off-season. They drafted RT Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M, and signed RG Jon Asamoah away from the Chiefs. Defense has been a weakness in Atlanta even when they were good, especially their secondary. So the Falcons let aging, ineffective vet Asante Samuel leave and are replacing Thomas DeCoud at safety with Dwight Lowery. They have also revamped the defensive line by bringing in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai. LB Kroy Biermann is another player returning from injury this season and have moved Osi Umeniyora to linebacker as they are switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme. CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are both very young and the Falcons only expect them to get better. The Falcons special teams were already good and should receive a boost with the addition of Devin Hester. Hester isn't quite the fearsome returner he once was but he will still make opposing teams think twice about kicking it at him. Matt Bosher is a pretty good punter and kicker Matt Bryant is one of the most consistent and accurate kickers in the league. If the Falcons can avoid the injury bug this season I think they have a chance at returning to the playoffs. They have a lot of weapons on offense and some interesting pieces on defense. I just think they might struggle some within the division and they have some pretty challenging road games this season at Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York Giants and Green Bay. It looks like it could be another losing season for the Falcons.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Carolina Panthers

2013 Record: 12-4, 1st place NFC South
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (4th season Carolina, 25-24 career)
Key Additions: WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud
Key Losses: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell

2014 Outlook: Cam Newton made a large leap in 2013 and helped carry the Panthers to an NFC South crown. For the Panthers to repeat as NFC South champs in 2014, he will have to make an even larger leap. The Panthers wide receiver corps and part of the offensive line was gutted this off-season due to a combination of free agency and retirement. Newton will be working with an entire new receiving corps, with the only returnee being his TE Greg Olsen. The Panthers trio of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn weren't a murderers row or anything but Newton will be challenged to immediately find chemistry with Kelvin Benjamin, Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery. The Panthers invested heavily in their running game a few years ago by giving big deals to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart but the return on that investment has been minimal. Stewart can't stay healthy and Williams isn't consistent. Newton's blind side will now be protected by Byron Bell as Jordan Gross retired. Bell gave up 9 sacks last season and if he plays that poorly this season Panthers fans might want to get used to seeing Derek Anderson under center. The rest of the offensive line is unproven and another in a long line of question marks for Carolina on offense. Carolina was an excellent defensive team in 2013, but trouble reached that side of the ball as well this off-season. Star defensive end Greg Hardy is dealing with legal woes and could be looking at a league suspension. Charles Johnson, the other defensive end hasn't had any off the field issues and is almost as much of a stud as Hardy. The Panthers also have young, rapidly improving defensive tackles in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. They also have arguable the best linebacker in football in Luke Kuechly. He gets lost in the shadow of Kuechly but Thomas Davis is a damn good player in his own right. The corners and safeties are mostly new this season with the only returnee being CB Melvin White. The aging Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud and Antoine Cason will be the new starters in the secondary. Graham Gano joins a long list of former Redskin kickers that have found greater success elsewhere. Redskins fans would be shocked to know that Gano was a perfect 6 for 6 from over 50 yards last season. Punter Brad Nortman had a better 2013 season after a disastrous 2012 season. The Panthers will miss Ted Ginn's return ability and are hoping Kenjon Barner can adequately replace him. I expect the Panthers to fall from first to worst this season. Just way too many changes in important positions and I am still not sold on coach Ron "Riverboat" Rivera being able to consistently put out a winning team year after year.

Prediction: 6-10

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