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Is the NFC South Matt Ryan's to lose?

The next division on our list is the NFC South, which had three teams finish with double-digit wins, only the 2nd time this has occurred since the 2002 division realignment.  What’s scary is that the division could be even better than they were last season and take both Wild Card slots in the NFC.  Of course, missing in all this playoff talk is Carolina, who will be fun to watch for other reasons, specifically the development of Cam Newton.  With all this in mind, here is our preview of the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Cole: If anyone wasn’t aware on draft day, the Atlanta Falcons are all in this year. I wouldn’t say that they have to be, their team isn’t particularly old and they’re not cap strapped, but the play to draft Julio Jones shows that this is a team that considers themselves close to the title. Jones is the biggest pickup this off-season, but frankly they did not need to add much. This is a very talented offensive unit led by one of the best young quarterbacks in the league – Matt Ryan – top 5 wide out – Roddy White – and a bruising rushing attack in the form of Michael Turner. Their defense has questions. Ray Edwards was brought in to pair with Abraham and should provide more pass rush than last year. Their linebackers continue to gain experience and are very promising, but the youth in the secondary is concerning. This team will win on their offense, but might have enough defense to push them over the hump. Look for a deep run from this team, and home field again.

Andy: Once again, the Falcons are a very dangerous team and my hands-on favorite to win the NFC South.  I know Julio Jones has a case of the drops, but he should be an excellent complement to Roddy White and take some of the pressure off of him.  Michael Turner is a strong, pounding back, and even if he gets injured, they have some good backups in Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers.  Tony Gonzalez is, well, Tony Gonzalez: one of the most consistently dependable TEs in the league.  I personally think DE Ray Edwards is quite overrated, but he should be an improvement at DE to complement John Abraham.  Of course, we cannot forget Matt Ryan, who is a rising QB star and I believe will have an even better season this year.  Additionally, the Falcons did not lose any key pieces of the 13-3 team from last year.  Anything less than a win or two in the playoffs will be a disappointment.

Carolina Panthers

Cole: Drafting two quarterbacks high in the draft, back to back years, is never a good sign. The Panthers have taken a stout running game and playoff caliber team and simply squandered it with Jake Delhomme. Now they’re suffering the consequences of not planning ahead. Still, the best way to groom a young quarterback is by running the ball, which the Panthers should be able to do. They should expect 7-8 man fronts, but their line is very strong. Newton also has Steve Smith as a reliable veteran. Defense is a major concern. They spent a lot to keep Charles Johnson at defensive end, and Beason anchors the middle, but seemingly every other position is average at best. They should have time to give all their young players experience this year, because facing the Saints, Falcons, and Bucs twice a year is a daunting task for any team.

Andy: Carolina would seemingly have nowhere to go but up, but they also have the great misfortune of playing in what is in my opinion the toughest division in the NFL.  In order to try to compete with the rest of the division, they have brought in former Bears and Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as head coach, who has decided to start from scratch.  Carolina released 24 players from last year’s team, which is ridiculously high.  They also brought in their QB of the future, Cam Newton.  He has very high potential, but still has a lot of work to do to be an NFL QB, and Rivera’s fate is likely tied to Newton’s.  The Panthers also drafted two DT’s in the third round (Terrell McClain and Sione Fua) and re-signed DE Charles Johnson to anchor the line.  The team also brings back DeAngelo Williams and has great depth at RB, but DeAngelo and Jonathan Stewart have constant troubles staying healthy, and there’s not much in the way of good WRs behind Steve Smith.  I think this year will be a struggle for Newton and the Panthers, but at least they’re headed in the right direction.

New Orleans Saints

Cole: As long as the Saints have Drew Brees, they are contenders. The man has twice as accurate as any other quarterback, a very strong-arm and deep ball, and has great elite pre-snap reads (I’d argue second only to Peyton Manning). He turns scrubs into stars and made up for a weak defense in the past. Now with Gregg Williams calling the shots (literally), Brees doesn’t have as much pressure on him. In some ways, I think he struggled with that transition last year, but I would not expect Brees to turn the ball over as much as last season. The biggest offensive question mark is Jimmy Graham. The Saints led the league last year in passes to tight ends, and without Jeremy Shockey, Graham figures to see a lot of balls his way. They also go 4 deep at the running back position. Mark Ingram was selected in the first round and accompanies staples Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. They also brought in Darren Sproles to replace Reggie Bush. Olin Kruetz’s veteran leadership and experience should keep Brees cleaner than last year as well. On defense, Cameron Jordan has been brought into a young defensive line which is the only lagging unit. Gregg Williams will cover for them as they learn. Expect something very similar to last season. Falcons – Saints down the stretch.

Andy: Confession: Drew Brees is my favorite QB in the NFL.  He’s smart, ridiculously accurate, a team leader, and very loyal to the Saints.  He’s one of very few of what I will call “Peyton Manning” QBs, in that he makes those around him better.  His receiver corps is made up mostly of middle of the road players who mesh really well in the system, and young TE Jimmy Graham looks to have a breakout year.  DE Cameron Jordan was their first pick in the NFL draft and is likely to help the Saints get a better base pass-rush this season.  Mark Ingram was an odd pick considering their depth at RB and how they are a pass-first team, but I’m sure Sean Payton will find a use for him.  What’s more worrying is the loss of some beloved players like Darren Sharper and Jonathan Stinchcomb.  They have signed or have players to replace them, but I do not know the effect this will have on the locker room.  The defense still remains their Achilles’ Heel.  New Orleans gave up 112 yards rushing per game on average, culminating in Marshawn Lynch embarrassing the entire NO defense in the playoffs.  The loss of Darren Sharper has arguably deflated some of that surprisingly good pass D of last season (although their stats were skewed because everyone ran on them).  Despite a fairly difficult schedule, I expect the Saints to continue their string of winning seasons, and will be as dangerous as ever in the playoff hunt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cole: Has any team every had a rookie pool come in like this one? 2nd year quarterback Josh Freeman explodes along with Legarette Blount and Mike Williams to solidify a nucleus for years to come. Add Arrelious Benn who struggled with injuries, but should be a dangerous opposite and this offense begins to rival the Falcons and Saints. Now factor in that the Buccaneers have been focusing their draft on defense and you begin to see why everyone is so excited about the turnaround this team has had. Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were solid this last season, and they doubled up again this year on defensive ends Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn. That’s four 1 or 2 year players developing together. If they all pan out, this is a terrifying unit. They picked up Mason Foster to replace Ruud in the middle of their defense, but the other linebacker positions are up for grabs. The biggest concern is character issues, particularly Aqib Talib, who cannot seem to stay out of trouble just like another very talented corner who derailed his career – Pacman Jones. Ronde Barber anchors this team, but there isn’t a lot behind him. Overall, this is a young team, but wildly talented. I won’t expect them to snag a division title this year, but they will be nuisances for the Falcons and Saints and any other team vying for the playoffs. Look for a year like last.

Andy: The young talent that is on this team is just astounding.  Last season QB Josh Freeman matured faster than anyone expected and is the unquestioned leader of this team, and has the QB play to back it up.  RB Legarrette Blount started only 7 games as a rookie last year but had 1,000 yards rushing and is a monstrous 247lbs bruiser.  WR Mike Williams had almost 1,000 yards and 11 TDs in his rookie season, and Arrelious Benn provides a strong 2nd option.  Kellen Winslow is also a strong option at TE.  Tampa also went straight after two strong DEs in the first two rounds of the draft, Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, to anchor the line with last year’s two DTs also drafted in the top two rounds, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.  The maturation of the DTs and two new DEs should help solidify what was a poor rush defense last season, and hopefully get more pressure on the QB (the Bucs were tied for 2nd worst in the NFL with 26 sacks).  The offensive line is also a big question mark, but doesn’t look to be a big hindrance to this team’s goal of a playoff push.  That said, they have a decent secondary, an improving defensive line, and some of the best young offensive talent in football.  This year will be the one where all the pieces begin to line up, but I believe they need one more year to build the o-line and defense before becoming a serious Super Bowl contender(losing MLB Barrett Ruud has got to hurt).  Regardless of this, the Bucs will be in the playoff hunt from the very beginning of the season.

Predictions:

Atlanta: Andy – 12-4  / Cole 13-3

Carolina: Andy 4-12 / Cole 3-13

New Orleans: Andy 10-6 / Cole 13-4

Tampa Bay: Andy 10-6 / Cole 9-7

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