Sunday, September 6, 2009

NFC South Preview

The NFC South is almost impossible to figure. There are three teams capable of winning it -- sorry, Tampa Bay -- yet there are convincing arguments why each should not. Defense kills New Orleans. Injuries could cripple Carolina. And Atlanta never seems capable of putting together two good seasons.
Your guess is as good as mine, and I'm picking New Orleans. One of these days I figure the Saints learn how to play that other side of the ball, and I say that day is now. They made all sorts of moves in the offseason to improve their pass defense, and it should pay off if they can avoid the injuries that ravaged them a year ago.
Carolina is the defending champion, so they're a possibility. But all these injuries -- including a season ender to defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu -- has me thinking this just isn't their year. I feel the same way about Atlanta, only for other reasons -- like the Falcons' track record. They're the most balanced of these clubs, but they make me nervous.
That leaves Tampa Bay, and too bad Lee Roy Selmon is a restaurant owner, not a player -- the Bucs could use him. They could use anyone.
New Orleans Saints
Significant additions: CB Malcolm Jenkins, DT Rod Coleman, FB Heath Evans, CB Jabari Greer, S Darren Sharper, DE Paul Spicer.
Significant losses: S Josh Bullocks, RB Deuce McAllister, CB Mike McKenzie, WR David Patten, RB Aaron Stecker, G Matt Lehr.
Biggest offseason move: Letting McAllister go. The guy was one of the team's top running backs ever, but he kept getting hurt and carried a heavy price tag. That and the emergence of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas made him expendable.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They ever figure out how to play defense. Drew Brees can take this team to the playoffs. The question is: How much will the defense drag him down? It kept him out of the playoffs the past two seasons, but the additions of Greer, Jenkins and Sharper should help a needy secondary. Plus, injuries aren't the factor they were a year ago -- at least not now.
Rookie to watch: So he showed up late for work and wilted in the heat his first day on the job. CB Michael Jenkins will be a factor in the defense, either as a starter or nickel back. The Saints overhauled their secondary, and they should: It ranked 23rd last year and it held them back.
Overview: The Saints are this decade's Air Coryell -- they can throw the ball all over the lot, but they can't cover anyone. Result: A lot of high-scoring games and no playoff appearances since reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2006. One of these days these guys will figure out how to play defense. I say it happens now.
Atlanta Falcons
Significant additions: DT Peria Jerry, DB William Moore, CB Tye Hill, TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Mike Peterson, LB Jamie Winborn, C Brett Romberg.
Significant losses: LB Michael Boley, LB Keith Brooking, DT Rod Coleman, CB Domonique Foxworth, DT Grady Jackson, T Todd Weiner, S Lawyer Milloy, T Wayne Gandy.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Saints
2008 standings: 8-8

Pts Scored: 463
Pts Allowed: 393
Off. Yds/G: 410.7
Def. Yds/G: 339.5
2. Falcons
2008 standings: 11-5

Pts Scored: 391
Pts Allowed: 325
Off. Yds/G: 361.2
Def. Yds/G: 347.9
3. Panthers
2008 standings: 12-4

Pts Scored: 414
Pts Allowed: 329
Off. Yds/G: 349.7
Def. Yds/G: 331.2
4. Buccaneers
2008 standings: 9-7

Pts Scored: 361
Pts Allowed: 323
Off. Yds/G: 341.0
Def. Yds/G: 306.1
Biggest offseason move: Acquiring Gonzalez. Tight ends were almost no factor in the Falcons' passing game last season, but that changes with the arrival of Gonzalez. He led all tight ends last season with 96 catches for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns. Look for him to be Matt Ryan's yardage security blanket over the middle.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They continue to run a balance attack as efficiently as they did in 2008 -- with the emphasis on run. Nobody in the NFC had more rushing attempts than Atlanta, and only one team (the Giants) had more rushing yards. The running game protected then-rookie quarterback Ryan, who wasn't forced to take many chances, and you saw what happened.
Rookie to watch: Defensive tackle Peria Jerry is listed among the team's starters, and he should be. He was the team's first-round pick, and the Falcons lost run stuffer Grady Jackson to free agency. Jeria could be an immediate impact player, but there was unexpected competition from an unlikely source -- veteran Thomas Johnson, who had been cut by three teams.
Overview: The Falcons caught everyone off balance by reaching the playoffs. I'm not sure why, but I don't see it happening again. Maybe it's because I trust history, and history tells us that when the Falcons go to the playoffs they fizzle the following season. Look what happened when they made it in 2004. The following year they were 8-8. They reached the 2002 playoffs, too, but flopped one year later. In 1998 they reached the Super Bowl but fell to 5-11 in 1999. I think you get the idea. History is against Mike Smith.
Carolina Panthers
Significant additions: DE Everette Brown, DT Louis Leonard.
Significant losses: CB Ken Lucas, C Geoff Hangartner, T Jeremy Bridges, RB Nick Goings, WR D.J. Hackett, WR Mark Jones, T Frank Omiyale, DT Darwin Walker.
Biggest offseason move: Keeping Julius Peppers. Remember those stories about Peppers getting traded? Well, he wasn't. Instead, the team made him its franchise player, guaranteeing Peppers about $1 million per start. That's a lot of dough concentrated in one position. Now it's on to a long-term contract, and we'll see how that goes. At least Peppers acknowledged that he's "excited" about playing in Ron Meeks' defense, and that's a start.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They can overcome the loss of DT Maake Kemoeatu and injuries to key people like linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis -- and if they can continue to run as effectively as they did last season. The lack of depth at defensive tackle concerns me. You don't want to put too much pressure on QB Jake Delhomme, but that will happen if you can't stop opponents up the middle.
Rookie to watch: Brown. He had two sacks and one forced fumble through the first three preseason games. Yes, he's probably a situational pass rusher, but that's OK. It takes time to get used to the pro game, and Brown has demonstrated he knows how to get to the quarterback.
Overview: The Panthers have a habit of disappearing immediately after making the playoffs, and this may be one of those seasons. Already, there are significant injuries. Management is in flux. And coach John Fox may be on the bubble. It's an unsettling situation, which is why the Panthers better do what they do best -- run the ball and play solid defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Significant additions: TE Kellen Winslow, QB Josh Freeman, LB Angelo Crowell, QB Byron Leftwich, K Mike Nugent, RB Derrick Ward. Significant losses: LB Derrick Brooks, CB Philip Buchanon, DE Kevin Carter, RB Warrick Dunn, WR Joey Galloway, QB Jeff Garcia, DT Jovan Haye, WR Ike Hilliard, LB Cato June.
Biggest offseason move: Firing Jon Gruden and going with the unknown in Raheem Morris. Gruden had taken the Bucs to the Super Bowl, but the team's collapse last season finished him. So Tampa Bay hires its secondary coach, and good luck guys. It can be tricky for assistants to assume command of a team because players sometimes don't recognize the change in authority. So they treat him as they always did. Or he treats them as he always did. Either way, it can be tough -- especially for someone as young (33) and raw as Morris.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They won't. This is a teardown project.
Rookie to watch: With quarterback Freeman struggling to learn the pro game you can look at one of the Bucs' receivers, seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter. In limited action this summer, he proved more than adequate as a catcher and kickoff returner and could fill in as the team's slot receiver. "He's a steal, who are we kidding?" said Morris.
Overview: This is a start up, with new players, a new coach and a new identity. The Tampa Bay Bucs used to be Derrick Brooks' team -- now they're Morris' club, and I don't know what that means until they suit up and play. What I do know is they can't survive in this division with the guys they have starting -- not now they can't. But this is a process, and the process is just beginning.

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