Same division, different conference. It is time for Preview 2 of 8 in my off-season NFL look.
Today we look at the NFC South. This division may be one of the more competitive divisions in football this year. The Saints and the Falcons have been the top dogs in the division for years, but the Panthers may be knocking on the door. Cam Newton showed why he was the #1 overall pick last year, making big plays with his arm and legs. If the Panthers defense can get healthy, they may have a shot at competing for a Playoff spot this year. There were times two years ago that the Buccaneers looked like a young team on the rise, but they took an unexpected nose dive last year and fired Coach Raheem Morris and appear poised for a fresh start with new coach Greg Schiano.
New Orleans Saints
2011 Record: 13-3
After two questionable losses to the Bucs and Rams, many people questioned if this was the Saints team of old. They responded by winning eight in a row to end the regular season. Many people thought they were destined for a rematch with the Packers in the NFC Championship, but the upstart San Francisco 49ers had a different opinion. The Saints defense, which had been reliable throughout the year, let the 49ers offense drive down the field in under two minutes to win the game. Gregg Williams left as defensive coordinator, and now there are more questions than answers on defense. Offense should never be a problem, so long as Drew Brees is under center. Brees is a free agent and I am sure the two sides will come to an agreement before free agency. But if Brees leaves this team, they would go belly up. Brees is to the Saints as Peyton Manning is to the Colts.
Biggest Question: Can the Saints Defense Re-Group?
They would never admit it, but you know that the 49ers game winning drive in the Divisional Round is going to sting that Saints defense for some time. Alex Smith picked apart that defense not only on the last drive, but for most of the game as well. Gregg Williams loved to bring heavy pressure, but that didn't help much in the Playoffs. The Saints defense also generated very few turnovers this year. Steve Spagnuolo takes over the defensive coordinator job this year. He lead the Giants defense that shut down the Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years ago. Spagnuolo was a wanted man this off-season and the Saints were lucky to get him. Spags should help turn around a defense that only had 9 interceptions last year.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Drew Brees, QB
I'm 99% positive Drew Brees will not hit the open market because the Saints will do whatever possible to keep Brees in the fold. If he can't be signed before free agency starts he will probably get the franchise tag. Brees is one of the elite QBs in the game and his skills have changed the Saints franchise and keeps the offense going.
2. Carl Nicks, G
Nicks is one of the best guards in all of the NFL. He was only flagged for two penalties all of last year. Nicks is still young at the age of 27 and has a bright future ahead of him. Hopefully the Saints don't neglect Nicks in favor of Brees and let another team snag him.
3. Marques Colston, WR
Colston is the Saints top WR, but Brees seemed to favor Jimmy Graham a lot last year. The other problem Colston faces is that Drew Brees is so good and spreads the ball around so much that he may just be a product of the Saints system. The Saints might not want to pay Colston the money he desires and might let another team over pay him.
Top 3 Needs
Johnathan Vilma is good, but the rest of the Saints linebackers are not. They couldn't cover Vernon Davis at all during the Divisional Round match-up. The Saints need to get more pressure on the QB and getting a linebacker or two that can actually get to the QB will help.
2. Defensive Line
Outside of Will Smith, no one on the line had more than four sacks. Again, the Saints need more pressure on the QB. This Draft is full of pass rushers, but the Saints don't have a 1st round pick to get one.
Just like the Saints linebackers, Roman Harper was burned by Vernon Davis and in coverage the whole year. The Saints need an upgrade there.
As long as the Saints have Drew Brees they will be contenders in the NFC every year. But sooner or later teams will find ways to stop Brees, or at least slow him down. The Saints defense will need to improve their pass rush and coverage if they want to stay competitive. The Saints can't get into shootouts every week and expect Drew Brees to bail them out every game. The Falcons will always be a direct competitor, and the Panthers are a young and up-and-coming team ready to challenge them as well. The Saints are still the favorites in the Division, but they will need to improve their defense if they want to get back to the Super Bowl.
2011 Record: 10-6
The Falcons couldn't get over their Playoff hump again last year. Matt Ryan remains 0-3 as a starter in the Playoffs. The Falcons only managed a safety in their loss to the Giants. They would have been better getting shut out. While Matt Ryan is still a good young QB, if he doesn't win a Playoff game this year there may be some questions regarding his future as a Playoff caliber QB in the league. Ryan has one of the best WR tandems in the league with Julio Jones and Roddy White on each side of him. He will learn a new offense this year with Mike Mularkey leaving for Jacksonville. But Ryan still needs to show he can win when it matters. Now with the Panthers on their tale, the Falcons need to worry about not falling to third in the Division.
Biggest Question: Does Mike Smith Need A Playoff Win to Save His Job?
Mike Smith has a 43-21 record in his four years as head coach. He has made the Playoffs in three of those years. But Smith, just like Matt Ryan, has yet to win a Playoff game as head coach. Two years ago they were the #1 seed in the NFC and ended up getting man-handled by the Packers at home. Smith faced some criticism this year when he went for it on 4th and 1 against the Saints in overtime from their own 26 yard line. You can bet owner Arthur Blank doesn't like watching the Saints be successful all of the time. If Smith can't get this team a Playoff win this year, could he be out the door? The Falcons have an array of talent and there are no excuses for their poor Playoff performances. Good regular season records don't mean a thing if the success can't carry over into the Playoffs.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Curtis Lofton, LB
Lofton is the QB of the Falcons defense. He calls the plays and makes audibles when necessary. Lofton lead the team last year with 147 total tackles, 32 more than anyone else on the team. Losing Lofton means the Falcons would have to find a new leader on defense, and that is a tough think to do on a team with little depth at the linebacker position.
2. Brent Grimes, CB
Grimes is one of the better cornerbacks in the league. Grimes sat out the Playoff game due to an injury. Some reports say he could have played and sat out to get a big pay day. If that's the case, expect Grimes to go to the team that offers him the most money, assuming the Falcons don't place the franchise tag on him. But Grimes seems to be all about himself, so expect a lengthy holdout if that happens.
3. John Abraham, DE
Abraham had 9.5 sacks last year, double what anyone else had on the team. Abraham is 34 and losing some of his quickness, but with the Falcons lacking a 1st round pick this year the Falcons may want to lock up Abraham for one more year since it will be tough for them to improve in the Draft or in free agency. Abraham knows his time is running short and he may give it his all for one more run.
Top 3 Needs
1. Left Tackle
It is never a good thing when you have to bench your left tackle because of poor play during the regular season. That is what the Falcons did with Sam Baker. They replaced him with Will Svitek, who was just average at best. There are no star LTs in free agency, and it will be tough to land one in the Draft with no first round pick. Somehow the Falcons need to improve here, or Matt Ryan might not make it to the Playoffs.
Assuming Brett Grimes leaves, the Falcons will have a major hole to fill at cornerback. The Falcons secondary was torn apart by the Saints and the Giants in the Playoffs. If something doesn't improve, then the Falcons will start getting torn apart by the Panthers and Lions as well.
3. Running Back
Yes, the Falcons still have Michael Turner. But Turner battled a groin injury in the second half of the year and it affected him. He only averaged 3.6 yards per carry and is missing that break away speed he had earlier in his career. A young replacement for Turner could be found late in the Draft. I don't think Jacquizz Rodgers can be that back. He is more of a complimentary back than anything.
Much like I said with the Ravens last year, I think this may be the last shot this Falcons team has at winning the Super Bowl. There are some veterans on this team that are older and may only have one more shot, like John Abraham and TE Tony Gonzalez. Sooner or later, Matt Ryan and Coach Mike Smith will have to show they can win in the Playoffs as well. If that doesn't happen this year, there may be some big changes to this team. With the Panthers looming, the Falcons know that it could be now or never for them in 2012.
2011 Record: 6-10
Do you remember how last year everyone thought the Lions were going to be a Playoff team? You can expect to hear the same thing about the Panthers this year. All of that is because of one man, Cam Newton. Newton should flashes of brilliance last year during the season. He is very Mike Vick like in his approach. You don't know if he will beat you with his arm or legs. One of the biggest issues facing the Panthers last year was their lack of a running attack outside of Newton as well as a rash of injuries on defense. The Panthers had a handful of injuries to their linebackers and defensive secondary. If they can return to 100% health and Newton can keep up his stellar play, the Panthers will be a dangerous team next year.
Biggest Question: Can Cam Newton Avoid A Sophomore Slump?
It happens all the time with rookie QBs. They have a good year in their first season, and look to be ready to take a big leap the next year. But for some reason, they always regress. It happened with Matt Ryan, and it happened with Sam Bradford this year. Newton of course is a different breed of QB compared to these two. You have to shut down Newton in the air and on the ground. Teams can put a spy on Newton, but that leaves a man out of coverage. Big things are expected out of Newton this year and it will be interesting to see if he can live up to the hype. I think you will see a slight decline in Newton's stats, but it will almost be impossible for defenses to completely shut him down. He is too good of a talent.
Top Free Agents
1. Dan Connor, LB
The Panthers don't have many big time free agents to worry about re-signing. Dan Connor might be the only one worth a look. Connor filled in quite well for Jon Beason this past year. Beason hasn't played a full season in the last two years because of injury. If they want Connor as insurance, they will have to over pay him to be a back-up. Connor is young and talented and could easily start somewhere else. I doubt the Panthers will want to match the big offer Connor will probably receive from someone else.
Top 3 Needs
The Panthers defense was constantly torched by opposing pass units last year. Newton can't continue to win games by himself. If their is a top cornerback the Panthers like at the #9 pick, they won't hesitate to grab him. Chris Gamble can't cover everyone by himself.
2. Defensive Tackle
The Panthers used two middle round draft picks on defensive tackles last year and that didn't work out too well for them. Terrell McClain was constantly pushed around. The Panthers need an upgrade in the middle.
3. Wide Receiver
While Steve Smith experienced a rebirth last year, he is also getting up there in age. Smith will need someone to compliment him this year. The Panthers don't have any other real threats next to him. There will be some WRs that will relish the opportunity to play with Newton and the up and coming Panthers, so Carolina should look to give Newton another weapon or two this off-season.
The Panthers will be a very cliche pick to make the Playoffs this year. They have a QB that is coming off of a hot season, a defense that will be healthy, and a re-energized fan base expecting big things. While they may challenge the Falcons for second in the Division, I still think they area long way from competing with the Saints to be called top dog. The Panthers will be a pain for teams to stop this year and they will make every game they are in interesting, but I still think they are one year away from being a Playoff team. I expect an 8-8 or 9-7 finish with the Panthers falling just short of a Wild Card.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Record: 4-12
Remember the end of the 2010 season, when everyone thought Tampa Bay looked like a young promising team on their way up. They finished the season 10-6 and had a strong nucleus at QB (Josh Freeman), RB (LeGarrette Blount) and WR (Mike Williams). Well, those dreams were put to a screeching halt this past season. After starting the season 4-2 and getting impressive wins over Atlanta and New Orleans, the Bucs went on to lose 8 straight games and finish with a 4-12 record. It was apparent by Week 14 that the team had essentially given up on the season and quit on Coach Raheem Morris. Morris was fired in the off-season. The Bucs first choice, Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly, backed out during negotiations and Tampa was forced to go to Plan B and bring in Rutgers Coack Greg Shiano. Not a very sexy hire, but Schiano will make sure he has players on his team that are focused and not giving up. But the Bucs have a long way to go if they want to get back to their 2010 promise.
Biggest Question: Can Tampa Bay's Offense Get Resurrected?
Tampa Bay's offense was abysmal last year. They didn't score more than 26 points all year. Josh Freeman regressed greatly, as did his running back counterpart LeGarrette Blount. The team just lost all kinds of focus. Josh Freeman's statline was particularly troubling. He went from throwing 25 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in 16 games last year to throwing 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 15 games this year. That regression is not good. Schiano, along with new offensive coordinator Butch Davis, will have a lot of work to do to get Freeman right again. Mike Williams drop off in production can be contributed to Freeman's play. Blount's Yards per carry dropped by almost a full yard. There's a lot of work to be done in Tampa Bay.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Michael Bennett, DE
Despite my focus on the Bucs offense, Tampa's defense was just as bad, if not worse this past year. Bennett was the one bright spot. He contributed four sacks and was very good against the run as well.
2. Connor Barth, K
Much like Josh Scobee in Jacksonville, Barth was much of Tampa's offense this past year. He hit on 26 of his 28 field goals, including going 15 of 17 from 40+ yards. Having a good kicker for a struggling offense makes up for the lack of TDs at times.
3. Josh Johnson, QB
When Johnson has been given the opportunity to play he has shown some flashes of potential out there. Some team might think he good be their future starter, while that doesn't appear to be the case in Tampa. Expect Johnson to leave and Tampa to bring in a veteran QB to back-up and mentor Freeman.
Top 3 Needs
Ronde Barber isn't getting any younger, and Aqib Talib is looking at possible jail time. The Bucs have the #5 pick and are hoping LSU CB Morris Claiborne falls to them. The team has no depth at the position and is in need of a major upgrade.
Tampa's linebackers gave them absolutely nothing last year. Almost no sacks and pressure on the QB. They probably need to revamp the entire LB corps, and it will get worse if Geno Hayes leaves.
3. Wide Receiver
Josh Freeman might be better if he had more than Mike Williams to throw to. Kellen Winslow was a disappointment last year, and Freeman had no one else to stretch the field for him.
In a division that is on the rise, the last thing Tampa Bay could afford was a drop off last year. They now have to start over with a new coach and a new offensive scheme. The first thing Coach Schiano will have to do is get his team re-focused and not allow any mental lapses like the Bucs had last year. It could be another long year in Bucs land. They are lacking a lot of pieces to compete, and will be getting younger and inexperienced as they begin to rebuild and regroup from a letdown of a season.
There's piece 2. Look for piece 3 possibly this weekend.
Until Next Time,
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