NFC South Preview

Posted: September 2, 2011 by Kodi in NFL

Are the Falcons the most prolific passing offense in the league, or are they still pegged behind division rival New Orleans?

Will Ingram help lead the Saints offense to a more balanced attack?

Do the Buccaneers have a chance of repeating their 2010 success?

Is Cam Newton going to win more than 2 games?

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were 13-3 in 2010 the best record in the NFC and the most wins in Atlanta since the ’98 Dirty Bird days of Jamal Anderson. After not breaking .500 from 2005-07 the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan to become Atlanta’s franchise QB and he has completely turned it around with a 33-15 record since entering the NFL. With Matty Ice really starting to get comfortable last year the Falcons were a top 5 scoring offense but their defense was also top 5 in points allowed and led to the Falcons outscoring their opponents by 126 points the 2nd most in the NFC. Atlanta was rewarded with a first round bye in the playoffs after posting a 9-1 record following week 6. The week off may have slowed down the Falcons and the team was pummelled 48-21 in the Divisional round by the soon to be SBXLV Champion Green Bay Packers.

Matt Ryan had a big year throwing for over 3700 yards, 28 TDs and just 9 INTs in his 3rd year out of Boston College. He had the 8th most pass attempts in the league helping Atlanta rank 15th in passing yards. Roddy White was a huge reason for that and was the most targeted WR in the NFL for a reason. Roddy White had his 4th season with more than 1150 yards and 6 TDs, but White had a career high in receptions and yards tallying 115 catches for 1389 yards with 10 TD receptions. Other than 34 year old TE Tony Gonzalez, Matt Ryan’s next best option in the passing game was WR Michael Jenkins but Atlanta made a huge trade in the draft to move up to Cleveland’s 6th overall pick to select Alabama WR Julio Jones. This gives Ryan another toy in the passing game and a prolific option on the other side of Roddy White, not to mention they still have Michael Turner who had 1371 rushing yards and 12 TDs leading to the Falcons having the 12th ranked rush offense.

The Falcons have a solid defense lead by Veteran DE John Abraham who was among the league leaders in Sacks again last year with 13. The player with the 2nd most Sacks on the Falcons was DT Jonathan Babineaux with 4 and that’s exactly why they went out and signed former Viking DE Ray Edwards. The Falcons allowed the 5th fewest point in the league and was the 10th best rush defense. The Falcons ranked 22nd in pass defense but those stats are skewed because teams were always down and forced to pass the ball. The Falcons didn’t have another selection in the NFL draft until 85 picks after taking Jones but reached on local Georgia LB Akeem Dent in attempts to solidify their future.

The Falcons will have one of the most explosive offenses in the league but they will need another solid year by their defensive unit to try and get that elusive Playoff victory. Julio Jones and Roddy White are by far the quickest, most athletic pair of tall bodies in the NFL and they have a great young QB in Matt Ryan. Michael Turner scares people but he is only 28 years old and although people are wary of him falling off a cliff, I think he still has at least another season or two of high caliber play. If Ray Edwards plays up to his contract and John Abraham keeps bull-rushing father time, the Falcons could also have a ferocious pair of DEs which fairs well for what could be seen as a weak pass defense. The Falcons are still in a division with the Saints, which bodes for a good battle but I believe that the Falcons finish 11-5 good enough for a Wild Card bid in the Playoffs although losing the NFC South to New Orleans.

Key Arrivals: TE Reggie Kelly, UFA DE Ray Edwards.

Key Re-Signings:  RB Jason Snelling, CB Brent Grimes, OG Justin Blalock, OLB Mike Peterson, LB Stephen Nicholas, OT Tyson Clabo, K Matt Bryant, WR Eric Weems.

Key Departures: CB Brian Williams, RB Jerious Norwood, DE Jamaal Anderson, WR Michael Jenkins, OG Harvey Dahl, P Michael Koenen.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers were the worst team in the NFL last season winning just 2 games and being outscored by a league high 212 points. It was a bit surprising because then Panther Head Coach John Fox had never won less than 7 games in his previous 8 years as Carolina’s HC. Fox was fired and found a new job in Denver, while Ron Rivera was offered the HC position in Carolina. The Panthers lost the first 5 games going into their bye week, won the game coming out of their bye week then lost 7 in a row before beating the Cardinals for their 2nd win of the season before getting thrashed 58-13 in their last couple games. Carolina thought that they could rely on Matt Moore to replace an aging Jake Delhomme after finishing the 2009 season 4-1 with 1053 passing yards 8 TDs and 2 INTs.

The Panthers offense was absolutely pathetic under Moore who eventually got injured and gave up the job to Notre Dame rookie QB Jimmy Clausen and it got so bad that Brian St. Pierre even started a game. The Panthers were the worst passing offense in the league combining for just 2289 yards, 9 TDs and 21 INTs. The leading receiver on the Panthers squad was once again Steve Smith but unlike the previous years where he had 1000+ yards, Smith accomplished the feat with just 554 yards. What is even more pathetic is that WR David Gettis led the team in TD receptions with just 3, although there were only 9 thrown all year that means Gettis caught 1/3 of all the pass TDs, which would be great with a team that threw for 30+ TDs not 9. The Panthers have been a run heavy offense under Fox and they ranked 13th in rush offense but 31st in rushing TDs. The Panthers relied on 3 RBs in 2010, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Goodson, but it was a RB carousel due to injury and an all-out offensive plague. The Panthers are hoping that the addition of the #1 overall draft pick in the NFL Draft, Auburn QB Cam Newton, may turn it all around. They went out and got him some reliable options down the middle of the passing lane by signing TE Jeremy Shockey and trading for TE Greg Olsen, but the future is cloudy in Raleigh.

The Panthers defense played for the first time since 2002 without DE Julius Peppers who had 81 Sacks in his time with Carolina. Carolina had a huge year by Charles Johnson who recorded 11.5 Sacks in 2010 but other than Johnson there wasn’t much else to be optimistic about. The Panthers ranked 26th in points allowed but it had a lot to do with their pathetic offense and the fact that Carolina ranked 29th in turnovers, throwing 21 INTs and losing 16 Fumbles. The Panthers ranked 11th in pass defense but nobody would have every thought, although they did rank 23 in rush defense and 31st in rushing TDs allowed. The Panthers defense were bullied and battered , mostly because of the lack of offense because there’s not much a team can do when opposing offenses are starting on the other side of the 50 yard line. Carolina knew that they needed to improve their defense because with a rookie QB leading the Panther offense the defensive unit might have to get used to being put in bad situations.

The 2011 season for the Carolina Panthers is going to be the beginning of at least a couple season transition period. The Panthers have a new HC and franchise QB but there are still some big holes that still need to be filled and replacing Veteran players at some of the skill positions. Carolina does however have a great talent behind Center and Newton will be able to win at least 2 games with his legs alone, but that’s just the problem. The Panthers are going to have to see how well Newton’s passing game can transition to the NFL and his greatest threat outside of a TE is Veteran WR Steve Smith who had cleared his locker out at the end of last season and was adamant about not returning, until he did, but the Panthers are going to need to get some more options for their young QB. The Panthers should be pleased if they are able to double their win total and I think that they may be able to do that, but it’s going to have to come outside of the division. Carolina may steal a game away from Tampa Bay in 2011 but if they want to reach 4 wins they need to pick off the Jaguars, Redskins and Titans. I think that the Panthers are capable of winning 4 games but think that they will finish just a single game ahead of last year’s record and may have the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, finishing the year 3-13.

Key Arrivals:  DL Kentwan Balmer, S Sean Considine, DT Ron Edwards, LB Omar Gaither, K Olindo Mare, TE Ben Hartsock, S Kevin Payne, TE Greg Olsen.

Key Re-Signings:  LS J.J. Jansen, OLB Jordan Senn, CB C.J. Wilson, RB DeAngelo Williams, DE Charles Johnson, OLB James Anderson, OLB Thomas Davis, MLB Jon Beason.

Key Departures: S Gerald Alexander, DT Derek Landri, OG Chris Morris, TE Dante Rosario, CB Richard Marshall, QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, DE Tyler Brayton

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans posted an 11-5 record in 2010 finishing 2nd in the NFC South division, behind the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints got into the Playoffs as a Wild Card team and it seemed that they had been given a gift by the football Gods because they were “forced” to play the 7-9 NFC West division Champion Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the Playoffs. The Saints gave up 41 points and lost to the Seahawks by 5 points but they had shown signs of weakness throughout the season. 2 of the 5 New Orleans losses came from the Cardinals and Browns, while barely squeaking by Carolina 16-14 during their first match-up of the year. The Saints are a solid team but they were too inconsistent last season leading to an ultimate let-down by the defending Super Bowl Champs in the Playoffs.

The Saints offense was more of the same with Drew Brees leading an impressive and dangerous passing attack that ranked 3rd in yards and 2nd in passing TDs. Brees completed 68.1 percent of his passes and tallied 4620 yards with 33 TDs and a career high 22 INTs. Brees spread the ball around and the Saints had 8 players with 30 or more receptions and 5 players with 400 or more receiving yards. The Saints rush offense was ranked 30th in attempts and 28th in yards and New Orleans had just one player with more than 269 rushing yards, Chris Ivory, who had just 716 yards. There were 5 RBs with 36 rush attempts or more but due to injury the Saints had just one player start more than 5 games. New Orleans decided that they could no longer rely on Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas so they spent their first round Draft pick on Heisman Trophy winner and former Crimson Tide RB Mark Ingram. Ingram should be able to give the Saints the reliable RB that they need with role players like the addition of Darren Sproles and having Thomas and Ivory still on the depth chart.

The Saints defense might look like a completely different squad with New Orleans having 7 players leave the team in the off-season and the acquisition of 8 players through the free-agency alone. Obviously New Orleans was upset with their appearance in the Playoffs but they ranked 7th in points allowed and 4th in yards allowed during the 2010 regular season. They had the 4th best pass defense but they didn’t have big playmakers that took the ball away ranking dead last in INTs recording just 9 all year. Good thing they have a strong athletic front 8 that recorded 16 Fumbles for Loss the 3rd most in the league. The Saints had the 28th ranked rush defense and  allowed 100+ rushing yards 9 times but allowed 200+ rushing yards twice. The Saints made a big splash with their addition of Ingram in the Draft but what most people look over is their addition of California DE Cameron Jordan 4 picks before the Alabama RB. They picked up Illinois LB Martez Wilson and Louisville CB Johnny Patrick in the 3rd round trying to add youth to every segment of their defense.

I think that New Orleans should be considered the front-runner in the NFC South rather than the returning Division Champ Falcons because the Saints made a lot of improvements through free-agency and the Draft. They are already one of the most explosive passing games in the NFL and with the addition of Sproles and Ingram to a poor rushing game will balance out their offensive attack and make it even more difficult for teams to defend and plan for. The Saints made a lot of moves on defense and need players like LB Will Herring and rookie DE Cameron Jordan to come in and make an immediate impact and players like S Roman Harper play up to their new contracts. I think that the Saints offense alone could win them 10 games but with a balanced defense they are going to finish 12-4 and will win the NFC South.

Key Arrivals: CB Quincy Butler, RB Patrick Cobbs, OT Jordan Black, C Olin Kreutz, CB Trumaine McBride, OT Alex Barron, S Paul Oliver, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DE Turk McBride, CB Fabian Washington, FB Korey Hall, LB Will Herring, RB Darren Sproles, LB Curtis Johnson.

Key Re-Signings: TE David Thomas, TE Tory Humphrey, OT Zach Strief, WR Courtney Roby, OG Carl Nicks, S Roman Harper, S Chris Reis, OLB Danny Clark, S Pierson Prioleau, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, OT Jermon Bushrod, WR Lance Moore, CB Leigh Torrence, OLB Scott Shanle.

Key Departures: ILB Marvin Mitchell, OLB Danny Clark, RB Lynell Hamilton, C Jonathan Goodwin, DE Tony Hargrove, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, LS Jason Kyle, LB Stanley Arnoux, RB Reggie Bush, S Usama Young, DT Remi Ayodele.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay came out in 2010 and surprised everyone when they finished 10-6 and just barely missed the Playoffs. The Bucs relied on 22 year old QB Josh Freeman to lead them and when Tampa brought in RB LeGarrette Blount off of waivers from the Titans the team had a balanced attack. They had a defense that surprised a lot of people and helped them sneak past teams that may have overlooked them. All of these things led to the Bucs winning 10 games for the first time since 2005. The Buccaneers didn’t make a lot of moves in the off-season because they think that they already have the personnel in place that can help bring them another NFC South division Title.

The Bucs offense wasn’t anything that would blow you away ranking 20th in total points and 19th in total yards but they didn’t make a ton of mistakes and had very few turnovers. Freeman threw for 3451 yards with 25 TDs and throwing just 6 INTs when he threw 18 in just 9 games during his rookie campaign. The only other QB to throw less INT was Tom Brady and overall Tampa ranked 17th in pass offense. The Bucs had picked up LeGarrette Blount but they didn’t know what they had until week 4 when he rushed 22 times for 120 yards and 2 TDs not to mention a career high 2 receptions for 9 yards (Blount had just 4 catches in his entire tenure at Oregon). Blount never rushed less than 13 times after that and ended up rushing for over 1000 yards with just 7 games started and led them to being the 8th best rush attack. Tampa couldn’t give up easily on Cadillac Williams but the injury plagued RB made it easy starting 9 games and rushing for just 437 yards in 125 attempts and 2 TDs. Mike Williams became a huge reliable target for Freeman and caught 65 balls for 964 yards and 11 TDs coming out of Syracuse and making a huge impact in Tampa.

The Buccaneer’s may have made the least amount of moves in the off-season but Tampa filled some huge needs on defense through the Draft. Tampa ranked 9th in points allowed and 17th in total yards but they had a glaring need on the defensive line to rush the passer and stop the run. The Bucs ranked 7th in pass defense but their leading Sack getter was Stylez White with 4.5 and as cool as his name is Tampa was forced to get somebody else. They decided to reach on Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn who had a great 2009 season and mediocre 2010 season as a Hawkeye as well as some off the field issues including marijuana use. The Bucs also took a roll of the dice on Clemson DE Da’Quan Bowers with the 51st overall pick, who was a top tier Draft pick until some injury issues arose. The Bucs can wait on Bowers and when/if he gets healthy he could be worth the investment. Tampa’s CB Aqib Talib led the team with 6 INTs last season and had some off the field issues but Commissioner Roger Goodell decided not to suspend the young star and hopefully his antics will serve as a wake-up call.

I am not comfortable buying into the Bucs just yet, I believe that last year may have been a taste of the future but not the signs of the immediate future. Tampa Bay seems like a team that is going to take one step back before taking two steps forward. They are going to be a team to be reckoned with but right now they are still missing players at too many positions and don’t have the depth on their team to reproduce back to back 10 win seasons. I think that Freeman will grow as QB and Williams will be his main target but the Bucs need to get some other options to make their offense more reliable. The Bucs will still win some games but they won’t be vying for a Playoff spot and will likely finish the season 8-8 good enough for 3rd in the NFC South.

Key Arrivals:  DT John McCargo, P Michael Koenen.

Key Re-Signings: DE Tim Crowder, OLB Adam Hayward, DT Frank Okam, K Connor Barth, OT James Lee,  S Corey Lynch, CB Elbert Mack, WR Micheal Spurlock, OLB Quincy Black, OG Davin Joseph, OT Jeremy Trueblood.

Key Departures: DE Stylez G. White, MLB Niko Koutouvides, RB Cadillac Williams, TE John Gilmore, WR Maurice Stovall, MLB Barrett Ruud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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