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NFC South Preview

by Photo of Alex Kennedy

The division was extremely competitive last year, and the top three teams return just as strong.

NFC South Preview

The NFC South has the potential to be the most competitive division entering the 2011-12 NFL season.

The New Orleans Saints are an elite team that has solidified themselves as perennial contenders. The Atlanta Falcons, last year’s division champions, are ready to take the next step and compete for a championship. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the best up-and-coming teams in the league and are expected to pick up where they left off last season and compete for a playoff berth. The Carolina Panthers have a new regime and a promising future built around explosive rookie quarterback Cam Newton.

While these teams weren’t incredibly active this offseason, they retained many of their core pieces. The Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers will enter the season with chemistry and familiarity, which is important after an unusual offseason that kept teams from holding OTAs and communicating with their players.

Since the NFL’s divisional realignment in 2002, the NFC South has won two Super Bowls and experienced some of the best postseason success. Not only is this division competitive, it’s often unpredictable. All four teams have experienced life as a contender and bottom feeder at some point in time during recent years. It’s not uncommon for a team to go from worst to first in the NFC South, which always keeps things interesting.

This year, the division is somewhat top-heavy, but there are plenty of storylines to follow. Without further ado, here’s a look at our preseason rankings for the NFC East:

 

New Orleans Saints

Record Last Season: 11-5 (Wild Card, Lost in Wild Card Round to Seattle)

Key Additions: DE Cameron Jordan, RB Mark Ingram, LB Martez Wilson, CB Johnny Patrick, RB/KR Darren Sproles, C Olin Kreutz, DT Shaun Rogers, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DE Turk McBride, LB Will Herring, S Jonathon Amaya

Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey, DT Anthony Hargrove, CB Randall Gay, S Usama Young, DT Remi Ayodele, C Jonathan Goodwin, S/T Jason Kyle

The Skinny: The Saints are coming off of an excellent offseason that added offensive weapons in Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles as well as defensive contributors such as Shaun Rogers, Turk McBride and Aubrayo Franklin. Last season, New Orleans’ season was widely regarded as a disappointment since they only managed to win 11 games and ended on a sour note losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card game. However, they have corrected many of the problems that limited the team last season. Last year, their running game was ranked 28th in the league, but their newcomers should change that. Their rushing defense, on the other hand, was ranked 16th in the league, which is why the additions on the defensive line as so important. At the end of the day, many of the Saints’ key contributors from last season are back, which means we’ll see the same high-scoring team that could very well lead the league in passing and absolutely dominate their competition on a week-to-week basis.

Player to Watch: Darren Sproles – While the Saints have other options at running back in Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, Sproles was arguably their biggest offseason addition and will play a crucial role for New Orleans. With Reggie Bush out of the picture, Sproles will be used as the change-of-pace back under Sean Payton and he’ll also line up in the slot occasionally. Drew Brees loves to check down to his running backs, which means Sproles will put up numbers on the ground and through the air. He’s an explosive offensive player, but he’ll also make a difference in New Orleans’ return game. Payton is excited about Sproles and he’ll find a way to make use of his new toy.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 10.5 – When the Saints are clicking, they’re very difficult to beat and they enter this season projected as one of the top teams in the NFL. While Atlanta and Tampa Bay could challenge for the division title, New Orleans is the most experienced team of the group and have a smaller window to win. Drew Brees will do his best to guide the Saints back to the Super Bowl, but first the team must improve on last season’s 11-5 record.

 

Atlanta Falcons

Record Last Season: 13-3 (1st in NFC South, Lost in Divisional Round to Green Bay)

Key Additions: WR Julio Jones, LB Akeem Dent, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, K Matt Bosher, OG Andrew Jackson, DE Cliff Matthews, DE Ray Edwards

Key Losses: WR Michael Jenkins, DT Jamaal Anderson, WR Brian Finneran, OG Havey Dahl, P Michael Koenen

The Skinny: The Falcons made most of their offseason moves through the draft, but their sole free agent acquisition was a big one, literally and figuratively. Atlanta signed Ray Edwards to a 5-year, $30 million deal in an effort to strengthen their pass rush, which led to their pass defense finishing 22nd in the league last season. Edwards will team with John Abraham, which could be one of the best defensive end duos in the entire NFL. On the offensive end, the Falcons have many of the same weapons that allowed them to become the fifth-highest scoring team in the league last season. The trio of Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Michael Turner will continue to keep defensive coaches up at night, and the addition of Julio Jones will only make Atlanta harder to stop. Last season, Atlanta won the division, but lost in the playoffs to the would-be champion Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional game. This year, they’ll try to take the next step by solidifying themselves as an elite team and win the Super Bowl for the first time in their franchise’s history.

Player to Watch: Julio Jones – Roddy White is still the go-to guy in Atlanta, but Julio Jones gives Matt Ryan another downfield threat. Players and coaches have been raving about Jones during training camp and it’s becoming clear that he’ll be an instant impact player for the Falcons. Atlanta traded a total of five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to select Jones so it’s clear that the team sees him as a key piece going forward. Jones has tremendous speed and excellent hands, which will allow him to replace Michael Jenkins and then some, giving the Falcons another weapon in their offensive arsenal.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 10.5 – Atlanta and New Orleans are expected to battle it out for the division title, and the Falcons will have to work to defend their crown. However, they are one of the best teams on paper and they’ll only continue to get better. Matt Ryan, who just turned 26 years old, will continue to develop and his play will likely decide just how far the Falcons advance. They have the potential to be one of the best teams in the NFL if everything goes right in Atlanta.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record Last Season: 10-6

Key Additions: DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Da'Quan Bowers, LB Mason Foster, TE Luke Stocker, Ahmad Black, RB Allen Bradford, P Michael Koenen

Key Losses: LB Barrett Ruud and RB Cadillac Williams

The Skinny: Last season, the Buccaneers made huge strides as their young talent continued their development. Despite relying heavily on rookie contributors such as LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Gerald McCoy among others, the team won 10 games and exceeded all expectations. Over the offseason, the team sat out free agency, choosing to only add players through the draft. Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster are among the rookies that will be forced to step in and play right away. Entering this season, Tampa Bay will feature largely the same core, but they’ll have more experience under their belt and increased chemistry. During the offseason, the Buccaneers were one of several teams to organize team workouts, with nearly every player on the roster meeting at the famed IMG Academies in Florida. Now, they have a very tight-knit group and expectations are much higher. With that said, Tampa Bay’s schedule is increasingly difficult this season thanks to last year’s success.

Player to Watch: LeGarrette Blount – After a tremendous rookie season in which he rushed for 1,007 yards despite playing in only 13 games, Blount will be Tampa Bay’s primary rusher this season with the departure of Cadillac Williams. After playing in a crowded backfield last season, Blount won’t have much competition from other backs this year. He’ll receive more carries and will play on third downs, which he didn’t do last season. During the Buccaneers’ third preseason game, Blount also showed that he’ll be a threat in the passing game when he had three receptions for 62 yards. This will be Blount’s first time having an entire offseason and training camp with the Bucs, and unlike last year, he’ll know his role going into the opener. Blount was incredible last year, but he has the potential to be even better this season.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 8 – The Buccaneers won 10 games last season and exceeded everyone’s expectations. The downside of that success is that they’ll have a much more difficult schedule this year. Even if this team is better than the one that took the field last year, they’ll face tougher competition so topping last season’s win total will be difficult. However, it’s not impossible. If last year’s young talent such as Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, LeGarrette Blount, Arrelious Benn, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price pick up where they left off and continue to develop, the Bucs could compete for a playoff spot. Raheem Morris certainly has the team feeling confident heading into the season so they may be able to shock the world once again.

 

Carolina Panthers

Record Last Season: 2-14

Key Additions: TE Greg Olsen, TE Jeremy Shockey, PK Olindo Mare, QB Cam Newton, DT Terrell McClain, DT Sione Fua

Key Losses: DT Ron Edwards, CB Richard Marshall, QB Matt Moore, DT Derek Landri, DE Tyler Brayton, TE Jeff King

The Skinny: The Panthers will begin their rebuilding phase this season under new head coach Ron Rivera and franchise cornerstone Cam Newton. Last season, there weren’t many positive things to take from Carolina’s dreadful season, but they’ll try to turn things around under the new regime. They’ve added two reliable tight end targets for Newton, but if they make significant progress it’ll be because of internal improvements from the players already on the roster. Injuries to key contributors played a big part in last season’s struggle, which is why there is some optimism heading into this season.

Player to Watch: Cam Newton – In Carolina, all eyes will be on Newton. That comes with the territory when you’re the top overall pick in the draft. His development will be tracked nationally and every aspect of his game will be picked apart throughout the season. He has been outplaying Jimmy Clausen during the preseason and is expected to take over as the starter at some point during this season. He was the most electrifying player in college football last year and the nation is anxious to see if he can duplicate those results and live up to the hype.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 4.5 – It’s not easy being the rebuilding team in a top-heavy division. The Panthers should improve on last year’s win total, but it’ll be difficult for them to make considerable progress.


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