NFC South Primer

The NFC South has to be considered one of the hardest divisions to predict before training camp.  Every season, all four teams have the potential to take home the division crown. If you want receivers, this division has a plethora of them. If you want quarterbacks, two are in the top 6 pivots in the league, one is on the cusp of the top 10 and the other has all the tools to join such a discussion. My series of primers continues with the NFC South.

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The New Orleans Saints were historically bad on defense. They got torched, barbecued, sautéed and charbroiled. No, this is not Rob Ryan’s favorite ways to cook his meat. This was how badly their secondary and defense performed all season.  They were last in rushing yards allowed per game and second last in passing yards allowed in total.

Ryan will replace Steve Spagnuolo and will implement his complex 3-4 schemes. The first aspect that will be noticed the most by Saints fans, will be the return of an attacking and opportunistic style of defense, similar to the one they had when Gregg Williams was running that unit. Rob Ryan is very boisterous and he will bring energy and accountability to a team that allowed an NFL record 7,042 yards.

The one lasting image I had in almost every Saints highlight package was Roman Harper chasing a running back or wide receiver down the field because he or another one of his teammates blew an assignment. Kenny Vaccarro, will come in and make plays instantly. He has range and speed, which will allow him to easily cover receivers and tight ends. The rest of their secondary, which features the solid play of Jabari Greer, and up and coming Patrick Robinson, will need to play better than they did last season. The new scheme, which will be predicated on pressure from all positions, will help compliment the pass rush with the back end.

As much as the scheme will put players in a position to succeed and attack the quarterback, you still need players to get to the quarterback. Apart from Will Smith, there truly are no reputable pass rushers on this team. Victor Butler was signed from the Cowboys and has some skill, but he underachieved in his time in big D. Junior Galette will surprise a lot of people. He is on the shorter side, but is a physical and an underrated athlete. He was quite disruptive during stretches last season.

The offense gets a much-needed boost with the return of Sean Payton. We were wrong in assuming that Drew Brees’ presence alone would be enough to keep the Saints afloat without their coach. In fact, Brees was prone to the giveaway (19 interceptions) and a completion percentage of 63% that was a far cry from his previous three seasons where he posted 70.6, 68.1 and 71.2.

With the return of Payton, not only will this affect the game planning, but he also has a significant role in play calling, even if the primary duties will be relinquished this season. The Saints appear to want to feature the run game more and with Mark Ingram continuing to improve, Pierre Thomas a terrific all around runner and Darren Sproles as an outlet out of the backfield, this will create countless opportunities for their passing game.

I need to say this, as not enough people know how good he is, but Lance Moore is the team’s best receiver. He has the best hands and is one of the best receivers in the red zone. He s a machine on third downs and he stands to gain the most from Sean Payton’s return.

The Saints still have the type of firepower on offense to win the division. Their defense absolutely cannot be as porous as it was last season, however. The health of Jimmy Graham’s wrist and hopefully more of a reliance on the run game will be the keys for Drew Brees to reduce his turnovers.

I am slightly concerned with their offensive line, but that is a unit that they have developed well. When they lost LeCharles Bentley a few years ago, they recovered. When they lost Ben Grubbs, they recovered as well. I am confident they will find an adequate replacement for Jermon Bushrod.

The Carolina Panthers have made very apparent improvements since the drafting of Cam Newton in 2011. Their first season was truly a rebuilding year in which, despite Newton, there was not much of a talent base. After a good draft, in 2012 with the addition of Luke Kuechly, who had a tremendous defensive rookie season, the Panthers still only finished 7-9. However, the team showed strides after a mediocre start, winning their final 4 games.

The fortunes of this team depend on number 1. He is their charismatic leader, although he does not have the captaincy yet, he has requested such a title for the upcoming season.

Newton dazzles us with his elite arm, extremely quick release and his ability to run as freely and smoothly as a running back, despite his 6-5, 250 lbs. frame.

His weaknesses are aspects that are easy to curb. Maturity needs to improve, as he was the victim of terrible press conference body language last season. The celebrations are nice, but just further purport a diva personality that many seem to think he has.

Hopefully Newton seeking a captaincy role is joined with increased maturity and an ability to realize they win and lose as a team. During their winning streak, he appeared much more mature.

Decision-making and accuracy are traits that most young quarterbacks struggle with during their first couple of seasons. Ultimately, Newton needs more help to truly be one of the elite quarterbacks that we all envision he can and will be.

The rest of the offense is still a work in progress. Steve Smith, who had over 1100 yards receiving, is entering his 13th season and while he is still as tough as they come with the same bulldog mentality, he is getting up there in years.

In the interim, a true number two wide receiver is needed as Smith still commands double teams, but long-term, it will be soon time to ponder a replacement. I like Brandon LaFell who has had good games, but consistency is still an issue. The Panthers are hoping to get something from the oft injured, yet talented Dominick Hixon.

Greg Olson is becoming one of the better tight ends in the NFC and had a career high 69 catches for over 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. It will be very interesting to see how the defection of Rob Chudzinski, to coach the Browns, will affect Newton and Olson. Coach “Chud” is known to have an offense that is geared towards a multitude of looks towards the tight end. It will be imperative, with the Panthers having an average corps of wide receivers, for Olson to stay involved.

The offense line is solid featuring two Pro Bowlers in Ryan Kalil and veteran Jordan Gross. Byron Bell is a big right tackle that has a lot of potential.

In terms of the running game, this needs to be the season in which Newton is not the leading rusher. While his dual threat capabilities make him so dynamic, allowing your quarterback to take this much of a beating is akin for an eventual injury.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have not always meshed well in the running game, despite the propensity for most teams in today’s NFL to feature two running backs. Ideally Stewart, as the younger back, should start to take ownership of that position. He is a more complete running back and is built to take on a heavier workload. Having said that, Williams has outperformed Stewart in back-to-back seasons. If you factor in Mike Tolbert, you have a running back situation that is eerily similar to the one in New Orleans. The Panthers do not need to look far to see how a team can properly utilize 3 talented runners.

On defense, the Panthers added much needed youth at the defensive tackle spot, with the drafting of Star Lotulelei. If not for concerns about a heart condition, Lotulelei would have easily been a top 5 pick. He combines terrific strength and nimble feet. He will be a force as a pass rusher and versus the run.

Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson form one of the better bookend duo’s at the defensive end position, both combining for over 24 sacks last season

The linebacker corps is as good as there is in the division, when healthy. Luke Kuechly played as well as a rookie linebacker could have played, leading the league in tackles. He will be a perennial Pro Bowler for years to come. Jon Beason unfortunately has only played in 5 games over the past 2 seasons. When healthy, he is one of the more intimidating linebackers and most productive in the league. He will be changing positions as Kuechly is firmly entrenched at the middle linebacker position. If his teammate Thomas Davis, who also has endured a plethora of injuries over the past few years can bounce back, Beason surely can as well.

The secondary is weak, especially with the release then retirement of Chris Gamble.  Chris Godfrey is virtually the only position that is set in stone before camp opens in a little less than a month. The fact that none of their draft picks were used to improve the weakest aspect of their defensive unit is head scratching to say the least. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore are veterans who will help out, but they should only be considered in nickel situations.

The talent is there for Carolina, both on offense and defense. If Cam Newton becomes an elite quarterback, that could be enough to propel them to a wild-card birth, despite their deficiencies. Ultimately, that secondary will need to be sound, with the big money receivers in this division and quarterbacks who love spreading the ball around. Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, who replaced Jimmy Johnson in Philadelphia after his passing, leads the Panthers defense. He has always favored an attacking style of defense and will need to compensate for a young and inexperienced secondary.

The Atlanta Falcons were 10 yards away from reaching the Super Bowl. After a terrific season, the disappointment of not making it all the way must still sting for the likes of Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.

As soon as the offseason opened, general manager Thomas Demitroff went straight to work. Tony Gonzalez was convinced to return, Osi Umenyiora was signed to provide a big presence in the pass rush, Steven Jackson was added to be the finishing touch at running back and their secondary was given a makeover.

The Falcons will live and die by their offense. I have been a critic of Matt Ryan for many years, but he demonstrated he finally belongs in the upper echelon of top tier quarterbacks.  He improved his deep ball passing, which was previously a weakness of his and his ability to read defensives and throw with pinpoint accuracy made him an MVP candidate.  He posted career highs in completion percentage (68%), passing yards (4,719) and touchdowns with 32. I would not be surprised with an even better running game; those numbers improve with more opportunities.

Ryan must take the next step and continue to win playoff games and come through in the clutch if he is to become a perennial elite quarterback. The loss to the 49ers was not his fault, but now that he is established, he cannot revert to being simply an above average quarterback, which is what happened to the likes of Philip Rivers and Michael Vick after Pro Bowl seasons.

Remove any bias you have, regarding who has the best wide receiver duo in the league. Roddy White and Julio Jones take the prize and by a wide margin. When you factor in Harry Douglass who is a very solid slot receiver and Tony Gonzalez who continues to defy the test of time with his terrific production, you have the makings of a top 3 overall receiving corps in the NFL.  White continues to move the chains and can beat you short, deep, intermediate or catch a hitch and turn it in 7. Not much more can be said about Julio Jones during his first two seasons. He is an athletic marvel who made spectacular catches all throughout the season. White is still the man though. Jones is great to watch as he makes all the flashy plays, but White is the go to guy when it matters the most. Regardless, all 3 will combine for over 3000 of Matt Ryan’s yards again.

Matt Ryan now has Steven Jackson as his featured back.  I made a blog post a few months ago regarding running backs turning 30 years old. While Jackson has always been in tremendous shape, he has taken quite a beating in his career and runners going into the wrong side of 30 typically break down rather quickly. As long as he can remain solid, he will provide better and more consistent production than Michael Turner who is generally useless in the passing game, contrary to Jackson who has caught 90 passes in a season already, albeit almost 6 seasons ago.

Dirk Koetter is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and he will absolutely find a way to best utilize Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who was explosive in spurts last season. The offensive line is made for pass blocking, which makes sense as they throw the ball the 8th most amount of times in the league and ran it the 6th fewest.

If you watched any Falcons games last season, you knew that their short yardage offense was one of the worst in the league. Whether it was Turner or the offensive line, there was an inability to consistently get enough of a push on 3rd or 4th and short situations. That is possibly why Mike Smith went with the quicker Jacquizz Rodgers during those moments.

Defensively, the Falcons had some issues with defending the pass. Brent Grimes being out for the season surely did not help. In addition, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel do not cover like they used to. Due to their misfortunes and lack of pass coverage last season, they drafted two corners with their first two picks. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford can both run and have high upside as coverage players.

The combination of safeties is not an issue for the Falcons though. Both William Moore and Thomas Decoud had 10 interceptions between them and they each made over 70 tackles. Decoud and Moore complement each other so well because they can both play the pass, but also help stop the run and are not confined to the strong safety and free safety label that many back end players are confined to.

The pass rush will be asked to provide much more production than the 29 sacks recorded last season, which was 28th in the league. Gone is John Abraham, who accounted for 10 of those. The latter was quite impressive despite the fact that he virtually was only on the field on 3rd downs and obvious passing situations. Osi Umenyiora, who is an Atlanta native, will have the pressure of having the most acumen as a pass rusher. It will be interesting to see how he fares on a team that does not have as much depth on the defensive line as the Giants did, apart from Jonathan Babineaux who is one of the more solid 3-techniques.

On special teams, Matt Bryant remains one of the most consistent kickers. He showed that during his big kick against the Seahawks during the terrific Divisional round game.

The Falcons have all the necessary elements to be Super Bowl contenders, at least offensively. Despite what all experts say, their defense is still a weakness and they need to add more depth to their front four. A possible return by John Abraham would not shock me at all. Their back end has the potential to flourish on the strength of their safeties. If Trufant and Alford can come in and immediately make an impact, that will provide a huge boost. It will be tough with the amount of great receivers in the NFC though.

Once again, they will be favored to take the NFC South, but it will not be easy with the coaching return of Sean Payton and improvement of the Buccaneers.

I saved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for last because they made the most noise during the offseason. Not only with their acquisitions, but Greg Schiano made some bold statements as well.

Last season was a tale of 3 Buccaneers teams and 3 versions of Josh Freeman. During their first four games, in which they combined for a 1-3 record, Josh Freeman had a quarterback rating of 75.2 with 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.

They went on to win 5 out of their next 6 and Freeman exploded with a rating of 110.6. He was making all the throws and what had plagued him in the past (the bone-headed turnovers), was non-existent as he threw for 16 touchdowns and 3 interception during that span. Conversely, Doug Martin came into the scene and exploded showing why he was the best rookie running back last season.

The final 6 games was a return to mediocrity for Josh Freeman, with a quarterback rating of 67.2. The Buccaneers lost 5 out of 6 and were never close to a playoff spot.

All that was to say their fortunes are virtually tied to which Josh Freeman we see. When he is on, his arm strength and ability to consistently get the ball downfield are as good as anyone in the game. When he is off, however, turn off the lights because he can be brutal.

The Buccaneers brass of Head Coach Greg Schiano and GM Mark Dominik challenged Freeman not only by drafting quarterback Mike Glennon, but also proclaiming that Freeman still has a lot to prove before he is given a long-term contract.

The weapons are there with Vincent Jackson who had a big season and Mike Williams who established himself as a perfect complimentary receiver.

Doug Martin, as mentioned before, exploded with big games against the Raiders and Vikings amassing back-to-back rushing days of over 200 yards He finished just shy of 1500 yards rushing and amassed 11 touchdowns. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield is an underrated trait and will help Freeman to curb his turnover issues.

With the return of David Joseph from injury, you would be hard pressed to find a better offensive line, which also features Carl Nicks and Donald Penn.  It would not be a shock if Doug Martin bettered his numbers of a season ago.

Defensively, obviously Darrelle Revis’ addition will make all the head waves, but the core of that defense, even before the Revis addition is young and stellar. Gerald McCoy is a top ranked 3-technique who has the tools to get up to double digits in sacks on a year-to-year basis. Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborne (returning from injury) need to step up however. With the defection of Michael Bennett to Seattle and his 10 sacks, the two former first-round picks need to show a higher level of production.

The linebacker corps, which has been a sore spot for the Buccaneers since the retiring of Derrick Brooks, is finally returning to form. Lavonte David had an elite type of season and he looks poised to be one of the best weak side linebackers in the NFC.

I do not know if there is something about NFC South pass defenses, or maybe it is due to the great quarterbacks in the division, but the Bucs lead the way in atrocious pass defenses, ranked 32nd in the league, with the Saints (ranked 31st) and Falcons not too far behind.  Obviously, this gave way to the Bucs trading their 1st round pick to Darrelle Revis and giving him a big contract, albeit with no guaranteed money. On the surface, Revis and Eric Wright make a formidable cornerback duo, as long as Wright stays out of trouble and regains his form of a few seasons ago and of course, Revis is fully recovered from a torn ACL.

The safety duo of Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson is what I am actually really looking forward to seeing. Goldson was the best safety outside of Jairus Bird last season. He can lay the hammer and provide lullabies to opposing receivers as good as anyone, but he is also a hawk against the pass.

Barron is young and still needs to prove himself, but he also is a force as box safety. The potential is there for this secondary to be as good as any in the league. Health and the way they mesh will be key, however, as this will not be the first time a team has loaded up their secondary in the offseason, yet failed miserably (The Eagles are one example).

The Buccaneers are the wild card of the division. Typically the Falcons and Saints are the teams that are thought to be the front-runners, but top to bottom of the roster, if everything falls into place, the Buccaneers may have the most formidable team. The talent is there at virtually every position and if the front and back ends can compliment each other and Josh Freeman reverts back to his 2010 season, where he posted a 95 quarterback rating, we are looking at a 10 win team at the very least.

On my next series of primers, I look forward to talk about the division that has made all the raves this offseason: The NFC West.

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