NFL Projections: The NFC SouthBREAKING NEWS, News, NFL Monday, August 27th, 2012
The standings in the 2012 NFC South won’t change much. While the gaps between New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina have grown slimmer, the pecking order remains the same. The Saints have taken a few hits to their coaching staff and defensive unit as a result of the off-season’s ‘Bounty Gate’ scandal, but the Falcons were unable to dramatically improve themselves on paper, and will put their hopes in their young talent taking another step forward. The Panthers were a tough out last season, and hope to get into the playoff mix if Cam Newton’s development progresses positively. The fourth-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made some strides in the off-season, but won’t be able to dramatically shake up the race.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a stunning 10-win season in 2010, the Buccaneers took no steps forward and countless steps back in 2011. Raheem Morris, a candidate for coach of the year in 2010 is now gone, and Greg Schiano takes over his job. Tampa Bay were big spenders in free agency, hauling in several Pro Bowl-caliber players in wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks, and cornerback Eric Wright to help fill some of the holes on this young squad.
Josh Freeman was among the team’s biggest disappointments last year. The young quarterback dramatically regressed in his development, and became a turnover machine, throwing 27 interceptions after tossing just nine in 2010. The team has tried to make life a little easier for him by giving him a number-one receiver in Jackson. The former Charger’s ability to stretch the field gives the team their most explosive receiving threat since Joey Galloway.
Tampa Bay also addressed the running back position, drafting Doug Martin in the first-round. They expect Martin to be an upgrade over LeGarrette Blount, and take over as the team’s featured back.
Tampa also made an effort to upgrade their defense, drafting safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick. They hope Barron will be the physical presence and leader that made him such a highly coveted prospect. The Bucs have spent a lot of high picks on the defensive side of the ball in recent years, but very few of these players have made strong impacts. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s career has been slowed by injuries, and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers has been steady but unable to discover the form that allowed him to excel in college. Cornerback Aquib Talib is a gifted playmaker, but has too many off-field problems for the team to count on him. Ronde Barber, the 16-year veteran, is running on fumes and heart at this point, but he’s still a dependable corner.
Tampa Bay has nice talent on paper. What they need is a good coach that can get that paper-talent to translate onto the field. Josh Freeman is by no means a lost cause, and if Schiano can get the fourth-year pro to get back to playing smart football, then there isn’t any reason why this team couldn’t be as competitive as they were in 2010. However, that being said the division and the NFC as a whole are much more competitive battlegrounds than they were two years ago, so no matter what improvements Freeman makes, it’s hard to imagine this team improving much on their 4-12 record of a year ago.
Projected Finish: 5-11, 4th place
The Panthers’ 6-10 record of 2011 doesn’t do the team justice in terms of how competitive they were. They lost seven games by a one score margin (eight points or less), and gave quite a few playoff teams some serious scares during the year. They’ve proven that they’re a team to be taken seriously, now they’ll set out to prove that they can not only compete in games, but finish them too.
The team’s turnaround revolved around one of the most gifted players in the game, quarterback Cam Newton. Newton’s performance in his rookie year was simply off of the charts. He threw for over 4,000 yards (most ever by an NFL rookie), and ran for over 500 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. He’s got all of the tools to become one of the premier quarterbacks in the game. A cannon arm, soft touch, elite mobility, and a strong frame.
The Panthers will support Newton once again with the DeAngelo Williams-Jonathan Stewart running back tandem. The two former first-rounders have complimented each other well throughout their careers, and will also be joined by free agent Mike Tolbert, who scored eight touchdowns for the Chargers in 2011.
Newton’s presence seemed to revitalize Steve Smith, who finished with almost 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. It was the first time Smith has gone over 1,000 yards since 2008. Tight end Greg Olsen should have a more expanded role in the offense now that he’s no longer splitting the duties with Jeremy Shockey. Carolina’s receiving corp is very limited outside of these two playmakers.
Defensively, the Panthers added one of the “can’t miss” prospects from the draft when they landed linebacker Luke Kuechly with their top pick. Kuechly is expected to be an instant starter in the middle, and should help stabilize the Carolina defense. He’ll be aided by the healthy return of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who both spent most last season on injured reserve.
The rest of the defense is a bit of a concern. The Panthers lack a dominate pass rusher, and also carry a suspect secondary with Chris Gamble being the only proven starter.
The Panthers will take another step forward this year. There isn’t any reason to believe that Newton will suffer a sophomore slump, and the team has a few less holes around him now that they’ve solidified their linebacker situation. However, the team still does have a number of issues that will prevent them from making a quantum leap in 2012. They need at least one more playmaker to emerge at wide receiver, and the holes on the defensive line and secondary will have to be addressed before this team can be expected to make the playoffs. But they are not far away.
Projected Finish: 9-7, 3rd place
Atlanta hasn’t changed much from a year ago, and in fact may have gotten a little worse on paper. The Falcons are now feeling the downside of the big Julio Jones trade from 2011. With no first-round pick, the team was unable to bring in a top young talent to help improve last year’s 10-6 team. They lost their best linebacker, Curtis Lofton, to the rival Saints in free agency, and replaced him with the injury-prone Lofa Tatupu, who was out of football last season.
If the Falcons are to take any step forward this year, it will be because of dramatic improvements from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Ryan has been around for four years now, but still has some room to grow. He’s spent the off-season trying to get into better shape to help him succeed more on the field. Jones didn’t disappoint as a rookie, catching eight touchdown passes, and should only get better with the help of Ryan and teammate Roddy White. White turned in another fine year himself, catching 80 passes for over 1,000 yards. Ageless Tony Gonzalez has also returned for at least one more season.
Michael Turner’s status is a concern to me. He’s had more than 1,200 carries combined in the past four seasons, and he’s now on the wrong side of 30. The Falcons have run him into the ground, and even though he still put up good numbers last season, I can’t expect him to be the same player moving forward.
The loss of Curtis Lofton is a big blow to this defense. He was a leader, and a true every-down linebacker. The team will try to replace him with veteran Lofa Tatupu, but even if the former Seahawk stays healthy (which is a big if), he’s a band-aid and not an answer at this point.
The Falcons hope for better seasons from defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards. Edwards was disappointing as a free agent signing last year, recording just 3.5 sacks. Abraham still put up 9.5 sacks in 2011, but he’s getting older and becoming less effective. The team will have to find ways to preserve him.
Atlanta’s biggest off-season move was acquiring Asante Samuel from the Eagles for a seventh-round pick, but the corner hasn’t been able to beat out Dunta Robinson or Brian Grimes for a starting job. Samuel won’t take a bench role well, and I don’t expect him to give the Falcons much this year.
It’s hard to get excited about the Falcons. While you can always point to Matt Ryan and the passing offense as reason for hope, the rest of the team just isn’t impressive. They made no meaningful additions in the off-season, and lost their best defensive player to their division rival. With the Carolina Panthers making significant strides, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this team fall to third place this year. To be clear, by no means is this an awful team, I just see a lot of teams in the division (and conference) dramatically improving, and the Falcons aren’t one of them. But of respect for Ryan and his weapons, I still have them finishing in second place.
Projected Finish: 10-6, 2nd place
New Orleans Saints
Amidst an off-season stocked with scandal and suspension, the New Orleans Saints enter the 2012 season a weakened team. Head coach Sean Payton will not coach a game in 2012. Defensive leader Jonathan Vilma is currently suspended for the year as well (though still fighting to have his suspension reduced to eight games), and even interim coach Joe Vitt will serve a six-game suspension to start the season, meaning New Orleans will go with an interim-interim head coach. In spite of all of this chaos, the Saints are still without question the top dog in this division. When you look past the off-season drama, the Saints have actually improved on paper.
Drew Brees is still in place, and that’s more than enough to keep the Saints going strong. Throwing for over 5,400 yards, the All-Pro is one of the great passers of the last decade, and is more than capable of guiding his team in the absence of Payton. Although he lost speedy wideout Robert Meachem to free agency, Brees still has a deep group of weapons, including a 1,000 yard receiver in Marques Colston, and a tight end that enjoyed a breakout year with over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns in Jimmy Graham. His offensive line took a bit of a hit when the team lost Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency, but the team found a capable replacement in former Raven Ben Grubbs.
The Saints used a three-headed running back-by-committee approach last year that served them well. Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Darren Sproles each bring something unique to the table, and it’s difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to gameplan for all three of them.
Although the Saints have temporarily lost Jonathan Vilma on defense, they added a good amount of talent and depth to that side of the ball through free agency, signing linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and former Eagles defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Lofton and Hawthorne are a pair or established linebackers that can play either inside or outside. When Vilma returns in the future, this will be a formidable group. The defense is now run by Steve Spagnulo, who has a reputation of being one of the league’s best defensive minds.
Even though they’ve lost Sean Payton for the season, the Saints still added a good deal of talent to their roster. Payton’s absence will no doubt be felt, and without him the team might not be able to win a Super Bowl, but this is an established, veteran team that has played together for a number of years and has been very successful. As long as Drew Brees is healthy, they’ll stay on top of the division.
Projected Finish: 11-5, 1st place
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