When people in the South talk about football, it usually revolves around the college game. After all, the SEC is widely regarded as the best conference in the NCAA, when it comes to the college game. However, in the last five seasons, the South has risen in the professional game, particularly the NFC South division. Teams such as Atlanta and New Orleans have become powerhouse clubs, (the Saints winning the Super Bowl in 2009 as an example) while Carolina and Tampa Bay are young teams on the rise. Here’s a closer look on how the NFC South could shape up in 2013.
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Additions: Keenan Lewis, CB (FA, Pittsburgh) Benjamin Watson, TE (FA, Cleveland) Luke McCown, QB (FA, Atlanta) Jim Leonhard, S (FA, Denver)
Subtractions: Jermon Bushrod, T (FA, Chicago) Devrey Henderson, WR (FA, Washington)
The biggest boost for the Saints this season, is the return of head coach Sean Payton. The man who guided the Saints to the Super Bowl title in 2009, returns after a one year suspension, for his role in the Bountygate scandal. We all know that Payton is an offensive guru, but he also brings a sense of stability and leadership that the Saints sorely missed last season. No one felt Payton’s absence more than Drew Brees. The Saints quarterback, who is entering his 12th season, still put up gaudy numbers last season, completing 62.9% of his pass attempts for 5,177 and 43 touchdowns. However, Brees also had 19 passes picked off, which was the second highest of his career. Brees needs to cut down the interceptions, and many believe Payton’s schemes and play-calling will ease the burden off of the quarterback. The loss of Devrey Henderson will hurt the Saints passing game, but the pick up of tight end Benjamin Watson from Cleveland, could be a benefit on third down situations. The defense was and still is a work in progress. The Saints hired the uncivilized Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, replacing the dismissed Steve Spagnuolo. Ryan is a blitz-happy maniac who won’t pull any punches, just like his father Buddy, and brother Rex. However, the defensive personnel for the Saints is still in need of an upgrade. That being said, the rules that are preventing defenses of using excessive force should be a benefit to the Saints high-powered offense. This team will need to outscore their opponents and it says here that they will most of the time.
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Additions: Stephen Jackson, RB (FA, St. Louis) Osi Umenyiora, DE (FA, New York Giants)
Subtractions: Michael Turner, RB (Released) John Abraham, DE (Released, Arizona) Dunta Robinson, CB (Released, Kansas City)
The Atlanta Falcons motto is “Rise Up.” During the regular season, the Falcons have done just that, going 36-12 over the last three seasons combined. However, the playoffs tell a different tale. Atlanta has choked worse than Greg Norman on the back-nine at Augusta, going 1-3 in the postseason during that span. The main culprit for the Falcons woes has been a pass rush that is weaker than a 1983 Ford Escort. The Falcons ranked 28th in sacks last season, and their lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback, left them vulnerable in other areas of the defense. This was exposed during the playoffs as Atlanta blew a 20 point fourth quarter lead against Seattle, (although they did win at the end) then followed that up by blowing a 17 point lead against San Francisco in the NFC Championship game, a game the Falcons lost 28-24. This prompted a change in Dixie. Oft-injured defensive end John Abraham was released, and in came defensive end, Osi Umenyiora from the New York Giants. Umenyiora does bring a championship pedigree, as his two Super Bowl rings suggest. But he will need to show more consistency than he did last season in the Meadowlands. His six sacks were the lowest of his career since his rookie season, and he looked lost and disinterested throughout the season. The Falcons are hoping a change of scenery will revitalize Umenyiora’s career. The offense remains the strength of the team. Matt Ryan enjoyed an outstanding 2012 season, in which he completed 68.6% of his pass attempts for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Ryan should be aided by the addition of running back Stephen Jackson, who came over from St. Louis via free agency. Jackson desperately wants to play for a winner, and feels that Atlanta is close to the Super Bowl. Roddy White and Julio Jones might be the best receiver tandem in the NFL, while the offensive line is solid. The Falcons have all the tools. But the psychological effect of past playoff failures still looms over the franchise. With an improved New Orleans team on the prowl, Atlanta will be in tough to repeat as division champions.
3. Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Additions: Ted Ginn Jr. WR (FA, San Francisco) Drayton Florence, CB (FA, Detroit) D.J. Moore, CB (FA, Chicago) Mike Mitchell, S (FA, Oakland) Chase Blackburn, LB (FA, New York Giants) Domenik Hixon, WR (FA, New York Giants)
Subtractions: Chris Gamble, CB (Retired) Louis Murphy, WR (FA, New York Giants) Gary Barnidge, TE (FA, Cleveland) Mike Pollak, C (FA, Cincinnati) Antwan Applewhite, DE (FA, Miami) Ron Edwards, DE (Released) Andre Neblett, DT (FA, Tampa Bay) James Anderson, LB (FA, Chicago) Jason Phillips, LB (FA, Philadelphia)
The Panthers will go as far as Cam Newton can take them. There is no denying Newton’s talent and potential. However, putting your team’s hopes on Newton is akin to putting your retirement plan on the blackjack table at Caesar’s Palace. There is no high risk/high reward player in the NFL than the Panthers quarterback. The former Auburn star did put up decent numbers last season, completing 57.7% of his pass attempts for 3,869 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But his attitude was called for questioning during the 2012 season. Many thought it was that Newton wasn’t called upon to run with the football as much as his rookie season, especially near the goal line. His 8 rushing touchdowns were six fewer than in 2011. Newton did play better in the second half of the season, and the Panthers are hoping that trend continues into 2013. Newton does have talent surrounding him, with DeAngelo Williams carrying the load at running back and Steve Smith as the number one receiver. Smith, though is 34 years old, and one wonders how long can the future Hall Of Fame wideout can last. The defense has a budding superstar in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and are hoping that the additions of Chase Blackburn and Drayton Florence, can further stabilize the defense. Carolina’s biggest problem is the division itself. New Orleans and Atlanta are formidable foes and it will be difficult for Carolina to overtake them.
4. Tampa Bay (4-12)
Additions: Dashon Goldson, S (FA, San Francisco) Darrelle Revis, CB (Trade, New York Jets) Brian Leonard, RB (FA, Cincinnati) Derek Landri, DT (FA, Philadelphia) Peyton Hillis, RB (FA, Kansas City) Rian Lindell, K (FA, Buffalo)
Subtractions: LeGarrette Blount, RB (Trade, New England) Eric Wright, CB (Released) Arrelious Benn, WR (Trade, Philadelphia) Dan Orlovsky, QB (Released) Ronde Barber, CB (Retired) Dallas Clark, TE (FA, Baltimore) Jeremy Trueblood, T (FA, Washington) Michael Bennett, DE (FA, Seattle)
When Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in 2002, they were led by a ferocious defense. Last year, the Bucs defense was a ferocious as a teddy bear. The Bucs ranked 23rd in points allowed and were 29th in yards allowed. Their pass defense was atrocious, as the Bucs were dead last in defending the pass, giving up an average of 297.3 yards through the air. The Goodyear Blimp provided better aerial coverage than the Bucs in 2012. Cue the changes. The Bucs are hoping Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis can upgrade the secondary. The hard-hitting Goldson comes over from San Francisco via free agency in hopes to provide some physicality to the secondary. Revis was acquired from the New York Jets in hopes to shut down the opponents top receivers. The Bucs could also do with a better pass rush as well. Tampa were 29th in the NFL, with a mere 26 sacks. To make matters worse, their sack leader, Michael Bennett bolted to Seattle in the offseason. It is time for former first round pick Gerald McCoy to become the dominant defensive player, the Bucs were expecting the 2010 third overall pick to be. The Bucs offense was solid last season, thanks to productive seasons from quarterback Josh Freeman and running back Doug Martin. Freeman completed 54.8% of his passes for 4,065 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was hidden gem on the Bucs roster. Vincent Jackson is a big receiver who provides a sizeable target for Freeman to throw to. However, none of that will matter, unless the Bucs pass defense improves immeasurably. With pass-happy teams like Atlanta and New Orleans dominating the division, the Buccaneers could be in for a long season.
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