The NFC South is a division to keep your magnifying glass over in 2013. Of course, the Atlanta Falcons are favorites to take it after coming within 20 yards or so of representing the NFC in the Superbowl last year. But the competition isn’t going to lie down quietly, and there’s plenty of it amongst the other squads. Tampa Bay has steadily improved their roster over the past several years and could be primed to make a big push. New Orleans is coming off of a season in limbo due to the Bountygate suspensions, but with Sean Payton back in the fold, they could surprise a lot of people. Don’t discount the Panthers, either, who now have superstar-caliber talent on both sides of the ball with a dynamic QB and one of the league’s best linebackers.
1 – Atlanta Falcons
All that talk of competition is one thing, but I’m not going to be the guy who ignores what I see for what I believe. The Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFL in 2012, and there is little reason to think that won’t continue into the upcoming season. Their QB has finally donned the “elite” tag and absolutely deserves it, he has some excellent tools at his disposal and there’s just enough on the defense to keep things steady.
Of course, Matty Ice is a top-10 QB and progressively gotten better each season. It doesn’t hurt having a Roddy White to throw to, but the addition of Tony Gonzalez (and the team’s motivating him to return for one last year) a couple of years ago made a huge difference. Add Julio Jones to the mix, and you’ve got too much for most defenses to handle. Jones is, by my estimation, on his way to an amazing career, and has just begun to show what he’s capable of. Behind Ryan, the team made a clear upgrade at HB by swapping out the worn down Michael Turner for ex-Rams workhorse Steven Jackson. Jackson has more tread left on the tires, and should play a pivotal role in balancing the offense out. Don’t discount 3rd down back Jacquizz Rodgers, either. He always seems to make the most out of his touches.
While Atlanta won the South based almost entirely on their offensive firepower, they have a few key defensive players that keep the unit moderately respectable. Sean Weatherspoon is a heads-up player who keeps his nose near the ball, and most of the defensive line is servicable. Newcomer Osi Unemyiora may or may not be an upgrade over John Abraham as a pass rusher, that much remains to be seen. In the back end, first round pick Desmond Trufant will start alongside Asante Samuel, and Thomas Decoud is a solid safety. Combined, they may give Atlanta the secondary it needs to compensate for a lackluster pass rush.
Causes For Concern:
Offensively, the only real issue may be run blocking, but with Steven Jackson taking the carries, yardage after contact will be a key stat for him. The interior O-Line isn’t great by any means, but with enough reps blocking for Jackson, they should gel into an effective running game overall early into the season. If they don’t, the offense may struggle to keep defenses from swarming their receivers.
The defense is much more of a worry at this point, and it’s entirely possible that it could cost the Falcons a game or three before the season is over. That lack of a pass rush that I mentioned is enough to get many teams burned, regardless of the talent of their back four. Certain players, including Umenyiora and other underachievers, have to step up and disrupt the pocket in order to help the team maintain their leads and make running the ball more of a luxury to be taken advantage of, and not a non-option when trying to keep pace passing the ball.
They’ll win the division, and more likely than not homefield advantage as well. The high level of talent offensively, and the potential ability of the defense to improve, lead me to believe that Atlanta will once again find themselves playing for the Superbowl. Whether or not they can get over that last hurdle before the big game is anyone’s guess, but they’ve got as good a chance at is as almost any other team in the NFC.
2 – New Orleans Saints
Many won’t be willing to do so, but I’m chalking 2012 up as a fluke for the Saints. With Head Coach Sean Payton unable to even communicate with his team, they looked lost at times, and key suspensions and changes in defensive strategies left them wide open to be taken advantage of. With Payton back in the fold, a wiser defensive mind in Rob Ryan focusing his know-how on the team’s weakest half, and the endlessly talented Drew Brees, it wouldn’t shock me to see New Orleans in the playoff hunt down the stretch.
It all starts with Brees, and the rapport he and Payton have at making the offense click on all cylinders. Marques Colston has long been the best option in the passing game, but your Lance Moores and the like always find room to make things happen in one of the best coached offenses in the league. Jimmy Graham is probably the elite of elite at the TE position right now, and Darren Sproles is a fantastic all-purpose weapon. When the Saints won the Superbowl in 2009, they were a top ten running team, and conversations with offensive personnel have led fans to believe they’ll be recommitting to it in 2013. With a deep backfield and a chance for former 1st round pick Mark Ingram to finally prove his worth with an increased workload, a balanced Saints offense might be the most dangerous in the NFL.
It’s hard to point to the defense and find a strength, but Rob Ryan will milk it out of the few players who have shown signs of playmaking ability in the past. Johnathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton must solidify the interior of the defense, and both are capable of doing so. Cameron Jordon’s 8 sacks in 2012 could easily be improved on in his 3rd season. So much depends on Ryan getting the most out of what little talent he has, and also in making the new 3-4 scheme work, that he’s probably the key guy to focus on when the Saints don’t have the ball. Wise play calling and substitutions can help mask a lack of talent.
Causes For Concern:
If Brees has to do it all, he can, but the Saints are obviously a better team when they can reliably move the chains with the running game. Pierre Thomas is penciled in as the starter, but Mark Ingram has to make the most out of his touches, as Thomas is nothing more than a glorified spell back. Ingram has the raw potential to be a solid starter; it’s time to start living up to it.
The defense is a giant question mark with particular weaknesses in pass rushing and secondary ability. As I’ve already gone into, if the coaching staff can’t put together something to get the most out of the limited talent on the field, the Saints offense could be playing catch up and/or keep pace for 16 straight games.
If Payton’s return resurrects balance and superiority in the offense, and Rob Ryan coaxes something at least partially better out of one of the league’s worst defenses, New Orleans will compete for a wildcard spot. Don’t expect them to overcome the Falcons, and don’t be shocked if they fall a bit further in the division as well; it all hinges on possibilities becoming realities and one extreme weakness being improved upon.
3 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs’ first season under Greg Schiano wasn’t a total failure, but 7-9 somehow seemed a few games off of how well the team played at times. After an offseason spent grabbing up big names like Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, the team didn’t rest its wallet this time around, trading a 1st round pick for ex-Jet Derrelle Revis and brought in Dashon Goldson from the 49ers as well. All in all, this team has the look of a playoff contender, but it all hinges on a guy named Josh Freeman, who has been up, down and back again in his short tenure in the NFL.
When things are going right, Freeman plays at a level that most QBs are unable to meet. On the other side of the coin, Freeman can be an overly frustrated (and frustrating) turnover machine who tempts his coaches to actually pull him. Don’t think the team spending a 3rd rounder on Mike Glennon was just a grab at a developmental backup: if Freeman flounders in 2013, you can expect Glennon (or somebody not currently on the roster) to have the job next year. Regardless, there is plenty to like about this offense, including the young phenom Doug Martin, who was all over the field last year whether running the ball or catching it. He is the type of offensive centerpiece that should let everything else work better around him. Vincent Jackson didn’t disappoint in his first season in Tampa Bay, but Carl Nicks ended up injured for the year. His return can only spell an improved offensive line that was better than average in 2012.
The defense has more than a couple of underrated players. Lavonte David make a big impression at OLB, and I’m high on the potential of 2nd round pick Johnathan Banks as a nickelback and eventual successor to Leonard Johnson at the 2nd CB spot. Mark Barron had a quietly successful rookie season, and being teamed next to the enforcing Goldson will free him up more to utilize his natural playmaking capabilities.
Causes For Concern:
Josh Freeman has to be at the top of his game, no matter how good Doug Martin is in his 2nd season. The dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ is not something I believe in, but you can’t expect Martin to carry the Bucs into the postseason. The team is high on Mike Williams opposite Vincent Jackson, and he’ll need to continue to be a solid outlet for Freeman, because beyond the two WRs, the passing options are limited. The TE position is unproven and nothing special.
Two players on defense need to start living up to their potential: Da’Quan Bowers and Gerald McCoy. Injuries are one thing, but inconsistencies can no longer be excused for two guys who were drafted to be centerpieces of a defensive line that desperately needs them to be. The new pieces in the secondary have to make a difference, because the Bucs were one of the worst teams in the league in terms of pass defense in 2012.
It depends on Freeman, it depends on Martin, and it depends on the new pieces in the secondary making things happen. Freeman is the real key, but Doug Martin is good enough to carry this team pretty far…perhaps far enough for a wild card slot. Their schedule is tough, so they’ll have to be tougher, and the potential is clearly there. Turning that into results is the next step.
4 – Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton is something else and has been the most productive QB in the history of the NFL in his first two seasons. His attitude is, at times, not what you want to see from a guy who should be leading his team forward, but lets see if Ron Rivera can’t make a difference there. In fact, Rivera better make some big changes, because another 7-9 season is going to see him looking for a new job more likely than not. A new offensive system, with more focus on the running game, and a defense that is steadily improving might be enough to get them over the big hump of talented teams in front of them.
Technically, despite the 3 teams besides the Falcons finishing 7-9 in 2012, Carolina was 2nd in the division, and much of that was due to the remarkable abilities of Cam Newton. Whether he was connecting with the seemingly ageless Steve Smith or making plays with his feet, Newton helped his team win more games than they deserved to win. Beyond Smith, Newton has a great outlet in TE Greg Olsen, and hopefully new OC Mike Shula realizes that he (Newton) shouldn’t be the team’s leading rusher in 2013. All the talking about it leads one to believe that DeAngelo Williams will be a focal point of the offense, and a deep stable of backs should keep the running game going. That balance (as I’ve been talking about with just about every team, I know) is pivotal, and it’s far too obvious that Carolina needs to work it into their offense with the talent they have at the HB position.
The defense is plagued by injuries on a yearly basis, but with Luke Kuechly on the field, his ability to find the football makes up for a handful of sidelined starters. He’s probably the best MLB in the league right now, and his presence should make everyone around him better. If 1st rounder Star Lotuleilei can clog the middle at DT, the interior of this defense is going to make running inside a nightmare . If Thomas Davis and Jon Beason can stay on the field, this linebacker corps is one of the best in the league. Charles Johnson is a double-digit sack specialist at DE, and should still be able to maintain similar numbers despite his getting up there in age.
Causes For Concern:
While it may not reflect on stat sheets, Cam Newton needs to brush off the bad better than he has in the past. The pouting and posturing have to go, and be replaced with more of a positive, motivational attitude. Honestly, this could be one of the little changes that shifts the entire team in the right direction, as Newton obviously has that kind of pull after two great seasons. The promises of making the running game a focus need to be kept, and DeAngelo Williams needs to be the guy to make things happen. The depth behind him his strong, but nobody has the sort of steadiness and ability he does at making the running game click. The offense line needs to improve as a whole as well, although Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil are solid pieces at LT and C, respectively.
The defense needs to avoid the injury bug as best they can, otherwise they’re going to be dealing with the same thin depth and confusion not having key players on the field has caused in the past. The team wasn’t terrible in pass defense in 2012, but improvement can be made, and there’s enough youth in the secondary to at least expect some improvement this year.
While I think they have about as much of a chance as the Saints or Buccaneers, I have a bad feeling about Carolina in 2013. I see them regressing from 7 wins to 6 or maybe even 5, a combination of bad luck and a new scheme that goes against Cam Newton’s ability to essentially win games on his own. The coaching staff has shown little in the way of filling the depth and scouting for talent, and between that and one more season without a postseason berth, Ron Rivera and most of his associates will most likely be replaced in 2014. The talent is there, on both sides of the ball, but there’s a fine line the team is walking between injury risks and coaching inefficiencies that rubs me the wrong way.