1) New Orleans Saints
(11-5, 2nd in ’10)
Key Gets – Darren Sproles (RB, Chargers), Shaun Rogers (DL, Browns), Aubrayo Franklin (DL, 49ers), Olin Kreutz (OL, Bears), Alex Barron (OL, Cowboys), Cameron Jordan (DL, California), Mark Ingram (RB, Alabama), Martez Wilson (LB, Illinois), Johnny Patrick (CB, Louisville), Greg Romeus (DL, Pittsburgh)
Key Gones – Reggie Bush (“RB”, Dolphins), Jeremy Shockey (TE, Panthers), Jonathan Goodwin (OL, 49ers), Anthony Hargrove (DL, Eagles)
Key Games – wk1 @ Packers, wk2 v. Bears, wk3 v. Texans, wk6 @ Bucs, wk7 v. Colts, wk9 v. Bucs, wk10 @ Falcons, wk12 v. Giants, wk16 v. Falcons
The Saints weren’t able to repeat as champs last year but still finished a respectable 11-5. What’s impressive but known by few is that QB Drew Bress played through a good bit of the season with (roughly) the same injury that sidelined Jay Cutler during the NFC Championship. Not that the elite Brees needs a ton of surrounding talent to be successful, but this team now boasts the firepower most teams would die for. Ingram looks like he’ll be the main runner from the get go, but Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles will get touches as well. Sproles is an improvement over Reggie Bush, and if Thomas shows anything, they can trade him for help elsewhere. #1 receiver Marques Colston is having his annual knee issues, but even if he falters, the Saints shouldn’t miss much. I think Lance Moore, Brees’ favorite receiver, is going to have a huge year, and Robert Meachem looks ready to play for real. TE Jimmy Graham had an impressive rookie season and doesn’t have Jeremy Shockey around to split snaps with anymore. He’s another guy that is poised for a huge year. Up front, the Saints possess two of the best guards in the business in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. If I can pick on anything with the Saints it’s the lack of a steady pass rush. Will Smith tallied 7.5 less sacks in ’10 than the previous year, and DT Sedrick Ellis led the way with a whopping six. Unfortunately, Smith is going to miss the first two games of the season due to his banned substance suspension, and that certainly won’t help their chances against the Packers and Bears. Ellis could easily exceed last year’s production with the solid additions of Rogers and Franklin. Aside from Jonathan Vilma, who struggled himself last year, the starting linebackers aren’t irreplaceable, so the rookie Wilson could see significant time early. I’m liking where this secondary is going, as Tracy Porter, Patrick Robinson, and Malcom Jenkins give the unit some real foundational pieces. Jenkins is set to become the defense’s leader and best player this season in my opinion.
I’m feeling another deep playoff run for the Saints this year.
Team MVP – Drew Brees
Breakout Player – Jimmy Graham
Disappointment – Marques Colston
2) Atlanta Falcons
(13-3, 1st in ’10)
Key Gets – Ray Edwards (DL, Vikings), Julio Jones (WR, Alabama), Akeem Dent (LB, Georgia), Jacquizz Rodgers (RB, Oregon State)
Key Gones – Michael Jenkins (WR, Vikings), Harvey Dahl (OL, Rams), Jamaal Anderson (DL, Colts)
Key Games – wk1 @ Bears, wk2 v. Eagles, wk3 @ Bucs, wk5 v. Packers, wk9 @ Colts, wk10 v. Saints, wk13 @ Texans, wk16 @ Saints, wk17 v. Bucs
Like a couple of other divisions, this one looks like a clear two team race for the title. The Falcons were last year’s winner, and we know the rule of the NFC South – no division winner repeats, ever. It hasn’t happened in the division’s nine year, and I don’t think that trend ends this season. Matt Ryan isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the game’s elite passers, but he’s done nothing to make the Falcons regret their investment. Expect the Falcons to put more on his shoulders this season, as he now has two stud receivers to work with. Roddy White is already firmly established as one of the league’s top wideouts, but the drafting of Jones, a preseason monster so far, should open up the passing game significantly, something Michael Jenkins could never do as a #2. Michael Turner had his second highest season rushing total last year, but he’s approaching the point where NFL backs start to do decline. I think he’ll regress a bit this year. The offensive line isn’t the next coming of the Hogs, but it’s a steady unit that doesn’t get much of the recognition is probably deserves. They will miss RG Dahl though. Defensively, the Falcons addressed a big need by acquiring Ray Edwards in free agency. The aging John Abraham can’t do it on his own, and Edwards is the best bookend he’s had during his time in Atlanta. Can Peria Jerry get/stay healthy and fulfill some of his promise? At linebacker, Curtis Lofton doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but he’s a good one when healthy. Sean Weatherspoon dealt with injuries his rookie year and should put up a better showing this season. In the secondary, Dunta Robinson is above average, and Brett Grimes is an underrated tough talent. The rest of the crew, from the safeties to their corner depth, is uninspiring. I think the back end of the defense could be their sore spot this season, especially against the Saints.
Division champs or not, this team will be playing meaningful games in December.
Team MVP – Matt Ryan
Breakout Player – Julio Jones
Disappointment – Michael Turner
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(10-6, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets (translate: draft picks since the Bucs don’t believe in supplementing their roster with external free agents) – Adrian Clayborn (DL, Iowa), Da’Quan Bowers (DL, Clemson), Mason Foster (LB, Washington), Luke Stocker (TE, Tennessee), Ahmad Black (S, Florida)
Key Gones – Cadillac Williams (RB, Rams), Barrett Ruud (LB, Titans)
Key Games – wk3 v. Falcons, wk4 v. Colts, wk6 v. Saints, wk7 v. Bears, wk9 @ Saints, wk 10 v. Texans, wk11 @ Packers, wk15 v. Cowboys, wk17 @ Falcons
The Bucs were one of the league’s biggest turnarounds last year, improving upon a 3-13 record in ’09. I was wrong. In his second season under center with the Bucs, Josh Freeman took a huge step forward last year both on and off the field. On the field Freeman took an enormous step forward throwing 15 more TDs and 12 less INTs than in his rookie season. Off it he made great strides as a leader, organizing workouts and spending more hours in the film room than the coaching staff. I really like this Freeman quote – "It's all about winning football games," Freeman said. "My job as a leader is not to say, 'Hey, look at me. I'm a leader.' It's to lead.” I couldn’t have asked for more from Freeman at this point.
Sucker Punch Blount was a free agent steal, rushing for over 1,000 yards. Cadillac Williams was allowed to walk to St. Louis, so the Bucs will be counting on the likes of Kregg Lumpkin, Allen Bradford, and Earnest Graham to handle the remaining workload. The good move was letting Cadillac walk. Yes, he’s a fine pass blocker and has grown as a receiver, but we needed to get younger, faster, and more explosive at the position. The bad move (in my opinion) is the drafting of a power back in Bradford to go with the similarly styled Blount. Lumpkin and Graham may be a bit physically smaller, but they’re straight line backs as well. I was vocal about adding Kendall Hunter, Shane Vereen, Jordan Todman, Derrick Locke, or Darren Sproles this offseason to give the backfield more versatility and unpredictability on offense; help spread the field a bit more for your blossoming franchise QB. In my opinion the Bucs lack of attention to speed/explosion at RB this offseason will come back to haunt them.
At receiver, the Bucs are looking good. Mike Williams was a standout rookie, totaling 11 scores and just under 1,000 yards. His “wow” output may not be matched this season, but the Bucs may not need it. Dezmon Briscoe, a guy I loved at Kansas, looks to have taken a pretty firm grip of the other starting spot in Arrelious Benn’s absence. When Benn is back, lining up those three with Kellen Winslow gives Freeman a dangerous stable of targets. Hell, you can even get excited about the backup TE. When he’s over his hip injury, Luke Stocker will be a key contributor as well. My need for speed wasn’t limited to the running back position. I’m pleased with the talent at receiver, but man would I have liked to see someone like Randall Cobb thrown in the mix here.
The Bucs are going back to more man blocking this year which should be to the overall benefit of the unit. Donald Penn is generally solid but has too many cold spells to ever be considered elite. Davin Joseph was retained, albeit expensively. He should line up next to his buddy Jeremy Trueblood once again, the RT who has pretty much “won” the RT job by default this preseason due to an unimpressive showing by chief competitor James Lee. I like Ted Larsen at LG and think he’s going to be around for a while. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’d be fine with the Bucs moving on from the aging, expensive, and oft injured Jeff Faine and handing the job over to Jeremy Zuttah.
On the other side of the ball the Bucs made a few huge additions in the draft, specifically at DE. The Bucs were pitiful in getting to the passer last year which is one reason Stylez over substance White is no longer in Tampa. With their first two picks the Bucs drafted Adrian Clayborn and the medically red flagged Da’Quan Bowers. Clayborn is a guy I loved at Iowa and after Patrick Peterson was the one player I wanted to end up on the Bucs after the ’09 college season. Bowers had a dominant junior year at Clemson and has all the talent and measurables to be great. If his knee holds up, as it has thus far, he’s an absolute steal. Michael Bennett stood out to me last preseason and am glad to see him still around. Tim Crowder isn’t spectacular, but I’m glad they kept him over the flop known as Kyle Moore. George Johnson has been impressive in limited action, and it was nice to see him rewarded with a roster spot.
Gerald McCoy started putting it together late last year before sustaining his season ending biceps injury. The same cannot be said for fellow rookie Brian Price who is still struggling to get up to speed after his more serious pelvic injury. He doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but Roy Miller has been a big asset to this team since being drafted out of Texas. If/When Price can get on the field, I like the looks of that three man rotation. I like the depth too with Frank Okam, another former Longhorn, but I’m a little surprised that they cut Al Woods.
The Bucs need to get more physical/stout at linebacker, and they’ve attempted to do that by moving on from Barrett Ruud and replacing him with their third major offseason defensive addition, Mason Foster. The rookie from Washington was handed the starting job upon signing, and that has led to the release of anticipated starter, Tyrone McKenzie. I still think Foster’s brightest future is on the outside and don’t think he’s as stout as we need there, but I’m certainly willing to see how it goes before calling it a bad move. Geno Hayes developing some consistency and game/play intelligence/recognition would go a long way. Watch for the Bucs to address his spot next offseason unless major strides are made. Like Joseph, the Bucs overpaid quite a bit to retain Quincy Black, the starting SLB. He’s got the skills and ability to be a dominant force in all aspects of the game, but the strides aren’t coming quick enough in my opinion. Dekoda Watson, the guy behind Black on the depth chart, produced late last year when called upon and has shined this preseason. The Bucs love lining him up as a rusher on passing downs, and I look for him to have a really strong year. You’ve got like retaining the versatile veteran and special teams stud Adam Hayward, but I’m concerned about the lack of a proven alternative behind Foster. Hayward has experience at the position, but he’s not the most desirable long term option there.
The secondary has me a little concerned. Aqib Talib may not win any citizens of the year awards, but his ability as a corner is unquestioned. Across from him is the future Ring of Honor member Ronde Barber. Still productive at 65 years of age, Barber and the Bucs are at their best when he’s in the nickel spot rather than isolated outside. When the Bucs do expand coverage, EJ Biggers hits the field. I really liked what I saw from him last year and think he’s a potential fixture. Myron Lewis is still pretty unknown, but the staff is reportedly high on him. We’ll just have to wait and see. Rookie Anthony Gaitor secured a roster spot after the final cuts, as did veteran backup Elbert Mack.
At safety, Sean Jones is pretty average at this point and isn’t much of a playmaker. We’re better off with someone pushing him out of his starting spot. Maybe that guy will be Larry Asante. The former Cornhuster has impressed enough to stick around at the expense of wasted fifth round selection Ahmad Black. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Cody Grimm pick last year, but the Bucs like him and have him penciled in as the other starter. I was happy to see Corey Lynch remain a part of the team too, and he’ll provide solid but unspectacular play backing up Grimm and on special team. I’m eager to see what happens with Tanard Jackson’s suspension issue because, when focused and in shape, he’s easily the best safety on this team.
In short, I think the Bucs make slight progress on the field, but the record won’t show it. This year’s schedule is substantially tougher, and they (specifically Blount) won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. The outstanding questions – lack of versatility at RB, Blount’s ability to repeat his rookie performance, uncertainty/instability at DE and MLB, Price’s health, and Talib’s legal issue – are enough for me to temper my expectations. Again, I think we’ll see positive progress even if it’s isn’t reflected in the record. A dollar or two thrown at a free agent or two from outside the organization next offseason might be a way to supplement and expedite the team’s development, but that is apparently a bit too progressive for some folks.
Team MVP – Josh Freeman
Breakout Player – Dekoda Watson
Disappointment – Geno Hayes
1) Stability at QB
2) Viable starting receiving targets
3) Young DL talent
Team Questions1) Rookie MLB lining up next to a shaky WLB
2) Lack of backfield speed and versatility
3) Inconsistent OL play from player to player, week to week
Looking way ahead to the ’12 draft, right now I’d have to say that the Bucs first pick will be spent on either a corner or linebacker, and I’ve got a few players in mind:
Zach Brown (Sr, UNC)
Nico Johnson (Jr, Alabama)
Lavonte David (Sr, Nebraska)
Alfonzo Dennard (Sr, Nebraska)
Dre Kirkpatrick (Jr, Alabama)
Morris Claiborne (Jr, LSU)
More on them and the Bucs future plans later, but those are the guys I’m looking at closely early on this college season.
4) Carolina Panthers
(2-14, 4th in ’10)
Key Gets – Greg Olsen (TE, Bears), Jeremy Shockey (TE, Saints), Legedu Naanee (WR, Chargers), Scam (QB, Auburn), Terrell McClain (DL, USF)
Key Gones – Richard Marshall (CB, Cardinals), John Kasay (K, free agent), Matt Moore (QB, Dolphins)
Key Games – wk2 v. Packers, wk4 @ Bears, wk5 v. Saints, wk6 @ Falcons, wk 12 @ Colts, wk13 @ Bucs, wk14 v. Falcons, wk 15 @ Texans, wk16 v. Bucs, wk17 @ Saints
A 2-14 record will usually get you a pretty good first draft pick, and the Panthers hope that’s the case with Cam Newton. Displeased with Matt Moore and unsure of Jimmy Clausen, Carolina drafted the controversial QB from Auburn first overall this past April. He’s likely to give Mark Sanchez a run for his money in the inaccurate passing leader department, but it appears it will be Scam’s show from the get go. Helping him out will be the best 1-2 RB combo in the game. While I question their management of financial resources, the Panthers are better on the field with both DeAngelo Williams and James Stewart. I’m just surprised the Panthers spent so much to retain Williams. I know Jeff Otah was hurt last year, but how can a team with a line with Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, and Travelle Wharton finish 2-14? Steve Smith isn’t what he used to be, but he’s the reliable weapon Scam needs to break in…to the league. David Gettis and Brandon LaFell will fight it out for the opposite spot. One move that makes a ton of sense and one that should help the development of the rookie passer was the acquisition of the neglected Greg Olsen. In Carolina he’s sure to show why he was such a valued receiving commodity coming out of Miami. Charles Johnson had a career year in ’10 and was rewarded handsomely for it this offseason. Playing opposite Johnson will be the combination of Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy. Norwood came into the league as a quality pass rusher and look to be strengthening those skills this preseason. Carolina bypassed making (very necessary) upgrades at DT and may very likely be one of the league’s worst against the run once again. They’re looking good at linebacker with Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and the up and coming James Anderson. The loss of Richard Marshall will be felt at corner, and the secondary as a whole is lacking a leader.
Team MVP – Jonathan Stewart
Breakout Player – Eric Norwood
Disappointment – Charles Johnson
1) New Orleans Saints
2) Atlanta Falcons
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4) Carolina Panthers
Division MVP – Drew Brees
Division Breakout – Julio Jones
Division Disappointment – Geno Hayes