Wednesday, September 5, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - NFC South

1) Atlanta Falcons

Key Get – Asante Samuel (CB, Eagles), Peter Konz (C, Wisconsin)

Key Gones – Curtis Lofton (LB, Saints), Ovie Mughelli (FB, Rams)

Key Games – wk2 v. Broncos, wk3 @ Chargers, wk4 v. Panthers, wk8 @ Eagles, wk9 v. Cowboys, wk10 @ Saints, wk12 @ Bucs, wk13 v. Saints, wk14 @ Panthers, wk15 v. Giants, wk16 @ Lions, wk17 v. Bucs

Here’s an offense I’m anxious to see this season.  I think Matt Ryan is on the verge of breaking out and getting closer to that elite group of passers.  His numbers get progressively better each year, and this season under Dirk Koetter they’re expected to play a more up-tempo offense featuring the passing game.  I think that suits their personnel perfectly.  There were times last year when Atlanta went no-huddle, ran it well, and then slowed back down to the plodding running game for some reason.  Not this year.  Ryan is a strong armed passer who has great mental focus and control over the offense.  He has two excellent passing weapons out wide in Roddy White and Julio Jones.  I used to refer to White as the best receiver in football that no one talks about.  Well they’re talking about him now.  He’s coming off his second straight 100 catch season and has totaled at least 1,150 yards receiving in each of the last five.  As great as White is, it would not surprise me in the least if Jones ended up leading the league, not just the team in catches.  Jones is having as big a preseason as anyone in football and has Calvin Johnson-like deep ball talent.  If Jones was a stock I’d be all in.  Big year ahead for that guy.  Then there’s future HOF’er Tony Gonzalez at tight end.  At the rate he’s producing he could play another seven seasons.  He’s overshadowed by the two wideouts, but Gonzalez is still one of the better tight ends in the game.  The Falcons are (wisely) moving away from a power running game which should mean a lot less Michael Turner this year.  That’s probably best as the veteran has totaled 635 carries over the last two years and 1,190 over his four years in Atlanta.  Expect to see the quicker Jacquizz Rodgers featured a lot more in 2012.  He fits the up-tempo plans and will likely be featured heavily in the passing game.  This offense performs pretty in spite of this line not because of it.  I think the group would be a lot better with an upgrade at one position – left tackle Sam Baker.  Tyson Clabo is one of the better right tackles in football, but I think the guy lining up next to Baker, left guard Justin Blalock, is the best blocker of the bunch.  Peter Konz looks like he’ll start at right guard but should move to his natural position, center, before too long.      

Even with the addition of Mike Nolan at DC, the Falcons, due in large part to their front seven personnel, will retain a 4-3 front.  It should mean more attacking from John Abraham as the 34 year old vet looks to record another double digit sack season.  Ray Edwards flopped in his first year in Atlanta, but that was eased a bit by having Kroy Biermann in the rotation.  Still, the Falcons need to get more out of their investment now that his knee issues are behind him.  Inside, Jonathan Babineaux continues to be a solid interior pass rusher, but they have concerns about the other tackle position.  Corey Peters is injured this preseason, and his projected replacement, Peria Jerry, has been a total flop since the Falcons wasted a first round pick on him a few years ago.  Their best defensive player is Sean Weatherspoon.  The third year backer is a big WLB with plus quickness and play recognition skills.  I foresee this as his first of many All Pro seasons.  Akeem Dent takes over for Curtis Lofton in the middle, but with him being limited to a two down role, that means more responsibility for Weatherspoon.  They got a little stronger at corner this offseason by acquiring Asante Samuel from the Eagles.  Samuel has never been physical corner, but at this stage he needs to be used exclusively in a role that allows him to play back and play off the QB.  A corresponding move has Dunta Robinson moving inside to handle slot duties.  Their best corner is the one with the least known name.  Brent Grimes is really good in zone coverage, using his quickness to close well on the ball.  He’s just a really tough, athletic guy.  Safety is a weakness.  Both Williams Moore and Thomas DeCoud are strong safety types and provide poor deep support in the passing game. 

The division trend of no previous champ repeating still holds true after ten seasons.  Why go against it now.  I see Atlanta’s arrow pointing up, especially that lethal passing game.

Team MVP – Matt Ryan
Breakout Players – Julio Jones
Disappointment – Dunta Robinson

2) New Orleans Saints

Key Gets – Brodrick Bunkley (DT, Broncos), Ben Grubbs (G, Ravens), David Hawthorn (LB, Seahawks), Curtis Lofton (LB, Falcons)

Key Gones – Carl Nicks (G, Bucs), Tracy Porter (CB, Broncos), Robert Meachem (WR, Chargers)

Key Games – wk2 @ Panthers, wk4 @ Packers, wk5 v. Chanrgers, wk7 @ Bucs, wk8 @ Broncos, wk9 v. Eagles, wk10 v. Falcons, wk12 v. 49ers, wk13 @ Falcons, wk14 @ Giants, wk15 v. Bucs, wk16 @ Cowboys, wk17 v. Panthers

The story of the offseason was Bountygate, the reported incentive program for taking out the opposition run under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  The fallout is the Saints without Jonathan Vilma and Sean Payton for the entire season, Gregg Williams suspended indefinitely, a loss of picks and money, and the stigma of a dirty organization. 

The fact that Drew Brees didn’t win the MVP tells you how great a season Aaron Rodgers had.  Brees shattered Dan Marino’s single season yardage record and led the league in TD passes and completion percentage.  After being slapped with the franchise tag, Brees and the Saints had themselves a bit of a standoff before agreeing to a deal that made him the highest paid player in the league.  At 33 he’s at the top of his game and should challenge last year’s record breaking numbers.  With the Saints starting the season with their back up to the back up at head coach, Brees will again be taking on a lot of the play calling and game managing responsibilities.  If any one can handle the pressure and responsibility it’s him.  Behind Brees is the most talented backfield in the game.  Pierre Thomas remains the best early down back on the team.  Despite the selection of Mark Ingram in last year’s draft, Thomas outran the rookie by 88 yards on 12 less carries.  Needless to say Thomas isn’t going away.  Darren Sproles finished 7th in the league in receptions and gave the Saints yet another explosive element on offense.  Brees’ #1 target plays tight end.  Jimmy Graham has arrived folks.  In his second season Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.  He’s a beast who is nearly impossible to stop in the red zone.  I never expect much from Devery Henderson, but Marques Colston and Lance Moore are about as consistent as they come.  No one messed with Colston’s knees this offseason, so he should be at full speed.  Moore gets a lot of looks from Brees as it is, but with Robert Meachem out of the fold, he could approach his career highs from ’08.  The loss of Carl Nicks is going to hurt more in the run game than the passing game.  Ben Grubbs was a nice replacement, but Nicks is the best left guard in football.  Jermon Bushrod keeps getting better left tackle and has relegated former 2nd round pick Charles Brown to a backup. 

I worry a bit about this defensive scheme change under Steve Spagnuolo.  They already lack pass rushers, and with the Saints likely to blitz less under Spagnuolo, one has to wonder where the sacks will come from.  Will Smith is suspended for four games due to his role in Bountygate, and pass rushing from the outside isn’t Cameron Jordan’s strength.  The Saints have moved Martez Wilson from, hoping he can develop into a threat off the edge.  Brodrick Bunkley was a really good pickup at nose tackle.  Not only should he be a noticeable improvement over Aubrayo Franklin, but Bunkley should help free up Sedrick Ellis to get after the passer more than he was able to last year.  With Jonathan Vilma out for the year, the Saints needed to address the MLB spot.  They did that and more by signing veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne in free agency.  I actually think the latter is the better financial investment, but the Saints did well to land both of those guys.  Lofton takes over for Vilma in the middle, and Hawthorne is an upgrade over Jonathan Casillas.  The scheme change should help the secondary, moving to more zone coverage under Steve Spagnuolo.  I don’t see a drop going from Patrick Robinson to Tracy Porter, and Jabari Greer is solid on the other side.  Malcom Jenkins is an elite free safety.  He and the hard hitting Roman Harper form a really nice combination on the back end.

Will the Saints be able to break that no-repeat trend?  If not I don’t believe it will be because of the Bountygate fallout.  It will be because the Falcons were simply the better team.

Team MVP – Drew Brees
Breakout Player – Patrick Robinson
Disappointment – Will Smith

3) Carolina Panthers

Key Gets – Luke Kuechly (LB, Boston College), Mike Tolbert (RB, Chargers), Amini Silatolu (G, Midwestern State)

Key Gones – Dan Connor (LB, Cowboys), Jeff Otah (T, FA)

Key Games – wk1 @ Bucs, wk2 v. Saints, wk3 v. Giants, wk4 @ Falcons, wk7 v. Cowboys, wk8 @ Bears, wk10 v. Broncos, wk11 v. Bucs, wk12 @ Eagles, wk14 v. Falcons, wk15 @ Chargers, wk17 @ Saints

A 6-10 record isn’t considered a success in most cases, but for the Panthers, they couldn’t have been happier.  Much to my chagrin, they have found the future of their franchise. 

Cam Newton had a historically successful first season as a professional.  He was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year by every outlet that hands out the award, made the Pro Bowl, and set multiple NFL records including most passing yards by a rookie and most rushing TDs by a QB in a season.  Newton is a legitimate preseason MVP candidate.  It wasn’t long ago that Steve Smith was looking for the next train of out of town, but the veteran was rejuvenated last year, erasing the memory of back to back subpar seasons that had folks wondering just how much Smith had left.  He needed Newton, and Newton needed him.  Brandon LaFell was the best of the rest of the receivers last year and is the clear #2 this season.  I’m expecting a big year out of him.  Greg Olsen is supposed to be featured in the passing game, but we’ve heard that before.  The way the Panthers have handled their backfield is a bit baffling.  Last year when Jonathan Stewart looked like the future at the position, they re-sign DeAngelo Williams to a large deal.  With Williams signed, it seemed likely that Stewart would leave after his contract expired.  Well, they extended him and brought in Mike Tolbert from San Diego.  Williams’ contract is only guaranteed through 2012, so unless he has a surprising season, I expect them to head into 2013 with Stewart and Tolbert.  Back to this year.  I think Stewart will once again prove to be the best back on the squad.  Having Newton and those backs as your runners will cover up a lot of blocking miscues, but this is a solid squad.  Signing Jordan Gross to a six year deal back in 2009 was a genius move by the Panthers.  He’s one of the league’s best left tackles and will team with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and rookie road grater, left guard Amini Silatolu to form one really tough left side. 

There was no Newton for the Panther defense last season.  This unit ranked among the worst in the league last year, but at least they were consistent – 24th against the pass and 25th against the run.  That will happen when you lose guys like Jon Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (ACL) for the entire season.  Beason is back in the middle, and while I’ve never torn an Achilles, I’ve got to think you don’t automatically return to the level of play you were at before the injury.  First round pick Luke Kuechly steps in as the starting WLB and is a preseason favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.  He should tally a ton of tackles, but the success of his season will be measured by the number of impact plays he’s able to provide.  Charles Johnson was again the team’s top pass rusher last year, but that’s not saying a lot considering the rest of the defense’s output.  Greg Hardy starts on the other side, but I’m expecting rookie Frank Alexander to be the more productive player at left end.  They’re still weak in the middle of the defensive line, and I think their lack of attention to this area will really hurt them this year.  Sione Fua, Ron Edwards, and Terrell McClain are below average talents.  Cornerback Chris Gamble ranks among the best at his position.  There’s quite a drop off to Captain Munnerlyn on the other side, and with an injury to Brandon Hogan, rookie Josh Norman may be counted sooner than they anticipated.  Haruki Nakamura will provide a little boost to a safety group that struggled last season.

Space is limited on this bandwagon, but I think they’re a year away from being a serious contender.  I’m really big on Atlanta this year, and I don’t see the Saints falling off that much.  8-8 is the upside in my opinion. 

Team MVP – Cam Newton
Breakout Player – Brandon LaFell
Disappointment – DeAngelo Williams

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Gets – Vincent Jackson (WR, Chargers), Carl Nicks (G, Saints), Mark Barron (S, Alabama), Doug Martin (RB, Boise State), Lavonte David (LB, Nebraska), Dallas Clark (TE, Colts), Eric Wright (CB, Lions)

Key Gones – Jeff Faine (C, FA), Josh Johnson (QB, 49ers)

Key Games – wk1 v. Panthers, wk2 @ Giants, wk3 @ Cowboys, wk7 v. Saints, wk10 v. Chargers, wk11 @ Panthers, wk12 v. Falcons, wk13 @ Broncos, wk14 v. Eagles, wk15 @ Saints, wk16 v. Rams, wk17 @ Falcons

At least it’s over.  After suffering through the insanity and incoherence that was the Raheem Morris era, the Bucs finally cut their losses and hired a professional in former Rutgers coach, Greg Schiano.  The change at head coach was just the first of many. 

Another change the Bucs are seeking is for QB Josh Freeman to look like the 25 TD 6 INT guy from 2010 than the 16-22 version from last year.  The Bucs are going to be leaning on the run a lot more this year, and it will be interesting to see if Freeman can get better while being asked to do less.  I’m not about to hit the panic button on the guy.  One guy who needs to panic is Sucker Punch Blount.  The Bucs leading rusher has lost his job to rookie Doug Martin and isn’t likely to ever get it back.  Martin is everything Schiano was looking for in a back – quickness, vision, hands, durability, blocking.  I believe Martin will be in the heart of the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion when all is said and done.  Fellow rookie runner Michael Smith should have an opportunity to make quite an impact as well, both as a back and a return man.  I didn’t Sucker Punch lasting long as a Buccaneer before the Martin move.  Now I’ll be surprised if he’s still around this time next year.  What Martin should do for the run game, the Bucs hope fee agent Vincent Jackson does for the passing game.  One of Freeman’s biggest problems is that he hasn’t had a legit #1 receiver to work with.  He no longer has that excuse.  Averaging over 60 catches and 8 TDs in his last three complete regular seasons, Jackson made a name for himself in San Diego as Philip River’s go-to guy on the perimeter.  With no Antonio Gates to fight for targets, even in a run-heavy scheme, Jackson should put up strong numbers.  With Jackson around to draw the majority of the focus, I like Mike Williams to settle into a #2 role this year.  Arrelious Benn has been injured for most of the preseason but should still make the team.  He’s not going to get a free pass for long.  I really want to see him show some of the potential that had him as coveted prospect a few years ago.  Jordan Shipley was signed to give Preston Parker some competition in the slot, and the longest tenured Buccaneer receiver, Sammie Stroughter, may be on the outside looking in.  The unit that was thought to be THE strength of this team is limping into the regular season.  Carl Nicks, the best guard in football, was brought in this offseason to help solidify the offensive line.  Nicks is fine, but unfortunately his counterpart on the right side, Davin Joseph has been lost for the year with a knee injury.  Left tackle Donald Penn has been a big gimpy this preseason, so in addition to learning a new scheme, the current starting five hasn’t taken a ton of snaps together. 

The play on this side of the ball was atrocious last season.  They gave up more points than anyone else in football and set a new standard for failure.  Rookie Adrian Clayborn was one of the few bright spots last year, totaling 7.5 sacks as a rookie.  Things aren’t so sunny for the other pass rusher from last year’s draft class, Da’Quan Bowers.  He tore his Achilles in training camp and is likely lost for the season.  I like left end Michael Bennett, but they’ve got no depth.  The same applies to the interior.  Gerald McCoy is reportedly healthy, but I’m not holding my breath.  A unit that was awful against the run last year needs him in the lineup.  Fellow 2010 draftee Brian Price couldn’t stay healthy and was shipped to Chicago.  Amobi Okoye is a Buccaneer, but the shine he had as a young pass rushing prospect has dimmed tremendously.  The fact that Roy Miller is still around may say more about the rest of the depth rather than Miller’s talents.  At linebacker, Quincy Black is back, not because his play warranted it but rather because the Bucs didn’t have anything to gain financially by releasing him.  Black severely underperformed after receiving a laughable deal last year but remains the starter on the strong side.  It’s been a few months, but I’m still not any more convinced that Mason Foster is better off playing inside.  The one linebacker I’m excited about is rookie Lavonte David.  He’s a huge upgrade over Geno Hayes on the weak side and should lead the Bucs in tackles.  I’m really anxious to see if he develops a leadership role early on.  The secondary is still spotty.  Aqib Talib isn’t going to prison (yet) and is always one incident away from a lengthy suspension.  He’s also entering the last year of his deal.  They overpaid quite a bit for Eric Wright, and he has more DUIs as a Buccaneer than tackles at this point.  I’m a fan of youngsters Anthony Gaitor and Leonard Johnson, but I think we’ve seen all we need to see from Myron Lewis and EJ Biggers.  Veteran Ronde Barber is back for another year, but he’ll be lining up at free safety rather than his typical corner position.  The Bucs are pleased with the transition, and I’m hoping Barber spends a lot of time with rookie Keith Tandy, a guy I’m really high on.  They get a big boost in talent at the strong safety position with the addition of 1st round pick Mark Barron, leader of the championship winning Bama defense.  He’s a needed difference maker on the back end.

I like what I see already, but I’ve got enough perspective not to get my hopes up for anything big.  I simply want to see progress/growth this year.  I want to see the young pieces on both sides of the ball show promise and establish themselves as fixtures for the future.  Wins are secondary this season. 

Team MVP – Doug Martin
Breakout Player – Lavonte David
Disappointment – Gerald McCoy

Division MVP – Matt Ryan
Division Breakout Player – Julio Jones
Division Disappointment – Gerald McCoy

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