Thursday, September 5, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions - NFC South

1) New Orleans Saints

For Saints fans, the best thing about the ’12 season is that it’s over.  Bountygate cost New Orleans money, reputation, and probably most importantly, their head coach.  They started the season 0-4 and never recovered. Flip the calendar, and Sean Payton is back on the sidelines.  Will they pick up where they left off last year or, preferably, where they did in ’11?

Drew Brees was still Drew Brees, but even a QB of his caliber suffers when losing a coach with an offensive mind like Payton’s.  Brees attempted the most passes in his career last season but finished 300 yards shy of his previous year’s total.  Still, that was good enough for him to lead the league in yardage for the second straight season.  He’ll do it a third time this year, and I think the primary beneficiary will be Jimmy Graham.  Brees’ tight end is fully healed from the wrist injury that bothered him all of last year, and I believe he’ll break the 100 catch barrier for the first time in his career.  Marques Colston has been one of the more consistently productive receivers in the league over the last three seasons, and the other starter, Lance Moore, is probably the guy Brees trusts most.  Darren Sproles remains one of the game’s more explosive players and the perfect back for this offense.  When the Saints run the ball Mark Ingram figures to get most of the totes.  Even though this is a pass-heavy offense, Ingram has to be considered a huge disappointment so far through two seasons.  Numbers aside, there hasn’t been anything that screams “special” about his game.  The Saints keep trying to phase Pierre Thomas out, but he continues to be their best rusher.

Big yardage isn’t a good thing on the defensive side of the ball, but the Saints defense surrendered a league record 7,042 of them last season.  They were consistent though – 32nd against the run and 31st against the pass.  Enter Rob Ryan.  The former Cowboy coordinator is already starting in the hole.  Their lone addition to a poor pass rush, Victor Butler, is already lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in June, and Will Smith went down with the same malady in the preseason.  That leaves Junior Galette and Martez Wilson as the only remaining rushers, and they’re both inexperienced.  Will the coaching change work wonders for last year’s free agent disappointments Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne?  Neither was productive, let alone impactful.  Cameron Jordan is their most talented defensive player, and he should enjoy the scheme switch, as he’ll revert back to the position he played at Cal.  I like Akiem Hicks at the other spot and think he’ll stand out this season.  Obvious changes were needed in the secondary, and the Saints made two of them.  Cornerback Keenan Lewis was signed in free agency.  He’ll line up opposite Jabari Greer which gives them a nice starting pair but still little to no depth.  They’ll look to remedy that by having their three safeties on the field at the same time as much as possible.  Roman Harper and the disappointing Malcolm Jenkins remain the starters, but first round pick Kenny Vaccaro will see a lot of action, especially in the slot. 

While this is still a bad defense, they will be better than last year’s record setters.  They also have their offensive mastermind back and begin the season with stability that was sorely missing a year ago.  No one has repeated in this division (bad news Falcons fans), and I’m not projecting that to change this season. 

MVP – Drew Brees
Breakout – Junior Galette
Disappointment – Mark Ingram

2) Atlanta Falcons

Three straight trips to the postseason.  One total playoff win.  Last year the Falcons finished with the conference’s best record but were unable to hold on at home against the Niners in the NFC title game.  Will they be better closers this year?

Matt Ryan experienced a breakthrough last season, embracing Dirk Koetter’s offense en route to being the league’s most efficient QB in ’12.  He established career highs in all prominent passing categories and has excellent chemistry with his two stud receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, who in my opinion form the most dangerous starting receiver duo in the league.  No other team in league boasts two receivers with their ability.  White remains probably the least hyped top receiver in the game, and Jones had his best game in the conference championship against the Niners (11 catches for 182 yards and 2 TDs).  Tony Gonzalez returns for what he promises will be his final season.  He’s still playing at an elite level, finishing second and third in receptions and yardage, respectively, for tight ends.  The Michael Turner era is over, and in his place is the Falcons’ key offseason acquisition, Steven Jackson.  The former Ram rusher gives Atlanta a more respectable backfield threat than they’ve lined up with in recent years and, in my opinion, is the best back they’ve had since Warrick Dunn.  I don’t think we’re going to suddenly see a balanced offense from the Falcons, but Jackson is a much more dynamic and threatening back than was Turner.

Atlanta had one of the best points per game defenses in the league last year, but their inability to consistently get to the passer is a big reason they didn’t reach the big game.  No other playoff team had less sacks (29) than did the Falcons, and I’m not sure they did enough to get better there this offseason.  Osi Umenyiora lands in Atlanta where he’ll be expected to replace John Abraham, but I’ve got to think that’s a step back.  Kroy Biermann is the only other end on the roster that registered a sack last year, which means they’ll definitely need their young guys to step up.  Jonathan Babineaux remains their best interior presence, and I think they’ll miss Vance Walker more than they expect to.  They have a similar situation at linebacker.  Sean Weatherspoon has been their best linebacker but isn’t a tremendous playmaker.  Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas, the two other starters, are replaceable.  They could struggle a bit early in the secondary.  They open at New Orleans and play the Rams, Dolphins, and Patriots in their next three games.  Drew Brees and Tom Brady remain game greats, and both the Rams and Dolphins figure to pass more this year than last.  Asante Samuel still racks up interceptions, but Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the other veteran corners, left via free agency.  I like Desmond Trufant to be an impact player eventually, but both he and third corner Robert Alford are rookies.  Strong safety William Moore had his best year as a pro in his first under DC Mike Nolan, and Thomas DeCoud makes his biggest impact against the run. 

I go back to the fact that no one has ever repeated in this division.  The Falcons should be even better on offense this year, but I really have concerns about their defense.  Will their pass rush be any better?  Will the secondary survive the early stretch of the schedule?  I think the Falcons make it back to the playoffs but won’t enjoy the bye week luxury this time around.

MVP – Matt Ryan
Breakout – Desmond Trufant
Disappointment – Osi Umenyiora

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A bad start and a worse finish took the luster off Greg Schiano’s first season as head coach.  The Bucs were 1-3 out of the gates and ended up losing 5 of their last 6.  Care to guess what (or who) the biggest reason for that piss poor play may be?

That’s right, Josh Freeman.  The drive-you-to-drink giant human being still struggles to consistently complete more passes than he doesn’t.  In that late season collapse, Freeman failed to throw for at least 250 yards twice and threw 4 INTs in two other games.  GHB enters the final year of his rookie contract, and the Bucs are wisely making him play it out before getting a new deal.  Based on Schiano drafting Mike Glennon, the guy he recruited while at Rutgers, I wouldn’t start stretching out my signing hand if I were Freeman.  Doug Martin on the other hand is quite the ray of sunshine.  All he did as a rookie was finish fifth in the league in rushing, score 12 total TDs, and catch 49 passes.  He’s not going to stop getting the ball, no matter who is at QB, and should have even more room to run this year with both of his starting guards back on the field.  Davin Joseph is a year removed from tearing up his knee, and Carl Nicks is active as well.  Unfortunately, the latter is dealing with a staph infection in the foot that caused him trouble last year, but the Bucs don’t think it will be a major concern.  Vincent Jackson proved to worth the #1 money he received in free agency, and Mike Williams earned himself an extension for being one of the more consistent receivers in the game through his first three seasons as a pro.  Kevin Ogletree was brought in to be the new #3, but neither he nor Tiquan Underwood is terribly inspiring.  I’m worried about tight end.  Luke Stocker is being counted on as the starter as he’s totaled a whopping 28 receptions in his two seasons with the team.  Tom Crabtree was a nice addition in free agency, but he’s ideally a backup to someone better than Stocker and suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason finale.    

They had the game’s best run defense and the game’s worst pass defense in ‘12.  What do you think they did this offseason?  For starters (not chronologically) they acquired the guy considered the game’s best cover man a year ago.  Darrelle Revis was brought in rather inexpensively and, if healed, gives the Bucs the shutdown presence they desperately need at corner against the QBs in the division. With Eric Wright validating his worthlessness, rookie Johnthan Banks will battle last year’s undrafted jewel Leonard Johnson for the majority of the snaps opposite the Island.  They didn’t stop at cornerback.  Free safety Dashon Goldson was another All Pro acquisition.  His ability to be a factor in the back end of the defense, combined with a functional Revis should free up Mark Barron to play closer (and more comfortably) to the line of scrimmage.  Doug Martin wasn’t the only rookie to make his mark.  Lavonte David isn’t making anyone forget Derrick Brooks just yet, but the first year WLB had arguably a better season than did Defensive ROY, Luke Kuechly.  David made a seamless transition to the pros, leading the team in tackles (especially behind the line of scrimmage) and making plays all over the field.  I continue to call for the end of the Mason Foster at MLB experiment, but he’s back there again this season.  Dekoda Watson and free agent Jonathan Casillas look to log the most snaps at SLB.  Just as I’m disappointed with the situation at QB, I’m not happy with the direction at DE.  The Bucs chose to let Michael Bennett walk for cheap and not pursue any of a number of free agent alternatives.  Adrian Clayborn is returning from a knee injury of his own, and Da’Quan Bowers is currently front and center in Schiano’s dog house.  If you look up “high effort” in the dictionary, Bowers’ name appears in a list of antonyms.  When you consider their head scratching scheming and stunts up front along with the lack of talented pass rushers, the secondary again be heavily tested.  Gerald McCoy had a Pro Bowl year and should be on the verge of becoming one of the game’s best interior players.  Akeem Spence was brought in to man the spot next to him and, like McCoy, is more of a penetrator than run stuffing presence. 

You can have all the talent in the world at other positions, but you must have a top notch QB and be able to put consistent pressure on the opposing QB on defense.  Being uncharacteristically non-cynical, I truly believe the Bucs will be relevant all year and push for a playoff spot, but I think their lack of talent and consistency in the areas mentioned above will be their demise. 

MVP – Doug Martin
Breakout – Mark Barron
Disappointment – Da’Quan Bowers

4) Carolina Panthers

It was a tale of two seasons for the boys in baby blue.  A two INT loss at Tampa kicked off a 2-8 start for the Panthers, but after a second loss to the Bucs (their seventh loss in eight games) Carolina rallied to win five of their last six, scoring 30 or more in four of those games.

Can Cam avoid another bad start?  Will we see any more absurd press conferences?  Is the “me” behavior a thing of the past?  I think losing his Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland is going to be a big blow to Cam’s upside.  Newton is an obvious talent, but Chud’s vertical style maximized the QB’s talents.  Will he fare as well under Mike Shula?  Steve Smith is still their only threat at wide receiver.  The guy is a tall 5-9 and 34 years old but continues to make big plays.  Brandon LaFell is the other starter by default.  Greg Olsen had a heck of a ’12 season, but like Newton, I think he’s going to feel the Chud loss.  How disappointing is their running game?  Let me rephrase that.  How disappointing are their running backs?  Cam led the team with 741 yards on the ground, but the much-hyped combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart teamed up for just over 1,000 total yards.  Williams hasn’t topped 1,000 yards on his own since ’09, and Stewart, who played in only 9 games last season, is coming off ankle surgery this offseason and starts the year on the PUP list.  I think the coaching change and lack of personnel upgrades is going to make this the biggest test of Cam’s career.  Will he rise above like a champion or mope like a chump?

At least they addressed part of the defense this offseason.  They doubled down Tampa Bay style in the draft, selecting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks.  I like both of these guys and think they have a chance to wreak some havoc in the division.  Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are already quite the tandem at end.  Both reached double digit sacks last year, but Hardy looks to be on the verge of big things.  Luke Kuechly got better as the season went along, winning the league’s honor for top defensive newcomer.  While the tackles are nice, the Panthers need more impact plays from Kuechly this season.  He did record 2 INTs, but Johnson had 7 forced fumbles compared to Kuechly’s 0.  They’re good but fragile on the outside.  Jon Beason is no sure thing after playing in only 5 games the last two years combined, and Thomas Davis is only a year removed from being in a similar position.  Here’s where it gets really ugly.  Chris Gamble retired, leaving an even bigger hole in a weak cornerback crop.  Seeing Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn as starters should have Brees, Ryan, and even Freeman licking their chops.  They’re not any better at safety.  Charles Godfrey isn’t very good, and the Raiders didn’t fight to keep Mike Mitchell. 

Cam’s going to have to score a lot because his defense is still going to give up a ton, and that’s not a formula for consistent success.  I see another long year in Carolina blue. 

MVP – Cam Newton
Breakout – Greg Hardy
Disappointment – Jonathan Stewart

Division MVP – Drew Brees
Division Breakout – Mark Barron
Division Disappointment – Da’Quan Bowers

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