Here’s a look at the home of the Super Bowl Champion Saints, the NFC South.
“Play Like A Champion Today”
Strength- The Falcons have an offense with plenty of playmakers. Former Boston College star Matt Ryan enters his third year as Atlanta’s starting quarterback. After being named the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, Ryan avoided the “sophomore slump” by throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in only 14 starts. Ryan’s longest pass came in Week 5 against San Francisco when Roddy White broke a tackle on a short curl route, and went 90 yards for a score. White has established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL. Since 2007, he has caught 256 balls for 3,737 yards and 24 touchdowns. Running back Michael “The Burner” Turner looks to rebound after an injury-plagued 2009. Turner was held to 11 games, and ran for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns. The final piece to an all-star puzzle is tight end Tony Gonzalez. The future Hall of Famer is playing in his 14th season (2nd with Atlanta). While with Kansas City, Gonzalez had over 10,000 receiving yards and 76 TD’s. In search of a Super Bowl ring, he was traded to the Falcons in 2009.
Weakness- Atlanta’s passing defense was terrible in 2009. Ranked 28th overall, they gave up 241.9 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks had an average 89.5 passer rating. The Falcons were also tied for 26th with only 28 sacks. Corner Brent Grimes led the team with six interceptions. He started eight games at corner, and was fifth on the team with 66 tackles. Chris Owens came on late into his rookie year, and started the final six games. Chevis Jackson is another young corner who looks to improve in 2010. Jackson played in the nickel role his rookie year, taking a pick back 95 yards for a score in 2008. However, he failed to produce in ’09. Brian Williams was signed as a free agent from Jacksonville last season, but tore an ACL in Week 6. His veteran leadership is valuable to this young group of athletes. Atlanta’s free agent splash this year was corner Dunta Robinson, formerly of the Texans. Robinson recorded 393 tackles and 13 interceptions in his six seasons in Houston. Add to the mix rookie Dominique Franks, and Atlanta hopes the defense can solidify and lead them back to the playoffs.
Biggest Question- Who will be Atlanta’s kicker in the 2010 season? I see no questions with any offensive or defensive playmakers, and the Falcons have had trouble in recent memory with the kicking game. Jason Elam struggled mightily in 2009. He had a 62% success rate, and missed many short range kicks and field goals that would have changed the course of a few games. In the middle of the season, Atlanta held a kicking tryout after releasing Elam. Currently, the traveled veteran Matt Bryant is the only kicker on the roster, but the team has its concerns. Bryant went 7 of 10 last season after Elam left. This preseason, Bryant has missed kicks of 47 and 50 yards, and an extra point. Extra points should be automatic for NFL kickers. The Falcons cut Steve Hauschka in August, but may be looking for someone after teams make cuts for the final 53 man roster. We’ve seen too many teams rise and fall on the foot of a field goal kicker (2002, ’03, and ’04 Super Bowls were all won by New England by three points).
Strength- Last season, there was no greater duo of running backs than that of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers were third in the league with 2,498 total rushing yards. Williams was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, and Stewart in the first round of the 2008 draft. Both have lived up to their hype. Williams ran for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns with a 5.1 yard per carry average in 2009. Stewart followed up with 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.1 yards per carry. In 2008, the pair combined for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns. Don’t expect any less from the Panthers this season. Star linemen Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, and Jeff Otah will lead the way. Carolina is going need a heavy dose of the ground game to protect Matt Moore, who takes over as the starting QB. Moore started seven games last season and has shown many signs of brilliance. Yes, Jimmy Clausen was drafted out of Notre Dame this year, but do not anticipate seeing him on the field this year. He’ll be on the bench, learning the offense, and watching Williams and Stewart tear up defenses.
Weakness- This offseason, the Panthers lost Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers. He was publicly frustrated with the Panthers organization, and signed with Chicago this year. Without Peppers, Carolina does not have much of a pass rush. Everette Brown was taken in the second round of the draft last season. As a rookie, he made 22 tackles with two and a half sacks. Charles Johnson enters his fourth year with the team. Last season, he recorded 25 tackles and four sacks. Tyler Brayton is the veteran end in Carolina. Brayton spent five years in Oakland before joining the Panthers in 2008. He recorded five sacks, starting 15 games opposite Peppers. While these defenders have potential, they will miss having Peppers at the other end. Now, opposing offenses will not have to use a double team to stop one guy, and can focus on both ends equally. The Panthers are also very young at the tackle position. Starters from last year Damione Lewis and Hollis Thomas are no longer with the team.
Biggest Question- Is Matt Moore the right man for the quarterback position? Moore has made eight starts in his three years. In rookie season, he started the final three games, and won two. Last season, Moore started the final five games, and was very impressive. He went 4-1, beating Tampa Bay, Minnesota, the Giants, and New Orleans. He threw for 990 yards and eight touchdowns, and only one pick. He takes over his first season as the full time starter in 2010. If he can play as well as he did last season, Carolina may be a formidable opponent, and could improve from being a .500 team to making a wildcard bid. As previously mentioned, this team has a run-first offense, as do many teams with young quarterbacks. However, there are some people who want to see rookie Jimmy Clausen on the field. Clausen figures to be the most NFL ready QB in this year’s draft. In Notre Dame, Charlie Weis ran a pro-style offense, very similar to the Panthers. I believe he is better off with the headset on the sideline for at least the first year. Many quarterbacks with high expectations have been thrusted into a starting role too early, and have failed miserably. It will be interesting to see who is taking the snaps for Carolina at the end of the season.
New Orleans Saints
Strength- What would the NFL look like if the Miami Dolphins signed Drew Brees instead of Dante Culpepper in 2006? The Saints would not have won the Super Bowl, I can guarantee that. Brees has exceeded many expectations in his career, and last season was no different. Many said he was too short. San Diego let him go because of the multiple shoulder surgeries he had. They felt his arm wouldn’t be strong enough. In the past two seasons alone, Brees has thrown for over 9,500 yards and 68 touchdowns. In the 2009 regular season, he had 34 touchdown passes, a 70.6% completion rate, and a 109.6 passer rating, all first in the league. Don’t forget the Super Bowl ring. Against Indianapolis, he went 32 of 39 (82%) for 288 yards and 2 scores. He is arguably the second most valuable quarterback to his team (I would argue Peyton Manning is #1). He has turned Marques Colston, who was three picks away from being Mr. Irrelevant, into a top level receiver. Brees is also considered one of the best fantasy players for this year. If you need a QB, take this guy.
Weakness- The Saints’ offense was strong enough to overcome their poor defense last season. Surprisingly, the Super Bowl winning defense gave up 357.8 yards per game, ranked 25th overall. On the ground, they gave up 122.2 yards per game, 21st in the league. They were tied for fourth worst with the Buffalo Bills with 19 rushing touchdowns surrendered. This could be a problem in a division full of good running backs. In Week 8 against Atlanta, Michael Turner ran for 151 yards and a touchdown. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 149 yards and two scores in Week 9 against the Panthers. The Buccaneers’ Cadillac Williams had 129 yards and a touchdown in a Week 16 victory over the Saints. In the final game, Carolina’s other star running back, Jonathan Stewart, rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown. While the New Orleans defense gave up a lot of yards through the air, they were third in the league with 26 interceptions. Safety Darren Sharper led the way with nine of those picks. Sharper has recently been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning he’ll have to miss the first six games this year. If the Saints are going to repeat as winners of the Lombardi Trophy, their defense will need to improve.
Biggest Question- How many weeks can the Saints go undefeated this year? New Orleans is a huge favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. Last season, the Saints went 13-3, with those 13 wins coming in a bid for an undefeated regular season as they began 13-0. With Drew Brees leading the high powered offense, many penciled in the Saints next to New England, who went 16-0 in 2007. As many teams do, the Saints rested their starters at the end, giving up a shot at history. This did almost hurt them, as the Vikings were one Favre interception away from going to the Super Bowl. In 2010, I expect the offense to continue to play efficiently, and Greg Williams will tighten up that defense. The big question in Louisiana is whether or not the Saints can be the first team to repeat as World Champions since New England did in 2003 and ’04.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Strength- Let’s face it, Tampa Bay was downright terrible last season. They are in the infamous rebuilding stage. While these players are not immediate Pro Bowlers, they are the future of the franchise. Second year quarterback Josh Freeman hopes his struggles are behind him. Freeman started the second half of last season as a rookie. He threw for 1,855 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. Of course, there always is a significant learning curve as a rookie QB, and Freeman should be more comfortable in the pocket. Kellen Winslow will be a big target for the young Freeman. The tight end had over 1,100 yards receiving and five touchdowns grabs in 2007 with the Cleveland Browns. After battling back from staph infection, he managed to gain 884 yards and five TD’s in his first season with Tampa Bay in 2009. A big play tight end is always a novice quarterback’s best friend. On defense, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud led the team in tackles for the third straight season. Rookie tackle Gerald McCoy has drawn many comparisons to Warren Sapp. He’ll be an anchor in the front seven for years to come. Safety Tanard Jackson should continue to improve. He returned two of his five picks for touchdowns in 2009.
Weakness- The biggest obstacle in Tampa Bay is overcoming inexperience. As a rebuilding franchise, they will endure many hardships while these young players develop. Freeman threw 18 picks last season. That’s a number that must come down. He doesn’t have a strong group of receivers to throw too. Rookie Mike Williams has earned a job as a starting receiver, along with Maurice Stovall. Stovall only had 24 catches for 366 yards last season. Another rookie receiver, Arrelious Benn, will start the season as a backup. Defensively, the Bucs finished 2009 ranked 27th overall in total defense. They allowed 365.6 yards per game. Their run defense finished dead last. Two more rookies, tackles McCoy and Brian Price, are making people nervous about the defense in the future. Their ability to stop the run is very important in the NFC South. Tampa Bay has many more playmakers who have only a couple years experience or less in the NFL.
Biggest Question- Can Cadillac Williams return to his old self? Williams was the 2005 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He started his career hot, becoming the first running back in the NFL to run for over 100 yards in his first three career games. He finished that year with 1,178 yards and six touchdowns. Since then, the Cadillac has had some engine problems. He played in only 10 games between 2007-’08, making five starts as he suffered injuries to both knees. He may be back, healthy and ready to rumble. In 2009, he started 15 games and ran for 823 yards and four touchdowns. He also recorded career highs with 217 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. If he can break the 1,000 yard barrier this season, he may finally prove he’s rejuvenated his career. If he has another lackluster year, the Cadillac may be headed off up the highway.
Division Prediction- Tampa Bay should improve some from the three wins they had in 2009, but honestly, six wins may be a good year for them. They will probably beat New Orleans once, in Week 17 when Brees is on the bench, resting for the playoffs. Carolina will be another middle of the road team. Their ground game is great, but they lack any weapons for Matt Moore (or Jimmy Clausen) to throw too, and defensively they may have some struggles. Atlanta will be in the run for a wildcard spot. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White make a dangerous trio on offense. And seeing that White is my top fantasy receiver, let’s hope he and Ryan break some records. The Saints are going to be on top of the South again. How far will they make it? We’ll have to wait and see.