Thursday, July 19, 2012

Will Bounty-Gate derail the Saints divisional hopes?  Has Atlanta matured enough to play with the contenders?  Can Cam Newton carry his team into a playoff spot?  Are the Bucs due for a big bounce-back year?  The NFC South remains one of the most unpredictable divisions in the NFL with each team facing enormous questions.  Like most teams, everyone here is optimistic heading into training camp, but who will come out on top?


New Orleans Saints

2012 NFL Preview: NFC South New Orleans Saints
2011 Review: Not many teams were without flaws last year and that included elite contenders like the Saints.

Much like the Patriots they had a world-class offense bookended by a cringe-worthy pass defense. They also had big problems with the D-line and red zone defense.

When the season was coming to a close, it was this ineptitude that allowed the 49ers to march down the field and eliminate New Orleans with gut-wrenching finality.

Unfortunately, the offseason wasn't much better.

2012 Offseason: No need to rehash Bounty-gate here. There's simply no way to replace a guy like Sean Payton.

On the personnel front, the Saints lost key players like Vilma, Nicks, Porter, and Meachem.  Carl Nicks isn't a household name, but he was one of the better guards in the league. Will Smith is out for the 1st four games.

To replace Nicks they picked up Ben Grubbs. Pretty solid move there. Landing Brodrick Bunkley was a great signing to help shore up the run defense in the middle. Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Chris Chamberlain were added in the 2nd level. Lofton will be a nice replacement for Vilma (and maybe even an upgrade). The best they could do in the draft was grab Akiem Hicks in round 3 to throw into the D-line rotation.

Overall New Orleans did a great job recovering from the players they lost to suspension/free agency.  They were also without picks in the top two rounds as well.

I really like Steve Spagnuolo at defensive coordinator. Often times when these guys flame out as head coaches, they go back to what they do best and thrive.

Looking ahead: I think Spags will improve the defense back to a middle of the road unit. Joe Vitt is not Sean Payton, so I expect the offense to take a step back. The good news is Brees has his money and is becoming more and more like an extra coach on the field.

Their season win total opened at 10, but we've seen a strong move towards the under. At this point it's hard to say how all the big changes will shake out, but I'm not ready to jump on the 'fade' bandwagon just yet. 

Atlanta Falcons

2012 NFL Preview: NFC South Atlanta Falcons
2011 Review: Don't let the 10 wins fool you. The Atlanta Falcons had a disappointing season in 2011. Their big offseason moves didn't pan out the way they had hoped.

Their rushing attack wasn't as dominant as they tried to morph into a vertical passing offense early in the year. They continued to give up way too many yards in the air and their D-line was still stuck in neutral. It all added up to a 1-4 record vs the tough teams and a wild card loss to the G-men.

2012 Offseason: Atlanta could have very easily lost a lot of quality core players, but give them credit for re-signing a ton of guys to maintain the continuity.  Only Curtis Lofton and Eric Weems moved on.

There will be eyes on the middle linebacker spot after Lofton left.  Tatupu was signed to soften the blow.  Second year man Akeem Dent will als try to make inroads there.

The secondary should be improved after the acquisition of Asante Samuel. I loved that move and they can now roll out him along with Grimes and Robinson.This group has a chance to be special. It should also help the D-line with an extra half second to get to the QB. They'll need the help as Abraham is 34 and Edwards disappointed last season.

In the draft they addressed the O-line, but it's far from certain how it will pan out when the pads are on.

Other than that Atlanta didn't do much this offseason. They are hoping that the same personnel and some changes at coordinator is enough to get better execution from the existing group.

Looking ahead: The task for Mike Nolan is making the most out of his all-star secondary. On offense they'll have to hope that Turner can hold up and Julio Jones breaks out and justifies his draft day trade.  The O-line has red flags, too. 

Oddsmakers opened them up with a season win total of 9 and there has been consistent money on the over. I'm still on the fence with this team given the huge step back they had last year. I like Atlanta, but they still have to figure out their identity on both sides of the ball and play much better in the big games.

Carolina Panthers

2012 NFL Preview: NFC South Carolina Panthers
2011 Review: Much like Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Cam Newton and the Panthers exceeded everybody's preseason expectations and put together a solid year. They only managed 6 wins, but they were 9-6-1 ATS on the backs of a top flight offense.

The key problem areas remained on defense and the O-line.

2012 Offseason: Tolbert was one of the few additions Carolina made in free agency, but A) he has concussion concerns and B) he doesn't fill a position of need.

What was a need was help on the O-line and they allowed three linemen go in free agency.  Silatolu was drafted in the second round, so that could help shore up a guard position. Mike Pollak was also signed, and Bruce Campbell was acquired via trade. They also need Jeff Otah to finally stay healthy at right tackle. 

4th rounder Joe Adams could be a slot option for Newton as early as this year.

On defense they took Luke Kuechly high in the first round, so look for him to step in immediately at linebacker. If Beason is healthy this group has a chance for a nice improvement.

Special teams was a disaster last year so look for heavy emphasis in these areas in the preseason. 

Looking ahead: The defense is taking some big risks going so young up the middle. They'll need the front seven to step up or the Panthers offense could be sitting on the sidelines for long stretches.  A healthy Ron Edwards could be a pivotal situation.

Cam Newton should make a nice jump in his second year and look for David Gettis to get more involved opposite Steve Smith. On paper, the run game should be lethal and give lots of play-action options for Cam. 

Their season win total was set at 7.5 and action is on the over.  I can't say that I'll be on board with that, but, but if young players develop as expected and the core veterans can stay healthy it's not out of the question. This is a team to keep an eye on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2012 NFL Preview: NFC South Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Review: The Bucs completely imploded last season. There seemed to be enough reason for optimism, but the red flags certainly were there.

There wasn't much value in the point spread either as they finished 4-12 ATS.  They were 1-7 on the road and a combined 2-9 against the top two-thirds of the league.

The lone bright spot came on above average special teams. Yuck.

2012 Offseason: Give credit to Tampa Bay as they went out and secured Vincent Jackson to give Freeman a legitimate number one WR. Dallas Clark will be wearing Buc colors come week 1 as he replaces the loss of Winslow.  Carl Nicks was a huge boost for an average O-line.

Taking Doug Martin late in round one will offer a nice 1-2 punch with Blount. This will fit nicely with what new coach Greg Schiano plans to do with the offense. 

On defense they picked up Eric Wright to help the pass defense--even if it came a high cost. They'll need the youngsters on the D-line to step up, stay healthy, and shore up the run defense that was consistently gashed the last couple of years.

Taking Lavonte David in round 2 and Mark Barron in round 1 should, in theory, fill some holes on that side of the ball. All these top picks are slated to step right in and made immediate contributions.

Additionally, they didn't really lose any key players from their core. 

Looking ahead: The built-in excuses are now gone for Josh Freeman. The line has improved, the running game will be there, and he now has an elite wideout. This is the time where he needs to establish himself as a bonafide franchise QB.

This vast amount of youth throughout the lineup should have a lot more discipline instilled in them during training camp/preseason so the possibility for a huge jump in development is there. 

The main area of concern remains the defense. This unit will make or break this new rebuilding phase.

The season win total opened at 6 and so far the sharps like the over. This is a very attainable number and we could be looking at one of the big bounce back teams of 2012.   The new coaching staff will be critical to their success.

Up Next: NFC North