Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: NFC South

Which is bigger: Jacquizz Rodgers or one of
Michael Turner's massive legs? 
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:

AFC West
NFC West
AFC South

We’ll be staying in the South today, NFC style, where all the teams actually do reside in the South:

NFC South

Let’s make a pact right now, shall we? When talking about the NFC South, we will only use the word “bounty” one time (not counting that one). One time and one time only, that’s our limit. This story has dominated the headlines for far too long and, quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of hearing about it. Not only is the story tiresome, but it also draws attention away from what is, in my opinion, one of the most compelling divisions in the NFL. There will be a legitimate battle for division supremacy this year between the Saints and Falcons, an intriguing push by the up-and-coming Panthers, and a potential attempt to allow the most points in NFL history by the Buccaneers. Should be fun!

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. New Orleans Saints: 12-4

Biggest Addition:  Curtis Lofton/David Hawthorne – I’m cheating a bit here by naming two guys, but it really doesn’t make sense to talk about the value of one without naming the other. Fact is that very few teams did as good a job at addressing a need area as the Saints did with their LB corps. Lofton and Hawthorne are both in-their-prime borderline Pro Bowl level players, and they offer a monumental upgrade over Jo-Lonn Dunbar and the now-suspended Jonathan Vilma. It doesn’t completely fix a defense that ranked 28th in DVOA, but by turning a clear weakness into a strength, it gives new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo something to work with. 

Biggest Loss:  Sean Payton – Whether or not you agree with the length of Payton’s suspension, it is reality. He’s not walking through that door this season, and that’s a big blow for the Saints. His leadership, his game planning, his play-calling, his sideline demeanor, and many other things that make him one of the league’s best coaches will be sorely missed throughout the season. 

X-Factor:  Sedrick Ellis – The team leader in sacks last season was Roman Harper…who is a safety. Without a doubt, the front seven was a huge disappointment last season, perhaps none more so than Ellis. The former #7 overall pick looked to have finally broken out in 2010, posting a career high 6 sacks and being generally disruptive on the inside. But 2011…well, it was bad. Ellis managed just 11 solo tackles and half a sack despite starting 15 games. That type of performance can’t happen again, especially with Will Smith being suspended for the start of the regular season. A rebound season from Ellis would do wonders for this defense, as the combination of him and the new LB’s would instantly make the front seven a viable unit.

Biggest Question:  How much will the coaching issues affect the team? This will certainly be an interesting experiment into the value of coaching, as the team will go from one clear, strong voice to multiple lesser voices. It certainly helps to have a ‘coach on the field’ in Drew Brees, but it would be naïve to think the loss of Sean Payton will have no impact. 

Forecast:  Whether self-inflicted or not, there is little question the New Orleans Saints face more adversity than perhaps any other team in the NFL. No head coach, no backup head coach for six weeks, key players on suspension, the loss of key offensive players (Carl Nicks, Robert Meachem), and the specter of the bounty-scandal (aaaaaand done!) hanging over them the entire season. A lesser team would collapse under the weight of it all. A successful, veteran team like the Saints? Probably not. Drew Brees is still playing QB, and the league’s #2 rated offense, in terms of DVOA, is still very much in place. Given that, there’s no reason to think they won’t be every bit as strong as they were last year.

2. Atlanta Falcons: 11-5

Biggest Addition:  Asante Samuel – At 31 years old, Samuel isn’t the same player he was from 2006-2010, when he made four Pro Bowls and averaged over 7 INT’s a season. For the price of a late round pick, however, he was an absolute steal. It’s not like he’s washed up or anything, either. Samuels’ completion percentage against was an astounding 47.5%, proving he can still play at a high level. With Dunta Robinson proving a huge disappointment, the addition of a guy like Samuel to play opposite Brent Grimes is huge, especially in a division featuring Drew Brees and Cam Newton. 

Biggest Loss:  Curtis Lofton – New Orleans’ gain is Atlanta’s loss. Lofton has been a stalwart for the Falcons, starting 63 of a possible 64 games the past four seasons and anchoring a run defense that has consistently ranked as one of the league’s best. For whatever reason, Atlanta decided they could do without him. That might make more sense if Lofton wasn’t 26 with his best years likely ahead of him. It also might make more sense if they had a replacement lined up who was NOT named Lofa Tatupu…who is already dead.

X-Factor:  Jacquizz Rodgers – Fair warning to everyone: I’m head-over-heels in love with Jacquizz Rodgers. Hard to explain – maybe the short thing, again – but I just love the guy. This is about more than love, though. Atlanta has ridden Michael Turner hard the past four seasons (300+ carries in 3 of the 4), and that type of workload is bound to catch up to him sooner or later. Considering he turned 30 earlier this year, I’m going to say sooner. The coaches have already expressed their intent to lessen his load, so you can bet Rodgers is going to be a bigger factor. Despite his diminutive size, Rodgers is a talented runner both inside the tackles and outside. Plus, he’s far more shifty and versatile than Turner, which, in my opinion, makes him more relevant in today’s pass-happy NFL. Don’t be shocked to see Rodgers do some very Sproles-like things this season.

Biggest Question:  Can they consistently pressure the QB? John Abraham seemingly never gets old, and his epic victory over Father Time has single-handedly kept the Falcons pass rush from being the worst in the NFL. Ray Edwards was supposed to be the complement at the other DE spot, but he was a huge disappointment last season. Beyond that, there’s just not much pass rushing talent, which is kind of a big deal in today’s NFL. Someway, somehow, they’ll have to figure out a way to manufacture more pressure or this team will continue to fall short. And if Father Time gains the upper hand on Abraham this year…  

Forecast:  I’m high on the Falcons for one reason and one reason only; I love me some Julio Jones. Jones is such a physically stunning athlete, much like a young version of Randy Moss who actually plays hard all the time. He can run all the routes, he has unbelievable hands, he can outrun you, out-jump you…pretty much out-everything you. If he can stay healthy, I honestly and truly believe he’ll be one of the five best WR’s in all of football by the end of the season.  No question in my mind, he’s that good. With that in play, and with an increased role for Jacquizz Rodgers, the Falcons offense should be even better than last season. Still too many questions on the offensive and defensive lines to take them too seriously as a Super Bowl contender, but they have the look of a strong regular season team.

3. Carolina Panthers: 7-9

Biggest Addition:  Luke Kuechly – Carolina had the worst defensive DVOA in the entire NFL, even worse than Tampa Bay! Simply put, they had to upgrade the talent on defense or they wouldn’t stand a chance in the high octane NFC South. Drafting Kuechly was a nice step in that process, as reports from Panthers camp are that he is every bit the impact LB he was projected to be.  

Biggest Loss:  Karma – Remember this? Seriously, what the heck are you doing Ryan Kalil? Also, when was the last time one of these chic “dark horse” teams ever did anything? Hey, guys, they aren’t a “dark horse” anymore if you’re all talking about them!

X-Factor:  Greg Hardy – The defensive line is offensively bad, for the most part, but Greg Hardy actually has some talent. He was a dominant force in his college days, and at one point was graded as a “lock” for the first round. That ship obviously sailed, but he did show flashes in his first year as a starter, anchoring fairly well against the run and providing a decent pass rush. He’s only 24 and has just the 16 starts under his belt, so it’s a good bet there’s another level or two for him to reach. With nowhere else to turn, Carolina badly needs him to develop into an impact player or their front line is going to awful once again.

Biggest Question:  Defense. Dead. Last. What do you think the question is?

Forecast:  Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me; everyone on the planet knew Carolina’s defense needed serious help…so they added another RB? Could there possibly be anything that makes less sense? Kuechly was a great pick, don’t get me wrong, but they needed a lot more than another LB. They needed starting caliber players at DT, CB, and S, but made absolutely no effort to plug those holes. So, do I think the team will be better a bit more competitive than last year? Yeah, I think that highly of Cam Newton and the offense. But do I think they make a huge leap and contend? No way, not even close. Maybe someday they’ll stop collecting useless RB’s and get themselves a big boy defense, but until that day comes, I’m not picking them to contend for anything.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-10

Biggest Addition:  Mark Barron – Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks were the splashier additions, but I suspect neither will have the type of impact Barron will. In Jackson’s case, I’m just not convinced he’s really a great player. Plus, how many times has the whole “look at us, we signed a big name WR in free agency” thing failed? A hundred? More? And in Nicks’ case, he’s a guard, and who really cares about a guard when you had the second worst defensive DVOA in the entire league? No, this team needed help defensively, especially on the back end, and Barron should be able to provide just that. Sure, he may have been a bit of a reach at #7, but nobody will ever mention that again if he steps on the field and plays the way he’s capable of. 

Biggest Loss:  Kellen Winslow – You can say that his attitude isn’t great or that he hasn’t lived up to his lofty billing, but that doesn’t make him a worthless player. In fact, he was once again one of the more productive pass catching TE’s in the NFL last season, hauling in 75 balls for 763 yards. Not Pro Bowl stuff or anything, but not bad considering half of Josh Freeman’s passes ended up with the defense. The fact that new coach Greg Schiano cut him so quickly was mind-boggling to me, and that was before they decided to replace him with 47 year veteran Dallas Clark. Tough loss.

X-Factor:  Gerald McCoy – If you remember correctly, there was a legitimate debate prior to the 2010 draft of whether McCoy was a better prospect than Ndamukong Suh. Since then, Suh has been one of the league’s best defensive players, period, while McCoy has suffered one major injury after another. Last year, he missed the final 10 games after tearing his biceps…which came after an ankle injury. Fact is, if the Tampa Bay defense is to make major strides this season, McCoy has to stay on the field. He has all the tools to be one of the league’s most dominating players, and he was clearly heading down that path last year prior to his injury. Hopefully he can put it together for an entire season.

Biggest Question:  Who is the real Josh Freeman? People can talk about the defense all they want, but the real reason Tampa Bay blew up last season was the sharp decline of Josh Freeman. In 2010, Freeman broke out with a historic season, posting one of the best TD-to-INT ratios of all time. Then there was last year, when he threw 22 INT’s to just 16 TD’s. All kinds of reasons have been bandied about to explain this, from personal issues to teammates being lazy. Whatever the reason is, Freeman has to get it under control or it’s going to be another long season in Tampa. 

Forecast:  I don’t mind telling you I don’t have a clear handle on the Bucs. Literally anything could happen with this team and I wouldn’t be shocked. They just have so much untapped talent, from McCoy/Bowers/Price/Clayborn on the defensive front, to Freeman/Blount/Martin/Jackson/Williams at the offensive skill positions. Perhaps Greg Schiano can reach them in a way that Raheem Morris couldn’t. Perhaps they respond to his style and start living up to their potential. It’s certainly possible, but I’d have to see it before I believe it. Until then, their past performance paints a picture of a defense so bad that they couldn’t possibly compete in a division as loaded as this one. Hey, at least there won’t be many in the stands to witness the atrocity!

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