2010 NFL Preview: NFC South Predictions

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints addresses his teammates prior to playing against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

One of the best battles in the NFL this year will reside in the NFC South, where the defending Super Bowl champion Saints will be tested by an improved Falcons team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

As for the rest of the South, the Panthers are in transition now that Matt Moore is under center, but they’re still going to be competitive on weekly basis and the Bucs should be improved as well. (Although I don’t see them getting out of the division cellar anytime soon.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC South in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Saints

What to Like: It’s hard to start a sentence about what’s to like about the Saints without first mentioning their offense. The dynamics between Sean Payton and Drew Brees are exceptional. Payton knows exactly how to attack an opponents’ weakness and Brees knows how to execute what Payton is trying to do. While the defense was certainly a surprise last year, the relationship between Payton and Brees was the main reason the Saints lifted the Lombardi Trophy last year. Of course, it never hurts to have playmakers like Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Robert Meachem in the offense, either. Nor does having outstanding guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and tackle Jon Stinchcomb along the O-line either. Defensively, Gregg Williams was a miracle worker in his first season as defensive coordinator and was fortunate to have guys like Darren Sharper, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Tracy Porter play opportunistic football. The addition of Alex Brown will also fix a major hole at the end spot opposite Smith in terms of pass rushing.
What Not to Like: This team is weak up the middle on defense. After coming off a promising rookie campaign, Sedrick Ellis struggled last year due to injuries and Remi Ayodele (who was brought in to be a run-stuffer) was highly ineffective and doesn’t offer anything in the pass-rush department. Vilma, who is an outstanding cover middle linebacker, struggled at times against the run last year and the same could be said for Scott Shanle. Former first round pick Malcolm Jenkins (who is a converted corner) takes over for Sharper at free safety and while he has the tools to be good, he’s never played the position before. Offensively, there are very few weaknesses but if I had to pick one it would be left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who struggled badly last season. Cowboys’ OLB DeMarcus Ware (who makes most tackles look bad) exposed him on national television last season and there are some concerns that he can protect Brees’ blindside.
Keep Your Eye On: Pierre Thomas
I didn’t even mention the running game in the “What to Like” section, so here it goes. One of the main reasons Payton’s offense and the Saints’ passing game is so efficient is because of the team’s ability to run the football. Now that Mike Bell is gone, Thomas should have even more opportunities than he received last season to be the rock in New Orleans’ backfield. Reggie Bush will still get his touches, but I don’t think a 1,000-plus yard season out of Thomas is out of the question – especially now that he’s fully healthy heading into Week 1 (he wasn’t at the start of 2009).
The Final Word: The Saints certainly don’t come without their weaknesses, but this is still the team to beat in the NFC South. Their offense will once again rank near the top of the league by year’s end (barring injuries, of course) and Williams proved to be an outstanding game-planner last season. The run defense is a concern, as is Bushrod at left tackle. But Brees and company are going to light up the scoreboard again this year and even if the defense takes a step back, I don’t see the Saints relinquishing the division crown quite yet.

New Orleans Saints 2009 Question Mark: Interior Defense

2. Falcons

August 19, 2010: Atlanta's Michael Turner ( ) in action during the New England Patriots' pre-season game with the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia. The Patriots defeated Atlanta, 28-10.

What to Like: Matt Ryan is heading into his third year as the starter of Mike Mularkey’s offense, so the training wheels have long been off and now he’s expected to make definitive strides in the passing game. He’s coming off a poor preseason, but Mularkey also kept things vanilla. The good news for Ryan and is that Michael Turner looks like the 2008 version of himself again. He came into camp in great shape and looked almost untackable (untackable? It’s fine.) in preseason. When he needs a breather, the Falcons have great depth in Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, and fullback Ovie Mughelli doesn’t get enough recognition for what he brings to the field either. In the passing game, Tony Gonzalez will return as Ryan’s safety blanket in the middle of the field, while Roddy White will once again be counted on as the go-to guy. Now After missing all of 2009 with a knee injury, third-year player Harry Douglas is someone to keep an eye on and will certainly be a mismatch in the slot. Defensively, the Falcons’ biggest weakness was pass defense, so they broke the bank to add cornerback Dunta Robinson this offseason. While Robinson has had problems with consistency and injuries, there’s no doubt he provides a much-needed upgrade in the secondary. At safety, Thomas DeCoud is coming off a breakout year and Erick Coleman had a nice preseason. Up front, John Abraham saw his sack numbers drop dramatically last year, but he still provided a decent rush, even if he didn’t always get to the quarterback. The highly underrated Jonathan Babineaux will join him, as will ’09 first round pick Peria Jerry (whose healthy again) and up-and-comer Kroy Biermann. At linebacker, Curtis Lofton is the rock of the defense and will eventually be flanked by playmaking outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was the team’s first round pick this year.
What Not to Like: The secondary is still a concern, even with the addition of Robinson, who missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. Brent Grimes played well down the stretch last season, but despite being a fantastic playmaker he’s small and can get beaten by more physical receivers. 2009 third round pick Christopher Owens is starting to come into his own, but it still remains to be seen if he can be a full-time starter or if his place is in nickel packages. Up front, Jamaal Anderson has been a fine run defender since entering the league as a top 10 pick, but his pass-rushing ability remains non-existent and he’s going to lose playing time to Biermann, Chauncey Davis and another up-and-comer in Lawrence Sidbury. Either way, the Falcons love to rotate their defensive linemen to keep them fresh, so Anderson better make the most of his opportunities. On offense, the line is underrated on a whole, but left tackle Sam Baker can’t seem to stay healthy and Justin Blalock has to greatly improve his run blocking.
Keep Your Eye On: Kroy Biermann
You might be looking at the second coming of Kyle Vanden Bosch. The former 5th round pick out of Montana is coming off a five-sack season and a monster effort this preseason. He has a relentless motor and while he’s considered an edge rusher, he’s strong enough to take on bigger tackles in the running game. This is the Falcons future at right defensive end.
The Final Word: The Falcons are close – real close – to catching the Saints in the division. New Olreans’ biggest weakness defensively is stopping the run, which just so happens to be the Falcons greatest strength offensively (uh, running the ball – not stopping the run). Defensively, the secondary is still a concern, but the Cowboys laid out the blue print to how to slow Drew Brees and he Saints last year: you have to pressure him – relentlessly. With more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons now have the weapons to pressure Brees. So why did I still go with the Saints to finish in first? One word: Consistency. I know what I’m going to get out of the Saints every week – I don’t with the Falcons. That said, Atlanta almost beat New Orleans twice last season (one time with Chris Redman starting), so I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Falcons finish first. The bottom line is that this is a legit playoff contender and they might be even more than that. Now all they have to do is stay healthy and execute.

Atlanta Falcons 2010 Question Mark: Pass Defense

3. Panthers

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 20: Head coach John Fox of the Carolina Panthers against the Minnesota Vikings at Bank of America Stadium on December 20, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What to Like: While he may have gotten the Panthers to their first Super Bowl, Jake Delhomme was a disaster last year and could no longer be counted on as the starter. While there are plenty of question marks surrounding Matt Moore, at least he’ll have Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams to help take the pressure off him in the offense. Thanks to Stewart, Williams and offensive linemen Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil (who is coming off a solid 2009 campaign), the Panthers’ running game should once again be a dominating force. Defensively, Jon Beason returns as the unit’s best playmaker and will be joined at linebacker by Dan Connor, whom the team has high hopes for. In fact, the defense on a whole is filled with youth and athleticism.
What Not to Like: The Panthers are only going to go as far as Moore takes them. The running game is exceptional, but if Moore can’t keep defenses honest then they’re just going to load the box and take away Stewart and Williams as best they can. Moore is going to have to beat teams with his arm and it remains to be seen if he can do that on a consistent basis. Outside of Steve Smith (who needs to stop playing flag football in his down time), the passing game is devoid of playmakers. Dwayne Jarrett, Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards certainly have enough talent to make plays, but the former hasn’t lived up to expectations and the latter two are still rookies. While the run blocking has always been good, pass protection is a concern, as is the play of offensive guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (who seemed to regress down the stretch last year). Defensively, the loss of outside linebacker Thomas Davis (season ending injury) was crushing and now the Panthers will rely on former third round pick James Anderson (who only has 83 career tackles) to fill the void. Obviously losing Julius Peppers will also be a major loss in terms of pass rush. In the secondary, the team traded Chris Harris back to the Bears and will now move Charles Godfrey over to strong safety and insert Sherrod Martin at free. Godfrey made very few big plays last year, while Martin couldn’t beat out late-round rookie Captain Munnerlyn for the nickel back spot. The run defense wasn’t good last year and the front office did very little to rectify the situation this offseason.
Keep Your Eye On: Brandon LaFell
This one may take awhile because Jarrett is expected to start opposite Steve Smith at receiver, but LaFell had a great spring and he may eventually emerge as another playmaking in the Panthers’ offense. He’s great size (6’3”, 209 pounds) and has a knack for making big catches.
The Final Word: This team has been the model for inconsistency under head coach John Fox over the years and I don’t see that changing now. If Moore can overachieve in his first year as a starter, then the Panthers’ offense is going to be pretty good. But defensively, the loss of Davis and Peppers will be too much and the secondary could get torched with Godfrey and Martin at the safety positions. It’s not bad when a team has to rely on its running game and defense to win games, but the Carolina D isn’t as good as it’s been in years past. I think Fox gets too much credit for being a motivator and doesn’t receive enough criticism for his overall game plans. Obviously execution comes into play there, but this is a mediocre team and I don’t think the front office did enough in the offseason to address needs.

4. Buccaneers

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 15: Geno Hayes #54 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on against the Tennessee Titans during a preseason NFL game at LP Field on August 15, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Titans beat the Buccaneers 27-20. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

What to Like: The linebacker corps for this team is really good. Barrett Ruud isn’t the best “Mike” linebacker in the league, but he’s solid in coverage and that means Raheem Morris doesn’t have to take him off the field in passing situations. Geno Hayes is coming off a breakout campaign and is one of the Bucs’ top run defenders, while Quincy Black his mostly used as a two-down linebacker but he’s very good in coverage. Up front, the sky is the limit for rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, whom the Bucs drafted with the third overall pick this April. Stylez G White returns as Tampa’s best pass rusher after producing 6.5 sacks last season. Offensively, the team is crazy about rookie receiver Mike Williams, who along with tight end Kellen Winslow will be second-year quarterback Josh Freeman’s go-to guys in the offense this season. Carnell Williams returns as the team’s leading back and should top the 1,000-yard mark if he can stay healthy.
What Not to Like: After being viewed as the team’s strength entering the 2009 season, the offensive line took a major step back last season. Every player underachieved last year, which makes you wonder how Donald Penn could complain about his contract situation for most of the offseason. At receiver, expectations are high for Williams but rookies are hit and miss as starters and the rest of the receiving unit is shaky at best. Freeman flashed some signs last year but on a whole he struggled and doesn’t have enough talent around him to take the pressure off. Defensively, cornerback could be a huge issue, especially as Ronde Barber continues to decline.
Keep Your Eye On: Mike Williams
This entire offseason, people in Tampa have raved about Williams. He made plays no matter who was under center this preseason and cemented his status as the team’s No. 1 receiver – even though he’s only a rookie. He dropped to the fourth round of April’s draft because of concerns about his character, but he’s a dynamic red-zone playmaker and a true vertical threat. The Bucs look to have found a gem in the mid rounds.
The Final Word: There’s no question this is an improved team, but the passing offense will hold them back, as will the inexperience on both sides of the ball. The defense came into its own last year when Morris took over the playcalling, but unless the offense can prove that it can move the ball on a consistent basis, then they’re going to be on the field a lot. It would take a massive improvement by Freeman and a major bounce back year from the offensive line for this team to contend in 2010.

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