The NFC South is usually one of the divisions that teams routinely shuffle around. Two years ago it was the Saints and last year it was the Bucs. Look for the same situation to occur this season as no team in this division has done enough to separate themselves from the pack. It’s going to be another 3 team race for the playoffs (with Atlanta full-on rebuilding) but still it’s anyone’s ballgame.
New Orleans Saints
Additions: Jon Vilma, Jeremy Shockey, Sedrick Ellis, Trace Porter, Bobby McCray, Randall Homosexual
Subtractions: Jeff Faine
Hoping to recreate the success of 2 years ago, the Saints quietly had a very productive off-season.
Offensively, this is still one the of the classes of the NFL. Drew Brees is one of the best in the business and is backed up (or protected) by an elite O-Line that allowed only 16 sacks last season.
The question marks revolve around the skill positions. Deuce McAllister is healthy right now but hasn’t shown that he can stay healthy for the entire season. If he can live up to what we’ve come to expect, then the Saints will be golden. Reggie Bush needs to put it all together and will likely do so after his disappointing sophomore season. Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas provide solid backups in case of injuries.
The receivers are another question mark. Teams know what they are going to get with Marques Colston, but after him it is a bit of a question mark. The team will look to 2nd year man, Robert Meachum to line up next to Colston and provide the game breaking ability that he flashed at Tenneesee and the preseason. Behind them are more solid possession receivers in David Patten and Lance Moore and speedsters Devery Henderson and Terrance Copper. All in all, one of the best group of wrs in the league, provided Meachum takes the next step. In the mean time, Patten will see the bulk of #2 WR looks.
The big move offensively this year for the Saints was trading for Ex-Gint Jeremy Shockey. Shockey has a world of talent but continues to miss action with injuries. He will see career numbers if he can stay healthy. Flanking Shockey are the average Mark Campbell and Billy Miller. Not world beaters by any means but still a solid group of guys.
O-line wise, the Saints' major change is Jonathan Goodwin replacing the departed Faine. Faine was one of the league’s best and Goodwin will need to show the Saints were right in allowing him to start. Brown, Nesbit, Evans and Stichcomb have started for the past 3 years so continuity shouldn’t be much of an issue.
The questions marks for this team are Defense and the Saints went out of their way to help themselves out.
The D-Line is among the league’s best with Charles Grant and Will "Fresh Prince" Smith providing the pass rush despite disappointing season last year. The Saints added Bobby McCray from Jagoffville to create more of a pass rush and allow some quality snaps from backups. Kendrick Clancy, Hollis Thomas and Brian Young provided a nice group of rotating tackles while first round pick, Sedrick Ellis, will show the league why his name was in the same sentence as Glenn Dorsey.
The linebacking corps was also upgraded with Jonathan Vilma taking over for Mark Simoneau, providing some MUCH needed speed to the linebacking corps. Vilma will need some help from his DTs to occupy blockers but will be allowed to move freely in space and take advantage of his skillset. Scott Fujita on the strong-side had a career year last season and will look to continue his progression as a player. The other starter, Scott Shanle is average but does provide adequate run support. The depth is crap.
The Achilles heel of this group was horrendous secondary play that ranked 30th in passing yards allowed and gave up 50+ pass plays over 20 yards. Randall Gay will most likely start opposite Mike McKenzie and provide an upgrade over free-agent bust Jason David. Usama Young and Trace Porter will see dime action. The safety position is average but can be with better corner play. Kevin Kaesviharn makes plays happen both for and against while Roman Harper is an up and coming safety around the league.
10 – 6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Additions: C Jeff Faine, QB Brian Griese RB Warrick Dunn, WR Antonio Bryant, TE Ben Troupe, DE Marques Douglas, CB Aqib Talib
Subtractions: Michael Pittman, Anthony Becht, John Wade, Matt Lehr, Luke Petitgout, Greg Spires, Jeremiah Trotter, Brian Kelly
Offensively, the Bucs are still average. Teams will continue to load up on the run and shade coverage to Galloway. Someone needs to step up to open up passing lines.
The Bucs are backed by solid QB play from Jeff Garcia. Garcia showed the moxy and cajones to safely pilot the Gruden offense. The only concerns for him remain durability. Outside of Garcia, you have Chris Simms, Griese, Rook Josh Johnson and Luke McCown. Solid group of QBs all in all but you gotta expect Simms to be dumped any second now. (Editor's Note: Simms got cut. This is an outrage. Would YOU cut Jesus? Though in Jesus' defense, he probably had his spleen.)
The Bucs running game is equally solid with the returning Earnest Graham who helped salvage the Bucs attack. Graham was a solid weapon in passing game as well but is 33 years old so the eventual decline might happen sooner rather than later. Add to this, Warrick Dunn who returns to Tampa to take over the 3rd down back duties and spell Graham but Dunn is no spring chicken by any means either. Former rookie of the year, Cadillac Williams is still on the PUP so we might not see him until midseason. If he can return to glory, the Bucs will be that much better off. Likely, though Williams won’t see significant action again until next season. Former Viking, Michael Bennett adds speed and game breaking ability as well.
The weakness of the Bucs has been their vertical passing attack. Galloway continues to lead this group and be the sole playmaker catching the football for the Bucs. Add stalwarts, Ike Hilliard and Mike Clayton and the Bucs continue to utilize the same slow receivers as years past. Clayton had a solid preseason and will look to translate that into his 2004 success. Add to this group Antonio Bryant who sat all of last season with off the field issues, and Giant Maurice Stovall and 2nd round pick, Dexter Jackson. Jackson has the ability to give this team another deep threat to go with the height options (Stovall, Clayton, Bryant). Buccaneers are deep at tight end with starter Alex Smith and free-agent signees Ben Troupe a one-time starter in Tennessee, and ex-Bears blocking specialist John Gilmore. Ex-SeaCock, Jeremy Stevens is there too. Two of these guys must step up to give this team a respectable NFL offense.
The O-line has been on the upswing for the Bucs. Jeff Faine will man the middle and provide an upgrade to John Wade. Davin Joseph and Arron Sears and Jeremy Trueblood are all chipping in with their games rounding into form. Donald Penn, the starting LT, filled in admirably for Luke Petitgout so much so that Luke is now working at Wal-Mart. This group is improving and one of the catalysts for last season’s success.
The Bucs on D have taken a step back from the Super Bowl days but are young with potential.
Tampa Bay's vaunted Cover 2 scheme is at its best when it's getting consistent pressure along the edges, and the Bucs possess a pair of good young rushers in second-year ends Greg White and Gaines Adams. White, a former Arena League Player, racked up a team-best eight sacks and an eye-popping seven forced fumbles in a situational role last season. White takes over for the aging Greg Spires and will need to prove he can keep up his level of play with more snaps. Adams is one of the best young pass rushers in the league and will look to improve upon a great second half of the season. The defensive tackle slots are no longer manned by Sapp and Booger but Jovan Haye had a productive first year as a starter. Add to the mix Kevin Carter and Chris Hovan and this group is solid up front with depth to spare.
This underrated unit is still led by Old faithful Derek Brooks who continues to be the leader on this defense. Barrett Rudd came on as a strong man in the middle for the Bucs and will look to improve. Factor in speedy Cato June and the Bucs D will once again be flying around for the football. Youngsters Quincy Black and Geno Hayes provide youth while Matt McCoy and Ryan Nece provide experience.
The Bucs pass D finished first in the league last year and got another outstanding season from Ronde Barber. Brian Kelly departed for the Lions and will be replaced by Philip Buchanon who had a solid year. Add in rookie Aqib Talib who will see nickel duty currently before eventually replacing Buchanon in the starting line up. The safety play for the Bucs was equally impressive last year with strong play from Jermaine Phillips and future Pro Bowler Tanard Jackson. Add in Sabby Piscitelli, and Will Allen (no, not that Will Allen) and the Bucs will once again be tough to pass on.
8 – 8
Additions: DJ Hackett, Muhsin Muhammad, Jonathan Stewart, Jeff Otah, Keydrick Vincent, Landon Johnson, Darwin Walker
Subtractions: Kris Jenkins, Micheal Rucker, Dan Morgan, Justin Hartwig, Drew Carter, Mike Wahle
Joke Delhomme was off to a terrific start prior to getting hurt, with the 33-year-old tossing eight touchdown passes against just one interception, and his value to the Panthers became evident with the way the offense stalled following his absence. Delhomme might return healthy but he might be horrid too. Matt Moore came on last season and displayed some potential as a backup. Brett Basanez will use his Northwestern education to hold a clipboard.
The Panthers are missing that Steven Davis type rusher but found that with rookie Jonathan Stewart in the first round. Stewart and incumbent DeAngelo Williams will take turns with the rock until one of them steps up. Still it seems like an awful lot to have two first round picks duke it out. Nick Goings is there to back them both up in case both get hurt which if you’ve followed Carolina, happens. Frequently.
The skill positions got a needed upgrade with the signings of Muhammad and DJ Hackett. Both will see significant playing time. Moose can even help wunderkind Dwayne Jarrett wake up and teach him the ropes. Hackett and Moose will take the burden off of Steve Smith and give this offense another dimension. Ryne Robinson provides the team with another Steve Smith-lite.
Tight ends are a bit lacking with Jeff King starting but Dante Rosario showed promise. Still this group is much stronger than last year and will likely help out Delhomme.
The line was the biggest cause of concern and has been massively retooled. Jordan Gross will move to left tackle while last year’s LT, Travelle Wharton moves to LG. RT first rounder Jeff Otah is a beast and helped solidify this unit. Ex Steeler Keydrick Vincent is solid and C Ryan Kalil will look to take over the Center role. Depth in the O-Line is a concern but they still have experienced players in the weeds. If these guys can gel than I can see Carolina improving but I don’t see it just happening this year.
Last year, the Panthers defense looked average. Julius Peppers went from feared to coward but it’s a contract year so he will be a monster. Mike Rucker retired and will be replaced by the young, Charles Johnson and ex-Gaider, Tyler Brayton. Kris Jenkins’ departure will be missed when healthy but the fact is the guy couldn’t stay healthy. He’ll be replaced by Damione Lewis who filled in admirably for Jenkins last season. Add in beast, DT Maake Kemoeatu, who is a real load and potential superstar. Experienced depth along the interior was provided by the signing of ninth-year vet Darwin Walker but an injury to any end could spell doom.
Jon Beason had a great rookie season and became a fixture for this defense for years to come. He also was healthy (something Dan Morgan couldn’t do). Flanking Beason are speedster Thomas Davis and Na’il Diggs. Diggs might get some competition from ex Bung, Landon Johnson while rookie Dan Connor will look to get in some action that doesn’t involve Penn State co eds.
The secondary of the Panthers is very good for league standards. Richard Marshall, Chris Gamble and Steve Smith’s punching bag, Ken Lucas are the best trio in the league. The rest of the secondary is average with Chris Harris leading the charge. Add in rookie Charles Godfrey as Mr. Hybrid FS/CB and the Panthers may be on to something. They also might not be. Depth behind these guys is nothing.
Additions: Matt Ryan, Micheal Turner, Ben Hartsock, Kindal Moorehead, Rashad Moore, Simon Fraser, Grady Jackson, Eric Coleman
Subtractions: Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Kynan Forney, DeAngelo Hall, Rod Coleman
Rebuilding year and the Falcons are synonymous for the time being, with the Falcons well on their way to another top 5 pick next year coming up except they traded that pick. Oops. There’s a lot to like though if you are a Falcon fan.
Drafting Matt Ryan will take the sting out of the whole Ron Mexico Debacle. From all accounts, Ryan is a poised qb with intangibles up the wazoo and the track record to be an outstanding citizen on and off the filed. If Ryan struggles, Chris Redman who flashed some talent last season will get a look but this will be Ryan’s show.
To help out a rook QB, a team needs a strong running game. The falcons always had one of the league’s best but took a back seat last season. The Falcons rectified this by adding Micheal Turner to their arsenal. Turner is a potential superstar with the ability to be one of the league’s best and is quite the opposite from former starter Warrick Dunn. Behind Turner is big play, Jerious Nerwood who is touchdown waiting to happen and a playmaker for this offense. Add to this FB, Ovie Mughelli and the Falcons can take a lot of pressure off of Ryan.
The weapons for Ryan are also young and talented. The one silver lining to last season was Roddy White breaking out and showcasing some talent. Micheal Jenkins is his running mate and looks the part but hasn’t put it all together just yet. Laurent Robinson, Adam Jennings, Harry Douglas and returning Brian Finneran flank them. Losing Crumpler, The Falcons signed Ben Hartsock who is an average tight end. He will duke it out with the talented Martrez Milner to take away some of the sting they lost with Crumpler. All in all, though a still slighty weak group of weapons for a QB.
The old zone blocking, Alex Gibbs scheme was replaced by Bobby Petrino last year with a power oriented scheme that didn’t mix with the old group. The Falcons traded for Sam Baker who doesn’t suit the power run block scheme at all as Baker was more finesse and positioning as opposed to brute strength. Still Baker and 2nd year Justin Blalock give this team a solid Left side for the future. Still a ton of question marks here and will likely be a reason for a sputtering offense.
Defensively, there some question marks as well. Last season, the Falcons got run on so they rememdied that by resigning Grady Jackson to go along aside Jonathan Babineaux. Moorehead, Moore and Frasier provide depth at the tackle spot. Injury prone, John Abraham stayed healthy last year but got little help from 2007 first rounder, Jamaal Anderson. Anderson has enormous potential and should rebound a year in. Injuries to any DEs would spell doom for this club.
The linebacking corps is the best part of the unit with Keith Brooking leading the charge. SLB Mike Boley is underrated and the middle will be manned by rook, Curtis Lofton. Lofton had a solid preseason and will need to step to help the run defense. The depth brigade is comprised of Tony Taylor, Stephen Nicholas and ex Bill, Coy Wire. Nothing much there to write home about.
The secondary though is the worst aspect of this defense after trading DeAngelo Hall. Thus they are left with 2nd year starter Chris Houston, Brent Grimes (?) and Chevis Jackson from LSU. Uh yea. They just traded for ex Donco, Dominique Foxworth who should see significant playing time provided that there is no one else. There’s a guy named Von Hutchins also but according to the Bobs, he’s useless.
They also have Lawyer Milloy still who is the equivalent of a 4th linebacker but also horrendous in space. They also have old Jet trash Erik Coleman and another rookie Thomas Decloud at the safety spot but in reality, there is a whole lot of nothing here and unless the D-Line brings a nasty pass rush than these guys will be exposed. Hard.