NFL Season Preview: NFC South

Posted by Jack Tumen

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

August is rolling on and we’ve got two divisions left to cover before the regular season kicks off. We now take look at the NFC South.

One of the surprise stories of the 2013 season came from this division as the Carolina Panthers rode a stout defense to a 12-4 record and their first division title since 2008. However, New Orleans wasn’t far behind, finishing 11-5 with Head Coach, Sean Payton, back in the fold following his year-long suspension from the infamous bounty scandal.

But we begin with the team that’s starting over from scratch, literally. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into 2014 with a new owner (former owner, Malcolm Glazer passed away at 85,) a new General Manager, a new Head Coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators, a new starting quarterback, a new logo and new uniforms. That pretty much screams NEW ERA in just about every way imaginable.

Things appeared to be on the up for Tampa Bay. The Greg Schiano/Josh Freeman era came to such a screeching halt I don’t think Bucs fans knew what hit them. 2013 was supposed to be the year that Freeman took the next step. Well, he certainly took a step…in the wrong direction. Hard to believe he’s currently out of the league.

The Buccaneers have shadily not made the playoffs since 2007 when they “won” the division at 9-7. In fact, the last time the Bucs made the playoffs with double-digit wins was nearly a decade ago in 2005 when Cadillac Williams was a rookie and Chris Simms was their starting QB. They’ve only finished with a winning record two other times since then and were the third-wheel in their division both times.

But Lovie Smith ain’t havin’ none o’that. Cudos to the Bucs for making the best personnel hire of 2014. Lovie coached the Bears for nine seasons – during those nine seasons, his team finished with a losing record only three times and finished .500 just once. Three times, his defense finished in the top five; another time in the top 10. He inherits a young, promising roster in Tampa Bay that with proper coaching (only that which Lovie could provide) has potential to become the class of the NFC sooner than later.

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

After the way he performed in 2013, Josh McCown was gonna get his chance somewhere. It’s hard to believe that just a short time ago he was playing for the Hartford Colonials in the now-deceased United Football League. The Bucs made a wise decision by signing the wily ol’ vet to command their offense. Yes he’s 35 years old; but he’s currently playing the best football of his career and the Buccaneers have the offensive tools that brought him success in Chicago – i.e., two towering receivers on either side of the field.

Vincent Jackson has been a total stud his entire career. At 6’5″, 230lbs, it’s a shame the only true contender he’s ever played for was the 2007 Chargers that reached the AFC Championship Game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s been a waste of talent but it’s been an unfortunate ride for one of the league’s most gifted pass-catchers. Heck, he made the Pro Bowl last year on that dismal 4-12 squad. But if one V-Jax wasn’t enough, Tampa Bay spent the seventh-overall pick on baby V-Jax, a.k.a., Mike Evans. He’s virtually a clone on the other side of the field, standing at 6’5″, 231lbs. Expect his mark to be made.

This defense might have been the most underachieving unit in the NFL last year, playing average football and getting lost in the pack. The problem with that is the players on this defense are anything but average. Lavonte David is suddenly one of the top-five linebackers in the NFL, totaling 145 tackles, 7 sacks, 10 passes defended and 5 INTs last season. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive linemen around and is coming off easily his best season as a pro; now he’s got Michael Johnson to help him out. This secondary added CB Alterraun Verner to play with the league’s best safety duo in Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. I predicted a while back that this defense will finish in the top five; I stand by that.

Other Notables: Doug Martin needs a big-time bounce-back year following his shoulder injury; I never understood the hype around Mike Glennon and I’m glad Lovie didn’t either; Second-year CB, Jonathan Banks, is in good position to up the ante in 2014; Tampa’s three-deep at tight end with Brandon Meyers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Tim Wright; Da’Quan Bowers has one more chance to make something out of his career; Tampa Bay got schooled by the Jets in the Revis trade (imagine if Sheldon Richardson was a Buccaneer?)

Seattle’s defense in 2013 was legendary; but Carolina’s wasn’t far behind. The Panthers started the year 1-3 – their opening loss coming in a now-telling 12-7 slugfest with the Seahawks. They proceeded to win 11 of their final 12 games while allowing just 15.1 PPG and a smidgen over 300 yards per game as their season totals. That’s insane!

Led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly, this unit was formidable. Thomas Davis was finally able to stay healthy all season and racked up 123 tackles, 4 sacks and 2 picks. DE Greg Hardy solidified himself as a household name, collecting 15 sacks while totaling 26 over the past two seasons. Charles Johnson played up to his contract extension as well, tallying 11 sacks following his 12.5-sack performance in 2012. Star Lotulelei looks the part of a first-round defensive tackle as well.

However, this sixth-ranked secondary lost some key pieces from a year ago. Strong safety, Mike Mitchell, finally played like the second-round pick he was drafted to be in Oakland, setting career marks across the board – he’s now in Pittsburgh. Cornerback, Captain Munnerlyn, deflected 12 passes while intercepting 2 and tallying 3.5 sacks – he’s now in Minnesota. Vets, Drayton Florence and Quintin Mikell, are also gone. Charles Godfrey will return from a torn achilles to button down the hatches and should be a welcomed sight along with free-agent signing, Antoine Cason, who’s never intercepted fewer than 2 passes in each of his six NFL seasons. Safety is looking rather spry with former NFC South rivals, Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper, joining the party along with youngins Robert Lester and rookie Tre Boston.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Cam Newton is a nice quarterback to have for your franchise. He came into the league red-hot; finishing as a top-10 passer his rookie season. Since then, his play has plateaued. He had career-highs in TDs and completion percentage last year – albeit not by much – but threw for the fewest yards of his career. On the ground, his workload has been scaled back significantly; After what happened to RGIII, teams are unwilling to expose their quarterbacks to excessive contact, and rightfully so. However, this has muted half of Cam’s game; his legs were what put him over the top as an athlete and a playmaker. His carries have steadily declined over his three-year career while his rushing touchdowns have been cut by 57% since his rookie season. The thing is, that shouldn’t matter because Cam Newton gets paid to throw the ball. Yet, here we are discussing his legs when something’s gotta give for the league’s 29th-ranked passing offense. It doesn’t help that Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner and Travelle Wharton have departed from his offensive line – but such is life in the NFL; the great ones will find a way to overcome such obstacles.

Earlier this offseason, it was looking like the Panthers were going to have the worst receiving corps in the NFL this year. Steve Smith – the greatest Panther of all time – has moved on to Baltimore in the twilight of his career; the Brandon LaFell project has been dumped on the Patriots; Ted Ginn moved out following his mini-breakout season; and it’s usually not a good thing when your tight end is the team’s leading receiver. Now, their receiving corps is arguably better than last years’. Kelvin Benjamin was drafted in the first round to be “the guy” while Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant were brought in as veteran stop-gaps. It’s not the prettiest group around but Greg Olsen is still the man at tight end and this crew will hold its own for the time being.

Other Notables: Second-round DE, Kony Ealy, can make this defense even nastier; Ryan Kalil is still one of the top centers in football; I’m not sold on Ron Rivera as a Head Coach; FB, Michael Zordich, could have an impact in this ground game; Doesn’t it feel like DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been around forever? This backfield needs a fresh face.

The Hard Knocks cameras are rolling – and so far, 2014 hasn’t looked much prettier than 2013 for the Atlanta Falcons.

This team is a mess. Mike Smith has zero control over his players and it shows. They could in-fact be one of the most undisciplined teams in the league. It’s pretty telling when your former first-round pick, Peria Jerry, retires on the spot and walks out the door in his prime. I don’t know about you, but through the first three episodes, I find it hard to believe that Mike Smith is a Head Coach in the NFL; he seems like he’d be more well-suited being a swimming instructor. Having said that, he’s got a heck of a coaching staff around him with guys like Mike Tice and Mike Nolan coaching up his players on their swim moves.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

One thing Hard Knocks has shown is that Matt Ryan is the unquestioned leader of this team. He holds everyone accountable for their mistakes and I’m starting to feel badly for him that this franchise is visibly crumbling around him. He luckily has two of the league’s best wideouts in Julio Jones and Roddy White; but with LT Sam Baker going down, it really puts a damper on this offense’s plans for 2014. On top of that, Steven Jackson’s been injured most of camp and Devonta Freeman has flashed ability but is still a work-in-progress as a rookie running back. Not good news for the NFL’s worst backfield in 2013.

My favorite player so far has been rookie CB, Ricardo Allen. He’s funny as hell and has got the right personality for the NFL. On top of that, he was a nice player at Purdue. He’s part of a solid group of corners for Atlanta that includes second-year players Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant along with vets Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas.

It’s no secret that the biggest loss for this team is the departure of Tony Gonzales. He brought so many intangibles to Atlanta and his presence leaves a gaping hole not only at tight end but in this franchise as a whole.

Other Notables: Rookie tackle, Jake Matthews, looks like the real deal and will be thrown to the wolves now that Sam Baker’s season is over; The crew at safety is slightly above-average with William Moore, Dwight Lowery and rookie Dezmen Southward; Rookie RB Jerome Smith was one of my favorite RBs in this years’ draft class; Rookie DT Ra’Shede Hageman needs to stop being such a big baby; Harry Douglas is a total diva.

Once a year, no matter what, there’s always the mid-season debate about whether Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFL or not – and for good reason.

For a team with such a miserable history, the Saints have unquestionably been the class of their division since the turn of the century; they’ve finished with a losing record just four times and only one of those times they finished with fewer than 7 wins. They’re tied with Atlanta for the most playoff appearances (6), they’ve made the playoffs four out of the last five seasons and won a Super Bowl five years ago. If Sean Payton hadn’t been suspended for 2012 they would have made the playoffs five straight seasons, no doubt.

This team has had steady leadership and production from its veterans, which has translated into sustainable success over the past decade. Other than Drew Brees, key guys like Marques Colston and Jahri Evans have been cornerstones of this franchise.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Looking at the offense, it’s a masterful system. Jimmy Graham is one of the best weapons in football and I have to say I think it’s total bullshit that the league created a penalty for goal-post-dunking. What’s football if not entertainment? Hey, Commish, Jimmy Graham asserting his beastliness on the goal post is entertaining. The No Fun League strikes again.

But I digress. New Orleans smartly traded up to grab Brandin Cooks in the draft and he’s far-and-away been the most outstanding rookie thus far in training camp and preseason. This offense was built for spark-plugs like Cooks and he’s gonna tear defenses up with Drew Brees.

I find it interesting that the Saints haven’t had a true no. 1 back since Deuce McAllister retired after the 2008 season. They’ve employed a constant mix of guys like Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram and, believe it or not, both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell – the current Lions’ backfield. This year, Pierre Thomas rolls on with Ingram and the new new guy, Khiry Robinson.

The Saints scooped up Rob Ryan to coordinate their defense last season and boy did that decision pay off. Their unit finished fourth in the league in total yards allowed while placing second in passing yards allowed; only behind the champion Seahawks. This year, the cast is different; this defense adds star safety Jairus Byrd to play alongside Kenny Vaccaro and a 36-year-old version of Champ Bailey while returning MLB Curtis Lofton and breakout defensive end, Cameron Jordan, among others.

Other Notables: Jahri Evans and Jermon Bushrod are two Pro-Bowlers along that stoud offensive line; Kenny Stills will stretch the field on offense while Robert Meachem does whatever he does; Don’t sleep on rookie safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ty Zimmerman; Rookie QB Ryan Griffin could be the quarterback of the Saints’ future.

Final Standings:

  1. New Orleans: 11-5

  2. Tampa Bay: 8-8

  3. Atlanta: 7-9

  4. Carolina: 7-9

This is one of the better divisions in the league from top-to-bottom. I don’t have any team winning fewer than seven games…but I only have one team with a winning record. These guys get the NFC and AFC North divisions in 2014 – no small task. New Orleans should cruise. They’re looking the best they’ve looked on both sides of the ball in a while. Their defense now is much better than the defense they won the Super Bowl with; Lovie Smith is going to turn the Bucs into contenders – but not just yet. This team needs to shake off the cobwebs left by Greg Schiano and play up to its potential. With a fresh start on offense and a defense on the rise, they’ll double last years’ win total; Atlanta will be better than last year…I guess. They definitely won’t finish 4-12 again, right? I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because this division gets shuffled year after year, but Mike Smith should still be giving swimming lessons at the YMCA; Sadly, Carolina will regress. Even if their receiving corps looks a bit better than last years’, their offensive line is in shambles, their backfield is aging and their franchise quarterback hasn’t shown he can truly take the next step. Even if this defense finishes in the top-5 again, points could be hard to come by for last year’s NFC South Champions.

Next Up: NFC West

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