Possibly the 2nd toughest division after the NFC West, the NFC south features the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton. Although Brees is the only leader who has eclipsed NFL supremacy winning the Superbowl in 2008, Matt Ryan has thoroughly dominated the division for many years up until last season. And until Atlanta discovers some dominance defensively they will always be considered a team on the “cusp” but never achieving greatness. Cam Newton’s Panthers will look very similar to last year’s Cleveland Browns, highly touted defense and 1 or 2 pieces on the offensive end. Cam will be better but it will not result in more wins are a deeper playoff run, sorry but I don’t think that even the great Tom Brady could turn this team around. Tampa Bay’s success hinges on the health of Doug Martin being able to carry the load for McCown all season. Analysts are so high on Lovie because he finally has the right personnel who are fitted to run his defensive scheme. Lovie’s Bears’ front line had always been menacing and if he can get McCoy and Michael Johnson to enter their prime then Tampa cannot be ignored as a team on the brink for that final wildcard spot.
New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Assuming that Drew Brees does not stub his toe going down the stairs, or throws his back out lifting his son, the Saints are poised for another deep playoff run. In recent years it has been their inconsistent play on the road that has kept them from dominating the NFC. The Saints have upgraded a defensive unit that was already top 10. The running back by committee with Pierre, Mark Ingram, and Robinson will continue to salvage the shelf life of Thomas and allow Ingram to extend his career as well. The hype surrounding Brandon Cooks is real, and will fill the explosive playmaking that has departed with Darren Sproles. As long as the essential pieces of this team stay healthy look for them to have another productive season among the elite in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
Lovie Smith has already established an attitude in camp, in the few months he has been there, the tone in the locker room is much improved. This Tampa team has an awful lot of similar characteristics to Gruden’s 2002 team--who ended up winning the Superbowl. Top 5 defense, tall, skilled receivers (Keyshawn Johnson) in Evans and Vincent, and above average special teams. McCown is another one of my “implementation specialist” and his game plan will be very much predicated off of running between the tackles and play action passes. Doug Martin returns from injury and will be looking to return to elite form. If the Bucs' can establish an early identity against this brutal schedule, they may be able to squeeze out 10 wins.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
The Falcons imploded last year after losing both Roddy White and Julio Jones to injuries. Stephen Jackson has proven that after turning 30 years of age, running backs are truly serviceable. Not to mention there has still not been a decent cover corner on this roster in years. Fortunately a healthy Roddy and Julio can guarantee you 8 wins, but after that wins will come few and far between. Stephen Jackson’s skeletal frame just can’t be trusted at this stage in his career. His body took a severe punishment throughout his career in St. Louis and he has little to nothing left to add to the “physical” run game that Mike Smith was attempting to implement. There is just not enough defensively for Atlanta to hang their hat on. Its a collection of old veterans past their primes trying to gel, which will accumulate another middle of the 1st round draft pick. Let’s hope this talented team can pick up some much needed help on the other side of the football.
Carolina Panthers (6-10)
With all due respect to Cam Newton, who I personally think is a beast, I find the Panther’s success last season to be blip and not a trend. From my vantage point, this team is in Phase 3 of a rebuild. They have their franchise quarterback in tact, they have what is now should be a solid offensive line. The defensive front seven are vicious led by Luke Kuechly at linebacker and Hardy on the pass rush. I am concerned however by the addition of the aging veteran Roman Harper. Obviously, his experience may be invaluable to the defensive back crew, but there is a reason why Rob Ryan did not want to bring him back after all this time. He gets beat early and often and does not have the speed required to be elite, especially with Colston, Brandon Cooks, Roddy and Julio as elite wideouts in this division. Look for the Panthers to be a low scoring team, ground and pound, with occasional great flashes from Cam. If the Panthers get down early they will struggle immensely and does not have the catch up talent on the outside. This team is one or two players away from being consistently top 5 in the league.
In his 2nd season, he nearly reached 80 tackles playing in 14 games. He anchored a top 10 Saints defense and showed premature “Ed Reed” ability on a number of plays. The Texas native will look to cement himself among this new look secondary, and with the addition of Champ Bailey, Kenny may be able to hone in on the mental side of being the defensive captain. If he can match the football IQ needed with his physically freakish measurables, in January he will be in Honolulu--that’s if he doesn’t end up in Arizona.
The BCS national championship running back has already made a name for himself due to ‘HBO’s Hard Knocks’ exposure. Although his running style is similar to Jacquizz, he may be equipped to swap carries with Jacquizz Rodgers assuming Stephen Jackson has another injury plagued season. He has narrow hips and quick feet similar to LeSean McCoy. He has shown the ability to burst through arm tackles and to run between the tackles as well. Preseason aside he is averaging 5.1 yards a carry, and he is one of those running backs who never loses a yard on a run.
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