Monday, August 19, 2013

The Preview: NFC South

The South had long been the division of parity from its inception in 2002.   For nearly a decade, no team won the division in back to back years. Later on, the Saints and Falcons emerged as the teams to beat.

Last year, the Falcons won the division and had a bye in the Divisional Round.  Then, Atlanta went on to the NFC Championship game and built a good lead on the 49ers, only to blow the game in the 2nd half and miss the Super Bowl.

While the Falcons had the best record in the NFL that year, three other teams were either rebounding or rebuilding.  Tampa Bay saw the emergence of Doug Martin, their Fantasy Phenom RB.   Carolina was treated to a good second season from Cam Newton and company.  The TEAM wasn't too hot, only improving one game from 6-10 to 7-9, but the offense still had flashes of brilliance.

Then there were the woebegone Saints, hit hard by suspensions and other trauma.  They spent the entire season without Sean Payton, their Head Coach.   The Saints had a brutal start but rebounded with wins in 5 of 6 games between October and November.  But let's face it, I didn't think they were that good *and* Drew Brees had an off year.  He really was throwing interceptions all over the place.  Even at that, the Saints had a better second half than first half last year.

SO... we have 2013.  I bet you a lot of people are going to take the Saints with Payton and Brees as the two supporting arguments.  These are very good supporting arguments, but the defense is in transition.  I won't comment a whole lot on their receivers i.e. Graham, Colston, Moore, and RB Pierre Thomas.  All of these guys are pretty good and no one guy is really that much better than another except *maybe* Graham last year for Fantasy owners.   All of it feeds off of Brees and the O-Line which I still think can keep a game together.  The defense is just not that good.  Vilma and Fujita are back and some other keepers like Malcom Jenkins.   The defense has familiar players, but let's face it, last year the D was terrible.  They gave up over *7000* total yards in 2012, and the only change coaching wise will be the change in coordinators from Spagnolo to Rob Ryan.

Here's the rub on Ryan.  He's not very good.   He seems to leave a lot of openings downfield, but he has the "Ryan" family name so he always winds up hired someplace.  The best he did, in his last five years, was the job he had last year at Dallas.  I'm not even sure if that was so great.

I also think the hype about Sean Payton coming back is really overrated.  I *do* thin Payton is a great coach, but having a good clipboard won't fix the massive issues the Saints have defensively.   It might win some games in the regular season but against the big teams they could get torched.   Be that as it may, the Saints may have the most experienced team and most proven quarterback in the division.  That will be enough to make the favorite among NFL experts.

Here's the rest of the division in a nutshell:

Panthers:  Again, their defense was a sieve last year.   It's a fun to watch team with some great skill players, but you're also talking about an aging offense.  Newton is the youngest guy on this side of the ball but WR Steve Smith is 34, TE Greg Olsen is 28 (not *that* old but hardly a spring chicken), and RB DeAngelo Williams is 30.  30 is usually the turning point for running backs.  Precipitous decline in production from age 30 on for most RB's.   Panthers defense is said to be better this year, more aggressive even with new rookie DT Star Loutulelei of Utah.  I'll take the wait and see approach with Carolina, but they got a ways to go to improve from 7-9... it does seem to have 9 or 10 win potential though.

Falcons:  Atlanta took some losses in the off season including TE Tony Gonzalez' retirement, then Michael Turner's departure (no real loss), and John Abraham's loss to FA.   The Falcons counter with a calculated gamble getting the often injured Steven Jackson for RB, then Osi Umenyiora for the defense.  Osi is an often injured guy too!  At DB, the guys to watch are Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both acquired by draft.  Actually, if you think about it, the moves defensively were badly needed as it was time to start getting younger.  I just don't like how questionable the backfield is going to be for them offensively.  Head Coach Mike Smith will have a very interesting, but exciting preseason.  Let's not forget about their more dependable players -- QB Matt Ryan and WR Roddy White.  Remember, I said *more* dependable, not always "dependable."

Bucs:  Would you believe it?  This team is starting to accumulate talent!  Good thing too because I do NOT like Head Coach Greg Schiano and his bully act.  Schiano is not going to elevate TB to wins, but their talent is good enough to win numerous games this season.  First it's Josh Freeman who I think can be pretty steady, and makes some nice throws.  Nothing stupendous per se, but solid production.  For instance, 4065 passing yards last year and an 81 QB rating.  Doug Martin dazzled in the backfield, and Vincent Jackson, if he stays healthy, *could* be Pro-Bowler for 'em this year.

The South is a tough division to predict every year, but for 2013, we'll rank them this way:

1. Saints.  Reluctantly, I select New Orleans to win the division this year, despite my ongoing issues with their weak defense and the overvalued move of Payton's return.  I grant you that coaches can make dramatic improvements with a team, but the Saints just looked lost out there last year and I don't know *how* Payton is going to do much to improve Brees horrendous INT numbers from a year ago.  Despite all that, the teams below them are capable but in my view not ready for prime time so I have the Saints taking the division with, we believe, a 10-6 record.

2. Bucs.  There's not only some upside with the Bucs, but some dependable players offensively.  Vincent Jackson was the Chargers' best receiver for several years, and today, again if he stays on the field, he'll be helpful to Tampa Bay.   Freeman is not going to take you over the top alone, but similar to Matt Ryan he's a guy that can lead you to points when he's *on.*  4000 yards, even in today's NFL is a pretty good season so there's a lot to look forward to with all Offensive Back positions.  Then there's Martin, he'll be very good.  It all depends on what the defense will bear and what we get from O-Line pass protection.

3. Falcons.   The enormous number of losses the Falcons took in the offseason is going to kill them, and replacing important positions with *two* guys who nobody can count on to stay healthy is going to do them in.   I would not be surprised to see these guys finish under .500 but officially they'll go 8-8.

4. Panthers.  I know a lot has been talked about them, but I feel like they're still not ready for prime time.   Some of those guys they're using are old.  I'm looking forward to seeing them make a run at .500 though, it's quite possible.

Coming up, the NFC West preview!

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