The Atlanta Falcons are one of those teams that appear to be on the verge of a Super Bowl birth. They were a few yards and a Patrick Willis tackle away from reaching the big game last year. They have continuity in the front office, at head coach, and at quarterback. The trend would suggest that the Falcons are destined to be better this year.
The Falcons added running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora to help fill two needs that plagued them at times last year. The now departed Michael Turner didn’t play poorly but offered nothing special in the run game last year. Though the Falcons added two solid veterans that appear to be good scheme fits, they lost three offensive linemen (Tyson Clabo, Will Sviek, and Todd McClure), their best pass rushing defensive end in John Abraham, and a significant portion of their secondary (Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, Chris Owens, and Chris Hope). That’s a lot of holes to fill.
The Falcons drafted two promising cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford with their first two picks in this year’s draft. Returning cornerback Asante Samuel provides Atlanta with some veteran leadership at the position but this is a thin unit. The rest of the Falcons’ draft stands to be hopefuls at this point.
Quarterback Matt Ryan appears to be calm and consistent. He never seems rattled and is a great captain of the ship on offense. The receiving weapons on offense that he has to throw to might be the best in the league – Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Jason Snelling is solid and deep. GM Thomas Dimitroff won’t have to go shopping should one of his running backs go down with an injury. On defense, the safety tandem of William Moore and Thomas Decoud are fast and reactive. They like to play in the box and are very good at disguising their coverages, a big part of this defense.
The starting linebackers are fast as a group but the Falcons are currently only carrying five total, two of which are undrafted rookies. The defensive line is fairly average. The Falcons are one of the best teams in the NFL at mixing up coverages and rely on their speed to create confusion in the secondary. With rookie corners looking to get a lion’s share of playing time, it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the multiplicity of the coverages. The biggest concern of the Falcons could be the offensive line. The group was inconsistent in the preseason and have had already had an injury to a starter that has weakened it. If the offensive line doesn’t hold up, the whole season could fall down.
Name To Know
Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant – I really try to put a guy here that most people don’t know or haven’t paid attention to, but as the 2nd and 3rd cornerbacks these two rookies will have a great deal to do with the success of the Falcons’ defense this season. There’s really no other way to put it.
The Falcons went 13-3 last year and I felt they were deserving of that. However, I think the offensive line will be a major inhibitor to the offense this season. It can take some time for rookie cornerbacks to adjust to the NFL so it is concerning when a team has to put a rookie corner in a starting position right out of the gate. The Falcons are essentially doing that with two rookie corners as they’ll play a lot of nickel in the NFC South. Those two glaring issues plus a brutal schedule will likely result in regression by the Falcons. 9-7 is a legitimate record in a tough division where I think other teams gained on them this offseason, but 10-6 is the more popular pick.
New Orleans Saints
The Boy Genius is back: Sean Payton. Some philosophies believe that coaching and quarterback play are more that 2/3 the makeup of a team. If that’s the case, the Saints are in a very good position with Sean Payton and Drew Brees. These guys make a great combination and work so well together. I also like the cool intensity that Payton brings to this team. The offseason addition of Rob Ryan and a switch to a 3-4 defense are strategies that the Saints hope will alleviate the symptoms of a defense that statistically was the worst in history in 2012.
The Saints did some retooling all throughout the roster. They allowed backup QB Chase Daniel to leave via free agency, traded Chris Ivory, lost deep threat WR Devery Henderson, utility TE (and an underrated football player) David Thomas, starting LT Jermon Bushrod, along with other 2012 contributors DE Turk McBride, DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Scott Shanle, and LB Jonathan Casillas. Additions for the Saints include QB Luke McCown as the backup, TE Ben Watson (Hello, 2 TE personnel groupings!), LB Victor Butler, CBs Keenan Lewis and Chris Carr, and safety Jim Leonard. A recent trade for Parys Haralson was a very good move to add a guy that could play a significant amount of snaps at outside linebacker.
New Orleans has already been bitten hard by the injury bug losing Victor Butler tore his ACL, Will Smith had a season-ending knee injury, while Martez Wilson and Junior Galette have both missed a lot of time this preseason with nagging injuries. What was shaping up to be a decent defense is now scrambling to find ways to plug all of its holes. Draft picks Kenny Vaccaro and Terron Armstead should plug significant holes for the Saints at safety and offensive tackle, respectively. 5th round pick, WR Kenny Stills has played well this offseason and could see an increasing role in the Saints offense as the season goes on.
Everyone recognizes Drew Brees as one of the best QBs in the league, yet it can still be argued that he’s underrated. He’s one of the most accurate passers in the NFL and he arguably has some of the best pocket movement in the NFL. He even compensates for a lack of height by standing on his tip toes and craning his neck while moving in the pocket. Oh, and the numbers. Sheesh, the numbers are amazing. The Saints WR corps may be one of the better ones in Brees’ time in New Orleans. Stills looks promising while Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, and the always underrated Lance Moore return at WR. Nick Toon should get his chances to prove his worth and the Saints just re-signed Robert Meachem. Safety play should be good this season with the duo of Vaccaro and veteran Malcolm Jenkins patrolling the secondary.
The Saints need improved play out of their front seven on defense to help get pressure on the QB and take pressure off the secondary behind them. Rob Ryan is very good at scheming ways to get to the QB without having to rush 6 or 7 guys. Unfortunately, due to injury, he’s working with average talent in pass rushers. Jonathan Vilma’s age appears to be catching up with him while Cameron Jordan seems to be the only true weapon of the defensive line this preseason. LB David Hawthorne may end up the starter inside before the season is over. Corner is a bit of a concern as the Saints have three mediocre corners that can be a liability as much as they are an asset. The offensive line seemed shaky at times this preseason as well and is something to monitor.
Name To Know
John Jenkins – Jenkins is the Saints 3rd round pick from this April’s draft. He’s a defensive tackle who played well in the preseason and could eventually take over a starting spot. If Jenkins turns out to be a force in the middle, his presence could automatically make the defense better because it will give the linebackers more holes to shoot and easier lanes to the QB and running backs.
New Orleans was 7-9 last season without their head coach. Bringing Sean Payton back into the fold should equate to at least two more victories, right? If Brees goes down with a significant injury early, the Saints could compete for the top overall pick. If he’s healthy, they have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. As much as I like the Saints, they can’t rely on Brees to continue making a below average offensive line look palatable. Brees compensates for major inefficiencies along the line and he shouldn’t have to. Maybe some more snaps will get them some more chemistry and they’ll band together. If they do, the Saints have a shot at winning 11 games. For now, they’re a 9-7 team simply because Payton and Brees can overcome many inadequacies in other places.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay made the move of the offseason when they acquired shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. Revis’ presence and ability to essentially take the opposing offense’s best receiver out of the game will provide the Bucs with many more options on defense. The Bucs also get both starting guards back from injury in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. This should help QB Josh Freeman by giving him more time and space in the pocket and opening up holes for RB Doug Martin.
Tampa added significant additions in WR Kevin Ogletree (who is now the team’s 3rd wide receiver), safety Dashon Goldson, and Gabe Carimi who could end up playing multiple positions along the offensive line all season. The Bucs’ main loss was speed rushing DE Michael Bennett. DT Roy Miller played will last season as the starting DT next to Gerald McCoy and Jeremy Trueblood has moved on after being the starting right tackle last season. CB/S Ronde Barber retired after a remarkable career that could (should) get him into the Hall of Fame. The two additions of Revis and Goldson, as well as drafting CB Johnthan Banks in the 2nd round, are intended to shore up a Buccaneer pass defense that was the worst in the league last season.
The Bucs draft QB Mike Glennon as insurance against any Freeman struggles, but pretty much everyone is in agreement that this is Josh’s team to lead. The season pretty much hinges on Freeman’s ability be accurate and smart with the football. The Bucs have the talent to be special but coaching and QB play will determine whether this ship sinks or sails to the playoffs.
The Bucs’ biggest strength is at safety. Dashon Goldson is known for his ability to hit and attack the line of scrimmage, but he’s also a menace when playing deep as he can fly to the football in the air. He and 2nd year safety Mark Barron can and should be used interchangeably to mix coverages and confuse opposing quarterbacks, similar to how Atlanta uses theirs. The Bucs appear to be set at wide receiver with Vincent Jackson (who is one of the hardest WRs to cover in the NFL) and Mike Williams on the outside.
The Bucs are shallow throughout the roster. The starting lineup on both sides of the ball looks phenomenal. Digging into the roster there are question marks at just about every position beyond the starter. The Bucs also lack a truly athletic tight end that can stretch the field or provide a big target with good hands inside. The strongside linebacker position battle between Dekoda Watson and Johnathan Casillas is something to watch. Neither player is a world beater and could be a matchup target for opposing offenses.
Name To Know
Akeem Spence – This defensive tackle was taken in the 4th round and was one of the strongest players in the entire draft. He’s looked great alongside star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the preseason. He’s tough and hard to handle and will command double teams which will open up the inside for McCoy to work one-on-ones.
While a lot of the Bucs’ success falls on Josh Freeman’s arm, he has a very good opportunity to be more efficient this season. The Bucs finished 7-9 last season in large part because Freeman had to throw more often than he should have to keep up with offenses that were torching a bad secondary. This season the Bucs should rely more on the run, getting Doug Martin more touches and focusing on the running game. This element plus a significantly improved secondary will help keep scores lower, meaning less reliance on the deep ball and on high risk passes. Freeman will need to improve his short area accuracy and ball location to help receivers run after the catch. One thing that seems to be a topic of discussion is the Bucs’ pass rush. Adrian Clayborn is a double digit sack season waiting to happen. He’s powerful, violent, and packs a punch. Opposite him, Da’Quan Bowers is a bit of an enigma but with the addition of Revis, Schiano should be able to scheme more creatively with less risk to get the QB via design and not just winning on talent alone. The Bucs are better this season and could be a 10 win team. I think the more likely outcome is 8-8 or 9-7.
The Panthers, just like every other team in the NFC South, are hard to pinpoint on what will help them succeed or what might ail them all season. Many say that Carolina needs better leadership in the locker room but focusing on the on-field play, there’s a lot to like. Many point to last season’s finish as a reason for optimism for 2013. Carolina finished the season winning five of their last six games. The supporters fail to point out that 5 of those 6 teams had losing records, including 3 that picked in the top 4 (Chiefs, Eagles, and Raiders) of April’s draft.
Cam Newton is one of, if not the, most athletically and physically gifted quarterback in the history of the NFL. He broke rookie records in his first season and followed it up with a solid sophomore campaign where he posted a solid 86.2 quarterback rating, while completing 57.7% of his passes with a 19:12 TD:INT ratio and amassing 3,869 yards. According to PFF, overall Cam was +17.1 on the season. Looking at his by week summary, it is obvious that Cam played well versus the weaker opponents while struggling versus stronger opponents. While he fluctuated from week to week, he was consistent in his output versus the quality of opponent. Newton likely suffered not having weapons or a running game to rely on in tough situations. Unfortunately, for Cam, his weapons didn’t get any better this offseason.
Wide receivers Tedd Ginn and Domenik Hixon were added but are backups. Armanti Edwards showed some progress this preseason but it’s probably better to reserve judgment until he’s faced legit competition. Chase Blackburn adds some depth at LB. The Panthers only had one significant loss and that was when their best cornerback, Chris Gamble, decided to retire.
If healthy, the front seven on defense for the Panthers could possibly be one of the best in the NFL. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are great edge rushers with nasty streaks and the addition of rookie DT Star Lotulelei should be a very positive one. Linebackers Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly can both attack the run and cover in space. Kuechly might end up as an All-Pro 2nd teamer this season. The tight end position provides a couple of solid options in Greg Olson and Ben Hartsock. The offensive line has some solid starters but Carolina probably doesn’t want to have to call on Travelle Wharton or Nate Chandler much.
Carolina appears to have one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn are the starters at CB right now, which is not ideal. Safety Charles Godfrey is a good enough player and the Panthers just signed Quintin Mikell, who I would expect to play significantly, if not start week 1. There’s no depth in the secondary. This situation is one that seriously concerns me when Carolina has to face the passing offenses of Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay in 6 games this year.
Name To Know
Josh Thomas and Josh Norman – These guys are the 2nd and 3rd cornerbacks for the Panthers to start the season. These guys, plus Munerlyn, will be lining up against Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Marques Colston, and Lance Moore for six games this season. If they can hold up, the Panthers have a shot at the playoffs. If they can’t, the Panthers could be drafting in the top 10.
The Panthers technically finished tied for 2nd (or last, depending on how you look at it) in the NFC South last season at 7-9. It doesn’t appear that they got much better, and even got worse in one of the most important positions on defense, cornerback. For better or worse, they still have Ron Rivera at the helm and haven’t added any significant weapons for Cam Newton to throw to. Greg Olsen and Steve Smith are fantastic but if defenses have no one else to worry about, it’s easy to take them out of the game. I just don’t see much changing this season. With the Saints getting Payton back and the Bucs improving on offense and defense, the Panthers drop a couple additional games. They’ll finish about 5-11.by