2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

New Orleans Saints

Additions: FB Erik Lorig, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Champ Bailey, S Jairus Byrd.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                          College
1          20         WR       Brandin Cooks                    Oregon State
2          58         CB         Stanley Jean-Baptiste      Nebraska
4          126       LB         Khairi Fortt                          California
5          167        S           Vinnie Sunseri                      Alabama
5          169       OLB      Ronald Powell                      Florida
6          202      OT        Tavon Rooks                         Kansas State

Losses: RB Darren Sproles, FB Jed Collins, WR Lance Moore, OT Charles Brown, C Brian De La Puente, DE Will Smith, DT Tom Johnson, ILB Will Herring, CB Jabari Greer, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper.

 Analysis:

Shh, Mark Ingram looks like a legitimate running back. Ingram has teased in the past with flashes of ability that scouts all thought he was capable of. He looked good at the end of the season in 2013 and looked even better in the preseason. The exit of Darren Sproles opens up a lot of opportunity in this offense.

As long as Drew Brees is healthy, this offense will be productive. Brandin Cooks is a good addition to a still-loaded receiving corps. Jimmy Graham is still the biggest weapon but a healthy Marques Colston and more progression for Kenny Stills means this offense still has plenty of options.

Brees faced too much pressure in his face last season. Terron Armstead takes over at LT full time and he looked up to the task in the preseason. If he’s good, this offense could keep up with Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Health is the biggest concern as the OL isn’t as deep as the Saints would like. If they have to get into 2nd stringers much, Brees will have to compensate too much.

Jairus Byrd adds a new dynamic to this defense. Rob Ryan is going to have a field day with Byrd patrolling deep centerfield and allowing him to move Kenny Vaccaro all over the place. Vaccaro is a swiss army knife that can cover, blitz, and hit. He’s a perfect fit for Ryan’s defense.

Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks are tough for any offensive line to handle and with the weak lines in the NFC South, they’re going to have a fun year. Add in a healthy Junior Gallette and Ryan won’t have to try to scheme pressure as much as he did a year ago. They’ll need pressure to help protect a CB group that has some question marks. Patrick Robinson could get supplanted by rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste but I’m not really confident in either until we can see more of them in the regular season.

The Saints should run through this division. My biggest concern is if teams can figure out how to stop Jimmy Graham (a few teams did last year) then it affects the whole offense and it seems to grind to a halt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Additions: QB Josh McCown, TE Brandon Myers, OT Anthony Collins, G/OT Oniel Cousins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Michael Johnson, DT Clinton McDonald, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, S Major Wright.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          7          WR       Mike Evans                 Texas A&M
2          38       TE       Austin Seferian-Jenkins Washington
3          69       RB       Charles Sims             West Virginia
5          143     G         Kadeem Edwards        Tennessee State
5          149     OT       Kevin Pamphile          Purdue
6          185     WR       Robert Herron                         Wyoming

Losses: QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Erik Lorig, WR Mike Williams, OT Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, G Gabe Carimi, C Jeremy Zuttah, C Ted Larsen, OLB Dekoda Watson, OLB Adam Hayward, CB Darrelle Revis.

 Analysis:

I’m still confused on what the Bucs are doing with the roster but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It’s just not how I envisioned it and I’m not sure I see the big picture of it but that should become clearer after the first couple of weeks. The offensive personnel mirrors Lovie’s setup in Chicago with big receivers, a suspect offensive line, and even his former Bears QB Josh McCown. What doesn’t make sense is that the roster was built to fit his offense in Chicago but new OC Jeff Tedford indicates he’s running a different system. Basically, there seems to be a disconnect in what the personnel is built for and what the scheme is. That rarely leads to good results.

The offensive line was atrocious in the preseason. Big free agent signing Anthony Collins looked more suspect than like a wall on the left side. He’s likely going to be streaky all year long with some very good games and some bad games. The trade for Logan Mankins helps solidify the interior but there is still zero depth. The right guard spot is questionable at best and I’m still not sold on Evan Dietrich-Smith as a good center. Demar Dotson is the holdover from last year that looked really good on the right side in the preseason. He could end up being the best OL on the team by year’s end.

Vincent Jackson is a more versatile receiver than he gets credit for. He’s not just a jump-ball winner. He runs solid routes and displays strong hands. Opposite him, rookie Mike Evans seems like a carbon copy that hasn’t developed to VJax’s level yet. Evans will show big time flashes of talent and will likely run some wrong routes early in the season as he’s still learning a new offense. The trade of Tim Wright takes a receiving threat away but allows Brandon Myers to step up to the plate. Lookout for rookie Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to take over the main role very early if he doesn’t start there. He’s extremely raw but the ceiling is sky high once he gets a feel for the NFL.

The defense is going to be dominant. There is potential to be a top 3 defense in the league. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are going to love playing in this defense and McCoy is going to look all-world in the ways that Lovie is going to use him. It’s finally time for the NFL to see how good McCoy can really be. New free agent signing is going to have pressure on him to get pressure on the QB. This defense needs pressure off the edge. Out of all the free agent signings, Clinton McDonald is going to be the most significant. His presence on the inside allows Lovie to mix it up a little more. He’s strong at the point of attack and teams can’t double team both he and McCoy. Adrian Clayborn needs to take a leap forward in his pass rushing this year. He’s stout against the run but now it’s time for him to start getting upfield and let the LBs behind him clean up any runs that get past him.

Lavonte David is an All-Pro linebacker and deservedly slow. Mason Foster is incredibly intelligent and a thumper between the tackles but lacks good speed to get sideline to sideline. That’s not his game so it will be interesting to see how Lovie keeps him from having to do that. Jonathan Casillas is listed as the SLB but he’s the first guy to come off the field when the Bucs go into their nickel packages which will be more than 50% of the time. The Bucs even have a coach specifically devoted to nickel backs.

It would have been fun to see Darrelle Revis play for this defense but his exit clears room for Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks to show what they’re made of. Banks is long and lanky and really improved as the season progressed in 2013. Verner looked phenomenal in Tennessee last season but he didn’t play much in the preseason due to injury. Mike Jenkins is the nickel back with Leonard Johnson as the 4th CB. Johnson is the type of guy that can get a pick six on any play or blow a coverage and give up a big touchdown.

Mark Barron is going to be great to watch this year as Lovie will let him roam a little. He’s much better in the box than as a deep coverage type of player. Dashon Goldson has to be more disciplined in this defense. The safeties play a big role in keeping plays from being big gainers and Goldson’s aggression could work against him in that regard. I think the Major Wright signing might have been a safeguard for that as well as to help communicate the intricacies of Lovie’s defense to this team.

Tampa Bay feels like they could vastly underachieve this year because they can’t get the offense going or they could push for the playoffs based on a run game and a dominant defense.

 

Atlanta Falcons

Additions: QB T.J. Yates, TE Beat Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          6          OT       Jake Matthews                       Texas A&M
2          37       DT       Ra’Shede Hageman    Minnesota
3          68       S          Dezmen Southward    Wisconsin
4          103     RB       Devonta Freeman       Florida State
4          139     LB        Prince Shembo                       Notre Dame
5          147     CB       Ricardo Allen             Purdue
5          168     LB        Marquis Spruill                       Syracuse
7          253     LB        Yawin Smallwood        Connecticut
7          255     LB        Tyler Starr                  South Dakota

Losses: RB Jason Snelling, FB Bradie Ewing, TE Tony Gonzalez, G Garrett Reynolds, OLB Stephen Nicholas, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud.

 Analysis:

Atlanta addressed the offensive line issue by drafting Jake Matthews sixth overall in the 2014 draft. The plan was to let him get his reps in at RT before sliding over to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, but an injury to LT Sam Baker forced the hand of the Falcons. The Falcons might be better off because of it. Of course they’d love to have Sam Baker to stick in at RT but Matthews looks like the real deal. Atlanta also added Jon Asomoah from Kansas City and that should also help a putrid OL from 2013. Though it’s still a weak spot, Ryan will be under less pressure than he was last year.

Roddy White returns from injury and is still one of the sharpest route runners in the league. Julio Jones is a monster receiver that’s incredibly tough to defend. Harry Douglas played well as the Falcons’ number 2 receiver last year and is pushed back to the 3rd WR which is really where he fits best. Levine Toilolo is more of a blocker than a receiver at TE and he’s stiff. It’s really surprising that the Falcons didn’t make more of an effort to grab a more athletic option at an important position in this offense.

The defensive isn’t overhauled but it’s essentially all new starters with last year’s starters being relegated to reserve duties. Kroy Biermann was out last year with injuries, Jonathan Babineaux returns but probably won’t be starting for long. Osi Umeniyora provides some veteran leadership and athleticism on the edge. Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai take over on the interior.

Atlanta lists 2 starting LBs – Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu – and 3 starting CBs, Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, and Josh Wilson. Look for reserve LB Prince Shembo to be starting by season’s end. The young corners played extremely well considering they had no pass rush in front of them last year and they should look even better this year. William Moore is a solid player at safety but is a little nosey towards the line of scrimmage when he’s supposed to be in coverage. Dwight Lowery comes over from San Francisco to take over at FS.

The Falcons are one of the much improved teams from last year but I’m still not sure how I feel about their coaching. It’s not that they’re poorly coached, it’s just that they’re not well coached. The offense survives on good play from Matt Ryan who covers up some flaws and the defense just isn’t very physical.

 

Carolina Panthers

Additions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, TE Mike McNeill, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          28       WR       Kelvin Benjamin         Florida State
2          60       DE       Kony Ealy                   Missouri
3          92       G         Trai Turner                 LSU
4          128     S          Tre Boston                  North Carolina
5          148     CB       Bené Benwikere          San Jose State
6          204     RB       Tyler Gaffney             Stanford

Losses: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Domenik Hixon, OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, G Jeff Byers, OLB Jordan Senn, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell.

Analysis:

Carolina is a team I missed big time on last year. I didn’t anticipate their defense to be so dominant. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson was the most dominant pass rush duo in the league and Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short were also terrifying on the interior. Behind them Luke Kuechly looked like the best linebacker in the league and Thomas Davis wasn’t far behind him. This year they have the choice of Chase Blackburn or AJ Klein at the other linebacker spot and it’s kind of scary that Short is now listed as a reserve behind Colin Cole who comes over from San Francisco. Short played terrifically last season so if Cole is better than he is, offenses are in trouble again.

I like the addition of Antoine Cason in the secondary after losing Captain Munnerlyn, who admittedly played much better than I ever thought he could last year. It certainly helps when QBs have no time to throw because of a dominant front line. Melvin White and Charles Godfrey aren’t ideal at the cornerback spot but they’ll be good enough. Thomas Decoud provides some decent speed at the safety position and Roman Harper provides some veteran leadership even if he has lost a step.

The offense revolves around Cam Newton. It has to. There’s nothing else to revolve around. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin are the only true weapons other than Newton. But Carolina’s brass made sure not to make it too easy for Cam by not providing him with good weapons to throw to, they made sure to let his entire offensive line go and not replenish it with good players. Now not only does Cam not have anyone to throw to, he won’t have any time to throw to those nobodies. I’m normally critical of Cam because he has such high potential and hasn’t fully reached it yet, but this year he deserves a pass if he can’t get it done.

Overall NFC South Outlook

New Orleans Saints (12-4)

The Saints are stacked and can compete with anyone in the league. This should be a cake walk in the division for them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

I have no idea what this offensive scheme is going to look like, but I do know they’ll have trouble blocking people and keeping McCown off his back. The defense is the reason they win 7 games.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

The Panthers overachieved last year so they’re due for a regression but that defense is still the same defense.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Offensive line woes and a lack of pressure from the defense means the Falcons are in for another long season.

 

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