2012 NFL Previews: NFC South

Written by Aaron Fischman

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2012 NFC South: Saints Still Favorites



NFC South 2012 Preseason Projections

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS


The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal was shocking and has resulted in the season-long suspensions of head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was on his way to St. Louis anyway, has been suspended indefinitely by the league. Joe Vitt will serve as interim coach from Week 7 onward once his six-game suspension has fully elapsed. Until then, Aaron Kromer will serve as interim head coach. Although Kromer has been with New Orleans since 2009, he has never been a head coach, let alone an offensive coordinator. Kromer was the team’s offensive line coach for the past three seasons. With such inexperience at the head coaching position (even Vitt has never been a head coach at the NFL level), the Saints could be in for some trouble.

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With all that said, Drew Brees is back after a dominant season in which he threw for a league-record 5,476 yards along with 46 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. For all of Brees’ gifts, he seems to throw too many interceptions every other season. Surprisingly, Brees has not gone two consecutive seasons with fewer than 15 interceptions in his entire career. That statistic doesn’t make much sense considering Brees is one of the most accurate passers in the history of the NFL. Last season he completed more than 71 percent of his passes. Those are Madden numbers folks. Two seasons ago he completed 68.1 percent of his passes, but managed to throw 22 picks. I don’t understand it. Someone help me.

Brees is a veteran and one of the three best quarterbacks in the league. Despite the bounty scandal distractions and the head-coaching carousel, he should be able to lead his team to a division title. I’m not saying he will, but factoring in the Saints’ immensely talented offensive options, the bounty scandal should not be used a legitimate excuse for failure.

CAROLINA PANTHERS


Last year’s No. 1 overall pick excelled at quarterback for the Panthers. Not only was Cam Newton’s touchdown-to-interception ratio (21:17) not bad for a rookie, but he also threw for 4,051 yards (10th in the league) while easily leading all quarterbacks in rushing with 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. Newton’s arrival seemed to energize veteran receiver Steve Smith who accumulated 1,394 receiving yards marking the first time he had eclipsed 1,000 yards since the 2008-09 season.

This upcoming season, expectations for tight end Greg Olsen are through the roof. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is saying that it is possible Olsen could have a season on par with what fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham did last year. Because the Panthers spread the ball to so many options and because they ARE Gronk and Graham, this seems like an exaggeration. With that said, Jeremy Shockey has left as a free agent. If one takes Shockey’s stats from last season and adds them to Olsen’s, the total becomes 82 catches for 995 yards and nine touchdowns. Ok. Still not Gronk or Graham territory, but it will be interesting to see what Olsen can do in his second season catching passes from the young phenom. Also, fullback Mike Tolbert was added to alleviate much of the blocking duties for which Olsen had been responsible.

Newton’s dominance aside, Carolina’s defensive struggles had to be a source of frustration for the team. Last year, the Panthers ranked in the bottom-third of the league in points allowed per game, as well as rushing defense and passing defense. Of course, playing in the same division as the Saints and Falcons didn’t help things, but the Panthers have to find a way to improve defensively if they want to have a chance of winning this tough division. With the ninth overall pick in April’s draft, Carolina took linebacker Luke Kuechly, who will be counted on to anchor the defense. Last season’s defense did improve over the last six games, but Carolina’s Week 11 loss was instructive. The Panthers jumped out to a 24-7 lead, only to see the Lions rattle off 28 second-half points, as Carolina fell to 2-8. They lost 49-35, while surrendering 495 total yards. The game was a microcosm of their season.

Although neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart was a quality fantasy option last year because they split carries, each running back increased his rushing average by more than a yard per carry. It appears as if Carolina’s three-headed running approach (Newton, Williams and Stewart) paid dividends last year. In other words, don’t draft either of the two running backs in fantasy unless one is available extremely late, but just know that both guys are still effective. Many people forget that Jonathan Stewart is only 25 and has incurred significantly less punishment than most backs his age. This carry-splitting thing seems to be working out, both in terms of diversifying the offense and saving Stewart and Williams’ legs.

ATLANTA FALCONS


In each of Matt Ryan’s four years in the league, he has played all but two games while leading his team to a combined regular season record of 43-19. Most quarterbacks would be thrilled with posting a 43-19 regular record through their first four years in the league. The problem? Matty Ice’s Falcons have lost all three of their playoff games. That’s definitely not a good development for the Falcons, but three playoff games is a small sample size, and the Falcons have proven to be a consistent regular season team. Take the Colts, for example. Indianapolis needed more than half a decade and four seasons of 12+ wins before they were able to take home the Lombardi trophy.

Boasting five consecutive 1,150+ receiving yard seasons, Roddy White remains Ryan’s favorite target. Second-year wideout Julio Jones will also return, as he aims to best an impressive rookie season, in which he hauled in eight touchdowns along with nearly 1,000 yards. Most analysts agree that Jones’ 2012-13 numbers will only improve, as he was not healthy for the entire 2011-12 campaign. Ryan also figures to enjoy playing with 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez for another year. In the NFL, tight ends rarely last this long. Considering how many hits Gonzalez has taken over the course of his career, it’s a wonder he’s still a more-than-reliable tight end in this league.

Out of the backfield, Michael Turner has been one of the league’s most consistent runners since he was acquired by the Falcons four years ago. Over that stretch, he has averaged 1,321 rushing yards per season along with 12.5 trips to the end zone.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS:


There are two main questions surrounding the Buccaneers: Will their rushing defense, which was ranked dead last a season ago, significantly improve? Which Josh Freeman will show up for the 2012-13 season?

Last year’s Bucs surrendered 30.9 points per game, the most of any team in the NFL. But upon closer inspection, Tampa Bay’s passing defense was far from horrible. Despite playing against the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan a combined six times, Tampa Bay ranked in the middle of the pack with regard to passing defense. The rushing defense, however, was horrendous. One week after the Falcons bottled up Tennessee’s Chris Johnson for 13 rushing yards on 12 carries, the Buccaneers allowed Johnson to record 190 rushing yards. Tampa Bay’s rushing defense got worse as the season progressed. In five of their last games, the team surrendered 150 or more rushing yards, including three instances in which they allowed more than 200 yards.

Defensive pressure (or lack thereof) was also a sore point last year, as the Buccaneers recorded just 23 sacks for the entire season. That is five less sacks than the Titans, who ranked 29th in that department. In the offseason, the team does not appear to have done enough to solve the defensive pressure problem. Tampa Bay added defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, a former first-round pick who has seen his skill decline in recent years. With the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft, the Buccaneers landed hard-hitting Alabama safety Mark Barron. They also drafted linebacker Lavonte David in the late second round. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn has been the one shining light on the Bucs’ defensive line this offseason. According to fellow DE Michael Bennett, the second-year pro is “ferocious” and possesses a “work ethic (that) is second to none.”

Finally, what’s the deal with quarterback Josh Freeman (Jerry Seinfeld voice)? The 24-year-old signal-caller went from being the most underrated quarterback to the most overrated. Two seasons ago, he threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. Last season? Sixteen touchdowns and 22 interceptions. I think part of the reason for Freeman’s struggles was ridiculously high expectations. More importantly, however, a thumb injury incurred at a shooting range was likely what did the young QB in last year. A word of advice: If you’re an NFL quarterback, try to stay away from the gun range, at least until the offseason. Anyway, given a healthy Freeman coupled with the addition of deep threat Vincent Jackson, 2012-13 should go a lot more smoothly for the former Kansas State Wildcat. Although the NFC South is a tough division, I envision the Buccaneers slightly improving to somewhere around six wins. Still not good, but that would be significantly better than last season’s four-win total.