2012 NFL Division Preview: NFC South

ATLANTA FALCONS

Key Pickups: CB Asante Samuel, LB Lofa Tatupu. The Falcons weren’t big players in Free Agency, as they already had most of the pieces in place. But they did pick up Asante Samuel via trade from the Philadelphia Eagles; a move that I like a lot for them – especially for the price they paid. They also added LB Lofa Tatupu, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, but he didn’t play last season, so we’ll see how fresh he is coming off a years break.

Key Losses: LB Curtis Lofton, WR/KR Eric Weems, CB Kelvin Hayden. They lost Curtis Lofton to the division rival Saints, but they didn’t seem too concerned with letting him go, and they didn’t really try to keep him around. I think the loss of Eric Weems on Special Teams might hurt them a little more than they expect because he can be dynamic in the return game for them, but with last season’s new kickoff rules-he didn’t have quite the explosion he once did as a returner. He also added depth to the receiving corps, but they seem to be pretty set on the guys they have. Hayden won’t be missed as much as the other two, especially with the addition of Samuel, however, you can never have enough good players in the secondary, and he’s a starting caliber CB that could have been an injury away from helping the team.

Draft Picks/Grade: OL Peter Konz, OT Lamar Holmes, FB Bradie Ewing, DE Jonathan Massaquoi, S Charles Miller, DT Travian Robertson.

Overall, the Falcons had a pretty solid draft. They didn’t have a ton of holes to fill and grabbed guys they thought could better the team. Drafting a Fullback was surprising to me though, but they have since released former Pro Bowl Fullback Ovie Mughelli, who would have come into the season off of injury. I thought they did a pretty good job in the draft, but I didn’t like Lamar Holmes being taken so early. He was a guy I expected to go later in the draft, so I give them a solid B with this draft class

Coaching Staff: The Falcons are moving forward with Head Coach Mike Smith, but they made a few changes to the staff bringing in Mike Nolan as Defensive Coordinator and Dirk Koetter as Offensive Coordinator.

Off-season Changes: Nolan was last with the Miami Dolphins, and has always had impressive defenses. His squad finished strong last season and he’s expected to bring a new dynamic to a Falcons team with defensive talent. Koetter was last with the Jaguars, and he was responsible for the NFL’s leading rusher last year in Maurice Jones-Drew. Both coaches join a staff led by Mike Smith who is entering his 4th season as Head Coach, entering the playoffs in all but one of his years in Atlanta.

Offensive player to watch: Matt Ryan. Matty Ice is entering the season with a lot of pressure this year. He was the third overall selection in 2008, but he’s yet to lead his team to a playoff victory.  He’s got a lot on his shoulders, as Falcons fans want to see their team be able to win in the postseason. The team re-signed veteran TE Tony Gonzales, so Ryan will have consistency and rapport with guys such as Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas. He also has a strong run game to push the offense to the level that can help them get it done in the playoffs.

Defensive player to watch: Asante Samuel. Samuel was acquired via trade with the Eagles. The Falcons only gave up a 7th round pick from him, but he is well worth it. After getting their guy on offense last season in Julio Jones, the Falcons realize the game is played more through the air than it is on the ground. Giving up a 7th rounder for an immediate starter is perfect execution. With Samuel, he’s going to have a lot of people watching him. He was well known in Philadelphia, and hopefully he showcases his talents with the Falcons to slow down their opponents.

Projected outcome: 11-5, they were a 13-3 football team two seasons ago, and tossed up a ten win season last year, I don’t see them slowing down one bit. The Falcons need to try to silence the critics and win a playoff game, but in order to do that, they need to make the tournament first. With everything that’s happened the the Saints this off-season, I see them taking the division, and hopefully be able to pull out a victory.

 

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Key Pickups: OL Carl Nicks, WR Vincent Jackson, TE Dallas Clark
The Bucs and new head coach Greg Schiano have made a big splash this offseason. Carl Nicks is one of the best interior linemen in the league, which should help them open up the running game. Also helping improve the offense is new #1 wideout Vincent Jackson. Last season, the Bucs didn’t really have a #1 wideout. He’ll be great for the offense, as he’ll help them stretch the field and draw attention away from other receivers. These two pickups are going to make the Buccaneers offense a lot more dangerous. Dallas Clark is a recent signing after the Bucs traded Kellen Winslow to the Seahawks. He brings legitimacy to the position in Tampa’s offense and will be a welcome addition.

Key Losses: TE Kellen Winslow, S Tanard Jackson
In the last few days, we saw Kellen Winslow announce to the world that he was no longer wanted by the Bucs, and it didn’t take them long to ship him off to Seattle for a conditional draft pick. Almost immediately after Winslow was traded, the team signed Dallas Clark. I see this as an upgrade, but still a key loss for the team. Tanard Jackson was a safety that the Bucs drafted in the 4th round of the 2007 draft. He had an immediate impact in his first two seasons, but couldn’t seem to keep his head on straight. He was cut due to a failed physical, but other than that there wasn’t much information released about him.

Draft Picks/overall grade: 1 – Mark Barron, S, Alabama. 1 – Doug Martin, RB, Boise State. 2 – Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska. 5 – Najee Goode, ILB, West Virginia. 6 – Keith Tandy, CB, West Virginia. 7 – Michael Smith, RB, Utah State. 7 – Drake Dunsmore, FB, Northwestern.

 I really like what the Bucs did with their draft. They had an early pick, but General manager Mark Dominik was taking phone calls early and often for his draft picks. With the 5th overall pick in the draft, the Bucs were expected to take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Instead, they traded the pick away. Instead of Claiborne, the Bucs were able to stockpile draft picks and draft Mark Barron, Doug Martin, and Lavonte David. All three of these players could be potential starters next season. Dominik seems to have gone with quantity over quality, which could be really good or really bad. I think it’ll end up being a good decision.
Draft Grade- B

Coaching Staff: The Bucs enter 2012 with a new head coach. Raheem Morris is out, and former Rutgers University head coach Greg Schiano is in. Schiano has wasted no time installing his system into the team. An excellent example is the team cutting Kellen Winslow. He showed that he’s the man in charge. He’s a detail oriented man who likes control, and sources claim that he may have wanted Winslow out of Tampa because he felt like he couldn’t control him. I like Greg Schiano. He made Rutgers respectable again. I think he can do the same for the Bucs.

Offensive Player to Watch: Josh Freeman, QB
Freeman had a great 2010. he threw 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Five of those touchdowns came in one game. In 2011, though, his numbers fell. Although he passed for more yards and his completion percentage was slightly better in 2011, Freeman managed to connect on only 16 touchdown passes and tossed 22 interceptions. 2012 will be an important season for Freeman. If he puts up 2010 numbers, the Bucs will see a lot of success. If he puts up 2011 numbers, it’s going to be a lot harder for them. He’s the key to their success.

Defensive Player to Watch: Adrian Claiborne, DE
Clayborn is coming into his sophomore season in the league. In his rookie year, he compiled 7.5 sacks, which is pretty good for a rookie. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues to have success or if it was just a one year deal.

Projected record: 10-6, 2nd in NFC south, Wild Card spot in the playoffs

 

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

 

Key Pickups: LB Chris Chamberlain, G Ben Grubbs, DT Brodrick Bunkley, LB Curtis Lofton. Despite how tumultuous the Saints off-season has been in other areas, they did an excellent job in free agency. They picked up possible replacement for LB Scott Shanle in Chamberlain, and added Pro-Bowl guard Ben Grubbs to replace Pro-Bowl guard Carl Nicks. They addressed their need for a run stopper in Bunkley, and picked up very solid middle linebacker Curtis Lofton with Jonathan Vilma’s situation still up in the air. They were also able to resign their best WR, Marques Colston.

Key Losses: WR Robert Meachem,  G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter. The losses of these three will not affect the Saints very much. In my eyes, Meachem was just a product of Drew Brees’ greatness, and Carl Nicks is being replaced by Ben Grubbs, who will be just as good as Nicks most likely. Tracy Porter is the biggest loss here, because the Saints defense is a bit suspect and he was their best corner.

Draft Picks/Grade - DT Akiem Hicks, WR Nick Toon, S Corey White, G Andrew Tiller, T Marcel Jones. Given the Saints only had five picks, beginning in round three, they did quite a nice job being so limited. Akiem Hicks is a massive defensive tackle, and will help with the run defense. Nick Toon will be looked at as the replacement for Robert Meachem, and I am confident Drew Brees is the guy to help him realize his full potential. They filled other needs of area with the final three picks, overall a good draft especially because they didn’t have a pick in rounds one or two.

Grade: B

Coaching Staff: Oh boy, this is where it gets interesting. Head coach Sean Payton is serving a year suspension this season for his role in the bounty program, and assistant Joe Vitt will be his replacement. There’s no telling just how much Paytons’ absence will hinder the team, but inserting Vitt as the head coach enables the Saints to try to move forward with as little change as possible. Payton is a great coach, and is almost irreplaceable, so it will be on Joe Vitt and probably team leader Drew Brees (who is currently unhappy with his contract situation) to keep the team solidified.

Offensive Player To Watch: QB Drew Brees. No question here, Drew Brees is the guy. He is the New Orleans Saints, and is the sole reason for their massive success since he stepped onto the scene. The catch here is that he awaiting a long-term deal and is very unhappy with the franchise tag being placed on him. It will be interesting to see how he plays if a long term deal is not reached, because it is highly doubtful he would actually hold out. An unhappy Brees taking the field could spell trouble for the Saints, but I also think a deal will be reached before the season begins.

Defensive Player To Watch: DB Roman Harper. Harper was overall the best player on the Saints defense last season, registering 95 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles from a defensive back position. Jonathan Vilma’s impending absence means Harper will have to not only be a good player on the field, but also become the leader of the defense. They need someone to rally around, and I believe Harper will have to be that guy this season for a Saints defense that is up in the air.

Projected Outcome: 10-6

 

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Key Pickups: RB Mike Tolbert, S Reggie Smith
With a running game  that finished the season third  in the league in total yards, and first in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns, the Panthers weren’t in need of too much improvement in the running game for the 2012 season. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The Panthers signed former San Diego running back Mike Tolbert. The 5’9, 247 pound running back is coming off an eight touchdown season with chargers and compiled a total of 490 yards in 2011. Tolbert is expected to be listed as a full back and his size and power will help take some of the pressure off of Cam Newton while in the red zone. The Panthers also confronted the need at the safety position by signing Reggie Smith out of San Francisco who made 15 tackles and 1 interception with the 49ers last season. Smith should be able to come in and compete for a starting role along side Charles Godfrey.

Key Losses: WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey
Panthers fans were pretty upset at wide receiver Legadu Naanee after last season. Naanee dropped numerous passes and several that were crucial in late game situations. But the fact remains that Naanee was a decent receiver along side of Steve Smith and leaves a hole in the passing game. Tight end Jeremy Shockey wasn’t extremely productive for the Panthers last season, but he definitely gave the offense a spark. The tight end situation became a little clearer after the Panthers found out that tight end Gary Barnidge is going to be back  from a broken left fibula and dislocated left ankle that sidelined him last season.

Draft Picks/Grade: Luke Kuechly ILB, Amini Silatolu G,  Frank Alexander DE, Joe Adams WR, Josh Norman CB, Brad Nortman P,  D.J. Campbell, FS
The Panthers 2012 draft was pretty solid. They filled a few holes and added some support to a struggling defense. I cannot stress how huge the addition of Luke Keuchly is to this team. Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are very good linebackers for the Panthers, but if they can’t stay healthy, they can’t make an impact. Luke Kuechly was a tremendous linebacker and leader at Boston College. He shows the skill and determination to succeed in this league. He will make a great addition to a defense that has been at least 24th in the league in all categories. The Panthers also drafted punter Brad Nortman out of Wisconsin to take the place of Jason Baker whom the Panthers let walk last season. Nortman’s 42.2 yards per punt ranked 4oth nationally last season, which makes you wonder why he was chosen as the replacement for a punter who really wasn’t struggling. The rest of the Panther’s picks were hit and miss. I do like the addition of wide reciever Joe Adams out of Arkansas. Adams is fast and can make people miss, he also is great in punt returns. Although the Panthers didn’t make too many huge draft picks, they did make a couple, and they also filled some important holes.

Overall Draft Grade: C+

Coaching Staff:  Ron Rivera will be entering his second season as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. He is coming off of a successful season in which he didn’t win many games, but he brought the Panthers from a hopeless state, to one of the rising teams of the NFL. I expect him to continue guiding this team in the right direction. Panthers fans better be counting their lucky stars that offensive coordinator Rob ”Chud” Chudzinski wasn’t nabbed for a head coaching vacancy this off-season. He was a huge reason for the success of their star rookie quarterback Cam Newton and has played a huge part in orchestrating one of the most explosive offenses of the 2011 season.

Offensive player to watch: Who else?  QB Cam Newton
The whole league watched him last year, and they will be watching him again. I mean, how can you not? The guy is a freak of nature. Size, speed, accuracy, a desire to win and an outstanding football IQ. After being selected number one overall by the Panthers in last year’s draft, Newton went on to break Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record as well as the record for rushing touchdowns for a quarterback. A lot of people are concerned about a “sophomore slump” from Newton, similar to Sam Bradford’s second season. Neither Cam or his coach are worried about that. Here is what Panther’s head coach Ron Rivera had to say:

“I will say this about a sophomore slump – if there’s anybody that’s going work through it, he’s going to work through it, When the season was over, one of the things he said was he wanted to find a way to make sure he didn’t have one. I think the less we talk about it, the less we get caught up in it, the better. It’s like the Madden curse, he really wanted to be the cover. I think that’s the thing. Instead of running from it, saying, ‘Oh, I hope it doesn’t happen – it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let it happen.’ I think that’s his approach to the sophomore slump.”

Defensive player to watch: LB Jon Beason
Jon Beason has quickly become one of the premier linebackers in the league.He had an outstanding rookie season after compiled over 140 tackles, and followed it up with a very strong sophomore season. Beason’s third season ws his best, as he recorded three sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and 141 tackles, including 111 solo tackles. As a result, Beason was a second team pick on the2009 All-Pro Team, and also received a spot in the Pro Bowl when Patrick Willis backed out due to injury. Before tearing his achilles in the first game of last season, Jon Beason had a lot of buzz surrounding him. Now the buzz, is going to be changed to pressure. He is the highest paid middle linebacker in NFL history, and he’s going to have to prove that he’s deserving.

Projected outcome: 8-8

 

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