2013 NFC South Team Previews

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Atlanta Falcons – Covered by Austin Peat

Falcons

Key Pickups:  RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora, 

Key Losses:  RB Michael Turner, DE John Abraham, CB Dunta Robinson

Off-season:  The Atlanta Falcons entered into the 2013 off-season as a team that just fell short.  They’re one of the few franchises that isn’t missing a whole lot to make it to the big show, and this off-season, the dirty birds may have just done enough to put them over the edge for this upcoming season.  Although RB Michael Turner will always be one of Atlanta’s best running backs in franchise history, as well as a fan-favorite, it was absolutely necessary that he was shown the door.  The wear-and-tear factor was apparent last season, and a lack of a consistent running game from Turner really made Atlanta’s offense predictable.  The release of DE John Abraham was a scary thought, but you didn’t think GM Thomas Dimitroff would let such an asset go without bringing in another did you?  In comes another veteran, DE Osi Umenyiora.  Give or take, this was pretty much an even trade.  No blood, no foul.  The franchise then cut ties with CB Dunta Robinson.  The Falcons paid him, but found that to be an error and decided to cut their losses as Robinson failed to meet expectations.  Atlanta looked to the draft to replace him and grow stronger at corner.

Draft:  CB Desmond Trufant (Washington), CB Robert Alford (SE Louisiana), DE Malliciah Goodman (Clemson), TE Levine Toilolo (Stanford), DE Stansly Maponga (TCU), S Kemal Ishamel (USC), S Deke Motta (Notre Dame), QB Sean Renfree (Duke)  Overall Grade:  B

The Falcons took a bit of criticism at selecting 2 corners in the fist two rounds, but that was definitely a need, and a need well addressed.  Atlanta decided on CB Desmond Trufant in the first round.  He will start as he has NFL blood in him.  His two older brothers Marcus and Isaiah have played in the league, providing the young Trufant with some excellent notes.  He wasn’t the most sexy pick in the draft, but he fills the need.

All criticism of taking two corners in a row rather than go for a pass rusher diminished with Atlanta’s 3rd pick, DE Malliciah Goodman.  He will compete for the starting job at LE.  Goodman, aka Sacksquatch had 10 sacks last season, along with 8 career forced fumbles.  Two years ago, he set a single-season school record by playing 767 snaps in 14 games.

The Falcons picked up two safeties with Kemal Ishamel and Deke Motta who have excellent resumes and provide some great depth and potential for Atlanta.  They also picked up a great blocking tight end, and a prospect at quarterback to learn from and back up Matt Ryan.  All in all, the Falcons accomplished what they needed to in this year’s draft.

Upcoming Season:  The one area that will remain dominant this year for the Falcons is the aerial attack on offense.  You take Roddy White and Julio Jones, a secondary’s worst nightmare (as well as opposing fantasy football teams for that matter) along with a returning ageless wonder in TE Tony Gonzalez, and you’ve got just what you’d expect:  a lights out air assault on opposing defenses.  The defense has been addressed and should be an improvement from last year, but the biggest area of improvement by far is the one they made at running back.  Steven Jackson may be hitting 30, but that’s some over-played terminology in today’s world where running backs are old at 27.  Jackson has shown no signs of stopping.  Even apart of a poor passing Rams team, where defenses knew he was going to run it, he still was able to will his way through barricades.  In Atlanta, you don’t expect run.  You expect a deep ball.  Atlanta just became one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC adding a dynamic running game to their over-charged passing offense.  QB Matt Ryan, drafted the same year as Flacco, has a lot to prove this year.  I truly feel that Ryan is the better of the two, but we all know that rings do the talking.  Ryan looks to write his legacy by bringing Atlanta some hardware to keep up with his fellow class-men.  Expect a much more well-rounded balanced attack from Atlanta this year, along with a significant improvement on defense.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Surprise Offensive Player:  RB Steven Jackson  I had to go with Jackson on this.  Many think he may flop much like Turner did last season.  The signs are not there.  Plus, he’s now with a team that doesn’t solely rely on him.  Don’t get me wrong, Sam Bradford in St. Louis is a great quarterback and up and coming, but he doesn’t have the weapons Ryan does in Atlanta.  This is a pass-first team, which will open up big lanes for Steven Jackson.  I’m really high on him in fantasy football this year, and I anticipate he will be a huge factor in Atlanta’s success in the 2013 campaign.

Surprise Defensive Player:  CB Desmond Trufant  I think the rookie will turn some heads this season on defense.  Sure, you’d love to see Osi or  Babineaux in here, or maybe a break-out season from Asante Samuel, but I’m going with the younger or the Trufant brothers on this one.  He’s not a draft pick that made you drool, and his highlight reel isn’t all that exciting, but he’s about as close as you’re going to get to a safe bet.  Plus, he has the upside of watching two older brothers go through their growing pains in the league.  I think Trufant will develop into the NFL quicker than anticipated, and will be the biggest surprise on Atlanta’s defense this season.

Final Record:  11-5

Wins:  @ Saints, VS Rams, @ Dolphins, VS Jets, VS Buccaneers, @ Cardinals, @ Panthers, @ Buccaneers, @ Bills, VS Redskins, VS Panthers

Losses:  @Ne, VS Seahawks, VS Saints, @ Packers, @ 49ers

 

New Orleans Saints – Covered by LeRoy McConnell III

Saints

Key Pickups – Head Coach – Sean Payton – Defensive Coordinator – Rob Ryan – TE – Benjamin Watson -DE – Kenyon Coleman – LB – Victor Butler – CB – Chris Carr – CB – Keenan Lewis

Key Losses – OT – Jermon Bushrod – DT – Sedrick Ellis – CB – Johnny Patrick – RB – Chris Ivory – OT – Jonathan Casillas – WR – Devery Henderson

Off-season: Now that the nightmare is finally over with guess who’s back in the saddle? Who Dat? Sean Payton! Payton is New Orleans biggest off-season acquisition getting reinstated after being  suspended for the infamous Bountygate. After averaging twelve victories a season between 2009-2011 the Saints fell on hard times when they lost their sideline leader. Now that Sean Payton reunites with his main man, Drew Brees, the NFC South is on notice. I wouldn’t be surprised if Payton and Brees try to run the score up a little.

Rob Ryan will replace Steve Spagnuolo, who was fired at season’s end, as defensive coordinator in hopes to turn around a Saints defense that ranked dead last in the NFL. Giving up 28.4ppg and 440ypg won’t win many ballgames. Ryan will implement a switch on defense going from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 in hopes of putting more pressure on the quarterback. This Saints defense only piled up 30 quarterback sacks last season.

Draft: – SKenny Vaccaro (Texas), – OT -Terron Armstead (Arkansas Pine-Bluff), NT – Jonathan Jenkins (Georgia), WR – Kenny Stills (Oklahoma), LB – Rufus Johnson (Tarleton State) – Overall: B

 

Upcoming Season: With Sean Payton back at the helm, expect him to humiliate a few teams in the league if given the

credit photo Chris Graythen/Getty

credit photo Chris Graythen/Getty

chance. It’s his only way to get some revenge from the year-long suspension. Nothing on offense is going to change. Drew Brees will pass for his third consecutive 5,000 yard season. He will have Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore to throw to once again. Darren Sproles is still the most dangerous pass-catching running back in the league. The question is what will Mark Ingram do? Ingram, who has battled injuries, is going into his third season now and its time for him to put up. The 2011 first-round pick is in danger of being a colossal bust as he has watched the likes of Pierre Thomas and former Saint Chris Ivory steal carries away. The offensive line may be thin now with the departure of Jermon Bushrod who was replaced by an inexperienced third-round rookie Terron Armstead. Hopefully Drew Brees’ blindside won’t be a factor because of his quick release.

If you ever wondered why a Saints fan would wear a brown paper sack over his/her head, it’s because of their dismal defense that was ranked last in the league giving up 440ypg. No other team in the NFL gave up 400ypg which is the reason Steve Spagnuolo was given his walking papers. Payton brings in Rob Ryan as his new defensive coordinator. Ryan is known for designing schemes that put pressure on the quarterback. The Saints are lacking talented edge rushers so Ryan will have to be more creative in making the quarterback uncomfortable by getting rid of the ball quicker to protect the secondary. The key is stop the big plays, blitz like crazy, and create more turnovers. If the Saints defense can get go from the cellar to the middle of the road, then expect New Orleans to be neck and neck with the Falcons for the NFC South.

Surprising Offensive Player: Kenny Stills,WR: With the loss of Joe Morgan due to injury, rookie Kenny Stills will slide right into the number three receiver spot. Stills has the opportunity to have a decent season with the pass happy Brees looking to throw to all who wants to make plays. Just remember Stills ran a 4.37 40 at the combine and with the departure of Devery Henderson, expect Stills to make some plays streaming down the seams. So far in the preseason, Brees has thrown a touchdown pass to the rookie and leads the preseason and receiving yards and touchdown catches.

Surprising Defensive Player: Kenny Vaccaro, S: The Saints are in need of a physical playmaking safety. That’s why they chose Kenny Vaccaro who wasted no time getting physical with all-pro tight-end Jimmy Graham. Vaccaro flicked an incomplete pass at the back of Graham’s head that led to an altercation. Kenny has put some vicious hits on teammates in practice and has opened several eyes on the defensive front. He patterns himself on the edge of crazy but in control. His physical nature is the attitude that New Orleans desperately needs because the defense as a whole doesn’t display any intimidating tendencies.

2013 Record: 10-6
Wins: vs. Falcons @Cardinals @ Bears vs. Bills @Jets vs. Cowboys vs. 49ers vs Panthers @Rams @Bucs
Losses:
vs. Bucs @Dolphins @Patriots @Falcons @Seahawks @Panthers

 

Carolina Panthers – Covered by Mike Prosser

Panthers

Key Pickups: CB Drayton Florence, LB Chase Blackburn, CB DJ Moore, WR Ted Ginn JR

Instead of going out and getting younger at a position, the Panthers signed veteran corners Drayton Florence and DJ Moore to come help an already young but talented secondary and will help second year corner Josh Norman and veteran Captain Munnerlyn to continue in their development. Blackburn, a former New York Giant, will bring his 98 combined tackles to a linebacking core that has been demolished with injuries in the past few years while Ginn Jr brings speed and a great ability to return kicks at a reasonable 1 year price.

Key Losses: LB James Anderson, CB Chris Gamble.

Though Anderson might not be a big deal to some, his ability to be a depth line backer, who filled in when both Thomas Davis and Jon Beason were out with injuries, will be missed. The biggest loss was letting go of Chris Gamble, the franchise’s leader in interceptions. Gamble announced his retirement earlier this summer.

(Credit: AP Photo)

(Credit: AP Photo)

Draft Picks/Grade: DT Star Lotululei, Utah, DT Kawann Short, Purdue, G Edmund Kugbila, Valdosta State, LB AJ Klein, Iowa State, RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon.

Having one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last season, the Panthers used both of their top 2 picks on defensive linemen. Lotululei, who many had ranked as the best player in the Draft at one point in time, fell to the Panthers at 14 due to a medical condition that has been cleared. He and Short will see immediate playing time. Kugbila is a small school guard whose physical play will help in the run game, Klein will be a Special Teamer and depth line backer who can play all three positions, and Barner, the 6th round speedster out of Oregon, will mostly be used as a return man and a 3rd or 4th option running back. Despite the lack of picks the Panthers did a pretty solid job of working with what they had and get a solid B.

Coaching Staff: This is year 3 in the Ron Rivera Era. Mike Shula takes over as Offensive Coordinator, Ken Dorsey is the new Quarterbacks Coach, while Sean McDermott remains Defensive Coordinator.

Offseason Changes: Gone is Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who became the new Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns, and long time General Manger Marty Hurney  who was replaced by former Giants senior pro personnel analyst David Gettleman who has been a part of 6 Super Bowl teams including 3 champions. Former Quarterback coach Mike Shula gets promoted to Offensive Coordinator while former University of Miami Hurricanes standout Ken Dorsey is the new Quarterbacks coach.

Offensive Player to watch: Cam Newton

Newton has been in the League going on three years now and still has nothing really to show for it.  After a stellar Rookie season where he set an NFL record for yards thrown by a rookie QB (only to have it broken one year later) “Superman” was anything but super last season. In what could be a crucial season for not only Cam, but head coach Ron Rivera as well, Newton needs to continue his success from the end of last season and find a way to lead his team throughout the year.

Defensive Player to watch: Star Loutulelei

Look I know the guy’s a rookie but Star has already been penciled in as one of the starters on a Front 7 that includes two of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Star will be counted on to open gaps for line backers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason, and Tomas Davis to run through plus provide double teams to allow Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson more opportunities at beating one-on-one blocks. Oh yeah and there’s also that problem with stopping the run which Star did very well while at Utah. Look for him to be the x-factor in a Panthers defense that could be one of the top 15 in the league this season.

2013 Record: 8-8

Provided Cam and the offense are able to find themselves under new OC Mike Shula and the Defense finds a way to stop the run, the Panthers are poised for, albeit, a small improvement in a tough NFC South that includes both Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, two of the NFL’s Elite QBs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Covered by Joe Ray

Buccaneers

Key Pickups: S Dashon Goldson, K Lawrence Tynes, TE Tom Crabtree, WR Kevin Ogletree, WR Steve Smith, CB Darrelle Revis (via trade)

Key Losses: DE Michael Bennett, OT Jeremy Trueblood, CB E.J. Biggers, DT Roy Miller, TE Dallas Clark

The offseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was highlighted by two huge acquisitions that could help the league’s worst passing defense in 2012 become one of the best in 2013. Darrelle Revis, better known as Revis Island, was acquired from the New York Jets in exchange for draft picks, and then signed to a 6-year deal with no guaranteed money included. Coming off a lost season due to a torn ACL, that is huge for the Buccaneers in the case that Revis’ play does begin to deteriorate following the year off.

Dashon Goldson was the other major acquisition in free agency, coming over from the San Francisco 49ers. Goldson is a huge hitter and will definitely be a presence on the back end of Tampa Bay’s defense next to second-year guy Mark Barron. Goldson also has nine picks over the last two seasons, showing that he is more than just a run-support safety. These safeties, combined with Revis and youngster Leonard Johnson, promise to give the Buccaneers a much-improved pass defense.

On the flipside, the losses of defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller open up two starting spots on the defensive line. DaQuan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn played a combined 13 games in 2012, so they will have to stay healthy with a lack of veteran talent behind them at the defensive end position.

On offense, the personnel remains pretty much the same. Luke Stocker will take over as the starting tight end in 2013 after Dallas Clark was not retained. Stocker has 28 receptions through his first two years in the league, but his role will be expanded. Tom Crabtree will be a depth option for the team.

Tackle Jeremy Trueblood was let go in the offseason, handing the right tackle job to Demar Dotson for good. Trueblood had signed with the Redskins but did not make their 53-man roster.

Draft: CB Johnthan Banks (Mississippi State), QB Mike Glennon (NC State), DT Akeem Spence (Illinois), DE William Gholston (Michigan State), DE Steven Means (Buffalo), RB Mike James (Miami). Grade: B-

I was going to give this draft class a C+, but the fact that they acquired Revis rather than a first-round prospect gets them a small bump. Johnthan Banks and Mike Glennon were the two picks on Day 2. Banks won the Thorpe Award in 2012 as college football’s best defensive back, but fell due to a perceived lack of athleticism at the draft. At 6’2″ and 185 pounds, Banks has the size to match up with many receivers, and he displayed great ball skills at Mississippi State. He is currently listed as the nickel corner behind Revis and Johnson. Glennon received mixed scouting reports coming out of NC State. The 6’7″, 225-pound quarterback has great arm talent, but he struggles to work through progressions and is often uncomfortable in the pocket. He fell to the third round and will back up Josh Freeman this season.

The rest of the draft included many picks to invest in defensive line depth, selecting tackle Akeem Spence and ends William Gholston and Steven Means. Spence figures to be the primary backup to Gerald McCoy, while Gholston and Means will be depth players bringing very different skill sets. Gholston (6’7″, 280) is more versatile in run support and lacks pass-rushing skills, while Means (6’4″, 250) is a pass-rushing specialist from a small school who may be more of a long-term project. Mike James was also added at running back. He could compete in short-yardage situations, although the Bucs also have Peyton Hillis in tow.

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Josh Freeman

josh freeman

Josh Freeman will be key to any Buccaneers success in 2013. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Buccaneers have found themselves two starting wide receivers for the long term in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Doug Martin seems to be a budding superstar at running back. The offensive line should be more dominant with a full season of Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph at guard. The pressure is on Josh Freeman to go out there and earn the title of Buccaneers franchise quarterback. Last year, Freeman had career bests in passing yards (4,065) and touchdowns (27) and also cut his interception total from 2011, with 17 last year. But he also saw his completion percentage drop to 54.8% after being over 60% in both 2010 and 2011.

Now more than ever, the pressure is on Freeman to prove that, entering his fifth season with the Buccaneers, he has put it all together. Year two under Greg Schiano could be a steadying force for the team, but if Freeman doesn’t perform and the team unravels around him, the Buccaneers could let him walk to free agency and move forward with Glennon.

Defensive Player to Watch: CB Leonard Johnson

I mentioned Johnson earlier as the fourth guy in the fantastic starting secondary with Darrelle Revis, Mark Barron, and Dashon Goldson. An undrafted free agent out of Iowa State last year, Johnson worked his way up the depth chart, and he finished the 2012 season with 41 tackles, 9 pass deflections, and 3 interceptions. Johnson will presumably see a lot of throws come his way as quarterbacks attempt to steer clear of Revis Island. Considering that, plus the excellent safety help, Johnson could be in position to put up some great numbers in 2013.

Wins: @ Jets, vs. Saints, vs. Cardinals, vs. Eagles, vs. Panthers, vs. Bills

Losses: @ Patriots, @ Falcons, vs. Saints, @ Seahawks,  vs. Dolphins, vs. Falcons, @ Lions, @ Panthers, vs. 49ers, @ Rams

Final Record: 6-10

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