Wednesday, August 20, 2014

NFC SOUTH PREVIEW AND PREDICTIONS

 By: Connor Glowacki
    
     With football season right around the corner, it's time to go and make predictions on how well each team will fare during the regular season. Today we will be focusing on the NFC South where for the last three seasons, a new division champion has been crowned. Will the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Buccaneers bounce back after disappointing 2013 campaigns? Do the New Orleans Saints still have enough firepower to make a Super Bowl run? And can the Carolina Panthers, led by fourth year quarterback Cam Newton, duplicate the success they had when they won the NFC South in 2013?
courtesy of pocketdoppler.com

1.) New Orleans Saints: This was a tough call because the Panthers were great on defense last season, but the Saints only lost out to them for the division title by one game. New Orleans finished 11-5, compared to Carolina at 12-4, and they continued to keep their core group of stars together once again this season. 
     The passing game was the second best in the NFL last season, averaging over 307 yards per game. Star quarterback Drew Brees remained the anchor for this team as he threw for a whopping 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions on a 68.6 completion percentage. 
     He had many weapons on offense last season, which included tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham (86 catches, 1215 yards, 16TDs), wide receiver Marques Colston (75 catches, 943 yards, 5TDs), wide receiver Kenny Stills (32 catches, 641 yards, 5TDs), and running back Pierre Thomas (77 catches, 513 yards, 3 TDs).     
      However, the running game finished just 25th last season with an average of just over 92 yards per game. Running backs Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for just 935 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, while running back Khiry Robinson added 224 yards and three touchdowns of his own. 
     The defense made major strides in 2013 as the unit ranked 2nd against the pass, giving up just 194 yards per game through the air, and 19th against the run, giving up over 111 yards per game last season. Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Malcolm Jenkins combined for six interceptions and defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette combined for 24.5 sacks last season. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan received a lot of praise for turning around the Saints' defensive unit by utilizing numerous blitz packages to get after the quarterback.

Big Questions: Can the Saints realistically make a run in the playoffs if their offense is based through the passing game? While they do want to get more production out of the running game this season with Thomas and Ingrham, the Saints did win a Super Bowl in 2010 due to success of Brees and the passing game. But the Saints did lose running back Darren Sproles to free agency this offseason and he was a big contributor to the offense last season after rushing for 220 yards and two touchdowns as well as 604 receiving yards through the air with two receiving touchdowns. Will the loss of Sproles negatively impact this offense? Can the Saints rushing defense improve to make them one of the top units in the league?
courtesy of sportstalkflorida.com

Bottom Line: The New Orleans Saints have won at least 11 games in the regular season for four of the last five years. And that one year was when head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season due to his knowledge of the infamous 'Bounty-Gate' scandal. But the Saints have proven consistent in the Sean Payton era. Brees has thrown for over 5,000 yards in each of the last three seasons and I expect the passing game to continue its dominance again this season, as long as Brees stays healthy. 
     Losing Sproles will slightly hurt, but the Saints' offense is a well-oiled machine and Thomas, Ingram and Robinson should be able to give Brees more support in the running game in 2014. The defense did lose Jenkins to free agency this season, but they were able to acquire veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Jairus Byrd. The defense should thrive in a second year under Rob Ryan. 

Prediction: (11-5). This division will be closer than most people think. I believe that the Panthers, Falcons and even the Buccaneers will duke it out this year and will make the NFC South one of the more interesting divisions to watch. BUT, the Saints have stable leadership, consistency, and the combination of Brees and Payton. Plus, the Saints have a great opportunity to start the season 6-0 with winnable games against the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and even the Falcons and Buccaneers. 
     Their schedule gets more challenging later in the season as they'll have games against the Cincinatti Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, and the Panthers, but the Saints have almost everyone coming back this season and they should win the NFC South. 
courtesy of businessinsider

2,) Carolina Panthers: Even though the Falcons have more firepower on offense, the Panthers have a MUCH better defense and that will be the difference between second and third place in the NFC South in 2014. Carolina finished the 2013 season with a 12-4 record, which tied for their best regular season record in franchise history and was the first time since 2008 that the Panthers made the playoffs. They would go on to lose in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs. 
     Quarterback Cam Newton experienced a breakthrough season in his third year in the NFL by throwing for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns, compared to 13 interceptions. Newton also ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns on 111 carries. Despite Newton's improvement as a leader and a playmaker, the Panthers finished only 29th in passing last season and Newton was sacked a whopping 42 times. The running game fared better last season, finishing 11th in the league with an average of 126.6 yards per game on the ground. Carolina had a stable of running backs led by Newton and backs Deangelo Williams (201 carries, 843 yards, 3TDs), Mike Tolbert (101 carries, 361 yards, 5TDs), and Jonathan Stewart (48 carries, 180 yards). 
     As mentioned earlier, the Panthers defense became one of the best units in the entire NFL last season, finishing 6th against the pass (214.3 yards per game) and 2nd against the run (86.9 yards per game). Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 26 sacks last season, while linebacker Luke Kuechly and free safety Mike Mitchell each had four interceptions. Other standouts included linebacker Thomas Davis, who posted 85 tackles last season and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn who had two interceptions. 

Big Questions: During the offseason, Newton underwent ankle surgery. Newton is a big guy who can take hits, but how long can he keep it up before a serious injury could knock him out for most of the season? Should he continue running the ball as often as he has been? Meanwhile, the Panthers lost THREE of their best wide receivers to free agency with Steve Smith (64 catches, 745 yards, 4TDs) and Brandon LaFell (49 catches, 627 yards, 5TDs) and Ted Ginn Jr., (36 catches, 556 yards, 5TDs). How will the passing game work between Newton and the new wide receivers he has to his disposal?
courtesy of the huffingtonpost

Bottom Line: Carolina has one of the better offensive lines in the league, led by center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Byron Bell. That should allow the running game to flourish once again this season with all of the running backs returning to the team. 
     Top receiving target from last season, tight end Greg Olsen (73 catches, 816 yards, 6TDs) is back and Carolina added wide receiver Jerrico Cotchery in free agency and selected wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, out of Florida State, in the second round of the NFL draft back in May. It will take some time for Newton to feel comfortable throwing to his new targets. The Panthers did lose Mitchell and Munnerlyn to free agency, but they added safety Roman Harper this past offseason.

Prediction: (9-7). There are several tough games at the beginning of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks that could put this team in a bad spot early in the season. Success in 2014 will depend on how quickly Newton can connect with his new wide receivers and if the defense can continue the success that they had last season. I think the Saints' offense will continue to be a juggernaut and with their defense improving, they are slightly better than Carolina right now. 
courtesy of usatoday

3.) Atlanta Falcons: How could a team that in 2012 had a 13-3 record and has finished the last three seasons a combined 36-12, turn right around and completely stumble to a 4-12 record in 2013 last season? That was the question on every NFL fan's mind and there were plenty of factors involved, which included injuries, a league worst running game, and an overrated and overexposed defense. 
     Again, the offense finished dead last in the NFL in 2013, averaging just under 78 yards per game. Top running back Steven Jackson was injured most of the season and only finished with 543 yards and six touchdowns on 157 carries. Jacquizz Rodgers (96 carries, 332 yards, 2TDs) and Jason Snelling (44 carries, 164 yards, 1TD) also failed to provide any spark offensively. The Falcons fell behind in games last season and that forced quarterback Matt Ryan to make a lot of throws. 
     The passing game finished 7th in the NFL last season, but considering how much Atlanta had to throw, it isn't much of a shock. Ryan posted solid numbers in 2013, throwing for 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns, but also 17 interceptions. In 2012, he threw 32 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. The Falcons lost top wide receiver Julio Jones early in the season to injury and could never recover. Roddy White (63 catches, 711 yards, 3TDs), Harry Douglas (85 catches, 1067 yards, 2TDs) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (83 catches, 859 yards, 8TDs) were the top receiving threats last season. 
     The defense also struggled finishing 21st against the pass (243.6 yards per game) and a dreadful 31st against the run (135.8 yards per game). The Falcons did not have a single player with a double digit sack total last season, with the highest belonging to defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who had 7.5 sacks. Safety William Moore led Atlanta with three interceptions last season.

Big Questions: Injuries. Will Steven Jackson and Julio Jones return healthy at one hundred percent this season? And now the Falcons have lost left tackle Sam Baker to a season ending knee injury. Will the offensive line provide Ryan enough time to give him the opportunities to make plays? And can the defense make any strides of improvement this season?

Bottom Line: The Atlanta Falcons will move their number six overall selection from the 2014 draft, offensive tackle Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M, to Baker's position and hope that he can perform quickly. What Atlanta has going for it is a dynamic passing game. Ryan has been durable throughout his career and has generally performed very well. If Jones is healthy, the Falcons have three great receivers in Jones, White and Douglas. However, they did lose Gonzlaez to retirement this offseason, so new tight end Levine Toilolo will have to step up. Outside of Umenyoira and linebacker Sean Witherspoon, the Falcons don't have many standouts on the defensive side of the ball.
courtesy of buffaloramblings.com

Prediction: (6-10). Losing Baker is a huge blow to this offense since he has protected Ryan's blind side throughout their careers in the NFL. The first two games against the Saints and Bengals could very well put Atlanta in an early 0-2 hole and in a division with New Orleans and Carolina, it's going to be tough to catch up and compete. 
     Unless the running game improves and the defense finds more playmakers, it'll be a long season for the Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback with talented wide receivers, but they'll only be able to score so many points.


courtesy of athlonsports.com
4.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The last time Tampa Bay made the playoffs was back in 2007. They have had two winning seasons since then, but have not had at least a .500 record since 2010. A 4-12 record in 2013 put an end to the Greg Schiano era in Tampa and the Buccaneers hired head coach Lovie Smith in the offseason. 
     Tampa Bay's offense struggled last season, to say the least. The Buccaneers passing game finished dead last in the NFL last season with an average of just 176.4 yards per game and the rushing game finished 22nd with an average of just over 100 yards per game. Last year's starting quarterback Mike Glennon had a solid 2013 season where he threw for 2,608 yards and 19 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. However, he completed less than sixty percent of his passes, committed four fumbles and was sacked 40 times. 
     After a phenomenal rookie season where he ran for nearly 1,500 yards, running back Doug Martin played in only six games in 2013 and ran for only 456 yards and one touchdown. Running back Bobby Rainey was the leading rusher last season as he ran for 532 yards and five touchdowns on 137 carries. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson had a strong campaign last season (78 catches, 1,224 yards, 7TDs), but the Buccaneers failed to find a solid number two option. Tight end Tim Wright (54 catches, 571 yards, 5TDs) and wide receiver Tiquan Underwood (24 catches, 440 yards, 4TDs) were the next best options. 
     The defense, meanwhile, made some strides in 2013. They were 17th against the pass (237.9 yards per game) and 15th against the run (110.1 yards per game). Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is proving to be one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL after leading Tampa Bay with 9.5 sacks last season. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive end Adrian Clayborn also combined for 12.5 sacks. David also led the team with five interceptions, while linebacker Mason Foster and cornerback Johnthan Banks each had three interceptions. 


courtesy of bleacherreport
Big Questions: Who will be the quarterback this season? The Buccaneers acquired veteran quarterback Josh McCown during free agency and McCown had a memorable 2013 season with the Chicago Bears where he came off the bench and threw 13 touchdowns compared to just one interception. Glennon was drafted recently in 2012 as the quarterback of the future. It will make for an interesting quarterback battle during the preseason. Also, Tampa Bay has a lot of young playmakers on defense. Can they take the next step to become an elite unit  in the NFL?

Bottom Line: Tampa Bay actually has some good talent on both sides of the ball, they just don't have the experience of winning. The team drafted wide receiver Mike Evans, out of Texas A&M, in the top ten of the 2014 NFL Draft. That should make it harder for opposing defenses to figure out how to defend not only Evans, but Jackson as well. McCoy will anchor the defense once again and look for free safety Dashon Goldson to make a big impact this season.

Prediction: (5-11). Tampa Bay will have tough division games this season as each of the other three teams have won the NFC South over the last three seasons. If Martin can stay healthy, he easily has the talent to come close to his 1,500 yard rookie season from 2012. It will all come down to how the quarterbacks and if either McCown or Glennon can command the offense and keep the unit on the field. Right now, I think they'll finish behind Atlanta because the Falcons have previous experience of winning big games. But if certain players step up, Tampa Bay could make a run for a .500 record this season. 

Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comment section below!

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