John Mitchell and Brady Ford continue their NFL divisional previews with the NFC South
Who had the best offseason among the NFC South teams?
Mitchell: I really like what the Falcons did this offseason. They didn’t make a lot of moves, but they made a few key moves that very well could propel them toward a Super Bowl appearance. First, they made a big splash in the NFL Draft by trading up and taking Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones to give them a big play threat on the outside to compliment Roddy White. I also liked the selection of JacQuizz Rodgers. He’s not an every down back, but I think he could give the Falcons a playmaker along the likes of Darren Sproles. They made one key free-agent signing in former Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. Edwards will greatly help the pass rush, and give Atlanta another pass rushing presence to go along with John Abraham.
Ford: It was hard to chose for me between three teams, as I think the Panthers, Falcons, and Saints could all receive the title. They all improved in the offseason, but they also may have all overpayed to do it. The Panthers in money, the Saints and Falcons in draft picks. I think the team that got the most bang for their buck is Carolina. Three of their own players (Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, and James Anderson) were amongst the most sought after free agents in the league, yet Carolina was able to resign them all. I also support their drafting of Cam Newton. The Panthers did not have a quarterback and without a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. With Newton, they now have a chance.
Who had the worst offseason in the South?
Ford: That would have to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the Buccaneer’s surprising involvement in the playoff run in 2010, they could’ve put themselves in great position to get over the hump this year by using their considerable cap space to acquire key players. Instead, they let key players like Barrett Ruud and Stylez White walk away and their only “major” free agent signing was punter Michael Koenen.
Mitchell:It was definitely the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay came so close to making the playoffs last season, and they had plenty of money to spend via free agency, and like Brady said the only major signing was a punter. I like what they did in the NFL draft, taking defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, and inside linebacker Mason Foster. But, they needed to make a bigger splash in free agency if they wanted to take that next step.
Who is the best player in the division?
Mitchell: This division has three top-notch quarterbacks, but only one of them has led his team to a Super Bowl, and that is Saints QB Drew Brees. Brees has thrown for over 4000 yards in each of his five seasons in the NFL, including throwing for over 5000 yards in 2008, and leading New Orleans to a Super Bowl victory in 2009. Remember when the Dolphins chose Daunte Culpepper over Brees in 2006? Good times. Brees has also thrown for over 30 touchdowns the last three years, and completed over 64% of his passes each of his seasons with the Saints.
Ford: I agree with John’s selection of Brees. He is the NFC South’s best player at the moment. However, I do not think it will be long until he’s surpassed by Josh Freeman and/or Matt Ryan. Brees is still great, but at 32 his best days are likely behind him. Yet for Ryan, 26, and Freeman, 23, their best days are very likely ahead.
Who do you see being the breakout player in the NFC South?
Ford: I like Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. Graham is a freak athlete, the 6’6” 260 lb. tight end ran a 4.56 40 at the combine, and only played one season of football in college after being only a basketball player. It’s easy to see why he’s compared to Antonio Gates and if Graham continues to progress, his production could soon rival that of Gates. Graham played little in the first several weeks of his rookie 2010 season, but over the last half of the season, Graham had over 300 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. This could be the year he becomes an elite receiving tight end.
Mitchell: I think it’s going to be Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas. With all the attention of the opposing secondaries on Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, Douglas could be in for a breakout season. He’s already had an excellent preseason, and if that translates over into the regular season, Douglas could have a good season. Atlanta had enough faith in Douglas as the team’s third receiver, that they let Michael Jenkins walk in free agency. Douglas has only 614 receiving yards in his first two NFL seasons, and I think he could end up with more than that in 2011.
Who is the most overrated player in the division?
Mitchell: As much as it pains me to say it, it’s Falcons running back Michael Turner. Turner has led the league in carries two of the last three years, but has only eclipsed 4.5 yards per carry once in his three seasons in Atlanta, and that was an injury riddled 2009 season. Turner carried the ball 334 times last season, but only averaged 4.1 yards per carry. It’s not to say that Turner isn’t a good back, because he is, but I don’t look at him as one of the elite running backs in the NFL like a lot of people do.
Ford: I would certainly agree with you on Turner. I think this is the year he hits the wall, just as workhorses like Shaun Alexander, Eddie George, and Larry Johnson have done before him. He also gives you nearly nothing as a receiver; 28 running backs had more receiving yards in 2010 than Turner has had in his career. If I were to choose someone else, it would be fellow Falcon Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez is an all-time great and a surefire Hall of Famer, but he still has a reputation for being a great receiver and he just isn’t one. In fact, I’d say he’ll the 4th best receiving tight end in this division in 2010, at best.
Who is the most underrated player in the South?
Ford: I think it’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. You’d think a quarterback in his age 22 season throwing 25 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions despite playing with very young and unheralded receivers while finishing second only to Michael Vick in rushing yards among quarterbacks en route to leading a team that was expected to be among the worst in the league to a 10 win season would get some notice. Why didn’t it? Answer me!
Mitchell: I agree that it is Josh Freeman, but I’ll go with someone else since Brady already touched on him. Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton has back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons, finishing 7th in the NFL in tackles in2009, and 18th in 2010. Lofton has not received his due praise for his excellent work the last couple of seasons. To go along with last season’s 117 tackles, Lofton had two sacks, an interception, and three forced fumbles.
Which NFC South rookie do you see making the biggest impact this season?
Mitchell: I’m going with Falcons rookie wideout Julio Jones, and I truly think he has an excellent shot at winning the NFC’s offensive rookie of the year award. He’s looked really good in the preseason, and thus far, it appears that Matt Ryan is looking for Julio about the same amount of times he’s looking for Roddy White. Atlanta wouldn’t have given up as much as they did to acquire Julio if they didn’t expect him to make an immediate impact. He should stretch the field with his lightning speed, and should prevent Roddy White from being double teamed. He’s also a very talented down field blocker, and should help open up running lanes for Michael Turner. I’m expecting a great all-around season for Julio, and like I said, he should be one of the top contenders for offensive rookie of the year.
Ford: While I think Cam Newton will be the best player from this rookie class eventually, it’s very unlikely that he’ll be even average as a rookie, given the track record of rookie quarterbacks and the shortened offseason. I will have to agree with John again and pick Julio. I don’t think Julio will be a star out of the gate, but I do think his rookie season will be similar to that of Hakeem Nicks. While not the #1 option, Nicks was able to tally 790 receiving yards and 6 TD in 14 games. I expect Julio to produce at about that rate.
The Falcons didn’t have the highest of expectations last season, but they jumped out and won 13 games to win the NFC South. Atlanta was embarrassed by Green Bay in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season. Did the Falcons improve enough in the offseason to make a run at the Super Bowl?
Ford: The Falcons had a relatively low-key offseason, but they made a few pick-ups that should make them a better team in the postseason. Postseason success over recent years has been based on passing the ball and stopping the pass, two areas where the Falcons were not terrible, but certainly not elite. They addressed this by adding one of the most talented playmakers in the draft, Julio Jones. Jones alongside Roddy White could develop into one the NFL’s elite wide receiver combos. Defensively, they signed a great young pass rusher in Ray Edwards. I consider them the #3 NFC Contender behind Philadelphia and Green Bay.
Mitchell: I think the Falcons did improve enough to become legitimate contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has a bevy of weapons to throw to with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Harry Douglas. With Michael Turner’s running ability, Atlanta’s offense should be virtually unstoppable. Defensively, the Atlanta secondary still has some question marks, but they added a pass rushing threat via free agency in Ray Edwards to help get to the quarterback before he has enough time to slice up the secondary. I think the Falcons are the favorites to repeat in the NFC South, and I like their chances of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl as much as Green Bay and Philadelphia.
The Panthers won just two games last season, finishing with the worst record in all of football. They got the first pick of the draft and selected Heisman winner Cam Newton to try and turn the franchise around. What should we expect from Carolina this season?
Mitchell: Improvement. There’s only one way to go after last year’s 2-14 debacle and that’s up. I’m not completely sold on Cam Newton as an NFL QB, but in any case he is an upgrade over Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore. Carolina has a pair of talented running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to take some of the pressure off of Newton in his first season under center. They also added veteran tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey as safety valves for the young quarterback. But, the Panthers still have some glaring weaknesses, especially defensively, and the expectations shouldn’t be more than three to four wins this season in Carolina.
Ford: While I like Cam Newton, I don’t think his selection will start paying dividends until at least 2012. Although it’s hard to imagine he could be worse than Jimmy Clausen was last year. I think the area where they will be most improved is the running game. Cam Newton will likely be the first or second leading rusher from the quarterback position, and DeAngleo Williams is back and healthy. That alone won’t let them sniff the playoffs, but I think it should double their win total.
The Saints came up short in their attempt to win a second straight Super Bowl, losing to the Seahawks in the Wildcard round in last season’s playoffs. Will New Orleans take back the NFC South en route to another Super Bowl appearance?
Ford: I think New Orleans is destined for another wild card berth. It is certainly a possibility that the Saints could take back the NFC South crown, but a key to that will be interceptions. Last season, Drew Brees was second in the NFL in interceptions thrown with 22. The Saints defense finished dead last in the NFL, intercepting just 9 passes. They can’t have such an enormous gap like that and expect to win the NFC South.
Mitchell: The Saints are certainly good enough to get back to the playoffs, and will challenge the Falcons for the NFC South title. Drew Brees is a great quarterback, but like Brady said, he’ll have to cut down on the interceptions a bit this year. I loved the acquisition of Darren Sproles to replace Reggie Bush, and getting a guy like Mark Ingram in the NFL Draft will bolster the New Orleans rushing attack. Ingram will be able to punch it into the endzone when the Saints get close, and he should end up being the top guy in the Saints backfield before season’s end. The Saints should once again get into the playoffs, and could make some serious noise once they do.
The Buccaneers were one of the surprise teams last season, winning ten games and just missing out on a playoff berth. Will Tampa Bay take the next step forward this season and get into the postseason?
Mitchell: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Like I said earlier, the Buccaneers had enough money to spend this offseason to improve their team to make a push toward the postseason. Instead, they stood idly by and watched as their counterparts in the conference improved themselves. Now, Tampa Bay is going to be stuck in neutral, and while they have a good team led by a great young quarterback in Josh Freeman, the Bucs will likely be stuck watching the playoffs once again from their respective couches. They should win between 8-10 games, but that won’t likely be good enough to make the postseason in a tough NFC.
Ford: After they dropped the ball in the offseason, I think they’ll do about as well as they did last year: Be in the race, but ultimately miss the playoffs. I think they really needed to improve their defense in the offseason. I liked that their first 3 picks were on defense, but I don’t know that Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster will be an upgrade over Stylez White and Barrett Ruud. Unless Josh Freeman make a major jump and carries this team to the playoffs, I think they’ll be watching from home again.
|1. *Falcons 11-5||1. *Falcons 12-4|
|2. *Saints 10-6||2. *Saints 11-5|
|3. Buccaneers 9-7||3. Buccaneers 8-8|
|4. Panthers 4-12||4. Panthers 3-13|