Four Analysts, Four Questions – NFC South

| September 6, 2011

An interesting division top to bottom, the NFC South gets its turn at our four questions today.
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Which player do you think will break out? Who wins the division? Can any reach the title game? Our analysts offer their thoughts.
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Also, be sure to check out the other divisions that we’ve already hit:
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North
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Who’s your NFC South breakout player for 2011?
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Khaled: I’m sure Neil will go for players like Roddy White, Drew Brees, or Ronde Barber – but I’ll throw out a bit of a lesser-known name: Greg Hardy. I liked what I saw at times, and even with a limited offseason, I think he has the natural talent to be an excellent complement to Neil’s likely pick, Charles Johnson.

Neil: In 2009 Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud had a fine year playing the run but struggled in coverage. Last season he reversed that. In 2011 he will put it all together and become one of the better safeties in the NFC. Carolina now has a superb set of starting linebackers with so much strength on the bench their back-ups are better than a number of teams’ first choices. From that lot, I’m going to pick James Anderson, who did it all last year and can get even better in 2011. I’m already off the fence about my Saints player to watch. He may never be a Pro-Bowler, but Zach Strief will be an immediate upgrade on Jon Stinchcomb and make Drew Brees’ life a lot easier. Lastly, in Tampa, Arrelious Benn will see a lot of snaps and make defensive backs life as miserable in the running game with his blocking as he does catching passes.

Nathan: I think the Buccaneers’ second year receiver Arrelious Benn is ready to break out this season. With defenses focusing on Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow in the pass game, the opportunities will be there. His 2.27 yards per pass route run was among the league’s best, and it wasn’t until the second half of the season that he really started stepping up. Tampa Bay will have a passing attack that is right up there with the Falcons and Saints in the near future.

Ben: With Everette Brown cut by the Panthers recently and Tyler Brayton now plying his trade inIndianapolis, there is an opening at defensive end opposite Charles Johnson for the Panthers. Two players looking to fill that role had promising seasons in 2010; Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy. Hardy took more snaps than Norwoood last year (396 to 47), and, despite an offseason motorcycle accident that could have derailed his plans, he’s been awarded the starting spot. Both players should see snaps, both graded positively in 2010, and both are primed for a breakout in 2011.
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The over/under lines for season win totals in the division are: Atlanta 10.5; Carolina 4.5; New Orleans 10; Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
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Khaled: I’m going with the Saints. That beef they added up front with Franklin and Rogers, along with that offense? They could go very deep into playoffs. They’ll score points and make plays on defense.

Neil: I’ll go over on New Orleans at 10. Nothing else in this group makes sense for me.

Nathan: While it’s tempting to just say over on the Buccaneers and call it a day, I will say the Saints win at least 11 games. It wasn’t that long ago that they were Super Bowl champions, and now there is more talent in the backfield and on the defensive line. After being one-and-done in last year’s playoffs, they’ll have a chip on their shoulder which I think will motivate them for a lot of the season.

Ben: Drew Brees is back, most of the offense is back, it might even be improved for the tinkering they’ve done. New Orleans at over 10 wins look like easy money here.
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What do you see as the positional strength of the division?
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Khaled: Minus Cam Newton it’s the quarterbacks. Brees is widely regarded as one of the top three quarterbacks in the game, while Matt Ryan is criminally underrated because the stats really don’t tell a story of the work he does on third down and difficulty of the throws he’s making. Josh Freeman took a massive step forward last year, and looks a little like a more likeable Ben Roethlisberger. That’s not bad.

Neil: Running backs … and LOTS of them. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Pierre Thomas, Michael Turner and LeGarrette Blount could all make a mess of 1000 yards, although I doubt Thomas will be given the chance with all the options in the Saints’ backfield these days.

Nathan: I will take the easy route and say quarterback. Three of the top nine rated quarterbacks in terms of overall rating reside in the division. The one who isn’t is Cam Newton, and as the first overall pick in the draft you would expect that he gets somewhere up there in the near future. This division could potentially have four elite quarterbacks for a long time.

Ben: Carolina at present lets down the side but the quarterbacks in this division are tremendous. Drew Brees is in the top bracket of QBs in this league, Matt Ryan has looked like he belongs ever since he set foot on an NFL field and Josh Freeman really started to emerge last season for the Buccaneers. The Panthers will hope Cam Newton can enter this bracket over the coming seasons but for right now the other three teams have signal callers that they can throw the weight of a game on and expect positive results.
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Who is going to make the playoffs and do they have a shot to win it all?
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Khaled: The Saints were the best team in this division last year (regardless of record), so while the Falcons have improved, they’re still lacking that kind of ‘score at will’ mentality the Saints have. Both teams to make it into the playoffs, where one (New Orleans) will fall at the final NFC hurdle.

Neil: I don’t want them to because I feel they should be punished (write 1000 times I will take better care of my linebackers) but the Saints will go all the way to the big show again. Drew Brees has that look that says “I will overcome whatever problems my defense will give me” and he does until the Patriots solve his individual brilliance to win it all. There’s a lot of Falcons love out there but until they can cover the middle of the field and Matt Ryan begins to play on first and second down as well, I say they fall just short of the playoffs.

Nathan: This battle will go right to the final weeks, but I think the Saints edge out the Falcons for the division title. Both will make the playoffs, and both should at least make it to the divisional round of the playoffs. One might make the Championship game depending on matchups, but no Super Bowl. Not only that, I like the Buccaneers to take the sixth spot in the playoffs, but lose in the Wild Card round.

Ben: The Saints and the Falcons are going to duke it out for this division again and I think again the Falcons are going to come out on top. I’m still not 100% sold on how that Saints’ defense is going to come together, kudos for signing Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin but those linebackers are still awful. Both teams will have double digit wins and both will be legitimate Superbowl contenders but I expect the Falcons to come out with real hunger after failing at home in the playoffs last season and that will just give them the edge.

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Follow the guys on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled, @PFF_Neil, @PFF_NateJahnke … and the main feed: @ProFootbalFocus
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  • PaulK

    Carolina was just a bit worse in 2010 than their 2-14 record indicates. They have a new coach laying in a new playbook and a great new quarterback who will probably become much better in 2012. Unfortunately the post-lockout training camp was pretty short. I really don’t consider Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago to be bunny teams on Carolina’s schedule.

    Carolina under. The reason I’m not taking New Orleans under is their improved O-line, which brings them up to neutral.

  • PaulK

    Improved D-line. I typed too fast and no edits are allowed with comments.