The up-and-coming Panthers make the South no longer just a two-team conversation. Our team agrees that the Saints and Falcons should still vie for the top spot, but Cam Newton & Co. will provide one more worry for each of them along the way. Even the Buccaneers boast a breakout player and a rookie to watch, making this division an interesting view top to bottom.
Who covers the over/under? Who advances to the postseason? Which new names will make a splash and which youngsters should you keep an eye on? Our analysis team chats on the NFC South.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: It has become a league of running back by committee, and though the Falcons were one of the few teams to buck that trend (feeding Michael Turner the ball as often as they could), even they have admitted that they want to share that load more in 2012. Enter Jacquizz Rodgers, a player who I think could have a big year as a second option for the Falcons. Rodgers is a short, shifty back who runs the ball well but is also a weapon in the passing game. He may not put up huge numbers, but he should step into a much bigger role in that offense.
Neil: How about going deep, deep undercover to highlight prospective pass rushing star Junior Galette? With Will Smith suspended, many are wondering where the Saints’ pressure comes from without Greg Williams’ extreme blitzes. I would ask you to keep your eyes peeled for No. 93 who last year managed 34 QB disruptions on 339 pass rushes.
Khaled: It’s about time more people started to realize how good a player Michael Bennett is. Contributes on every down and plays like he’s fighting for a job on every snap and that shows up in the number of plays he makes. Will never be an elite rusher but could turn himself into one of the league’s premier left defensive ends. Just ask Ray Edwards, that pays pretty well.
Ben: After taking over from the retiring Olin Kreutz part way through last season, Brian De La Puente put together a relatively solid season in his fourth year since being undrafted out of the University of California. After a full offseason as the Saints’ No. 1 in the middle of the offensive line De La Puente should be in for a big season on what is still one of the very strongest O-lines in the entire league. Stationed between two Pro Bowl caliber guards (Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans) he can, with a more consistent season than last year, form the strongest interior offensive line in the entire league.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: New Orleans 10; Atlanta 9; Carolina 7.5; Tampa bay 6. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: It is going to need a step-up from Cam Newton, who I think was far from the passer that his gaudy rookie stats led people to believe, but he has the kind of drive and work ethic to make that leap. If he does, the Panthers become good value to get eight wins or more and beat that line.
Neil: This is the toughest one of the lot as I see everything the odds makers have done as about right. Therefore, I’m going with Carolina to get more than 7.5 wins but it won’t be by much.
Khaled: They’ve become somewhat predictable, the Atlanta Falcons: double-digit wins before being one-and-done in the playoffs. Yawn. I don’t see the first part of that changing, if this side could do enough to win the games they should, and keep it close enough against better opposition where they’re in position to strike. I’ll take the over on them even if they won’t win the division.
Ben: The Saints may not have Sean Payton patrolling the sideline this season, but they still have Drew Brees under center, an experienced play-caller, an outstanding offensive line, and similar defensive personnel with a better defensive coordinator. I’m not buying that the Saints will struggle this season and with an over/under line of 10 wins, that looks like easy money to me for New Orleans with the over.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: I watched a couple of BC games in the background a couple of years back just idly noticing this linebacker making near every tackle on defense. Then when I listened to the stories about this guy who had been a first round stud before being diagnosed with cancer and was now attempting a comeback I figured it must have been Mark Herzlich I had seen. It wasn’t until I started seeing highlight reels from Luke Kuechly that I realized he had been the tackling machine I’d seen before. I’m now really curious to see if he remains one at the NFL level
Neil: Although Panthers rookie left guard Amini Silatolu took a step back against the Jets last week, he wasn’t awful and must have learned a lot. I want to see how he develops and if he can dominate less able opposition.
Khaled: I might be stealing Neil’s answer here, but after listening to what he had to say about Amini Silatolu I’m excited to see if he lives up to the hype.
Ben: The Bucs already have a great running back to watch in the shape of LeGarrette Blount but I’m really looking forward to seeing what Doug Martin can do for them as a three-down option. Because of their reticence in using Blount on passing downs, their offense was left shorthanded last season as they were chasing games more often than not. Martin will allow them to have a quality back on the field at all times and to make smarter use of Blount as well. With a new head coach who apparently likes to run the ball a lot, I’m excited to see Martin in isolation, but also in terms of how the Bucs may use both backs in combination.
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: The Saints and the Falcons have been battling for playoff spots from this division from the last few years, but I think the Panthers will be the team to force their way into that fight this year. I still think the Saints may well top the division, their offense is just too potent not to, even with missing parts, but Carolina can challenge for a wild card spot.
Neil: New Orleans is the only team to progress from this division. While the Falcons’ offense will take a step forward, I think the defense goes back… at least for this year. In a big statement to the league, deploying an ‘us against the world’ mentality, the Saints once again raise the Lombardi Trophy and Drew Brees leapfrogs Aaron Rodgers as the NFL’s best player.
Khaled: I kept telling myself the Saints had got stronger with the moves they made in free agency. But I think to myself now, with their linebackers all battling injuries and their head coach and leader gone, they’re in for a rough few months. Of course, they could quite as easily ride Drew Brees all the way to the Super Bowl, so I’ll go with the safe choice of a Saints-Falcons one-two with both being contenders in January.
Ben: This is again a two-horse race in the Deep South. Cam Newton may have been phenomenal as a rookie, but I don’t see this team taking a step forward, particularly against what looks like it might be a brutal schedule. The Saints and Falcons will duke it out for the division title and I think if Atlanta sticks with their up-tempo offense and really take it to teams–particularly the Saints–all season, they’ll edge the division title. Will the Falcons be able to get that win they’re missing in January though? I’ll wait and see on that.