2013 NFC South: Four Questions, Four Analysts
There’s not long to go now before the meaningful action begins with the start of the 2013 NFL season. To give you an idea of what our team is thinking heading into the season we’re asking four of them four questions, for every division.
It’s our Four Questions, Four Analysts season preview.
The analysts are Khaled Elsayed, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Ben Stockwell, so let’s see what they’re looking forward to seeing heading into the year.
1. Which player from the division do you see having a breakout year?
Khaled: I like my rotational ends, apparently. No denying who the starters are in Carolina, but I’ve seen flashes from 2012 fourth-round pick Frank Alexander. He’s best served at this point spelling Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, but it’s with those snaps I can see him doing damage.
Sam: I think he probably did this last year, but far too below the radar for most people to notice. Robert McClain became a very impressive CB for the Falcons and, though he may not have been given the starting job he deserved given the drafting of Desmond Trufant, I think he’ll play, and play well enough, over the season in their nickel package, to have well and truly broken out.
Steve: I really like what I saw from Saints DT Akiem Hicks on his 383 snaps last season and I think he’ll continue to build on that success in the Saints’ new 3-4 scheme. He should be stout against the run on early downs while providing a pass rushing presence in sub-packages. Hicks will be a big part of the Saints’ defense this season.
Ben: Steven Jackson may have been brought in to start and take Michael Turner’s spot in the offense, but I don’t think he’s going to dominate the snaps in the Falcons’ backfield. I can see Jacquizz Rodgers being a very important part of the Atlanta offense this season for his work in both the run and pass games as the Falcons continue to strive for that much needed balance in their offense. He’s small but he has power to go with his quicks and he’s a good pass protector as well. The fanfare comes for Jackson, but I think Rodgers is going to be as important and steal the show on occasion for the Falcons this season.
2. The over/unders are Atlanta 10, Carolina 7, New Orleans 9 and Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7.5. Which team would you put your theoretical $100 on?
Khaled: I really like the moves Carolina have made. They’ve got one heck of a front seven and judging by preseason they’ve upgraded in a big way at defensive tackle (not that it was overly hard for them to). I think this team is going to surprise a lot of people in the NFC South.
Sam: I think people forget how good the Saints are. Last season’s Bounty Scandal ruined their season, and their defense was a disaster, but both of those things could well have changed heading into this year. I’ve never been a huge fan of Rob Ryan’s defenses, but for the first time in a long time New Orleans linebackers don’t all appear totally lost within the scheme. So far this preseason Ramon Humber and David Hawthorne in particular have both graded very well (+3.0 and +3.9 respectively). I think they top nine wins and get back into contention.
Steve: This was a difficult choice, but I’ll go with the Bucs going over 7.5 wins. They’ve added a lot of young talent in recent drafts and I think we’ll start to see the defense make strides in the right direction.
Ben: I’ve not gone for the under in many divisions, but I’m really down on the Buccaneers this season. I would say sorry to Tampa Bay fans but my projections tend to be kind of hit and miss so this could be a good thing for them. The quarterback situation doesn’t look great to me and I don’t think their defense can take a step forward this season. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are stars in the front seven, but having let the likes of Michael Bennett go in the offseason I just don’t see this unit matching what they did last year. I think the Bucs finish in the basement of the NFC South this season with less than 7.5 wins.
3. Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in regular season action?
Khaled: When you play opposite Darrelle Revis you’re going to get tested. That’s the case for Johnthan Banks, the second-round pick who has had some good and bad moments during preseason. How he holds up could have a big impact on the team’s defense.
Sam: I’m getting pretty interested by what I’ve seen of Kenny Vaccaro. He breaks on deep square-in routes faster than any safety I can think of. What makes that even more interesting is that over preseason he seems to be getting even closer to them. That’s a route that pretty much always defeats a safety, but he’s actually arriving at the same time as the football. I’m really looking forward to seeing if he can translate that kind of burst and closing speed to more than that route and be a real factor in the pass game.
Steve: Lotulelei and Vaccaro possess two of the most intriguing skill sets in the rookie class, but I’ll go with Atlanta’s cornerback duo Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Though Trufant went in the first round, many analysts like Alford better as a player. Either way, at least one of them needs to emerge as a key piece in Atlanta’s secondary. Based on preseason, it looks like Alford has the leg up after grading at +2.2 compared to Trufant’s -3.6.
Ben: After seeing how well he did in preseason against Evan Mathis and Kelechi Osemele, I’m eager to see how Star Lotulelei does for the Panthers this season. The Panthers have been starved of an interior presence on the defensive line for so long that Lotulelei looks like a breath of fresh air for Carolina fans.
4. Who will make the playoffs and can they win it all?
Khaled: I think the Panthers will challenge and fall short, because the Saints and Falcons remain the powerhouses in this division. I see both making it, with Atlanta winning the division but the Saints going further in the preseason. They’re built a little more to bulldoze teams.
Sam: Atlanta are clearly the class of the division but I think the Saints will really push them hard for the crown. In the end I suspect the Falcons will probably take the division, but the Saints won’t be far behind and could look to fight for a tough wild card spot in the NFC.
Steve: I think everyone is picking the Falcons to win the division, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I’ve taken heat for saying they’re going to take a step back this season, but that’s not to say they won’t win the division. They’re still the favorite, but I think a lack of depth in key areas will hurt. I wasn’t high on the Saints bouncing back, but I like some of the youth they’ve added and won’t be surprised if they’re contending for a wild card. I’ve been waiting for the Bucs to finally put it together, but it’s in Josh Freeman’s hands at this point. They’re talented in the right places. Finally the Panthers should be better, and they’ll be right in the mix with Luke Kuechly and Lotulelei have possibly on the doorstep to stardom. Like many of the NFC divisions, this one is very close in talent.
Ben: The Falcons are a team built for regular season success and I think they’re well set for another strong regular season and division title. Their target is the postseason but I don’t see the Falcons as a team that will scrape into the playoffs as a wild card team and then go on a run once the real stuff gets underway. No, I think the Falcons get at least a dozen wins and then fall agonizingly short in the playoffs once again. For a wildcard spot, the Saints I think bounce back this year with the stability of Sean Payton on the sideline. The offense will propel them to enough wins to make the playoffs but the defense will hold them back from truly competing.