Four Questions: NFC South
As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, next up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam – Saints. Almost by default, unfortunately. I think the Panthers have too many holes on their roster and while Atlanta has worked to get tougher I’m just not sure they’ve got a whole lot better. Tampa Bay is the X-factor, but I don’t see the quality at quarterback to get it done over a season. That leaves New Orleans, who should be looking to challenge once more for a Super Bowl. The offense will be good again and the D should finally be good enough to help them out the way it did in 2009 when they went all the way.
Ben – One of the league’s more competitive divisions, especially so with the potential resurgence of the Buccaneers under Lovie Smith, but I still see the New Orleans Saints as the cream of the crop. The offense has refreshed with new weapons and the defense should be as good as it was a season ago at least, plus having a QB like Drew Brees under center never hurts.
Steve – The South is an interesting division as there are two teams with top-notch front-7 potential in the Bucs and Panthers, but their quarterback situations aren’t as strong as the Saints or Falcons. I think the Saints have the edge with Brees at the helm and the Falcons still trying to sort out issues on both lines of scrimmages, at least in the passing game.
Gordon – I like Matt Ryan enough that I could see him carrying Atlanta to the divisional crown, but I just think the Saints are a better all-around team. Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and, despite losing Darren Sproles, I don’t see any reason for them to struggle to put up points again in 2014. The defense has looked better in recent years, and the addition of Jairus Byrd was an incredibly smart one that should see them improve again.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – The Panthers’ offensive line has seen an incredible amount of turnover and the team hasn’t done a whole lot to try and address it. Left tackle Jordan Gross walked away when he was still playing quality football, and the Panthers are looking to replace him with Byron Bell, which it would be fair to call a significant downgrade. Both tackle spots are a worry and the interior outside of Ryan Kalil is unproven. That’s asking a lot of a unit that the Panthers will be relying on to have success on offense.
Ben – If the Bucs are to make a big stride this season then getting a properly functioning offensive line will surely be pivotal in that aim. There has been an overhaul in personnel but the preseason drew mixed reviews. Demar Dotson still looks the class player of the group at right tackle but can the likes of Anthony Collins, Logan Mankins and Evan Dietrich-Smith settle quickly to strengthen the overall unit and give this offense the platform it needs to compete with the Saints?
Steve – The Bucs’ defensive line has a chance to carry the team behind DTs Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald as well as DE Michael Johnson. McCoy was a one-man show last year as our top-rated defensive tackle, and he could be even better with stronger play at 1-technique from McDonald. McCoy was the only positively-graded player on the defensive line in 2013, but that should change this season.
Gordon – Carolina’s receivers. Someone has to catch the ball from Cam Newton and, despite losing Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell, I actually like what the Panthers have done this offseason to try and fix that. Jerricho Cotchery is a solid option over the middle, and showed his worth from the slot for the Steelers a year ago. I’m yet to be convinced that Kelvin Benjamin is the real deal, but I’m intrigued enough by some of the plays we saw him make in preseason that I want to see what he can do in the regular season.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – Kenny Stills isn’t the most physically dominant receiver in the league, but he just makes more plays than most. Drew Brees found a connection with Stills as a rookie and when he threw the ball his way he had a passer rating of 139.3 to lead the NFL. That rating was even higher in the 2013 preseason and though an injury has kept him sidelined for most of this year’s exhibition and could even affect the start of his season, it’s not going to hold him back over 16 games. Brees to Stills is going to be a major connection.
Ben – After a solid season taking over at the midway point as the starting center I expect Joe Hawley to build on that this season. He’s not going to overpower you in the ground game, but he is a very efficient run blocker in terms of positioning, technique and has plenty of fight. The Falcons were criticized last season for a lack of grit, Hawley is lacking in none of that and I expect a very good season at the heart of Atlanta’s line from him.
Steve – Heading into his second year, safety Kenny Vaccaro has a chance to become one of the league’s best, most versatile safeties. He’ll benefit from Jairus Byrd coming over from Buffalo as he allows the Saints to play more single-high coverages as Vaccaro plays to his strengths covering tight ends and slot receivers. Vaccaro came on strong before going down to injury late last season and I expect that he’ll continue his ascent in 2014.
Gordon – Mark Ingram. At one point he looked like a bust, but he ended last season well and I think he’s geared up for a big role in 2014. The backfield is loaded in New Orleans, but the way Ingram performed as 2013 came to an end has me convinced that we’ll see his best season this year.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – The Panthers are going to be leaning on Kelvin Benjamin more than is perhaps fair for a rookie receiver. With Steve Smith leaving town, Benjamin is going to be the guy in Carolina with only Jason Avant and Jericho Cotchery to take attention away from him. He’s a big body, but I have already seen some concerning traits during preseason when teams play him physically. He may take a little bit of adjusting to life in the NFL, and if he does, the Panthers’ passing attack could be in trouble.
Ben – Matt Ryan took a pasting last season, his blindside tackle (Lamar Holmes) let up 76 pressures and after the injury to Sam Baker in preseason the onus is on Jake Matthews to shore up the left side. One player cannot fix an entire offensive line, but if Matthews can give Ryan more confidence that he isn’t going to get hit from behind on a consistent basis, the Falcons’ offense could drag this team back toward the playoffs.
Steve – The Falcons have some major question marks on the defensive line when it comes to rushing the passer, but second-round defensive tackle Rashede Hageman can alleviate some of those concerns. They have a plethora of run pluggers up front, so Hageman can carve out a 400-500 snap niche for himself rushing the passer and that should put him in position to show off his athleticism as a rookie.
Gordon – With Greg Hardy potentially missing time, the Panthers may need Kony Ealy to step up sooner than expected at defensive end. He showed flashes against the run this preseason, but didn’t really excel as a pass rusher, something that he’ll need to do if he is called on to replace Hardy at any point.
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