2011 NFL Preview: NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints, 13-3.

The Saints 2010 season was considered a failure, even though they still won 11 games, scoring 24 points per contest and averaging 372 yards per game. However, almost every game was a struggle, as they had to eek out several close wins to finish 11-5. And of course, the Seahawks shocked the NFL world by defeating the champs in the first round of the playoffs.

The Saints certainly were not content with complacency, as they made several moves in hopes to recapture that 2009 magic. They drafted Mark Ingram, who looks great so far in pre season and will give the Saints their most reliable early down back since Deuce McAllister. They cut Jeremy Shockey, which opens up snaps for Jimmy Graham, who exploded to end the season and has not slowed down this pre season. He looks like a future Pro Bowl tight end who will cause match up problems all over the place. That's all Drew Brees needs, another pass catcher to go with the great quartet of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore. Unfortunately for the Saints, only about two of those guys are healthy at any given time, and that looks to be the case this year.

The offense starts and ends with Drew Brees, however. He had what was considered a down season, throwing 22 interceptions and only converting 7 yards per pass attempt. But he played with a strained MCL all season and that could have contributed to his struggles. Still, throwing for 33 touchdowns and 4600 yards during a "down year" is still pretty good.

The offensive line is hit and miss. The interior might be the best in the league, with stud guards Jhari Evans and Carl Nicks and long time Bear Olin Kreutz taking over at center. The tackles could cause some trouble though, as Jermon Bushrod and Zach Streif are not that great.

The defense once again played solid in 2010, allowing less then 20 points per game. But they failed to cause turnovers and couldn't really get to the quarterback. And of course they unraveled in the playoffs as Matt Hasselbeck and Marshawn Lynch destroyed them. Several key defenders struggled or got hurt in last year, including Will Smith (only 6 sacks), Jonathan Vilma (injuries, lack of production), Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins.

If the defense can stay healthy, they should prove to be a strength in 2011. Newly signed Aubrayo Franklin was a huge pickup. He should really solidify the run defense, and Saints fans will love to see him after suffering through Remi Ayodeli last year. Sedrick Ellis, Alex Brown and Will Smith all excel at getting to the quarterback and could see their production increase with Franklin in there clogging up the lanes. Cameron Jordan was a first round draft pick but I expect we won't hear his name much. He is definitely a project. Free agent addition Shaun Rogers also provides some solid depth.

Edit: As I was about to submit this, I saw the Saints cut Alex Brown. So they must be pretty confident that Jordan is ready to produce.

The secondary should be a strength if their deep assortment of corners can actually stay healthy. Porter and Greer are one of the top duos in the NFL, and Patrick Robinson gained valuable experience last year and should be a solid nickel corner.

The weakness of the defense is definitely the linebacking group. It seems for years that they have had to throw out below average outside linebackers, hoping some stick. Well, once again a plethora of no names will try to win a couple of jobs and provide some production so Jonathan Vilma doesn't have to do it all.

Overall I think the Saints are on the short list of preseason sure fire Super Bowl contenders, along with the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, Packers and Falcons. The team is deep and scary on offense and the defense should bounce back under Gregg Williams. They had a solid draft that should pay immediate dividends and added some key veteran free agents at areas of need. The team suffered through so many injuries last year, and unfortunately it looks like the injuries are already there in 2011, but I think a Super Bowl trip is highly possible.

2. Atlanta Falcons, 11-5.

The Atlanta Falcons traded a boatload of picks to take Julio Jones. They then had Matt Ryan throw over 40 times in one half of a preseason game. I guess it is safe to say the training wheels are officially off, and the Falcons are going to air it out. It is a good strategy, since they have one of the best receivers in the league in Roddy White, a good offensive line and a quarterback who can make every throw. And Michael Turner has been run into the ground the last two years, so they may have to throw it every down anyways.

Matt Ryan had his best season in 2010, throwing for 28 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. Expect him to reach the 30's in touchdowns and over 4,000 yards now that he has the reins to throw it more. Jones will hope to be the possession over the middle guy that Michael Jenkins failed to be during his Falcons career. He will have to provide some toughness because Tony Gonzalez will be back, even though he really can't do anything anymore. It has been painful to watch him in the pre season so far.

It will be interesting to see if Turner falls off too much. It is well documented that players who lead the league in carries usually struggle the following year. Turner has carried the ball an amazing 21 times per game during his three year Falcons career, basically making up for all the part time work he did as Ladainian Tomlinson's backup. The Falcons brought back Jason Snelling and drafted the exciting Jacquizz Rodgers, but expect Turner to remain the main back as long as he can stay healthy.

The Falcons defense played well in 2010, and they got even better this season with the addition of Ray Edwards. He helps form a great pass rushing trio with holdovers John Abraham and Kroy Biermann. The tackles should be solid as well once Peria Jerry rounds into playing shape. Jonathan Babineaux is a good all around tackle.

The back seven has some question marks. The best players the Falcons have to offer at those positions are Curtis Lofton, Deunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and Stephen Nicolas. The rest of the defense is full of young players who could step up this year, most notably Sean Weatherspoon and Thomas DeCoud. The secondary is still the weak link on this team, as Aaron Rodgers took them to the woodshed last January.

The Falcons have done a great job of turning the page on the Michael Vick chapter and rebuilding this team around Matt Ryan. They have a high octane offense and a defense that can get to the quarterback. They had the best record in the NFC by two games last year but got absolutely embarrassed by a red hot Packers team in the playoffs. They now get a first place schedule and get to play all of the NFC heavyweights, including the Saints twice. Another 13 win campaign looks unlikely but I think a trip to the playoffs should happen. The Falcons have to be considered one of the favorites for a Super Bowl appearance, but they have to show they can win in the playoffs first.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 6-10.

The Buccaneers shocked everyone, including me, in 2010 by making a strong playoff push despite starting 10 rookies. Yes, 10 rookies. That is amazing to me. This team is full of young talent on both sides of the ball. But as you can see by the record I gave them, I don't think they are a 10 win team yet.  They notched wins against the Browns, Panthers twice, Bengals, Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, Redskins and Seahawks before knocking off the Saints the last week of the season. That is a who's who of teams picking in the top 10 of the 2011 NFL draft. I will give the Bucs credit. They beat the teams they were supposed to be en route to a 10-6 season. 

Lets start with Josh Freeman, who was the main reason the Bucs were so good in 2010.  He went from 19 interceptions as a rookie to only 6 last year. He threw 25 touchdowns and even ran for almost 400 yards. Simply put, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league last year. He has shown tremendous leadership ability and could wind up being the best quarterback the Bucs have ever had. I am shocked to say that, as I thought there was roughly a 3% chance he would make a good NFL quarterback.

His top receiver was rookie Mike Williams, a rookie with first round talent who fell to the third round due to off the field concerns. He was spectacular as a rookie, covering almost 1000 yards and hauling in 11 touchdowns. Kellen Winslow and Arrelious Benn are his other two main targets. Neither player is particularly healthy at the moment (or ever) and depth is a major concern.

LaGarrette Blount went from punching a player in college to getting cut by the Titans in preseason to becoming a 1000 yard running back for the Buccaneers. Is he the real deal? He looked the part last year, plowing through and hurdling over defenders on his way to a tremendous year. But we have seen flash in the pan runners before. Steve Slaton and Anthony Thomas come to mind.

The defense is the reason I don't think the Bucs will reach .500. The team could not get to the quarterback or stop the run last year, finishing near the very bottom in both categories. They have done what they can to improve the line, using their top two picks last year on defensive tackles and their top two picks this year on defensive ends. Gerald McCoy was no Ndamukong Suh, but he improved as the year went along and should be a key piece on defense this year. Brian Price, however, had a weak season and is suffering through some injuries. Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers were both considered top 10 draft picks at some point last year. If they can unleash that talent, the line should be in good shape a couple years from now. But I still think they will struggle mightily in 2011.

Aqib Talib and Tenard Jackson are probably Tampa's two best defenders. Jackson returns after a year long suspension, and Talib avoids jail...for now. Tampa's only loss on defense was middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who was a huge liability against the run. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes are two good, young outside linebackers.

The Bucs don't have a cakewalk schedule, and they still have to rely on too many youngsters to make playoff noise. Of course, I thought they were going to be one of the worst teams in football last year, and they proved me wrong. The team could very well do it again.

4. Carolina Panthers, 5-11.

Unlike the Lions, Rams and other recent teams who picked first overall in the draft, the cupboard is not bare in Carolina. The ownership group must agree, since they threw a staggering amount of money to retain their key free agents DeAngelo Williams, Jon Beason, Charles Johnson and Ryan Kalil. Someone might want to tell them that if they have a bad record, they might want to try signing someone elses free agents instead. But if the team can stay healthy they will have a solid foundation to build upon.

It starts with the running game. Williams was signed for too many year sand for too much money, but bringing him back makes the Panthers much better in 2011. It was only three short years ago that the duo of Williams and Jonathan Stewart led the Panthers to 12 wins. The offensive line suffered through massive injuries last year, but when healthy they are one of the best run units in the NFL. Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah are an elite bookend duo, and the interior of Ryan Kalil, Travelle Wharton and Geoff Schwartz are very solid.

Of course, if the play behind center is as pathetic as it was last year it may not matter. This team might have been a playoff contender if Andrew Luck opted to enter the draft, but he didn't, so they had to settle on Cam Newton. He offers serious potential, but is a huge project and quarterbacks like him haven't been extremely successful in the NFL to date. But they had to take him. Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore were simply atrocious last year, and with the new rookie scale it won't be quite as crippling on the franchise if he doesn't pan out.

They might as well run the wishbone, because there is next to nothing at receiver, and that is counting the ex great Steve Smith. Greg Olson was a huge addition however, and the Panthers were able to get him on the cheap since Mike Martz hates tight ends like a cheating wife.

The defense struggled statistically, but that is most likely due to the fact that they had to be on the field so much thanks to a putrid offense. Still, the team lacks talent and star power on defense. Losing Julius Peppers hurt badly, even though Charles Johnson stepped up and got to the quarterback 11 times. The team liked what they saw in the one year starter, and gave him a staggering contract extension for 6 years, $76 million. I think it is absolutely insane, but I don't own a football team so what do I know? Johnson will have to do it all this year because the other defensive line players are not very good. Everette Brown has been a bust so far after the Panthers traded a first round pick to take him in the second round.

The secondary is full of relative no names, and there is not much depth to speak of. However, the Panthers have one of the best linebacking groups in the league, led by stud middle linebacker Jon Beason. Of course, if you are any good the Panthers are going to give you a boatload of cash, as they did with Beason to the tune of 5 years, $50 million dollars, a crazy amount for a middle linebacker. The outside is just as good with James Anderson and the mega talented but never healthy Thomas Davis. Dan Connor is one of the best backups in the league and could step in keep the defense moving if anyone gets hurt.

I think the Panthers have talent and should be more respectable in 2011, but it all depends on Cam Newton. If he is as terrible as Clausen was last year they will struggle mightily once again. But if he can keep defenses somewhat honest the running game should flourish behind a great offensive line. I still don't see them sniffing the playoffs with such a young group of quarterbacks.

Jonathan Carrano

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