Can The Saints Maintain Their Hold On The Division?
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New Orleans Saints
Key Additions: LB Curtis Lofton, LB David Hawthorne, DT Brodrick Bunkley, OLB Chris Chamberlain, G Ben Grubbs, WR Nick Toon (draft), DT Akiem Hicks (draft)
Key Departures: WR Robert Meachem, G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter, DT Shaun Rogers, DT Aubrayo Franklin, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB Jonathan Vilma (suspension), Head Coach Sean Payton (suspension)
No matter who’s side you are on, the NFL’s or the New Orleans Saints’, the fact remains that the Saints have a monumental task ahead of them as they prepare to enter 2012 in the wake of a disastrous scandal that has been a major distraction this year. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, you couldn’t think of a worse scenario than what has gone down ever since the allegations of Bounty Gate became public.
The good news is that Drew Brees finally has his contract and the Saints can enter the season with one less distraction than they would have had. New Orleans brass did the right thing in rewarding Brees for all he has done for the organization as well as the city of New Orleans. Now, the players and coaches who are left to pick up the pieces of what has been a big mess will have to get to work and do the best they can with what they’ve got.
Joe Vitt will assume the role of head coach in the wake of Sean Payton’s absence after his 6 game suspension comes to an end. Vitt is very familiar with the Saints’ system, and with Drew Brees at quarterback I don’t see any reason for this offense to slow down very much. The big question mark will be how the defense responds under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Only the Patriots and the Packers gave up more passing yards last season, and the Saints are now without one of their starting cornerbacks from 2011, Tracy Porter, who bolted for Denver. Many will say that the reason behind the Saints giving up so many passing yards to opponents is simply because they are ahead by so many points so often, resulting in high-flying shootouts. While this is partially true, it’s not the whole truth. The Saints gave up 24 passing touchdowns while just intercepting 9 balls in 2011, a big drop off from the 2009 Super Bowl roster that was so adept at forcing turnovers in key moments.
The pass rush was also atrocious for the Saints in 2011. No player on the roster had more than 7 sacks on the season (Will Smith). With a limited number of draft picks in 2012, the Saints were unable to address that area of concern on the defense.
The Saints did, to their credit, do a good job of preparing for life without Jonathan Vilma by pilfering Curtis Lofton away from the Falcons as well as signing David Hawthorne of the Seahawks. Another key signing was the addition of Brodrick Bunkley, who should do wonders in improving the Saints’ horrific run defense. Overall, New Orleans finished 12th in the NFL in rush yards allowed, but that was simply due to a low number of attempts. Opposing running backs averaged 5 yards per carry on the porous rush defense in New Orleans. Hopefully, the addition of Bunkley and others, along with a defensive coordinator who won’t simply all of his linebackers and safeties every single play, will drive that number down.
The Falcons and the Panthers are both popular picks to unseat the Saints as kings of the NFC South. I’m not so sure. With Drew Brees now under contract, the Saints are free to get to work. While the loss of Jonathan Vilma hurts, the Saints, overall, were able to improve their roster over the 2011 version. The offense is still explosive, and I’d take a Drew Brees-led team over Matt Ryan or 2nd year starter Cam Newton any day. It’s no longer a slam dunk, but its still the Saints’ division to lose.
Prediction: 10-6, 1st place, NFC South
Key Additions: CB Asante Samuel, ILB, Lofa Tatupu, C Peter Konz (draft), OLB Jonathan Massaquoi (draft), FB Brady Ewing (draft)
Key Departures: ILB Curtis Lofton, KR Eric Weems, S James Sanders, FB Ovie Mughelli, OLB Mike Peterson
The Falcons went 10-6 in 2011, good enough to make the playoffs once again, but once again, they acted like they didn’t belong there once they arrived. The Falcons looked like they were playing way out of their league against the New York Giants, who essentially shut down the entire Atlanta offense.
I’m not a big fan of what Atlanta has done (or should we say, hasn’t done) this offseason to make things any better. The roster, for the most part, is exactly the same as it was in 2011. Asante Samuel was added, but he’s old and past his prime. The loss of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was the heart and soul of this defense, to the division rival Saints is a big blow, as well.
If that weren’t enough, even their kick returner, Eric Weems, who was outstanding during his time in Atlanta, departed for the Chicago Bears. Why the Bears signed Weems with Devin Hester on their roster, I don’t know. Maybe Lovie Smith just hates Mike Smith and wanted to kick dirt in his face. Regardless, the Falcons have their work cut out for them in the NFC South. If anyone thinks the Saints are going to roll over and head the division to Atlanta, they are fooling themselves.
The Falcons passing offense did improve in 2011, as they finished 8th in the NFL in total passing. Matt Ryan had a solid year, but he has yet to escape “poor playoff performer” label in his NFL career. The progression of Julio Jones should help things even more, but one has to wonder whether or not Matt Ryan has that “it” factor when it comes to crunch time. He has yet to prove that he does.
Defensively, the strength of the Falcons in 2011 was their rush defense. Atlanta finished 6th in the NFL in rush yards allowed, but again, the defection of Curtis Lofton could mean a regression in that area. The Falcons did little to address the defense side of the ball in the draft, instead choosing to address the offensive line by selecting Peter Konz, a center, with its first draft pick.
Atlanta finished 20th in the NFL in pass defense in 2011. Atlanta acquired Asante Samuel for peanuts; a 6th round draft pick from the Eagles. If Samuel still has something left in the tank, he could give the secondary a big boost, and boy do they need it in the NFC South. With Drew Brees and Cam Newton in the division, the necessity of a strong secondary cannot be understated.
My biggest concern for Atlanta might be their lack of a legitimate pass rush. John Abraham can still bring it, but he’s 34 years old and has got to slow down at some point. Outside of Abraham, there are no other pass rushers to speak of on this roster. That could prove to be a huge problem in 2012. The Falcons registered 33 sacks in 2011, and that number will most likely dip even further in 2012. Atlanta can ill afford to have a down year defensively, because this offense simply isn’t on par with their division rivals.
2012 will be a “prove it” year for Matt Ryan. I think the cards are stacked against him. Management hasn’t done enough to put a Super Bowl-caliber roster on the field, and now Atlanta is stuck with an aging and star-less defense. No, Asante Samue and Dunta Robinson are not stars. John Abraham is, and like I said, he’s 34.
Atlanta has a brutal schedule, with away games against the Panthers, Saints, Chiefs, Chargers, Eagles, and Lions. The Falcons will also get the Giants, Cowboys, Broncos, Saints, and Panthers at home. This is setting up to be a classic letdown season in Atlanta.
Prediction: 8-8, 3rd place, NFC South
Key Additions: RB Mike Tolbert, S Reggie Smith, G Mike Pollack, OT/G Bruce Campbell, LB Luke Kuechly (draft), OT/G Amini Silatolu (draft), DE Frank Alexander (draft), WR Joe Adams (draft), CB Josh Norman (draft)
Key Departures: ILB Dan Connor, OLB Thomas Williams, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Travelle Wharton, RB Mike Goodson, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey
The Carolina Panthers are very, very close to being a legitimate contender. They’ve got a good shot to make some noise this year, but they are still a year or so away from being a threat to go deep in the playoffs. Still, that is saying a lot considering where they were at this time last year.
This time last year, they were coming off a disastrous season that earned them the #1 pick in the draft. With it, they selected Cam Newton, a player that many NFL draft experts had serious doubts about. Could a quarterback like Newton succeed in the NFL? Was he just an athlete playing quarterback, or was he the next coming of Steve Young?
No one is wondering anymore. Cam Newton means business and so do the Carolina Panther. The Panthers wrapped up the 2011 campaign as the 7th ranked offense in the NFL, including the #3 rushing offense with 150 rush yards per game. That was mostly because of the triple-headed monster that is Cam Newton, Deangelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers have a variety of looks they can throw at defensive coordinators, and it is virtually impossible to have a flawless game plan to shut down a player like Newton, who can create and improvise with the best of them.
Despite the impressive offensive numbers, though, Carolina finished with a 6-10 record thanks to their terrible defense. Granted, the defense is young, and nobody expected them to be very good in 2011, so the Panthers made it a point of emphasis to get better up front this offseason. Linebacker Luke Keuchly was drafted in the 1st round to bring some stability to the middle of the Carolina defense, and Kuechly is just the type of defense leader Carolina lacked. He is a football player in every sense of the word that simply makes plays. The Panthers are hoping Kuechly can help improve the NFL’s 28th ranked defense from 2011.
The biggest weakness for Carolina in 2011, though, was their secondary. The Panthers surrendered a preposterous 8.4 yards per pass attempt to opposing quarterbacks in 2011. In other words, they got beat deep and beat deep often. What’s so startling about that is that starting cornerback Chris Gamble was so good last year. Gamble allowed just a 45% completion percentage on balls thrown his way and opposing passers’ quarterback rating was 53.3 when targeting Gamble. So what gives? Captain Munnerlyn and Darius Butler, that’s what. Together, the pair surrendered 79 catches for 1,076 yards, 8 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. To be blunt, they were horrendous. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman was the only corner brought in to challenge the inept Munnerlyn and Butler, and he was simply a 3rd day pick.
So if you are looking for a reason why the Panthers might be another year away from being a serious playoff contender, look no further than their secondary. Overall, the Panthers should be a very competitive football team in 2012. I expect their offense to by dynamic and their defense to improve, but only slightly. The secondary will be the Achilles heel of the Panthers in 2012. Still, I believe the organization would be quite happy with a three game improvement over last season.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd place, NFC South
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, QB Dan Orlovsky, TE Dallas Clark, CB Eric Wright, DE Jayme Mitchell, DT Amobi Okoye, DT Gary Gibson, S Mark Barron (draft), RB Doug Martin (draft), LB Lavonte David (draft), ILB Najee Goode (draft), CB Keith Tandy (draft)
Key Departures: TE Kellen Winslow Jr., LB Geno Hayes, S Tanard Jackson, SS Sean Jones, QB Josh Johnson, RB Kregg Lumpkin, FB Earnest Graham, C Jeff Faine, DT Albert Haynesworth
Whether you like the moves the Bucs made this offseason or not, you have to give them credit for being aggressive and doing something to improve this football team. General Manager Mark Dominik had lots of cap room to play with and he used it, bringing in two of the biggest fish in the free agency pond in 2012, WR Vincent Jackson and G Carl Nicks.
Expect to see a much, much better offense on the field for Tampa Bay in 2012. Nicks is arguably the best guard in the NFL, while Vincent Jackson finally gives Tampa Bay a legitimate #1 wide receiver. Quarterback Josh Freeman will have no excuses this year if he doesn’t deliver for Tampa Bay with a bounce back season.
The selection of running back Doug Martin at the end of the 1st round of the 2012 NFL Draft was an excellent one, as well. Martin has a chance to be a Ray Rice-type of difference maker in Tampa Bay. He, along with road grading guard Carl Nicks, should boost what was the 30th ranked rushing offense in the NFL in 2011. Martin will split carries with LeGarrette Blount and may eventually take over the starting roll if Blount continues his inconsistent ways.
Defensively, the Bucs selected Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the draft. Barron should pay immediate dividends with his playmaking ability and his ability to force turnovers and make things happen. Keep an eye on linebacker Lavonte David, Tampa Bay’s 2nd round selection, as well. David may be undersized for his position (235 lbs), but he just might be the fastest linebacker in the NFL this season. He flies all over the field and is constantly near the ball carrier.
Tampa Bay’s defense will have some fun times this season, but the good will probably outweigh the bad. Despite the presence of a few additional, young playmakers, this defense still has a long way to go before they have a chance of being good. The cornerback position is one of concern in Tampa Bay. Aqib Talib, as far as we know, is set to play in 2012, as his felony aggravated assault case in Dallas was dismissed. Ronde Barber will be back for yet another go-round, but at 37 years of age his skills are declining.
The Bucs signed corner Eric Wright away from the Detroit Lions this offseason, but I have huge questions as to the intelligence of that move. Wright was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL in 2011, period. Wright gave up 75 receptions, more than any other corner in the NFL, in 2011 while playing for the Lions. He did intercept 4 passes, but when you consider he was targeted 120 times, that’s not very impressive.
Tampa Bay got beat through the air badly in 2011, much like the Carolina Panthers, surrendering 8.2 yards per pass attempt. That’s an abomination. The Bucs also allowed 30 touchdown passes, 3rd most in the NFL.
Then there’s the rush defense. Tampa Bay finished dead last in the NFL in rush defense in 2011, allowing just under 2,500 yards on the ground to the tune of 5.0 yards per carry. Opposing offensive coordinators could have given Tampa Bay their playbook and they still couldn’t have stopped them on the ground. Free agents such as DT’s Amobi Okoye and Gary Gibson, along with draft picks Lavonte David (OLB) and Najee Goode (ILB), were brought in to help relieve their defense woes. Additionally, former 1st round pick Gerald McCoy is expected back from injury. If he can live up to his pre-draft expectations this season, he could have a dramatic impact on the success of Tampa Bay’s defense, but is one big “If”. Some of these players should help, but I still expect Tampa’s rush defense to be among the worst in the NFL this season.
As far as the pass rush goes, Tampa Bay can only cross their fingers that it gets better in 2012. Tampa recorded 23 sacks in 2011, the fewest of any team in the NFL. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn did have a fantastic season in 2011, though, notching 7.5 of those 23 sacks. The Bucs are hoping that he and defensive end Michael Bennett can continue to grow and mature as pass rushers, because there’s no one outside those two who poses any threat to opposing quarterbacks.
The Buccaneers aren’t going to win very many games in 2012. There are simply too many holes on this roster and too many question marks. Among them are whether or not Josh Freeman can be a starting quarterback in the NFL, the effectiveness of what should be a mess of a situation at cornerback, and the health and impact of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. If all three of those situations turn in Tampa Bay’s favor, I could see the Bucs winning 8 games. If not, well….
Prediction: 5-11, 4th place, NFC South