2014 Scout NFC South Preview

A look at the NFC South heading in to the 2014 season...

Atlanta Falcons
By Bill Shanks, FalconsInsider.com

OUTLOOK: The Falcons have to bounce back from a horrid 4-12 season in 2013. They’ve added three starters on defense through free agency and will now be more of a 3-4 defense. They should be better against the run, but can they rush the passer? Matt Ryan should be better protected this year with the additions on the offensive line, but can his skill people stay healthy? If things fall into place, this team could easily bounce back and be a 10- or 11-win team. If it doesn’t happen, changes will happen next winter.

OFFSEASON: The Falcons had a great free agency period, with Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson being brought in to shore up the defensive line. Jon Asamoah will help Jake Matthews on the right side of the offensive line. They had to get mean and tough on the lines of scrimmage, and they did just that in free agency.

OFFENSE: It’s all about keeping Ryan upright. Matthews will be a star at OT, but the line depends on Sam Baker bouncing back and staying healthy at LT. Can Steven Jackson recover and be a 1000-yard rusher? And can Julio Jones finally stay healthy? Will they miss TE Tony Gonzalez? Those are Important questions for an offense that needs to be potent once again.

DEFENSE:Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan will use more of a 3-4 in his base defense. The rush defense will be better with Soliai and Jackson up front, and Nolan will depend on Kroy Biermann to lead the young linebacking unit. William Moore will now lead the secondary, as Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford start their second year.

SCHEDULE: The trip to London in late October to play the Lions highlights the schedule. Having New Orleans at home in week one makes the opener even more important. The challenge will be in December, when they play at Green Bay, then host Pittsburgh, followed by division games against New Orleans and Carolina. They’ll go six weeks without playing in Atlanta in midseason.

ROOKIES: From all accounts, Matthews is a beast, just a great draft pick. He’ll eventually move to left tackle. Can Ra’Shede Hageman make a difference on the DL right away? He’ll be given the shot. The Falcons took four linebackers, and with Akeem Dent released and Sean Weatherspoon out for the season, more than one will be needed to contribute.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... Matt Ryan stays healthy and his skill players (Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson) stay off IR. The line of scrimmage will protect Ryan more, so he’s got to have his skill players do great things. Also, the defense must be better. If the 3-4 clicks, the rush defense will be drastically improved.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Matt Ryan

MVP - Offense:
QB Matt Ryan

MVP - Defense:
DT Paul Soliai

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DE Jonathan Massaquoi

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Matt Ryan

OVERRATED:
DE Osi Umenyiora

SWAN SONG:
RB Steven Jackson

ROOKIE STUD:
OT Jake Matthews

ROOKIE DUD:
S Dez Southward

BEST FA SIGNING:
DT Paul Soliai

WORST FA SIGNING:
S Dwight Lowery

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
S Thomas DeCoud

TEAM TO BEAT:
New Orleans Saints

MUST-WIN GAME:
New Orleans

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
New Orleans Saints

Carolina Panthers
PanthersInsider.com

OUTLOOK: The Panthers come off a 2013 campaign in which they shocked most of the NFL world, winning 11 of their final 12 contests following a 1-3 start. The team lost to the 49ers in the NFC divisional round and was subsequently gutted in free agency. Due to salary-cap restraints, the team was forced to cut veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, causing an uproar among fans. The Panthers have an extremely large hill to climb if they want to repeat last year’s success and compete for the NFC South crown.

OFFSEASON: Carolina lost a number of quality players in free agency, including Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell and Jordan Senn. In addition, offensive linemen Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers all retired. Safety Roman Harper was a solid pickup to fill a serious position of need but, overall, free agency and retirement depleted this roster.

OFFENSE: The Panthers will be working in a new offensive line, and their top receiving threat is a rookie. The onus will be on QB Cam Newton, even more so than most years, to carry the offense. He’ll need to piece together a competent passing attack utilizing TE Greg Olsen and rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, while relying on the ground game to carry the offense. 

DEFENSE:The Panthers lost their starting safeties this offseason, but the defense should remain one of the most feared in the NFC. The club franchised Greg Hardy, solidifying one of the most dominant defensive lines in the league. With Luke Kuechly tackling everything that moves, this unit should once again be a dominant force in the NFC South.

SCHEDULE: The NFC South is going to be tough top to bottom this year, with the Buccaneers and Falcons ready to compete. The Panthers also have a tough non-divisional slate against the AFC South, including road contests against the Ravens and Bengals, and the NFC North. Three of their final four games are against divisional opponents, a stretch that will likely decide Carolina’s fate.

ROOKIES: The Panthers selected one of the biggest receivers in the draft, FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240). He had just one year of production in college, but he’ll need to step in and fill Steve Smith’s shoes immediately. Second-round DE Kony Ealy is a potential long-term replacement for Greg Hardy, while third-round G Trai Turner and fourth-round S Tre Boston will get the opportunity to start in their rookie seasons.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... The offense can withstand losing so many key players. Newton and the run game must play at an elite level if they plan on keeping pace with the Saints. If the passing attack flutters, that will be nearly impossible. Additionally, the defense must once again be one of the best in the league. If they can’t carry the team, the Panthers will struggle to repeat last year’s success.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Cam Newton

MVP - Offense:
QB Cam Newton

MVP - Defense:
LB Luke Kuechly

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DT Kawann Short

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Cam Newton

OVERRATED:
RB Jonathan Stewart

SWAN SONG:
DT Dwan Edwards

ROOKIE STUD:
WR Kelvin Benjamin

ROOKIE DUD:
DE Kony Ealy

BEST FA SIGNING:
S Roman Harper

WORST FA SIGNING:
WR Jerricho Cotchery

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
CB Captain Munnerllyn

TEAM TO BEAT:
New Orleans Saints

MUST-WIN GAME:
New Orleans Saints

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Atlanta Falcons

New Orleans Saints
SaintsInsider.com

OUTLOOK: The NFC South was born in 2002 with the advent of the NFL’s eight-division format. In the previous 12 years, there has never been a repeat champ. That streak figures to continue, with the Saints favored to dethrone Carolina. QB Drew Brees, with an unprecedented three consecutive 5,000-yard seasons, leads a team that had the NFC’s fourth-best point differential last season. In his first year as defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan’s unit went from 32nd in yards allowed to fourth. New Orleans and Green Bay are tied for the NFC lead with 55 wins since 2009.

OFFSEASON: The Saints added two big pieces to the puzzle. First, they dramatically upgraded their defense by signing safety Jairus Byrd away from Buffalo.  He has 22 interceptions in five seasons, including four in 11 games last year for Buffalo. Second, they gave Brees an explosive new toy in receiver Brandin Cooks. He’s just what the doctor ordered after the team traded away Darren Sproles.

OFFENSE: The offense revolves around Brees, who was brilliant yet again, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for a whopping 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns. He has to be good, because the running game is putrid, with back-to-back No. 25 rankings. Mark Ingram is bordering on being a first-round bust. Leading rusher Pierre Thomas averaged just 3.7 per carry with a long of 18.

DEFENSE:Ryan was a brilliant addition after being canned by Dallas; the Saints went from 380 points allowed in 2012 to 274 in 2013. The pass rush is dominant, with Cameron Jordan (12.5) and Junior Galette (12.0) combining for 24.5 of the Saints’ 49 sacks. Byrd joins last year’s top pick, Kenny Vaccaro, to potentially give the Saints a Seahawks-style pair of dominant safeties.

SCHEDULE: The Saints should get off to a strong start, facing the Falcons, Browns and Vikings to start the season. The key stretch comes after a Week 6 bye: at Detroit, home vs. Green Bay, at Carolina and a three-game homestand against San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore. The regular season ends at home against Atlanta and at Tampa Bay, two teams that should be improved.

ROOKIES: Watch out for Cooks, who could be dominant in the slot. With so much attention paid to elite tight end Jimmy Graham and towering receiver Marques Colston, Cooks could provide a major impact, especially with his breakaway speed on the fast track of the Superdome. Can linebacker Khiari Fortt (fourth round), safety Vinnie Sunseri (fifth round) and linebacker Ronald Powell (fifth round) stay healthy?

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... Brees’ arm doesn’t fall off. This team is the class of the NFC South by a wide margin. Reigning champion Carolina doesn’t have a receiver. Tampa Bay should be better than 4-12 with Lovie Smith, but does it have a quarterback? Atlanta also should be better after its stunning 4-12 record last year. Still, it’s hard to imagine any team improving enough to catch the Saints.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Drew Brees

MVP-OFFENSE
QB Drew Brees

MVP-DEFENSE
DE Cameron Jordan

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
S Kenny Vaccaro

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Drew Brees

OVERRATED:
RB Mark Ingram

SWAN SONG:
CB Champ Bailey

ROOKIE STUD:
WR Brandin Cooks

ROOKIE DUD:
S Vinnie Sunseri

BEST FA SIGNING:
S Jairus Byrd

WORST FA SIGNING:
CB Champ Bailey

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
C Brian De La Puente

TEAM TO BEAT:
Atlanta Falcons

MUST-WIN GAME:
Atlanta Falcons

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Atlanta Falcons

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By Jamie Newberg, BucsBlitz.com

OUTLOOK: It’s a year of transition for the Bucs, as Tampa Bay has a new head coach (Lovie Smith) and General Manager (Jason Licht). The roster is completely revamped, with a ton of turnover, as the Bucs were extremely active in free agency, getting help on both sides of the ball. Of course, it also appears they did very well in the draft, bringing in much-needed help on offense. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the changes, things are quite optimistic in Tampa Bay for a big turnaround.

OFFSEASON: The Bucs were very busy this offseason under Smith and Licht. On offense, they signed their quarterback in Josh McCown and brought in reinforcements up front. Free agent signings DE Michael Johnson and CB Alteraun Verner should be big for the Bucs defense. Several of their draft picks should make huge impacts, like wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Of course, the Bucs had to cut cornerback CB Darrelle Revis to free up salary cap space.

OFFENSE: Tampa Bay should be much improved offensively. It starts up front, where  the Bucs cut dead weight lineman Donald Penn. A healthy OG Carl Nicks will be huge for this unit. Quarterback McCown will have big targets to throw to in wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and tight end Seferian-Jenkins. They have a deep running back group led by Doug Martin, and Jeff Demps could be a huge surprise.

DEFENSE:The Bucs had an anemic pass rush under former coach Greg Schiano. For Smith’s defense to work they have to generate pressure, so everything will be predicated on the front four, most notably ends Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn and tackle Gerald McCoy. The back seven is good, led by one of the game’s top linebackers, Lavonte David. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson should thrive in this system.

SCHEDULE: Tampa Bay plays in the very difficult NFC South, but the Bucs have to figure out a way to have a winning record against these teams. They open the season at home against the Panthers and Rams, so it’s imperative that Tampa Bay gets off to a fast start. The non-division games, at least on paper, look manageable – AFC North, Vikings, and Redskins. One game of note comes on Nov. 23, when former Bears head coach Smith takes his new team to Chicago. The Bucs’ final four games – at Detroit, at Carolina, Green Bay and New Orleans – will provide a stiff challenge.

ROOKIES: For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs went all-offense in the draft, selecting wide receivers Mike Evans and Josh Herron, tight end Seferian-Jenkins, running back Charlie Sims and offensive linemen Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile. Expect all of the skill players to be contributors, especially Evans and Seferian-Jenkins. If Tampa Bay is to have a big season, these rookies will have to make their share of splash plays.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... The offensive line plays well and the defensive front can create consistent pressure. Yeah, there’s a new coaching staff and there has been high turnover on the roster, but if these two units perform well, there’s no reason the Bucs can’t play their way into the playoffs. Of course, they also will have to get good quarterback play from McCown and avoid the injury bug. This is a franchise with very little margin of error, at least in year one for Lovie Smith.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Josh McCown

MVP - Offense:
WR Vincent Jackson

MVP - Defense:
LB Lavonte David

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DE Adrian Clayborn

FAN FAVORITE:
DT Gerald McCoy

OVERRATED:
S Mark Barron

SWAN SONG:
G Carl Nicks

ROOKIE STUD:
WR Mike Evans

ROOKIE DUD:
OT Kevin Pamphile

BEST FA SIGNING:
DE Michael Johnson

WORST FA SIGNING:
CB Mike Jenkins

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
C Jeremy Zuttah

TEAM TO BEAT:
Seattle

MUST-WIN GAME:
Carolina

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
New Orleans


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