By Will Robinson


Next up, here’s my NFC South preview. As always, check out my previous previews (Note: projected records have been removed and will return in my season forecast/playoff predictions. I’m still working out who I want in the post-season, and I want the records to add up correctly):

AFC West

NFC West

AFC South

Atlanta Falcons

2010 Record: 13-3

Notable Additions: Julio Jones (WR), Ray Edwards (DE)

Notable Team Free Agents/Possible Departures: Harvey Dahl (G), Michael Koenen (P), Michael Jenkins (WR)

Strengths: Offensive balance, young offensive line, special teams

Weaknesses: Playmaking depth, defensive backs

2010 Season Summary: In my estimation, most people had the Falcons making the playoffs last year, maybe even winning the NFC South. But 13 games? That was an impressive season: They maybe even overachieved a bit (in terms of FBO’s metric for estimated wins). But hey, that’s why the games are played. You gotta love playing the NFC West. Even though they were embarrassed in the their first home playoff games since #7 was their starting quarterback, the season had to be considered a success; they won their division; quarterback Matt Ryan emerged out of his inconsistent sophomore year; and wide receiver Roddy White had the best year of his career. The offensive line helped a lot in the pass game; Ryan was sacked 23 times, a decent number. The run game wasn’t what it was two years ago, but Michael Turner burned defenses for 1,300+ yards and 12 touchdowns. The offense’s problems arose when opposing defenses blanketed White, forcing Ryan to find another target. Tony Gonzalez is definitely on the tail end of his career as he just didn’t get his numbers like he used to in Kansas City. Defensively, they had the fifth best mark in points allowed (18.0/games) and was FBO’s 12th best squad. Yardage-wise, they had problems slowing down passing teams, which came back to haunt them in the playoffs. Defensive end John Abraham had another outstanding All-Pro year with 13 sacks and a sweet pick. Other than Abraham, Curtis Lofton had a strong year and Brent Grimes was a beast playing corner and special teams, but the defense did not have many other standout players; they were a solid team unit.

2011 Prospects: The biggest move the Falcons made since the end of their 2010 season was trading up to draft wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft. General manager Thomas Dimitroff – who seems like an interesting guy – made a ballsy move moving up that far in the draft to add a crucial piece to their offense. If Jones turns out to be as great as scouts think he can be, then Atlanta will have a scary offense. With two elite receivers and a top-flight running back led by a premier young signal caller, I’m not sure how a defense could effectively cover every body. The one thing that intrigues me about the NFC South is how the other teams play this year, namely the Buccaneers and Saints (sorry, Panther fans). Tampa Bay is ridiculously young and had a good last season, and I think they can build on their 2010 performance. New Orleans has added some upgraded a couple spots, notably Darren Sproles for Reggie Bush and fortifying their defensive line with Aubrayo Franklin. The Ray Edwards’ signing was a nice move to try to find a complement/replacement to the aging Abraham and to give their pass rush another dimension. I am a little concerned on what they have, or haven’t, done with their secondary. Grimes broke out last year, cornerback Dunta Robinson was decent to good and safety Thomas DeCoud was too, but as the Packers proved, they’re not a threatening secondary. The Falcons will definitely be a title contender, but I’m not sure if they’ll be a division-winner or Wild Card team yet.

Sleeper Fantasy Player to Have: Julio Jones (WR)

Fantasy Bust to Avoid: Matt Ryan (QB)

 

Carolina PanthersCam-Newton-Carolina-Panthers

2010 Record: 2-14

Notable Additions: Cam Newton (QB), Ron Edwards (DT), Olindo Mare (K), Greg Olsen (TE), Legedu Naanee (WR)

Notable Team Free Agents/Possible Departures: Richard Marshall (CB), Donte Rosario (TE), Matt Moore (QB), John Kasay (K)

Strengths: Running backs, they were decent on the defense and…

Weaknesses: …wow, where to start?

2010 Season Summary: I am sorry for all the Panthers fans that had to endure last year. Man, that must have been rough. Honestly, it’s not like the Panthers had expectations to be amazing; they were coming off an 8-8 season. But last in points, yards and wins? Ick. They only averaged 143 passing yards per game – that’s insane! They did have Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore, but come on! That was atrocious. To give some kind of a break, they were riddled with injured bodies. For example: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Dan Connor all missed a decent amount of time (Stewart was only two games, Williams 10, Connor eight). Jon Beason was just about the only discernible positive from last year as he made another Pro Bowl. But after him? There was not much to inspire hope for the Carolina faithful. The only games Carolina won were against the lowly NFC West Cardinals and 49ers. I am really having trouble trying to articulate how poorly Carolina played last year, even with a hard schedule in playing the AFC North and their division, so I think I must stop now.

2011 Prospects: Really, anything above three wins has got to be seen as a success with a new quarterback and head coach. Owner Jerry Richardson hired former Charger defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to helm the ship, and they drafted 2010 Heisman Trophy Winner Cam Newton to be the face of the franchise. They have re-signed many of their key guys to long term deals, even if the contracts are slightly ridiculous (Charles Johnson is now the highest paid defender in the league? Really? Please). Looking ahead to their schedule, they are worse off than last year; they drew the NFC North (uh oh) and the AFC South – two divisions with every team more talented than Carolina. Newton will assuredly start right away; I don’t see how they could be rolling out Derek Anderson to start the year (even though as we learned in the NFC West previews, he takes this sh*t serious). Just to be nice to the Panther fans, I’ll add on one win from last year, so it seems like they improved.

Sleeper Fantasy Player to Have: No

Fantasy Bust to Avoid: DeAngelo Williams (RB)

 

New Orleans Saints

2010 Record: 11-5

Notable Additions: Cameron Jordan (DE), Mark Ingram (RB), Will Herring (LB), Darren Sproles (RB), Fabian Washington (CB), Aubrayo Franklin (DT), Olin Kreutz (C)

Notable Team Free Agents/Possible Departures: Reggie Bush (RB), Remi Ayodele (DT), Jonathan Goodwin (C)

Strengths: Prolific passing game (Drew Breeeeeeeeeeeeeees and company), cornerbacks, offensive line

Weaknesses: Tackling (remember that Marshawn Lynch video? Yeah)

2010 Season Summary: Coming off one of the feel good Super Bowl victories of Super Bowl victories, the Saints set out to kick ass and take names towards another title. While they put together a pretty good regular season showing, the Saints (obviously) did not achieve their goal of being the first repeat champions since New England in 2004-05. They started out rough, winning only four of their first seven games and losing to the Browns at home (watch at your own risk: ugly football). However, after that game, they finished the season with a strong 7-2 record, including W’s over Pittsburgh and Atlanta and outscoring their opponents by an average of 18.7 points per game. Drew Brees had more interceptions than people are accustomed seeing, but he still compiled a great year with 4,620 yards, 33 touchdowns and thanks to his line, Brees was only sacked 25 times. The run game was effective some of the time, but it was really lacking compared to their Super Bowl winning year. Part of this was due to Pierre Thomas’ injury, but also Chris Ivory’s emergence/injury slowed down their run game. Defensively, they were good at both stopping the run and pass; players like Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter, Malcom Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper rounded out a very impressive regular season squad. But once they were “locked in” by many people to roll through Seattle, that’s when things turned south: Their defense fell apart as they lost a 41-36 game. Their season was over.

2011 Prospects: Fortunately for NOLA fans, I like where they are going this year. The Saints have made some very crucial transactions in free agency, such as replacing running back Reggie Bush with Darren Sproles and stealing defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin from San Francisco. They added to their defense with Cam Jordan in the draft and restocked their backfield with 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. I’m really excited to see what the Saints can do this year; I think they’re pretty pissed they went out easy last year, and that’s what sparked head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to make certain moves (mostly trading Bush, signing Sproles and Franklin). Week 1 they’ll be tossed into the fire (read: ice) of Lambeau Field to start the season off, followed by games against Chicago, Houston and Jacksonville. They’ll have a decent schedule this year, but I think the team is ready to make another superb regular season and Super Bowl run. I don’t like betting against Payton and Brees, so I’ll pass up the opportunity to do so now.

Sleeper Fantasy Player to Have: Jimmy Graham (TE)

Fantasy Bust to Avoid: Mark Ingram (RB) [way too much running back depth for me to see Ingram get a significant carry disparity compared to the other backs on the roster]

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2010 Record: 10-6

Notable Additions: Adrian Clayborn (DE), Daquan Bowers (DE), Michael Koenen (P)

Notable Team Free Agents/Possible Departures: Barrett Ruud (LB), Cadillac Williams (RB)

Strengths: YOUTH!!!, JAAASH FREEMAN!, run game,

Weaknesses: Run defense (probably the worst in the league), inexperience

2010 Season Summary: Man oh man was I wrong about the Bucs last year. I think I picked them going 3-13 at the best, and obviously, they won seven more games than the same dummy working on predictions for this season. So yeah! The highlight of last year’s Bucs was undoubtedly the emergence of Josh Freeman. Freeman, who was the third quarterback picked in the 2009 draft, has by far been the most statistically productive of his class. Freeman burned defenses to the tune of 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He also had the second lowest touchdown to interception ratio, second to 2010 MVP Tom Brady. A key to Freeman’s success was rookie wide out Mike Williams, who fell down draft boards due to “character concerns,” and was the best receiver in his class. Undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount, who encountered his fair share of criticism attacking his moral fiber due to one incident in his senior year (that you’ve all seen approximately 5671958109 times by now), was the best regular season rookie running back in 2010. With all this youth on offense, they seem so promising, but don’t forget their defense. When head coach Raheem Morris took the job in 2009, he cut ties with various veterans on the team, including all-time Buccaneers great Derrick Brooks. He filled the roster with a good balance of talented youth and some decent veteran backups and now, he has a very good core. Aqib Talib – off the field issues be damned – is one of the great young corners in the NFL; Ronde Barber still contributes as the other corner at age 36; Brian Price and Gerald McCoy should be a young tandem inside that should only be bested by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit; and Stylez G. White has one of the best names ever. They fell one game shy of the playoffs as they had some troublesome games and growing pains through the year, but last year was a giant positive for the Buccaneers organization.

2011 Prospects: While I just spent 300+ words gushing about Tampa Bay, I think they are still a year away, if only for the reason that the top of the NFC is so good this year, especially the NFC South; I really cannot foresee the Bucs making it as the second Wild Card team this season. That being said, I think they will still have a very nice season on their hands – there’s no rush in Tampa. Another year to wait to compete will certainly not hurt this team. They drafted two great pass rushing prospects in Clayborn and Bowers who could step in and contribute some. The player that intrigues me most is Bowers, because he was the consensus number one pick in January and fell to Tampa Bay in the second round. That fall immediately dropped the high expectations for Bowers and softened the financial risk the Bucs would take with him; I loved that pick. I have no doubt these young Bucs will be good, but with the strength of their conference and their schedule (NFC North, AFC South), they will not be playing past January 1 this season.

Sleeper Fantasy Player to Have: Arrelious Benn (WR)

Fantasy Bust to Avoid: Kellen Winslow (TE)

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