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2013 NFC South Preview 

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This is quite the top heavy division. While you could argue that all four teams could take a step forward just look at the recent history in this division. The Saints and the Falcons have finished the season 1-2 in every season since Jake Delhomme was slinging the ball for the Panthers. Back in 2008 was the last time they didn’t finish 1st and 2nd. That was back when Deangelo Williams ran for 1,500+ yards. Last year Atlanta cruised to the division title as the other three came in with 7-9 records. This year the Saints get their head coach back and maybe some of their mojo. Will they bump the Falcons out of the top slot or could maybe one of the other two surprise us?

How they will finish:

4. Buccaneers 4-12 overall, 0-6 in the division (+500 to win the division)

Last year the Bucs managed to come in at 7-9 despite being the worst team in the NFL at defending the pass. The stats may be a bit deceiving but they managed seven wins partly because they played the schedule of a 4-12 team and partly because they had the number one rush defense. Of course with a secondary that bad why bother testing them on the ground?

This year there is some hype surrounding this team. For whatever reason people want this team to succeed. The Bucs were somewhat aggressive this offseason. They traded for Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson, and drafted CB Jonathan Banks to try and patch up that secondary.

While the secondary should be a better overall coverage unit they were really let down by the lack of pressure the front seven put on opposing quarterbacks. They only tallied 27 sacks last year and nine of those were by Michael Bennett who bolted for Seattle this offseason. They have some talented players up front like Da’Quan Bowers, Gerald McCoy, and Adrian Clayborn but those guys need to stay healthy. Bowers and Clayborn missed a combined 19 games last year. While McCoy was able to suit up for all 16 games in 2012 he missed 16 combined games in 2010 and 2011. A key piece for them is manchild William Gholston whom they stole in the 4th round of the draft. The Michigan State product stands at 6’6 and weighs 281 pounds. They are going to need him to step up and get after the quarterback.

If the defensive line and the secondary can stay healthy they should be able to make up for a linebacking crew filled with no-names.

If there wasn’t already enough obstacles for the defense to overcome they will need to make up for a crappy offense. Josh Freeman is overrated and lacks the weapons to throw to. Doug Martin had a fantastic rookie campaign but I’m not about to hand him his “stud” card after one season. Opposing defenses will realize that Freeman’s targets are lackluster and will zone in on stopping him. By lackluster, I of course mean that Tiquan Underwood is currently listed as their #4 wide receiver and their tight ends are Luke Stocker, and Tom Crabtree. While Crabtree might be something he is already been bit by the injury bug with a high ankle sprain, those don’t tend to go away quickly in fact they tend to create bigger injuries.

This team is not going to be good get it out of your head now. Don’t buy into any of this weird hype surrounding them. Get out in front of this one and bet against them early and often, while their lines are inflated, before the rest of the world wakes up and realizes this team sucks.

3. Panthers 8-8 overall, 3-3 in the division (+600 to win the division)

While the Panthers did get better and addressed some needs in the offseason, they still haven’t been able to surround Cam Newton with enough help. That doesn’t excuse him from being very inconsistent but you might want to surround your #1 overall pick with some pieces to help him succeed. Cam needs to hit his stride right out of the gate and not waiting until November or December to find some rhythm. It would probably come much easier if he wasn’t carrying the entire offense on his back. Outside of himself and Steve Smith they don’t have a single playmaker on that offense.

Last year Cam led the team in rushing with 741 yards and led the team with eight rushing touchdowns. He will probably have to repeat that this year if they want to simply match their win total from a year ago. Knowing that Deangelo Williams was going to have to be their starting running back with Jonathan Stewart coming off of ankle surgery, the Panthers drafted Kenjon Barner out of Oregon. He should help Cam out a bit but he sprained his ankle last week and is currently in a walking boot.

As far as the receivers go they return their top three pass catchers in Smith, tight end Greg Olsen, and Brandon Lafell. I’m no offensive coordinator but maybe you don’t want to be forced to target Olsen 104 times when the most balls he has ever caught in a season is 60 back in 2009 when he was on the Bears (who weren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut).

The man that needs to elevate his game is Brandon Lafell. The 2010 3rd round pick out of LSU is in his fourth year. He needs to help make Cam Newton better. He needs to give Cam a reason to trust him. If he can step up and become another reliable target for Cam it will open things up for Steve Smith as well as the running game.

Where they did get better was on the defensive side of the ball. Last year they lacked size and talent up front. They addressed that problem in the draft by drafting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Both of these guys are listed as defensive tackles but both are versatile enough to move around and get worked in at multiple positions. Star was in fact touted as a top 5 prospect but fell due to a heart condition that held him out of the combine. While that’s scary of course, he really showed what he could do at his pro day. He slid a bit in the draft but the Panthers dream came true when he was on the board at #14. If these two along with veteran Dwan Edwards can produce it should have a ripple effect on the rest of the guys behind them.

The starting linebackers are really good on paper but as a whole they are very thin at the position. Luke Kuechly is obviously a stud already, but they need Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to stay healthy. Beason has played in just five games in the past two seasons while Davis has torn his ACL three times and missed 27 games from 2009-2011. While they brought in Chase Blackburn to provide some depth they need Davis and Beason to stay healthy to really allow Kuechly to do his thing the best he can.

The secondary is the weak spot in this defense but again if that defensive line can hassle the quarterback it will free up the linebackers and the entire defense will be better.

They are still a few pieces and maybe years away from contending but there are some reasons to be excited.

2. Falcons 10-6 overall, 4-2 in the division (Even money to win the division)

Make that five straight seasons in which the Falcons and Saints finish 1-2 in this division. The Falcons made only minor moves in the offseason because they know they are close. But they made a couple key upgrades that could make them a lot better.

First is the obvious one, Michael Turner out and Steven Jackson in. Turner managed to average just 3.6 yards per carry while accumulating just 800 yards on the ground last year. This year, he doesn’t have a job. Steven Jackson however has topped 1,000 yards on the ground in eight straight seasons. He will provide another dimension to that offense that was missing a year ago.

The other upgrade was bringing in Osi Umenyiora to replace John Abraham. While it may be a stretch to think he will replace the 10 sacks Abraham totalled last year, Osi is a more complete player at this stage of their careers. There are a lot of guys to block on that defensive line, Osi could be in for a monster season.

The biggest issue for the Falcons in 2013 is the offensive line. They will need to replace both the right tackle and center positions. But that can be overcome by running more quick strike plays. Running more quick slant routes for Julio Jones will benefit them big time while they sort things out.

The Falcons are a top tier team. They are once again in the Super Bowl conversation. Their offense is going to be scary good this year. On paper they may be the best. No other team has weapons like Julio, White, Gonzalez and Jackson. The offense will score and the defense isn’t all that bad either what may hold them back a bit, besides the schedule, is head coach Mike Smith. I just have no faith in him at all and I don’t think he does either.

1. Saints 13-3 overall, 5-1 in the division (+160 to win the division)

If this team doesn’t come out and play pissed off for every second of every game I will be shocked. While I can’t picture them going undefeated they are going to be playing like the 2007 Patriots. They should be in eff you mode after having their coach suspended for all of last season. With Drew Brees and some big targets they have the capability of running the score up on anyone.

While they lost LT Jermon Bushrod they shouldn’t miss him all too much with Brees’ quick decision making. He gets the ball out as fast as anyone which makes it awfully difficult to put pressure on him regardless who is blocking for him.

While they lost Devery Henderson they still have plenty of proven weapons. Plus had a sneaky good draft pick in Kenny Stills. He was a stud at Oklahoma and could burst onto the scene this year.

The offense is going to score a ton of points, we can all agree on that, the key to a successful season is going to be their defense. After allowing an NFL record 7,042 yards a year ago they brought in Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and he will make the change to a 3-4 defensive set this year. With big John Jenkins out of Georgia coming to town they should be able to stick him in at nose tackle to plug up the middle and help out the worst rush defense in the NFL.

The linebackers aren’t the deepest crew but they have some nice pieces. Jonathan Vilma could be ready for Week 1 against Atlanta. He and Curtis Lofton are a pretty nice duo in the middle of the field. With those two healthy it will free up Junior Galette on the outside. In his two seasons he has accumulated 9.5 sacks despite only making two starts. This year he will see far more playing time and with Vilma and Lofton playing alongside him he should be free to get after the quarterback. He may hit 9.5 sacks this season alone.

While the secondary was ranked 31st last year they have some talent and some nice new faces. If the guys in front of them can raise their level of play they will dramatically help out this unit. The Saints were able to land Keenan Lewis and Chris Carr while drafting potential game changer Kenny Vaccaro. Pair them with guys like Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, and Malcolm Jenkins and suddenly you have something to work with. They certainly won’t be the best in the NFL but they are going to be dramatically better than they were in 2012.

Get ready for a monster year from a pissed off Saints team this year.

Best Bets:

Saints +160 to win the division

Falcons +150 to finish 2nd in the division

Bucs +115 to finish last in the division


Sunday, September 1, 2013

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