2010 NFL Predictions – NFC South

Here’s how I see the NFC South playing out. If you want to see my thoughts on the other divisions, check them out here.

A 13-0 start catapulted the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victor for the first time in franchise history. I think we’re to a point where it’s being overplayed now, but the championship won by Drew Brees and company really was a victory for the struggling city of New Orleans. Sure, they’re a division rival, but it was nice to see a good thing happen to a city and franchise who have suffered as much as they have. The Falcons finished second, but they had already lost 7 games before the Saints lost their first. Matt Ryan was a little banged up and didn’t develop as anticipated. It doesn’t seem right that a team with Steve Smith would finish near the bottom of the league in passing. Jake Delhomme’s struggles were a big reason Carolina finished third after winning the division in ’08. Most expected Tampa Bay to finish fourth, and the team didn’t disappoint. A near-miraculous victory against the Packers in week 9 is all that kept the Bucs from getting off to an 0-12 start. A high draft pick was about all the good they could take from last season.

Predicted order of finish

1) Atlanta Falcons
Call me crazy, but I’m buying into that “no repeat champ in the NFC South” voodoo. If history holds true, there will only be one playoff team that emerges from the division. I realize there’s more logic pointing towards the Saints breaking the curse than the Falcons winning the division, but I’ve really got an Atlanta vibe this season. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m expecting a big year from Matt Ryan. Tony Gonzalez looks more like 24 than 34, and Roddy White is the game’s best receiver that no one talks about. I also think Michael Turner has a big bounce back season. It’s a recipe for success. MLB Curtis Lofton is an emerging star who should take his game to another level this year. Brent Grimes and Chris Houston were a really poor starting duo and the big reason the Falcons finished near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed per game. Enter Dunta Robinson. I think he was a huge, necessary addition that should make a significant difference for the good.

Reasons for optimism –
-Ryan and Turner are fully healthy this preseason
-Up tempo rookie Sean Weatherspoon joining Lofton at LB
-They didn’t win the division last year

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-The OL resembles the ’09 version more than the ’08 one
-An unimproved pass rush ranks near the league’s worse again
-An uninspiring secondary aside from Robinson fails to improve

2) New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees was already among the game’s elite passers, but earning the trophy cements his legacy. The league’s best offense returns every key player from last season. This includes Pierre Thomas, a guy I expect to help the New Orleans run game get a little more recognition this season. Thomas rushed for nearly 800 yards last season in a split role, but I believe that number increases significantly this year. I think he can handle a true lead back role and is an underrated receiving option. Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, and a healthy Lance Moore return at WR. The defense, even with Greg Williams calling the shots, didn’t resemble a Super Bowl winning unit for the majority of the season. They did however turn it on when it counted, more than handling their own against the potent offenses led by Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Kurt Warner on their way to the title. Darren Sharper and his 9 INTs were one of the few bright spots. He’s sporting a knee injury this preseason which is opening the door for Malcolm Jenkins at FS. They believe they’ve improved a bit at corner and will shift the versatile Jenkins to the back of the defense

Reasons for optimism –
-The offense returns intact, and dare I say, slightly improved
-Emerging Malcolm Jenkins getting a chance to be a playmaker at safety
-A soft middle portion of the schedule (CAR, @ARI, @TB, CLE, PIT, @CAR, SEA) to help them ease into their late season bye (week 10)

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-MLB Jonathan Vilma is heading into the season with a groin injury
-The lack of attention paid to upgrading the NT position
-They won the division last year

3) Carolina Panthers
Nothing personal against Jake Delhomme, but he had to go. The veteran QB was never one of the game’s finest talents, but he was usually a pretty competent game manager. Last year was anything but well-managed, as the Panthers were 4-7 in his starts, and Delhomme put up the worst numbers of his career as a starter. In his place is the relatively unknown Matt Moore, the backup who won as many games as did Delhomme in six less attempts. The Panthers love the way he manages the offense and minimizes mistakes. That sounds a lot like a young Delhomme. I still think this is Jimmy Clausen’s job eventually. The bread and butter for this Panthers offense was and will again be the running duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Their efforts helped the Panthers finish third in the league in rushing for the second straight season. Steve Smith is still a dangerous receiver, but will he and Moore be on the same page? Even the most optimistic Panther fans have to be a little worried that the first string offense failed to score a TD this preseason. Carolina enters the year already hurting on defense with WLB Thomas Davis out for the year with a torn ACL sustained in June. Fortunately Jon Beason is still one of the game’s best linebackers, and Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are a formidable couple of corners.

Reasons for optimism –
-Assuming, Jeff Otah’s knee injury is minor, all the key pieces to a strong OL return
-Jon Beason should be freed up to make more splash plays at WLB
-A young, formidable secondary

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Matt Moore’s 4-1 finish to ’09 was a fraud
-Defensive losses in Julius Peppers, Damione Lewis, and Ma’ake Kemoeatu (and now Davis) are too much to make up for
-Neither Brandon LaFell nor Dwayne Jarrett develops as a reliable #2 receiver

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I really don’t have anything nice to say about the 3-13 ’09 Bucs, so let’s move on shall we. Josh Freeman returns for his second season as a pro, and while I’m still not ga ga for GHB, I have been impressed with the visible growth he’s made in confidence/composure. I need to see him elevate the talent around him and be the reason we win football games. He was saddled with a broken thumb against the Chiefs this preseason and will likely be at less than full strength to open the season. One player who seems at full strength and then some is rookie WR Mike Williams. The controversial character from Syracuse has been far and away the best talent at the position this preseason. Williams is joined by fellow draft pick and last year’s seventh round find Sammie Stroughter to give Tampa its best WR situation in recent memory. This is without considering Kellen Winslow, the team’s leading receiver from last season. Cadillac Williams returns as the team’s top runner, and he’s more heart than health at this point. He’s not going to lead the league in rushing attempts or yards, and it’s hard to be that encouraged about an offense whose leading rusher had just one single 100 yard game from the previous year. Kareem Huggins was a preseason darling for the second year in a row, and thanks to Derrick Ward’s deserving release, he’s now the #2 back on the depth chart. Donald Penn got paid this preseason, but early returns haven’t been exactly worth the big bucks. Davin Joseph is still the best of this group, and although he catches a lot of ire from fans, the Bucs could do a lot worse than Jeremy Trueblood at RT. Keydrick Vincent was picked up from Carolina, and he won the starting LG job over last year’s starter Jeremy Zuttah. Center Jeff Faine returns as the leader of this unit, a group that, due to a depth deficiency, must stay healthy if the Bucs are going to compete at all. On defense, the biggest additions (figuratively and literally) were defensive tackle draftees Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. They’ll join second year noseman Roy Miller as an impressive rotation of youth, speed, and strength. I’m very skeptical of the DE situation. Despite the fancy name, Stylez G. White has never struck me as “the guy” from a pass rushing standpoint. This preseason hasn’t helped at all. Kyle Moore was flat out given the starting job at LDE, and Tim Crowder has been nearly as invisible thus far. Second year end Michael Bennett has been the best of the bunch by far. Hopefully he gets some meaningful looks this year. At LB, Barrett Ruud isn’t happy about his contract situation, but in my opinion, the ball is in his court. He’s still a fine coverage LB, capable of making the deep drops necessary to successfully run this defense. With the upgrades at DT and growth anticipated from WLB Geno Hayes and SLB Quincy Black, the ball should be in Ruud’s court at the end of the year when it comes time to negotiate. I believe he needs to be a more physical player, play with more fire, and get off more blocks. I’m tired of downfield tackling. If the ends don’t get better in a hurry at rushing the passer in, expect to see a lot of blitzing from this bunch. In the secondary, as long as Aqib Talib is done beating cab drivers, he’ll continue his progression as not only one of the conference’s better corners but as one of it’s better overall playmakers. Ronde Barber returns for what just might be his final season. He did much better than I anticipated last year, but adding depth (or an eventual replacement) in Myron Lewis in April’s draft was a wise move. EJ Biggers looks to take over the nickel role in his second year, and I liked what I saw from him this preseason. Tanard Jackson is in the same boat as Talib; emerging young talent and off-field troubles. He’s one of the best lesser known free safeties, and the Bucs hope they made an upgrade going with Sean Jones at SS. Corey Lynch did as good of a job earning a roster spot as any Buccaneer this preseason. He rightfully stuck and joins rookie Cody Grimm and former starting SS Sabby Piscitelli as depth. Piscitelli’s mental mistakes will drive you nuts, but again, I think it’s a wise move to hang onto the talented young defender, especially now that he’s pissed. Let’s see what he can do in a different mindset.

Reasons for optimism –
-Josh Freeman’s observed/reported growth as a leader
-Some actual talent at WR including a possible legit #1
-McCoy and Price give the Bucs their best DT situation since the Sapp and Culpepper days

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-If the OL is as stagnant during the regular season as they looked during the preseason
-Zero pressure is provided by the defensive ends
-Ruud looks more like a supporting player than a force teams have to scheme for

Conference Awards
MVP (best talent in biggest role) – Matt Ryan (QB, Falcons)
Offensive POY (most impressive season) – Drew Brees (QB, Saints)
Defensive POY – Jon Beason (WLB, Panthers)
Offensive ROY – Mike Williams (WR, Bucs)
Defensive ROY – Gerald McCoy (DT, Bucs)
Offensive Breakout Player – Pierre Thomas (RB, Saints)
Defensive Breakout Player – Malcolm Jenkins (FS, Saints)