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NFC South preview

Just hours away now from the first Sunday of the season and we're just about done with the divisional previews. The penultimate one is for the NFC South, and naturally, it's from Ian Steven, @deevo82, again.

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NFC South

New Orleans Saints


This was the division that nobody wanted to win in 2014. The Carolina Panthers eventually ended up as the champions with a 7-8-1 record. The New Orleans Saints were just behind with a 7-9 record. I had felt that the Saints were the favourites for that division in 2014 but a very porous defence proved to be their undoing.

It looked like defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was for the chopping block after his defence were ranked the second worst in the NFL, with only the Atlanta Falcons with a worse record. Ryan comes back for another year as coordinator. Junior Galette was jettisoned after multiple run-ins with law-enforcement. Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams was a free agent signing from Seattle and should help to boost the defensive line alongside the massive John Jenkins. Cameron Jordan remains the best pass rushing option on the defensive line.

The secondary in effect welcomes two new players as Jairus Byrd returns from injury to take his place at free safety alongside Kenny Vaccaro. Brandon Browner joined from New England at cornerback and will be used aggressively in coverage.

The good news for New Orleans is the offense still incredibly potent. Drew Brees remains one of the marquee quarterbacks in the league. He has lost his primary target in Jimmy Graham who was traded to Seattle. In return, New Orleans picked up centre Max Unger who will become the anchor point to a very talented line. Jahri Evans has gone to the last six pro Bowls and is a brute force at right guard.

Having a road-grading offensive line seems to be a priority for Sean Payton as he carries six running backs on his 53 man squad which is a an indicator to the Saint’s philosophy. Mark Ingram will be the primary ball carrier. CJ Spiller was brought in to inject a change of pace. Spiller has missed the entire pre-season with a knee injury and will take some time to get back into action.

The downside of carrying six running backs on the roster is that the New Orleans Saints only have four wide receivers which is an oddity when you take into consideration how prolific Drew Brees is through the air and how much Sean Payton likes to pass the ball. Two of his receivers are exceptional in Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks. Cooks look like he would become the Rookie of the Year in 2014 before being injured in his rookie season.

The Saints should be very entertaining to watch this year and if they can shore up their defense to mid-table respectability then they should be the favourites to win the division.

Carolina Panthers

With 53 players on the active roster and you would think that one injury would not make a world of difference to the team but losing Kelvin Benjamin for the season has severely impacted the chances of Carolina repeating as champions in the NFC South for the third time in a row. Carolina are the only team in the division's history to have won the title two years in a row. Although last year they stumbled over the finish line, winning the division with a losing record.

Quarterback Cam Newton is the driving force behind Carolina and he quickly struck up a rapport with the rookie Benjamin. Without the Florida State graduate, the only real target for Newton to aim at is tight end Greg Olson. As a result, the Panthers will have to rely on a heavy dose of the running game. Long-time star player DeAngelo Williams is now a Pittsburgh Steeler so the focus shifts to Jonathan Stewart to become the primary ball carrier. He needs to stay clear of injuries that have blighted his career. Mike Tolbert returns at full-back and he is a bowling ball of a man and regularly receives plenty of touches much to the chagrin of the defense trying to stop him.

The bright side for Carolina is how talented the defense is. Luke Kuechly is by far the best inside linebacker in football at the moment. It was not for JJ Watt then some people could be heralding him as the best defensive player in the league, period, not just the best linebacker. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, two mountains of men at defensive tackle that keep opposing linemen off of Luke Kuechly allowing him to play sideline the sideline.

Thomas Davis, the man with multiple ACL surgeries, also returns to partner Luke Kuechly. Keep an eye on Shaq Thomson, the rookie linebacker from Washington, who displays exceptional speed and the Panthers will find a way to get him into the mix, primarily on nickel and dime downs.

Charles Tillman, affectionately known as Peanut, was a free agent signing from Chicago. Tillman was regularly one of the top turnover merchants in the league, specialising in ripping the ball out of wide receivers’ hands. There is concern that the starting free safety is Kurt Coleman as he failed to cut the mustard in Philadelphia and also struggled at Kansas City.

Atlanta Falcons

Let’s start with the obvious – the Falcons were atrocious on defense last year, dead last in the NFL. Head coach Mike Smith got his jotters as a result and Dan Quinn was brought in to try to right the ship.

Falcons fans must be frustrated as they have got a top ten quarterback in Matt Ryan with two big play receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White, I saw a lot of Jones coming out of college and thought he was one of the most accomplished receivers making the jump to the NFL. The Dirty Birds have just handed Jones a $71,000,000 contract which he has more than earned.

Jake Matthews lines up at left tackle after a solid rookie season so the key offensive trinity is in place but the rest of the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired – so much so that the Falcs traded for Andre LeVitre, a high priced free agent guard that flopped in Tennessee. Ryan is a classic pocket passer so if you can push the pocket you can throw him out of rhythm.

General manager Rich McKay drafted running back Tevin Coleman in a running back rich draft and the Indiana half back has quickly installed himself at the number one slot on the depth chart. He reminds me a lot of Fred Taylor with his running style. Coleman could be a worthwhile punt for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The Falcons spent their number one draft pick on Vic Beasley, an undersized defensive end out of Clemson in the hope he could add some pass rush at position that has been an issue for a while.

Other than cornerback Desmond Trufant there is not much else to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball. It will probably be another long and frustrating season for Falcons fans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After years of misery, it is finally time for Bucs fans to be excited once again. After struggling badly in 2014, the number one overall pick fell into the lap of Rich McKay and he must have danced a jig of joy when handing in the draft card, taking Jameis Winston out of Florida State.

Despite worries about his maturity, Winston is one of the most pro ready quarterbacks to come out of college football. He has all the tools a modern signal caller needs and will be an icon in Tampa for many years to come.

To make Winston’s job easier, the quarterback has three massive targets at his disposal. Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans are both 6’5” with excellent leaping ability whilst tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is 6’6” and very athletic for a tight end. The current rookie record for passing yards is 4,374 set by Andrew Luck and Winston could well be in line to break it.

The biggest concern for head coach Lovie Smith is that Winston’s blind side is protected by rookie tackle Donovan Smith. It is a big gamble to take to protect your massive investment in a quarterback with a rookie effectively being his bodyguard. Smith has got no leeway to make any predictable rookie mistakes as the consequences could be devastating.

Tampa’s running back Doug Martin has insisted he does not like being called the Muscle Hamster so we must take care not to call the Muscle Hamster the Muscle Hamster as the Muscle Hamster does not like it. Muscle Hamster.

The Muscle Hamster – sorry, I mean Doug Martin – is a talented player and will help to take some of the pressure off Winston if the Bucs and formulate a ground game.

Tampa are not just loaded on defense – defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David are genuine blue chip players whilst Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks are solid corners. Coupled with what could be an explosive offense, we could well see the Bucs giving the Saints a fight for the top spot in the division.

Verdict

I think the decider in settling this division is the combination of Drew Brees and Sean Peyton. Both are incredibly experienced with Brees being comfortable in what he is asked to do. The Saints just need a modicum of improvement from their defense to dominate the division.

Tampa Bay will be fascinating to watch but it is difficult to win a lot of games with rookies at quarterback and at left tackle.

Atlanta will struggle due to a lack of quality on the offensive line and on defense whilst Carolina will struggle to move the ball if they fall behind in a game as Cam Newton basically does not have many options to throw to.

3 points on New Orleans to win the division @ 2.88 with multiple bookies.

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