2012 NFL Preview: NFC South

The NFC South has been a strong division lately with Atlanta and New Orleans representing two of the best teams in the NFL. Meanwhile Tampa Bay and Carolina look like two teams that are on the rise despite some years of mediocrity. This year though the news in the NFC South was dominated by one team and one of the biggest controversies in the offseason. The New Orleans Saints have been one of the strongest teams in the past few years winning the Super Bowl in 2009. They continued to gain more respect in the league and became one of the most feared offences in the league. This offseason though it was not their offence that made headlines as their defence took the main stage for all the wrong reasons. In March 2012 the NFL announced that they had found proof that the Saints had established a bounty system starting in 2009. This system was created by Gregg Williams as a way to encourage his players with defensive players earning money from a slush fund for sacks, interceptions, and in some cases for taking players out. The bounty system was illegal in the NFL rules and as the investigation continued more evidence was building against the Saints. Reports of Williams and players offering cash rewards for performance continued to arise almost every week. The final report came when evidence arose that the Saints had offered cash rewards to any player that could force Brett Favre out of their playoff game in 2009. With all of this evidence the NFL and Roger Goodell handed out some of the stiffest punishment in the history of the league. Players and coaches were all suspended with Gregg Williams taking the stiffest punishment as he was handed an indefinite suspension. More than the suspensions though the time after the suspensions, made the most news with players launching a lawsuit against Roger Goodell. The claims surrounded the claims that Goodell had too much control over the league and suspensions. It is a story that dominated the offseason and will likely dominate the season for the NFC South as the Saints will be watched all season to see how they react. Meanwhile the rest of the teams in the division will go about their business hoping for the scandal to be a distraction that will give them the opportunity to win the division.

 

Atlanta Falcons

 

 

 

 

 

The Atlanta Falcons have been one of the strongest teams in the division over the past few years. With Matt Ryan at the helm the Falcons have become one of the toughest teams to face in the NFL especially when they are at home. The Georgia Dome has been one of the toughest places to play over the last years. In 2010 the Falcons won every game until the second to last week when they lost to the Saints. The Falcons have had some very successful seasons but they have continually flamed out in the playoffs as they have been unable to make it much further than the first round. It doesn’t help that both in 2010 and 2011 the Falcons met the eventual Super Bowl Champions of that year. Still the Falcons have been a team that has had stellar regular seasons but fails to perform on the big stage in the playoffs. It is not for a lack of talent though as the Falcons are also one of the few remaining running teams. The passing game for the Falcons is good but unlike most team has not been the focus in recent years. Instead the Falcons made their mark on the ground and in the short passing game. The Falcons in the last two years have been a team of possession where they wear down opposing defences and control the ball for long periods of time. Doing this the Falcons avoided their defence from having to win games and was able to use a less risky style keeping the ball. A big part of this was the running back that would consistently run the ball to wind the clock down. The Falcons won in the regular season with this strategy but did not excite fans or translate their success to the postseason. This did not make anyone happy with what for many would consider successful seasons coming off as failures for the Atlanta fans. This year the Falcons are looking to change their ways and hoping to win it all and put their first round playoff losses behind them.

The Atlanta Falcons made only a few changes this offseason as they have a team that includes some of the best players in the NFL. With almost no players leaving or coming many may think that the Falcons are going to be the same team. That would be wrong as the biggest moves Atlanta made all offseason have been the two signings of new coaches. On offence the Falcons signed new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to breathe some life into the offence. One of his main focuses will be to bring in a better vertical game. He will have more than enough talent to do this as Matt Ryan returns with a host of great receivers. Ryan has the ability to stretch the field if need be as one of the coolest under pressure QBs in the league. Meanwhile veteran Roddy White and second year starter Julio Jones are one of the best receiving duos in the league and will be excited at the opportunity to stretch the defence. Meanwhile running back Michael Turner will see less action as the Falcons shift to a pass first team. He will likely split time with a few running backs including Jason Snelling and young RB Jacquizz Rodgers who can change the pace of the offence. All running backs, especially Snelling, will see a much bigger role in the passing game with screens being a big part of the Koetter offence. Meanwhile on defence the Falcons will be under new management as well with Mike Nolan taking over as defensive coordinator. Under Nolan mush will be the same as John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux while Akeem Dent takes over the MLB position with Curtis Lofton leaving. The biggest change though comes in the secondary where Nolan will likely use the Nickel, 5 defensive backs, more often than not. He will have the ability to do it as well with Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, and newly acquired Asante Samuel all likely to see plenty of time on the field. On the special teams much is unchanged as Matt Bryant returns as a solid kicker while the return game will see a number of players vying for the returner spot. The Falcons are a changed team this year but it all lies in the schemes rather than the players. For that reason the Falcons may struggle as players look to adjust to a new scheme and a new attitude on both sides of the ball. Still if the offence and defence can work itself out quickly the Falcons will likely see the playoffs once again and could move on far although they will be in for a fight for the division.

 

Strengths:
Receivers
– The Falcons have two of the best receivers in the game as Roddy White provides a great route running veteran while Julio Jones represents the young gamebreaking ability of young receivers with both sure to get more action than ever un a new offence

 

Weakness:
The Pressure
– Every team is under some pressure in the NFL but the Falcons are on the verge of major changes if they cannot win but even more than that they are expected to go to the Super Bowl with another playoff appearance is not good enough if they don’t win in the postseason

 

Biggest Addition:
Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator
– With limited movement this offseason the biggest move from the Falcons has been the signing of both their offensive and defensive coordinators but with the offence needing a lot of work to adjust to the new NFL Koetter may have the biggest impact on the team

 

Biggest Loss:
Curtis Lofton, LB (Free Agent, NO)
– The team’s leading tackler in 2011 did not seem to fit in a new system where he would be forced to cover more than ever and so he left to go to New Orleans while the Falcons are left with their only real hole in the middle of the defence

 

Carolina Panthers

 

 

 

The Carolina Panthers are a team that has sat in the basement for years and in 2010 the story was no different as they sat in dead last at the end of the year. Although the team was bad enough to finish last there was some positive to the situation. That was the fact that the Panthers would get the 1st overall pick in the 2011 Draft. With the first pick the Panthers had a choice to make that could change their team for the foreseeable future. They could choose any number of the top defensive players in the draft including Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, or Patrick Peterson. The Panthers could also choose Heisman Trophy winner yet controversial figure QB Cam Newton. As a member of the Auburn Tigers rumours surfaced that Newton’s father had shopped his son around looking for the highest paying NCAA team. After an investigation was launched Newton was found to have no involvement in the scheme yet many still held him accountable. Not only did his off field issues raise eyebrows but many believed that he would not translate well to the NFL game as a running QB who was not that fast with a weaker arm than most QBs. Even with all of the talk the Panthers selected Newton with the 1st overall pick and the questions of whether he would be able to led the team began. Newton went out and showed everyone that he was the real deal. In 2011 Newton went out and had one of the best performances by a rookie QB to ever be seen in the NFL. Breaking rookie records for most passing yards in a game, most passing yards in a season, and most rushing TDs by a QB to name a few. Winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award Newton was able to show the league that he was a player to watch for the next few years. This year he looks to avoid the sophomore slump and continue to lead the Panthers in the second season of their rebuilding phase.

This Panthers team is in the middle of their rebuild as they look to a number of young players to lead their team. The rebuild began last year on offence when the Panthers took Cam Newton with the #1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Newton will look to build on his great rookie season for an even better sophomore season. Newton is a solid pivot with a strong arm and the ability to scramble or run if needed. Newton was not alone in his great season last year as the rookie QB was a large part to the resurgence of longtime Panther Steve Smith. The 33-year-old receiver will be the Panthers lone receiving threat as Brandon LaFell and David Gettis are not ready to be threats in the NFL. Only adding to the weapons in the pass game is tight end Greg Olsen and new addition fullback Mike Tolbert who is a legitimate passing threat out of the backfield. Meanwhile the run game is the best part of the offence with DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart representing one of the strongest backfield tandems in the NFL. The Panthers offence could be one of the best in the NFL but that is not what held them back in 2011. It was the defence that was the worst part of the team in 2011 and to correct that the Panthers are looking for the same route as the offence as they try to build through the draft. This year their first round saw the selection of linebacker Luke Kuechly to add to a team that has few playmakers. Kuechly will likely start at the second level alongside Jon Beason and James Anderson to create a solid linebacking corps. The rest of the defence is not nearly as solid though with few people to look to and depend on. The defensive line will have Charles Johnson but nobody else who can really pressure the QB and force mistakes. In the secondary the Panthers will have Chris Gamble and Charles Godfrey along with a number of young players. None of these players will provide much impact though as the Panthers will continue to struggle in the defensive backfield. In the special teams there are more questions as second year kicker Olindo Mare will look to recover from last year and rookie Joe Adams looks to make an impact in the return game. The Panthers are a better team than in 2011 with more pieces in place than before. Still though the Panthers are rebuilding and need a lot more pieces to compete as they will be better but out of the playoffs again although the future looks bright.

 

Strengths:
Offence
– It is clear that the Panthers are rebuilding but they have enough weapons on offence that there will not be many problems with the offence winning a few games for the team under explosive QB Cam Newton

 

Weakness:
Defence
– With the offence looking great the defence is the next big project with a good linebacking corps but not much else as they will need to increase the pressure from the line and be much more solid in the secondary if they hope to compete

 

Biggest Addition:
Mike Tolbert, FB (Free agent, SD)
– The fullback position is starting to fade away from the NFL but Mike Tolbert represents one of the few remaining impact fullbacks as he is a great blocker and an even better part of the passing game who will be a good addition to a strong offence

 

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– With the rebuilding phase in full swing the Panthers lost a few people but nobody worth mentioning with no real losses to a team that was still one of the worst in the league as they look to continue adding great players

 

New Orleans Saints

 

 

 

 

 

The New Orleans Saints have been one of the strongest teams in the league over the last few years winning the Super Bowl in 2009 and continuing to be a factor. Last season was no different as the 2011 season saw the Saints enter the playoffs as a favorite to win the NFC. They could not get there though in a disappointing playoffs yet still the future looked bright. Then the offseason hit and changed everything for the Saints in the upcoming season. In March only a month after the Super Bowl was finished the first event of the strange offseason started. The NFL announced that they had launched an investigation into a pay for play system that the defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had created. The system was essentially an extra incentive as Gregg Williams and a number of players had offered money for interceptions and sack and sometimes to take out other players. After the investigation the NFL decided to hand out some of the stiffest penalties ever in the history of the league. For the coaches the punishment was that Gregg Williams would be suspended indefinitely while Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. Meanwhile interim head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for 8 games. On the field defensive end Will Smith was suspended for eight games along with former defensive tackle Anthon Hargrove and former Saints linebacker Scott Fuijita. Taking the worst of the punishment for the players was Jonathan Vilma who was suspended for the season after evidence was found of him offering money for performance. After the suspensions Jonathan Vilma launched a lawsuit against Roger Goodell and the NFL claiming that Goodell had too much control over the suspensions. Vilma essentially was claiming that Goodell should not be the one to hand out suspensions and the one to deal with appeals as nothing will change from suspension to appeal. Now the Saints move on without their defensive leader and with a black mark on their last few seasons as they will look to return to the Super Bowl, in New Orleans this year, to show that the suspensions could not stop them.

The Saints remained relatively untouched on one side of the ball while the other side will be missing some big leaders. Then again the pattern of the Saints has always been an offence that carries the team. Drew Brees will again lead the offence with his strong arm and ability to manage his offence. He may have an even bigger role too with Sean Payton and Joe Vitt both away from the sidelines as Brees will need to be an even bigger leader. He will lean on his corps of receivers that have been one of the best as a group but do not stand out as great individual players. Robert Meachum is gone but the Saints still have Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and with a chance to replace Meachum rookie Nick Toon. The biggest target for Brees is tight end Jimmy Graham who emerged as a true gamebreaker last year and will look to do the same in 2012. In the backfield the Saints have the deepest pool of running backs in the league including Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram, and Darren Sproles. The Offence of the Saints is untouched by the scandal and again will be the focus of this team. On defence the biggest changes are the loss of Jonathan Vilma, suspended for the season, and Scott Fujita. Both linebackers are leaders on this defence and will be missed but the Saints did look to replace them as soon as they could. In the linebacking corps the Saints will see Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Chris Chamberlain take over. Meanwhile the biggest issue for the Saints in the last few years has been the defensive pressure as the Saints hope to correct this in 2012. They are hoping that Cameron Jordan can have a better sophomore season and that Junior Galette can step up with Will Smith out for the first 8 games of the season. The secondary is a talented group with Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson patrolling the defensive backfield. The one issue they may have though is the depth that the Saints have in the secondary which is next to none. The Saints special teams was dreadful two years ago but with Thomas Morstead holding the kicking duties and Darren Sproles returning kicks there is little to worry about here. With a number of players already off of the team in the offseason and more than enough replacements signed the Saints don’t look to be out of it this year. Add the “Us versus the world” attitude to the equation and the Saints will be hard to beat as they will fight for the division and likely move close to hosting the Super Bowl this year.

 

Strength:
Offence
– It has and likely always will be the strength of the Saints team as long as Drew Brees is there and with a new contract he looks to be there for a while as he leads one of the best offences in the NFL into a tumultuous season

 

Weakness:
Defence
– With few losses the Saints are not completely changed from last year but that is not a good thing as they lack the ability to pressure opposing QBs and force mistakes as they once again represent the weakest part of a great team

 

Biggest Addition:
Curtis Lofton, LB (Free Agent, Atl)
– He is young and fast and can be a great addition to the team especially with Jonathan Vilma out as Lofton led the Falcons in tackles last year and will look to do the same thing in his new colours for the Saints

 

Biggest Loss:
Jonathan Vilma, LB (Suspension)
– Vilma is clearly the biggest leader in the locker room and on the field and his season long suspension along with his new legal battle with the NFL will force him to sit on the sidelines as his team looks for another Super Bowl

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

 

 

 

 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seen much success in the NFL as one of the strongest teams in the late 1990s but since then they have been in trouble. With multiple losing season the Bucs looked to head coach Raheem Morris and top draft pick Josh Freeman for a solution. In the initial years of the Morris-Freeman era the Bucs saw returns as they seemed to be on their way to becoming a strong team. Then the 2011 season came that sent the partnership crashing down and took the team with it. The Bucs began the 2011 season on a high note with a 4-2 start as they looked to be on their way to another great year. Then they began to lose as the team went on a 10 game losing streak to end the season in last place with a 4-12 record. It wasn’t just that they lost though as the attitude on the field was terrible. The young team of the Bucs seemed to give up at certain points with players walking around and not really caring about the game. It was clear that Morris was not able to control his young team and had lost their respect. So the Bucs decided it was time for another change as they fired Morris and his entire coaching staff. The season ended poorly for the Bucs and the entire organization felt embarrassed and so somebody had to go. As usual the first to go is the head coach who attempted to do the best job he could. Although Morris truly needed to take some of the blame the true issue for the Bucs in 2011 was that they were the youngest team in the NFL for the second straight year. With the youth on the team the Bucs lacked any type of veteran leadership which became a major issue. The Bucs learned their lesson though as a new coach looks to change the attitude of his team and a number of new signings looks to provide that veteran leadership.

The 2012 season saw a number of changes but the biggest ones were at the top-level of the organization. The Bucs saw the beginning of a new regime for 2012 as Raheem Morris is out and former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano takes over. He will go into the 2012 season to establish a new attitude in the team as he looks to reign in the youth in order to win games. Last year was Josh Freeman’s worst as a QB but a new regime hopes to continue his upward trend of two years ago after he was drafted. Freeman will have some new weapons to work with along with one of the best young receivers in the game. The signing of wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark provide two great passing threats and Mike Williams will look to continue his impressive young career. In the backfield the Bucs are solid with two good backs yet who will be the feature back may not be known. Rookie Doug Martin comes into the NFL as a running back who can do everything while LaGarrette Blount is a very good one-dimensional player. On defence the Bucs are hoping that a number of players begin to show their potential in 2012. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has been good but has struggled to stay on the field with two injuries in two years. Meanwhile defensive end Adrian Clayborne has shown very promising signs as a rush end as the Bucs hope to boast one of the best lines in the league. Led by second year player Mason Foster there is not much to speak of for impact players in the linebacking corps. The secondary is not much better with Aqib Talib and Eric Wright sitting at the corners as two serviceable backs and the aging Ronde Barber and first round draft pick Mark Barron at the safety position could be a lesson in both ends of the age spectrum. The special teams for the Bucs are a bit of good and bad with kickers Michael Koenen and Connor Barth both solid but little return game to speak of. The Bucs are a team that is clearly in the middle of a rebuilding phase despite doing it for three years. The offence looks like it is ready to break out with a number of new additions and a young talented corps. The defence is another story as the line looks good but is the only positive part of the defensive team. They will likely be a bit better but with a defensive team that looks to struggle there will be little hope ot make the playoffs this year as they continue to build for the future.

 

Strength:
Offence
– Last year was not the brightest one for the Bucs offence but the addition of Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark to a great running game and a good young QB is sur to inject new life into the offence and make them a force

 

Weakness:
Defence
– As the offence improved the defence really didn’t change meaning that they will have a good line but nothing else, as the linebacking corps is not good enough to stop opponents and the secondary is a mix of hot and cold players

 

Biggest Addition:
Dallas Clark, TE (Free Agent, Ind)
– The addition of Dallas Clark should provide Josh Freeman with yet another option in the passing game but more importantly will provide a veteran presence in the locker room that the team has been lacking over the last few years

 

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– The Bucs did lose Kellen Winslow but there is no question that Clark will be a better than average replacement as the Bucs really didn’t lose anyone who they could not replace with a better player

 

Prediction:
1. New Orleans
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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