TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints to me are the best team in the NFC South. Last year they went 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road so you know what goal number one is, to win enough games so everything in the NFC goes through the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
There are three quarterbacks who will play with great urgency this year alone. First is Peyton Manning, who is entering his 17th year in the league. Second is Tom Brady, who will be starting his 15th year of NFL football. And the third would be Drew Brees who will on September 7 begin his 14th season. Brees knows that the opportunity is there but his team needs to catch up to the 49ers and Seahawks to make it happen, and this may be the year to do it.
Two years ago the Saints' defence was breaking records for most yards allowed, but last year they finished as the fourth-best in total defence. Rob Ryan as a coordinator has a plan and with the influx of new personnel that plan may be better than ever in reality. The only major weakness in the Saints' defence last year was pass defence which was 19th best in the league. With veteran free agent Champ Bailey, highly paid Jairus Byrd, a very good cornerback in Keenan Lewis and a healthy Kenny Vaccaro, pure football logic says pass defence should improve. The Saints do need more turnovers as every team does but with better established players in the secondary that should happen.
The Carolina Panthers had the best defence in the division last year but the Saints were not far away to being their equal and have a better offence. Which brings us to Brees. It has been identified on a regular basis but the Sean Payton-Drew Brees relationship works. Pete Carmichael Jr. is the offensive coordinator but Payton has been with Brees during so many ups and downs and highs and lows that there are very few if any problems on offence that can't be solved between the two.
The Saints do need to run the ball better after finishing 25th last year but if they achieve a second-best passing attack they could surpass Denver and be the best. Lost in Manning's record 55 touchdown passes last year was the fact Brees was next with 39.
Three things to watch for this year with the Saints. The first is left tackle Terron Armstead. He established himself last year, and this year needs 16 games of near excellence to solidify his status as top player. Second is Brandin Cooks as a replacement for Darrin Sproles. All indications are he can do it but can he make an impact every game? And third, the centre position. There is no veteran player so the unknown is can someone arrive to take over and be shot-gun perfect for every pass play that Brees calls?
Last year Carolina won the division so history says they won't this year. The Saints are ascending on defence and remain consistently explosive on offence, plus they dominate at home. No other team has that balance in the NFC South. New Orleans Saints, first in the South of the NFC.
The Panthers had a great year in 2013. They went 12-4 in the regular season and hosted their first playoff game in five years. The main reason was Cam Newton and his 24 touchdown passes in association with 585 yards rushing. Newton was the second-leading rusher on the entire team with only DeAngelo Williams having more rushing yards with 843.
Defensively Carolina is one of the best in the business. Second in total defence, second in run defence, sixth in pass defence, second in least points allowed and the best at getting to the quarterback with 60 sacks.
But this year could be different, especially with the ball. The entire left side of the offensive line has to find new starters and one star. Jordon Gross at left tackle was a star in the world of offensive line play, and is now retired. Still maybe of even greater significance, Carolina has to find not one, not two, but three receivers to mesh with Newton.
All indications are that Kelvin Benjamin at 6'5" and 245 lbs is on his way, but you still need two more. Whether it is Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery or former Buc Tiquan Underwood I don't think Ron Rivera as a head coach cares. He just wants that elusive downfield chemistry between quarterback and target to be evident from Game 1 onwards at Tampa Bay.
The defensive team you can depend on. Defensive rookie of the year Luke Kuechly was also voted defensive player of the year, which is reminiscent of Lawrence Taylor awards. He had 156 tackles and right next to him Thomas Davis had 123 tackles. Although the secondary has a veteran presence with former Saint Roman Harper, and former Falcon Thomas DeCoud, the defensive front seven remains the strength of the team. Only San Francisco could compare between linebacker and defensive line talent. Come to think of it when you look at Newton and Kuechly the Panthers may have the best individual players on offence and defence on one team.
Yet in the tough NFC South another 12-4 season will be difficult. The Panthers play divisional opponent Tampa Bay in Week 1 but don't play another divisional opponent until October 30, a Thursday night against the Saints. The Panthers will be celebrating their 20th anniversary as a franchise this year, but have never had back-to-back winning seasons. This should be the year. Carolina to finish second in the NFC South.
If Detroit lost Calvin Johnson it would affect Matthew Stafford. If Dallas lost Dez Bryant it would affect Tony Romo. And last year without Julio Jones, Matt Ryan was just not the same. Your top player is your top player because he works so well with your other top players. Without Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson, Atlanta could not outscore opponents and had to depend on defending opponents and did not get it done. Seven of the Falcons' 12 losses were by seven points or less and most of them were to playoff teams.
Even though they were 4-12 last year Mike Smith has an impressive won-loss record of 60-36. He knows how to build a team or perhaps this year, rebuild one. With health at receiver and a proven quarterback the Falcons should be able to have a top 10 passing attack, but need a new star at running back. The job is wide open.
On both sides of the line of scrimmage Atlanta drafted and signed players to make an impact. Still, you won't really know until about a third of the way through the season is completed how good you are in that area of football. With quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers you kind of know early if you have a quality starter because the numbers show it. Offensive and defensive line play is not about the spectacular play as much as consistency of play.
The investment in talent is there but will be recognized in the second half of the season. Everything else shows up in the first half. In trying to build up a team you plan, study and evaluate, and spend money. Or you sign an unknown free agent named Paul Worrilow out of Delaware and he leads your team in tackles. If the Falcons can find a couple more Paul Worrilow's the the defence that was 27th overall, 31st against the run, 21st against the pass and 27th in fewest points allowed will improve. But they may need two or three of those types of surprises.
It seems like every division is a tough division but with the NFC South it is very true. New Orleans with Sean Payton and Drew Brees will be good. Carolina as a surprise team last year will not be taken for granted. And Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay will improve that team. The Falcons are a team that is trying to change from finesse to physical, and that's a process that may take more than one year. Atlanta to finish third in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After the 2013 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a coaching change from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith. The personality change between the two is similar to that of the comparison between a dictatorship and a democracy.
Lovie Smith is a proven winner. Whether it be his time in Tampa Bay as a positional coach, or as the head coach of the Chicago Bears - where he led his team to Super Bowl XLI before being defeated by the Indianapolis Colts - Lovie Smith knows NFL football.
His downfall in Chicago was his inability to create a balance between a great defensive team and a consistently inefficient offence. With the Bears, his offences were no more than average with four different offensive coordinators taking turns at the helm.
Still, as much as the Tennessee Titans are my surprise team to watch in the AFC, the Bucs are my surprise team in the NFC.
The NFC South was already a competitive division, but it became even dangerous when the Bucs hired Smith. An 8-8 or better season is a possibility for the Buccaneers this season.
Quarterback Josh McCown will be entering his 12th season in the NFL this year. When you hit your 12th year in the league, you have likely seen every look defences have to offer, this means McCown should have good ball security skills and be able to avoid turnovers.
Behind McCown, I believe Mike Glennon is a top back up. After being the starter on a 4-12 team, you learn through disappointment.
The combination of McCown and Glennon at quarterback is pretty good and, though the offensive line is completely re-built, running back Doug Martin is back from injury. If Martin can stay healthy, the Bucs will have the next Warrick Dunn with even more power. Martin may be only at five-foot-11, but he weighs in at 215 pounds.
At wide receiver and tight end, the Bucs are huge; Vincent Jackson is six-foot-five, 230-pound, first-round pick Mike Evans is six-foot-five, 225 pounds and all three tight ends are between six-foot-three and six-foot-five. The taller a body, the longer the arms, the longer the arms the more inaccurate a pass can be while still be completed within the "catch radius."
The Bucs will have a very fundamentally sound, relatively simple and very fast defence under Smith. Their group features Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle, Mason Foster at middle linebacker and a pair of safeties in the form of the expensive Dashon Goldson and potentially great Mark Barron.
Smith will find that his breakout pass rushers and the pass defenders may already be on the roster. The Bucs will see Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton twice this season, and also face match-ups against Ben Roethisberger, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and Aaron Rodgers. Due to their schedule, the Buccaneers will need a good pass rush and great pass coverage all year long to stay competitive.
Tampa Bay's time is coming, just not this year. Buccaneers to finish fourth place in the NFC south.