The NFC South has long been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Well, this year shouldn't be any different. With no further adieu, here are my predictions on the NFC South.
The Atlanta Falcons made great strides last year in the regular season. Too bad they didn't have the momentum to carry into the post-season. QB Matt Ryan is a precise passer who will has plenty of weapons WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez and the young rookie, WR Julio Jones. These guys along with a healthy does of RB Michael Turner could cause serious problems for the rest of the NFC, let alone the NFC South. The loss of RB Jerious Norwood to St. Louis does take away some explosion, but this offense will still be more explosive with the addition of Jones and the veteran offensive line still in place.
Defensively, the Falcons added prized DE Ray Edwards this off-season. With his addition, the Falcons now have two defensive ends that can rush the QB and put some fear in opposing offenses. The LB spot is one that is good, especially with Curtis Lofton manning the middle. He should take his play to another level this year. As far as the secondary, CB Brent Grimes is a stellar corner who doesn't get the respect he deserves. Unfortunately, the secondary is still the weak link of this defense. And with that weakness still being there, the Falcons better hope their pass rush is much-improved, or it could be a long year for Grimes and crew.
As far as special teams, the Falcons have one of the best return men in the NFL, Eric Weems. The more chances he gets, the more dangerous he gets. As far as the kickers and punters, the Falcons are solid in both areas, especially with Matt Bryant kicking field goals.
Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC South
The Carolina Panthers are a team in a rebuilding phase. They plan to start rookie QB Cam Newton from Game 1. Newton is a raw talent, but a talent nonetheless. It should be interesting to see his progress throughout the season. Newton's best friends this year will be the running game and his TEs. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart must produce this year and help maintain a good balance for the Panther offense. TEs Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen will be tremendous in helping Newton get comfortable. And it always helps when you have WR Steve Smith on the outside lining up.
Defensively, LB Jon Beason is the best player on this defense. He and DE Charles Johnson must lead a no-name defense back to the glory of yesteryear. Johnson will be the guy depended on most up front to provide a pass rush. Unfortunately, he's the only guy that can provide a consistent pass rush for the Panthers. Beason is an incredible athlete who will need to make plays running sideline-to-sideline and he must also be the vocal leader of the team as well. As far as the secondary, besides CB Chris Gamble, the Panthers will be lacking some talent due to the loss of CB Richard Marshall to Arizona.
As far as special teams, the Panthers let go of longtime PK John Kasay this year. He was Mr. Consistent and he will be missed. As far as returnmen, I would like to see Steve Smith get involved in the return game again. He's their best option there. This could be a long year and Charlotte.
Prediction: 6-10, 4th in the NFC South
New Orleans Saints
The Saints come into this year after going thru one of the most embarrassing losses in their most recent history in the playoffs last year. This year, expect them to strike back. QB Drew Brees passed the ball more than he has in a long time last year. Expect New Orleans to get back to more balance this year with the addition of rookie RB Mark Ingram along with the healthy return of RB Pierre Thomas. With these two weapons, expect Brees to have easier throws. And with weapons like TE Jimmy Graham, WRs Devery Henderson, Marcus Colston, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore, its a dangerous thing for Brees to have easy throws.
Defensively, the Saints went and got DTs Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin to help DT Sedrick Ellis against the run. If these three can stop up the middle, the Saints will be tough. Rookie DE Cameron Heyward could have a tremendous impact playing opposite DE Will Smith. LB Jonathan Vilma has been the unquestioned leader in the middle of this defense. He will make them reflect the personality of their defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. S Malcolm Jenkins just has a knack for making big plays. He should thrive this year with the increased playing time and increased responsibility. The Saints corners are ballhawks and will definitely make some plays. Look for the Saints to go back to the play-making defense that helped them win the NFL championship two seasons ago.
As far as special teams, the Saints are solid in the return game with Lance Moore and they will also be solid in the kicking game as well with Hartley, provided he stays focused.
Prediction: 11-5, 1st in the NFC South
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers overachieved last year and almost made the playoffs. A lot if expected of QB Josh Freeman. He is poised beyond his years and last year, he made some big plays to help his team win. This year may be a different story for him. The Bucs still have WR Mike Williams and TE Kellen Winslow, but they must have someone else step up in their receiving corps this year. A likely candidate will be WR Aerilious Benn. He's explosive and can make the big play. As far as the running game, RB LaGarette Blount must be the bruising force that he can be for this team. He and Earnest Graham should be the likely pair in the backfield, as the Bucs will try to grind out the game and limit the number of possessions for their opponents.
Defensively, DT Gerald McCoy had his year cut short last year. Expect him to be explosive in the middle of that defense as he wreaks havoc. It will be interesting to see what rookie DEs Adrian Clayborn and DeQuan Bowers do this year. As far as the LB corps, the loss of Barrett Ruud will be felt more than the Bucs know this year. He was the leader of that defense and now he's lining up in Tennessee. That's another spot to watch for the Bucs. CB Aqib Talib had a tumultuous off-season. Can he shake off the off-season troubles and be the CB he was last year? Will FS Cody Grimm continue to improve? We shall see what happens this year.
The special teams should be good for Tampa. After all, they spent big money on a punter and they have great faith that defense and special teams will be their calling card.
Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in the NFC South
Division MVP: Drew Brees
Best Rookie: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons