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NFL 2012 Season Preview: The NFC South

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a tough new coach for their young team and the Carolina Panthers defense is healthier, while the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints should fight it out for the division title.

New Orleans Saints

If you want to know what team leadership is, watch Drew Brees. Whether he and new defensive coordinator Steve Spaguolo can hold this team together through multiple suspensions remains to be seen.

2011 wrap-up:
1. Drew Brees and his offense broke all sorts of NFL records and the QB was named Offensive Player of the Year. He averaged 8.3 yards per pass, scored 46 TDs and threw 14 interceptions while gaining almost 335 yards per game.
2. How RB Darren Sproles continues to be a "secret" weapon is astounding. This pint-sized back averaged 6.9 yards per rush and 8.3 yards per catch. Apparently, even when defenses know it's coming--they can't stop him.
3. The defense essentially let down the side last season, especially in the running game where they allowed over 100 yards per game and 92 rushing first downs.

2012 offseason:
1. The offense lost WR Robert Meachem, but you wouldn't know it from the way Brees has been slinging the ball to Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, TE Jimmy Graham and every rusher out of the backfield.
2. The team lost guard Carl Nicks and signed Ben Grubbs from Baltimore. Jahri Evans had offseason knee surgery. Watch their protection early.
3. Super Bowl hero interceptor Tracy Porter is now playing with Peyton Manning in Denver, leaving some big shoes to fill at corner.
4. Unless Jonathan Vilma succeeds with his lawsuit, the MLB spot rests with former Falcon Curtis Lofton, who has an ankle injury.
5. The team also added Seattle LB David Hawthorne who is also injured. Not a good sign for a suspect linebacking corps.
6. Brodrick Bunkley was signed to bolster the pass rush.
7. Head Coach Sean Payton is gone for the year and Interim Head Coach Joe Vitt is out for the first six games. Offensive Line Coach Aaron Kromer will hold the reins.
8. PK Garrett Hartley is evidently fully recovered, since the team released John Kasay.

Storylines:
1. The Saints are fortunate to have Spagnuolo running the entire defensive show. The musical chairs coaches just have to deal with the offense. Which really means that Drew Brees has to deal with the offense. If he can pull off a successful season in The Big Easy, Drew Brees should win every conceivable award and be measured for a gold jacket.
2. Brees is within five games of tying Johnny Unitas' consecutive TD games record of 47. This, for non-NFL historians, is a record that has stood for 52 seasons. The streak began in 1956 and ended in 1960. It is currently considered to be the second-most unlikely NFL record to ever be broken. (Brett Favre's consecutive starts are No. 1.)

On the August 28th ESPN NFL Sportscenter Special, Bill Parcells said that a successful season in The Crescent City would require "a powerful unanimous commitment on the part of the players." They just might pull it off.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers may have finished the 2011 NFL season with a 6-10 record, but new franchise quarterback Cam Newton will forever be the premier example of how incredibly wrong draft prognosticators can be--in a good way.

2011 wrap-up:
1. The new sun in the Panthers' solar system broke rookie quarterback records set by...Peyton Manning.
2. Steve Smith found the fountain of youth. It was in Cam Newton's arm. At 32 years of age, the WR caught 79 balls for almost 1,400 yards, scored seven TDs, made 53 first downs and averaged (wait for it) 17.6 yards per reception. He caught 29 passes that spent at least 15 yards in the air. He also got a new contract. No wonder he was smiling.
3. The two-headed rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rolled up 2,408 yards, 139 first downs and 26 scores.
4. Unfortunately, the defense was reduced to playing the water boys due to injuries. While the offense was thrilling the crowds, the defense languished in the bottom five of the league.
5. The secondary was frighteningly weak. Not good when you have to play the Saints and Falcons twice a year.

2012 offseason:
1. In a football example of "the rich get richer," Carolina added yet another tough rusher in former Charger Mike Tolbert. Tolbert is officially a FB. Whatever. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns last season.
2. MLB Jon Beason is back after missing all of 2011.Thomas Davis is trying to return after more knee injuries than you can imagine without involuntarily cringing.
3. The D-line did not get nearly enough pressure on opposing QBs last season. Head Coach Ron Rivera has thrown down the gauntlet to Charles Johnson and Ron Edwards to remedy this situation.
4. TE Greg Olsen and Newton connected often enough that the team felt no need to bring back Jeremy Shockey.

Storylines:
1. First-round linebacker Luke Kuechly. How a kid comes out of college as a junior and steps right into a professional defense this effectively is mind-boggling. The Boston College website described Kuechly as "a dynamic defensive performer with exception skills and instinct." He's a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
2. Emerging DB Captain Munnerlyn and rookie Josh Norman may be called upon to start opposite excellent CB Chris Gamble. The safety position is a strength versus the run, but not so great versus the pass. There is hope that the secondary will be better--but ultimately it's a hope rather than an expectation.
3. Who will be the second WR? Pundits seem to think that it's going to be Brandon LaFell, who has improved steadily. If so, he's going to have to break out fast enough to fend off Louis Murphy from the Raiders.
4. Cam Newton is determined not to have a sophomore slump. One shouldn't waste time, energy or money betting against Cam Newton's will and talent.

Atlanta Falcons

If they could just win a playoff game, the Falcons might emerge from the media brownout under which they continue to develop.

2011 wrap-up:
1. The Falcons finished second in the NFC South. Owner Arthur Blank was not happy when Drew Brees became a Saint.
2. The Falcons scored 402 points and won ten games with a rookie WR who had no offseason with his team. Okay, they did have Roddy White, Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner. Julio Jones is now fully up to speed. Look out.
3. Matt Ryan completed almost 62 percent of his passes, averaging almost eight yards per attempt for 29 scores.
4. One of the NFL's few true power rushers, Michael Turner piled up almost 1,400 yards on over 300 carries. Turner is a stud of Steven Jackson proportions, but he can't keep doing this forever.
5. The much-criticized defense ranked 18th in the league and gave up 350 points. That's why Mike Nolan is now the defensive coordinator.

2012 offseason:
1. According to Pro-football-reference.com, the Falcons' margin of victory was 3.3. The Saints was 13. Hmmm. Too bad that they lost MLB Curtis Lofton to the Saints.
2. It's time for Matt Ryan to move up in the elite QB ratings. His calm demeanor makes him Eli Manning South. 2012 would be a great season for him to lead some (nationally televised) winning drives.
3. The team dumped No. 2 QB Chris Redman and brought in Luke McCown with whom new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter worked in Jacksonville. Matt Ryan must stay upright.
4. In one of those unique NFL do-si-does, 2011 Falcons offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey, is the new head coach in Jacksonville.
5. Ryan needs to get closer to 40 TDs and Turner needs his carries to drop in the interests of health. It would also be a good idea to give the ball to Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling a few more times. A steady rhythm is one thing; pounding the guy into dust is another.
6. Julio Jones was jaw-dropping in the preseason and Roddy White will see his targets diminish. Now that's a quality problem for an offense.
7. Tony Gonzalez has let it be known that this is probably his swan song. It's hard to imagine him being almost 40 when he caught 80 balls for 875 yards and seven touchdowns last year.

Storylines:
1. The offensive line needs to improve--a lot. Atlanta drafted Peter Konz as center Todd McClure's eventual replacement. Third-round pick Lamar Holmes has just been assigned to back up Sam Baker at LT.
2. Koetter was brought in specifically to add sophistication to the passing game. Look for more multiple wideout sets as the Falcons try to keep up with the Saints' scoring. See point No. 1.
3. Jacquizz Rodgers has a reputation for having good hands so Koetter may fold him into the mix.
4. The Atlanta Falcons second-string TE is Michael Palmer. Who? He's 24 years old and he caught ten balls last season. Let's hope he can block.
5. Former Pats CB Asante Samuel is now a Falcon. When allowed to roam free, Samuel has a knack for interceptions. Just ask Peyton Manning. Overall, the secondary should be a strength with Brent Grimes (who can apparently leap tall buildings in a single bound), hard-hitting Dunta Robinson and Samuel. Robinson summed it up:

If we were third-, maybe fourth-year players trying to create and make a name for ourselves, this could have potentially been a problem. But the only goal, the only focus we have is winning. That makes the situation a lot easier.

6. LB John Abraham may be 34 years old, but he still made 9.5 sacks in 2011. Abraham's only problem is consistency.
7. DT Corey Peters starts the season injured. Borderline bust Peria Jerry can use this opportunity to reclaim his image.
8. Like the Green Bay Packers and the former Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta's offense could win them a Super Bowl--if their defense could crack the top 12. Head coach Mike Smith is a 4-3 defensive guy. Nolan is more of a 3-4 type guy. This will be interesting.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After an astonishingly good 2010 season in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished 10-6, many predicted that the team would reach the NFL playoffs in 2011. However, the boys in pewter were not ready for prime time and promptly fell apart. Enter a new coaching staff with a "by the book" mentality.

2011 wrap-up:
1. The Bucs went 4-12 and finished with ten consecutive losses.
2. Rather than adding some maturity, GM Mark Dominik signed only one FA during the 2011 offseason: Punter Michael Koenen. I'm not sure that counts.
3. Worse, the Bucs lost several veteran players in free agency.
4. RB LeGarrette Blount did prove that he can be a powerful rusher in the NFL and was worth the gamble. However, he was virtually useless without a handoff, since he's neither a receiver nor a blocker. When Earnest Graham got hurt, it was all downhill--and not in a "gaining yards" way.
5. WR Mike Williams had a monstrous slump and there really weren't any other options. TE Kellen Winslow has never lived up to his potential.
6. Some criticized QB Josh Freeman for taking a step backward in his development, with 22 receptions and only 16 TDs. Ouch. Believers say that he will rebound in 2012.
7. Ronde Barber is a player of legendary status, character and talent. But he's 36 years old. The secondary had legal issues and promising young Cody Grimm (son of Russ) was injured. The NFL has not decided on a suspension for CB Aqib Talib, whose criminal case was dismissed.
8. The offense ranked 30th in the league and the defense was dead last. No wonder the entire coaching staff was fired.
9. The good news from 2011: Punter Koenen averaged 45.1 yards per kick and PK Connor Barth made 26-of-28 field goals, including 13 from beyond the 40-yard line. For those of us who aren't mathematically inclined--that's over 92 percent. You know it's a rough year when the kickers get all the love.

2012 offseason:
1. Tampa Bay landed top-tier WR Vincent Jackson. They released Winslow and signed former Manning BFF, Dallas Clark. Josh Freeman is relieved.
2. The O-line took a huge hit when Guard Davin Joseph was injured. They did steal LG Carl Nicks from New Orleans.
3. Dan Orlovsky (who played his best professional ball last year for the Colts), is the new backup QB.
4. WR Arrelious Benn is almost healthy and FA pass rusher Amobi Okoye is getting there.
5. Tampa drafted outstanding young safety Mark Barron in April. He will be paired with Barber, who moves from corner to safety this year. The team took CB Eric Wright away from Detroit.

Storylines:
1. New head coach Greg Schiano comes in from Rutgers, bringing a disciplined work structure. Through the summer, the tougher approach appears to be working.
2. Young WR Preston Parker is burning up the fantasy sites as a hot "sleeper" pick for 2012. He will probably land the third WR slot.
3. Rookie rusher Doug Martin has become the starter; he and Blount will present an impressive backfield.
4. DT Gerald McCoy will try in his third NFL season to stay healthy and prove that he is worthy of his exalted draft placement.
5. Sophomore DE Adrian Clayborn's 7.5 sacks were one of the few bright spots in last year's dismal season.
6. The linebackers were downright pitiful. The new group features rookie Lavonte David, sophomore Mason Foster and six-year veteran Quincy Black. This squad has to improve its run D.

The offense was upgraded immediately through the draft and free agency. Even in this division, they should perform well. The defense could be another story when they have to face the Saints, Falcons and Panthers twice.


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