NFC South still revolves around Saints

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
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Drew BreesWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Saints may have lost coach Sean Payton, but they still have quarterback Drew Brees.
There’s been a lot of speculation that all the offseason turmoil is going to cause the New Orleans Saints to crumble.

I’m not buying that at all. Neither are the other three NFC South teams.

Just take a look at what the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done this offseason. I think you can look at every major move they’ve made and see they all have a common root. Everything the Falcons, Panthers and Bucs have done is at least partially designed to counter the team that has won the NFC South two of the last three seasons.

Yes, you can take suspended coach Sean Payton away from the Saints for the season, but you can’t take Payton’s influence out of an offense that put up record-setting numbers and has been piling up points since his arrival in 2006. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. simply will pick up the remote control, hit a button, and Drew Brees will start throwing deep for Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore and dumping off shorter passes to Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham and letting them do their damage in open space.

And, yes, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is suspended for the season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games. But the Saints may be better off with former Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton than they were with Vilma, who was slowed by knee problems last year. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is putting together successful and consistent defenses. If he can do that in New Orleans, the Saints could be every bit as good -- or better -- than they have been in recent seasons.

The rest of the NFC South knows it and has acted accordingly.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
John David Mercer/US PresswireLast season, the other NFC South teams struggled to find an answer for running back Darren Sproles.
The Panthers and Bucs are generally viewed as teams on the rise, but they still have a long way to go to catch the Saints. The Falcons have been good the last four years, but they haven’t been able to overtake the Saints as the division’s dominant team.

Everybody’s still chasing the Saints, particularly Sproles and Graham, who each present unique matchup problems. That’s because Graham isn’t the typical tight end and Sproles is unlike any other running back. Graham’s a former basketball player, who had 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season – his first full season as a starter.

Sproles joined the Saints last season and Payton figured out more ways to use him than the Chargers ever did. Sproles had a career-best 603 rushing yards, while sharing carries with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory. Sproles isn’t just a running back. He sometimes lines up at wide receiver or in the slot and caught 86 passes last season for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.

It’s safe to say Sproles and Graham are a big part of the reason Carolina used its first-round draft pick on linebacker Luke Kuechly. Even with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis coming back from injuries that kept them out most of last season, the Panthers still craved another linebacker with the speed to stay with Graham for brief stretches and bring some hope of sometimes being able to bring down Sproles before he can accelerate in empty space. Carolina showed some offensive life with the arrival of Cam Newton last season and the Panthers are going to score their share of points.

But they know they have to slow the New Orleans offense to have any shot at winning the division.

It’s kind of a similar story in Tampa Bay. The Bucs used the No. 7 overall pick in the draft on Alabama strong safety Mark Barron. They then used a second-round pick on Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David. Barron’s known as a big hitter and has the size to potentially cover Graham and the speed to potentially chase Sproles. The Bucs have a similar vision for David, who is known for his quickness.

In some ways, Atlanta’s offseason also was spent on trying to counter Sproles and Graham. They let Lofton depart as a free agent, mainly because he wasn’t viewed as a three-down player in the scheme being put in by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The Falcons would rather let outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas stay on the field every down and try to stay with Sproles and Graham.

But Atlanta’s offseason went beyond dealing with just Sproles and Graham. When teams have had success keeping those two in check, they usually pay for it by getting burned by Brees throwing deep to Colston, Henderson and Moore.

The Falcons have had first-hand experience with that in the past. That’s why one of the first things Nolan said upon taking the job is that he believes it’s necessary to have three starting-caliber cornerbacks. That wasn’t just idle talk. The Falcons laid low through free agency, but just before the NFL draft, they went out and traded with Philadelphia for Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel. Throw him on the field with Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes and the Falcons at least have a chance against Brees and the deep game.

The gap between the Falcons and Saints isn’t as big as it is for the Panthers and Bucs. That’s a reason why the Falcons were able to go one step further and address an area where they might be able to exploit one of New Orleans’ few weaknesses. The Saints aren’t known for having a dominating defensive line. The Falcons went out and drafted Peter Konz, who they plan to use at guard, and offensive tackle Lamar Holmes. The Falcons want to get younger and more athletic on the offensive line. They want to give quarterback Matt Ryan an opportunity to throw downfield more often.

Ryan will probably never get the chance to put up Brees-like numbers, but the Falcons are looking at every way possible to pull closer to the Saints.

So is the rest of the NFC South. Despite everything that's happened with New Orleans in recent months, the Falcons, Panthers and Bucs are still looking like they're chasing the Saints.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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