NFC South: 2012 NFC hidden treasure

AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Carolina’s special teams were among the worst in the league last year. That’s why the Panthers didn’t sit still in the offseason. They went out and made a bunch of moves that should help their special teams.

Safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and fullback Mike Tolbert all have been productive on the coverage units in previous stops. The Panthers also used two draft picks on two players they expect to be regulars on special teams. Wide receiver Joe Adams has excellent potential as a return man. The Panthers also drafted punter Josh Nortman, but the job doesn’t automatically belong to him. The Panthers also brought in veteran Nick Harris to compete with Nortman, after they released Jason Baker earlier in the offseason.

Even kicker Olindo Mare, who had some big misses last season, is going to have to win his job. The Panthers brought in former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock to compete with Mare. There’s competition everywhere. That’s a good thing. Injuries left the Panthers very short-handed on special teams at times last season. This offseason, general manager Marty Hurney has gone out of his way to make sure the Panthers have plenty of talent and depth there. If the special teams and the defense can be better than last year, Carolina has a chance to challenge for a playoff spot.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

There’s a perception out there that Jonathan Vilma’s suspension will be devastating to the Saints. There’s some truth to that, especially from a leadership standpoint because Vilma has run this defense since the moment he arrived in New Orleans. But the reality is free-agent pickup Curtis Lofton will be a major upgrade over Vilma at middle linebacker.

Age started to catch up to Vilma the past two seasons, and he was less than ordinary last season while dealing with a knee injury. Lofton is younger, he’s healthy and he should be able to make a lot more plays than Vilma did in recent years. The leadership void will be minimal. Lofton was an excellent leader in Atlanta and he already is establishing himself in that role in New Orleans.

But Lofton wasn’t the only offseason addition at linebacker. The Saints knew they had to upgrade that area, and signed David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Hawthorne is penciled in as a starter, and Chamberlain is competing with incumbent Scott Shanle for the other starting job. Even if Shanle wins, Chamberlain will provide the Saints with some quality depth at the position.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

A lot of fans were upset when the Falcons didn’t pursue Mario Williams in free agency. The only real move the Falcons made to add to a pass rush that was less than ferocious last year was to draft Jonathan Massaquoi. I’m not expecting the fifth-round pick to have an instant impact. That means the Falcons are going basically with what they had last season. They’ll start veterans John Abraham and Ray Edwards and rotate Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury in at times.

Despite having no major changes up front, the coaching staff sincerely believes the pass rush will be better this season. There’s some decent logic to that. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made it known he wanted three starting-caliber cornerbacks. He has that now with Asante Samuel joining Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.

The thinking is that Samuel, Grimes and Robinson will tie up receivers a bit longer and quarterbacks will have to hold onto the ball. If that happens, Abraham is a threat to finish with double-digit sacks.

Edwards also could fall into that category. He didn’t have a big season after coming in as Atlanta’s top free-agent pickup last year. A knee injury might have contributed to that. But Edwards wasn’t happy with his performance, or the criticism that came with it. He’s motivated to go out and prove the skeptics wrong. If he gets a little help from the cornerbacks, Edwards could have a big year.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Bucs have invested a lot of premium draft picks in their defensive line in recent years, but they haven’t really collected any dividends. This could be the year that changes.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall draft pick in 2010, has been slowed by injuries his first two seasons. But he did show some promise when healthy. The new coaching staff believes McCoy can be a dominant player and cornerstone of this defense. But the obvious key is he needs to stay healthy. If he does, he ideally will line up next to fellow third-year pro Brian Price, who also has dealt with some injury issues. But the Bucs went out and got Amobi Okoye and Gary Gibson in the offseason and the hope is to use them in a rotation that can help keep McCoy and Price fresh.

If McCoy and Price finally can blossom, that should provide a tremendous boost for second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie without much around him. The Bucs believe Clayborn can hit double digits in sacks. The line suffered a big blow when Da’Quan Bowers tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason. At best, Bowers could return around midseason. At worst, he’ll miss the entire season. But this still has a chance to be a decent defensive line because Michael Bennett can start opposite Clayborn.

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