NFC South: 2012 NFL Preview

By now, you already know the Atlanta Falcons aren’t predicted to come in fourth, third or second place in the NFC South. They will win the division, according to the consensus of ESPN.com’s panel of experts.

Here’s the link to the Falcons’ preview page, and you’ll see there the panel was split in its thoughts on the Falcons. I had them finishing second and Adam Schefter ranked Atlanta third, but that wasn’t enough to pull the Falcons out of the top spot because every other panelist had them finishing first.

Here’s what I wrote about the Falcons:

Five things you need to know about the Falcons:

1. An all-new look: Although the Falcons have had four straight winning seasons, they are kind of starting over on offense and defense. They've got new coordinators in Dirk Koetter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense), and it's clear there is a lot of pressure on the Falcons to win a playoff game for the first time since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in town. With players such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan has plenty of weapons. It's Koetter's job to figure out how to get more explosive plays out of this offense than predecessor Mike Mularkey. It's a similar story on defense, where Nolan inherits quite a bit of individual talent, but he needs this unit to establish a more aggressive identity than it had under Brian VanGorder.

2. The under-300 club: The Falcons repeatedly have said they want to limit Turner's carries and keep him fresh throughout the season. But that doesn't mean the Falcons suddenly will abandon the running game or Turner. You can bet Turner isn't going to get anywhere close to the 376 carries he had in 2008, but I still see him getting somewhere between 230 and 250 carries. The Falcons might throw the ball a little more often than in the past. But the difference will be made up by Rodgers. He didn't play a lot as a rookie, but the Falcons have big plans for him this season. He can do some things in the passing game that Turner can't, but Rodgers also is going to get some runs between the tackles.

3. It's all on the line: A lot of people talk about the pressure on Ryan and Smith. But I think the real pressure is on the offensive line. That unit was perhaps the most disappointing group last season. Ryan didn't throw the deep ball as much as the Falcons wanted, almost entirely because the offensive line couldn't protect him long enough. Other than bringing in offensive line coach Pat Hill and drafting Peter Konz, who might or might not start right away, the Falcons didn't have much turnover on the offensive line. The key is left tackle Sam Baker. He lost his starting job last season, but the Falcons say Baker was limited by injuries and is healthy now.

4. Help wanted: For far too long, Atlanta's pass rush has been defensive end John Abraham and not much else. That has to change, because Abraham is 34, and even if he has another good season, the Falcons need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive players have indicated they expect to blitz a lot more in Nolan's scheme. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas have enough quickness to be effective pass-rushers, and some members of the secondary will be asked to blitz at times. But the real key will be defensive end Ray Edwards. He didn't produce much after signing as a free agent last year. But as with Baker, the Falcons say Edwards wasn't healthy last season and is now.

5. What's left in the tank? After the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel, there was a report that Philadelphia coach Andy Reid parted with the veteran cornerback because he sensed a steep decline. Samuel has taken exception to that, and the Falcons wouldn't have made the move if their personnel people sensed a serious problem. The Falcons aren't looking for Samuel to be the player he was five years ago. They just want him to be a role player as another strong cover corner to go with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.
The next stop in our series of NFC South previews and projections is second place in the division, which was kind of difficult to determine.

That’s because I had one answer (it is my blog) and the consensus of our panel of experts was another answer. But I made the decision to go by what the consensus had to say.

Here’s the link to the preview and prediction page for the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans fans, you can thank Jeffri Chadiha for pulling the Saints down to No. 2. He has them finishing third in the division.

Here’s what I wrote about the Saints:

Five things you need to know about the Saints:

1. Who's missing? Coach Sean Payton is serving a season-long suspension. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt has a six-game suspension, and general manager Mickey Loomis has an eight-game suspension. But aside from the coaches and the administrator, the impacts of the punishments from the bounty program should be minimal. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who has a season-long suspension, was a great player a few years ago, but his age caught up to him last season. The Saints went out and upgraded when they signed Curtis Lofton. Defensive end Will Smith will be missed while he's out the first four games, but players such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson can be decent temporary fill-ins.

2. Sproles will be better: The coaching staff only just began to figure out how to use Darren Sproles last season, so it's a safe assumption he'll continue to get better. Sproles can make things happen as a runner, receiver and return man. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is going to unveil new ways to get the ball into Sproles' hands.

3. Coach on the field: Drew Brees always has been highly motivated and competitive. He signed a $100 million contract in the offseason, and that alone should have Brees motivated to prove he deserves to be the best-paid player in the league. Oh, and he can just grab onto the us-against-the-world mentality the rest of the Saints are embracing.

4. Defense will be better: The Saints parted ways with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams long before we started to hear about the bounty drama. That's because Williams' defense was no longer getting the job done. He produced enough turnovers to help the Saints win a Super Bowl in his first season. In the two seasons after that, his defense didn't produce much of anything. It's now Steve Spagnuolo's job to get the defense fixed, and that may not be an impossible task. There is some individual talent, and Spagnuolo should be able to at least slow opposing offenses with a more balanced approach. You'll see very little of the type of gambling that was common in Williams' scheme.

5. O-line change: If there's one on-field area of concern, it's the offensive line. The Saints lost Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency. They quickly replaced him with Ben Grubbs, who is only a notch or two less of a player than Nicks. But the parting of Nicks and Jahri Evans means the Saints no longer have the NFL's best guard tandem, and that's siginificant. I've always thought Nicks and Evans made center Brian De La Puente and tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief look better than they actually are. Grubbs is solid, but I don't know if he's one of those guys who can make people around him better.
We continue our season previews and predictions with the Carolina Panthers.

You can see the Panthers’ preview page and predictions if you click here. Our expert panel gave the Panthers a couple of second-place votes, but the consensus is that they’ll finish third in the NFC South. That’s the same thing I predicted.

Here’s what I wrote about the Panthers:

Five things you need to know about the Panthers:

1. What sophomore slump? I can't understand why people even suggest that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton might have a sophomore slump. It simply isn't going to happen. Did you happen to notice what Newton did last season, when he was selected the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year? Newton set all sorts of records and, most important of all, he did it in a lockout year in which he couldn't work with his coaches until training camp. Newton has had an entire offseason program with his coaching staff, and he's a year older and wiser. There's no way he takes a step backward. If anything, he takes several steps forward.

2. Looking to break out: Aside from Muhsin Muhammad, the Panthers never have had a real complement to Steve Smith. But that's about to change. The Panthers firmly believe third-year pro Brandon LaFell is ready to be a solid No. 2 wide receiver. LaFell was held back as a rookie because former coach John Fox was opposed to the team's youth movement, and his offense didn't feature the passing game. The Panthers brought LaFell along slowly last season, but he showed some promise as the year went on. After seeing LaFell in the offseason program, they are convinced he's comfortable in the offensive system and ready for a breakout season.

3. The comebacks: Much has been made about defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis missing almost all of last season due to injuries. You can't understate the significance of that because those are three key players, and the defense fell apart without them. The fact that Beason and Edwards are back is reason enough to think Carolina's defense will be significantly improved. Edwards should give the Panthers the kind of run-stuffer the Panthers have lacked since the departure of Kris Jenkins, and Beason is the defense's leader. Davis is coming off his third torn ACL, and the Panthers are realistic with their expectations. If he can contribute as a situational player, that will be viewed as a bonus.

4. Backfield in motion: A lot of people seem to be worried about how the Panthers are going to use DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the same backfield. Let offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski figure that one out. Chudzinski previously coached Tolbert in San Diego and lobbied the Panthers to sign him as a free agent. General manager Marty Hurney listened, even though he had signed Wiilliams to a big contract last year and later would sign Stewart to a contract extension. Chudzinski, called "The Mad Scientist'' by his players, must have big plans for all three. The Panthers are listing Tolbert as a fullback, but they freely admit he'll get time at tailback. Are there enough carries to keep all three happy? Chudzinski must believe so, or else he would have been lobbying for more wide receivers or tight ends.

5. The next step: One of the best moves I saw this preseason was when coach Ron Rivera called out defensive end Charles Johnson. Rivera said Johnson has been doing what's required, but not anything extra. It's not difficult to figure out what that was all about. Rivera sees a player who's accounted for 20.5 sacks the past two seasons just getting by on natural ability. The Panthers had a guy like that once. His name was Julius Peppers, and he was sometimes very good, but never consistently great. The Panthers want Johnson to step up and be great.

Previewing and predicting the Bucs

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
1:20
PM ET
As promised, we’re rolling out our predictions for the 2012 NFL season today.

We’ll go in reverse order in the NFC South. Here’s the link to the preview page for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, complete with predictions from our expert panel and me.

Here’s what I wrote about the Bucs:

Five things you need to know about the Buccaneers:

1. The real Josh? Quarterback Josh Freeman has to get back to playing like he did in 2010 for this team to have a chance. Freeman can't have another season in which he is anywhere near the league lead in interceptions. He took a lot of blame for last season, when everything was breaking down around him. But there are no excuses this time around. The Bucs acquired Vincent Jackson to be a true No. 1 receiver and guard Carl Nicks to help protect Freeman, and they drafted an all-purpose back in Doug Martin. There's a decent supporting cast in place, and the Bucs believe that will get Freeman back on track.

2. The rookie will get the ball: Although LeGarrette Blount has done everything right through the offseason, I still think Martin gets the bulk of the playing time. When he was at Rutgers, the best running back Greg Schiano ever coached was Ray Rice. Schiano has compared Martin to Rice several times and raves about his ability as an all-around back. There will be a role for Blount, likely as a power runner, but I'm guessing Martin will be on the field the bulk of the time.

3. Clark ready to bounce back: The Bucs unloaded tight end Kellen Winslow, who already was clashing with Schiano. They replaced him by signing veteran Dallas Clark, who has had injury problems in recent seasons. But Clark appears to be healthy and in great shape. The Bucs are hoping he can give them about 70 catches. They also think he'll bring a positive influence to the locker room. Clark played for a lot of good teams in Indianapolis and might be able to show the younger players how to win.

4. McCoy's health: Aside from Freeman, the player with the most pressure on him is third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He's suffered significant injuries in each of his first two seasons. When he has been healthy, it's obvious McCoy can be an impact player. But this front four, and really the entire defense, needs a 16-game season out of McCoy if it's going to be any good.

5. Problem spot? I'll wait until the regular season to decide for sure, but I'm not sold on Tampa Bay's linebackers. I think second-round pick Lavonte David is going to be very good. But I can't say the same about middle linebacker Mason Foster and outside linebacker Quincy Black. Foster struggled in the middle last season, and maybe he'll get better with experience. But Black has been around longer and never has been anything but ordinary.

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