NFC South: Zach Streif

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.
Carl Nicks repeatedly has said he’d like to stay with the New Orleans Saints.

But, as we count down the hours until Tuesday’s start of free agency, Nicks said he still hasn’t received an offer from the only team he has ever played for. He also said he believes the Saints can’t afford him and don’t want to “disrespect’’ him by making him an offer that won’t make him the league’s highest-paid guard (more than $8.5 million per season).

Barring a last-minute surge in salary-cap room, the Saints probably will let Nicks hit the open market. As I’ve written before, NFC South rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay could be in the market for Nicks. So could a lot of other teams around the league. That’s because Nicks is the league’s best guard and he’s only 26.

If the Saints lose Nicks, they’re losing a lot. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Nicks and teammate Jermon Bushrod led all offensive players in snaps played in 2011 with 1,177. In other words, Nicks and Bushrod played in every one of New Orleans’ offensive snaps. New England quarterback Tom Brady (1,149 snaps) and Atlanta Justin Blalock (1,147) and tackle Tyson Clabo (1,147) rounded out the top five.

In addition to being a dominant pass blocker, Nicks also has been stellar in the running game. The Saints averaged 6.6 yards when running to the left last season. That average ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

Nicks and Jahri Evans have formed the best guard tandem in the league in recent years. Their play probably has helped center Brian De La Puente, Bushrod and right tackle Zach Strief.

If Nicks leaves, the Saints still have an elite guard in Evans. But they’ll no longer have an elite player on both sides of the offensive line.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
4:00
PM ET

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

 
 Derick Hingle/Icon SMI
 Jermon Bushrod has filled in admirably for Pro Bowler Jammal Brown, who's out for the season.
The dome will be Super. I don’t do game predictions, but I will admit I like the Saints’ chances against the Giants. That’s not just because I think the Saints have a great offense and a very good defense. It’s largely because I think the home field is going to be a big advantage. It hasn’t always been the case, but, when the Saints are playing well, the Superdome can be an incredible place. The Saints are playing very well and New Orleans is very excited. When the atmosphere and circumstances are like this, the Superdome is easily the toughest venue in the NFC South.

A problem spot? The one subtle thing that’s amazed me about the Saints is how well they’ve been able to move on without injured left tackle Jammal Brown. The guy’s a Pro Bowler and you’re supposed to miss a couple beats when you’re without a Pro Bowl left tackle. The Saints haven’t and that’s a tribute to Jermon Bushrod, Zach Strief, the coaching staff and Drew Brees. But I worry a bit that the Giants have the kind of pass rush that might be able to exploit Bushrod or Strief.

By the way, the Falcons play this week, too. In any other week, the game between the Falcons and Bears would get top billing. But with the undefeated Saints and Giants playing, this game, understandably, has taken a backseat. But let’s not sell this one short. It’s a matchup of two 3-1 teams and there’s history involved. Last year, Matt Ryan pulled off a miracle to beat the Bears and both teams remember that very well. By the time this game starts, the Giants and Saints will be done. No matter how that turns out, the Falcons are going to have plenty of motivation. They’re either going to be playing for a piece of first place in the NFC South or trying to stay within striking distance of the Saints.

“The Burner’’ is fine. I’ve been asked by every fantasy-football player I know (and some I don’t know) about Atlanta running back Michael Turner this week. He was seen limping at the end of last week’s game in San Francisco and that’s got all the people who worry about Turner’s yards and touchdowns in a frenzy. Relax, Turner hasn’t been on Atlanta’s injury report and has been practicing all week. Start him, if you've got him.

Battle of attrition. You can make a pretty strong case that Tampa Bay and Carolina have had the NFC South’s most heated rivalry since the division came into existence. Well, just about everything can change over time and this game has absolutely no sizzle. You want a storyline for this matchup? How about: We’re going to find out which team has more problems.

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