Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC South team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:
Atlanta Falcons: RB Steven Jackson. This one was very difficult. Roddy White and Julio Jones are better and more dynamic football players than Jackson at this point of their respective careers, but the trio of White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez allows the Falcons a little leeway in terms of losing one of those three stars. If the Falcons had one standout offensive lineman, that would have been my choice, but there isn’t one player up front who stands head and shoulders above his peers. The defense isn’t in a position to lose its top players, but who is most valuable on that side of the ball? Asante Samuel? Sean Weatherspoon? A case could be made for either. And I am sure many of you are thinking, “Hey Matt, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t too shabby without Jackson last season. Happen to remember that?” Frankly, I don’t have much of a rebuttal for that assessment. But I do expect Jackson to make a major difference in his first season as a Falcon. The upgrade he represents -- in all facets of the position -- over Michael Turner is stunning. Atlanta will very soon learn to lean on its new back.
Carolina Panthers: WR Steve Smith. Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly are extremely important to this franchise, but outside of Smith, Cam Newton has very little to throw to, which, frankly, this team should be criticized for. So Smith, even at his age (34), will be absolutely instrumental to the success of the Panthers in 2013 as well as for the continued development of Newton. Smith plays much bigger than he is and brings an attitude to Carolina’s offense. I haven’t seen any major drop-off in his play of late, but the Panthers do need to address the wide receiver position next offseason to prepare for the inevitable life without their star wideout.
New Orleans Saints: TE Jimmy Graham. Graham is poised to have a massive 2013 campaign. Remember, this guy hasn’t been playing the game very long -- and it has shown throughout his career, as Graham is still very much learning the game and the tight end position. But obviously, his talent and playmaking skills are off the charts. Few move as well as Graham at his size, and he plays the game aggressively. He is one of the best tight ends at stretching the field. He can be nasty with the ball in his hands and has a ridiculous catching radius to haul down passes that most NFL receivers cannot. And of course, Drew Brees knows this. With Brees’ pinpoint accuracy, he puts the football in spots where the defender has no chance to make a play as Graham pulls it down. The Saints have a terrific passing attack and now get Sean Payton’s great mind for the passing game, back from his 2012 suspension. The pure talent of the Saints’ wide receivers doesn’t blow you away, but their star tight end very much does.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Darrelle Revis. The Buccaneers’ pass defense was far too generous in 2012. The pass rush was a problem, and that area still very much concerns me. But the cover men also were huge liabilities. That should not be the case anymore. Not only did Tampa Bay bring in the best cover man of this generation in Revis, but it also signed Dashon Goldson to pair with last year’s first-round pick, Mark Barron, at safety and drafted Johnthan Banks, who should compete for a starting spot opposite Revis. But it is Revis the Bucs need to count on. As he showed so many times with the Jets, Revis is capable of eliminating an opponent’s best receiver by himself, which essentially would allow the Buccaneers to play 10 versus 10 against the opposing offense. The ripple effect would allow Tampa Bay to blitz with more regularity, which clearly helps its suspect pass rush. That is, of course, if Revis is healthy. Hopefully for Tampa Bay’s sake, it doesn’t have to find out how indispensable Revis is before he even gets the chance to contribute.