NFC South 2011-2012 Predictions

Who will win the NFC South?
Who will win the NFC South?

The NFC South has only been around for nine years now and those years each team has won the division at least twice. The Buccaneers and the Saints are the only teams to have won the Super Bowl in the division as of yet. Each team has made the playoffs three times at the least, while the Falcons led the division in playoff berths but are the only team without a Super Bowl appearance. All this being said, it goes to show you how competitive the division has been in it's short history. It has definitively been a fun division to watch recently with the Saints incredible passing game, the young and balanced attack of the Falcons, and the uprising Buccaneers. While the Panthers are clearly in rebuilding mode and not by any means going to compete for the division, the division still looks to be incredibly competitive again this year. The Falcons will look to be the first team in division history to win the division twice in a row, and with the roster they have its certainly possible.

Can the Falcons be the first team to repeat as the winners of the South Division?
Can the Falcons be the first team to repeat as the winners of the South Division?

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

The Falcons didn't make any big headline moves during the hectic off-season but on draft day they certainly made a splash by trading away almost all of their draft picks to move up and draft the highly touted wide receiver Julio Jones from Alabama. They hope that Jones can be that guy opposite of Roddy White that will take pressure off of him and help open up the field for quarterback Matt Ryan. White was often doubled last season, and the Falcons would often struggle to move the ball against the better teams (see the NFC Divisional Game against the Packers which they lost 48-21). You can also expect that the defense will improve as they added defensive end Ray Edwards from the Minnesota Vikings. While Edwards isn't a top defensive end that clearly benefited from playing with Jared Allen and company, he still is an upgrade of what the Falcons had opposite John Abraham. Edwards in his past two seasons got to the quarterback eight times, and the Falcons hope that he can maintain that consistency and improve upon it. While the Falcons don't have a great secondary, it is still solid with players like Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. If the Falcons can get a consistent pass rush especially when you consider that it is a pass happy division, then their chances of repeating as division champs greatly increase.

QB Matt Ryan is a good one, but has yet to take that next step
QB Matt Ryan is a good one, but has yet to take that next step

Player to Watch - Matt Ryan

This team lives and dies with Matt Ryan. He is a very good quarterback who continues to improve year to year but the elite quarterback talk on him needs to stop. The guy flat out puts up great numbers that people salivate over but the fact remains that he has yet to win a playoff game. Granted, he has only been in the league for three years now, but so has Joe Flacco and he has won his fair share of playoff games with less offensive talent. Again, also granted that Flacco has a fantastic defense playing on the other side of him but you never hear Flacco in the same status as Ryan when they really are about the same in talents. Ryan needs to get that monkey off his back as in both of his playoff games as he has not played well in either of his two playoff appearances. In those two games he has a 71.2 QB Rating as he has thrown four interceptions and only three touchdowns, he does however have a good completion percentage at sixty six but only for five yards per attempt. In order for him to keep that nickname "Matty Ice" he needs to play better in the playoffs. Now i know that in his career he has eight fourth quarter comebacks and thirteen game winning drives under his belt, we all know that the playoffs are a whole other beast.

CB Brent Grimes continues to improve
CB Brent Grimes continues to improve

Player on the Rise - Brent Grimes

The Falcons secondary is relatively young, but Grimes has improved greatly over the past two seasons. In fact last season he was sent to the Pro Bowl due to his play when he got five interceptions and eighty seven tackles. Now eighty seven tackles out of a corner back can be a scary stat to see, because that probably means his assignment is catching the ball. You can look at it that way but also realize that he is not giving up yards after the catch and that he is a stout tackler which helps the run defense. His coverage skills have improved year to year and his pass deflections have risen every year. He and Dunta Robinson are key to the Falcons as they both need to continuously improve upon their respective games for this team to continue to reach their aspirations of being Super Bowl winners.

Can the Saints return to glory?
Can the Saints return to glory?

2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Saints didn't need to add much to their team to continue to compete in the NFC due to the fact that Drew Brees is still playing quarterback in New Orleans. However, they made things easier on him by bolstering the offensive line by adding All-Pro center Olin Kreutz. Kreutz will solidfy the offensive line and create possible the best interior offensive line in the NFL. His presence will also create bigger holes for the running game. The Saints also bolstered the defensive line by adding Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin. This was mostly likely done due to the fact that teams were able to run on them last season, if you want proof look at Marshawn Lynch's run against them in the playoffs last year. The Saints also drafted another good rookie in Cameron Jordan to give them a good defensive end opposite Will Smith, and continued to add depth to the corner back position by adding Fabian Washington. However, teams still will not fear throwing the ball against the Saints due to the weak safety play that they get out of Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. It is clear though with the bigger names that they signed that the Saints will look to win games in the trenches by bolstering both the offensive and defensive lines.

DT Aubrayo Franklin will look to bolster the defensive line.
DT Aubrayo Franklin will look to bolster the defensive line.

Player to Watch - Aubrayo Franklin

The Saints did a good job of addressing needs this short off-season, and adding Aubrayo Franklin was possibly the best move they made. The Saints defensive line has players in each position that are more then capable of putting pressure on the quarterback and make things tougher on running backs. Franklin is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL, and is now paired with one of the best young defensive tackles in Sedrick Ellis. The two of them combined can remind people of the Jaguars days of having John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, mind you the two of them completely neutralized running games when they were in their primes. The Saints run defense last season ranked right in the middle at sixteen, but teams did run on them more then they passed. The Saints don't get much out of their linebackers so improving the defensive line was then crucial, and they did so in a big way.

Rookie RB Mark Ingram will look to contribute early
Rookie RB Mark Ingram will look to contribute early

Player on the Rise - Mark Ingram

It maybe weird to put a rookie up as a player on the rise but he could very easily compete for offensive rookie of the year this season. The Saints struggled to run the ball last season and ranked twenty eighth in rushing yards as they had injuries to the position. Ingram will come in and be the starter on day one, it also helps that he is the best pure running back that they have had since Deuce McAllister. Having Ingram will also make things easier on Drew Brees as now he won't be expected to pass the ball an obscene amount of times a game. Ingram had to be excited when he heard about the signing of Olin Kreutz as he and the dynamic duo that the Saints have at the guard position will open up huge holes in the middle of defenses this season. Ingram will also fit in with this team due to his ability to catch the football.

Can Tampa Bay improve upon their successes of last season?
Can Tampa Bay improve upon their successes of last season?

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

The Buccaneers were one of the most surprising teams last season as they went 10-6 and just missed the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. They also surprised everyone by not spending money in free agency to bolster their roster as they had the most amount of money to play with. However, when you take a moment to look at their roster you realize how young they are. Taking that in to factor, the management didn't want to add a star player or big name player to potentially disrupt the chemistry within the locker room. The team played out of their minds last season and may have played over their head but this team nonetheless will be a contender in another year or two. The front office did a great job of drafting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers as both were ranked as top five defensive ends in the draft pool. The two of them will hopefully become a great pass rushing duo as the Buccaneers as a team hardly got to the quarterback last season.

QB Josh Freeman made great strides in 2010
QB Josh Freeman made great strides in 2010

Player to Watch - Josh Freeman

The difference between Freeman's rookie season and sophomore season was like night and day. He almost doubled his QB rating and he also raised his completion percentage by seven points while throwing twenty five touchdowns and only five interceptions. Even more impressive is how he was able to put up those numbers with an average group of wide receivers that consisted of rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It did help though that Mike Williams quickly became Freeman's favorite target as he caught sixty five balls for eleven touchdowns. In order to take his team to the playoffs this time around he will have to improve upon his game even further. He proved to everyone last season that he is worthy of being a starting quarterback, this season he has to prove that not only is his a franchise quarterback but also an elite one.

RB Legarrete Blount is now the featured back.
RB Legarrete Blount is now the featured back.

Player on the Rise - LeGarrette Blount

Blount last season, like Freeman, surprised people with his play as he ran for a thousand yards as the team's backup to Cadillac Williams. Now with Cadillac gone to St. Louis, Blount is the starter and will get the bulk of the carries this season. Blount last season averaged a fantastic five yards per carry and made some insane plays last season as he impressed everyone. Looking back it is incredibly surprising how he went undrafted in 2010 and he wound up having the best season out of the all of the rookie running backs. Blount will also get more attention from defenses this season but due to his size and how he likes to pound the ball up the middle he should still be able to improve upon his numbers from last season. The Buccaneers also were wise to resign Davin Joseph to help keep their quarterback on his feet and open up holes for Blount.

One of Blount's Best Runs

Will the Panthers be able to compete?
Will the Panthers be able to compete?

4. Carolina Panthers (2-14)

The Panthers don't have much to look forward to this season. Although they do have the number one overall draft pick from this past draft, Cam Newton, who won the championship in college with Auburn, the team doesn't have enough talent to be able to compete in such a tough division. Management put pieces around whoever starts at quarterback, even though it seems likely that Newton may sit on the bench this season to learn. Management added Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, two tight ends with good hands that can act as a safety valve for whoever plays at quarterback. The team also has a solid offensive line and a good duo at running back despite the fact that they had a poor season last year. Johnathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will both get plenty of touches this season to lessen the burden on Jimmy Clausen or Cam Newtwon, whoever new head coach Ron Rivera decides to have in as the starting quarterback.

LB Jon Beason has been one of the few bright spots on the Panthers
LB Jon Beason has been one of the few bright spots on the Panthers

Player to Watch - Jon Beason

New head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive guy, he coached the defense for the Bears during there Super Bowl run and then he coached the Chargers up until now. Rivera will love Beason and the fact that he is a tackling machine, in fact he'll probably love the entire defense. The Panthers have a solid group of guys on the defensive side of the ball but none of them shine brighter then Jon Beason. In his brief but stellar career he has averaged 135 tackles a year while also getting two picks a year. Even more impressive is how he has managed to put up those numbers with an average defensive line in front of him for the most part. He played with Julius Peppers for his first three years, but Peppers phoned it in towards the end of his career in Carolina as he wanted out to go to a team with a better chance of winning. Beason is a top five linebacker that doesn't get enough credit due to the team he has played on in his four year career.

DE Charles Johnson helped ease the loss of Julius Peppers
DE Charles Johnson helped ease the loss of Julius Peppers

Player on the Rise - Charles Johnson

He better be a player on the rise after that hefty contract he got to stay in Carolina. Johnson received a contract by Carolina to stay for five years, seventy million dollars. The Panthers may have overpaid but it is what they had to do as they couldn't let their best pass rushers leave in consecutive seasons. Johnson made it easier for fans and the team to forget about the loss of Julius Peppers as he racked up 11.5 sacks and 62 tackles. Johnson will surely get double teamed more often now judging by the success he had last season but with new head coach and defensive guru Ron Rivera, I'm sure that Johnson is in good hands. Johnson will excel with Rivera coaching the defense, in fact look at the elite pass rushers Rivera has coached in the past. Rivera coached Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown and Mark Anderson all of which had some of their best seasons under Rivera's tutelage.

Who do you think will win the NFC South?

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