Monday, September 3, 2007

False Starts: The NFC South

First things first: there has, in fact, been a bit of a delay in the production of this last handful of previews. As the kids say, “my bad.” In any case, we have three days until kickoff and three divisions left to cover, so according to my math the timing checks out. We’re climbing back into the saddle with the NFC South, so let’s get this thing started. . .


Your Bad Newz Kennel-approved picks for the 2007 NFC South:

4. Atlanta Falcons

I’ll leave the discussion of Michael Vick’s peculiar hobby to someone with a moral compass; for now, we’re talking football, so all that matters is that Vick won’t be playing in 2007 (or any time soon after that). We don’t really know how these Falcons operate without Vick on the field: he’s such a unique talent that the offense will have to be drastically restructured to work with Joey Harrington behind center. The chances are good that the Atlanta passing game will improve (probably in dramatic fashion), but the Falcons don’t have a good way to replace the lost production on the ground.

We’ve never seen the Atlanta receivers play with a competent pass-thrower. Whether or not Joey Harrington is that passer, we can’t be sure, but at least he’s a quarterback who looks first at the pass. Roddy White isn’t much, and Ashley Lelie left for San Francisco (he won’t be missed in the ATL). Michael Jenkins has occasionally shown flashes of ability, but tight-end Alge Crumpler always played the role of Vick’s favorite target. Joe Horn will be starting opposite Jenkins at wideout, and if nothing else he’ll provide an upgrade over White.

Harrington can’t be any worse of a thrower than Vick was, but he’s not running for 1,000 yards any time soon. There’s going to be serious strain on the Falcons’ halfbacks to provide a decent run game, especially if Harrington doesn’t perk up under a new system. Warrick Dunn remains the starter, but he’s well on the wrong side of 30 and will continue to decline. The most effective Atlanta runner (aside from Vick) was Jerious Norwood, the now-third-year back who averaged over 6 yards per carry. He’s going to have to pick up a major part of the slack if the Falcons are going to muster any kind of offense.

Then, of course, you have the new coach. Bobby Petrino enters the Atlanta job with a sterling offensive reputation, but he obviously spent the early part of his off-season designing a Vick-centric offense. He’s facing a stern test now, having to re-design the team’s system on the fly in order to tailor the playbook to Joey Harrington specifications. That’s a tall order for any coach, especially one in his first NFL head-coaching job.

The Atlanta defense has plenty of over-priced, over-the-hill talent (like Lawyer Milloy and Keith Brooking) and will struggle to stop even a mediocre offense. Playing in the same division as New Orleans will provide plenty of defensive embarrassment for the 2007 Falcons.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instability at the top has a tendency to trickle down, and the Bucs are going to pay the price for not cleaning up their leadership issues over the offseason. Coach Jon Gruden’s chair is uncomfortably warm, and he (or someone above him) brought on a heaping helping of trouble by not cutting quarterback Chris Simms before the finalization of rosters.

Simms struggled early on last year, getting occasionally replaced by Bruce Gradkowski. He eventually sustained a nasty internal injury that led to an emergency splenectomy and a lost season. Gruden has never exactly shown undying faith in Simms even when he was healthy, and that trend continued with the signing of Jeff Garcia. Some liability questions lingered in regard to the outright release of Simms because of possible medical liability, but the writing was on the wall: Gruden didn’t bring in Garcia to linger on the sidelines. Now that the Bucs have broken camp with 4 (!) quarterbacks (Luke McCown joins Garcia, Simms, and Gradkowski), those quarterback issues seem all the more pressing.

Gruden is clearly fighting for his job in Tampa. Reports have suggested that Bucs ownership made the call to keep Simms, not Gruden and GM Bruce Allen. With an aging roster and slipping performance, Gruden is clearly making a last-ditch effort to save his job by playing Garcia, a short-term solution at best. Even if Garcia is relatively successful this season, his presence is setting the Bucs franchise significantly.

Garcia is 37 years old: he’s not going to be a part of any future Tampa Bay resurgence. Likewise, the defense is struggling to replace aging players like Shelton Quarles and Simeon Rice (both of whom were released over the offseason) and to compensate for the declining play of Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. 2007 first-round pick Gaines Adams injects some fresh blood into the defensive line, but Tampa has little else in the way of young talent. The Bucs need to shift into rebuilding mode, which involves playing younger guys like Simms in order to evaluate their usefulness. Instead, Garcia will likely be finished after this year, Simms will be long-gone after being jerked around, and the Bucs will be left at square one. They don’t have much for young offensive talent: Michael Clayton has disappeared after a good rookie year, and Cadillac Williams doesn’t appear to be the franchise back the Bucs were looking for. It’s time to blow this team up.

2. Carolina Panthers

If the Panthers could play 16 games of 2-on-2 football, they’d probably run the table. Unfortunately for them, NFL rules require a team to field more than just Steve Smith and Julius Peppers; as such, Carolina is headed for an 8-8 record.

I’m feeling optimistic, so we’ll focus on the good parts first. Of course, Steve Smith is fantastic. He’s one of the premier wideouts in the league, and nobody is more dangerous in the open field. The Panthers feed him the ball as much as possible, as he’s effective on both short and long passes. Peppers is probably even better; he might be the best player in the entire NFL. He’s freaky-good in pass-rush situations, and his sick athleticism lets the Carolina staff drop him into pass coverage or do pretty much anything else they can think of with him. I think it’s safe to say he made a good call quitting basketball.

The rest of the defensive line is top-notch as well, helping to keep some double-teams off of Peppers while also taking advantage of the extra attention he demands. Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker terrorize offensive lines with regularity, helping to hide the significantly weaker linebackers behind them.

Having MLB Dan Morgan back and healthy after some serious concussion issues would be a boon to the defense; he can cover a lot of holes as the Panthers try to replace Chris Draft (now with St. Louis). In the secondary, Chris Gamble gives Carolina one solid corner, but Ken Lucas (the other starting cornerback) is getting old fast and isn’t going to help to contain New Orleans.

The offense, past Smith, looks shaky at best. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has been OK since their Super Bowl run, but he’s far from elite. He missed three games in 2007 with an injured wrist, and any missed time this year means far more David Carr than is recommended by the FDA. The Panthers released Keyshawn Johnson over the offseason, and it remains to be seen how well the likes of Keary Colbert, Drew Carter, and rookie Dwayne Jarrett can replace his production. Johnson wasn’t an elite wideout, but he provided a decent compliment to Smith and the Panthers need someone to step up into that #2 spot.

DeShaun Foster is still listed as the starting tailback, but the Panthers spent a lot of time last season figuring out ways to get the ball to DeAngelo Williams. Expect that trend to continue, as Carolina continues to phase out Foster.

This Carolina squad is just overwhelmingly mediocre. That might be enough to sneak into a Wild-Card spot, but they have no business competing for a division crown.

1. New Orleans Saints

Sure, their defense can’t stop anyone (how much fun is this Thursday’s Saints/Colts game going to be?), but with this kind of offensive firepower and a weak division, the Saints should cruise to a playoff berth. They’ve got a tasty bunch of exciting young players and one of the best quarterbacks in football: we’ll be seeing plenty of 38-34 games in the Superdome this season.

The Saints should be able to mount a pretty decent pass-rush; ends Charles Grant and Will “Insert Your Own Fresh Prince Joke” Smith combined for 16.5 sacks in 2006. The middle of the defensive line isn’t nearly as strong, although the Saints imported nose tackle Kendrick Clancy from Arizona in an attempt to fix that problem. The New Orleans linebackers are likewise competent, but on the whole underwhelming. Scott Fujita has a good story and a decent game, but he’s no game changer. Neither is Eagle-reject Mark Simoneau.

Getting Fred Thomas out of the secondary instantly improves that unit: he was a total sieve back there, and replacing him with former Colt Jason David gives the Saints a decent second corner to play with Mike McKenzie. McKenzie isn’t any kind of true shutdown corner, but he gives them decent play regardless and one could do much worse.

The Saints aren’t looking to win any 13-10 games, of course. As long as the defense can keep the opposition under 40, New Orleans will always have a shot. Drew Brees and his shoulder are just fine, thank you very much, and he gives the Saints a cornerstone at the most important position on the field. He’ll spend plenty of time getting the ball to Marques Colston, who had a fantastic rookie year and has firmly established himself as the top New Orleans wideout.

The Saints have also put together one of the most luscious running-back tandems in the NFL. Reggie Bush can do pretty much anything, and with a year under his belt he’s going to be a scary weapon. He looked increasingly comfortable later in the 2006 season, even getting some interior carries from time to time, and he spends plenty of time split out wide. Deuce McAllister provides the thunder up the middle, and he should be even better two years removed from his knee injury. All in all, the offense will be more than enough for the Saints to emerge from this weakened division.

Tomorrow: the NFC East.

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