Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The NFC South

There are four great quarterbacks in the NFC South, but Matt Ryan is poised to be the best. (Flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Depending on how liberally one defines "arguably," there are four divisions in the league that can claim to be "arguably" the best top-to-bottom division in the NFL. Somehow, all four of them are in the NFC. We already covered the other three. In the NFC West, even the last-place Arizona Cardinals had wins over Seattle and New England, and have vastly improved their quarterback situation. In the NFC North, all four teams have won 10+ games in one of the last two seasons. And the NFC East has seen more parity than any other division in football over the last handful of seasons, with four different division winners in the last four years.

The NFC South can stake claim as well. It was the only division last year that saw all four teams win at least seven games. Granted, three of the four teams all went 7-9, but all told the division was tied for the 2nd-most wins of any division, just one behind the NFC North:

NFC North: 35-29
NFC West: 34-28-2
NFC South: 34-30
AFC North: 33-31
NFC East: 31-33
AFC South: 31-33
AFC East: 31-33
AFC West: 26-38

Heading into this season, it appears that every team has improved. The reigning division champion Falcons added Steven Jackson for a leg up in the backfield, the Saints see the return of head coach Sean Payton after last year's suspension, the Buccaneers added star cornerback Darrel Revis to shore up their last-ranked pass defense of a year ago, and the Panthers have young stars on each side of the ball, led by quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who should continue to improve.

Storyline(s) to Watch:

The Quarterback Division

If we were to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks and then grade each division based on that weight, the NFC South might come out on top. It seems that every other division has riff-raff littering the bottom third of the rankings - Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith in the AFC East, Brandon Weeden in the AFC North, [Insert Jacksonville Starting Quarterback Here] in the AFC South, [Insert Oakland Starting Quarterback Here] in the AFC West, Christian Ponder in the NFC North, and Carson Palmer in the NFC West. Michael Vick could go either way, depending on how he fits into Chip Kelly's offense, but if you were betting your life on which division would have the best top-to-bottom quarterback play, you'd bet on the NFC South.

For the most part, each of these teams will only take them as far as their quarterback takes them. None of them have elite defenses, so they'll need their offenses to carry them.

Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are the known quantities of the group - they might be the two best quarterbacks in the conference outside of Wisconsin. Cam Newton and Josh Freeman are the enigmas. Both have displayed an ability to put up gaudy stats, but both struggle with turnovers and both struggle to make effective reads while running no-huddle. A step forward for either of them could mean a trip to the postseason for their team.


Can Matt Ryan "Win the Big One?"

Hello Matt Ryan, and welcome to the "can he win the big one?" club. It is a fraternity reserved for quarterbacks that put up elite numbers, make everyone around them better, yet haven't captured a Super Bowl. Dan Marino is perhaps the most the club's most famous member, but guys like Dan Fouts, Steve Young, and more recently Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have all endured questions of whether or not they could win the big one. Fouts and Marino are the only two above that retired having not won a Super Bowl.

So the pressure will be on Ryan, a player that by pretty much any measure is a top-5 or 6 quarterback, to bring the Lombardi to Atlanta. It is a little silly that in this sport we consider the "ultimate team game," quarterbacks are judged primarily on championships, but it is what it is.

So, can Matt Ryan win the big one?

Well, it won't be easy coming out of an NFC that features San Francisco, Seattle, Green Bay and an abundance of young quarterback talent, but the Falcons have as good a shot as anybody. Gone are burnt-out running back Michael Turner and pass rusher John Abraham, and in are Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora. Those moves alone should give the Falcons and upgraded running game and defense, but rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford seem like they could help improve the secondary immediately as well.

There is concern along the offensive line with the departure of longtime starters Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo at center and right tackle respectively, but with one of the league's premier receiving corps and upgrades everywhere else, Ryan should have the tools to win a title in 2013.


Player(s) to Watch:

Darrelle Revis

The Bucs ranked dead last in the league in pass defense a year ago, but a pair of offseason additions have Tampa thinking it may have one of the NFL's better secondaries in 2013. One of those additions is safety Dashon Goldson, a former 49ers and Pro Bowler the last two seasons. But the move that could really transform Tampa's defensive backfield and, maybe, entire defense, is the signing of former Jets corner Darrelle Revis.

Revis was widely considered the game's top shut-down cover corner from 2009 until he tore his ACL early last year, and from what we've gathered from his Twitter feud with Seattle's Richard Sherman and interviews he's done over the summer, Revis intends to be the best again quickly.

You never know with ACL tears, but don't be surprised if Revis is again among the league's elite defensive players in 2013, and he may need to be. An improved secondary is almost imperative for the Bucs at this point. Tampa recorded only 27 sacks last season-3rd lowest in the league- and lost nine-sack defensive end Michael Bennett to the Seahawks this offseason.

While there is young talent up front in Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers and Gerald McCoy, the best remedy for stopping the pass-happy offenses in this division may be to send their top receiver to Revis Island.


Kenjon Barner

The oft-injured Jonathan Stewart will start the season on the PUP list, which means for the first six weeks of the season, DeAngelo Williams will be the only tailback on Carolina's roster with legitimate NFL experience (unless for some stupid reason you want to count Armond Smith's six career carries for a total of two yards). And Williams is at a point in his career where giving him more than 200 carries in a season is probably a bad idea. Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined for 147 carries last year, and averaged just 3.5 yards per rush between them, so even if they were available for a heavy workload, it probably wouldn't be a super idea.

Kenjon Barner is likely to pick up that slack, and he'll likely be a good fit - he has a lot of experience in the spread zone-read offense, gaining 2,700 yards and scoring 32 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons at Oregon. The downside to Barner is that he's merely an adequate pass receiver and his blocking and blitz recognition would be most diplomatically described as "adventurous," but he should be able to provide some dynamism as a runner.


Jeremy's Picks:

Falcons: 11-5
Saints: 10-6
Buccaneers: 7-9 
Panthers: 6-10

Joe's Picks: 

Falcons: 13-3 
Saints: 11-5 
Buccaneers: 7-9 
Panthers: 6-10

No comments :