Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The NFC South

The hopes of the Carolina Panthers rest squarely on the shoulders of Cam Newton
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The NFC South has been in flux as much as any division in football, as it's had three different division winners in the last three years - only the NFC East can match that. Last season, the two teams at the top of the division got there by improving their record by four (New Orleans) and five (Carolina) wins. As the late, great William Costigan once said, "families are always rising and falling in America." To re-appropriate the turn of phrase, teams are always rising and falling in the NFC South.

The NFC South was probably the second-best division in football last season (it's a decent argument between the NFC South and AFC West). The Falcons and Buccaneers did both go 4-12, but both sported the point differential of teams at least a win better - the Falcons would have expected to win 5.9 games, the Bucs 5.3. And at the top of the division, the Panthers and Saints were both convincingly top-5 teams in the league. They just had the misfortune of running into the NFC West buzz-saw in the playoffs.

And again, the division is in flux. After being ravaged by injuries in 2013, the Falcons should storm back towards playoff contention. After winning the division on the strength of their defense and opportune play-calling, the Panthers might take a step back after losing their two best wide receivers from a year ago (Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell) and re-vamping their secondary. The Buccaneers have climbed out from under the Josh Freeman saga, picked up a new head coach, and should have star running back Doug Martin back to 2012 form, when he was 3rd in the league in yards from scrimmage. And the Saints, well, they're still the Saints.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Falcons are listed as being better than advertised, and the Panthers are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Falcons will be better than the Panthers. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

New Orleans Saints

2013 Outcome: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South, Lost in Divisional Round
Odds To Win Division: -200
Over/Under Wins: 10.5

There were two weak links on an otherwise stellar New Orleans team last year - their run defense left something to be desired, finishing just 28th in the league in opponents' yards per rush, and safety Roman Harper had a lot of problems in coverage, especially after Kenny Vaccaro was sidelined with a broken ankle. You could squabble about their run offense as well, but their passing offense was so prolific that it didn't matter much.

All of those things should actually be better this year. They ditched Roman Harper and brought in Jarius Byrd. Byrd is one of the better coverage safeties in the league, which will allow Vaccaro to play closer to the line of scrimmage and help with run support. They also signed Champ Bailey and drafted Stan Jean-Baptiste from Nebraska to round out their secondary. With those improvements, their front seven will be able to sell out against the ground game on rushing downs.

Offensively, they'll be just about the same. Darren Sproles has been probably the most underrated part of their offense since he came to New Orleans, and he signed with Philadelphia. But they're so deep at running back that it shouldn't be too difficult to pick up the slack. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson will handle the ground game, and Pierre Thomas will take over as the primary receiving threat out of the backfield. Lance Moore left for Pittsburgh in free agency, but they drafted Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State in the first round, who is cut from the same mold as Sproles - a small, shifty space player - only from a receiver spot.

Also returning is Joe Morgan, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. In 2012, he only caught 10 balls, but those 10 receptions went for a staggering 379 yards. 10 catches, eight of them went for 27 yards or more.  After missing a full year with a torn ACL, he may not return up to snuff, but if he does, he's a unique deep threat.

If the Saints can shore up the holes in their run defense and adequately replace Sproles, they should once again find themselves contending for a Super Bowl.


Atlanta Falcons

2013 Outcome: 4-12, 3rd in NFC South, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

If you're looking for the team that finished 3rd or 4th in their division only to turn it around the following season with a combination of better luck and an easy schedule, Atlanta should be your pick. The Falcons played the 4th-hardest schedule in football last year. Julio Jones played just five games. Roddy White missed three more, and Steven Jackson missed four of his own, meaning there were a few games last season when the most dynamic weapons Atlanta had at their disposal were Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers. To his credit, Douglas did have by far the best season of his career, more than doubling his previous career highs in receptions and yards, which should give him a nice launch point for this season.

Matt Ryan will have a full compliment of weapons in 2014. Jones is healthy. White is healthy. Jackson is (mostly) healthy. If Jackson can't go, rookie Devonta Freeman will fill in. They'll certainly miss Tony Gonzalez (at the moment, Levine Toilolo sits atop their depth chart at tight end), but Jones and White at full strength will give Atlanta's passing attack all the firepower it needs.

The big question mark for Atlanta will be their defense. In 2012, they had the 12th-ranked defense and finished 13-3. Last year, they had the 29th-ranked defense and finished 4-12. Their 2014 unit will likely be somewhere in between the two. They're relying mostly on cast-offs from other teams - Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Dwight Lowery are all newcomers, and don't exactly come well-regarded from their previous teams. But simply being healthy should offer some improvement from last year.

An improved defense, a healthy offense, and an easier schedule should send Atlanta back towards the playoffs.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2013 Outcome: 4-12, 4th in NFC South, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +800
Over/Under Wins: 7

Like Atlanta, Tampa Bay is a team that could conceivably make a big jump. The Bucs had some of the worst luck any NFL team has ever had during a four game stretch in 2013 that saw Tampa lose three different games in which it had a 95 percent win probability or greater in the final five minutes.

Here they are, if you want to re-live them:

-An 18-17 loss to the Jets where a late hit penalty on Geno Smith put New York within field goal range, erasing a 98 percent win probability with 15 seconds to play.

-A 16-14 loss to the Saints in which Tampa attempted a 47-yard field goal with 1:10 left and leading by one. The field goal was no good and New Orleans marched down the field for a winning field goal in less than a minute, erasing a 99 percent win probability.

-A 13-10 loss to the Cardinals where Tampa Bay led by seven with four minutes to play and held the ball. Quarterback Mike Glennon was picked off deep in Buc territory, leading to quick Cardinal score to tie the game. The Bucs then went backward and punted on their next drive, leading to a Cardinal go-ahead field goal, and Glennon tossed another pick on Tampa's next series, erasing a 95 percent win probability.

As a bonus, the Bucs held a 99 percent win probability against eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle, on the road, in the fourth quarter of an early November game and also lost.

So yeah, those hurt, but the good news is all that can't possibly happen again, right?

One would think not, so right off the bat I'm giving the Bucs a three of four game boost into the 7-9 or 8-8 range, but Tampa could be even better than that, and there are three major reasons why.

-Lovie Smith replaces Greg Schiano: Smith is a proven winner at the NFL level, unlike Schiano, and he will bring the Tampa 2 back to Florida's Bay Area. It also helps that he has the personnel to run it. With Lavonte David serving as the new Derrick Brooks, Gerald McCoy stepping in for Warren Sapp, Alterraun Verner playing zone like Ronde Barber and Dashon Goldson popping pass catchers like John Lynch (they don't have a Simeon Rice, but stick with me here) Tampa could, and should, have one of the best defenses in football.

-The quarterback is not Josh Freeman: In three starts at the beginning of 2013, Freeman completed just 45 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions that touchdowns. Then-rookie Mike Glennon stepped in and was an immediate improvement, and the Bucs added free agent Josh McCown fresh off a solid season in Chicago. McCown would appear to be the starter for now, but almost any quarterback in the league should give Tampa Bay a better start than Freeman did last year.

-The Offense is Upgraded: The Bucs added tall, play making receiver Mike Evans in the first round of the draft to complement Vincent Jackson, along with Mackey Award winning tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. That should immediately help the passing game, as should the addition of free agent tackle Anthony Collins from Cincinnati, who should fit in very well next to the newly acquired Logan Mankins on a suddenly scary offensive line.

The return of Doug Martin from IR will help and new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford produced some amazing offenses at the college level (Oregon in the late 90s and Cal in the early to mid 2000s), though it remains to be seen what he will produce in the NFL.

Basically, things could not have gone any worse for the Bucs in 2013, so they're do for a little luck, and they've done themselves some favors, upgrading their coaching staff, quarterback, skill positions and offensive line. The defense may suffer some growing pains at first, what with a new scheme and the loss of All-World corner Darrelle Revis, but this could be one of the most improved teams in the NFL.


These Teams Aren't As Good As You Think They Are

Carolina Panthers

2013 Outcome: 12-4, 1st in NFC South, Lost in Divisional Round
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

Everything about the Panthers screams regression.

Yes, they did beat San Francisco, New England, and New Orleans last year (and come damn close to beating Seattle in Week 1), and they blew out the teams they were supposed to blow out. But their offense, especially their passing attack, was precarious already, and they lost Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, and Ted Ginn, who combined for almost 60 percent of Carolina's yardage through the air. They drafted Kelvin Benjamin, who has great size but is raw, and added Jerricho Cotchery (who is really more of a tight end at this point based on how slow he is), Jason Avant (nothing to write home about), and Tiquan Underwood (his hair is the most impressive thing about him).

Here's what happens - teams will figure out very quickly that the Panthers simply don't have the talent to make plays downfield in the passing game, especially on the outside. Their sole reliable receiver is Greg Olsen, who stays in the middle of the field, for the most part. Everything will pinch down, towards the line of scrimmage, and towards the middle of the field. Then everything rides on Cam Newton's ability to make plays outside the pocket or his scrambling. If he does that a lot, he opens himself up to injury risk. There won't be much of a running game to speak of with the entire defense crashing the line of scrimmage. The Panthers were only a middle-of-the-pack rush offense last year anyway (16th in the league in yards per rush), and DeAngelo Williams is on the wrong side of 30.

The defense will still be excellent, so Carolina will still be competitive. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson may be the best pair of defensive ends in the league (Robert Quinn and Chris Long in St. Louis may take exception), and Luke Kuechly is the reigning Defensive Player of The Year (and it was well deserved). They re-vamped their secondary a bit - Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell, and Mike Mitchell have all departed for greener pastures, replaced by Antoine Cason, Thomas DeCoud, and Roman Harper - pretty much a lateral movement, possibly even a step up.

If Cam Newton can have the kind of season he had his rookie year (4000+ passing yards, ~2700 of them to guys not named Steve Smith; 700 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns), Carolina's offense will stay afloat well enough to bring them back to the playoffs. But my guess is Newton falls short, and so do the Panthers.


No comments :