Monday, August 10, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The NFC South

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

Daphne and I return to discuss the NFC South, a division that was among the worst in league history last year.

Reigning champion Carolina captured the division crown with just seven wins in 2014, and perennial contender New Orleans enters full rebuild mode next to inconsistent Atlanta and the hard-luck Bucs of Tampa.

Can anybody in this division actually make some noise in 2015? Daphne and I investigate.

The Favorites

Carolina Panthers

It's hard to really say anybody is a "favorite" in this division, but Carolina is the defending champ (at 7-8-1, but whatever), and did win a playoff game last season. The Panthers were a mediocre offense that leaned on the ground game, but they'll need quarterback Cam Newton to take the next step as a passer if they're to be anything more than an average team in 2015.

He should benefit from at least a slightly improved supporting cast with receiver Kelvin Beachum coming back with a year of experience under his belt, and Tedd Ginn Jr. and rookie Devin Funchess joining the receiving corps.

Newton was beaten and bruised last year after left tackle Jordan Gross retired, and the Panthers will hope free agent addition Michael Oher can at least be serviceable in that spot this year.

Defensively, Carolina is loaded, especially up front. The Panthers bring back All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, along with strongside backer Thomas Davis. The linebacker group could even get better with first round pick Shaq Thompson entering the fray, and the line has one of the league's best tackle duos in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.

Safety Tre Boston was a pleasant surprise last year, so he'll return to try and make the secondary decent alongside free agent addition Charles Tillman.

Carolina isn't going to be a dominant team, but in this division, they don't need to be.

The Question Mark

New Orleans' Makeover

Ever since Drew Brees arrived in NOLA in 2006, the Saints have been relevant league-wide due to an offense that has ranked in the Top-5 five different times, and led the league twice in that span. Brees has led the Saints to a Super Bowl win and five playoff appearances, but New Orleans appears to be in a period of transition.

The normally high-flying Saints sent away their best pass catcher in tight end Jimmy Graham, and got stud center Max Unger in return from Seattle. The Saints also lost deep threat Kenny Stills to Miami in free agency, and will lean on a running back corps led by Mark Ingram and new addition C.J. Spiller to carry the offensive load behind a re-tooled line.

Could New Orleans actually become a running team?

It would make some sense, as they've also invested heavily in their defense, adding corner Brandon Browner from New England, pass rusher Anthony Spencer from the Cowboys and linebacker Dannel Ellerbe.

Cutting troubled linebacker Junior Galette hurts, but there is nowhere to go other than up for a Saints defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last year.

With a new-look line, rebuilt defense, big money invested in the backfield and diminished passing weapons, will New Orleans emerge from this facelift a better team? Time will tell.

The Theme

Fight for Mediocrity

Carolina will look to run and defend its way to another division title, while New Orleans attempts to reinvent itself in one year, but are either of these teams elite? Probably not, and that opens the door for a team like Atlanta that has explosive potential on offense, and (like New Orleans), nowhere to go but up on defense.

Heck, it's not even out of the question that the Bucs could catch some luck and win this division. With some tremendous defensive talent and a few offensive playmakers, Tampa Bay is just some competent quarterback play away from being mediocre.

It may be a race to mediocrity, and nearly any of the division's teams can win it.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog
Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons had the worst defense in football last year, but if anybody can shuffle the deck and make things better, it's new head coach Dan Quinn. After building a monster as the defensive coordinator in Seattle, Quinn will just hope for competency from a defense that was shredded for nearly 400 yards per game last year.

First round pick Vic Beasley should excel as a hybrid edge rusher in Quinn's defense, but he'll take some time to come along, so improvement must come from a veteran line and secondary that haven't performed in recent years.

On offense, the picture is much rosier, with the dynamic receiving duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White. Injuries have kept these two from playing together much the last few years, but with a little luck, Atlanta could have a Top-5 passing game.

The running game could get a big boost from rookie Tevin Coleman, an underrated speedster from Indiana that can hit homeruns on the ground, and as a receiver out of the backfield.

Like every other team in this division, there are some holes, but the Falcons do have a star quarterback in Matt Ryan, and he actually has some weapons at his disposal. That may be enough.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay

McCoy is the perfect three-technique defensive tackle, excelling as an interior pass rusher, and quickly filling gaps against the run. While most of Tampa's defense struggled in its first year playing coach Lovie Smith's "Tampa 2" (ironically), McCoy amassed 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, even while facing double teams and extra attention from opposing quarterbacks.

With a few new additions around him, such as "Tampa 2" tackle Henry Melton and pass rusher George Johnson, look for McCoy to enjoy an even better year in 2015.

In the Dog House
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay

When you draft a quarterback No. 1 overall, as the Bucs did with Winston, he needs to pan out. "Famous Jameis" has already been named the starter, and Tampa seems ready to make him the face of the franchise. Pretty odd, considering Winston has already been accused of rape and theft, and suspended from Florida State for other inappropriate behavior.

But we already know this guy is a schmuck off the field, what's scary is that he wasn't even good enough ON THE FIELD last year to justify being the top pick in the draft.

True, Florida State rolled through the regular season and ACC championship game undefeated, earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, and Winston did make some big plays along the way, but he also dug the Seminoles into plenty of holes, and came up short against the few decent defenses on FSU's schedule.

Against the four Top-25 defenses Winston faced last year, he threw 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, including a 4 INT stinker against rival Florida in a game where the Gators couldn't do anything offensively. He also came up with one of the most humorous plays in the history of the Rose Bowl against Oregon, and saw his teammates beat Clemson, the nation's No. 1 defense, without him while he served a suspension.

In all, Winston threw 18 interceptions last year against a relatively soft schedule. If not for his Heisman season of 2013, Winston would not have even been in the conversation for the top pick. The last quarterback to win the Heisman, then face trouble off the field and regress their following season in college before becoming a first round pick: Johnny Manziel.

Now, to be fair, Winston has the potential to be a Ben Roethlisberger (big, mobile, strong-armed, knack for making plays in big moments, potential to be accused of sexual assault multiple times), but he also has the downside of a Josh Freeman or (gasp), Jamarcus Russell (he's fat).

Good luck rolling the dice on this guy Bucs fans.


Joe: 1. Carolina, 2. New Orleans, 3. Atlanta, 4. Tampa Bay
Daphne: 1. Atlanta, 2. Carolina, 3. New Orleans, 4. Tampa Bay

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