Posted July 19, 2013

2013 NFL Preview: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Division Previews, New Orleans Saints, NFC South, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Saints went 1-1 against the Falcons last season, but Atlanta ran away with the NFC South, winning the division by 6 games.

The Saints went 1-1 against the Falcons last season, but Atlanta ran away with the NFC South, winning the division by six games. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.

With the New Orleans Saints flailing, and the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still tweaking their rosters, the Atlanta Falcons absolutely coasted to the NFC South title last season. Atlanta won the division by a whopping six games and needed until only Week 13 to clinch.

The road figures to be rockier in 2013, through no fault of the Falcons.

Atlanta is more than capable, on paper, of being an NFC frontrunner, but the rest of its division rivals all believe they can get to the postseason. All three might be right, too, given the key upgrades secured by the Saints, Panthers and Bucs.

What’s in store for the NFC South this year?

Atlanta Falcons

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora; drafted CB Desmond Trufant, CB Robert Alford, DE Malliciah Goodman, TE Levine Toilolo

Subtractions:
RB Michael Turner, OT Tyson Clabo, C Todd McClure, DE John Abraham, DT Vance Walker, CB Brent Grimes, CB Dunta Robinson, S Chris Hope

Where they got better: Running back. Michael Turner gave the Falcons some good years, but he clearly was running on fumes last season as he posted a career-worst 3.6 yards-per-carry average and his lowest rushing total (800) since joining Atlanta. Steven Jackson is not that much younger — he’ll be 30 this month; Turner turned 31 in February — but he hasn’t slowed down, topping 1,000 yards in 2012 for the eighth consecutive season. He adds more power and giddy-up to the Atlanta backfield, and a change of scenery might even rejuvenate the three-time Pro Bowler a bit.

Where they got worse: The offensive line. Specifically, right tackle and center. Gone from those positions, respectively, are Tyson Clabo, who missed one game over the past five seasons, and Todd McClure, a starter on the Falcons’ line since 2000. Either 2012 third-rounder Lamar Holmes or Mike Johnson will nab Clabo’s spot to Matt Ryan’s throwing side. Clabo was a top-15 tackle in Pro Football Focus’s 2012 rankings, so the bar is high. At center, the Falcons will look to Peter Konz, who’s coming off an up-and-down year as a rookie guard. He is a more natural fit at center, but is he ready for the responsibilities there?

Breakout player: Desmond Trufant, CB. He or fellow rookie CB Robert Alford has to break out, really, if the Falcons are going to thrive. One of that pair, likely Trufant, will take the starting job vacated by Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. In a division with multiple high-powered offenses, the secondary will be tested.

Where they stand: The Falcons made only minor tweaks to their roster, necessitated by free agency or the salary cap. That’s a sign of a team that believes it is close to winning it all. And the Falcons should believe that, after coming within a defensive stop or two of downing San Francisco in last season’s NFC title game. They will not have an easy time repeating as South division champions, but the Falcons are an upper-echelon team within the conference. It’s Super Bowl or bust … again.

Carolina Panthers

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, LB Chase Blackburn, CB Drayton Florence, S Mike Mitchell; drafted DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, G Edmund Kugbila, LB A.J. Klein, RB Kenjon Barner; promoted Mike Shula to O.C.

Subtractions:
WR Louis Murphy, DT Ron Edwards, OLB James Anderson, OLB Jason Phillips, CB Chris Gamble

Where they got better: Defensive tackle. Star Lotulelei, a player some experts had pegged as the 2013 draft’s top prospect before concerns about his heart sidelined him at the combine, fell into Carolina’s lap at No. 14. Don’t overlook the later pickup of second-rounder Kawann Short, a versatile and active defensive tackle capable of playing multiple spots on the line. The rookies and veteran Dwan Edwards, off a career-high six sacks in 2012, make Carolina much more formidable up the gut. The linebacking corps of Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason should be better as a result.

Where they got worse: Outside linebacker. James Anderson and Jason Phillips are gone, and … well … where’s the safety net here? Davis will start on the strongside in 2012, with Beason on the weakside. That’s fine on paper, but Davis missed 27 games from 2009-11 and has torn his ACL three times, while Beason has played five total games the past two years. Fifth-rounder A.J. Klein and ex-Giant Chase Blackburn will provide depth at all three linebacker spots, leaving the Panthers with very little margin for error and few proven options behind their starting three.

Breakout player: Josh Norman, CB. The Panthers’ secondary looks to be their Achilles heel entering 2013, but Norman could shore up the situation if he elevates his game. Despite being benched late last season, Norman is all but locked into a starting CB job, and he has the playmaking ability to make an impact.

Where they stand: The Carolina Jekylls and Hydes are one of the toughest team to peg. They started 2011 at 4-8, then finished 4-2; last season, they were 3-9, then ran off four straight wins, including one over the Falcons, to close the year. If Cam Newton finds his rhythm in, say, September as opposed to December, the offense could be a top-10 group. How well the defensive backfield performs might make or break the Panthers’ chances at sticking in the division race all season long.

New Orleans Saints

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed TE Benjamin Watson, OT Jason Smith, DE Kenyon Coleman, OLB Victor Butler (injured), CB Chris Carr, CB Keenan Lewis; drafted S Kenny Vaccaro, OT Terron Armstead, NT John Jenkins, WR Kenny Stills; hired D.C. Rob Ryan

Subtractions:
RB Chris Ivory, WR Devery Henderson, OT Jermon Bushrod, DT Sedrick Ellis, OLB Jonathan Casillas, CB Johnny Patrick

Where they got better: The secondary. The Saints would have been hard-pressed to get worse anywhere defensively after allowing an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season. The pass D was responsible for 4,681 of that total, a number topped by only the Buccaneers (4,758). The restoration project may take more than one season, but the Saints landed a solid corner in Keenan Lewis and a potential game-changer at safety in Kenny Vaccaro. Add in some new bit players like Jim Leonhard and Chris Carr, and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at least has a shot at slowing down opposing offenses.

Where they got worse: Offensive tackle. Jermon Bushrod’s success (which landed him a lucrative contract from the Bears) was in part a product of Drew Brees’ quick-strike passing approach. But Bushrod’s departure still leaves the Saints down a very important man on their line. Charles Brown will be first up in trying to replace Bushrod, possibly with pressure from 2009 draft bust Jason Smith or 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead. Brees’ ability to get the ball out will help whomever winds up at LT, too, but there is no way to sugarcoat the lack of a definitive starter here.

Breakout player: Junior Galette, OLB. The native of Haiti has 9.5 sacks over the past two seasons, but just two starts. He should see the field a lot more in 2013, with the Saints transitioning to a 3-4 defense. His sack total ought to skyrocket given the natural pass-rushing ability he’s shown.

Where they stand: Can we just throw last season out? From the bounty scandal to Sean Payton’s suspension to the Saints’ 7-9 record, it was a lost year and one hardly indicative of how this team stacks up for 2013. The offense, again, will be lethal, with Drew Brees in search of his third straight season topping 5,000 yards passing. New Orleans even could be a Super Bowl threat, provided Ryan can transform the defense from sieve to strength — or, at least, not an embarrassment. Atlanta deserves to be the NFC South favorite, but the Saints definitely could leap frog their way back to the top.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed RB Brian Leonard, WR Kevin Ogletree, TE Tom Crabtree, DT Derek Landri, OLB Jonathan Casillas, S Dashon Goldson; traded for OT Gabe Carimi, CB Darrelle Revis; drafted CB Johnthan Banks, QB Mike Glennon, DT Akeem Spence, DE William Gholston

Subtractions:
RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Dallas Clark, DE Michael Bennett, DT Roy Miller, OLB Quincey Black, CB E.J. Biggers, S Ronde Barber

Where they got better: The secondary. As mentioned above with the Saints, the Buccaneers had nowhere to go but up here after ranking dead last in the league — the 4,758 yards they allowed last season were more than all but two Arena Football defenses coughed up over the same span of games. Tampa Bay addressed the problem even more aggressively than the Saints did, trading for Darrelle Revis, signing safety Dashon Goldson and drafting Johnthan Banks. Revis was the league’s premier CB prior to tearing his ACL last season. If he’s ready in time for Week 1, Revis would start with Banks or Eric Wright. (Editor’s note: The secondary  situation is a little uncertain now, with Friday’s surprising announcement that Tampa Bay has traded Wright to the San Francisco 49ers for a conditional late-round pick in 2014. Read more here.)

Where they got worse: Defensive end. The Buccaneers had a mere 27 sacks last season, the third lowest total in the NFL. Nine of those came courtesy of Michael Bennett, who bolted for Seattle in the offseason. Without him, the Buccaneers need Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn to shake off some injury woes and consistently harass opposing quarterbacks. There’s not much help behind them, either, save for Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (4 sacks in 2012) and rookie William Gholston. The defensive line’s inability to get to the quarterback certainly did the beleaguered secondary no favors last season.

Breakout player: Tom Crabtree, TE. The Buccaneers plucked Crabtree from Green Bay as a restricted free agent. He was a bit player in the Packers’ explosive passing attack, but he projects as the Bucs’ best pass-catching option at tight end. Given an opportunity, he easily could surpass incumbent Luke Stocker’s 16-catch performance from last season.

Where they stand: In spite of their defensive deficiencies and a subpar season from QB Josh Freeman (54.8 percent completion rate), the Buccaneers were 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race last season. They lost their next three games by a total of 11 points, then finished with a 7-9 mark. Greg Schiano’s second season as head coach brings with it a more hand-picked roster — right down to backup QB Mike Glennon. Revis must stay healthy and return to pre-injury form and Freeman has to take the next step. Should both those things happen, this could be a surprise playoff team.

29 comments
Rickapolis
Rickapolis

It took Matt Ryan five years to win a playoff game. How long before he wins another?

sincityq
sincityq

Carolina is on the rise. The Falcons own the top spot unless the Panthers reach the nest 

Tampa Bay is still rediscovering itself. The Saints are living on memories of the past.

1. Falcons 1a. Panthers 3. Saints 4. Buttoneers

nola70118
nola70118

No NFC South team has ever won the division two years in a row.  Saints will be back on top this year.

Bucman
Bucman

Bucs will make noise this year.

dennis
dennis

If Sean Payton ( & Joe Vitt) had been on the field in every game last season, the Saints would have scored one more touchdown per game, and the other teams would have scored one less. That would put them at 14-2 and a Superbowl win in their home stadium. But, Roger Goodell didn't want that. 

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

"IF", "IF", "IF" if a frog had wings it would not bump his tail ever time it jumped.  In the NFC last year the Panthers swept the NO Saints, and should have swept the Atlanta team as well, I am not sure what they did with the Bucks.  My point is Atlanta beat the teams outside the NFCS not the teams in the league and the same thing is going to happen this year.  Soooooo, Atlanta does not have a shoe in for the conference title. The Panthers have as much or more talent then Atlanta with exception to its DB's, the difference is only that Atlanta won more game.  That has changed this year because its a new year and Atlanta has not played anyone in the NFCS yet, they will be lucky to split, which means they will have 4 losses just in the conference.  Go Panthers.

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

Projected order of finish:
Atlanta
Tampa
New Orleans
Carolina

Atlanta and Tampa both make playoffs.

C-Diddy
C-Diddy

@Rickapolis Wrong question.  Question is "how long until he wins his first Super Bowl?"

Answer: this year.

JohnP
JohnP

6 months from now

JohnP
JohnP

You didn't read the Bucs section it sounds like

NeMoeImya
NeMoeImya

@Bucman Yes, they will.


A loud, long, sucking noise: SLUUUUUUURRRRRRPP!

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@dennis Sure and if a frog had wings it would not bust its ask everytime it jumped.  Go Panthers.

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@dennis Except when they would have lost to Seattle or San Francisco.
Didn't those two beat the Saints in the playoffs with Sean Payton coaching in previous years?

Unicornhunter
Unicornhunter

@dennis you say that as if its a scientific fact, instead of one person's unsupported and ludicrous opinion.  No coach is worth a 14 point shift per game, its laughable to even argue that.

bucsfan3
bucsfan3

@ahrcshaw It's convenient that you forgot that the Bucs swept the Panthers

dennis
dennis

@ahrcshaw If the Panthers had beaten the Saints with their head coach on the field, then they would have  accomplished something... but they didn't. The Saints had to do something that no other NFL team has had to do... EVER! Therefore, it's time for every other team they play this year to suffer the consequences, because Sean Payton is really teed off and motivated.

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@nfinitwordsfoto   You have got to be kidding?  Atlanta maybe 11-5, No 10-6. Panthers 10-6,  Bucks 9-7  All of them will end up 4-4 in the NFC conference meaning they will all have 4 losses playing conference fows.  And Quite frankly I would be willing to think that the Panthers may sweep Atlanta this year as they should have in 2012. 


ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@JohnP They shored up some corner, but they can't score. If they can hold a team under 16 points they may win, otherwise they are gone.

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@bucsfan3 @ahrcshaw  Sorry it was not convenient it was a stupid omision on my part,  but never the less my point that more then likely each team in the NFCS will end up 4-4 against conference fows.

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@dennis @ahrcshaw  Sean Payton like any head coach is missed when they are not present or they would not be the head coach.  By the way the media is handeling his return you would think he could walk on water or something.  He is good but not that good, but like all wins you can not erase them so the fact stands that the Panthers swept them in 2012.  We will see what the magical Payton can do in 2013. he has a very good QB, but has a lot of work ahead of him and motivation does not win games.  I will add that he probably is teed off sinse he had to carry that pro golfers bag!  Thats a pun. 

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@mantistoboggan @JohnP  It will be an even split, each team will end up 4-4 in the conference.  At this point I do not think any one team can sweep the others.

mantistoboggan
mantistoboggan

@JohnP  Bucs averaged over 24 points a game last year and were top 10 in yards.  The bucs offense can keep up with any team in the south.  Best RB and O-line in the south. Bucs are going to turn some heads, would not at all be shocked if they take the south.

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

@JohnP @ahrcshaw @bucsfan3 I as you prabably guess am not a Bucks fan, so its nice to know they were 13th in points scored.  I guess I should have said they could not score with Freeman as QB because he is so inconsitant.  It would not suprise me one bit if the rookie did not take over OB at some point this year.

JohnP
JohnP

@ahrcshaw @bucsfan3 Bucs were 13th in the league in points scored last year. I don't understand how that means "they can't score". The Bucs were very much in the thick of many of the games they lost this year. If they can somehow get Bowers and Clayborne and the D-Line to play well they should continue to be in games. Freeman needs to step it up consistently

bucsfan3
bucsfan3

@ahrcshaw @bucsfan3 You're probably right about each team going 4-4.  Top to bottom, there might not be a more competitive division in the entire league.