NFL 2012 Season Preview: NFC South

We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions and pick our division winners, likely wild cards for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes.

Many people consider a division like the NFC East to be the most competitive and it definitely is every year, but nothing can touch what the NFC South has been able to do since it was established in 2002.  Every one of the teams has made a conference championship game appearance- something that no other division has been able to do in that time.  Not only that, but each team has already been crowned as the division champs two times with no team winning back-to-back division titles.  How is that for competitive?  Will that streak finally end as the Saints will have to overcome turmoil from this past offseason with the bounty scandal?  Can Cam Newton carry over his performance from last season?  Alex Herd and Mike Aurigemma sit down to discuss these very questions and much more.

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1. Atlanta Falcons

AH: The Falcons are coming off of a rather mediocre 10-6 season where they played second fiddle in the NFC South as Brees was busy passing all over the rest of the league.  However, just because the Falcons weren’t in the spotlight doesn’t mean they weren’t worth watching.  Matt Ryan had the best statistical season of his career during his 4th season, setting career highs in yards (4,177), TDs (29), and QB Rating (92.2).  Michael Turner also had a great season with over 1,300 yards and 11 TDs, while almost doubling his previous high in receiving yards despite not being talked about among the league’s top backs.  Roddy White had what many people considered to be a “down” year while putting up just under 1,300 yards and 8 TDs.  Yet the most watched member of the offense was rookie WR Julio Jones who in 13 games piled up 959 yards and 8 TDs and is projected to do much more this season.

The Falcons will once again start the year out of the spotlight with all eyes on how the Saints will deal with having their team dismantled in “Bounty Gate” or how Cam Newton will follow up his dominating rookie season.  This could end up being a blessing in disguise as the Falcons can casually do what they do best, which is win games.  Matt Ryan only has 4 home losses in his four seasons at the helm in Atlanta, making the Georgia Dome one of the hardest places to play in the league.

Much like the other teams in the division, offense clearly won’t be a problem for the self dubbed “greatest show on turf.”  However, their defense, led by veteran John Abraham, held its own last season as well.  They allowed 22.4 point per game last year which was just in the top half of the league.

The Falcons are by no means guaranteed to get the division title but with the Saints having to overcome the wrath of the commissioner, the door is open for them to walk in.  If Ryan continues to improve on his already impressive resume and Julio Jones lives up to the hype, they will be one of the toughest offenses to stop in the league.

Season Projection: 11-5

2. New Orleans Saints

MA:  It was an offseason full of turmoil for the Saints as the bounty scandal hit the news and will continue to impact them as the season goes on.  The team will definitely miss the play of both Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith on the defensive side of the ball.  Those two are key ingredients to the team, but it will be much tougher to replace head coach Sean Payton.  It will be interesting to see the mentality of the Saints heading into the season and if they take the us-against-the-world approach that we saw the New England Patriots take back in 2007.

One of the things you can always count on if you are a Saints fan is the play of quarterback Drew Brees.  I cannot see that changing anytime soon, even with the loss of guard Carl Nicks or receiver Robert Meachem.  Brees may not duplicate his record-breaking 2011 season, but with dynamic weapons in Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles who could be in for a good year, do not expect Brees to miss a beat.

I do not expect the offense to be a problem for the Saints, but the defense is a different story.  Not only will they be without Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma as previously mentioned, but also defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  Much can be said about his legacy now that bounty gate has occurred, but few will doubt his impact on the defensive side of the ball.  The Saints did alleviate some of the pain in losing Vilma as they went out and signed Curtis Lofton, who will undoubtedly help shore up the linebacker position.  Lofton recorded 147 tackles last season and along with newly acquired defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley the Saints should be able to stop some of the game’s better running attacks.

A definite area of concern has to be the secondary for the Saints as they allowed a shade under 260 passing yards per game, which ranked as the 30th in the league last season.  Some of that can be contributed to the lack of pressure from the front seven, which will not improve (at least until defensive end Will Smith returns from his suspension).  Part of the blame has to fall on the secondary as well.  After losing starting cornerback Tracy Porter, the Saints will have to rely on someone to help pick up the slack in the secondary and it could be up to Patrick Robinson.  The problems do not stop there as the safety position- mainly Roman Harper- is weak in coverage as well.

With all of the negatives heading into this season it will be tough for the Saints overcome it all, especially considering the heart and soul of the team will not be with them.  In the end, I can see the Saints fighting for the last Wild Card spot in the NFC, but in a loaded conference it will be tough for them to sneak in.

Season Projection: 10-6

3. Carolina Panthers

AH: The Panthers went from the worst team in the NFL in 2010 to one of the most intriguing in 2011.  Cam Newton came off a horrid preseason and put together one of the most impressive rookie campaigns we’ve seen.  Newton passed for over 4,000 yards, threw 21 TDs, and ran for 706 yards as well.  His success revitalized Steve Smith’s career, who posted his third highest yardage total at 1,394 alongside 7 TDs.  It therefore comes as no surprise that the Panthers finished the year first in average.. RUSHING YARDS.  OK so maybe that’s not as surprising when the QB accounts for 700 yards over the season but the once scary duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for over 1,500 yards.

Despite this offensive explosion, the Panthers still only finished the season at 6-10.  Part of this was the total inconsistency of Newton, who had 6 games with a passer rating over 100 and 7 games with a passer rating under 80.  It also was due in large part to the lackluster defensive effort which resulted in the 6th most points allowed per game and 8th most yards allowed per game.  However even the defense had some bright spots- finishing in the top 3 in both interceptions and fumbles recovered.

As good as Newton was and could be, he’s still in a division with Brees and Ryan while Steve Smith has to compete against the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Jimmy Graham in the realm of top receiving options.  The NFC is clearly not a division to be won on defense and the Panthers boast the third best offense in the division.  If Newton continues to develop, they could still make a strong run, but they need a whole lot of lucky breaks to get ahead of the Falcons or Saints.

Season Projection: 8-8

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

MA:  After a strong second year, quarterback Josh Freeman really saw a dip in his production as he threw 22 interceptions to just 16 touchdowns in the 2011 season.  Some of this blame was put on the shoulders of wide receiver Mike Williams and deservedly so, but Freeman still has to cut down on his amount of turnovers.

Tampa Bay did a good job this past offseason as they were able to acquire some offensive talent to put around Freeman.  Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark are sure to make some contributions to the team next season, but I feel that two other players will help take the pressure off of Freeman even more.  That will be rookie running back Doug Martin as well as guard Carl Nicks.  Nicks is in the conversation as one of the best guards in the game and will definitely make life easier for both Freeman and Martin.  Martin is an interesting situation as he will presumably get the starting nod over LeGarrette Blount, who had some problems in pass protection last season.  Even with those two in a  platoon situation, that will be a big upgrade as it will also push Blount to become a better player if he wants to get playing time.

Although the offense was definitely a problem for the Buccaneers last season, the defense was downright atrocious at times.  The secondary for the Bucs is littered with holes and the only corner who can cover anyone on that team, Aqib Talib, could be suspended for a good portion of the season, leaving them even thinner at the position.  Ronde Barber is still out there patrolling the secondary and will surely be a great veteran presence for incoming rookie Mark Barron.  Many people felt that he was a reach in the draft, but it was certainly a position of need as Tampa Bay had the second-to-last rated defense against the pass, giving up 8.2 YPA.

It is not all bad  for the Bucs as they do have an extremely talented and young defensive line.  If Adrian Clayborn can build on his phenomenal rookie season that saw him get 7.5 sacks and Gerald McCoy can stay healthy there could be some reason to get excited down in Tampa.  A strong defensive front can go a long way to helping a weak secondary and that has to be the mindset for this team.

In a division that is extremely capable of exploiting the weak secondary of the Bucs it still could be a long season.  That said, the development of Josh Freeman is critical to this team and this offseason’s acquisitions could go a long way towards helping him become a better player.  I expect improvement on both sides of the ball, but it still will not be enough to move Tampa Bay up in the division.

Season Projection: 6-10

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