In Part Three of his NFL Preview, Bullseye-Sports.com’s Dwayne Bryant provides his thoughts and predictions for the NFC South. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.
1. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Offense: WR Steve Smith returned from a 2004 injury and lit up the league last season, tallying 103 catches, 1,563 yards and 12 TDs. With newly-acquired Keyshawn Johnson on the other side, Smith should face less double and triple-teams. Keyshawn will not only help the offense in that aspect, but his superb run-blocking ability will help open running lanes for RB DeShaun Foster. Foster has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, so don’t be surprised to see first-round draft pick DeAngelo Williams get his share of carries as well. Head coach John Fox prefers a run-first attack, but with Smith and Johnson at WR and QB Jake Delhomme under center, Fox would be better served using a more balanced offense. This offense was running on all cylinders late last season and I look for more of the same in 2006.
Defense: This is one tough defense that can do it all. It all starts up front with pass-rushing phenoms Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. They combined for 18 sacks and three fumble recoveries – in an off-year. Carolina added DT Maake Kemoeatu to team with Kris Jenkins in the middle. They also added Damione Lewis from St. Louis to add much-needed depth to the line. Dan Morgan leads the LB crew, but has a history of injury problems. CBs Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble provide solid coverage and excellent playmaking ability in the secondary. In 2005, Carolina’s defense ranked third in yards allowed per game and fifth in points allowed. They also tallied 45 sacks and 42 takeaways. Look for this defense to continue to be among the league’s best.
Special Teams: There’s always the possibility of a return TD when Steve Smith is handling the punt-return duties. Kicker John Kasay connected on 26 of 34 FG tries with 5 of the 8 misses coming from beyond 50 yards.
Prediction: They can run. They can pass. They can defend the run and pass. There’s nothing this team can’t do. Look for Carolina to win the tough NFC South and quite possibly snag a first-round bye in the playoffs.
2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Offense: As the Cadillac goes, so goes this offense. Head coach Jon Gruden prefers a conservative approach, which means lots of touches for Williams. He’ll look to stay healthy and put together a season even more impressive than last season’s rookie campaign in which he totaled 1,178 yards and 6 TDs despite an ankle injury. Joey Galloway was Chris Simms’ main target in 2005. However, with Michael Clayton healthy again, I expect Clayton to be the go-to guy in the passing game this season. The offensive line almost got Simms killed last season. The Bucs signed several OL through the draft and free agency to improve this unit. However, cohesiveness will take time. So I see this line as a work-in-progress.
Defense: The Bucs defense was #1 in yards allowed last season. DE Simeon Rice registered 14 sacks – good for third-best in the league. Tampa Bay has a solid LB corps with Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece. They can run, cover and rush the passer. The secondary features playmakers at CB in Ronde Barber (5 INTs in 2005) and Brian Kelly. Safety Dexter Jackson’s departure to Cincinnati may leave this unit vulnerable over the middle. This is an aging group, but enough talent remains for this defense to be very formidable once again in 2006.
Special Teams: The kickoff return team was virtually invisible in 2005. Mark Jones did manage to average 9.6 yards on punt returns. Kicker Matt Bryant made 21 of 25 FG attempts, including 18 of 19 from 30-49 yards.
Prediction: The Bucs will contend for a Wildcard spot and should get one provided Cadillac Williams can stay healthy. Tampa Bay could challenge for the division title if the offensive line gels sooner rather than later, but I see it being later.
3. ATLANTA FALCONS
Offense: Atlanta has led the league in rushing each of the last two seasons thanks to RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett and QB Michael Vick. Dunn is the speedy, elusive back. Duckett is the big, bruising back utilized effectively around the goal line. This offense shows flashes of brilliance, as does Vick. But this offense will continue to struggle occasionally until Vick can improve on his accuracy and decision-making. Atlanta used their last two first-round draft picks on WRs (Michael Jenkins in 2004 and Roddy White in 2005), but TE Alge Crumpler remains Vick’s favorite target. Crumpler is big, gets separation, makes catches in traffic and rarely ever drops a pass. This offense goes as Vick goes. If he struggles, the offense sputters. Look for more inconsistent play this season.
Defense: This unit ranked 22nd in the NFL last season. Some of that can be contributed to injuries (LB Ed Hartwell and DE Brady Smith missed most of the season) and some to lack of a pass rush from the front four. Coordinator Ed Donatell was forced to blitz his LBs to get pressure, but that left them out of position in stopping the run. Their 128.9 rushing yards allowed per game ranked 26th in the NFL last season. CB DeAngelo Hall (6 INTs in 2005) is developing into one of the league’s best cover corners, but he didn’t have much help in the secondary in 2006. Atlanta has added safety Lawyer Milloy and rookie CB Jimmy Williams to give this unit an immediate upgrade. But the biggest addition has to be DE John Abraham. Abraham, Smith, Rod Coleman (10 ½ sacks in 2005) and Patrick Kerney give Atlanta a solid front four. Injuries not withstanding, this unit should improve on last season’s performance.
Special Teams: Allen Rossum’s punt and kickoff return numbers dropped big-time over his 2004 numbers. DeAngelo Hall could see some punt return duty if Rossum is ineffective. Kicker Todd Peterson wasn’t resigned despite only missing two FG tries last season. It remains to be seen who’ll take over the kicking duties.
Prediction: If Vick takes a step forward as a passer, this team could compete for a Wildcard spot. If he remains inconsistent, Atlanta could be looking at another 8-8 campaign.
4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Offense: If QB Drew Brees’ shoulder is healthy, this offense could be dangerous. New head coach Sean Payton will only need Brees to be a game manager. The Saints are loaded at RB. Incumbent starter Deuce McAllister is coming off a knee injury, but should be ready to carry the load. If not, second-overall draft pick Reggie Bush will do just fine. With McAllister healthy, Payton will still find ways to get the ball into the hands of the ever-dangerous Bush. Bush will most likely be used as a third-down back, in two-back sets with McAllister, as a slot receiver and possibly as a return guy. The Saints also added Michael Bennett to make for a deep stable of backs. Brees also has WRs Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth, as well as 6-foot-8 TE Zach Hilton.
Defense: The Saints struggled on the defensive side of the ball last season. They ranked 27th in rushing yards allowed and 28th in points allowed. They also managed a meager 19 takeaways for the entire season. The team did little in the offseason to improve this bunch. DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant are solid. The LBs are a concern. As a group, they can’t cover, they can’t stop the run and they can’t rush the passer when called upon. The secondary has a couple noteworthy members, Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas. But there’s little help behind them. They’ve added LBs Scott Fujita, Anthony Simmons and Eddie Moore, as well as FS Brian Scott, S Omar Stoutmire and DT Hollis Thomas. That’s too many new faces. A major adjustment period lies ahead before any significant improvement will be seen.
Special Teams: Getting Michael Lewis back from injury should spark the return game. 41-year-old kicker John Carney returns after a solid 2005 campaign.
Prediction: Even if Brees is healthy, the defense has a way to go before this team will be competing for a playoff spot. I expect a slow start, but a solid second half of the season for the Saints. I wouldn’t expect more than 6-10.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Carolina is solid in all aspects and is one of the top choices to win the NFC Championship. Tampa Bay should land a Wildcard spot as long as the offensive line keeps Simms upright. Atlanta will only go as far as Vick takes them, which could be anywhere from third in the division to the third seed in the playoffs. The Saints are heading in the right direction, but I’d say they’re two years away from competing for a playoff spot.