(Before I begin, a few things to note. You'll read some information in these previews that was blatantly stolen from the Pro Football Prospectus book, an extremely enjoyable publication released by the brains behind Football Outsiders. I want to give my props to Aaron Schatz and all his experts for their hard work. While I don't yet comprehend everything in the book, there are some great points both about teams and individual players. It's all helped me increase my understanding of football, and the Prospectus will be an annual purchase for me as long as it's in publication.)
We now continue our series of NFL previews with a look at the NFC South. You'll notice we've gone a bit shorter with this preview. Same goes for the NFC East and NFC West. Stupid time constraints. THE SEASON OPENS TONIGHT!!!
1. New Orleans Saints
Last year: 10-6 (4-2 vs. NFC South)
Playoffs: Beat Philadelphia in NFC Divisional Playoff, Lost to Chicago in NFC Championship
There aren't many words available to describe the turnaround the Saints engineered under Sean Payton last year. Despite issues on defense, Payton's offense was relentless, racking up over 400 yards seven times, including three games of over 500 yards. Drew Brees proved to be the perfect triggerman, and while top pick Reggie Bush didn't produce many big runs, he was still a highlight waiting to happen whenever he got the ball in space.
1. Can David Patten restart his career? A solid contributor in New England, Patten was invisible in Washington last year. Something about this offense and Patten's intelligence makes me think he will not be invisible here.
2. What is Bush capable of? He only went for 3.6 per carry last year, but he was a constant threat in the passing game, leading the team with 89 catches. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he doubled the eight touchdowns he scored last year, because he won't be slowed in the running game forever.
3. So, what about that defense? They actually weren't that bad most of last year, thanks in large part to DT Hollis Thomas and pass-rushing DEs Charles Grant and Will Smith. They're aging a bit in the secondary, where they will still rely heavily on CBs Mike McKenzie, Jason Craft, and Fred Thomas, all over 30.
2. Carolina Panthers
Last year: 8-8 (5-1 vs. NFC South)
Interesting note from Pro Football Prospectus: In 2006, Jake Delhomme was sacked more than three times as often on third down as he was on first/second down, and his interception rate was also tripled on third down. It's a pretty simple scenario: On third down, Delhomme found himself trying too hard and either forcing bad throws or holding on to the ball too long. Generally, the Panthers were the worst in the league on third down last year, and that's where the improvement has to start if this is to again be a playoff team and Super Bowl threat.
1. Is there a way to use DeAngelo Williams more? As a rookie last year, Williams was pretty good running the football, and he was potentially explosive as a receiver, more than doubling DeShaun Foster's total receiving yards despite only having one more reception than Foster (33 to 32). I'm not going to directly compare him to Bush, but he has something special about him.
2. Is David Carr just a backup? Probably not. Delhomme has never had the look of a star, and while his numbers have been solid for most of his time in Carolina, he can't afford to not win games now that Carr is there. I think Carr was a guy who needed a change of scenery, and now that he's out of Houston, he'll be a better player.
3. Can the Panthers put it all together? They have a good group of running backs, but the passing game is sometimes shaky. The offensive line has been up and down. A really good defensive line is complimented by a secondary that lacks top-end talent and depth. If this team can stay healthy and play better week-to-week, they'll be a serious challenger in the division.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Last year: 7-9 (3-3 vs. NFC South)
What an offseason in Atlanta. First, they fired coach Jim Mora and brought in offensive guru Bobby Petrino from Louisville. Then, they watched in horror as the face of the franchise, QB Michael Vick, was implicated, indicted, and then entered a guilty plea in a federal dogfighting case. Imagine being the Minnesota Vikings this weekend. They're probably equally jubilant and wary, because while this could be a very bad team this year, we have no idea how they'll respond when the games count.
1. Is this the right fit for Joey Harrington? On one hand, it's a quick-hit offense that will rely on precision passing and not a lot of "hold on to the ball and hope something good happens", which Harrington has been plagued by in the past. On the other hand, it's Joey Harrington.
2. Will Petrino run the ball enough? His offense is known as being wide-open, but he did run it well at Louisville. One would assume the same principles will apply here, especially with the talented Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood available.
3. What's with this secondary? The safeties were a huge problem last year, making corners like Jimmy Williams and DeAngelo Hall look lost because they weren't getting any deep help. With Patrick Kerney gone from the defensive line, the secondary will be under even more pressure to improve themselves, but the personnel is sketchy.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last year: 4-12 (0-6 vs. NFC South)
Perhaps you were busy watching the offense continually struggle to move the chains, but the Buccaneers appear to no longer have a lights-out defense. PFP points out that the Bucs spent much money this offseason trying to upgrade that defense. That's good, because the defense was heading in the wrong direction. It's bad, because it doesn't add personnel to a struggling offense. We'll see if Jon Gruden can do with Jeff Garcia what Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg did last year.
1. Is the defense better? Unquestionably, yes. Rookie Gaines Adams opens as a "backup" to RDE Patrick Chukwurah, but that's temporary. He'll emerge as a starter before long. The upgrades at LB and the secondary, headed up by Jeremiah Trotter and Cato June, will go a long way toward improving the Bucs' speed on defense.
2. Can Garcia do it again? The laws of physics say "probably not". He's a year older, and the talent here isn't as good as it is in Philadelphia. Even if they can get David Boston playing at a high level again, this group of receivers doesn't scare anyone.
3. Who is the real Cadillac Williams? After bursting on the scene as a rookie, Williams had problems last year, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. He was a non-factor as a receiver. Overall, he had more fumbles (two) than touchdowns (one). Ouch.