The NFC South has turned into maybe the NFC's top division in the past 5 years or so. Carolina has a shot at being a Super Bowl contender and the Buccaneers aren't too far away. Atlanta has Michael Vick, one of the premiere stars in the game. All three have great young coaches [well, Fox isn't that young]. Oh, and then there is New Orleans...who we will get to later.
COACH'S STATE: Coach John Fox may have the coolest seat in the NFC. He's taken a Panthers' franchise that had just one winning season into a NFC Champion and, last year, a NFC runner up. And last year they did it with smoke and mirrors. Injuries hurt the defense and their running game. Yet, Fox adjusted his gameplans and still got his team to the NFC title tilt.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Sure, Keyshawn Johnson will alleviate some pressure on Steve Smith....it will be DT Maake Kemoeatu which will have the biggest impact. Carolina had issues stopping the run last year...and with the recent injury woes of fellow tackle Kris Jenkins, Kemoeatu will be a huge upgrade. This also causes a domino effect. He can keep blockers off the linebackers which frees them up to make plays. It also makes it difficult to constantly double up Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. And with those guys being able to man the box...it frees up the secondary to stay with the receivers. The entire defense should benefit.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: If this was 2004, then the losses of Stephen Davis, Ricky Proehl, Brentson Buckner and Ricky Manning would be huge. But this is 2006. Losing OLB Will Witherspoon is the key. Witherspoon has great range and coverage skills and was a key asset to a franchise that has had issues with injuries and illness in the LB corps. Carolina will replace Witherspoon with Keith Adams and Thomas Davis...the latter being a safety a year ago.
PLAYERTHAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The key to the team will be if DeShawn Foster can stay on the field. Fox loves to run the football...and Foster is their main man. But he has a history of injuries which cost the Panthers in the NFC title game. They drafted DeAngelo Williams as a capable backup...but Foster must be the horse.
OFFENSE: Fox likes running the ball...and with Foster, Williams and Eric Shelton they should be able to do so. And if defenses try to stop that....then Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith can make them pay. Smith was the top receiver in the NFL last year and could be even more deadly with Keyshawn. The line is solid, though with a few defections.
DEFENSE: Again, the defensive front should be solid. Not only do they have Peppers, Kemoeatu, Jenkins and Rucker...but they can rotate Al Wallace and Demione Lewis in. Great depth. As I said earlier, the linebackers will have an adjustment period as they lost Witherspoon and Brandon Short. The secondary is great. They have, essentially, two shut down corners in Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble. They did lose Marlon McCree at safety...but still have stallwart Mike Minter. This defense will be darn good.
SCHEDULE: The NFC South faces off with the AFC North...so there should be some great games in there. Because of that, the Panthers have to go to Baltimore and Cincinnati and get Pittsburgh at home. In the NFC, Carolina have NY Giants, Dallas and Washington to worry about. Aside from the mandatory NFC South games, they have Minnesota and St. Louis. Not too shabby.
OUTLOOK: The Panthers have all the trappings of a Super Bowl champion. With Johnson as his new "Mushin Muhammad"....Delhomme should have a much better year since he won't have to force the ball into Smith constantly. But, he won't lose sight of Smith, who could have an even bigger year. The defense should be near great again that they can take some of those Delhomme chances and hopefully not cost them as dearly. The biggest obsticle [as it is with any team] is injuries. Guys like Foster, Dan Morgan and Jenkins need to stay on the field as much as possible. They do that...they could be in Super Bowl XLI.
2-TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
COACH'S STATE: Jon Gruden may be able to have the kind of offense he's wanted since his days with the Raiders. Gruden did take the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in his first season...but the team floundered since. A division title last year was nice, but the team was upset at home by Washington in the first round. The good thing that came out of that game was the emergence of Chris Simms as a somewhat reliable QB. If Simms can build on what he's done thus far, Gruden can have a blistering offense again.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Well, Tampa really didn't add anything but depth. The top addition will probably be rookie WR Maurice Stovall. He is a big receiver with speed who could become a factor in a more open Gruden offense.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The team didn't lose much on defense either, so really only QB Brian Griese qualifies. Sure, Simms is the starter...but he became one right after Griese went down with an injury. And looking at the Tampa QBs, they really don't have much experience past...well...Griese. Still, he won't be missed that much.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Chris Simms, obviously. The keys are in his possession and he is the man to run this ship. He really has no one behind him but retreads. He played really well in the playoffs and made a beautiful would be game winning pass for a TD had it not been dropped.
OFFENSE: Again, it is up to Simms. If he can stay on this upward path, than Gruden can open up the offense more. If not, then it will be steady doses of Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman. There are weapons around Simms to suceed.
DEFENSE: It still is good. I mean, when you can still line up Booger McFarland, Simeon Rice, Shelton Quarles, Brian Kelly, Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks....you are still okay. Not only is the personel good...butguru Marty Kiffin is still there calling the shots. .
SCHEDULE: Like Carolina....the Buccaneers have a tough schedule. And since they win the division [not Carolina]...they get it worse. How about games at Atlanta, NY Giants, Carolina, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Chicago?? Add in home games with Baltimore, Carolina, Cincinnati, Washington, Atlanta and Seattle and there is a tough roadmap. They also have a late stretch where they play 4 of 5 on the road.
OUTLOOK: Only one starter is gone from the defending NFC South champs. So, they should repeat, eh? Well, a tough sked mixed in with relying on what was an unreliable QB could spell a step back. I think they will still be a good team...possibly a playoff team. But one reason the won the division was the injuries Carolina had. I think that the Panthers will be better and get past Tampa for the division. But a wildcard can be had.
COACH'S STATE: Jim Mora is one of the best up and coming coaches in the NFL and is respected by his GM, Rick McKay. His issue, though, has been trying to fit Michael Vick's talents into what the Falcons want to do on offense. He has yet been able to do so....and it may end up costing him.
BIGGEST ADDITION: DE John Abraham will bring back that great Falcons pass rush of old. His addition brings the Falcons front line to him, Patrick Kearney, Rod Coleman and Darrell Shropshire. A tough line indeed! Injuries and attitude have been issues in the past with Abraham...but his talent has always been there.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: I hate to say a kicker...but they need a kicker. Todd Peterson is gone from the Falcons and Atlanta has yet to replace him. He missed just 2 of 25 FG attempts last year and in this rough and tumble division...close games are plentiful. The Falcons had five games decided bya FG or less last year.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Michael Vick is a superstar but not really a great QB yet. His physical talents are breathtaking....but an NFL quarterback has got to be able to consistently play in the pocket. Many teams just try to keep Vick back there by not putting too much pressure on him...not letting him run out of the pocket. They don't respect his decisions passing the ball. And because of this, the Falcons are too one-dimentional.
OFFENSE: This is a running team. They have solid backs, a good line and a QB that can pick up yardage on the ground. The issue is passing the ball. Vick seems to only trust huge TE Alge Crumpler...and that's because he's a big target. Vick doesn't see open players until they are really open. And that hinders the team.
DEFENSE: The defense should be much improved. The additions of Abraham, Lawyer Milloy and rookie Jimmy Williams should shore up deficiencies they had a year ago. Atlanta prides itself on tough defense and that running game. The problem is that they let opponents score 30+ points on them FIVE times. Again, the new blood should help bring that down.
SCHEDULE: Just like everyone else...Atlanta has a tough sked. And they get the mandatory tough stretch after Thanksgiving...with at Washington, at Tampa and then Dallas and Carolina at home. They begin the season with three straight division games...two of which are on the road. They got to get out to a decent start.
OUTLOOK: Like I just said, the Falcons begin with a big start. They are in Carolina, host Tampa and are at New Orleans. An 0-fer there would be disasterous. It is up to Michael Vick and Jim Mora to figure out some kind of passing game. If they can, the Falcons can compete with Carolina and Tampa. If not...watch out...this could be an ugly season.
4-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
COACH'S STATE: Sean Payton finally gets his shot at a head coaching gig. He had other shots...but for some reason took this Saints job. That says a lot about New Orleans' ability to try to rework their franchise from the muck of 2005.
BIGGEST ADDITION: It seems that Reggie Bush landing in the Saints' laps marks good fortune for a team that had such bad in 2005. But it will be Drew Brees that will try to bring back the Saints. With Payton a former QB coach....Brees should be able to have success in the offense. There are weapons there when healthy, and Brees can make the most of them. Signing Brees also shows the NFL that New Orleans can still attract big time free agents into town.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The Saints lost several players, but were strong in those areas anyways. But the loss of CB Fakhir Brown could hurt the most. They didn't replace him with any free agents and they didn't have anything already on their roster that can step in.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Joe Horn is still a top notch receiver...but he had an all around bad season last year. He will be key in getting Brees into the Saints passing groove. He can stretch the field and turn short passes into long gains. If he and Brees can get on the same wavelength, the Saints offense could be really good.
OFFENSE: Speaking of the offense, it has talent. Not only does Brees have Horn to toss it to, but Donte Stallworth and Zach Hilton could have big years too. And let us not forget those two backs they have....Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Both can carry the load for the Saints, who may use both considerably. Bush could be used as a slot receiver at times. The problem is their offensive line...which is rebuilt. There is no depth and the guys they got haven't really worked together...with several changing positions.
DEFENSE: They have a solid front line led by Will Smith. After that, they are just decent. They will attack a lot, but the secondary may not be good enough to stop big plays from happening. The entire defense lacks depth pretty much everywhere.
SCHEDULE: The sked is unkind to N'Awlins. They must go to Carolina, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas and NY Giants. Yowser. Add home games with Atlanta, Tampa, Cincinnati, Washington and Carolina and the Saints have a tough road to climb.
OUTLOOK: It has to be better than 2005. They will come back to the Superdome which has become the lasting image of how the infrastructure of New Orleans was damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The Saints will be glad to have a real home again. As much bad that happened in the city last year...the Saints have offered the city some good. The Superdome will reopen, the drafting of Bush adds hope for the future, and signing Brees means that guys aren't as scared of the rebuilding as many would think. Still, in this division this season...the Saints are on the tail end of the stick. But, you gotta start somewhere.