by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that continue Thursday, August 21. Next up for our previews will be the NFC South, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

NEW ORLEANS (2013 SUR 12-6; PSR 9-7-2; O/U 5-12-1. Lost 23-15 at Seattle in the Divisional Round)... After a slew of defensive injuries early and then a key late-season loss at Carolina cost New Orleans the NFC South championship in 2013, the Saints seem ideally poised to get back to the top of the divisional stack in 2014.

Last year’s defensive injuries began with OLB Victor Butler and continued through DE Kenyon Coleman, LB Jonathan Vilma, DE/OLB Will Smith, and CB Patrick Robinson. Later in the season CB Jabari Greer and then impressive rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro were lost for the duration. Still, with HC Sean Payton back from a one-year suspension, and with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan having installed his attacking 3-4 scheme, the Saints recovered to play well enough on defense (No. 2 vs. the pass, No. 4 total, No. 4 in points, No. 4 in sacks) to offer great promise for 2014.

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Last year’s injuries helped younger players such as DE Cameron Jordan (12 sacks), DE Akiem Hicks (4½), OLB Junior Galette (12 sacks), and CB Corey White blossom with more playing time. This year’s draft includes defenders such as impressive 6-3 Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Cal LB Khari Fortt, and Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. With a deep 2014 playoff run in mind, management signed proven veterans such as CB Champ Bailey from Denver, CB Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh, and S Jairus Byrd from Buffalo. That’s a lot of talent and experience--IF the veterans can maintain their speed and health. But it’s also a lot of ball-hawking for a defense that had only 19 takeaways last year.

Drew Brees is now 35 and was fighting a strained oblique early in camp. But the future Hall of Fame QB is a well-known fitness freak was held back out of an abundance of caution in early exhibitions. This after Brees projected he might be able to play for another ten years! Father time will have a say in that. But 2013 said the uncanny little passer was good for 68.6%, 39 TDs and only 12 interceptions. His 5162 YP was the fourth time Brees has topped the landmark 5000 mark (of only eight 5000-yard seasons in NFL history).

Few teams have a veteran QB so in tune with his head coach (Payton was a QB at Eastern Illinois; as were Tony Romo and Mike Shanahan, by the way, and the Pats’ No. 2 pick Jimmy Garoppolo) and so in control of his offensive unit on the field. Only Denver passed for more yards last season than the Saints. And this year’s N.O. offense has a chance to be even more potent, as Payton and Brees plan to pick up the tempo. No. 1 draft pick Brandin Cooks of Washington State timed out at 4.33 in the 40 at the combine and gives Brees the deep threat the team has often been missing. Cooks in camp has been everything that was expected. Once the Saints get close to the red zone, most opponents can forget about it, as finally re-signed TE/wideout Jimmy Graham had 16 TDC last season, while glue-fingered 6-4 WR Marques Colston had 13.

The Saints believe they can improve their 25th-ranked rush offense, partly because of the kicked-up tempo of the attack and partly because of last year’s late emergence of LT Terron Armstead, an athletic 6-5, 300-pounder who took a while to get used to NFL competition after playing in college at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The same can be said about RBs Khiry Robinson (West Texas A&M) and Travaris Cadet (Appalachian State), who add youth, depth and versatility to N.O.’s established Mark Ingram/Pierre Thomas RB duo, who can use a bit of help now that mighty mite Darren Sproles has moved to the Eagles.

The Saints have a major intangible going for them at their home of the Superdome, where the Payton-Brees duo is 17-0 SU (16-0-1 vs. the spread) in their last two years together. (Remember, Payton was suspended for the 2012 season due to the Gregg Williams bounty scandal).

Summary...As long as the marvelous Brees is healthy, the Saints should move back to the top of the South, which they last won in 2011, the season before Payton’s suspension. New Orleans’ combination of core vets, returning injured players, developing youngsters, free-agent additions, and helpful draft choices outdistances the same combinations of South foes Carolina, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. The same thing goes for Saints’ head coach Payton. The rivalries in the NFC South are more furious than many in the rest of the country know about. But this year’s edge is held by the team from the Big Easy.

Note that the improved and sometimes underrated Saints’ defense helped New Orleans produce only 5 “overs” in 18 games in 2013.

CAROLINA (2013 SUR 12-5; PSR 9-8; O/U 5-12. Lost 23-10 vs. San Francisco in Divisional Round)... One thing is virtually sure. The Panthers won’t win the NFC South. How do we know? No team has won the NFC South twice in a row since the division was created in the NFL’s realignment in 2002. Sorry, Carolina.

The Panthers were the surprise champs of the South in 2013, winning 11 of their last 12 contests, including a key Game 15 victory over New Orleans 17-13, thanks to 6 sacks of Drew Brees, 2 interceptions, a lot of wet weather, and a last-minute TDP by Cam Newton. Carolina couldn’t match the 49ers’ balance and maturity in the playoffs, but the Panthers displayed plenty of evidence that they are likely to be a playoff contender for several years to come.

However, areas of concern remain for Carolina, which exhibits some of the more dramatically opposite traits in the NFL. Last year on offense, the Panthers finished 12-4 in the regular season with a weak offense (29th in passing, 26th in total yards, 20th in scoring), but a gnarly defense (No. 7 vs. the run, No. 6 vs. the pass, No. 2 in total yards, No. 2 in points allowed, and No. 1 in sacks).

Going into the start of 2014, things are definitely not as together as they were at the end of 2013. On offense, steady LT Jordan Gross has retired. Salary-cap pressure was a factor in proven WRs Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon being allowed to go on the free-agent market. On defense, cap pressure was a factor in the loss of feisty CB Captain Munnerlyn to the Vikings and S Mike Mitchell (4 ints. LY) to Pittsburgh. Panther sack leader Greg Hardy (15 last year) faces a possible suspension involving an assault case.

Still, there is plenty of good news. QB Cam Newton (62%, 24 TDs, 13 ints.; 585 YR) has been passing better than ever in training camp despite having surgery in the offseason to tighten ligaments in his left ankle. [However, considering the ankle surgery, will Newton be making fewer ground-gobbling forays into opposing secondaries this season?] 6-5 top draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has been all that was expected. The front four rotation of DE Greg Hardy (pending any penalty), DE Charles Johnson, DE Mario Addison, DT Star Letulelei, DT Dwan Edwards, and DT Kawann Short might get additional help from this year’s No. 2 pick DE Kony Ealy of Missouri. The LB crew of relentless Luke Kuechly (156 Ts, 4 ints.) & Thomas Davis (123 Ts) got surprising help LY from former NYG OLB Chase Blackburn and 2013 5th-round pick A.J. Klein.

However, while the Panther front seven can be murderous, the back four appears vulnerable in a league where the rules currently greatly favor a precision aerial approach. Young CBs Melvin White (second year; 10 starts last season) and Josh Norman (third year from Coastal Carolina) have exhibited good potential. And 2013 college free agent Robert Lester (three ints. LY after winning three rings at Alabama) appears to have a future at safety. However, 7th-year corner Charles Godfrey is trying to make it back from a troublesome Achilles tear. Management has brought in on-the-downturn DBs such as S Roman Harper (Saints), S Thomas DeCoud (Falcons), and CB Antoine Cason (Cardinals) for veteran help. Versus the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and the tall-tree receivers in Tampa Bay, it might not be enough.

Back on offense, the issues will likely continue in the OL at tackle unless 2013 RT Byron Bell can successfully make the transition to the left side. Meanwhile, former college TE and defensive lineman Norman Chandler is one of the leading candidates at RT. Recently-added veteran WRs such as Jerricho Cotchery (Jets/Steelers), Jason Avant (Eagles) and Tiquan Underwood (Bucs) are unlikely to cause opposing defensive coordinators to lose much sleep.

Summary...6-6 jumbo QB Cam Newton is a major dual threat. However, considering 2014 NFL rules, the Panthers’ OL and WR concerns are likely to keep the Carolina passing attack substandard. The fierce Panther defense will keep the team nipping at the heels of the Saints, and likely in the NFC wildcard chase all the way. For a team whose coach (Ron Rivera) was on the hot seat prior to 2013, that’s not too bad.

ATLANTA (2013 SUR 4-12; PSR 7-9; O/U 9-7)... Atlanta kept with the enduring theme of the NFC South last year, failing to repeat as champ after an outstanding 13-3 mark--the best in the NFC--in 2012. After 2013’s plummet to 4-12, everyone in the ATL is now wondering which Falcon team will step forward in 2014.

It’s not like the Falcs went 4-12 on purpose. The collapse was largely due to injuries suffered by key players. But the team’s lack of depth, balance and defense was fully exposed.

In the team’s NFC-best 13-3 campaign of 2012, rugged RB Michael Turner mashed for 800 yards on the ground, while the Falcs’ dynamite WR duo of Roddy White & Julio Jones ran wild in opposing secondaries for a combined 171 catches, 2548 yards and 17 TDs. Comparing those numbers with 2013, Turner replacement Steven Jackson collected only 543 YR, while White & Jones had only 104 receptions, 1291 yards and 5 TDs. Jackson was limited by leg injuries; Jones was lost in the fifth game due to a foot fracture; and White, who was then needed more than ever, struggled as he tried to play through ankle and hamstring injuries. WR Harry Douglas (85 recs.) and future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez (83) helped pick up the slack. But Douglas reached the end zone only twice (!), and Gonzalez--who had returned for one last effort to get to the Super Bowl—has now retired.

With aging former Ram Steven Jackson unable to provide the expected boost at RB, the Falcons sunk to dead last in the NFL in rushing (only 78 ypg). QB Matt Ryan fired away (67% for 4515 YP in 2013). But without a balancing ground force, his interceptions rose to a career-high 17 and he was sacked a career-high 44 times. With the offense exerting precious little ball control, the thin and somewhat-undersized Atlanta defense quickly became overworked, finishing 31st vs. the run, 27th in scoring, and 29th in sacks (with 32; by frame of reference, NFC South rival Carolina led the NFL with 60).

So, what’s up for 2014? The RB situation (Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith) does not appear to be substantially changed unless 5-8 No. 4 pick Devonta Freeman from Florida State can make a big impact. Meanwhile, prayer candles are being lit in support of healthy seasons for big-play WRs Jones & White. Second-year, 6-8 former Stanford TE Levine Toilolo takes over for the reliable Gonzalez, but Toilolo is certainly no Gonzalez. No. 1 draft pick Jake Matthews (son of Hall of Fame OLman Bruce Matthews and cousin of Green Bay’s Clay) looks like the real deal at tackle. But following the season-ending knee injury suffered by veteran LT Sam Baker in preseason play, Matthews will now be installed on the left side, while Lamar Holmes is expected to move in at RT, where he struggled last season. Due largely to its OL, Atlanta was last in rushing in 2013 while giving up a league-high 203 QB pressures.

The defense (28th overall in yards LY) has already taken a couple of hits, with starting OLB and defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon lost for the season in June with a torn Achilles, while 5th-round pick Marquis Spruill--a promising LB from Syracuse--suffered a torn ACL in camp. Rotating DT Peria Jerry, once full of promise but bothered by injuries for most of his five years in the league, has decided to retire.

There is a bit of good news on the defensive side, with DE Kroy Biermann appearing recovered from LY’s Achilles injury. But at 6-3, 255 Biermann is one of the undersized guys. Free-agent help has arrived in the persons of 6-4, 345 Paul Soliai (not one of the undersized), sixth-year DE Tyson Jackson (who had only 9 sacks in five seasons in K.C.), and No. 2 pick Ra’Shede Hageman (6-6, 318), an athletic DT who has been as inconsistent in camp as he often was at the University of Minnesota. Second-year college free agent MLB Paul Worrilow led the team with 127 tackles LY, but at 6-0, 230, he is one of the team’s undersized defenders. Second-year CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford--2013's Nos. 1 & 2 picks--both moved into starting roles as rookies and mostly held their own.

Summary...Although seventh-year HC Mike Smith has the best record in Falcons’ history (60-36, for 62.5%), his teams are only 1-4 in the playoffs. Has his message gone stale? Unless there are some surprises, it doesn’t look as if the potent Falcon aerial game directed by Matt Ryan has enough support to head off the Saints in the NFC South. Carolina has the better running game and defense. And, now, with Lovie Smith taking over, so does Tampa Bay. Slight edge to the Falcs over the Bucs due to Ryan/Jones/White in the pass-happy NFL. But the Atlanta faithful better keep lighting those candles.

TAMPA BAY (2013 SUR 4-12; PSR 6-10; O/U 8-8)...While this is a year of transition for the Buccaneers, new head coach Lovie Smith is hopeful that everything can be completed in his first season and that an improved Tampa Bay team can get back in the playoff hunt in Year One of his regime.

Among other things, Smith (a former LB coach when Tony Dungy was HC in Tampa Bay) has taken over with an experienced pair of coordinators (former Cal coach Jeff Tedford on offense and former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on defense). Plus, the Bucs have signed seasoned Chicago backup QB Josh McCown (he of the 13 TDs vs. only 1 int. LY subbing for Jay Cutler) to take over under center, giving promising 6-7 second-year QB Mike Glennon a little time to mature and refine his game. T.B. was last in passing and total offense last year.

2013 turned out to be a season of turmoil for the Bucs, beginning with the uncomfortable divorce of veteran QB Josh Freemen from HC Greg Shiano, then the shoulder injury suffered by key RB Doug Martin (1454 YR in 2012) in the sixth game, and then a non-contending finish as T.B. lost 5 of its last 6 games. Schiano and GM Mark Dominik were fired the day after the season. Schiano, who enjoyed success at the difficult college stop of Rutgers, quickly seemed to wear out his welcome in the NFL, beginning in 2012 with his rock-the-boat antics when his Buc defenders pierced into the NYG backfield while Eli Manning had his team in “victory” formation and was kneeling down to run out the clock.

Low-key Lovie is just about the opposite in every way from Schiano, whose vocal, constant, high-octane approach quickly wore out in the NFL. As well as it might have worked at Rutgers, a military-school approach didn’t figure to last long in the NFL--without a strong winning record, that is. Now the question is whether the insistent, but less-intense approach in the Dungy/Smith style is appropriate for what is mostly a young team. Smith (81-63 in nine years in Chicago) is preaching patience.

However, there is plenty of talent on hand for a marked improvement over last year’s 4-12 mark. RB Doug Smith (456 YR last season before his injury) appears to be back near top form. No. 3 pick Charles Sims of Houston/West Virginia has promise as a sub (but has been lost for a while due to an ankle injury). Critics point out that the 35-year-old McCown had such success last season in Chicago because of big WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Well, as far as offensive coordinator Tedford is concerned, that’s just fine with him, as the Bucs already had top WR Vincent Jackson (6-5; 78 recs. last year) before drafting A&M’s 6-5 Mike Evans. At TE , T.B. already had 6-5 Tim Wright (54 recs. LY) before nabbing the very promising 6-5½ Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has a bit of a Jimmy Graham-like hoops background. Big and tall Tampa has. It needs a speedster such as Chris Owusu to develop.

The biggest nagging concern on offense is the Bucs’ OL, which has lost former all-pro G Carl Nicks to injury retirement. Now, T.B. is counting upon Bengals FA Anthony Collins at LT, Browns FA Oneil Cousins at LG, and Packers FA Evan Dietrich-Smith at C. Perhaps No. 5 pick Kadeem Edwards of Tennessee State can quickly work his way into the lineup at G, the biggest area of need. However, does anyone need to be reminded of the frequent OL problems that plagued Lovie’s offenses in Chicago?

Defense is what Lovie does best, so you can expect an immediate improvement for a team that allowed 30 TD passes (only four teams allowed more). The nucleus is there for HC Smith to bring back something closely resembling the smothering Tampa Two scheme of the Dungy years. Lovie has lauded defensive leader Gerald McCoy (9½ sacks LY) as a penetrating Warren Sapp-like DT. Young veteran DT Clinton McDonald (5½ sacks LY) has been imported from Super Bowl champion Seattle to pair with McCoy. Returning DE Adrian Clayborn (5½ sacks) began coming into his own last season. With returning DE Da’Quan Bowers (No. 2 in 2011) verging on “bust” status with only 5½ sacks in three years, new GM Jason Licht opened the Bucs’ check book to add athletic 6-7 DE Michael Johnson (11½ sacks in 2012) from Cincinnati. If the starters stay healthy, Lovie should have the front-four pressure that makes his Tampa Two work best.

Behind that group is the very productive young LB corps of speedy Lavonte David (145 Ts, 5 ints. and 7 sacks LY!) and steady fourth-year MLB Mason Foster (92 Ts). And Lovie seems to have a secondary made to order, with emerging 6-2 CB Johnthon (don’t call him Johnathan) Banks (3 ints. LY as a rookie) and former Titan CB Alterraun Verner (5 ints. LY). S Mark Barron (7th pick overall in 2012) is steadily working his way toward Pro Bowl status, while former 49er Dashon Goldson should benefit from Lovie’s tutelage.

Summary...If Doug Martin stays healthy, the Bucs have the RB, QB, receivers and defense to challenge Carolina and Atlanta behind New Orleans. But the Bucs need Tampa Bay’s reformed OL to hold its own. The Buccaneers will be a tough out in their furious NFC South battles. Playoffs? Probably not until next year.



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