2009 NFL Preview: NFC East
2009 NFL Preview: NFC South
New Orleans Saints
Offseason: Having realised they were a decent defense away from a championship, the Saints focused their offseason almost solely on that side of the ball. Jabari Greer will compete for the number two corner gig behind Tracy Porter, whilst old man Darren Sharper will start at safety. The Saints made only four draft picks and one was a punter, the rest, were defensive pickups. Stanley Arnoux is added to their faceless linebacker group, whilst Malcolm Jenkins can provide depth at corner, or more likely, supplant Sharper at safety sometime during the year.
Offense: The only real addition to the most overbearing offense in the NFL was 10lbs on Pierre Thomas’ hips; the final indication that Reggie Bush is not this team’s starting running back. Bush may reach 1000 yards combined rushing and receiving, but he won’t see more than 30% of the in-between-the-tackles grind work and that’s if he can stay healthy – which is no guarantee.
Defense: The phrase ‘Achilles heel’ was invented with this Saints defense in mind. It’s no wonder that Drew Brees eclipsed 5000 yards when you consider the Saints conceded 20 or more points on all but 3 occasions in 08, and allowed 29 or more points in 8 contests. Having to conjure at least three touchdowns a game is mentally exhausting for your offense, so this defense needs to step up. Rookie Sedrick Ellis played surprisingly well until injury curtailed his year, but despite the addition of Paul Spicer, the New Orleans pass rush isn’t doing any favours for a gifted secondary if Will Smith and Charles Grant can’t return to their form of 2007. Jonathan Vilma is one of the most instinctive linebackers I’ve ever seen and relishes in cheating death on every play, fortunately for the Saints – who lack any other talent at linebacker – Vilma is a great gambler and makes a tackle (132 of them in 08) more times than he is burnt. There are training camp rumblings of adding Derrick Brooks, which would definitely be a smart move. Ellis has proved that 2008 rookie defensive lineman can play football, and Vilma has proved that outside of Eric Mangini’s oppressive 3-4 scheme he’s one of the most dangerous linebackers in the game, but going into 09 a big question mark still hangs over their supporting cast.
Key Games: The NFC South is already extremely competitive, but outside of the division the Saints’ schedule swings between the ridiculously easy (Lions and Buccaneers) and the devilishly tough (Giants, Patriots and Eagles).
Predicted Record: 11-5
Offseason: The only comment you can make about the Panthers’ offseason is that they didn’t lose Julius Peppers. They didn’t sign a single free agent and didn’t have a first round draft pick; I think Carolina management just wanted an extended holiday.
Offense: It’s a good job that DeAngelo Williams learnt to play running back when he did because behind him, Jonathan Stewart, a great offensive line and Steve Smith’s ‘get done’ attitude, the Panthers offer very little. Jake Delhomme is a liability and after a fat contract extension an expensive one at that, whilst the elderly Mushin Mohammed and the always promising, never performing Dwayne Jarrett aren’t much to write home about opposite Smith. Does DeAngelo repeat last year? No. If, therefore, more responsibility rests on Jake Delhomme like it did in the playoffs against Arizona where he threw 5 picks, will Carolina succeed? No. If you want a rookie quarterback to succeed in the NFL you need a great line, a dominant run game and a solid defense to keep things manageable. The Panthers have all three in abundance. I’m just saying Carolina; it might be worth checking if Delhomme has cashed that cheque yet…
Defense: Ranking 16th in pass yards allowed per game, and 20th in rush yards are solid if unspectacular returns from a defense boasting a top 3 MIKE linebacker and an all-decade pass rusher. But Jon Beason and Julius Peppers aside, this Carolina D is a tepid affair. 2008 showed us definitively that rookie pass rushers just can’t get it done so don’t expect much from second round pickup Everette Brown, Ken Lucas was released leaving a void across from Chris Gamble at corner and the Panthers just lost starting defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu to a season ending injury. The loss of Kemoeatu means I wouldn’t be surprised if by midseason we’re looking at a rich man’s Oakland Raiders; great against the pass, torrid against the run.
Key Games: For the critical final 4 games of the season the Panthers have it tough; at New England, home to Minnesota, at the Giants and home to the Saints. Ouch.
Predicted Record: 9-7
Offseason: 7 of their 8 draft picks were defensive and 3 were corners; defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore headline the Falcons’ class. Their biggest non-draft acquisition came via trade, as Tony Gonzalez moved to Atlanta for a minimal price.
Offense: First, the positive: Michael Turner got more red zone touches than any other running back in 08 and now Atlanta add Tony Gonzalez to the mix, giving Atlanta one of the most dangerous goal line offenses in football. My concern is with the other 95 yards of the field; Roddy White threatened to holdout indefinitely and was rewarded with a fat contract which can be the death nail in some receivers’ motivation and production, right tackle and right guard Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl played out of their skins as they pushed Turner to 1700 yards so might come back down to earth with a bump, the history for running backs coming off 370+ carry seasons isn’t favourable so what shape is Turner’s body in, and down the stretch when the Falcons needed him most Matt Ryan fell away, averaging just 204 yards and throwing 5 TDs and 5 INTs in his final 5 games. Factoring in a MUCH more difficult schedule and this may be a turbulent second year for Mike Smith’s revamped offense.
Defense: Michael Boley, Keith Brooking, Domonique Foxworth and Lawyer Milloy all left for greener pastures and even if age was against one or two of them, you can’t underestimate the benefit of having veteran leaders familiar with your system available on defense. Atlanta were 23rd in yards per game against the pass and 25th against the run which aren’t healthy stats for your playoff aspirations, but more of a concern is the fact that removing the outstanding John Abrahams’ 16, the Falcons managed only 12 sacks. Abrahams can’t continue to carry this defense and Peria Jerry is only a rookie, so Mike Smith better find 10 more sacks from somewhere fast. With Foxworth and Milloy gone and only rookie William Moore signed to replace them, this secondary is lacklustre at best and when you entrust your linebacking group to Mike Peterson you know you’re not in great shape. The Panthers will run on them and the Patriots will pass on them, this Atlanta defense could struggle all year.
Key Games: Inter-division is always vital in the NFC South, especially when they travel to both New York franchises and host the Bears and Eagles in Georgia.
Predicted Record: 8-8
Offseason: Tampa have regressed into the lame ducks of this division and it’s probably because they still don’t have a quarterback. Griese and Garcia out. Leftwich and Freeman in. Problem still not solved.
Offense: Derrick Ward produced 1400 all purpose yards last year; when his combined production for his previous 4 years in the league amounts to half of that, you can see my concern. From a skills standpoint Ward is more than capable: he cuts well, he’s versatile and is deceptively fast for a stout 230lbs. But when your philosophy for running the ball in 2008 was “yeah but wait until Cadillac Williams gets back…”, you have nothing reliable at receiver or quarterback and your offensive line is competent at best, I would be seriously concerned about entrusting my offence to a guy with one year’s production. As for the quarterback position, they will have one. That’s probably the best insight I can offer since officially it’s Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich is the expected starter and Josh Freeman looks a lock to lead this team in 2010. Kellen Winslow was obviously deeply unhappy towards the end of his Browns’ tenure, and whilst I’m locked into a lifetime of deep unhappiness with the Browns organisation, Kellen escaped to Tampa where I expect a rebound year as he reasserts himself as one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league. Despite a stellar 2008, I’m still not sold on Antonio Bryant. He posted a big year in his final season with the Browns in 05, but after getting paid by the 49ers he floundered for year. Being franchised means he’ll still have to play hard if he wants the big money, but you fooled me once Antonio so pardon my scepticism over you repeating your 1200 yard effort of last season.
Defense: They didn’t land Cutler, and they didn’t land Haynesworth. Their two biggest weaknesses going into 2009? Quarterback and the front seven. There are good players there; Gaines Adams is going from strengths to strengths, Barrett Ruud has totalled 251 tackles in his two seasons as starting middle linebacker and Tanard Jackson can make plays from safety, even Chris Hovan will suffice at defensive tackle and Sabby Piscitelli is being touted as a breakout star entering his third year. The problem is that at every level of defense they have a crippling problem; opposite Adams they have nothing. Right now cutting Cato June and Derrick Brooks is looking a little premature as Angelo Crowell struggles to stay fit at SAM, and converted safety Jermaine Phillips is apparently cutting an awkward figure at WILL during training camp. Ronde Barber is way too old to be starting, and behind him is second year Aqib Talib, undrafted rookie Kyle Arrington and Torrie Cox who plays some special teams when he isn’t injured. This defense is paper thin.
Key Games: I think they’re some way behind the rest of this division, visiting the Seahawks and Bills could be their best hopes for wins.
Predicted Record: 4-12