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NFC South continues to churn out championship-caliber teams

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; By Chris Neubauer The NFC South may contain some of the small-market teams in the league, and it is often overlooked when compared to heavyweights such as the AFC East, the NFC East, the AFC North and the AFC West, ...

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Old 08-02-2007, 12:32 AM   #1
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Cool NFC South continues to churn out championship-caliber teams

By Chris Neubauer

The NFC South may contain some of the small-market teams in the league, and it is often overlooked when compared to heavyweights such as the AFC East, the NFC East, the AFC North and the AFC West, but the NFC South has put a successful product on the field since the league re-aligned in 2002.

The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl that year. The Panthers made it to the Super Bowl the following year before losing to the Patriots. Michael Vick led the Falcons to a surprise NFC championship game appearance in ’04, and the Panthers returned to the NFC title game in ’05. New Orleans finally got a taste of championship football when the Saints made their first conference championship game appearance in franchise history last season.

Here’s a look at what the NFC South teams did in the offseason to attempt to extend their championship-game streak to six years.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest offseason moves: New head coach Bobby Petrino is overhauling Atlanta’s offense by scrapping the zone-blocking scheme that propelled the Falcons to the top of the rushing charts the past three seasons. Petrino beefed up the offensive line, adding free agent OG Toniu Fonoti and drafting OG Justin Blalock in the second round. Ex-Ravens FB Ovie Mughelli is a traditional lead blocker and is an extension of the beefed-up O-line. The Falcons finally added a legitimate No. 1 wideout for QB Michael Vick when they signed ex-Saints WR Joe Horn. While Horn is certainly past his prime, he impressed the new coaching staff with his enthusiasm and production in offseason workouts. First-round pick DE Jamaal Anderson is slated to replace DE Patrick Kerney, who left for Seattle in free agency, in the starting lineup and fourth-round pick Stephen Nicholas will start in place of WLB Demorrio Williams until Williams recovers from a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery.

Biggest concerns: Two words: Michael Vick. Vick’s alleged involvement in a dogfighting ring that took place on property he owned in Surry County, Va., has been a black cloud hovering over the Falcons this offseason. If Vick is found to have direct involvement in the dogfighting and charges are brought against him by federal authorities, who are still investigating the case, Vick can expect a lengthy suspension from the league. Making matters worse is that the Falcons traded trusted backup QB Matt Schaub to the Texans, and replaced him with Lions and Dolphins castoff Joey Harrington. The Falcons are also worried about Pro Bowl DT Rod Coleman, who is expected to miss the first quarter of the season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn quadriceps. The Jimmy Williams experiment at free safety is also an area of concern.

It can all come together if … Vick stays out of trouble and develops into the highly accurate pocket passer Petrino is expecting. This is a long shot though because Vick has never been an accurate passer in his career, and he certainly doesn’t like staying in the pocket.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest offseason moves: Carolina’s biggest move was keeping its best player happy by signing WR Steve Smith to a three-year extension that makes him the second-highest-paid receiver in the league. The Panthers also replaced longtime offensive coordinator Dan Henning with ex-Browns assistant Jeff Davidson, who is implementing a zone-blocking scheme to maximize the talents of an undersized O-line. Free agent QB David Carr won’t challenge Jake Delhomme for the starting job, but if Delhomme’s struggles from last season resurface, the Panthers won’t hesitate to give the former No. 1 overall pick a shot. Top draft pick Jon Beason is expected to start at the WLB spot, but he will shift inside if injuries catch up to MLB Dan Morgan again. Second-round pick WR Dwayne Jarrett is a younger, more athletic version of Keyshawn Johnson, the man he’s expected to replace in the starting lineup. C Ryan Kalil was considered the second-best lineman overall by some scouts and this second-round pick will challenge injury-prone veteran Justin Hartwig for a starting job. DE Charles Johnson was drafted with Carolina’s fourth pick as insurance in case starting DE Mike Rucker is slow to recover from a late-season knee injury.

Biggest concerns: The Panthers have had one of the best defenses in the league for the past few seasons, but this season they have a gaping hole at safety. Veteran FS Mike Minter, who announced he will retire after the 2007 season, has lost a step and is playing on borrowed time, and the Panthers don’t have an adequate starter on their roster for the SS spot.

It can all come together if … Delhomme regains his ’05 form, Smith stays healthy and finds a legitimate WR partner, Morgan doesn’t suffer another concussion and DE Julius Peppers unleashes a 20-sack season. The Panthers have plenty of star power and with a consistent rushing attack, they should be back in contention for the division and conference crowns.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest offseason moves: Coming off the franchise’s first conference championship game appearance, the Saints had only a few tweaks to make to the roster. They gave DE Charles Grant the franchise tag, but later signed him to a seven-year, $63-million deal. They released aging former No. 1 WR Joe Horn and replaced him with first-round pick Robert Meachem, who will compete with Devery Henderson and Terrance Copper for the starting job alongside Marques Colston. TE Eric Johnson adds yet another weapon to the league’s No. 1 offense. If Johnson can stay healthy, he should thrive playing in Sean Payton’s TE-friendly West Coast offense and playing with QB Drew Brees, who helped turn TE Antonio Gates into a star in San Diego. On defense, the Saints passed on several of the big-name free agents on the market and instead added moderately priced veterans to each level of the defense. They signed DT Kendrick Clancy to bolster depth on the D-line. Brian Simmons was added to compete with Mark Simoneau for the starting MLB job, and they brought in Dhani Jones to back up OLBs Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita. Ex-Colts CB Jason David, who was a restricted free agent, will replace aging CB Fred Thomas in the starting lineup, and veteran Kevin Kaesviharn will push youngsters FS Josh Bullocks and SS Roman Harper for their starting jobs. PK Olindo Mare is a decade younger than his predecessor and should thrive kicking indoors.

Biggest concerns: The Saints’ receiving corps is very young and inexperienced, but it has earned Brees’ trust. Meachem is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, but he should be healthy in time for the start of training camp. Did the Saints add enough playmakers to their bend-but-don’t-break defense?

It can all come together if … Brees plays at his MVP runner-up level from last season, RBs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister stay healthy and continue as the most menacing tandem in the league, Colston avoids a sophomore slump, and the defense can force some turnovers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest offseason moves: Jon Gruden wanted more competition at the QB position to avoid Tampa’s pitfall last season. And he got it. The Bucs signed ex-Eagles QB Jeff Garcia and traded for the rights to ex-Broncos QB Jake Plummer, who insists he is retiring but hasn’t filed his paperwork with the league yet. Gruden has christened Garcia as his No. 1 quarterback heading into training camp, but he said second-year QB Bruce Gradkowski and last year’s Week One starter Chris Simms will get their chance to de-throne Garcia in training camp. The Bucs also added OLT Luke Petitgout to anchor a young offensive line that got even younger with the addition of second-round pick Arron Sears, who is expected to start at left guard. FB B.J. Askew was added to help RB Cadillac Williams break out of his sophomore slump. First-round pick DE Gaines Adams will push perennial Pro Bowler Simeon Rice, who is recovering from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the final eight games last season, for playing time. Free-agent addition DT Kevin Carter is also expected to help the defense regain its pass rush. Ex-Colts LB Cato June will likely start on the strong side, but make no mistake about it, he was signed as the heir apparent to Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks’ WLB spot.

Biggest concerns: Gruden has tinkered with the QB position so much and brought in so many arms that there may not be enough reps to go around in training camp. Gruden’s continued pursuit of Plummer can’t sit well with quarterbacks already on the roster. There are a whole lot of question marks at the WR position behind No. 1 target Joey Galloway. But it appears second-year WR Maurice Stovall has edged former first-round pick Michael Clayton for the No. 2 job.

It can all come together if … Garcia can breathe the same life into the Bucs’ offense that he did for Philly last season, Williams returns to his rookie form and Stovall establishes himself as a legitimate No. 2 wideout. The Bucs need the defense to return to its top-10 form of the last decade and make last season’s debacle a distant memory.


Last edited by blacksaint; 08-02-2007 at 12:34 AM..
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Old 08-02-2007, 12:37 AM   #2
Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: Charlotte
Posts: 27
Re: NFC South continues to churn out championship-caliber teams

Though I'm a native New Orleanian, I am presently leaving in Charlotte, NC, the home of the Panthers and I can tell you, they have more problems than you list. Age is really creeping into their defense and they just had a starting offensive lineman suppended by the club for two games for an incident involving a gun. I look for league to do more, as does the local media, as soon as they have conducted their investigation into the incident.
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Old 08-02-2007, 12:51 AM   #3
Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: Charlotte
Posts: 27
Re: NFC South continues to churn out championship-caliber teams

Upon further review, some other comments. Atlanta is not a small market. It is one of the largest cities in the U.S. and the home of the Federal Reserve.
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