3- Saints predictions.
NFC South is likely NFL's toughest division
Lee Zurik / WWL-TV Sports Reporter
I think there will only be a few games separating everyone in this division. I like Tampa to win it again, with the Saints second and Carolina surprising everyone by coming in third ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ and making the playoffs. I think the Panthers defense is still very good and their offense is improved. They lost a lot of games by just a few points last season and this year could turn. In Atlanta, I think Dan Reeves got more than he should have out of his defense and I donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t think theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ll repeat that performance. Also, defensive coordinators have had a whole year to prepare for Michael Vick and I think theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ll have some surprises for him.
Pressure on Deuce
When you saw how this team did last year once Deuce was injured, you know how important he is to this team. I donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t understand why they didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t upgrade the backup running back role, where Curtis Keaton now resides. I think depth is so key at two positions ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ cornerback and running back. You can never have enough good corners and Denver has shown what having depth at running back means.
Secondary is better but pass rush is the key
On paper things look better at the corner with Dale Carter, Ashley Ambrose and Fred Thomas. Carter was just rounding into shape last year when he went down. But even with the improvement, without a significant pass rush, the defense will stop no one.
Lee's NFC South Picks
Lots of young defenders need to learn fast
There will be a lot of first, second and third year guys starting on this defense. Charles Grant, Sullivan, James Allen, Sedrick Hodge, Mel Mitchell, Darren Howard and Kenny Smith. Those are seven guys picked by Haslett, who will make up a significant part of the defense and all could start.
Tampa won't repeat - Saints the choice in NFC South
Jim Henderson / WWL-TV Sports Director
Probably the best thing working in the Saints favor is the fact that Tampa won it all last year. No one repeats in the NFL and I doubt if the Bucs will, in fact, I donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t think theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ll win the division. Having said that, IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m going to go with the Saints as division champs. I think they will make the playoffs along with the Bucs and Falcons.
Pivotal year for Haslett
I think this is a very big year for Jim Haslett. IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m not sure he could survive another late season swoon. If that would happen again, IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m not sure the Saints could sell tickets off another fast start ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ people would always wait for the next shoe to fall.
Brooks needs to grow up as a leader
Aaron Brooks has all of the physical ability. Last year he played hurt ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ and thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s to his credit. What he needs to do is mature as a leader. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s very thin-skinned and the team coddles him quite a bit. If Brooks is back at full strength, with all of the weapons that he has, and with him labeling himself a ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“top fiveÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? quarterback last year, heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ll have to deliver.
Jim's NFC South Picks
Lee Zurik's picks
Getting rid of DitkaÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s leftovers
As Haslett goes into his fourth season, he has now purged the team of any draft picks or top acquisitions from the Mike Ditka era. Yes, theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve seen Ricky Williams, Willie Roaf, La Roi Glover and Kyle Turley go, but I think the only one they really regret losing is Glover. They saw Roaf as a guy at the end of his career and Williams and Turley as problems, but mostly they werenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“their guys.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
Fans show their undying love
How many fans left the Superdome after one of last yearÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s late season losses muttering about how they would never return? Now, the team is closing in on 50,000 season tickets sold and they have a good shot to break the all-time club record of 53,000 and change. I just think it speaks to the undying love of this city for its NFL team.
Brooks, Haslett need breakout years
Juan Kincaid / WWL-TV Sports Reporter
This has to be a breakout year for Aaron Brooks and for Jim Haslett as well. ThereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s been so much talk about this team since that first year when they exceeded expectations and made the playoffs, but they havenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t done anything. It's all about winning in the NFL and the past two years, down the stretch, they haven't won. Brooks looks real good right now. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s lifting weights and I think his physical health is excellent. He should be as good, if not better than last year and it could be that in December heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s in the position of having to save HaslettÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s job.
Stopping the run is biggest concern
I think the offense is rock solid and there will be little competition for any of the spots. On defense, however, there are a few questions. First is the defensive tackle area. I think the ends will be solid, but IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m concerned about the middle, especially if Grady Jackson doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t come back in shape. As for linebacker, itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a question mark with Orlando Ruf and Derrick Rodgers needing to answer the call.
Backup running back is empty
Only two bubble players ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ James Fenderson and Curtis Keaton ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ are on this roster to spell Deuce McAllister, who obviously canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t carry the load 40 times a game.
Top pick needs to contribute ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âœ others have time
Juan's NFC South Picks
Expect Johnathan Sullivan to miss about a week to a week and a half to get his contract done. ThatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s about normal and he should come right in and do well. He needs to contribute in a big way. Jon Stinchcomb will get some time on a talented offensive line but it will be limited as this team is good and deep there. Cie Grant may be slowed some this year, but he could end up being the best linebacker on this roster if what IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m hearing from folks whoÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve seen the mini-camp workouts is true. Also, expect some good things from Talman Gardner, maybe not this year, but in time.
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