The South will rise again ... maybe
The South will rise again ... maybe
The NFC South is the forgotten division. Sometimes it's hard to remember who plays there, even though Atlanta was in the NFC championship game last season, Tampa is just three years removed from a Super Bowl championship, and Carolina was the NFC champ two years ago. So what gives? Why is this such a helter-skelter division?
It seems like you either win the division, or you're home wondering what happened. Carolina is a perfect example of my description of this division. One year they were in the cellar, the next they were NFC champs, and then last year they went 7-9 and out of the playoffs. The Saints seem to come into every season with great promise, just to see them underachieve. The Buccaneers are still buried under the salary cap and will not have a good season. Then there are the Falcons.
In a division based on stopping the run, no team was better than the Atlanta Falcons. If the Falcons want to continue division dominance, they will have to continue to play stout defense first, while working to increase the number of offensive threats they place on the field.
At the end of last season's NFC championship game, everyone spent time talking about Philadelphia's accomplishment. I felt it had more to do with the Falcons inability to progress offensively. The Falcons had a championship defense, the number-one running game in the league, and arguably the single-best player in the league, yet they found themselves on the short end of the score. I believe it is because they didn't utilize the threats on their roster, especially on the perimeter.
Mike Vick is a legitimate superstar and one of the best athletes I've seen play any sport. Vick is a human-highlight film. It is both a strength for the Falcons, and a serious weakness. To Vick's credit, he's trying to buy into the version of the West Coast offense that coach Jim Mora is implementing. He's trying to stay in the pocket, make his progressions, and pass instead of run. However, combined with his itchy trigger finger (or running finger, if you will) is the fact that his receivers aren't doing their job. They were a disappointment.
More specifically, Peerless Price was a disappointment. He is either overrated, or he is an underachiever. Hence, the Falcons wasted no time in drafting wide receiver Roddy White. White is an explosive talent that provides an immediate deep threat. Are you listening, Price? The message may be either step up or step out.
At this point, I would list their wide-receiver corps, in order, as Dez White, Michael Jenkins, Brian Finneran, Roddy White and Peerless Price, with Kendrick Mosley, Hannibal Thomas and Romby Bryant chomping at the bit. Price has his hands full making this team, much less starting.
The importance of this discussion cannot be overstated. Alge Crumpler is one of the best tight ends in the league. They have a very strong offensive line, and they should be able to continue to run the ball effectively. However, if they are going to take the next step, this offense must provide some explosiveness on the perimeter. If they continue to go into battle with a half-loaded gun, they will continue to fall short of their ultimate goal.
With all this conversation over offensive questions, I almost forgot that there are some questions on the other side of the ball. First and foremost, who is going to replace defensive tackles Travis Hall and Ed Jasper? I believe that the preseason game at Jacksonville will be an important test of the interior of the defense. The Falcons signed free-agent defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell from Seattle, and they drafted tackle Jonathan Babineaux (Iowa) in the second round. They also signed free-agent linebacker Ike Reese from Philadelphia and linebacker Ed Hartwell from Baltimore.
This defense will be stout, but they will have to make adjustments, and Babineaux may have to grow up fast to help solidify this unit. With all the talk focused on the offense, they cannot afford to allow this unit to slide, especially with their neighbor to the north looking over their shoulder.
The early schedule for the Falcons is brutal. They open on Monday night against the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. Then, on a short week, they fly across the country to play in Seattle, where they have struggled, then they travel to Buffalo to play one of the better defenses in the league.
They get a, uh, break in week four by playing perhaps the most improved team in the NFL at home when Minnesota stops by. In week five they welcome the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots to town. What a start!
The bad side of this schedule is that they only play two teams (Green Bay and the New York Jets) that finished over .500 the rest of the season. Some fans might like that, but I have seen that bite teams in the rear.
If Carolina can't challenge them for the division and at the end of the season, then the Falcons will have to fight complacency to make sure they do not enter the playoffs flat.
The Carolina Panthers are the team to watch in this division. They are the one team in the NFC South that is built to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, and can throw a stick in the spokes of the Falcons plans.
The Panthers were decimated by injuries last season, and coach John Fox still had them in the playoff hunt until the final Sunday of the season. After starting 1-7, they finished 7-9. They did it by playing as a team and responding to their coach's call to fight to the end. They are a very good team.
First of all, they are much healthier. While some players are still finishing up rehab, they should be just about 100 percent by the time training camp opens. The one real concern is running back Stephen Davis. He is not participating at full speed, and all indications are that it will be some time before he does. However, Fox says it is just a matter of time before he is back at full strength. The one blessing for the Panthers is that they have a very strong stable of running backs. I continue to be a fan of DeShaun Foster. I think he will establish himself as a premier running back this season, but he will have plenty of help.
In the second round of the draft, the Panthers selected running back Eric Shelton. I had Shelton down as a real sleeper in the draft that was going to surprise a lot of people in this league once he hit the field. Obviously the Panthers didn't see him as a sleeper at all, so they grabbed him early. He is a perfect fit in Carolina, and no matter whether Davis comes back or not, the combo of Foster and Shelton with a little sprinkle of Nick Goings, and this backfield will provide a lot of bite. With the addition of offensive lineman Mike Wahle from the Packers, this offensive line should be very solid.
One of the most important free agent signings for the Panthers may prove to be tight end Freddie Jones. That's because the biggest loss came when wideout Muhsin Muhammad was signed by the Chicago Bears. However, Steve Smith will be back on the field to provide a deep threat, Ricky Proehl returns for a 17th season, Freddie Jones is a big target, and watch out for rookie Taylor Stubblefield.
On defense, they drafted versatile safety and linebacker Thomas Davis of Georgia with their number-one pick. He adds some depth to a solid defense led by Julius Peppers. Peppers is a ripped athlete whose motor never stops. He is an impact player, and I believe he may have his best season of his young career. The front four will flat out get after you, and the linebacking corps is more then serviceable. This defense could be a force especially if the secondary plays tough, and they stay healthy.
I also want to point out that I really liked their draft. Some of these picks are projects, but if they come through then in three or four seasons, we could be talking about this being one of the best drafts of '05. I've already mentioned that their first two picks (Davis and Shelton) will be impact players as early as this season. However, let's not leave out their third-round pick, guard Evan Mathis, who will add some depth to the offensive line. Center Geoff Hangartner comes from a tough Texas A&M program, defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison might be a pleasant surprise out of Missouri, and free safety Ben Emanuel could develop into a solid cover safety.
I also love the fact that the Panthers drafted quarterback Stefan Lefors. Anyone who watched the decline of the Dallas Cowboys in the late '90s as Troy Aikman began to decline, or who have kept up with the failure of the Packers to address Bret Favre's eventual retirement until this draft, should appreciate the step the Panthers took to draft a young quarterback.
Selecting Lefors now allows him to take his time to develop, add muscle, and prepare for the NFL game without the pressure of starting right away. It used to be standard practice to draft QBs two seasons before you expected them to vie for starting time. Unfortunately, the win-now attitude of today has changed the approach to grooming young QBs. I'm very glad to see the Panthers thinking about the future now. Such decisions are a credit to forward and future-thinking owners, GMs and coaches that are the mark of a solid franchise.
At the end of the day, this team is going to push the Falcons for the division. If Atlanta should slip at all, it will be the Panthers that will pounce on the division title.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the Panthers will at least be at the head of the wild-card battle at season's end.
New Orleans Saints
Here we go again. Here's another team that people label as a threat to go all the way, even though every year they do the same thing. They underachieve just enough to finish 8-8 or 7-9.
I did love the fact that they drafted offensive tackle Jammal Brown with their first overall pick. I consider him the best tackle in the draft. Brown will have an immediate impact on this team, and combined with the acquisition of guard Jermane Mayberry, the offensive line could become the strength of this team in '05.
After Brown their draft was, well, vanilla. This team needs to shake up its roster. They need some new blood and some players that play with urgency. There's something flat about the Saints, and it bothers me a lot. They did draft a couple of players worth watching late in the draft. Defensive tackle Jason Jefferson, a sixth-round pick, might prove to be a keeper. I thought he showed flashes at Wisconsin of being pretty good, but time will tell if he can take his talent to the next level. Another guy worth watching is quarterback Adrian McPherson. The Saints drafted him in the sixth round as well, and some argued that he was the best overall athlete in the draft. He is a project, but his athletic ability and a man-sized arm that can throw anywhere on the field could make him a future starter in this league.
No matter what they are able to accomplish on offense, this team will not climb out of the mediocrity of .500 football if the defense does not improve. They gave up 383 yards a game and 5.8 yards a play last season. Do you remember when Indianapolis came to town? Enough said.
The problem is that I don't see where the improvement is supposed to be coming from. Free agency brought in linebacker Levar Fisher, safety Dwight Smith and cornerback Jimmy Williams. These are not names that are going to make you curl your toes and dream of Super Bowl parties. Their linebackers are very young and will take time to develop. Their depth chart shows Jason Craft and Fred Thomas as starting cornerbacks. Between them they had zero interceptions last season. In fact, of the 14 players on their roster that are listed as cornerbacks or safeties, only safety Dwight Smith (3), who played for Tampa Bay last season, cornerback Mike Mckenzie (5) and cornerback Fakhir Brown (2) had any interceptions at all.
I ask again, where is the improvement coming from? It's not good enough in today's NFL to simply say a team will be better on its own merits. Free agency and salary caps put an end to that form of progression. Today's NFL demands that a franchise keep seeking position improvement.
At this point, they are still an 8-8 team. They have a quarterback (Aaron Brooks) with a rating of 79, a starting receiver in Duante Stallworth who is a disappointment, and a defense that last season looked like Swiss cheese on most Sundays.
Did I mention the night that Indianapolis came to town?
The biggest news coming from this team may be a new address at season's end in Los Angeles.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sorry, but it's going to be a tough year for the Bucs. That's tough for me to write, but facts are facts. I think Jon Gruden is still one of the best coaches in the NFL, but he's battling elements that are out of his control.
The Bucs are getting too old on defense, and they are to young on offense. The salary cap and poor drafts before Gruden came aboard are keeping this team mired in the depths of their own division. However, they are getting a handle on their salary cap, they are making better personnel decisions, and their coach is determined to get back in the hunt.
First off, the offense has a great foundation to grow from. Their number-one selection in the draft of running back Cadillac Williams was excellent. They needed to upgrade this position desperately, and Gruden knew Williams was his man after coaching him before the Senior Bowl.
Here's the question to keep in mind about the Williams selection and the Buccaneers' future - do they want serviceable players or championship players? Michael Pittman is a serviceable player. He's a guy that catches the ball well out of the backfield, and he'll give you around 900 yards a season. That's quaint, but it's not going to get the job done in this league. Williams, on the other hand, is a guy who should give them 1,200 to 1,400 yards a season. He's a playmaker, and if you want to be successful in the NFL, you need a big-play threat coming out of the backfield.
Furthermore, they needed an improved running game to take pressure off of an improving passing attack. They've added Ike Hilliard to a receiving core that includes the speed of Joey Galloway and the sensational play of Michael Clayton. Clayton is a star, and they need to bring players in that demand attention so that Clayton can continue to find room to roam.
Last, they have a quarterback that can get them back in contention.
I'm tired of critics of Brian Griese. Not only is he playing smarter than he ever has, he is also coming off a virtually injury-free season. As a result, he is healthy, confident and more prepared to lead a team then he has ever been. He is tough, smart, and I think he's going to have an outstanding season as long as the offensive line does its part.
The offensive line has fans holding their breath. Championships are built up front on both defense and offense. Unfortunately, the Bucs salary-cap woes prevented them from being aggressive during free agency, so they were not able to address an aging and struggling offensive line. Last season's acquisitions of tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese have not worked out well at all. They still may release Steussie to free up cap space, and Kenyatta Walker also may be on the chopping block for his disappointing performance last season.
On the up side, they drafted tackle Chris Colmer in the third round and guard Dan Buenning in the fourth. Both of these young players may be asked to grow up sooner than expected. For my money, if they progress during training camp, I'd start both of them and live with the growing pains for as long as Brian Griese can live with them.
The defense, which has been this team's signature unit for years, is starting to show age as well. They still have cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks, but that may not be enough to hold this unit together. Again, the cap challenges that this team is strapped with seriously hindered their ability to pursue quality players on this side of the line. They are thin at cornerback, linebacker and defensive end. That's not good. This team is an injury or two from another five-win season, but it's not because they aren't signing talent. There are some young players that could develop into outstanding contributors in due time. How much time is the question fans are most worried about. Until then, the Bucs should be pleased with an 8-8 season.
I still say that the offensive line is the key to this season's success. If this unit can somehow come together and play well, then they might have some surprises waiting for opponents. Remember, the defense may be aging, but that doesn't mean their poor. Quite the contrary, and if they are on the sidelines more than the field, then they can challenge a lot of teams they face. Translation: They must be able to run the ball methodically, consistently, and with very productive results. If they can control the clock and allow this defense to have their legs in the fourth quarter, then they will make things interesting all season long.
Things to think about
Did Atlanta lose too much in the interior of their defense? Will Mike Vick stay healthy? Are Dunn and Duckett enough at running back? Will the Falcons utilize threats at the perimeter more effectively this season?
Can the Panthers avoid the injury plague that ended their season in '04? How much of a loss was Muhammad? Will the team rally around Mark Fields' battle with Hodgkin's disease and the death of Sam Mills? Will the steroid controversy be a distraction on the field? Will they be able to run their way back into the playoffs?
Are the Saints more than a conversation piece? Will their defense stop anyone when it counts? Will a potentially explosive offense be enough to overcome the defense if they don't improve? Will they stay in New Orleans, where they belong, or will they head for the West Coast?
Will Tampa Bay have an offensive line that keeps Brian Griese upright? Will Williams be worth all the hype? Can they control the clock for, say, 40 minutes a game to protect an aging defense? Will the young players be able to have an impact this season?
Whoever answers these questions most effectively will be charged with reminding the rest of the NFL what the South is made of.
Stephen Winslow is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Read past columns on-line at www.augustafreepress.com/winslow.
I read this, and couldn't wait to point out the flaws. Did this guy do any research besides some surface stuff?
What a jackass. I'm not one who usually criticizes people for telling it like it is, especially as compared to the extreme sugar coating that comes from Saints' camp, but this article is just poo. Wrong on A-Mac, misspelled Donte's name, Craft and Thomas aren't the starters... idiot. Learn about a team before you write about it.
Yeah, I saw this earlier before you posted it and almost posted it. This guy is a schlub.
I wrote an email to the augusta free press or whatever it is telling them that this guy doesn't even deserve to be on free press.
I eat pieces of sh** like this guy for breakfast.
His last name is Winslow... what do you expect. 8)
Do you guys remember on national TV while he was at Miami... blurting out "I'm a mother F'ING SOULJA!!!"? Man that was hiliarious.
lol. yeah what crap.
haha you eat pieces of s***
Hey yall email the guy who wrote this about the crap he wrote, he does respond back... have a war of words with him... how fun.
He author of the article claimed he made no reference to the Colts game being last year. He didn't take into account a few additions that has been made or anything.
He surely didn't care about the misspelling of Donte's name.
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