Tag Archives: NFC South

2016 NFC South Preview

1. Carolina Panthers – It almost seems to easy to pick the Panthers to win this division.  How can you bet against a team that’s the reigning NFC Champs and return with the reigning MVP?  Cam Newton made the leap many of us have been waiting for and was a force all on his own last year.  Cam finished the season with 45 total touchdowns and he will need to continue this dominance for the Panthers to repeat as division champs this year.  Last year Cam was without wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and it was a blessing in disguise.  Cam was able to spread the ball around and make decent players out of dumpster fires like Ted Ginn Jr.  Expect former Michigan Wolverine, Devin Funchess to take over as the number one wide-out.  Tight-end Greg Olson, when it’s all said and done, is the most consistent and reliable target. . . Jonathan Stewart was eleven yards short of a thousand and was better than expected.  To expect anything more than eight-hundred yards out of Stewart would be lofty.  Head coach Ron Rivera’s bread and butter is the defense.   The Panthers could not agree on a contract with corner-back Josh Norman so he’ll be gone and there is a definite lack of support in that secondary.  Roman Harper took his leadership and salt and pepper hair back to New Orleans but it’s the front seven that is still the most athletic and dominant in football.  Teams will still struggle to run the ball against them, as they did last year as this defense yielded less than four yards a carry.  It will be a tougher road, but this is literally a black and blue team, who can take it as well as they can dish it out.

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Prediction: 10-6

2. Atlanta Falcons – The story here is that Atlanta actually has better talent on their roster than most of the teams they play this season.  Matt Ryan wasn’t as sharp as we’re used to seeing him, but let’s just put it on learning a new system.  Ryan is a bright and dedicated player, he will only get better a year into this system.  The Falcons were able to run the ball last year with Davonta Freeman and the funny thing about that is he wasn’t even supposed to be the starter.  Tevin Coleman had beat him out as the starter but got hurt.  The running game and offensive line as a whole should get a lot better with the free agent acquisition of center Alex Mack who decided to not waste away his talents in Cleveland anymore. . .Defensively the Falcons should see some improvements.  Vic Beasley struggled during the year, but that’s mostly because the defense around him was pretty shaky.  Courtney Upshaw and Sean Witherspoon are some nice additions to the squad.  Ra’Shede Hageman was  dominant player in 2013 playing in the Big 10 conference and he needs to be more consistent with his play.  Hageman plays with a chip on his shoulder and fits the mold of a Dan Quinn defense.  The Falcons drafted Keanu Neal, the safety out of Florida, in the first round and that will turn out to be a nice pick for them as he plays behind one of the leagues best corners in Desmond Trufant.   Atlanta has the tools to become more dominant in this division than Carolina – but their time is not now.

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Prediction: 9-7

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Okay everyone, you no longer need to hold your breath.  Jameis Winston seems to have taken life at the NFL seriously and is washing away the troubled image that followed him in college (somebody tell Johnny Manziel that it is possible to shape up . . .).  Tampa decided to part ways with head coach Lovie Smith, but didn’t want to shake things up too much and they promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to the position.  The Bucs must have all the faith in the world in Winston because they did little  in the off season to upgrade this offense.  Although the “little” they did was add J.R. Sweezy to an offensive line that is young and on the come up thanks to the likes of Hastings, New York product Ali Marpet who was taken in the second round of last year’s draft as a Division Three standout at guard.  Doug Martin proved that when healthy he is a top five back in the league as he finished last year with over 1400 rushing yards.  Vincent Jackson is still the veteran wide out on the team that generally goes un-noticed and forgotten in the league and if Mike Evans can stay healthy and produce, it may be Jackson’s last year in Tampa.  The Bucs drafted corner Vernon Hargreaves in the first round and he is a cover guy, always looking to force turnovers – he should show immediate impact from week one as he’s paired up with Brent Grimes in the secondary.  As long as Grimes keeps his wife off of twitter things should be okay.  Hard to have a lot of faith in the back end of that secondary when the horrible Chris Conte is there and amazingly still finds himself employed in the league.  The Bucs will have a losing record but fight until the final possession in a hand full of these games.

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Prediction: 6-10

4. New Orleans Saints – Expect a lot of 35-32 losses by this team.  They can sling it with the best of them, but they’re defense is just horrendous.  The Saints are the NFL’s version of what a Big 12 conference team is.  Sheldin Rankins, the defensive tackle out of Louisville, was a smart pick in the first round of the draft but outside of him and defensive end Cameron Jenkins, there really isn’t much to see in this front seven.  Dannell Ellerbee keeps tricking people into paying him for his “athleticism” and Nick Fairley has a good motor but zero in-game focus. Drew Brees has lost a little bit of the zip on his passes but he’ll have some nice young targets to fling the rock to.  Rookie Micheal Thomas and the game-breaker Brandin Cooks figure to be the one and two – but Willie Snead had a nice breakout season last year and gelled well with the veteran QB.   The Saints are a great team to collect guys for your fantasy football team but to see them as a contender is just a “fantasy.”

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Prediction: 5-11

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio

Carolina Panthers 2015 Season

The Carolina Panthers may have won their division last year, but finishing with an 8-9-1 record means that there is still massive room for improvement.  Head coach Ron Rivera has had a .500 record in four seasons with the Panthers and is always on the “hot seat.”

Not many teams can lose a player of Greg Hardy’s talent and still be one of the league’s most respected defensive units, but that’s what keeps Rivera employed.  They have youth on this line with defensive tackle Star Lotullelei and defensive end Kony Ealy but it’s Charles Johnson, who needs to continue to be the veteran leader.  By doing so, he needs to lead by example and although his pass rushing isn’t what it used to be, his work ethic hasn’t missed a step, which will be key in keeping this line motivated.

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The line backing group in Carolina should be exciting to watch.  Luke Kuechly is arguably the best linebacker in football while 11 year pro Thomas Davis is one of those guys who has found the Fountain of Youth, because he is just as fast and alert now as he was seven years ago.  Rookie Shaq Thompson came into this draft as one of it’s better athletes.  At Washington, he played linebacker as well as safety and running back.  His versatility will keep him on the field as much as the other two linebackers and his speed will keep offensive lines in check as he can cause a lot of damaged in delayed blitz packages.

Veteran Charles Tillman, was one of the toughest and intelligent corner backs in the league, in his prime – but his injuries have limited his playing time, and although it was hard for the Chicago Bears to part ways with the fan favorite, the move had to be done.  Rivera brought Tillman on to be the voice of leadership in a secondary that needs the help, but Tillman’s voice won’t be heard if he can’t be on that field.  Josh Norman can’t be trusted across from Tillman and safety Roman Harper has lost a few steps.   If the front seven of this defense turns out to be a monster – expect the Panthers to play with the possibility of putting rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson in at safety to help balance things out.

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Ron Rivera likes to keep his offenses simple but this year he will need a lot of help from his offensive line that enters this season with a lot of questions.  Last year they Panthers had an undrafted rookie and practice squad-lifer start on their line and this year they are expecting third round pick Trai Turner.  Rob Rang of CBS Sports said of Turner: “Powerful run blocking will get Turner a chance in the NFL, but struggles in pass protection may make Turner’s conversion to the quickness and precision of the NFL difficult. ”  Luckily for Turner the Panthers like to run a lot – the flip side of that is: “Who is running the ball?”

James Stewart has been on Carolina for his whole career and if people were to speak honestly on the career of Stewart – “unimpressive” would be the word to describe it.  He’s a basic running back with basic abilities who never seemed to want to be the guy.   Rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne has some explosiveness to his game and will most likely steal carries away from Stewart.  Payne is an Auburn alum like Cam Newton and is used to run heavy offenses.  Payne may be one of those players that “sneak up” on teams in the mid-season.

The issue with Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton is that, Newton was never given weapons at his disposal.  Last year Carolina took Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first-round of the draft and he quickly gave them results.  The big wide out, proved to be a hassle to corner backs and his strength made him a match-up nightmare.   Teams seemed to catch up to Benjamin later in the year though, so keep an eye on him in the early going of 2015.  The Panthers took Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess in this year’s draft.  Funchess does a lot of what Benjamin does and provides another big target for Newton.  Much like Benjamin, people are not sure of the kind of “motor” Funchess brings week to week though.

For all things considered, tight end Greg Olsen is the team’s best receiving option and is their best player on offense – period.  His number of receptions and targets have gone up in each of his four seasons in Carolina and last year had his first 1000 yard season.  With a healthy Cam Newton this season, expect those numbers to continue to increase as long as Benjamin proves he is worthy of being a number-one receiver.

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Quarterback Cam Newton, was hampered by injuries all season long and even had a nasty car accident last season, that injured his back.  Through it all, Cam Newton only missed two games last season and although it was a disappointing season from a statistical point of view, he gained the trust in his locker room and respect amongst his teammates, which was always an issue in Carolina.

There are so many “ifs” in this Carolina offense that it doesn’t quite stir confidence in the stomachs of Panthers fans.  A healthy Cam Newton is one of the NFL’s dangerous weapons and his maturity has come a long way from his rookie campaign.  Ron Rivera has pushed his luck before and he’ll try to do it again.  Carolina should still be in competition for the division at least.

Predicted Record: 7-9

Predicted Pro Bowlers: Cam Newton, Greg Olson, Luke Kuechly

G.W. Gras

twitter @GeeSteelio