NFCS status report.
Mr. RedRight88 is on board today and he drew the NFC South. Take it away Tom. (The past division write-ups are linked here. I couldn’t be much happier with the contributions; excellent work gents.)
NFC South breakdown
The NFC South is an interesting division, one that has yet to see a division champion repeat the following year. That does not bode well for last year’s division champ, Carolina. In addition, each of its four teams – New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina – has won the division crown three times. By comparison, New England has won the AFC East 10 times, while Indianapolis has won the AFC South eight times. It is also a division that Browns fans will become familiar with this fall, as Cleveland will host the Saints and the Buccaneers, while traveling to face the Falcons and the Panthers. Let’s take a look at the teams in predicted order of finish. And since it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a draft pick is going to be successful or not (so many variables); so we are basing our letter grades on whether or not the off-season moves made sense and filled apparent needs.
Re-signed: T Zach Strief, OLB Parys Haralson, WR Robert Meachem, LB Ramon Humber, QB Luke McCown.
Veteran additions: CB Champ Bailey, FS Jairus Byrd, TE Erik Lorig.
Veteran subtractions: OT Charles Brown, DE Kenyon Coleman, FB Jed Collins, C Brian De La Puente, SS Eric Frampton, CB Jabari Greer, SS Roman Harper, LB Will Herring, FS Malcolm Jenkins, DT Tom Johnson, WR Lance Moore, S Jordan Pugh, DE Will Smith, LB Jonathan Vilma, RB Darren Sproles.
Draft picks: 1-Brandin Cooks (WR), 2-Stanley Jean-Baptiste (CB), 4-Khairi Fortt (OLB), 5a-Vinnie Sunseri (S), 5b-Ronald Powell (OLB), 6-Tavon Rooks (OT).
TM’s grade: A.
As long as the Saints have Drew Brees running the offense and Sean Payton calling the plays, they have to be considered the favorites in the division.
New Orleans was selective about their own free agents, resigning seven while letting 15 walk away. The team definitely wanted to get younger – the average age of the players released was 30 – and healthier after seeing Smith miss all of 2013, Vilma play only one game and Greer land on season-ending injured reserve after Week 11.
In the draft they filled a hole at wide receiver with Brandin Cooks, who looks like a great fit for Payton’s offense, and in the secondary with cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who has the size (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) that NFL teams are looking for.
The only real question left is if the Saints can work out a long-term deal with tight end Jimmy Graham, who received the franchise tag from the team. The tumblers start clicking into place June 17-18 when Graham’s grievance hearing (Is he a Wide Receiver or Tight End?) is held.
Re-signed: coach Ron Rivera, DT Colin Cole, QB Derek Anderson, LB Jason Williams.
Veteran additions: WR Jason Avant, CB Antoine Cason, WR Jerricho Cotchery, FS Thomas DeCoud, TE Ed Dickson, SS Roman Harper, TE Mike McNeill, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR Joe Webb.
Veteran subtractions: C Jeff Byers, OT Bruce Campbell, QB Jimmy Clausen, LB Dan Connor, CB Drayton Florence, WR Ted Ginn, OT Jordan Gross, G Geoff Hangartner, TE Ben Hartsock, WR Domenik Hixon, WR Brandon LaFell, SS Quintin Mikell, FS Mike Mitchell, CB Captain Munnerlyn, LB Jordan Senn, G Travelle Wharton, WR Steve Smith.
Draft picks: 1-Kelvin Benjamin (WR), 2-Kony Ealy (DE), 3-Trai Turner (G), 4-Tre Boston (S), 5-Bene Benwikere (CB), 6-Tyler Gaffney (RB).
TM’s grade: C-.
Wow, where to start? The Panthers lost their four top wide receivers from 2013 – Steve Smith to Baltimore, Brandon LaFell to New England, Ted Ginn Jr. to Arizona and Domenik Hixon (who tore his ACL this week) to Chicago – and replaced them with No. 1 draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, and free agents Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood. They join returning players Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King – who collectively have zero pass receptions as NFL receivers.
Want more? Quarterback Cam Newton won’t be ready until training camp after undergoing surgery on his ankle, leaving it up to Derek Anderson and Joe Webb, signed to a one-year deal as a free agent, to try and get the receiving group up to speed.
But wait! There’s still more! Defensive end Greg Hardy is facing assault charges after allegedly throwing his ex-girlfriend into a tile tub, choking her and then throwing her onto a couch “covered in assault rifles and/or shotguns.” (Something the Panthers are “disappointed in,” according to a team statement.)
The offensive line has also been rebuilt around Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Following the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers are looking to move either tackle Byron Bell or guard Nate Chandler from the right side to the left tackle position.
The Panthers were fourth in total defense last year and second in points allowed, which goes a long way toward explaining how Carolina was 5-0 in one-score games after Week 2 of last season. If the defense can play at that high level again, the Panthers may be OK. If not … well, they better hope that the offense if full of quick learners.
The Benjamin and Ealy picks are nice ones, but the rest of the off-season was not very good. And while it is possible that after going 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons, head coach Ron Rivera figured things out last season, it seems more likely that the 12-4 record the Panthers posted in 2013 was a bit of a fluke.
Re-signed: DL Jonathan Babineaux, DL Peria Jerry, G Joe Hawley, T Mike Johnson.
Veteran additions: CB Javier Arenas, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, WR Devin Hester, DE Tyson Jackson, TE Bear Pascoe, DT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, FS Dwight Lowery.
Veteran subtractions: TE Chase Coffman, WR Kevin Cone, FS Thomas DeCoud, DB Dominique Franks, LB Omar Gaither, G Sean Locklear, LB Stephen Nicholas, G Garrett Reynolds, CB Asante Samuel, FB Jason Snelling, OT Jeremy Trueblood, FB Bradie Ewing, WR Brian Robiskie.
Draft picks: 1-Jake Matthews (OT), 2-Ra’Shede Hageman (DT), 3-Dezmen Southward (S), 4a-Devonta Freeman (RB), 4b-Prince Shembo (OLB), 5a-Ricardo Allen (CB), 5b-Marquis Spruill (ILB), 7a-Yawin Smallwood (ILB), 7b-Tyler Starr (OLB).
TM’s grade: D.
The Falcons are turning into the NFC’s version of the New York Jets – you know their players – but you’re not really sure if they are really any good or not. With a roster of household names, including Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux, the Falcons will have more than their share of national TV appearances this fall. They added to that list by bringing in Devin Hester to help in the return game, but for all his hype Hester has only returned one kick for a touchdown over the past two seasons, and he is not much to talk about as a wide receiver. The Falcons followed a similar pattern in the draft, selecting Jake Matthews with their first pick. Matthews may be good, but he may also be over-valued because of his last name.
The running game was almost as bad as the Browns last season, which is saying a lot, as Steven Jackson led the team with just 543 rushing yards and a 3.5 yards per carry average. Jackson is entering his 11th season this year, and it seems unlikely that he will suddenly rediscover his youth. But, yet, the Falcons didn’t do much to address the running back situation, other than draft Freeman (out of Florida State) in the fourth round.
Atlanta also didn’t do much of anything in an attempt to replace tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired after the 2013 season with 1,325 career receptions. The Falcons are hoping to find a tight end out of a grab bag of Adam Nissley, Bear Pascoe, Jacob Pedersen, Mickey Shuler, Andrew Szczerba, Levine Toilolo and Brian Wozniak – who have combined for 51 career receptions.
Whether or not the moves (or lack thereof) pay off for the Falcon hinges on quarterback Matt Ryan, who is already entering his seventh season this fall. Ryan falls into that category of a good quarterback, but probably not a great quarterback. The Falcons should be better than last year’s 4-12 record, but it’s hard to see them making much of a move on the division title.
Re-signed: G Jamon Meredith, CB Danny Gorrer, LB Jonathan Casillas.
Veteran additions: OT Anthony Collins, G Oniel Cousins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, LB Dane Fletcher, WR Lavelle Hawkins, CB Mike Jenkins, DE Michael Johnson, QB Josh McCown, DT Clinton McDonald, CB D.J. Moore, WR Louis Murphy, TE Brandon Myers, CB Alterraun Verner, FS Major Wright, LS Jeremy Cain.
Veteran subtractions: TE Kyle Adams, DB Michael Adams, TE Nate Byham, G Gabe Carimi, TE Tom Crabtree, LB Jacob Cutrera, LS Andrew Economos, DT Gary Gibson, LB Adam Hayward, RB Michael Hill, G Davin Joseph, DT Derek Landri, FB Spencer Larsen, G Ted Larsen, RB Brian Leonard, K Rian Lindell, TE Erik Lorig, QB Dan Orlovsky, CB Darrelle Revis, DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, K Lawrence Tynes, WR Tiquan Underwood, LB Dekoda Watson, OT Donald Penn, C Jeremy Zuttah, WR Mike Williams.
Draft picks: 1-Mike Evans (WR), 2-Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE), 3-Charles Sims (RB), 5a-Kadeem Edwards (G), 5b-Kevin Pamphile (OT), 6-Robert Herron (WR).
TM’s grade: B.
We feel like the Buccaneers deserve a high grade simply because they made the best possible move they could last season by firing head coach Greg Schiano after just two seasons and an 11-21 record. Tampa learned, like so many teams before them, that college coaches don’t work in the NFL. (And don’t bother brining up Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh; they were not college coaches in the true sense.) While Lovie Smith isn’t going to be leading Tampa to any championships, he is at least a viable NFL head coach.
We have to penalize the Bucs a bit, though, because they then turned around and became the latest team to get lulled by the siren song of the backup quarterback, signing Josh McCown (who is now on his sixth NFL team) as a free agent. McCown went 3-2 in five starts for Chicago last season, throwing 13 touchdowns against one interception. For his career, he is 16-22 as a starter and has only started more than six games twice in his career.
They also lose points after unveiling what may be the worst uniforms in the NFL. (And ones that fill us with dread over what the Browns could be cooking up.) How a team can go from once having Buccaneer Bruce and some of the sweetest uniforms in the league to the current abomination is a puzzle.
Other than that, Mike Evans seems like a good pick, although he is sure to miss catching the ball from Johnny Manziel, but while improved, it doesn’t seem as if the Bucs did enough to really make much of a difference in the division.
TM’s projected records.
- Saints, 11-5
- Panthers, 8-8
- Falcons, 7-9
- Bucs, 5-11