NFL 2012: NFC South Preview Capsules
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-4)
New faces: LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley, LG Ben Grubbs.
Key losses: LG Carl Nicks, LB Jonathan Vilma (suspended), CB Tracy Porter, WR Robert Meachem, coach Sean Payton (suspended).
Strengths: Saints have virtually all key players back from offense that broke NFL records for yards passing and total yards last season, starting with QB Drew Brees and favorite targets TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marques Colston. Also back is versatile RB Darren Sproles and reliable RB Pierre Thomas.
Weaknesses: Defensive front four unproven and will have to be better in order for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme to work. DE Will Smith is best returning pass rusher, but is suspended first four games in connection with bounty investigation. DE Cameron Jordan enters second season with potential, but remains unproven. DT Sedrick Ellis trying to rebound from off-year and Saints hoping free-agent acquisition Bunkley will live up to expectations.
Expectations: Even with Payton suspended for e season in connection with bounty probe, Saints are playoff contenders. They have wealth of experience on coaching staff and across leadership positions on offense and defense. Many key veteran leaders from Saints' 2009-10 Super Bowl run - Brees most importantly - still on squad, as are most top assistants. Lone new coordinator is Spagnuolo, whose 2007 Giants defense won a Super Bowl against a previously unbeaten Patriots team whose single season scoring records still stand.
ATLANTA FALCONS (10-7)
New faces: CB Asante Samuel, G Peter Konz, OT Lamar Holmes
Key losses: MLB Curtis Lofton, KR-PR Eric Weems.
Strengths: With WR Julio Jones bulked up for second season, Atlanta's passing attack could be among league's best if offensive line protects QB Matt Ryan and ball is distributed equally to Jones, WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez and WR Harry Douglas under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Samuel's addition boosts secondary with third proven veteran to pair with CBs Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. FS Thomas DeCoud and SS William Moore entering primes and should benefit from blitz packages installed by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Weaknesses: MLB Akeem Dent untested as he attempts to replace Lofton. Offensive line has new respected position coach in Pat Hill, but it returns same starters that got Ryan hit 84 times and sacked 24 times last year. RT Tyson Clabo, considered best player on line, allowed two sacks in third preseason game. RB Michael Turner could be slowing down. He averaged just 2.7 yards per carry through three preseason games.
Expectations: If Falcons don't make playoffs and then win at least one game, Ryan and coach Mike Smith will be highly criticized. They are 0-3 in playoffs since Smith was hired and Ryan was drafted No. 3 overall in 2008.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-10)
New faces: FB Mike Tolbert, FS Haruki Nakamura, LB Luke Kuechly (first-round pick), G Amini Silatolu, PR Joe Adams.
Key losses: TE Jeremy Shockey, G Travelle Wharton, WR Legedu Naanee, LB Dan Connor.
Strengths: Carolina fifth in scoring in 2011 and most of offense returns along with coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Cam Newton starred as rookie by throwing for more than 4,000 yards. Running game should be among best with Tolbert added to already strong mix that includes DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Newton. Newton's ability to run - 14 rushing TDs - makes Carolina difficult to defend. And it doesn't hurt to have Steve Smith still catching passes.
Weaknesses: Defense and special teams remain concerns. Carolina lost three key players last year to injury - LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and DT Ron Edwards. With all three back and Kuechly looking good, Panthers have chance to improve their 27th-ranked defense. Special teams coverage units allowed 3 TDs last year.
Expectations: Panthers thinking big. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil promised a Super Bowl when he took out full-page ad in local newspaper. Several players and coach Ron Rivera have backed him up. Team has talent, but needs to stay healthy on defense. If offense remains same and defense makes moderate improvements, team could be playoff bound.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12)
New faces: S Mark Barron (first-round pick), WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright, RB Doug Martin (first-round pick), TE Dallas Clark, LB Lavonte David.
Key losses: TE Kellen Winslow, S Tanard Jackson, C Jeff Faine, CB Elbert Mack, S Sean Jones, LB Geno Hayes.
Strengths: It's first-year coach Greg Schiano's team, but continued development of QB Josh Freeman will determine whether Bucs can escape NFC South cellar and contend for playoff berth in division featuring Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton. Two-time Pro bowl guard Davin Joseph out for the season (right knee). Still, offensive line figures to be strong with addition of All-Pro Carl Nicks. Free agent catch Vincent Jackson gives Freeman bona fide go-to receiver, and Martin is being counted on to help running game that ranked 27th a year ago.
Weaknesses: Have invested heavily in past three drafts to improve porous defense that allowed league-high and franchise-worst 494 points, while ranking last against run, in sacks and turnover margin. Seventh overall pick S Mark Barron and second-rounder Lavonte David being counted on to make impact. Five-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber making transition from cornerback to free safety in 16th season, and free agent pickup Eric Wright has moved into Barber's old spot. Biggest key to improvement figures to be whether tackle Gerald McCoy can remain healthy and show why he was third overall pick in 2010 draft.
Expectations: Bucs finished last season on 10-game losing streak, yet don't feel they're starting from scratch under Schiano - lured from Rutgers after Raheem Morris was fired. Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2010, but regressed last season with 16 TDs and 22 interceptions. Schiano hopes to ease burden on his young QB with solid running game. If Freeman can revert to form of two years ago, chances of narrowing gap between Bucs and division rivals New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina will improve.
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