Top Ten Back By Season’s End?
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4) – Sean Payton’s club addressed its two major weaknesses via draft and free agency – run offense and run defense. Mark Ingram was a steal late in round one, and will be counted on to produce immediately, considering the uncertainty surrounding the health of Pierre Thomas (ankle) and Chris Ivory (hernia). The Alabama product will feast upon opposing defenses running behind the league’s best interior line. The added dimension to an already potent offense has MVP candidate Drew Brees smiling. As for the run defense, they upgraded a shaky unit after being humiliated by Marshawn Lynch last January. Aubrayo Franklin, Shaun Rogers and rookie first rounder Cameron Jordan make the defensive front one to be reckoned with. All three provide the size and strength to help corral the ground attack. The progressing quartet of second-year players, tight end Jimmy Graham and cornerback Patrick Robinson, along with wide receiver Robert Meachem and free safety Malcolm Jenkins, will aid the Saints en route to regaining the NFC South crown. In all reality, this squad could be more talented than the ’09 Super Bowl version. Granted, it means absolutely nothing, if they don’t improve upon last season’s minus-one (defense last with 9 interceptions; Brees 22 interceptions thrown) turnover differential.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6) – The high-reward, high-risk acquisition of Julio Jones gives the offense more firepower. Yet, is Matt Ryan’s new weapon the key to how far the Falcons fly in 2011? On paper, the offense is loaded with a nice blend of playmakers and consistent contributors. No one is questioning that side of the football. The balance of run and pass is near the top. However, is the defense ready to make the rise to contend with the NFC’s elite? At best, I see them as a borderline top-ten group. The pieces are in place, but I don’t sense a defense that is championship-caliber, one that is able to make enough plays. If the Dirty Birds want to redeem themselves from last season’s debacle in the playoffs, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder needs to pump up the volume. Too many times his unit did not amplify the intensity and use their overall speed to its advantage. Aggressiveness is the key. The overall incline of ’09 and ’10 first-round picks, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, and free-agent signing Ray Edwards at defensive end, should only help the cause. In five games during 2010, Mike Smith’s crew came away with victories by five points or less. While the offense showed the ability to win tight games and execute clutchness, the defense showed the inability to seal the deal. The offense had to bail them out entirely too much, and I don’t know if they can continue at such an impressive rate. And even if they do, sooner rather than later, that type of play catches up to you in the postseason – as seen against Green Bay. It’s clear, Matt Ryan has to take more opportunities downfield (fifth-worst yards per pass attempt) and the pass rush (third-worst among playoff teams – 31 sacks) has to get fiercer if the Falcons want to repeat as division winners.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9) – Much hinges on the defensive line’s play for the Bucs success. The front four was second-worst in terms of taking down the quarterback in 2010. So in the draft, the first two picks were spent on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn (Iowa) and injury-prone Da’Quan Bowers (Clemson). The two first picks spent on the previous draft were used on defensive tackles, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, both of whom had their rookie campaigns cut short due to season-ending injuries. If the line cannot do big things and live up to its potential, the defense will have to rely on an extremely young (sans Ronde Barber), lackluster back-seven headlined by troublemaker cornerback Aqib Talib. Rookie third-round pick Mason Foster replaces Barrett Ruud at starting middle linebacker; giving more cause for concern. I don’t know if the sensational Josh Freeman can overcome a marginal D on way to a back-to-back above .500 season. With Freeman leading the troops, I’m confident, however, can I count on LeGarrette Blount to be the team’s workhorse? Mike Williams, Kellen Winslow and Arrelious Benn give the franchise QB a quality receiving cast, but it’s nothing compared to their NFC South rivals ahead of them. Simply put, it would be crazy and unwise to believe the Bucs are in position to contend with New Orleans and Atlanta this fall. Growing pains are inevitable for Raheem Morris’ youthful bunch.
4. Carolina Panthers (6-10) – Rookie quarterback and top pick Cam Newton has his work cut out for him. You have to expect his transition from Saturdays at Auburn to Sundays at the professional level in Carolina to be rough. So far in preseason, where teams dial “vanilla” defenses, his accuracy has left much to be desired. Nonetheless, he will have the benefit of a three-headed monster in the backfield. DeAngelo Williams is a premiere back and Jonathan Stewart is an explosive runner who compliments Williams’ style perfectly. Mike Goodson gives the Panthers a fresh versatile option at the position if Williams or Stewart need a rest. Steve Smith is still a threat to take it the distance, as he’s a unbelievably difficult to stop on first contact. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey will be Cam’s reliable over-the-middle targets. This offense reminds you of what Matt Ryan had at his disposal during his rookie run in Atlanta. Thus, a lot is riding on Newton’s ability to take care of the football and make the necessary plays through the air. Can he be Ryan-esque as a first-year passer? Don’t count on it, though there’s a glimmer of hope. Defensively, the Panthers have a solid identity with perennial All-Pro linebacker Jon Beason as the centerpiece. Charles Johnson filled the void left by Julius Peppers nicely, with 11.5 sacks last year, and the secondary was in the top-half containing the pass. While there’s some good things to talk about on that side of the ball, it still remains to be seen if the run defense, which was ranked in the lower-half of the league, and the health of Thomas Davis will hold up. Ultimately, Beason could have trouble keeping blockers off him if third-round picks Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, who are expected to see significant playing time on the interior line, don’t clog the middle. Overall, there’s too many “what if’s” for this club to compete for a .500 record – but at least the future’s looking sunny for Ron Rivera’s brigade.