NFC South - What You Need To Know
New Orleans Saints (13-3, 547 Points For, lost in Divisional Playoffs): How much does an elite offense rely on the coaching staff? We'll get a perfect guinea pig to study this year, as the Saints work through a season without mastermind Sean Payton. Given that the club still has quarterback Drew Brees and most of the key skill players, there's no reason to make a radical fantasy adjustment to your New Orleans expectations. But some dropoff from last year is to be expected, especially if the offensive line is slightly compromised (it looks weaker on paper). The Saints love a deep backfield and a rotating backfield, so don't expect too much from any one option. Darren Sproles is a dynamic receiver, but his size requires a modest role. Pierre Thomas is superb from an efficiency standpoint, but the club likes to watch his workload, too. Mark Ingram only managed 3.9 YPC as a rookie, a shockingly-low number given what his teammates managed. Top targets Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore look like reasonably safe picks; keep in mind Graham is still relatively new to football, playing just one year at the University of Miami. There is no reasonably way for defenses to account for him.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 402 PF, lost in Wild Card Playoffs): You have to be careful about what you see and take away from the preseason, but Matt Ryan has been terrific through two games. He might be ready to step up to a Pro Bowl level, a Top 5 at the position level - especially if sophomore Julio Jones turns into the breakout star many are projecting. Roddy White will have to share more with Jones this year, but it also will result in a little less defensive attention, in theory. Both wideouts look like Top 10 options at the position. Michael Turner was moving at a turtle's pace late in 2011, but a Week 17 romp over the give-up Buccaneers protected his stats. He'll probably lose some of his gross output this year, with Jacquizz Rodgers ready to take on a meaty change-of-pace role. Turner should score 8-10 times anyway, but his yardage upside is probably gone for good. Rodgers is a dynamic receiver, a skill Turner has never had. Tony Gonzalez has been steady his entire Atlanta career, but doesn't the aging curve have to kick in at some point? He's 36, entering his 16th season.
Carolina Panthers (6-12, 406 PF): You can say just about anything you want with arbitrary endpoints, so take our Cam Newton stat survey with a grain of salt. That established, it's interesting to note that his YPA dropped from 8.3 to 7.2 in the second half of 2011, and his rushing scores dipped in the final four weeks. Newton's raw ability and rushing chops can't be denied, but will the Panthers want to limit his goal-line collisions at some point? Buzzy sophomores can break your heart. New fullback Mike Tolbert isn't expected to see a lot of carries - the club has Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for that - but he might steal some goal-line work. Keep in mind Tolbert knew the current Carolina coaching staff back when all were in San Diego; his signing wasn't a big surprise. Steve Smith remains a dynamic playmaker into his mid-30s, but the rest of the Panthers wideouts are suspect. Brandon LaFell has shown deep speed and a knack for big plays, but he needs to be more consistent. Greg Olsen is a talented but somewhat-erratic tight end, but he should see increased snaps and targets now that Jeremy Shockey is gone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12, 287 PF): A new coach and a new attitude were clearly needed here, as the Bucs quit on Raheem Morris about halfway through 2011. Look at the defensive tapes in the two Atlanta games; the effort level was appalling. Quarterback Josh Freeman lost 20-30 pounds and he's gained a bunch of skill players, so a modest bounce back is to be expected. Rookie RB Doug Martin has an outstanding chances to settle in as the team's starter and three-down option, though LeGarrette Blount has been more focused this summer and is getting positive feedback from new coach Greg Schiano. Vincent Jackson was imported to be the No. 1 wideout, but how many free-agent receivers break out immediately on their new club? Mike Williams needs a strong rebound after a messy second season; his off-field focus was openly questioned last year. Don't bother with TE Dallas Clark, who can't seem to stay healthy.