The remainder of the NFC South will be struggling to keep their collective heads at .500 again in 2015, But in this division that still gives them a shot at catching the PANTHERS if that club trips up.
The SAINTS seem the logical, best of the rest, primarily because they still have SEAN PAYTON and DREW BREES leading the Offense. But BREES is now a robust 36-years old and that number looks even more daunting than normal for a QB who stands under 6′ tall and stands on his tippy-toes often to throw over the line of scrimmage and see his receivers. The SAINTS roster is a strange concoction of bodies right now, especially for a team clearly retooling, if not outright rebuilding. Of 90 roster players 14 are 30-years or older. Not a number that correlates well. Even though the team went all-in for the 2015 Draft by trading away star TE/JIMMY GRAHAM and selecting 9 players in the process, there are only 21 Rookies total on the roster. That for a team that revels in the signing of quality URFA, of which there are 40 total on the team. The number includes other teams’ URFA as well as the home-growns. The roster includes 17 new vets for a total of 38/90 who are new to the Big Easy. The comparison of who’s gone compared to who’s now looks a bit lopsided at first, but the chance for multiple impact Rookies would seem to present a positive picture. The departures of TE/JIMMY GRAHAM & WR/KENNY STILLS were both primarily due to bad attitudes in the locker room and in practices. Overall though, BREES will still have some solid weapons to work with. The RB corps looks very solid, despite the departure of PIERRE THOMAS, who has been a dual threat weapon as a runner/receiver over the past 6 seasons. MARK INGRAM & KHIRY ROBINSON are both back, combining for over 1400 yards on the ground between them. And multi-purpose C.J.SPILLER/RB/RS/VFA is in town to replace PIERRE. Watch out for 7th Rounder MARCUS MURPHY/RB/RS to perhaps resemble DARREN SPROLES in his roles for the team. COLSTON is back to serve as BREES’ security blanket, and BRANDIN COOKS was having a special Rookie season until injured. NICK TOON finally showed flashes of NFL ability last season. But the TE spot will not help BREES anywhere near as much as GRAHAM did. BEN WATSON is now 34, and JOSH HILL, one of those URFA, must step up or the TE slot likely becomes a non-factor in the O. The OL was pruned a bit and the good news is that additions MAX UNGER/C/T & ANDRUS PEAT/G/T should be a net plus for the unit. ROB RYAN has to get his Defensive troops to step up big time in 2015. His unit was sadly lacking in Takeaways last season, including only 5 forced fumble recoveries. The D was also 28th in the League in points allowed per game, giving up an average of 26.5 ppg. 6 of the 9 draftees were on the defensive side of the ball. When healthy the SAINTS secondary is pretty solid, but there will be plenty of new talent pushing for playing time overall, including DANNELL ELLERBE/ILB/T, ANTHONY SPENCER/LB/VFA, PJ WILLIAMS/CB/R, BRANDON BROWNER/CB/VFA, KYLE WILSON/NC/VFA, STEPHONE ANTHONY/ILB/R, AHU-OLI KIKAHA/ER/R & DELVIN BREAUX/CB/VFA(CFL). It will be RYAN’s task to mix in these, and other new players into his defensive rotation and sub-packages to reduce opponents’ scoring and generate more Takeaways. If RYAN can brew up some voodoo/mojo on defense this team could return to their winning ways.
The SAINTS will be interesting to watch, as always, and a key to their season will come in Week 3 when they travel to play Carolina in their only Sept. divisional game. They need to set the tone in that game and bloody the PANTHERS’ nose.
The FALCONS were a major disappointment in 2014, again. And it cost HC/MIKE SMITH his job. Next up to run the team on the field is DAN QUINN, from the CARROLL coaching tree. GM/THOMAS DIMITROFF survived Owner ARTHUR BLANK’s purge, but if the talent he provides doesn’t look better under QUINN than SMITH, his head could be on the chopping block at the end of the 2015 season. Sometime soon the supporting cast better improve for QB/MATT RYAN who is well above average as an NFL QB and deserves more help. Youth should be served in the ATL with 24 Rookies on the 90-man roster. After doing nothing to replace HOF TE/TONY GONZALEZ last off-season DIMITROFF went out and got JACOB TAMME/VFA & TONY MOEAKI/VFA, who can both catch the ball when healthy. VFA/LEONARD HANKERSON & R/JUSTIN HARDY have been brought in to bolster the WR group. At RB the big addition is R/TEVIN COLEMAN, who was a one-man army at IU the past couple of seasons. The FALCONS fished in the top half of the League in most Offensive categories, but not so on Defense. The Defense ranked 30th or worse in 7 of 18 major defensive statistical categories. They ranked in the bottom half of the league in 15 of those 18 categories overall. One bright statistical note was that the team ranked 11th overall on the Turnover table at +5. New DC/RICHARD SMITH inherits a fairly solid, young Defense with some nice new pieces to play with. Rookies JALEN COLLINS/CB, VIC BEASLEY/ER, GRADY JARRETT/DT, AKEEM KING/DB will all get a chance to contribute and add youthful athleticism to the mix. Without breaking the bank some veteran help was also added to the D in ADRIAN CLAYBORN/DE, JUSTN DURANT/LB, PHILLIP ADAMS/CB & O’BRIEN SCHOFIELD/ER. It is still not a youthful team, with 11 of 89 players 30 or older, including RYAN himself at 30. But then again, athleticism and production are the more desired qualities in support of MATTY ICE. HC/QUINN might surprise, but I have a sense of it that this team is still lacking in overall talent to compete for a Play-Off spot. But then again in this division a two-game improvement in the Win column could put them right in the thick of things.
Low man on this short totem pole of a group is more than likely going to the the Tampa Bay Bucs once again. They may have found their Franchise QB of the future in JAMEIS WINSTON/R, but his immaturity both on and off the field is likely to be exposed in the play-for-pay League. New OC/DIRK KOETTER may feel more like a father figure than an OC before this season is over. GM/JASON LICHT seems to have his eyes wide open when evaluating the talent base on this team. He cut loose some high priced, under-producing vets in the off-season and spent almost all of his Draft Picks (6 of 7) on the offensive side in support of WINSTON. Rookies DONOVAN SMITH/T and ALI MARPET/OG are certain to be projected as pro starters, but getting HC/LOVIE SMITH to buy into them as Rookies is yet to be seen. Expect R/KAELN CLAY to emerge as the new and dangerous Return Specialist this season. The BUCS recently listed 22 Rookies and 14 new vets on their 90-man roster. I wold expect however, that LICHT & LOVIE will be very active claiming players on waiver wires throughout the pre-season. KWON ALEXANDER/R/LB is their lone defensive draftee and reminds many of HOF ex-BUC DERRICK BROOKS in his athleticism and energy. But don’t think the D gets little attention or help. At least a half-dozen veteran newcomers will be given a chance to fight for serious playing time on that side of the ball, which despite its stellar tradition was 26th in the League with -8 turnover margin. That Defense also ranked 26th or worse in 10 of 18 defensive categories for the 2014 season. Newcomers on the defensive side of the ball currently include GEORGE JOHNSON/DE/VFA, BRUCE CARTER/OLB/VFA, HENRY MELTON/DT/VFA, CHRIS CONTE/FS/VFA, MIKE JENKINS/CB/VFA & DJ SWEARINGER/SS/VFA, who they hope to teach to play more with his natural athleticism and less with his mouth and late hits. Some URFA names to remember could be CHRIS HACKETT/S, DESHAZOR EVERETT/CB, RYAN DELAIRE/ER, CAUSHAUD LYONS/DE & DOMINIQUE BROWN/RB. I believe this season in Tampa is more about developing the young talent base and finding a few more talented players through the waiver wires, than actually expecting to compete for a Play-Off spot, even in their weak division.