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Tampa looking to rebound in 2012
When you ask the generic “Which is the best division in football?” question, the answers you receive will be determined by your geographic location. As I ponder the NFL coming into the 2012 season, it’s awfully difficult to elevate any of the other divisions about the NFC South. I know. The vocal fans of New York and Pennsylvania will obviously begin their loud cries concerning the NFC East. I wonder aloud whether we’re separating fantasy and reality and creating a distinction between expectations and on-field play.
To that end, my mind drifts to the NFC South. The Saints and Falcons are the favorites in the division, but it’s hard to dismiss the Cam Newton Express and the rejuvenated Buccaneers. What do you think?
Let’s continue the wide view of the NFL landscape.
Overview: Isn’t it great to be back on the field? The legal concerns about the “bounty” program linger over this squad, but it’s time to extol the virtues of Drew Brees and the high-octane New Orleans offense. I understand that Sean Payton is out of the mix, but No. 9 continues under center. I don’t anticipate a significant drop-off from this unit whatsoever. I’ll leave the officiating conspiracy theorists to further this discussion.
Quarterback: Drew Brees dominates at the quarterback position. Will he dominate as a de facto coach this season? Brees has averaged 4,732 passing yards and 33.5 touchdown passes in six years as the New Orleans starter.
Chase Daniel remains in camp as the No. 2 option.
Running Back: Everybody loves the play-making versatility of Darren Sproles. Sproles caught 86 passes in 2011 while amassing 1,300 total yards (710 receiving yards). The rest of the running back position isn’t quite as settled.
Mark Ingram has been slowed by a knee injury in camp, but the Saints expect the second-year back to be available for the final preseason contests. He’ll split touches with veteran Pierre Thomas while Sproles continues to dominate as a receiver. Both Ingram and Thomas have had their injury issues, so this likely remains a headache for fantasy owners.
Wide Receiver: Marques Colston remains the No. 1 target for Drew Brees alongside tight end Jimmy Graham. Seventh-year (seriously?) receiver Lance Moore has long been a red zone favorite for Brees (eight touchdowns in back-to-back seasons).
The rest of the receiving corps is still shaking out, with longtime Saints receiver Devery Henderson trying to snag a larger role in the absence of Robert Meachem (San Diego). Adrian Arrington had been expected to assume additional responsibility, but he underwent knee surgery. As a result, rookie Nick Toon (foot issues of his own) and Courtney Roby have an opportunity to claim a third receiver role for Brees.
Tight End: You cannot stop Jimmy Graham. Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards, including 11 touchdowns, in his breakout 2011 season. Expectations are sky-high for an encore performance, thereby thrusting Graham into the first two rounds of most drafts.
Kicker: The Saints have a full-on competition in camp between Garrett Hartley and John Kasay. Hartley converted his lone field goal opportunity in the first preseason game and stands as the favorite to reclaim his job. Remember, he missed the entire 2011 season because of injury. The victor in this battle becomes a “set and forget” starter.
Defense: The Saints’ defense has obviously gone under the microscope this offseason in the lazily-named “Bounty-gate” scandal. Expectations are high for Patrick Robinson in his third season, but he’s one of many injured players in the New Orleans secondary. Cameron Jordan’s development on the defensive line (he had one sack) is paramount to this unit’s success in 2012.
Overview: All of the pieces appear to be in place for the Falcons to make a huge run in 2012. Fans and fantasy owners are enamored with the speed threats on the outside and the potential for this offense. Don’t sleep on Mike Nolan’s defense.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan added his name to the list of 4,000-yard passers in 2011. He logged 4,177 yards with 29 touchdowns against 15 turnovers. Ryan has been efficient in the past two seasons, logging 57 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions. He has two of the most explosive wide receivers in the game at his disposal, not to mention sure-handed, veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. I have him ranked as an early QB2 to start the draft season.
Running Back: The wheels haven’t fallen off of Michael Turner just yet. Turner rushed for 1,300 yards for the second straight season and logged a double-digit touchdown count for the fourth straight year. He will post middling and disappointing efforts along the way, but the goal-line dominance is rarely matched in the league.
Speedy Jacquizz Rodgers is picking up steam as a possible change-of-pace option in the Atlanta backfield. He’s a good receiver out of the backfield, but his opportunities to make an impact will be limited by Jason Snelling, who re-signed with the Falcons this offseason. Snelling also caught 26 passes last year.
Wide Receiver: Roddy White remains the No. 1 option in Atlanta and an elite-tier fantasy option. His tag-team partner, Julio Jones, has the hype machine cranked up and has ascended into WR1 status himself. Jones’ nearly 18 yards-per-catch mark and explosiveness (109 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener) have owners clamoring to select Jones and bring “upside” to their rosters.
Slap the “sleeper” tag on No. 3 option Harry Douglas again. The speedy fifth-year receiver caught 39 passes for the Falcons last season and is expected to take on a larger role this year.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez caught 80 passes last season for 875 yards and seven touchdowns. You may know that, but fantasy owners certainly aren’t drafting the future Hall of Famer as such. He’s drifting toward the back-end TE1 options as owners reach early for the new world order at the position. We’re talking major value for this steady veteran.
Kicker: Matt Bryant has presented as a steady, consistent option for fantasy owners in the past two seasons. He averaged 44.5 PAT opportunities and 30 field goal attempts while kicking behind Matt Ryan’s offense. Bryant missed just five of his 60 field goal tries.
Defense: The Falcons dominated opposing running games in 2011, surrendering just 97 yards per game (sixth in the NFL). Atlanta generated 31 turnovers and produced 33 sacks. New coordinator Mike Nolan will work to generate more pressure with Ray Edwards and John Abraham off the edges, thereby presenting additional turnover chances. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent will also be expected to make a big push in his second year. Additionally, the team added cornerback Asante Samuel.
Overview: Insert your favorite Cam Newton pun here. In all seriousness, the Panthers rate as a mighty interesting squad this fall for Ron Rivera. The team has assembled a fantastic three-man backfield, though offensive line concerns are certainly real. I believe in the offense behind Newton. I just want to see a healthy group of linebackers on the field.
Quarterback: Do I need to chronicle Newton’s fabulous rookie season? No, I don’t believe that I do. Newton will continue to grow as a quarterback in his second season, and I believe that more efficient and consistent performances are in the offing. However, there’s no doubt that his role of “game’s best goal-line back” will change in 2012.
Running Back: The Panthers committed a ridiculous amount of cash to the running back position for 2012. Carolina ranked third in the NFL by pounding opponents to the tune of 150.5 rushing yards per game. Now, it becomes a question as to how the carries will be split between Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and bruiser Mike Tolbert. Stewart and Williams figure to share the bulk of the work with Tolbert factoring into the goal-line mix. Both Stewart and Williams carry RB2 tags early.
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith posted a ridiculous 2011 season despite the decided lack of a reliable No. 2 option in the receiving corps. He amassed nearly 1,400 receiving yards with 79 receptions, his highest productivity since 2008. Smith is the lone proven option in this unit for 2012.
Brandon LaFell (36 catches in 2011) has the potential to be a breakthrough performer. Standing 6-foot-2, the third-year receiver out of LSU has turned heads in camp. Louis Murphy was acquired via trade just before camp (41 receptions for Oakland in 2011). Keep an eye on the progress of David Gettis, who caught 37 passes for the Panthers in 2010 before missing the 2011 season.
Tight End: Is this the year that sixth-year tight end Greg Olsen finally becomes a full-on star? The height of his career came in 2009, when he caught 60 passes, including eight touchdowns, for the Bears. I’m among many with high expectations for LaFell, as noted above, but Olsen enters the season as the true No. 2 option behind Smith.
Defense: The Carolina defense was beset by injuries in the 2011 season, a note lost in the euphoria of Newton’s arrival. The linebacker corps is mighty exciting, particularly for owners in IDP leagues. Jon Beason continues to work back into shape this summer, and rookie Luke Kuechly is playing like a man possessed. The Panthers ranked 27th in total defense last season, allowing 26.8 points per game with 31 sacks and 24 turnovers. I’m intrigued to watch this unit with a rededication to the running game and a more consistent effort from the front-seven on defense.
Overview: The young Buccaneers squad surprised many in 2010 behind rookies Josh Freeman and Mike Williams. Those feel-good moments disappeared quickly in 2011 as turnovers by Freeman mounted and the team sustained several injuries at key positions. Greg Schiano leaps from the college ranks to try and make some noise in the NFC South.
Quarterback: Freeman is in the best shape of his life! OK, so Freeman dropped some weight this offseason, thereby fueling speculation about a comeback season. Freeman regressed markedly in 2011 following an efficient breakthrough season in 2010. He accounted for 20 total touchdowns and committed 27 turnovers. As a result, the Buccaneers spent a mountain of cash to bring a true No. 1 receiver onboard in Vincent Jackson. New head coach Greg Schiano expects to have a more consistent, balanced offense.
Dan Orlovsky, formerly of the Lions, Texans and Colts, is in camp as the backup.
Running Back: You cannot use the term “sleeper” when referring to Doug Martin. If you feel the need to spot yourself a point on the “I was right!” scale, then have it. The Buccaneers were plagued by inconsistent production at quarterback, and LeGarrette Blount’s deficiencies as a pass-blocker and receiver left the offense flat and limited his opportunities (despite his 4.2 yards per carry average).
Wide Receiver: The Buccaneers opened the checkbook to sign Jackson away from the Chargers. His addition puts Mike Williams, who regressed in tandem with Josh Freeman last season, back into an off-receiver role. Williams grabs a “rebound,” not to be confused with a “sleeper,” tag for 2012 in an early-WR4 slot.
Speedster Arrelious Benn has been limited in camp because of a knee injury, prompting speculation that he may get cut. Preston Parker, who caught 40 passes last season, is in line for a more prominent role.
Tight End: The uniform has changed, but the question remains. Will former Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark remain healthy? If so, he stands to play a major role alongside Vincent Jackson in support of Freeman. Clark caught 100 passes in 2009. Unfortunately, he’s amassed just 71 passes in 17 games while missing significant time because of injuries during the past two seasons.
Second-year tight end Luke Stocker out of Tennessee caught 12 passes as a rookie. He’ll have value if Clark suffers a setback.
Kicker: Connor Barth was highly efficient in 2011, connecting on 26-of-28 of his field goal attempts. Barth converted 15-of-17 attempts from distances of at least 40 yards. Unfortunately, a ridiculous number of turnovers precluded him from amassing a pile of PATs. The offense should be more efficient in 2012, thereby affording Barth additional opportunities and a steady baseline.
Defense: The youthful Tampa Bay defense gets a pivotal piece of the equation back in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who appeared in just six games last season. His presence should help to shore up the sieve-like run defense that surrendered 156 yards per game. Additionally, the Buccaneers bolstered the secondary by selecting safety Mark Barron in the first round. Obviously, there are still questions concerning Aquib Talib and Ronde Barber’s age, but there’s nowhere to go but up for this unit.
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