NFC South: 4 things to glean in free agency

Here are four things to glean from the NFC South clubs, less than one full week into NFL free agency.

1. Sorry, Falcons fans, but the 2013 season won’t start with Atlanta holding a 10-point halftime lead in the NFC championship

Listening to Atlanta radio every day, I’ve lost count of the number of times Falcons fans have attributed the title-game defeat to running back Michael Turner, as if the bruising back didn’t do enough to protect a 17-0 lead (over the 49ers) and secure the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth.

Never mind that Turner sustained an ankle injury in the third quarter and had to begrudgingly pass the rushing torch to Jacquizz Rodgers. For an emotional fan base that views the Falcons’ “championship window” as closing (or even closed), swapping Turner for Steven Jackson seems like a major upgrade.

But let’s have some perspective here:

Yes, Jackson (turns 30 in July) is 17 months younger than Turner, but he has logged 756 more professional carries than his counterpart. Also, Jackson notched 20 total touchdowns for the Rams from 2009-12 — a figure that was easily dwarfed by Turner (44 TDs) in that same span.

And before anyone argues Turner alone was losing his touch as a goal-line back — citing the excruciating loss at New Orleans in November — I’ll counter with this:

When the Rams played the Dolphins in Week 6, the St. Louis offense ignored Jackson for a crucial red-zone sequence from the 7-yard line during the fourth quarter … on four straight downs.

Rams QB Sam Bradford scrambled for a few yards on first down. Next, rookie tailback Daryl Richardson carried the ball for one yard. Bradford then completed a short pass to Brian Quick. And on 4th-and-goal from the 1, with Jackson primed to tote the rock, St. Louis entrusted Bradford for a QB-keeper score.

2. Dashon Goldson might be the greatest difference-maker in the Buccaneers’ playoff chase

Even if Tampa Bay hadn’t corralled the free agent Goldson — a two-time Pro Bowler (2011-12) and first-team All-Pro last season — the odds were long the defense would surrender an average of 296 yards passing in 2013.

No NFL defense should ever allow 300 yards passing per game, even with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton occupying the same division. Especially in consecutive seasons.

That aside, the stealth acquisition immediately taps Goldson and Mark Barron (first-round pick in 2012) as the NFC South’s best safety combo, and potentially a top-three duo throughout the NFL. And with that, pass offenses can wave bye-bye to the prospect of routinely throwing over the Bucs for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Tampa Bay’s woes against the pass have been solved. With a relatively anonymous corner crop that includes Eric Wright (who recently filed a grievance against the team), Leonard Johnson, Myron Lewis, Danny Gorrer and Anthony Gaitor, the Bucs will still encounter plenty of chances to get burned by mid-range passing attacks.

Take Falcons receiver Julio Jones, for example: In his first three career games against the Bucs (2011-12), he boasts averages of 5.3 catches, 113 yards and one touchdown — on only 21 combined targets.

3. There’s no point in projecting great things for the Panthers until their identity crisis gets rectified

It shouldn’t be a burden for Carolina to have five in-their-prime gems (Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams), plus two highly productive veterans (Jordan Gross, Steve Smith) anchoring the offense.

And yet, after watching every Panthers game from last season (thanks to DirecTV and DVR technology), I can’t recall many instances — from September to November, at least — when the offense maintained the same attack philosophy for back-to-back outings.

That’s not a knock on former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski (now the Browns’ head coach), since he was the caretaker of the Panthers’ prolific attack from 2011 (Newton’s absurd rookie campaign). It’s just that we’ve been down this road before … with either Williams or Stewart rushing for 200-plus yards during a season finale — with zero carryover to the following campaign.

Most recently, Williams racked up 210 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Carolina’s Week 17 triumph at New Orleans; and for the final four weeks (sans Stewart in the lineup), D-Will averaged 126 total yards and one TD. Solid numbers, for sure, but what does it mean for 2013?

Perhaps we’ll have more Carolina clarity after the schedule release and NFL draft in April. Eventually, the Panthers will have to find a blue-chip successor to Steve Smith.

4. There’s a downside to Drew Brees being a reasonable bet for three consecutive years of 5,000 yards

Of his last six seasons with the Saints, spanning 218 touchdowns and 29,158 passing yards, Brees has attempted 600 or more passes five times. The lone exception: New Orleans’ championship year of 2009, when Brees threw only 514 balls (34.2 per game) for 4,338 yards and 34 TDs.

The first inclination is to blame the increased passing on a crumbling defense which allowed a staggering 440 total yards last year (293 pass, 147 rush). But that’s a convenient crutch to account for three full seasons of at least 41 passes per game — figuratively riding Brees to the point of exhaustion.

(For comparison sake, the defense allowed only 194 yards passing per game in 2010.)

Plus, the Saints have a four-deep rushing corps (Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory) that most teams would kill for; and yet, it’s fair to wonder why the passing production trumps the rushers’ output (or use) by such a wide margin.

Obviously, Sproles (48 rushes/75 catches/104 targets last year) bears the traits of a running back in name only, but there’s still a baffling imbalance with the offense, on the whole.

Since free agency launched, New Orleans has not incurred any substantial additions or subtractions. So, it’s probably wise to pencil in the entire offense for 400-plus total yards per game in 2013.

But heed the warning signs … the first time Brees unleashes 45 passes in a nip-and-tuck battle this fall. Maybe the Saints don’t see (or believe) the correlation between championship teams and offensive balance.

Jay Clemons can be reached on Twitter, day or night, at @FOX_JayClemons.