Talented NFC South looks crowded as ever for 2013
There could be more company near the top in the NFC South this fall.
The Atlanta Falcons, behind Matt Ryan’s career-high 4,719 yards passing last season, ran away with the division in a year when the New Orleans Saints were affected by the Bountygate scandal. Entering another campaign under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons should be a favorite to win their third division title in four years.
Tampa Bay’s talent is improved from last season, especially in the secondary, so it is possible that the Bucs could hover near the top at points under second-year coach Greg Schiano. But Atlanta and New Orleans seem better equipped to threaten for postseason berths.
The NFC South has become one of the league’s deepest divisions in recent years. This season, with contenders remaking themselves in key areas, the landscape should be no different.
Here’s a look at how Tampa Bay’s division rivals look entering training camp.
Key free-agent additions: RB Steven Jackson (St. Louis), DE Osi Umenyiora (New York Giants).
Key free-agent losses: CB Brent Grimes (Miami), CB Chris Owens (Cleveland), OT Will Svitek (New England).
Rookies: CB Desmond Trufant (first round, Washington), CB Robert Alford (second, Southeastern Louisiana), DE Malliciah Goodman (fourth, Clemson), TE Levine Toilolo (fourth, Stanford), DE Stansly Maponga (fifth, TCU), DB Kemal Ishmael (seventh, Central Florida), SS Zeke Motta (seventh, Notre Dame), QB Sean Renfree (seventh, Duke).
Analysis: Adding Jackson to the backfield could pay dividends in short-yardage situations for Atlanta throughout its NFC South grind and beyond. Arguably, the Falcons were a physical running back away from clinching a Super Bowl berth last season, when they lost a dramatic NFC Championship game to the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome.
Jackson, who has had at least 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past eight seasons, always will be known for his time in St. Louis. But Atlanta could give him his first carries in a playoff game since his rookie season in 2004. Meanwhile, adding Umenyiora, a two-time Pro Bowl player, will enhance the defensive line. Losing Grimes is a blow to the secondary, but Trufant could grow into a capable replacement.
Atlanta should be the favorite to win the division entering the season, but do not be surprised to see New Orleans offer a stiff challenge.
Key free-agent additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr. (San Francisco), WR Domenik Hixon (New York Giants), LB Chase Blackburn (New York Giants), CB D.J. Moore (Chicago), CB Drayton Florence (Detroit).
Key free-agent losses: G Mike Pollak (Cincinnati), LB Jason Phillips (Philadelphia), WR Louis Murphy (New York Giants).
Rookies: DT Star Lotulelei (first round, Utah), DT Kawann Short (second, Purdue), OG Edmund Kugbila (fourth, Valdosta State), LB A.J. Klein (fifth, Iowa State), RB Kenjon Barner (sixth, Oregon).
Analysis: Ginn could become a versatile addition for the Panthers. His move to Carolina, after three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, represents a fresh start of sorts for him. He has talked about wanting to show the league that he can still play wide receiver, though he had only 33 catches with one touchdown in three seasons on the West Coast.
Most likely, Ginn will be used for his punt- and kick-return skills. Meanwhile, Lotulelei is an interesting pickup from the draft, and he could have an impact this season. Offensively, Cam Newton’s development will be vital if Carolina hopes to contend in the deep NFC South. He regressed last season after a standout rookie year, and more signs of decline will lead to more questions.
Key free-agent additions: OT Jason Smith (New York Jets), QB Seneca Wallace (Cleveland), S Jim Leonhard (Denver), CB Keenan Lewis (Pittsburgh), LB Victor Butler (Dallas).
Key free-agent losses: OT Jermon Bushrod (Chicago), WR Devery Henderson (Washington), LB Jonathan Casillas (Tampa Bay), QB Chase Daniel (Kansas City).
Rookies: SS Kenny Vaccaro (first round, Texas), OT Terron Armstead (third, Arkansas-Pine Bluff), DT John Jenkins (third, Georgia), WR Kenny Stills (fifth, Oklahoma), DE Rufus Johnson (sixth, Tarleton State).
Analysis: Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowl player, is New Orleans’ largest loss in the offseason. That leaves some uncertainty at left tackle, though Smith, a former second overall pick in 2009, will try to revive his career with the Saints after forgettable stops with the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets.
Wallace was added as a potential replacement for Daniel at the No. 2 quarterback slot, a spot open after Daniel signed with Kansas City in the offseason. Lewis and Vaccaro could be athletic additions to a secondary that was part of the NFL’s worst defense last season (allowed an average of 440.1 yards per game).
Casillas is a minor loss, but New Orleans has enough depth that his departure should not cause major issues. The Saints lost Henderson to the Redskins after 4,377 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns over eight seasons, but Stills could slide into the role.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford
or email him at email@example.com.