The 2008 NFL season will begin for the other 30 teams on Sunday, so I thought I'd break down how the division will unfold for the Bucs and the rest of the NFC South teams...
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
2007 recap: the Bucs captured the NFC South and finished as the only team in the division with a winning record at 9-7. The team went 5-1 against the division, with its sole loss coming to Carolina 31-23 to end the season with the starters resting up for the playoffs. The Bucs dominated in the defensive side of the ball and found out that Earnest "Mr. August" Graham can do some nice things in September and beyond. After losing Cadillac Williams to a dreadful knee injury in late September, the Bucs turned to Graham, who took on the role of featured back admirably, which allowed the Bucs to run a balanced and efficient offense into January.
What I like:
- Yes, yes, yes..... I've heard all about the reemergence of the New Orleans Saints and the upgrades to their defense. That said, I'll sound like every old-fashioned media curmudgeon and stick to the axiom that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. Every good football team has a solid defense behind it. Name me a Super Bowl champion that didn't have a solid defense. Well, the Bucs still have it. Even though they lost Brian Kelly from last year's top-notch secondary, the Bucs are solid with Buchanon and Barber at the corner spots (with Talib likely taking over at LCB and Barber moving to nickel back in nickel packages) and Tanard Jackson/Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips/Sabby Piscitelli at FS and SS, respectively. Barrett Ruud established himself as a player to be feared in the middle and Derrick Brooks turned in another triple digit tackle season at the age of 35. Gaines Adams finally showed why the Bucs took him so high, totaling 6 sacks in the final 11 weeks after tallying none in the first 6. The "Hovan and Jovan show" (I'm not the first to think of that, am I?) clogged running lanes. Haye finished the season with an impressive 68 total tackles and 6 sacks.
- On offense, the Bucs have a youthful and talented offensive line, with C Jeff Faine added in the offseason, who provides an anchor and veteran presence to the group. Jeremy Zuttah has impressed well enough to start for Davin Joseph while Joseph is on the mend. Arron Sears, in my opinion, has the size and versatility as a pass and run blocker to become an All-Pro. Galloway should still have a year left in his legs (crossing fingers). Dexter Jackson should fill in nicely as a return man and (hopefully) as a slot receiver. Askew is a consistent lead-blocking manchild in front of Earnest.
- The schedule has the Bucs at home to end the year against San Diego and Oakland. If the Bucs are fighting for a playoff berth, it'll be a big plus to have homefield advantage and to draw Oakland in Week 17. The Bucs' schedule is ranked 20th in the league, with 4 playoff teams from last year on the roster.
What I don't like:
- The schedule is ranked 20th in the league. Didn't I just say that? Yes, I did. Every other team in the division has a lower ranked schedule, so the Bucs is actually the toughest. Due to finishing in first place in 2007, the Bucs will have to travel to Dallas face the 2007 NFC East champion Cowboys, a daunting task.
- Clearly, having a 36-year old deep ball threat in Joey Galloway, who is regularly held out of practice to rest his achy legs, is a concern. 17 weeks is a long time to ask him to stay healthy and productive as a #1. Hopefully DJax will develop into a downfield receiving threat that can help exploit overly aggressive defenses.
- Matt Bryant has struggled to start the season and the Bucs brought in some kickers after the Houston game to give him a push. Although he's been solid for the Bucs up to this year, should he start out the season poorly, a mid-season change is not out of the question.
- The Bucs never gave Jeff Garcia the contract he deserved, so hopefully he can play the good soldier routine for another year.
- Earnest Graham hasn't started for a full year, so, although he carried the ball from October to January, we don't know if he can stay healthy and productive through an entire season. If he goes down.... gehhhhh. I don't like either Dunn or Bennett to carry the load full time.
- The team lacks a reliable receiving option to go up and get a ball on third and 5.
Key Additions: Jeff Faine, Antonio Bryant, Marques Douglas, Warrick Dunn, Sean Mahan
Key Losses: Brian Kelly, Dan Buenning, Michael Pittman
What will happen: Two questions the Bucs must answer if they are to retain their division title: (1). Can Kiffin squeeze maximum performance out of his aging stars for one more year? I think he can, as Brooks, Barber and company, with the help of the new youth movement (Adams, Ruud, Talib, and Jackson) will again finish near the top of the conference in total defense. The Bucs D is the total package, with a hawking secondary and physical front 7. (2) Can the Bucs maintain a downfield threat? Antonio Bryant won the 2nd WR position over Hilliard and Clayton. Ugh. Doesn't speak well for those guys' abilities to provide a spark. The Bucs will need to use Jackson's quickness in underneath routes and in the slot and have Joey Galloway remain healthy and on the field and stretch defenses to avoid 8 in the box. Galloway has continued to defy odds (and time) and remain healthy and productive. For one more year, he should keep defenses honest and the Bucs should have a somewhat balanced attack. Finally, the schedule sets up in the Bucs favor, as 6 of 8 road games are against teams with losing records last year. The Bucs will get past Green Bay early, face Minny at home coming off a bye, and finish the season with 2 games at home. Jon Gruden will stop the rollercoaster trend of success and mediocrity by defeating Oakland on December 28 and celebrating a second consecutive division title.
2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
2007 recap: favored by virtually every national media outlet and publication to repeat as South division champions, the Who Dat crew suffered a crippling blow in Week 2 against Tennessee, as Deuce McAllister went down with a season ending knee injury. Thereafter, the 2006 Brees-to-Colston connection disappeared until later in the season and Reggie Bush struggled with inconsistency and injury as the featured back, missing the last 3 games of the season. The Saints remained in the playoff hunt until losing to Chicago in Week 17, finishing the season at 7-9.
What I like:
- If you're talking about improvements with the Saints, it HAS to start on the defensive side of the ball. Additions of Sedrick Ellis, Vilma, and Gay provide a significant boost to all phases of their defense. Vilma is a monster who plays like his pants are on fire and can raise the play of his defensive mates. Ellis should help stuff the run and command double teams, allowing the Saints to put some pressure on the passer and mask that still suspect secondary.
- Stinchcomb and Brown are good bookends who must keep Brees off his back for long enough to pick apart secondaries.
- Marques Colston starts the season healthy and should put together a big season as Brees' go-to guy.
- Jeremy Shockey gives the already potent Saints offense a big weapon in the middle of the field.
- The Saints have tons of options at running back.
- The December schedule,consisting of Atl, Chi, Det, and Car (none of whom made the playoffs last year), should set the Saints up for a strong finish to the season.
What I don't like:
- Who will Shockey fight with first on the sidelines when the team is losing or he's not getting enough touches?
- Out of the deep RB bunch, you gotta wonder if the Saints have a feature back than can carry the ball 20-25 times per game for 80-100 yards. Deuce is coming off a serious injury. Bush is injury prone and more suited as an all purpose back. Stecker is a good football player, but is awfully small. Pierre Thomas has the size, but is a relatively unknown commodity.
- My God, that secondary was painful to watch last year. Bottom of the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed. Shredded by the awful Rams was the coup de grace. Gay is a nice addition, but they didn't add any players in the draft that can apparently help out that secondary this year (2008 2nd round pick Tracy Porter is listed at the bottom of the team's CB depth chart).
Key Additions: Jeremy Shockey, Jonathan Vilma, Randall Gay, Sedrick Ellis, G Matt Lehr
Key Losses: Jeff Faine, Olindo Mare, Renaldo Wynn
What will happen: the Saints will go 9-7, but will narrowly miss grabbing a playoff spot. Shockey will start off the season hot, but will eventually go bonkers and publicly blow up on Drew Brees and Sean Payton after the team loses to Kansas City. The Saints will score in bunches, but will let their opponents do the same in droves. Give this team another year to develop on defense and another offseason to draft and acquire free agent help and this team will be set up for a serious playoff run in 2009.
3. Carolina Panthers(8-8)
2007 recap: Carolina started the season at 4-2, but was hindered by terrible QB play after Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending elbow injury and subsequently fell off the proverbial turnip truck, finishing the season 7-9. David Carr was a Carr crash, stinking it up to the tune of a 53.8 passer rating at 3-5 TD-INT ratio. He was so bad he couldn't even get the ball in Steve Smith's hands more than 2 or 3 times per game. As uber-talented as Smith is, that's inexcusable. Matt Moore eventually took over the QB duties after the playoffs were an afterthought and did a decent job. DeShaun Foster averaged only 3.5 yds/carry and DeAngelo Williams was unable to provide a spark. Julius Peppers put up only 2.5 sacks for the entire year and the team finished 31st in the league in sacks and in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing yards allowed.
What I like:
- You heard it here first - Jonathan Stewart will take over the starting running back duties by the 4th week and will tally close to 1000 yards for the season. He's built like a mack truck and was a terrific pick for the Panthers, who lack a guy who could handle a full-time load.
- Daylight come and me wannnnn Delhomme! Seriously... this team looked like a lost puppy with David Carr and Matt Moore. Delhomme, when healthy and on his game, is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFC. He says this is the first time he hasn't felt any pain throwing since 2004, so he could return in a big way this year.
- Steve Smith. Although he's suspended for the first 2 games, he..... wait..... do I really need to explain Steve Smith's importance? Didn't think so.
- Julius Peppers finally got his payday from the Panthers and he CAN'T be half as bad as last year, right? That should make the defense better de facto.
- The Muhs is loose again in Charlotte. Muhsin Muhammad might be half a step slower and a little long in the tooth, but he gives Delhomme a big target in the red zone and on third and long.
- Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are good. Really good.
- Jordan Gross and Jeff King will make holes on the left side of the line you could drive trucks through.
What I don't like:
- Can Tyler Brayton step in and create a polarized pass rush opposite Julius Peppers? He's been relatively disappointing after being drafted by the Raiders in the first round of the 2003 draft, totaling only 11 tackles in 16 games with Oakland last year. He'll need to rediscover himself in Carolina for the defense to make strides forward.
- Steve Smith is out for the first 2 games after brutalizing teammate Ken Lucas in practice. Will this awkward distraction carry over into the season?
- Jeff King caught 46 passes last year, but disappeared in the red zone, scoring only 2 TD. He'll need to find the end zone a little more this year.
- Dwayne Jarrett, please come out of hiding. Your football team needs you.
- Jeff Otah is a Mount Everest of a man, but the rookie will undoubtedly go through some growing pains as the team's starting RT.
- Brutal September and December road games against SD/Minny and NYG/New Orleans will make or break the Panthers.
Key additions: Jonathan Stewart, Jeff Otah, Mushin Muhammad, Tyler Brayton, Charles Godfrey, D.J. Hackett
Key losses: DeShaun Foster, Drew Carter, Dan Morgan, Keary Colbert, David Carr
What will happen: Carolina will be better on both sides of the ball. Peppers will provide a defensive spark and return to terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. However, the team will struggle to stop the run and will wear down during a tough December stretch and fall short of the postseason.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
2007 recap: Poor Atlanta... the Falcons were behind the 8-ball before the season even began due to the Michael Vick indictment and never recovered. Bobby Petrino quit on his team after a Monday night home game, leaving a note for his players in their lockers. Atlanta's failures at QB with Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich led to the team drafting QB Matt Ryan with the 3rd overall pick of the 2008 draft. Warrick Dunn couldn't get anything going behind a suspect O-line, although Jerious Norwood broke some long runs at time and Roddy White emerged as a downfield threat. Pretty much the only bright spots in a 3-13 season.
What I like:
- Yes.... there are some things to like about this team, starting with Michael Turner. I think 2008 will be a breakout year for him. If I hadn't burned all of my fantasy league salary cap fake money on Reggie Wayne and Ocho Cinco (?) early on, I'd have tried to land him as my #2 RB (but I digress...). Built like a brick house at 5'10"/244. Averaged 5.5 ypc as LT's backup in San Diego. Has the size, vision, and speed to be a featured back in this league. Has tree trunks for legs and can run through tackles. The only thing we don't know about him is his durability, as he was used sparingly to spell LT. Atlanta's offensive line will be a work in progress this year and Turner will not put up the same average as he did behind a stellar Charger offensive line. However, Turner will still get his yards.
- Roddy White had a breakout year in 2007 and showed why the Falcons burned a first rounder on him a few years ago. White tallied over 1200 receiving yards on 83 receptions with 6 TDs. If Matt Ryan can live up to a fraction of the ridiculous hype and hoopla we've heard from scouts about his arm, the Falcons might have found their Brees-to-Colston/Delhomme-to-Smith connection.
- I really like the Dominique Foxworth signing. Although Foxworth's abilities were masked in Denver by playing alongside studs like Champ Bailey, Darrent Williams, and John Lynch, he'll give them a steady performance at the nickelback position.
- Certainties in life: death, taxes, and Keith Brooking tackling everything in sight. What a heck of a football player.
- Grady Jackson's return. He will demand double teams. Can't believe Petrino released him last year.
- John Abraham - 10 sacks last year. Manchild.
- Jerious Norwood's game breaking abilities. That run he had against the Giants last year still sticks out in my mind. What speed! The Falcons have a true "Thunder and Lightning" running back combo, which should take pressure off Matt Ryan from day 1.
- Jason Elam - perfect inside 40 yards and 10-14 from 40 and beyond last year. Not too shabby.... and now will be kicking inside the air-conditioned confines of the Georgia Dome.
- Martrez Millner - big, versatile tight end was a dominant blocker and big receiving target at the University of Georgia. I think he'll turn some heads.
- No more DeAngelo Hall distractions.
- Chris Redman is a decent fallback option should Ryan fail miserably or suffer an injury.
- Mike Smith worked magic in Jacksonville and will teach these boys how to play some hard-nosed football.
What I don't like:
- No more DeAngelo Hall. Even though he would get beat on occassion, his departure, while therapeutic for the team's chemistry, will be missed in the return game and in a porous secondary. A starting CB tandem of Chris Houston and Brent Grimes = toast.
- Last year, Atlanta finished 24th and 26th in the league in passing and run defense, respectively. Only 5 teams allowed more passing touchdowns. The problems all started up front for the Falcons, as running lanes were consistently opened and Jamaal Anderson could not provide a pass rush opposite John Abraham. It's still early, but Atlanta might have gotten fool's gold with Jamaal Anderson, who accumulated 30 tackles but no sacks in 2007.
- Matt Ryan really reminds me of Alex Smith 2.0: a decent player that has one great year against weak competition and "excels" and "impresses" scouts at the almighty combine. They needed a quarterback, so..... ok, I understand the pick. I just don't know if it will work out for them down the road. A career 60% completion rate and 1.5-1 TD/Int ratio doesn't particularly wow me. We'll see....
- Lawyer Milloy is another year older and a fraction of a step slower.
- Joey Harrington was running for his life and so will Matt Ryan behind the current offensive line. I do think Sam Baker will become a stalwart on that line in time.
- Who can catch the ball opposite Roddy White? Michael Jenkins has been a pillar of inconsistency. Brian Finneran's best days are behind him. Millner, while a big target and effective in college, is a step down from Alge Crumpler as a receiver.
Key Additions: Michael Turner, Jason Elam, Grady Jackson, Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Martrez Millner, Curtis Lofton
Key Losses: Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn, DeAngelo Hall
What will happen: Mike Smith's first season in Atlanta will be a long one. The offensive line will need to gell in a hurry or Matt Ryan will be on his back early and often. I think Ryan will struggle for the first 8-10 games, and eventually become productive towards the end of the season as he gets up to the speed of the NFL game and develops a rapport with his receivers. Michael Turner will be great and will be leaned on to carry the offense while Ryan cuts his teeth. Atlanta will give up loads of points and will be unable to consistently produce on offense to keep up until Ryan comes around.