NFC South Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate prize; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter while even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will be watching this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: Atlanta’s new aerial assault – Atlanta brought in new coordinators Mike Nolan (Defensive coordinator) and Dirk Koetter (Offensive coordinator). Koetter is supposed to come in and implement a new, more explosive offensive attack that would utilize the immense talent that Atlanta has offensively. QB Matt Ryan has been solid for his early years in Atlanta, but he seems poised for a breakout year with running mates WR Roddy White, WR Julio Jones, TE Tony Gonzalez and RB Michael Turner (who, to be fair, is aging). Whereas the offense in previous years has used a power running game utilizing Turner, this season should involve a more explosive passing attack with some no huddle that plays to Ryan’s strengths. White and Jones should be explosive this season and preseason is where we get our first look.
Short Term Question: How do the veterans fit? – I’m specifically talking about RB Michael Turner and CB Asante Samuel. Both are players who have been effective for years and are projected to still contribute to Atlanta. Samuel was traded to Atlanta this offseason from Philadelphia for a 7th-round pick. Samuel then restructured his contract in order to have a chance to play for the Falcons this season. While Samuel has been a quality, if not above average, starter in the league for years, he is 31 and is known as an aggressive CB who bites on routes. Atlanta already has starters Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes and there is some talk that Samuel could be on his way out of Atlanta once final cuts begin. Meanwhile, Turner is facing the possibility of a whole new role as well. Turner has been the workhorse back for Atlanta who has had an enormous amount of carries (the most over the last 4 years) during his Falcon playing days. On top of that, Turner has now reached the dreaded age of 30, which would signal a major decline in production this season on. Combine that with the change in offensive focus and Turner is looking at a whole new role going into this season.
Long Term Question: Is Atlanta ready to finally make a run? – Atlanta used to be the nice sleeper pick for a Super Bowl run, but after a couple years of making it to the playoffs and having an early exit, Atlanta is now hardly talked about as a serious Super Bowl contender. Atlanta has talent and they win a bunch of games, but struggles in the postseason on the road are things that Atlanta must work out to take the next step. Part of that fizzle to the end of the year has to do with Turner wearing down over the course of the season and some of it has to do with other offensive and defensive struggles. Either way, Atlanta needs to prove that they can perform in the postseason against top competition.
Rookie to Watch: C/G Peter Konz – The Wisconsin center will be playing G this preseason on into the regular season. Konz was a 2nd-round pick who should help Atlanta’s interior line. He is a large man at 6’5″, 314 lbs who has the athleticism to play the position very well. Obviously there is an adjustment period to the NFL game, but with time he could be stalwart in the offensive line. Also keep an eye on DE/OLB Jonathan Massaquoi who has some natural ability that, according to NFL.com, “could emerge as a difference maker as a situational pass rusher.”
Veteran to Watch: WR Julio Jones – Jones was very effective during his rookie season and with a full offseason, he should only get better. Combine that with Ryan’s development, a new coordinator who is focusing on the passing attack, and Roddy White as the other receiver and you have a immensely talented player who is poised for a major breakout season.
What to Watch: QB Cam Newton – He’s electric, supremely talented and has the physical attributes to change the way QBs are viewed today. He was the reason people watched last season and the reason why Carolina is the trendy pick to make a playoff push this year. In his second year and first with a full offseason, Newton should be even better than the version that took the NFL by stop last year. He will be protected throughout the preseason, but he is certainly why you check out the Panthers early on.
Short Term Question: How has Cam improved? – Newton was phenomenal last season and with an offseason under his belt, he should be even better. The question is really if he can top last season. He accounted for a lot of yards last season, but Carolina didn’t win many games despite his play. While winning and losing is more reflective of the team as opposed to an individual, more wins should be expected from Newton this season. Another thing to watch is how defenses prepare for Newton. After a full season of getting run over by the massive dual threat QB, you have to imagine that NFL defenses will be more prepared for Newton this season. Newton’s improvement is imperative to Carolina’s season.
Long Term Question: What about the defense? – Carolina’s defense was pretty awful last season. They couldn’t stop anyone, especially on the ground, and despite Newton leading a 7th ranked offense, they only played well enough to finish 6-10. Carolina finished 28th in the league last season giving up 377.6 yards per game. They do get MLB Jon Beason back from injury (along with a majority of their other key defensive players) and they drafted LB Luke Kuechly out of Boston College to help shore up a rushing defense that finished 25th in the league. If Carolina wants to make some noise this season, they need to raise the level of their defense to compliment Newton.
Rookie to Watch: LB Luke Kuechly – He was Carolina’s first draft pick and for good reason. He is a very natural player who surprised people throughout the draft process with his athleticism. He has that innate ability to play linebacker and should be a solid, if not exceptional, player throughout this season. He is one to watch this preseason, on into the regular season.
Veteran to Watch: WR Brandon LaFell – I have yet to mention WR Steve Smith who returned to stardom with the rise of Newton last season. While Smith became easily the top receiving threat for Carolina, there was a bit of a hole at the number 2 WR position. LaFell is projected to win that job and should be a guy to watch this preseason. He has size, speed and the pure ability to be a quality number 2. He is one to watch early on.
New Orleans Saints
What to Watch: New Orleans focus following the summer of Bountygate. – If you haven’t heard about New Orleans and the punishments handed down from their bounty program, then you have been living under a rock. It has been the news of the summer (especially when there was nothing else to talk about) and the punishments handed down from the NFL have done some major damage to the Saints. For a complete refresher on the Saints punishments, check out this article. New Orleans will have to begin the season without head coach, Sean Payton, interim head coach, Joe Vitt, as well as Mickey Loomis, general manager, and a variety of players across the defense. The most valuable on the Saints defense is MLB Jonathan Vilma who is suspended for the entire season. He has fought and continues to fight the ruling, but nothing has changed as of yet. What all this means for New Orleans is that key pieces are missing early on and this preseason will be for gaining that focus that is needed to fight through this sort of distraction.
Short Term Question: Will suspensions cripple New Orleans’ start to the season? – This is more of a question for the first couple weeks of the regular season. The preseason is used for a lot, but it’s very hard to judge how a team will handle suspensions when the season begins, as you would imagine. The fact of the matter is, New Orleans has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball to handle the early part of the season without key players. On top of that, QB Drew Brees is as good as they come. If there is any QB who can not only run the offense as Sean Payton wanted it ran, but also lead a team through a rough patch, it’s Brees. Defensively, the Saints have had more struggles over the past couple years and Vilma being gone could be a little rough, but New Orleans brought in MLB Curtis Lofton this summer in an attempt to replace Vilma’s production. Lofton is a quality starter who was the best LB on the free agency market this offseason. He finished last season with 147 tackles which was 5th best in the league. Either way, only time will tell how the Saints respond to the suspensions.
Long Term Question: How realistic is a playoff push? – New Orleans has the talent, but are obviously missing some key pieces early on in the year (Vilma and Payton over the entire year). With Brees, anything is possible. The offense won’t be called by Payton, but it will be run by Brees and a coaching staff that knows better than to change anything. The defense is still a bit of a question after finishing last season ranked 24th in the league in total defense (30th in passing defense and 12th in rushing defense). The other thing to watch with New Orleans as they push for the playoffs is the quality competition in the NFC. The NFC North and NFC East have at least 3 teams each that should make strong claims at a playoff spot and the Saints own NFC South have Atlanta to compete with and Carolina on the rise. This could be a situation where New Orleans isn’t much worse than in years past, but the other teams around them just are suddenly a little better.
Rookie to Watch: WR Nick Toon – Toon is a receiver out of Wisconsin who possesses good, physical receiver qualities. What I mean by that is he is 6’2″, 215 lbs and knows how to use that size to his advantage. He is athletic, but lacks the breakaway speed that many shiftier receivers have. He has the build and athleticism to be used in the slot in mismatches and in the red zone. He will have a chance to play come the regular season with the departure of WR Robert Meachem during free agency.
Veteran to Watch: MLB Curtis Lofton – He was a big pickup for New Orleans following the Bountygate suspensions. He will be filling in for Vilma in the middle of the defense, and after a very good season last year, Lofton could do that very well. The thing to watch with Lofton is how he does in space. I had always considered Lofton a downhill, sort of old school linebacker whereas Vilma is a more agile, smaller linebacker. The adjustment period for Lofton could be interesting to watch.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What to Watch: New head coach, Greg Schiano’s vision. – I’ll be upfront with you. I don’t know what his vision for Tampa Bay really is. That’s why it’s something to watch. If you look at Schiano from his Rutgers days, he will probably focus on the running game and use newly drafted RB Doug Martin and veteran RB LeGarette Blount to set up the passing attack. QB Josh Freeman has the talent to be a very good QB in this league and after acquiring WR Vincent Jackson in free agency from San Diego, Freeman may have enough weapons to maximize his potential. The one thing I have heard about Schiano’s early practices, is that he is instilling a level of focus and discipline that was lacking last season. While discipline is only one of many things that influence a football season, it is a step in the right direction for Tampa Bay.
Short Term Question: What about the running game? – Tampa Bay drafted Martin out of Boise State 31st overall in the first round (after taking S Mark Barron 7th overall). Martin has drawn comparisons to Ravens RB, Ray Rice, and Jaguars RB, Maurice Jones-Drew. Those are some nice comparisons to have. When you watch Martin play, you see exactly why he reminds people of them. He has a low center of gravity, can do everything a coach asks of him and plays with enough speed and enough power that he is very difficult to bring down. This makes Martin very valuable in Schiano’s offense (who coached Ray Rice during his Rutgers coaching days). LeGarrette Blount is the guy he is replacing/sharing carries with. Blount is a big back who lacks breakaway speed, has had struggles with fumbling and is a liability in pass blocking. He is very tough to bring down, but pretty easy to catch and even easier to anticipate because he can’t contribute really in passing situations. Both together, could be pretty successful though and that will be interesting to watch this preseason.
Long Term Question: Will the new additions help? – Tampa Bay went out and spent money this offseason on WR Vincent Jackson and G Carl Nicks. Both are top-tier talents who were generating a lot of interest on the market before Tampa Bay brought them in. The Buccaneers also spent their 7th overall pick in the first round on S Mark Barron, who should be a difference maker in the secondary, and Tampa traded up to the end of the 1st round (31st overall) to snag Doug Martin. The other key addition is their 2nd round pick, LB Lavonte David, who has already impressed and looks to be a starter in this league if not more. The additions should, on paper, make a significant difference to a team that struggled with most everything last season. So, maybe it isn’t so much ifthey will help, but how much.
Rookie to Watch: RB Doug Martin – I’ve mentioned Martin a couple times because he does have the ability to be a difference maker on this team. A lot is riding on his ability to come in a play the RB position at a high level. Lavonte David is another intriguing guy to watch. He is a little undersized, but is fast enough and has the instincts to play at a high level. While he could struggle against bigger lineman, he is in the mold of the new age linebackers who can matchup with fast offensive skill players.
Veteran to Watch: WR Mike Williams – He was the phenom rookie two years ago, but last year he regressed. Some say it was the “sophomore slump”, others say it was too easy to shut down Buccaneers offense because Williams was the only real threat. With the addition of Jackson as the top receiver, Williams should get more free space to return to his rookie form.