Hawk’s 2015 NFL Preview: NFC South Edition

The NFC South, which includes New Orleans Saints, the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta enters 2015 without head coach Mike Smith for the first time since 2008 after back to back losing records of 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014, to go along with an unimpressive 1-4 overall playoff record. Smith will be replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. In 2013 (his first as the Seahawks Defensive coordinator) Seattle led the NFL in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed and most turnovers, the first time this had been done since the 1985 Bears which is widely considered the greatest defense in NFL history.
His second year with Seattle wasn’t too bad either as his defense would again lead the league in fewest yards and points allowed. No doubt he was hired by Atlanta as head coach to try to fix a defense that was the worst in the league last year in yards allowed.

This will prove a great challenge for him as outside of LB Paul Worrilow, who had 143 tackles, 5th most in the league and CB Desmond Trufant, who returns after a sensational rookie year, he doesn’t have much to work with.
Atlanta did use their first round draft pick to get LB Vic Beasley, whom set a school record at Clemson with 33 sacks, they hope he will be a solid starter for them, but one can never tell how rookies will turn out.
Offensively QB Matt Ryan will lead this team again after another impressive year in which he threw for 4,694 yards, fifth highest of all QB’s, 28 Td’s and 14 Int’s. Stats don’t always tell the whole story though, as a team that gave up on average 26.1 points and nearly 400 yards a game has no choice but chuck the ball all over the place just to stay in games.
Julio Jones will return as Ryan’s number 1 target. Jones  has been outstanding since he entered the NFL in 2011 and had his best year to date in 2014 where he had 104 catches for 1593 yards, 3rd best in both categories and at 26 is just hitting his prime.
Roddy White is a solid number 2 receiver and still managed to have 80 catches for 921 yards and 7 Td’s last season despite a nagging ankle injury.
Atlanta will have a big question mark at running back after letting aging Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers go. They hope rookie Tevin Coleman and second year player Devonta Freeman will fill that role, but both players have already been battling injuries, Which leads me to believe that the Falcons will once again be a pass happy team.
Balance on offense and a good defense is a must to succeed in this league and Atlanta could easily have problems with both so I don’t expect much better than 8-8, but the NFC South is currently one of the worst divisions in football and is up for grabs.Hawks-NFL-Preview-NFC-South


Carolina Panthers

Carolina got the distinction of being only the second team in NFL history to win their division with a losing record, finishing at
7-8-1 in 2014. They would go on to win their first playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. Coincidentally the last team to win it’s division with a losing record was the Seahawks in 2010, with a record of 7-9, and they also won their first playoff game that year.
Carolina won this division for the second year in a row and that is oddly the first time that has happened since the division’s creation in 2002.
QB Cam Newton signed a huge contract in the offseason, A 5 year, $103.8 million deal.  This was a huge mistake from the Panthers organization in my opinion. His athletic ability is not in question but his skills as a pure passer are. In his 4 year career his average QB rating is 85.4 which is mediocre  at best, the lowest score on this scale is 0 and the highest is 158.3.
Newton is also a huge injury risk as he runs the ball a lot. His two favorite targets will most likely be the the 6 foot 5 240 LB Kelvin Benjamin, yet another 2014 rookie receiver that excelled, and TE Greg Olson. Both had 1008 yards receiving last year…At least it was going to be. Just a day after writing this, Benjamin tore his ACL and is out for the season leaving a huge hole in this teams offensive potential that will be hard to fill.
This team also has big problems in the running department as the duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams was finally broken up after what seemed like forever. They had played together as Panthers since 2008. Williams left for Pittsburgh which will make the injury prone Stewart their #1 back. Who will be Williams replacement remains to be seen.
Carolina’s 2014 defense wasn’t nearly as good as its 2013 version, which was without question the second best in the game, only to the Seahawks which did something that hadn’t been done since the 1985 Bears as mentioned in the Falcons preview. They were still pretty good though, finishing 10th best in yards allowed.
LB Luke Kuechly is the main reason why as he led the league in tackles for the second time in three years. I am also interested to see how former University of Washington standout LB Shaq Thompson fares this year as he was Carolina’s first round pick.
If  Newton can stay healthy and this team can get back to the defensive form they had in 201,3 they have a good shot to win the NFC SOUTH for a 3rd straight year. But it won’t be easy, losing Benjamin is a huge blow that won’t be easy to overcome.

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New Orleans Saints

Perhaps the most disappointing team of 2014 was these Saints, who finished the year 7-9 despite being a popular pick to make it to the Super Bowl after their 11-5 2013 campaign.
QB Drew Brees finished 2014 throwing for 4952 yards and led the league for the 3rd time in 4 years, but lost 2 of his favorite targets to free agency, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and at age 36 is no longer in his prime.
New Orleans has always been a pass first team which is no surprise with an elite QB like Brees on the roster, but they could have a pretty good run game going into 2015.  Mark Ingram was solid last season, running for 964 yards and 9 Tds, and they added former Buffalo Bills speedster C.J Spiller to the roster as well. If Spiller can stay healthy, which has been a bit of problem over the years him and Ingram could perform a good speed back/ power back combo that can work really well in the NFL.
Defensively the Saints were pretty awful allowing 384 yards a game, 2nd worst in the league. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the NFL record setting 2012 Saints team that gave up 440 yards a game but it is really hard to have any success with a porous defense in this league, even when you have a future hall of fame QB.
Its really hard to make a prediction about this team. They need to make a massive improvement to their defense, and they brought in a lot of new faces both in free agency and draft picks to do so. Current defensive coordinator Rob Ryan turned the debacle that was the 2012 Saints defense into a top 5 defense in 2013 and will need to make a similar massive jump from 2014 to 2015. New Orleans also needs a good running game to ease the pressure off of Brees who has relied heavily on Jimmy Graham over the years. If they can do both those things they can be competitive in a very weak division, if not its going to be another long year for “Who Dat” nation.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After 9 years coaching of the Chicago Bears during which he led them to a Super Bowl and an NFC championship game, Lovie Smith took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had a disastrous 2-14 season. This record would net them the first pick in the 2015 draft where they selected QB Jameis Winston out of Florida State with hopes to improve an offense that finished 3rd worst in yards gained.
Tampa Bay hopes they have found their franchise QB in Winston after a year in which duties were split between unimpressive QB’s Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. Winston excelled at Florida State, in his two years he was 26–1 as a starter and completed 562 of 851 passes for 7,964 yards, 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions.
Winston appears to have all the physical tools to be a successful QB in the NFL, but I don’t know that he has the intelligence to as he made stupid mistake after stupid mistakes in college. If he can get his head on straight he has a pair of 1000 yard receivers to throw to in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Evans was yet another eye popping rookie receiver in 2014 and had 1051 yards receiving and 12 Td’s.
Running the ball will be 4th year back Doug Martin who is a bit of a concern. He blew up as a rookie rushing for 1454 yards and 11 Td’s but has been hindered with injuries and done very little since. He will most likely split carries with Bobby Rainey again.
Defensively this team has two bright young stars in All pro LB Lavonte David, whom enters his 4th year and had 146 tackles last season, 3rd most in the NFL and 2nd year DT Gerald McCoy whom was tied for 22nd in the league with 8.5 sacks. Other than those two guys I couldn’t name too many others, they weren’t exactly must watch television last season.
This a young team with a lot of potential. Winston is a proven winner but sometimes at the NFL level this works against players. Think about it. Winston has probably been the best player on the field from pee-wee league to college and he won’t be even close to that in the NFL. This is sometimes damn hard for players to handle. I expect a massive improvement in 2014 but don’t think they are quite ready to take this division. Not yet anyways, 2016 could be another story if they keep these young guys intact.

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