When I started this series I felt as though I had locked down every king, but as the week rolled along I started to waffle a little on who I thought would take each division. After letting it rattle around I’m sticking with my gut.
The NFC South has long been a division with more parody than the entire league. It seemed every season that the team at the top of the heap would end up under the pile and the team looking up would find itself with no one else to look up to. This season however very little will change.
When a team is retooling itself there will be some pains. The Buccaneers have already had their share and if not for a Super bowl win in the 2000s the pain of it all might be too much to take. The upside is I like some of what the Bucs are up to and I can see this team being a contender in the future.
Just not this season.
Josh Freeman is a quarterback with a lot of upside and rookie wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams make a solid group for the Bucs to build with in the passing game. The ground game is a bit of a mix with an offensive line that should be able to move the pile but with running backs that have serious questions which could lead to a slower development in Tampa Bay. The defense needs to make some strides but I just don’t see enough quality playmakers on that side of the ball for this unit to warrant much respect. Tampa is moving forward but this will be another season of baby steps.
The Panthers are a team that has a lot of talent and youth but is in the unfortunate situation of solving a problem at the head of the offense. Carolina is a run first team but they need a quarterback that can find a way to move the ball on third down without turning it over on a regular basis. The unsteady Jake Delhoume has left for Cleveland so the Panthers are hoping to find solid quarterback play from either rookie Jimmy Clausen or fourth year player Matt Moore who showed solid upside at the end of last season. The offense has few playmakers in the passing game with Steve Smith being the lone bright spot but with a bruising offensive line led by bookend tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah with 2 potent running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart Carolina should be able to move the ball consistently. The defense will continue to be a solid unit with linebacker standout Jon Beason moving to the outside creating a huge opportunity to turn up the heat on opposing offenses. I look for Carolina to find it’s identity on offense early and make a push to take the number 2 spot.
Matt Ryan has proven to be the franchise quarterback the Falcons were looking for. Now if Michael Turner can return to the form that he broke into his first season in Atlanta the sky could be the limit for an offense that has plenty of playmakers. Roddy White has quietly become one of the most consistent wide receivers in the game and will look to add to his 2009 totals, 85 receptions – 1183 yards – 11 TDs. That was his third straight season of more than 80 receptions and 1100 yards while he increased his touchdown total each year. White is set to have a monster season and Atlanta fans should be stoked at the prospect of what lies ahead in Roddy’s career. Unfortunately the defense in Atlanta still needs to form a bond and mature before the Falcons can take the division title. Without a solid pass rushing threat at linebacker and a secondary that’s sketchy the Falcons will have to rack up a ton of points every week to stay in contention.
Putting points on the board is not a problem for the Saints. Drew Brees is easily one of the top 3 quarterbacks in the league and in my opinion he is number 1. With solid leadership, good pre-snap reads, correct audibles and adjustments, poise, touch, accuracy and good arm strength it’s tough to point out flaws in his game. Of course with the weapons he has around him it’s easy to see why 2010 should be another season long Mardi Gras for Drew. Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas are all names you will hear on fantasy draft day and for good reason. They can all find the end zone and Brees is great at showing them the way. With an offensive line that can buy him some time I’m hard pressed to come up with a reason to doubt the Saints will continue to light up the scoreboard. The defense was the big surprise last season with Darren Sharper announcing their arrival with 9 picks, 3 of those for touchdowns. Gregg Williams was the conductor of the turn around for the Saints defense and if not for coach Sean Payton pushing for, and ultimately taking a pay cut to get Williams the Saints might have never made the run to the Super bowl. With players like Jonathan Vilma, Sedrick Ellis and Will Smith the Saints can get after opposing quarterbacks and stop the run. Balance is the biggest asset to a winning team and New Orleans will only become stronger as the defense strengthens and matures while the offense thrives.
The New Orleans Saints will win the NFC South.
This next diagnosis is one of those moments where some of you might think I had some off-season minor surgery to clear up my headaches, or maybe it was a botched lobotomy.
The AFC East has long been reined over by the Patriots. Last season the Jets decided to overthrow the king and all of the Patriot rs went out and bought a Sanchize t-shirt to wear while they watched illegal sideline footage of Mark eating a hot dog. However the Pats found a way to retain the crown and in the process showed that the changing of the guard can sometimes prove to be very difficult.
What’s not difficult for the Bills is to find a way to remain at the bottom of the East. The one thing I do like is the apparent focus on the ground game with the drafting of C.J. Spiller following the acquisition of Eric Wood last spring. There is a ton of work to still be done on the offensive line and there is an obvious lack of playmakers but it’s a positive sign that the Bills at least know what they want their identity to be on that side of the ball. The defense is a unit that has plenty of talent but is stuck on the field for most of the game. If Buffalo can ever find a way to move the ball with a little consistency the defense should be strong enough to steal a couple of wins and eventually find their way to 500. The problem for the Bills is that they are slowly crawling forward in a division with one established powerhouse and 2 teams that are building very quickly.
The recipe for winning in New England has changed over the years. Lately the focus has been on Tom Brady and the air attack, but the fun stopped just short of a perfect season. It seems as though everyone has forgot about the secret ingredient that filled the bowl with trophies, defense. At least it seems that coach Belichick has with the way the roster has slowly eroded on that side of the ball. The departure of Richard Seymour should not be downplayed going into this season along with several questions at linebacker and secondary. Bunta-Cain was the only defender to post over 5 sacks on a team that once applied pressure at will. Brandon Meriweather is a young safety that will be a stud for years to come but the rest of the group lacks true consistent playmakers. This lays the team entirely at the feet of Tom Brady who's numbers last season returned to the average that he had prior to setting the world on fire in 2007. It could be that the ground game in New England became steady last season with a mix of backs, but I believe it's attributed to defenses adjusting to the Patriots style of offense forcing them to run the ball more. This is a turning point for the Patriots that some don't believe is coming. The trick of it is they could finish with a 9-7 record and miss the playoffs, which is where I have them. New England will finish third in the division.
The Jets defense will end up being at or near the top in almost every statistical category. With star Darrel Revis and the addition of Cromartie at cornerback this gives them possibly the best CB duo in the league. With solid safeties to back them up it will be difficult to throw on New York. The linebackers excel at getting after the quarterback and the defensive line eats up blockers with ease. Throw into the recipe Rex Ryan’s ability to dial up the correct pressure at the right moment and the potential for the Jets defense is unlimited. For the offense I’m not a big fan of Sanchez. I see holes in his game and seeing how his only solid target is tight end Dustin Keller I see Mark having a huge letdown in his second season. Luckily for Jets’ fans though the ground game should excel. Tony Richardson is one of the better run blockers in the last decade and he gets the luxury of leading the way for a young workhorse in Shonn Greene and a future hall-of-fame legend in LaDainian Tomlinson. His already envious job is made even easier by an offensive line that is tooled towards the run. Nick Mangold is one of the premier centers in the league while Ferguson and Woody lock up either side. New York will be very tough this season but with the big plays on offense more than likely coming from the running backs a 10-6 record with some losses in the division opens up the door for the team I look to sneak up on people.
Go ahead, start complaining…
Have you ever been to Miami? I never have but I’ve heard great things...
Yeah, I'm picking the Dolphins to with the AFC East. Before you panic hear me out...
With a sweep of the Jets and splits with the Patriots and Bills the Dolphins tied the Pats for the best division record in the AFC East last season. This is a team on the rise that had zero big play talent at wide receiver. Enter the sometimes abrasive Brandon Marshall who immediately fills the Phins greatest weakness on offense. With a one-two punch of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams at running back to go along with an offensive line that mauls in the run game Miami will look to pound the rock and run play-action in the style of Bill Parcells. This will give Chad Henne the opportunity to grow into the offense and he has the tools necessary to keep the ball moving down the field. If they can click I see a team that can eat up the clock on offense keeping an aggressive defense fresh. With a strong set of safeties and young cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith that will grow in their second season the Dolphins have a chance to create pressure and force turnovers via a front 7 that gets at the quarterback (ranked #3 in 2009 with 44 sacks).
Now keep in mind I'm not saying the Dolphins will run away with the East, I'm not saying the Patriots are finished. What I'm saying is I believe the Dolphins are set to turn a corner in a division that will have a window open for a team to finally give the champ a punch in the snot-box. Of all the divisions in the NFL the AFC East will prove to be the most competitive and there will be some great ball games played between rivals. The schedule is difficult this season but it favors Miami down the stretch.
The Miami Dolphins will win the AFC East.