by Colin Donohue
The NFL season is just a couple of months away, which means training camps are approaching quickly. Some teams have already begun, and others will start soon. And because everything centered on the NFL is a huge event, it’s no surprise that the league’s lead-up to meaningless preseason games–training camp–gets oodles of attention from the media. Well, I’m going to add to the already saturated NFL predictions market, mostly to sate myself. But maybe you’ll get something out of it, too.
I’ll be posing three questions (or queries, as the title of this post suggests) facing every NFL team and three-sentence answers to each question. I’ll post one conference a day for the next eight days, which should lead us right into training camp. I’ll also assign one band/music act to every conference and pick a song from their repertoire that best describes the NFL team’s current situation just to give this feature a different twist. At the end of this list, you’ll find a poll, asking you to vote for your division winner. Be sure to give us your feedback by placing a vote.
Today, it’s the NFC South. The band is The Roots.
The Roots Song: “Here I Come”
I said wait/’Cause here I come/Here I come/Here I come/You boys get ready/’Cause here I come/Here I come/Here I come
- What kind of sophomore season will QB Matt Ryan produce? Ryan produced ridiculous numbers for a rookie last season (3,440 yards, 16 TDs), which is a major reason why the Falcons made the playoffs and kept a wild card game tight against the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. Ryan has a dynamic runner in Michael Turner behind him, plus emerging wide receiver standout Roddy White. Add aging, but still capable, tight end Tony Gonzalez to the mix, and Ryan should continue to put up big numbers for the Falcons.
- Is the defense strong enough to make the Falcons a serious playoff contender? The Falcons defense wasn’t awful last season. It gave up 325 points, but it ranked 24th in the league and was particularly susceptible on the ground (127.5 yards allowed per game). Atlanta’s D will have to improve quickly, though, if the Falcons want to make noise come postseason time.
- Do the Falcons win the NFC South this season? I think this season Atlanta will take the AFC South. The Falcons have a real-deal offense led by a young QB, young receivers and a combination of backs. They have less questions than the other teams in the conference, and they’re clearly younger and more advanced than the other three squads, too.
The Roots Song: “Becoming Unwritten”
The son won’t face the father/The gun won’t erase the drama/While you’re waitin’ the time’s up
- How much of leash will head coach John Fox give QB Jake Delhomme this season? Delhomme has had the definition of a storybook rise from third-string QB to starting quarterback, so it’s easy to root for him during the season. But he’s always had an issue with interceptions, and that was never more evident than last season’s NFC divisional game against the Cardinals, when he threw five picks and lost a fumble. There are serious concerns about his ability to lead a team on a deep playoff run, but because there really aren’t adequate backups on the roster, Delhomme’s job is most likely safe for at least one more year.
- Will the situation with DE Julius Peppers have an adverse impact on the defense and the team? It could potentially create locker room disaccord among the players, but most likely that won’t happen. As for on-the-field distractions, don’t count on it because Peppers will be working hard to have a huge year so he can cash in next offseason. Peppers will continue to anchor the defense and be an impact player along the line.
- Are the Panthers still the class of the NFC South? Carolina for the last five years or so have always been a player in the NFC South and the league. But they have legitimate competition from every team in the division now, with the Saints being an offensive juggernaut, the Falcons being a young, dynamic team and the Bucs still playing solid defense. The Panthers are still a factor, but the torch may be passing to Atlanta very soon.
New Orleans Saints
The Roots Song: “Double Trouble”
We got to blow up the spot/Because they must have forgot/We double (trouble) bubble (bubble) bubble (bubblin’ hot)
- Do the Saints have enough defensively to make them a legitimate contender? The Saints are an offensive team for sure, but they need to play better defensively to make noise in their division and even have a sniff at the playoffs. And because this is a team that can easily score 440 points, it’s not like the defense, which gave up 393 points, needs to be overhauled completely–the Saints can still outscore most of their opponents. New Orleans has good pieces along the defensive line, but they thin out at linebacker and in the secondary, so simply solid, if not spectacular, efforts from those two groups could help the team move up in the standings.
- Does New Orleans have an everydown, bruising running back to complement Reggie Bush? Bush is not an everydown back, who can punish teams down the stretch. He’s a change-of-pace guy, who can be effective in an Eagles Brian Westbrook-like role. But the Saints will need someone else to run alongside Bush who can eat up some carries and get the tough inside yardage–which they don’t have right now–to be an even more dynamic running team.
- Can Drew Brees continue to thrive with a so-so corps of wide receivers? What Brees does with an unheralded group of receivers is nothing short of amazing. The Saints are a fun team to watch every week because of him, but there are questions every off-season about whether he can continue to produce record-breaking numbers with the guys around him. He absolutely can because he’s proven year in and year out, both in New Orleans and in San Diego, that he’s a quality QB with a strong arm and an understanding of how the offense should be run.
Tampa Bay Bucs
The Roots Song: “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New”
Nothin’ new, nothin’ new/Y’all not sayin’ nothin’ new
- Who will be playing quarterback for Tampa Bay? They have two young kids (rookie Josh Freeman and second-year player Josh Johnson) and two veterans (Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown) fighting for the starting job. It appears that McCown may be the leader, but Leftwich could give him a good battle (and in my opinion, I think the Bucs should give Leftwich one more chance). But regardless of who the Bucs choose to quarterback the team, they still won’t get a consistent, solid performance from the position because none of the four are good enough to make the Bucs competitive in the South.
- Do the Bucs still have that same punishing defense of old? Old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left the Bucs to join his son Lane Kiffin at the University of Tennessee. Some of the old parts of the defense remain, so there’s no reason to expect the Bucs would have a precipitous drop. But it is safe to say that the this is no longer an elite squad, and the Bucs will absolutely need strong weekly defensive performances if they want to have even a chance at being consistently competitive.
- Is there someone reliable/healthy to run the football? Theoretically, the Bucs have two solid running backs in Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham (and they added Derrick Ward), but Williams missed the first 12 games last season and Graham played poorly in his absence. With serious questions about their quarterbacks, the Bucs will have to rely on a strong running game to give them some kind of offensive dimension. The guys they have now, though, won’t light the league on fire.
So who will win the NFC South?
(Stay tuned later in the summer for my and Justin’s one-sentence NFL season previews, our season locks, predictions and pick’em tournament.)