2013 NFL Preseason Predictions: NFC South (Hanson)
Here are my NFC North preseason predictions for the NFC South:
1. New Orleans Saints (schedule): 11-5
Without their head coach and a record-setting (in a bad way) defense, the Saints season was essentially over within the first month of the year due to their 0-4 start. This year, they host last year's division winner to begin the season and will have an opportunity to set the tone early.
Not only did Drew Brees throw for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, he did so for a second consecutive season. It would now be a surprise (and a big disappointment) if he does not throw for 5,000 yards. In addition, Darren Sproles missed three games and Jimmy Graham (wrist) was never full healthy.
If Rob Ryan can get the defense to play even at a mediocre level, the Saints should rebound and challenge for the division.
2. Atlanta Falcons (schedule): 10-6
Like the Saints, the Falcons biggest strength is on the offensive side of the ball although to neither extreme as the Saints. In other words, their overall offense is not as good (even though it is elite) and their defense is not nearly as bad.
Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, who signed a big extension in the offseason, set career highs across the board last year and has a ton of weapons at the offensive skill positions. The team has the league's best 1-2 punch at receiver with Roddy White and Julio Jones, future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez is back after a strong season and they added Steven Jackson, who has eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Fortunately for fans, the Saints and Falcons face each other in Week 1 and we will see the offensive firepower on full display.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (schedule): 7-9
The Bucs are much improved and could certainly exceed these expectations.
Not only do they have one of the league's best young running backs in Doug Martin, but they have a talented duo of receivers on the outside in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Assuming better health this year from their guards, Martin may even have a better season in 2013.
Defensively they ranked first in the league against the run, but their pass defense was atrocious. Adding shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, who is coming off a torn ACL, and free safety Dashon Goldson should go a long way towards shoring up a unit that has to face Brees, Ryan and Cam Newton six times, at least, per year.
Ultimately, this team's success will depend heavily on the consistency of Josh Freeman, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. If Freeman, who played great and poorly during stretches last year, can be more consistent, the Bucs will threaten the Falcons and Saints for the division.
4. Carolina Panthers (schedule): 4-12
Based on talent alone, I don't think the Panthers are a 4-12 team, but they certainly have their share of holes. In addition, the Panthers have the league's toughest strength of schedule based on last year's winning percentage.
Their defensive front-seven is excellent and they have one of the league's best young linebackers in Luke Kuechly, who is an athletic and nstinctive tackling machine. Unfortunately, their secondary is one of the league's worst and they should expect to get torched when facing division opponents — and non-division opponents.
In addition, the Panthers have few weapons in the passing game as they failed to add any significant playmakers to go along with 34-year-old receiver Steve Smith to help out third-year quarterback Cam Newton.
All of our contributors will make their division and Super Bowl picks and we will track those on this centralized predictions page.