Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has a new contract and the same powerful Panthers running game to help him
The 2009 journeys of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, all of which have the NFC South title as their hopeful destination, will intersect 12 times between September 13 and January 3. Those intersections will begin on September 20, when Carolina visits Atlanta, and end on January 3, when all four South teams are locked in divisional battle.
In less than two weeks, however, those paths will begin as almost parallel lines. Between July 30 and August 2, all four NFC South teams will report to their respective training camps, where they will use the better part of the ensuing three weeks to focus almost solely on their own concerns. There will be time for scouting Falcons and Saints later, and for rekindling intra-division rivalries; first, each South squad will look to get its own season started off in the right direction.
In order to do so, each of the team's in what is the NFL's most consistently competitive division will have to answer certain questions, integrate new players and install offensive and defensive playbooks. Tampa Bay's issues in this regard are familiar to Buccaneers.com readers; they have been the gristle we've chewed on for the last seven months. Who will start at quarterback, and how effectively? Will the team's incredible run of defensive success survive the switch to a new system? Which of the young players will successfully step up into larger roles, as the team's new management is clearly counting on?
In Flowery Branch, Georgia, in Metairie, Louisiana and in Spartanburg, South Carolina, there will be different issues. There are fewer quarterback questions in the other NFC South outposts, but the Saints have to be wondering if their latest attempts to recharge the defense have worked? Will the Panthers enjoy a repeat of the 2008 Julius Peppers (14.5 sacks) or the 2007 version (2.5 sacks)? Can the Falcons running game get even better?
Let's check in around the South as training camp approaches, with a brief summary for each team and three issues that are expected to gather plenty of attention.
Training Camp Site: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, GA Player Report Date: Friday, July 31 Preseason Opener: at Detroit, Saturday, August 15
The Falcons will come to camp feeling good in 2009, perhaps as confident and upbeat as the franchise has been in years. The 2007 turmoil centered around Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino is now a thing of the past and the Falcons are coming off a surprise run to the playoffs in 2008. Certainly, last year's team reported to camp with the optimism that comes with a new coach and a fresh young franchise quarterback, but the Falcons' success last fall still caught most observers by surprise. The 2009 team expects to win.
The Falcons went from 23rd in the NFL in overall offense in 2007 to sixth last year. The two most significant changes were in the backfield, where rookie quarterback Matt Ryan made a sensational debut and free-agent acquisition Michael Turner emerged as one of the league's most dangerous running backs. Now the team has added Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez and, with the emergence last year of wide receiver Roddy White, has weapons bristling all over its offensive depth chart.
Reconstruction of the defense appears to be next on the to-do list, especially after the Falcons said farewell to five starters from the 2008 unit and spent seven of their eight 2009 draft picks on defenders. Atlanta went 11-5 last year and advanced to the NFC Championship Game with a 24th-ranked defense that has since been partially dismantled. Whether the team can build on its surprising 2008 campaign may depend on part two of the rebuilding process.
The Falcons' defense will be younger in 2009; will it be better?
Gone from Atlanta's 2008 starting defense are defensive tackle Grady Jackson, outside linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking, left cornerback Domonique Foxworth and strong safety Lawyer Milloy. Those five had varying levels and durations of success in Atlanta — Brooking, in particular, had been the face of the defense for years — but the Falcons were just as ready to move on as were those five. The team did re-sign starting defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and reserve defensive end Chauncey Davis, but the desire to start anew on that side of the ball was reflected in the team's primary moves in free agency and the draft.
The linebacking corps will have a new look, with former Jacksonville Jaguar Mike Peterson joining rising second-year starter Curtis Lofton. Former USF standout Stephen Nicholas may win the other outside linebacker job opposite Peterson. The Falcons hope this group can play faster and put more pressure on the quarterback; only two of Atlanta's sacks last year came courtesy of the linebackers.
The defensive line got a significant boost from the 2009 draft. Atlanta used its first-round pick on penetrating defensive tackle Peria Jerry, and he may step right in for Jackson next to Babineaux. The Falcons also grabbed Richmond defensive end Lawrence Sidbury in the fourth round and Georgia Tech defensive tackle Vance Walker in the seventh.
The Falcons also used three 2009 draft picks on defensive backs: safety William Moore of Missouri and cornerbacks Christopher Owens of San Jose State and William Middleton of Furman. Moore, a second-round pick, carries the reputation of being a hard-hitter, and he could replace a long-time veteran with a similar and well-earned reputation in Milloy. Owens and Middleton will be part of a youthful battle to replace Foxworth opposite second-year corner Chris Houston; others include Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson, Glenn Sharpe, David Irons, Tony Tiller and Von Hutchins. Only Hutchins has played more than one year in the NFL in that entire group of cornerbacks, meaning the Falcons are almost certain to have a lack of experience in their secondary.
Of course, for a team that won big with rookies at head coach and quarterback, a little inexperience isn't scaring anyone.
Is there any chance of a "sophomore slump" in Atlanta for Matt Ryan or the potent Falcons rushing attack?
Ryan won the Falcons' starting job out of training camp, threw a long touchdown pass on his first regular-season attempt and never hit any sort of extended slump. Observers inside and outside team headquarters were wowed by Ryan's maturity and veteran presence. Thus, a significant step back in his second year would be a surprise to most.
But can Ryan match some of his better numbers from 2008, such as a 61.1% completion rate, a 2.5% interception rate, an average of 7.93 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 87.7? Given that he has a new weapon in Gonzalez at his disposal and a whole year of reading NFL defenses under his belt, it's just as likely that Ryan will get even better in 2009. Still, he'll have to prove that on the field this fall with the rest of the NFC South gunning for him.
Ryan will have an easier go of it if the Falcons' rushing attack is as strong as it was last year. Michael Turner wasn't a rookie in 2008, but he was new to Atlanta and to a full-time starting gig. He was also arguably the best free agent acquisition in the NFL last year. All Turner did was rush for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns and form a devastating backfield tandem with home run hitter Jerious Norwood. Both backs are young and low on mileage, so their career trajectories would seem to be heading upward.
In addition, Atlanta's starting five on the offensive line return, and the team made an effort to improve the depth of that unit by signing veteran linemen Jeremy Newberry and Brett Romberg as unrestricted free agents. The Falcons would appear to be one of the league's most dangerous rushing teams again in 2009.
Will John Abraham be a one-man pass-rushing gang again in 2009?
Last season, defensive end John Abraham had 16.5 of the Falcons' 34 sacks in the regular season — almost exactly half of the team total — and no other player on the team had more than four. In 2007, Abraham had 10 of Atlanta's 28 sacks and none of his teammates had more than three.
Clearly, Abraham was one of the most indispensible players on the team over the last several years, and he almost singlehandedly kept the Falcons' pass rush at adequate levels, at least.
Still, Atlanta would undoubtedly like to get consistent pressure from more than one source. Abraham might be even more deadly if opposing offenses had to worry about premier pass-rushers coming from the other side or the interior of the line.
Atlanta's recent drafts have tried to address this. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson was the eighth overall pick in the 2007 draft, and the second defensive lineman taken after the Buccaneers' Gaines Adams. However, in two years and 31 starts, Anderson has recorded only two sacks. This past April, the Falcons settled on Jerry, an active defensive tackle who can get upfield; perhaps he will develop into a pass-rushing complement to Abraham. The team also resigned Babineaux (3.5 sacks in 2008) and Davis (4.0), the two players who ranked second and third to Abraham in that category last year. Both are heading into their fifth NFL seasons and either one or both could develop into more productive pass-rushers.
Training Camp Site: Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC Player Report Date: Sunday, August 2 Preseason Opener: at New York Giants, Monday, August 17
The Panthers will be the last of the four NFC South teams to report, a result of their first game falling on Monday night of Preseason Week One. They are also the only team in the division that will not train at its home facility, after the Bucs and the Saints joined the Falcons and 14 other teams in that trend this year.
Carolina also might have the fewest depth chart questions of the four South teams, too, a result of the team returning 21 of its 22 starters from a year ago. That's the kind of stability that many teams strive for; however, the Panthers' offseason was notable for its lack of roster traffic in both directions. Carolina completely sat out the free agency period, focusing mostly on retaining and resigning such Panther stalwarts as Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross and Julius Peppers.
The Panthers are likely as confident as the Falcons, given that the former team is the defending division champion. Of course, in the insanely competitive NFC South, no team has ever won the division in back-to-back seasons. In fact, Carolina's title last year broke a string of five straight years in which the team that had finished in last place in the division the year before came out on top. Atlanta almost kept that trend alive for a sixth year but in the end fell one game shy of catching the Panthers.
Fittingly, the Saints, who finished fourth last year at 8-8, are considered the division favorites by some pundits. The Panthers, who have had the same head coach since 2002 (John Fox) and the same primary quarterback since 2003 (Jake Delhomme), likely feel differently and expect their stability and hard-nosed style of play to carry them to back-to-back crowns.
How effective will Jake Delhomme be in his seventh year at the helm of the Panthers' offense?
Delhomme's 2008 season ended on a sour note, as he was responsible for six turnovers in an unexpected 33-13 loss to the Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs. In a larger sense, however, his '08 campaign was a success, as he started and finished every game one year after losing most of his 2007 season to an elbow injury. Last year, Delhomme entered camp dogged by questions about his recovery from surgery, but he went on to throw all 414 of the Panthers' regular season passes, compiling a respectable 84.7 passer rating.
This year, Delhomme reportedly has no arm concerns and is in top shape entering camp. Moreover, the franchise committed to him in long-term fashion during the offseason, signing the 34-year-old hurler to a hefty six-year contract. His backups are a relatively inexperienced bunch: Josh McCown, Matt Moore and Hunter Cantwell.
Last year, Delhomme had the lowest total of touchdown passes of any of his full seasons (15) but also threw just 12 interceptions. The Panthers offense relied less on Delhomme's passing than it had in the past because DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart emerged as one of the most dangerous backfield combinations in the NFL. With Williams and Stewart combining for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground, the Panthers needed Delhomme's fourth-quarter magic less often than they had in the past.
Carolina returns its offensive line intact, and with Gross at the beginning of a long-term deal and second-year tackle Jeff Otah putting his ankle injury in the past, that front wall should be as strong as ever (if thinner, thanks to backup free agency defections). There's no reason to expect the Panthers to move away from their run-heavy approach of 2008. However, there will certainly be games in which Delhomme will have to carry the day with his right arm. The Panthers look at the Arizona game as an aberration and believe their long-time starter can continue to thrive in pressure situations, as he has so many times against the Buccaneers.
Will Julius Peppers' contract status affect his play?
After re-signing Gross in February, the Panthers were able to use their franchise tag on Peppers, the franchise's all-time sacks leader. There was hope that a long-term deal would follow, but none was reached and Peppers signed his franchise tender shortly before the deadline in July.
None of that is likely to disrupt Peppers on game day, even though there is conjecture that the eighth-year veteran would like to move on to another team. Peppers has reached double digits in sacks in five of his seven NFL campaigns, and as the Buccaneers know his supreme athleticism allows him to make plays all over the field.
However, there was such an extreme between his output in the past two seasons — his 14.5 sacks last year were a dozen more than he had in 14 games in 2007 — that it's fair to at least wonder which Peppers will be on the field in 2009. The Panthers certainly felt as if their defensive line needed a boost, as they traded up into the high second round in April in order to take Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. The upshot is that, with Peppers still on board, the position is now quite deep for the Panthers, with Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson and Hilee Taylor all returning as well.
How will the Panther defenders take to the new system imported by new Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks?
In some respects, the situation on defense in Carolina is similar to what has transpired in Tampa over the last seven months — a history of defensive success under a long-time coordinator (Monte Kiffin in Tampa, Mike Trgovac in Carolina) giving way to the unknown under a new but proven coordinator (Jim Bates in Tampa, Ron Meeks in Carolina) who espouses a simple, aggressive approach.
Under Trgovac, the Panthers finished in the top 10 of the league's rankings four times in seven years. However, by falling to 18th in 2008, that crew ranked in the NFL's bottom half (if barely) for only the second time in that span. Enter Meeks, who was the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator during Tony Dungy's entire seven-year tenure with the team. Indy's defense was 11th in the NFL last year after finishing second in 2002.
Carolina players have reportedly been given a thinner defensive playbook in the hopes of freeing them over-thinking and allowing them to play more aggressively. Cornerback Chris Gamble, for instance, is expecting to see quite a bit more man-to-man coverage, a challenge he apparently relishes.
Certainly, the Panthers have a good amount of defensive talent — the DEs above are backed by the likes of Gamble, Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason and ballhawking safety Chris Harris — and they are probably capable of adjusting to any system. Still, like the Buccaneers, they will have to prove that their new defense is a good fit on game day.
New Orleans Saints
Training Camp Site: New Orleans Saints Training Facility, Metairie, LA Player Report Date: Thursday, July 30 Preseason Opener: vs. Cincinnati, August 14
The Saints were the most active of the four NFC South teams this past offseason, at least in terms of the free agency market. Listing only players who were designated as unrestricted free agents by the NFL (and not others who were released or not on rosters to begin the year), New Orleans added nine players, from cornerback Jabari Greer to fullback Heath Evans. The Saints also allowed several well-known players to depart, such as defensive tackle Bryan Young, cornerback Mike McKenzie, safety Josh Bullocks and fan-favorite running back Deuce McAllister.
Of course, it's not surprising to see Head Coach Sean Payton and the Saints pursue at least a partial turnover of the depth chart, given the relative disappointment of the last two seasons. After New Orleans rose to prominence behind quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, winning the NFC South and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, they went into each of the next two seasons rife with hope only to flutter around .500. With an offense that finished first in the NFL last year and in 2006 and appears poised to dominate again in 2009, the Saints are eager to take advantage of this window of success.
Obviously, that could depend largely on how much the defense can catch up to the offense in the bayou. In the last two years, the Saints have finished 23rd and 26th, respectively, in the league's defensive rankings.
Can a new coordinator and a revamped secondary get the Saints' defense back up to speed?
Like the Bucs and Panthers, the Saints have a new leader on defense in 2009. However, New Orleans newcomer Gregg Williams isn't taking over a unit with a history of recent success, as Bates and Trgovac are.
Williams, the former Buffalo Bills head coach, comes to New Orleans after one season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His track record of success includes defenses that finished in the league's top 10 five times in the last nine years, with three different teams. Williams is known as a hyper-aggressive coordinator who likes to employ confusing blitz schemes and put the pressure on the opposition.
Williams' biggest challenge, at least early in the season, may be devising ways to pressure the quarterback without a strong rush off the edges. That's because starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith are facing four-game suspensions to start the season, barring a successful appeal in a case involving supplements and banned substances. Second-year defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the seventh overall pick in 2008, could pick up some of the slack from the inside if he improves on a four-sack rookie campaign. The Saints also added some proven veteran pass-rushers in tackle Rod Coleman and end Paul Spicer.
The middle of the defense is still anchored by linebacker Jonathan Vilma, though free agent acquisition Dan Morgan, the oft-injured former Panther, shook things up a bit by retiring during the offseason. The players fighting to join Vilma in Williams' 4-3 front are mostly holdovers: Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle, Mark Simoneau, et al.
The most extensive changes to the Saints' defense could be seen in the secondary. Three of the four starters from last year are back (Bullocks being the lone departure) but they will face competition for starting jobs and playing time. The Saints added not only Greer, one of the most coveted cornerbacks on the free agent market, but also veteran safeties Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau. In addition, New Orleans' first-round draft pick was spent on a cornerback, Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, who could also play safety, and 2008 nickel back Usama Young is now competing at safety.
How the Saints secondary shakes out will be one of most interesting things to watch in Metairie this August.
Who will run the ball for the Saints, and how much?
The departure of McAllister, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, isn't as big of a shakeup as it sounds because the veteran pounder had just 418 rushing yards last season. Still, McAllister had been the hammer in the Saints' offense for many years, and the current backfield may lack a truly physical force.
Or it may not. The cupboard is far from bare, thanks to the continued presence of both Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas. At this point, heading into his fourth season, Bush does not appear to be on the path towards becoming an every-down, between-the-tackles runner, though he remains extremely dangerous. Bush scored nine touchdowns last year, caught 52 passes to go with his 404 rushing yards and was also a threat as a kick returner…and all of this in just 10 games.
It was Thomas, the former undrafted free agent out of Illinois, who emerged as the de facto tailback last year, rushing for a team high 625 yards and nine touchdowns and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Many expected the Saints to use their first-round pick in this year's draft on a big back like Ohio State's Chris Wells, but New Orleans appears confident in the runners they have on hand.
As a whole, the Saints' rushing attack produced just over 1,500 yards last year, the fifth-lowest total in the league. However, that didn't stop Brees and the New Orleans offense from leading the league in yards and points, so there's no guarantee that the Saints even care to run the ball more than they did in 2008. Still, most coaches preach balance on offense; if the Saints could run the ball even more efficiently, they might be almost impossible to stop.
When — not if — Marques Colston bounces back, just how high will he bounce?
There are not many out-of-nowhere success stories in the current NFL better than that of Colston, who was the 252nd pick in the 2006 draft but a star pass-catcher almost from Day One of his career.
This is what Colston did in his first two seasons in the league: 168 receptions for 2,240 yards and 19 touchdowns. When he followed up his 70-catch rookie debut with an all-out star campaign of 98 grabs in 2007, Colston set a new NFL record for most catches in a player's first two seasons in the league.
The Colston express was finally derailed early last season by a thumb injury in the opener, which led to the third-year star having only five catches at midseason. He returned from the injury and was strong again in the second half (42-678-5 over the last eight games), though he drop a few more passes than had been his norm over the first two seasons.
It should also be noted that Brees kept the Saints' passing attack humming along just fine even without his best receiver. Diminutive Lance Moore emerged as a 79-catch man and the Saints also got strong contributions from Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Jeremy Shockey and all of the running backs. Brees won't have to look Colston's way in 2009.
Of course, he will. The question is, how often? If Colston's healthy for 16 games in 2009, will the 6-4, 225-pounder break into triple digits? And will the Saints offense be better for it?