For every team, the first priority is always "win your division." Teams are built with divisional opponents in mind. If you play in a division where every team likes to pound the rock, like the AFC North, you need to build your defense a little differently than if you played in the AFC South where Peyton Manning and Matt Schuab like to air it out. More simply put, teams try to find players who can win divisional match-ups. Watch a team get some never before seen athletic freak at _____ position, and every other team in that division will soon try to find a player to defend or counter that freak while also trying to find a clone who creates similar match-up problems.
Each team has players on their rosters who probably wouldn't be there if they played in another division. Think about it: play in a division where every team uses 3 or 4 WR's for the majority of offensive snaps, and carrying an extra S and CB is more of a priority. If every team in a division has a TE who draws bracket coverage, finding that top notch S or LB moves near the top of the priority list come draft time and free agency. If you are unable to adequately defend a particular match-up in your division, you may have difficulty making the playoffs. Win the positional match-ups, win the game. Win the most divisional games, win the division and make the playoffs.
Over the course of the next month, NFL rosters will change dramatically. It is thought that a new CBA will be agreed upon within the next week and that a free agent class twice the normal size will rush to get signed and into camp. We'll rank and compare each position in the NFC South. Doing so, you may get a glimpse of the direction each team is headed or the positions each team will target when free agency begins. After the dust settles and the regular season is about to kick-off, we'll do this again to see how free agency, training camp and injuries might have changed the picture.
This piece deals with all the positions on offense as well as kicker. In a few days, I'll post an article ranking the defensive positions and punters. We'll wrap it up with a third column summarizing the trends and positional advantages, i.e. what each team should be looking to fill in free agency in order to exploit a weakness or defend their own.
1.Saints-- Drew Brees, Chase Daniel -- Superbowl MVP. Need I say more?
2. Buccaneers-- Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson -- I look at what Freeman did (with less) and give him the edge over Matt Ryan. Freeman scares me, Ryan does not. Freeman isn't hesitant to stretch the field, and he doesn't have poop stains for everyone to see.
3. Falcons -- Matt Ryan, Chris Redman-- He impresses me with the way he carries himself. But the moniker "Matty Ice" makes me want to puke on a cheerleader. Don't go Romo on Ryan -- make him earn a nick-name with post-season success before you crown him. Let him grow a pair and not be so predictable. Really want to know why I rank Ryan 3rd in the division? He had a top 5 rushing offense and a defense that was top 3 in take-aways. His passing numbers (and offense) were mediocre. Drew Brees was in the same situation the year before and put up MVP numbers despite splitting time with a top 5 rushing attack, and his offense was No. 1 in the NFL.
4. Panthers-- Cam Newton, Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore -- I'm not Nostradamus but I predict that Newton will have a great season. Who is he throwing to? Is he throwing? I've never been a Newton fan (LSU! LSU! LSU!), but he doesn't seem to have very much on his side to help him become a better pro. He especially doesn't have an off-season to learn from coaches. Maybe Carolina should bring Jake back to give Newton a month to sit and watch.
1. Panthers-- Jonathen Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Goodson, Josh Vaughan, Tyrell Sutton -- I don't believe the Panthers will be able to keep both bell-cows, but for the time being, that tandem tops the list.
2. Saints-- Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Chris Ivory -- With the addition of Ingram, the Saints may move up to the top position once the season is underway. I'd rather have the Panther's combo of Stewart/Williams, but the Saints have a more versatile group.
3. Falcons -- Micheal Turner, Jason Snelling, Jerrious Norwood, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, Gartrell Johnson -- The only thing that really scares me is the addtion of Rodgers. How will he translate? I'm not sure, but he will create a few match-up problems if he can stay on the field. White, Jones, Gonzo, Turner, and Rodgers can be a scary combo to defend.
4. Buccaneers -- LaGarrette Blount, Allen Bradford, Carnell Williams, Earnest Graham, Kareem Huggins, Kregg Lumpkin -- if Cadillac never lost a wheel, they'd be much higher on the list. Though I will say Graham is a steady over-achiever who never gets the credit - and carries - he deserves. He'll play fullback when asked and is a very unselfish leader.
1. Falcons-- Ovie Mughelli-- Hands down, one of the best in the NFL.
2. Saints-- Heath Evans and occasionally Dave Thomas -- Perhaps the Saints could use some youth here?
3. Buccaneers-- Taylor Rendrick and Earnest Graham and Erik Lorig-- I love Earnest.
4. Carolina-- Rashawn Jackson and Tony Flametta-- I have no clue who this is.
1. Saints-- Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Adrian Arrington, Montez Billings, Courtney Roby, Andy Tanner-- This is the best group in the division. Maybe top 5 in the NFL. Each player compliments the other and fulfills their role precisely.
2. Falcons -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tim Buckley, Harry Douglas, Brandyn Harvey, Michael Jenkins, Kerry Meier, Andy Strickland, Eric Weems -- Maybe some might view the combo of Jones and White as more potent than the entire Saints group.
3. Buccanerrs -- Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Micheal Spurlock, Sammy Stroughter, Maurice Stovall, Dezmon Briscoe, Ed Gant, Preston Parker -- This group is only going to get better.
4. Carolina -- Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards, David Clowney, David Gettis, Trent Guy, Charly Martin, Kealoha Pilares, Wallace Wrigh t-- Carolina needs a quality wide receiver (or two) in the worst way.
1. Buccaneers -- Kellen Winslow, Luke Stocker, Ryan Purvis, Nathan Overbay, Erik Lorig, Daniel Hardy, John Gilmore -- Stocker and Winslow will make a nice duo.
2. Saints-- Jimmy Graham, Dave Thomas, Tyler Lorenzen, Tory Humphrey -- Jimmy Graham is a freak. David Thomas is versatile. The Saints could use an in-line blocker but as a receiving duo, this group will rival Stocker and Winslow. Perhaps the Saints make a play on Carolina's Dante Rosario in free agency?
3. Falcons -- Tony Gonzalez, Robbie Agnone, Justin Peele, Micheal Palmer -- Gonzo is a future first ballet HOF'er, but the clowns don't have much behind him and he is getting up there in age.
4. Panthers -- Jeremy Shockey, Dante Rosario, Jeff King, Gary Barnidge -- Shockey has lost a step; he no longer garners bracket coverage. `I love Rosario, and hope the Saints do their best to steal him.
1. Panthers -- Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah, Jacob Bender, Lee Ziemba, Garry Williams-- For now, the Panthers have the best starting book-ends in the division. The Panthers got a steal with Ziemba.
2. Saints -- Jermon Bushrod, John Stinchcomb, Zach Strief, Charles Brown, Roger Allen -- You could say the Saints have four good RT's or three good swing tackles, and you'd be right. The versatility (and continuity) put the Saints in second place.
3. Buccaneers -- Donald Penn, Jeremy Trueblood, James Lee, Will Barker, Demar Dotson, Derek Hardman, James Lee -- Trueblood took a step back last year and gave his starting job to Lee.
4. Falcons -- Tyson Clabo, Sam Baker, Garrett Reynolds, Will Svitek-- Some of their guards play tackle, and vice versa. Sam Baker never really materialized, and they don't have much in terms of true tackle depth.
1. Saints -- Carl Nicks, Jhari Evans, Matt Tennant, Roger Allen, Brian De La Puente, -- the Saints could really use some depth here. Nicks/Evans is maybe the top guard tandem in the NFL let along the division. I can't put a group of good depth over two starters who dominate and are on the field every snap; which is why two great guards and no back-ups will get you top ranking and conversely why two top WR's and no back-ups won't (Atlanta).
2. Buccaneers -- Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph, Ted Larson, Derek Hardman, Brandon Carter, John Malecki, Marc Dile -- Tampa had a few injuries to the offensive line and really had to shuffle it last year. Zuttah was playing center for Faine and I have no clue what happened to Joseph. But I think the versatility and depth of this group earns them a spot over an Atlanta trio I really like.
3. Falcons -- Justin Blaylock, Harvey Dahl, Andrew Jackson, Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson, Jose Valdez -- Blaylock and Dahl are very solid and I love Andrew Jackson -- good value in the draft.
4. Panthers -- Travelle Wharton, Geoff Schwartz, Zach Williams, Duke Robinson, CJ Davis, Mackenzy Bernadeau -- at least they can run block.
Center/Long Snapper (this is the toughest group on offense to rank):
1. Panthers -- Ryan Kalil, JJ Jansen (LS)-- Kalil's the only true C on their roster, but with his youth, he's the best right now in the division.
2. Buccaneers -- Jeff Faine, Jeremy Zuttah, Ted Larson, John Malecki, Andrew Economos (LS) -- Only one center plays at a time, so I gave Kalil from the Panthers the edge. But as a group with great depth, the Bucs get the No. 2 spot.
3. Saints -- Jonathen Goodwin, Matt Tennant, Jason Kyle (LS), Justin Dresher (LS) -- I'll take the experience, talent and youth mix of Tennant and Goodwin over what Atlanta has to offer. I think the Saints got great value when the moved up and snagged Tennant in last year's draft. The guy will be nasty whenever Goodwin decides to retire or move on.
4. Falcons-- Todd McClure, Rob Bruggeman, Joe Zelenka (LS) -- I love McClure, and while he's only a year older than Goodwin, I don't see a talent like Tennant waiting in the wings.
1. Falcons -- Matt Bryant -- He's the real Matty Ice.
2. Saints -- Garrett Hartley -- Three 40+ yard FG's in the Super Bowl and another to get the Saints there. In two seasons, he's done enough to make the front office confident enough to give him a nice contract.
3. Buccaneers -- Conner Barth -- who wants a mustache ride? This guy is pretty young but he's making a name for himself.
4. Panthers -- John Kasay and Rhys Lloyd-- Kasay has played 21 years in the NFL; he's 41 years old. When you have two kickers on the roster, you're waisting a roster spot and have tough decisions to make when faced with kicking a field goal 45 yards or longer.
I'm sure I'll be labled a "homer" for a few of these rankings. Guilty as charged. However, I do have logic to back my point up with so I'm going to take the next few minutes to further explain some of my choices I think will get the most criticism -- call it "proactive apologetics".
Drew Brees has led the NFL in almost every passing statistic since he became the Saints starter in 2006. From 2006 through 2010, no one has played better. FACT, not homerism. Drew has had what many may describe as a rag-tag group of WR's to work with. Yes, Meachem was a first round choice. Wasn't Colston a 7th round rookie under Drew? Wasn't Lance Moore and UDFA? Wasn't Devery a highly inconsistant reach under the "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" regime of Haslett? Devery's one significant play at LSU was a fluke known as the "Bluegrass Miracle". Adrian Arrington is another 7th rounder.
Yet this group of wide-outs have worked their tales off with Drew and are very good in our offensive system. They run PRECISION routes. You've got two that use their bodies and gain separation despite lack of top end speed. You've got two others with top end speed who will hurt you with the seam route. You've got another guy that fits perfectly in the slot. They compliment each other. One goes down, another steps in, you don't see any drop off in production -- Production that has led the entire NFL over the last 5 years.
So I am pretty sure that merits their ranking above Atlanta's WR's. The combo of Roddy White and Julio Jones certainly is enticing, but take them away, and what have you got? Remember the combo of Randy Moss and Wes Welker? The Saints figured out how to take that away when they were playing very hot, with a depleted secondary. Know how that turned out? Know what New England did the next offseason? They upgraded that position and the TE position because having two very good guys isn't enough now that this is officially a passing league and Nickle defense sees the field more than 50% of the time for ALL teams.
I'll gladly take the "homer" label for my ranking of TE. Jimmy Graham has been consistant and impactful in just a very short time, and Dave Thomas has been both versatile and consistant. You could argue Gonzo is the G.O.A.T., but the only other team that will have a very good two TE combo is the one ranked ahead of us. Gonzo is on the fence with retirement. He'll play if there is a season and retire if there isn't. I'm going on youth and potential, and if it isn't true by the end of this year, it will be true next.
As for RB, Cadillac Williams won't be back in Tampa. Jerrious Norwood won't be back in Atlanta. For "I don't think the Bucs would trade RB's with us", I'm pretty sure they are foaming at the mouth with thoughts of adding Reggie right now. I'm unimpressed with Snelling and anyone not named Turner on the Falcons, and though Turner is a pounder, what happens when he's banged up? Rodgers potetial scares me, but as of now he's as unproven and likely to make no impact like Joe McKniight. Tampa has a nice 1-2 with Earnest Graham and Blount, but neither team has the versatility or complete group that can do everything from blitz pick-up to screens to catching passes out of the backfield to inside and outside running that the Saints now have, so I'll stand firm there.
Sure, I'm a homer, but it's not blind homerism.