NFC South Betting Odds
NFL analyst Jeff Scott gives an overview of what the NFC South teams added and lost in the offseason along with his opinion on who the teams to beat will be. A review of last season and where Jeff thinks the betting value is.
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The Falcons became only the third team since 1975 to finish in last place in their division after being their conference's top seed the year before. Injuries played a big role but Atlanta released several veterans prior to last season hoping that youngsters would be able to assume larger roles. That strategy failed, miserably. They used free agency and the draft to strengthen both lines but largely return the same cast that finished 4-12 in 2013.
Atlanta's offense ranked last in rushing last season and QB Matt Ryan showed he wasn't good enough to lead a team all by himself. RB Steven Jackson is healthy again but he's 30 and nearing the end. Rookie RB Jevonta Freeman is a smallish back who plays bigger than his size (5'8", 205) and is a very good receiver. Ryan hopes to have WR Julio Jones and Roddy White healthy in 2014 as both missed lots of time last year. WR Harry Douglas was the biggest beneficiary of their absences and caught 85 passes for 1,067 yards and two scores. The loss of TE Tony Gonzalez will clearly be felt and it remains to be seen how productive TE Levine Toilolo can be in his second season. G Jon Asamoah and G-T Gabe Carimi were added in free agency and Asamoah is expected to start at RG. Rookie RT Jake Matthews (6th overall) is also slated to start and is hopefully the LT of the future. The line should be stronger and is also expected to cut down on the 44 sacks allowed last year. The Flacons signed NT Paul Soliai and DE Tyson Jackson and both are primarily 3-4 players. While Atlanta won't totally commit to the 3-4, signing these players means it will be the defense they are in most of the time. The Falcons drafted four LBs and hope all can contribute on either special teams or the base defense. FS Thomas DeCoud and CB Asante Samuel were released, creating two openings in a secondary starved for playmakers. Only Houston and Oakland intercepted fewer passes than Atlanta (10) in 2013. RS Devin Hester was signed and should give the return game a boost but he is 31 and strictly a returner at this stage of his career.
The Falcons play the AFC North and the NFC North this season. They have to visit the Bengals and Packers but don't host a non-divisional playoff opponent. They play Detroit in London and have a very difficult final five weeks of the season (at GB and NO, host ARI, PITT and CAR). This group is used to winning and if their two lines play better in 2014 than in 2013, a return to the top of the division is possible. They are only 5-11 SU within the division over the past three years and that has to change for Atlanta to make a return to the playoffs.
If there was a Cinderella team in the NFL in 2013 it was certainly Carolina. After five weeks they sat 1-3 and had already had their bye week. They proceeded to win eight in a row (including back-to-back wins vs. the 49ers and Patriots) before stumbling at New Orleans. They won their final three games to win the division and grab the No.2 seed in the NFC. They showed they weren't quite ready for prime time in a 23-10 home loss to San Francisco. Fewer teams suffered more losses after the year as the Panthers lost three starters in the secondary, long-time leader and offensive sparkplug WR Steve Smith, WRs Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn and two starters on the O-line, including franchise cornerstone LT Jordan Gross.
Carolina's offense wasn't amongst the league's best (18th in scoring, 26th in total yardage and 29th in passing) but they didn't commit TOs and rarely put their defense in a hole. QB Cam Newton benefitted greatly from a simplified offense that featured fewer reads and a lot of run plays. With all of the losses at wideout, Newton will have to make more plays as defenses crowd the line of scrimmage to stop RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. 1st-round pick WR Kelvin Benjamin is expected to snare one of the starting spots and is a physical specimen at 6'5", 240 lbs. The Panthers brought in three FA wideouts and WR Jerricho Cotchery is expected to be the other starter. OT Byron Bell has started the last three years on the right side with shaky results and is now the front runner to take over for Gross. This doesn't seem like a good plan but Carolina is putting on a brave face and expects him to succeed. OG Trai Turner was the team's 3rd-round pick and it's hoped he'll be a starter sooner rather than later. The Panthers' defense was simply one of, if not, the best in the league last year as they ranked 2nd in points allowed, total yards and rushing yards allowed. MLB Luke Kuechly is the undisputed leader of the unit, especially after LB Jon Beason was dispatched to the Giants during the 2013 season. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award and just needs to improve his coverage skills to become a complete and dominant player. OLB Thomas Davis continues to be productive at 31 and is a medical marvel, having come back from three torn ACLs, the only player in history who can make such a claim. The Panthers signed Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper to be their starting safeties and FA addition CB Antoine Cason is also expected to start. The d-line is loaded and got better with the addition of 2nd rounder DE Kony Ealy. He'll see most of his time at DT on passing downs. DE Greg Hardy finished second in the NFC with 15 sacks. Simply one of the deepest position groups in the NFL.
Carolina has a very challenging 1st-place schedule, with visits to Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Philadelphia. They get Seattle at home. While this remains a solid team, I feel they have suffered too many personnel losses to compete at a high level. Jettisoning Smith was necessary as team brass wanted Newton and Kuechly to assume stronger leadership roles but having a huge question mark at LT is no way for a supposed contender to start the season. The dearth of talent at wideout won't help Newton and integrating three new starters into the secondary will take time as well. Don't look for a repeat champion in Charlotte.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans started the 2013 season 9-2 and looked to be good bets to recapture the NFC South title but a 2-3 finish doomed them to the Wild Card round. They defeated Philadelphia in a squeaker before losing to eventual champion Seattle. All in all it was a great bounce-back season after a lost year due to the Bounty Gate scandal. QB Drew Brees topped 5,000 yards passing again and now owns four of the total eight times that number has been reached by an NFL QB. No other player has two. The defense had a strong campaign in the first season of Rob Ryan's defense. The offseason brought several notable departures (DE Will Smith, RB Darren Sproles, S Roman Harper to name a few) while the additions were kept to a minimum.
The offense as a whole wasn't up to the usual standards the Crescent City has come to expect. They finished 4th in total offense and 2nd in passing but only 10th in scoring and 25th in rushing. Brees is 35 and having a competent ground game would help him at this stage of his career. It may eat into his stats but it would expose him to fewer hits. RB Mark Ingram is playing for a contract and averaged a great 5.8 ypc over the final nine games. RB Pierre Thomas is more reliable and finished 2nd on the team with 77 catches. TE Jimmy Graham had another monster season (86-1,215-16) but was totally shut down in the Seahawks game (1 catch for 8 yards on 6 targets). If he is the superstar he says he is, he can't have games like that with the season on the line. The Saints used a 1st-round pick on WR Brandin Cooks and expect a lot from this rookie. He combines blazing speed with quickness and excellent route-running ability to get open frequently. He's the type of player who can turn a short pass into a long gain. Look for more from WR Kenny Stills in his second season. The o-line lost C Brian de la Puente and LT Charles Brown but feel they have capable replacements in Tim Lelito and Terron Armstead respectively. The defense took an immediate shine to Ryan and their 3-4 look performed much better than expectations. DE Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and OLB Junior Galette (12 sacks) became fearsome pass rushers and the Saints finished 4th in points allowed, 4th in total defense and 2nd in pass defense. The front seven returns intact but the secondary lost Harper, CB Jabari Greer and S Malcolm Jenkins. Those three combined to make 29 starts. The one big FA acquisition was FS Jairus Byrd. He got a $54 million contract to bring his ballhawking ways to New Orleans. CB Champ Bailey was also added but the future Hall of Famer is on his last legs. Big things are expected this season out of SS Kenny Vaccaro, last season's 1st-round pick.
The Saints don't visit any 2013 playoff teams except the Panthers. They host Green Bay, San Francisco and Cincinnati. While they endured several losses in free agency, they are better equipped to deal with them than the Panthers. Brees remains the top dog in the division and a player like Cooks could make the fans forget about Sproles real quick. The front seven enters the second year of the Ryan defense in a position to be even better with more experience. The two issues they can improve on are run defense (19th) and takeaways (29th).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A 0-8 start doomed the Buccaneers early and despite a 4-4 finish, HC Greg Schiano and GM Mark Dominik were shown the door at season's end. Schiano's intense ways didn't translate well to the NFL so Tampa brought in his polar opposite, former Bears HC Lovie Smith. Jason Licht was brought in as GM and he and Smith have been saddled with the task of getting the Buccaneers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. 23 players are no longer with the team, including 17 that made at least one start and 10 that started at least three. That's a lot of turnover in one year but Smith wants to radically change a losing culture that was strained under Schiano.
The offense was a mess in 2013, ranking 30th in points and 32nd in passing and total offense. FA QB Josh McCown was added from Chicago and he's the type of low-risk QB that Smith likes. He had a sparkling 13-1 TD/INT ratio in relief of QB Jay Cutler and is slated to be the starter on opening day. QB Mike Glennon remains the QB of the future and had a decent first year amid all the turmoil (19-9 ratio). RB Doug Martin returns from injury and will start but RBs Bobby Rainey and Mike James did enough to warrant some carries of their own. In a bid to give McCown more weapons, the team spent its 1st and 2nd round choices on WR Mike Evans and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They are both 6'5" and join 6'5" wideout WR Vincent Jackson in the starting lineup. The O-line performed poorly last season, so the Bucs brought in LT Anthony Collins and C Evan Dietrich-Smith. Rookie G Kadeem Edwards will also be in the mix to start. The defense will be going back to their roots, the Tampa 2 defense. To make this defense work, the front four has to be able to generate pressure on the QB. Last year's group was subpar in that area so DE Michael Johnson was signed and its hoped he will be the first player to record double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice got 14 in 2005. DT Gerald McCoy has finally started to be productive and OLB Lavonte David has given Tampa Bay two outstanding seasons. CB Alterraun Verner was signed to man one outside spot and he gives the Buccaneers a very experienced group of starters in the secondary. How quickly they adapt to new Def. Co. Leslie Frazier's schemes will go a long way in determining how good the defense will be in 2014.
Tampa has a tough game at Pittsburgh but doesn't visit a 2013 playoff team. They get Cincinnati and Green Bay at home. This isn't the toughest schedule in the world and the Bucs could be a sleeper team in 2014. If McCown keeps them in games and the secondary quickly adapts to the new scheme, things might be looking up for a team that hasn't been in the mix for several years.
Carolina was the surprise winner in the division last season but I don't see a repeat in 2014. Both the secondary and WR corps were decimated and the loss of Gross will be tough to overcome. This should be a decent team and they have some good things going for them but they need more playmakers on offense to compete with the big boys of the league. Atlanta will certainly win more than four games but I think their window has closed. Switching to a 3-4 may be the right thing but do they have the pass rushers to make it work? They couldn't find a pass rusher for the 4-3 and just switching to a 3-4 won't create one. The secondary still needs work and the loss of Gonzalez will be tough. Tampa Bay is the most improved team in the division and the players should really benefit from the switch to Smith from Schiano. The Bucs are 10-20 SU in the division over the past five years and that ratio has to change for them to become competitive. New Orleans is the most complete team in the division and unlike most division favorites are better than even money. The defense should be better and Brees still has some weapons at his disposal. The development of Cooks and Stills should be fun to watch and the Saints are my pick to win the division.
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