Cian Fahey

2011 NFC South Prediction: One Man's Opinion

Author: Cian Fahey

fea-honorable-like-father_like-sonhrThe NFC South is primed to be one of the best divisions in football next season with the emergence of Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay and the continued development of Matt Ryan in Atlanta.

However, one team remains the clear favorite for that division, and potentially the conference, in my mind at least.

The New Orleans Saints may have suffered from the Super Bowl hangover that almost all teams seem to these days during last season, but a bounce back to the big game looks to be in the cards this year.

By my very nature I am a cynic, a pessimist, I look for things that don't work rather than those that do. That is the approach I take to the NFL, because each year I find myself noticing that it is the team with the fewest holes that goes home with the Super Bowl ring.

Now that free agency has essentially culminated, the New Orleans Saints have established themselves as that team.

The Saints haven't added any marquee players, but they have brought in some to fix their soft spots. Considering this is a team only a matter of 16 months or so away from a Super Bowl and seven from a playoff appearance, there weren't many to fix.

The winner of free agency isn't the team that signs the best players. The winner of free agency is the team that does the most to set themselves up to win a Super Bowl. Right now, that is the New Orleans Saints.

First, the obvious problems.

Everyone remembers Marshawn Lynch gutting the interior of the Saints' defense last year in the playoffs. Sean Payton and Greg Williams remembered too.

Not only did they add Shaun Rodgers before the Lockout even begun, they also brought in Aubrayo Franklin who specialized in stuffing the run as a 3-4 defensive tackle last year in San Francisco once free agency begun, post lockout.

 

Rodgers is somewhat of a luxury piece as Sedrick Ellis and Franklin will likely be the starting duo. However, Rodgers is as talented as most defensive linemen in the league. What he lacks is motivation after being part of a Browns organization for the last few years who were permeated by a losing attitude.

His attitude may be an issue, but Gregg Williams and a strong locker room could whip him into shape and should they, Rodgers can offer the team a huge amount. Rodgers would be the perfect disruptive force to penetrate into the backfield as a complement to Franklin's stout presence stuffing the run.

The trio of Rodgers, Ellis and Franklin vastly upgrade the interior of the defensive line while the Saints also brought in more talent on the edge. Gregg Williams will be looking to make use of first-round pick Cameron Jordan in order to improve the team's pass rush which only registered 33 sacks last year.

Williams looked to be making a point of picking up pass rushers in the draft as Martez Wilson arrived in the third round to give him another option at linebacker. Wilson won't start as a rookie—the team is returning all its starters from last year—but he will be a very useful piece in the team's pressure packages due to his versatility.

While the Saints' secondary was rightfully ridiculed for its poor tackling last year in that now infamous playoff game, the improvements in the front seven should allow them to concentrate on coverage.

The Saints—in my mind—have the second-deepest secondary in the whole league behind the New York Giants. With Jabari Greer and Tracey Porter entrenched as the starting cornerbacks there are only a handful of better coverage tandems in the league.

Greer and Porter are backed up by former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, Leigh Torrence and Fabian Washington. Robinson hasn't been impressive to this point in his career but should improve in his second season while Washington could potentially start elsewhere. Washington, when fully healthy, is a very good corner.

The team essentially has another cornerback should they need to go six deep or cover because of injuries in the form of Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins became the starter in place of Darren Sharper last season and is a very impressive player. He is only 23 years of age but has great versatility and is a reliable tackler.

The only minor worry with the Saints' secondary is Roman Harper, or in other words, the only safety in the league slower than Sam Bradford.

All jokes aside, Harper is actually a very good player who brings some steel to the back end of the defense. He forced six fumbles last year and had 98 tackles. He is a tough in-the-box strong safety that could benefit from the improvements in the front seven.

What really makes me optimistic about the New Orleans Saints next season is a well-known fact. The Saints' defense doesn't have to be dominant. Their defense just needs to be opportunistic like it was during the last Super Bowl run.

First and foremost, the New Orleans Saints are an offensive football team.

With an offensive genius like Sean Payton as the head coach of your team, you probably don't need that much talent to create a good offense. When you give him the talent that the Saints have, it is almost impossible to match.

I for one didn't understand the need to draft Mark Ingram but I have little problem with the franchise doing so. Ingram is a game-breaker and it hasn't cost the Saints in another position for this season to bring him along.

I have no qualms with a team that is ready to compete now, sacrificing draft picks in the future to better the team immediately.

Ingram is an abrasive runner that gives the team something they haven't had before. While Pierre Thomas is a bell cow and is very versatile, he does not have the punishing running style that Ingram does.

The arrival of the former Alabama standout forced Reggie Bush to be traded to Miami, but his role was quickly filled by Darren Sproles. Sproles is certainly not as good as Bush, but the offense is now more balanced, albeit less unpredictable.

The Saints should be the most balanced offense in the league next year. With their plethora of receivers all returning—because of the re-signing of Lance Moore—to keep their continuity with their elite quarterback, there is no doubt Drew Brees will put up big numbers once again.

The proven names are there in Marques Colston, Moore and Robert Meachem, but another unproven player could actually give Brees an even better weapon than he had last year.

Jimmy Graham had a fine rookie season, catching five touchdowns and starting five games for the Saints. He is set to become the team's full-time starter now that Jeremy Shockey has left for Carolina. Shockey was cut because the team knew David Thomas and Graham could offer them more as receivers.

Shockey was a good player for the Saints but he was not the most athletic, Graham becomes just another matchup piece to a puzzle that very few defensive coordinators will have any chance of putting together.

What makes it worse is while defensive coordinators are looking to find the best matchups to stem the passing game, the Saints now have the ability to simply line up and run over you.

The team brought back Jermon Bushrod and added Alex Barron at tackle, but it was their most recent addition that really caught my eye.

Olin Kreutz may be 34 years old, but as part of an interior line with Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, he is simply scary. Kreutz, Nicks and Evans can match any other interior linemen in the whole league when it comes to blowing open holes in defenses.

With the trio of Ingram, Thomas and Chris Ivory all available, the Saints will never run out of steam either. This gives the Saints such a balanced offense that should they choose to, they could beat some teams by simply running on every play or passing.

The difficulty in matching up to this offense is going to be mindblowing and so long as Brees stays healthy, this team more than any other, looks bound for Indianapolis in February.

The Philadelphia Eagles may have won the mantle of free-agency winners, but the only real winners in football are Super Bowl winners.

Super Bowl winners are the winners of all parts of football: offseason, preseason, regular season and postseason.

Therefore, at this point, the New Orleans Saints are both my favorites for the Super Bowl, and the winners of free agency.

Follow Cian Fahey on Twitter @Cianaf

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