2008 NFC South Preview

Panthers take turn at top
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 19th 2008

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.

Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 8, 2008. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.

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For this analysis, each regular season game is simulated 1,000 times, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not (see Super Bowl XLII), our expected record (in parentheses next to each team) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.

Today we preview the NFC South.

Carolina Panthers (10-6)
Since the Panthers last won this division in 2003, the other three teams have finished on top. According to the rotation, 2007 should have been the Panthers' year, but injuries kept Carolina from finishing above .500. This is a do-or-die year. We are going with the "do." The Panthers average 25.7 points per game (#7 in the NFL) and allow 20.5 points (#7) against a schedule featuring just five games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 13-3

Most Significant Newcomer: Jonathan Stewart, RB - Just when DeAngelo Williams thought he would get his chance to be the man, Carolina drafted a bigger, stronger, NFL-ready version of him in the first round. Williams is probably capable of fulfilling the starting role for an NFL team, but he will be great again in the two-back system. Stewart is a monster who can even catch the ball and return kicks if needed. The only real concern with him is a foot injury, yet the Panthers' doctor performed his surgery. Carolina added some great pieces to its defense, yet we are going with the dynamic rookie who we already picked as the league's best for 2008.

Biggest Strength: The Schedule - We could say it about every team in this division for 2008. They all get to play the Bears, Chiefs, Lions and Raiders, not to mention that three of them play the Falcons twice. The middle of this schedule - Week 4 through Week 15 - should allow this team to get on a big roll. They will cut their teeth at San Diego and at Minnesota, but then it is smooth sailing until a trip to face the Giants. By then, they could easily be 12-2 and may not even need that game.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Game - This is an injury concern far more than a talent concern. Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and new #2 wide receiver D.J. Hackett all have histories of missing games or playing at far less than 100%. When healthy and at the peaks these players have shown over the years, this may actually be a strength. It's just too much of a concern to gloss over.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Gary Barnidge, TE - Usually when Mel Kiper Jr. loves a guy, we stay away from him. Too much draft analysis is based on "measureables" (40-yard dash time, bench press, height, weight, etc.) when collegiate productivity (with strength of opponent considered) should be much more of a factor. Barnidge is one of those ultra-productive college players. He is a tall target with great hands who presents an upgrade over Jeff King in his ability to stretch the middle of the field and even get yards after the catch.

Closest Game: @ Minnesota (Week 3) - This is one of those "cut your teeth" games, but Carolina still has a shot of winning. After this, the games don't really get close.

Fantasy Notables: Jake Delhomme (16) 2,920 yards, 22 TDs, 11 INTs; Jonathan Stewart (21) 1,369 total yards, 11 TDs; DeAngelo Williams (29) 1,108 total yards, 9 TDs; Steve Smith (12) 92 receptions, 1,136 yards, 8 TDs; D.J. Hackett (44) 53 receptions, 714 yards, 5 TDs; Gary Barnidge (26) 31 receptions, 323 yards, 3 TDs; John Kasay (6) 43/43 XPs, 29/34 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@San Diego Chargers3918-26
2Chicago Bears7530-17
3@Minnesota Vikings4519-28
4Atlanta Falcons7533-18
5Kansas City Chiefs8133-17
6@Tampa Bay Buccaneers5623-21
7New Orleans Saints6327-19
8Arizona Cardinals6127-19
10@Oakland Raiders8328-18
11Detroit Lions7329-17
12@Atlanta Falcons8228-19
13@Green Bay Packers5725-25
14Tampa Bay Buccaneers6926-15
15Denver Broncos6329-20
16@New York Giants3315-27
17@New Orleans Saints5723-21

New Orleans Saints (8-8)
Did you know that Drew Brees set a single-season NFL record for passing attempts in 2007? That speaks far more to the injury issues in the running game than the fact that the air attack was that prolific. The offense and defense look a little better in 2008. Health concerns and other uncertainties keep this team at .500. The Saints average 23.7 points per game (#16) and allow 23.8 points (#18) against a schedule featuring just four games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 7-9

Most Significant Newcomer: Sedrick Ellis, DT - This analysis actually likes several (Tracy Porter, DeMario Pressley and Taylor Mehlhaff) of those drafted by New Orleans. We also like the moves to land Jonathan Vilma and Randall Gay. But, Ellis is the biggest get for the Saints leading into 2008. He is a rare talent, and it is a total fluke that another once-every-ten-years type of defensive tackle prospect showed up in the same year (Glenn Dorsey). Ellis can stuff the run, take on a double team and get after the quarterback. In the simulated season, he makes 45 tackles and five sacks.

Biggest Strength: Drew Brees - Brees' arm strength, durability and accuracy are uncanny. Reggie Bush and Marques Colston may have great talent, but it is Brees who gets the most out of their abilities and makes productive players out of guys like Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and David Patten. Having some semblance of a running game in 2008 should make this passing game look a lot more like 2006. It also helps that this offensive line keeps Brees upright (they gave up the fewest sacks in the league in 2007, despite leading the league in attempts).

Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Defense - We like the fact that the Saints addressed this by signing Randall Gay and drafting Tracy Porter. That's not enough to overcome a historically bad secondary. In 2007, the Saints gave up an astonishing 7.87 yards-per-attempt through the air. They may not do that again in 2008, but they are still one of the worst few passing defenses in the league.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Taylor Mehlhaff, K - When teams draft kickers, it is with the intent to play them that season. Mehlhaff grades as the best kicker available in the draft. He has a big leg and is accurate enough. If the Saints return to their high-flying ways of 2006, Mehlhaff could match Mason Crosby's rookie numbers (Crosby in 2007 - 31 FGM, 48 XPM). Outside of Mehlhaff, there are several options here, yet too many question marks around them. Robert Meachem, Pierre Thomas or any tight end on the roster were tempting to choose.

Closest Game: San Francisco (Week 4) - It may sound odd, but if the Saints want to prove they have significantly improved their secondary, they will have to show it here. With Mike Martz calling the shots, the 49ers will air it out and test New Orleans.

Fantasy Notables: Drew Brees (4) 3,944 yards, 25 TDs, 12 INTs; Reggie Bush (14) 1,501 total yards, 12 TDs; Marques Colston (19) 69 receptions, 1,020 yards, 6 TDs; Eric Johnson (30) 35 receptions, 322 yards, 2 TDs; Taylor Mehlhaff (20) 41/42 XPs, 24/30 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Tampa Bay Buccaneers4521-22
2@Washington Redskins3917-27
3@Denver Broncos5526-24
4San Francisco 49ers4724-26
5Minnesota Vikings2618-25
6Oakland Raiders5731-22
7@Carolina Panthers3519-27
8San Diego Chargers3423-29
10@Atlanta Falcons8029-22
11@Kansas City Chiefs7929-21
12Green Bay Packers4524-26
13@Tampa Bay Buccaneers5623-22
14Atlanta Falcons6729-17
15@Chicago Bears4320-25
16@Detroit Lions5426-25
17Carolina Panthers4321-23

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
Someone may want to let the Buccaneers know that following the Chicago Bears' current blueprint will not lead to success. It's kind of eerie. Both teams have confusing quarterback situations, aging defenses with some name players, young running backs who no one can count on, recycled wide receivers and way too many tight ends. They even picked up Brian Griese (again). And Tampa Bay has a horrible special teams. Jeff Garcia is the saving grace here. If he plays all year, the team is not too far from 2007. Still, we would not say that the future is bright (for either team). The Buccaneers average 21.7 points per game (#21) and allow 22.2 points (#14) against a schedule featuring just four games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 7-9

Most Significant Newcomer: Jeff Faine, C - The offensive line took some big strides in 2007 and could now rank among the top ten in the league with the additions of Jeff Faine and athletic, rookie guard Jeremy Zuttah.

Biggest Strength: Pass Defense - Tampa added a play-making corner in Aqib Talib to a solid secondary that allowed less than six yards-per-attempt passing in 2007. That number will go up a little, but it will be more than offset by the development of the pass rush - namely Gaines Adams - and guys like Talib and Tanard Jackson, who can pick the ball off. If 11 tight ends could play at the same time, we would have brought them up here. The Buccaneers let Anthony Becht go, and they still have six tight ends on the roster - five of which have starting experience.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Question Marks - Obviously, every team has these, but few have more than Tampa Bay. There is uncertainty at every offensive skill position. What do the Buccaneers have planned at quarterback, receiver and running back? How will injuries affect those decisions? Do rookies Dexter Jackson, Josh Johnson or Cory Boyd have a place on this roster? At what point does the team enter the dreaded rebuilding mode? The Buccaneers seem to be stuck somewhere between a smart, veteran football team and a young, athletic squad (not in a good way). We had to answer all of these questions for this analysis, yet that does not mean we are sold on what they are going to do or what we had them do.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Earnest Graham, RB - He is the assumed starter, but we still have him valued higher than most. In 14 starts, we have Graham averaging 101 total yards per game and scoring a total of ten touchdowns.

Closest Game: @ New Orleans (Week 1) - Close Week 1 games can be great. This team should learn a lot from this matchup whether they win or lose. And we should learn a lot more about the answers to the questions above at that time as well.

Fantasy Notables: Jeff Garcia (20) 2,429 yards, 18 TDs, 8 INTs; Earnest Graham (22) 1,408 total yards, 10 TDs; Joey Galloway (25) 57 receptions, 948 yards, 6 TDs; Ben Troupe (24) 25 receptions, 324 yards, 3 TDs; Alex Smith (29) 31 receptions, 324 yards, 2 TDs; Matt Bryant (31) 39/39 XPs, 20/23 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@New Orleans Saints5522-21
2Atlanta Falcons6932-20
3@Chicago Bears7124-20
4Green Bay Packers4320-21
5@Denver Broncos5527-25
6Carolina Panthers4421-23
7Seattle Seahawks2715-19
8@Dallas Cowboys1916-31
9@Kansas City Chiefs7525-17
11Minnesota Vikings1716-26
12@Detroit Lions6424-21
13New Orleans Saints4322-23
14@Carolina Panthers3115-26
15@Atlanta Falcons7126-20
16San Diego Chargers2317-25
17Oakland Raiders6127-19

Atlanta Falcons (5-11)
The Falcons are in a big hole, and it really is not their fault. That being said, putting all of the team's eggs in the basket of a player who completed fewer than 60% of his passes and threw 19 interceptions (654 attempts) in college is their fault. It could put them them in a hole for a much longer time. Obviously, we are not sold on Matt Ryan. For just about everyone's sake we could be wrong. The Falcons average 20.3 points per game (#27) and allow 28.9 points (#30) against a schedule featuring four games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 1-15

Most Significant Newcomer: Michael Turner, RB - The "burner" gets his shot. We expect a season like the first for Chester Taylor and Lamont Jordan after they went from backups to starters on new teams. Turner should have no problem racking up yards on the ground; however, he only has 11 career receptions so he may not be an everyday back. The projections give him 1,312 yards on the ground on 291 carries. Jerious Norwood stays excellent as a third-down back and second-wave behind Turner, totaling 945 yards from scrimmage.

Biggest Strength: Running Game - One could have said this two years ago without hesitation, yet for very different reasons. The two players just highlighted will lead the way for the ground game and the entire offense. The offensive line is not great, but a new coaching staff with roots in a two-running back system for the Jaguars should help get everyone on the same page.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Everything Else - It's actually not that this team is the worst in the league in anything; it's that they are below-average in everything but the running game. If the Falcons choose to go with Matt Ryan in Week 1, then the passing game becomes a huge weakness and among the bottom few in the league.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Laurent Robinson, WR - It is rare that any of the Falcons' receivers get any love from media - and even then, it's usually for Roddy White. Quietly, Laurent Robinson asserted himself as a potential #2 to White with 37 catches in 2007. Michael Jenkins has bad yards-per-catch numbers for a possession receiver, so the team will look to Robinson. The young receiver has an opportunity to bond with Ryan and become a go-to player for years to come. The passing offense may never be good enough to draft two Falcons' receivers in a fantasy league; but if something clicks for this unit, Robinson will likely be at the root of it. We have him with 59 receptions for 766 yards and five touchdowns.

Closest Game: St. Louis (Week 17) - The debate here is whether to highlight the first or the last week because none of the games in the middle appear close. To better phrase it, which season is more important to the Falcons right now, 2008 or 2009? It's probably 2009. The Falcons and Rams will both use Week 17 to build for the next season.

Fantasy Notables: Matt Ryan (31) 1,733 yards, 10 TDs, 12 INTs; Chris Redman (36) 1,200 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs; Michael Turner (24) 1,404 total yards, 10 TDs; Jerious Norwood (35) 945 total yards, 9 TDs; Roddy White (18) 72 receptions, 1,086 yards, 6 TDs; Ben Hartsock (46) 22 receptions, 228 yards, 2 TDs; Jason Elam (30) 36/36 XPs, 22/23 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Detroit Lions4925-25
2@Tampa Bay Buccaneers3120-32
3Kansas City Chiefs6431-20
4@Carolina Panthers2518-33
5@Green Bay Packers2919-32
6Chicago Bears2521-28
8@Philadelphia Eagles2518-30
9@Oakland Raiders3022-34
10New Orleans Saints2022-29
11Denver Broncos3423-27
12Carolina Panthers1819-28
13@San Diego Chargers1714-33
14@New Orleans Saints3317-29
15Tampa Bay Buccaneers2920-26
16@Minnesota Vikings1413-32
17St. Louis Rams4825-25

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