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 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.
Today we preview the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints (9-7)
Two years removed from the NFC title game, the Saints win the competitive NFC South. Drew Brees continues his dominance over the league's secondaries, leading the top offense in the NFL. The Saints average 25.9 points per game (#1 in the NFL) and allow 23.5 points (#25) against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 11-5
Most Significant Newcomer: Darren Sharper, S - New Orleans had issues in the secondary in 2008 and set out to address those issues in the off-season. The Saints signed Sharper, fellow safety Pierson Prioleau and cornerback Jabari Greer and used their first round draft choice on Malcolm Jenkins out of Ohio State. Sharper should have the most impact of any of those players. One of the most prolific ballhawks in NFL history, Sharper's game has fallen off some in the last few seasons in Minnesota. He may no longer have the physical tools of some of the other new Saints, but Sharper is still a quality starting safety whole also brings 12 years of experience - and 54 career interceptions - to the young secondary.
Biggest Strength: Offense - Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are perfectly in sync coordinating the most explosive offense in the league. This isn't just a great passing team. With Pierre Thomas assuming the feature back role, New Orleans is brimming with weapons through the air and on the ground. The more balanced offensive attack again leads the league in scoring.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Defense - The improvement of the defense leads the Saints to playoffs, but it's still their most glaring weakness. Losing starting defensive ends Will Smith to Charles Grant to suspension to start the season won't help. Luckily for the Saints, they don't play a divisional opponent until Week Eight. By then, they should have had time to find the right mix of contributors and get the new players up to speed.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Pierre Thomas, RB - With Deuce McAllister's release, Thomas moves into the spotlight as the Saints' feature back. Reggie Bush will still have a role on this team - and is still productive enough to rank in our top 20 fantasy running backs - but Thomas is the better pick. He'll get the bulk of the carries and also has the ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield. The projections rank Thomas as the 12th best fantasy running back with 1,328 total yards and 13 touchdowns on 253 touches.
Closest Game: New York Jets (Week 4) - This is the final game of the defensive suspensions and the opening game of a stretch of five games that includes four against 2008 playoff teams and four games at home. The matchup with the Jets likely features a rookie starting QB who will be in his first month. This could be a great opportunity for the weak secondary to come together.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Drew Brees (1) 4,183 yards, 30 TDs, 14 INTs; Pierre Thomas (12) 1,328 total yards, 13 TDs; Reggie Bush (19) 1339 total yards, 10 TDs; Marques Colston (20) 66 receptions, 969 yards, 6 TDs; Lance Moore (25) 76 receptions, 866 yards, 6 TDS; Devery Henderson (50) 22 receptions, 483 yards, 5 TDs; Jeremy Shockey (25) 35 receptions, 359 yards, 2 TDs; Billy Miller (27) 21 receptions, 285 yards, 2 TDs; Garrett Hartley (3) 46/46 XPS, 26/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|4||New York Jets||53||24-22|
|6||New York Giants||53||25-22|
|10||@St. Louis Rams||85||32-21|
|11||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||60||27-26|
|12||New England Patriots||49||27-25|
|16||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||79||33-20|
Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
Coming off a surprising Wild Card berth, the Falcons will come back to earth a little bit. Matt Ryan and Michael Turner will continue to impress but the defense takes a big step back. The Falcons average 23.0 points per game (#8) and allow 23.3 points (#23) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 8-8
Most Significant Newcomer: Tony Gonzalez, TE - Gonzalez gives second-year starting quarterback Matt Ryan a big, sure-handed safety valve and redzone target along with play-making wide receiver Roddy White. Ryan shouldn't have to worry about a sophomore slump with such a veteran presence. Gonzalez is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. The Falcons' focus on the run may not allow for that kind of production in 2009, but that's not why they got him. Just being on the field should help everyone around Gonzalez and he'll be most important near the endzone.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Offense - Michael Turner burst onto the NFL scene in his first opportunity to be feature back last year after playing behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego for four years. Turner rushed for 1,600 yards on a very respectable 4.5 yards-per-carry. Backup Jerious Norwood may be even more explosive with the ball. In three seasons, he has averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry on 6.6 carries-per-game. Atlanta will still rely on the run in 2009. The Falcons may need to diversify the workload a little bit more than in 2008 to protect Turner. If most of those carries go to Norwood, that may actually help the team. In the projections, Atlanta runs for 2,501 yards on 561 carries.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Defense - Atlanta overachieved to go 11-5 in 2008. Despite ranking among the bottom half of the league in almost every relevant defensive statistical category, the team finished 11th in fewest points allowed per game. The team played smart and had good special teams, but the Falcons were also "lucky" to do as well as they did. The defense is still an issue and lost two of its starting linebackers, Michael Boley and Keith Brooking, in free agency without bringing in much to replace them.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Jerious Norwood, RB - After Michael Turner's 376 carries in 2008, the Falcons will likely be a little more protective of him in 2009. Norwood is a great runner and a significantly better receiver - Turner's lack of pass-catching abilities keeps him from being a fantasy top five running back - so Norwood's touches should go up. The projections give Norwood 917 total yards and eight touchdowns on just over ten touches a game.
Closest Game: @Dallas Cowboys (Week 7) - This is the beginning of a brutal stretch where Atlanta will play four of five games away from the Georgia Dome against five teams who are all greater than .500 in our projections. The Falcons will want to start this run on the right foot and what a better way to do it than to win in Dallas' new billion dollar stadium?
Fantasy Notables: Matt Ryan (10) 2978 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs; Michael Turner (7) 1599 total yards, 12 TDs; Jerious Norwood (30) 917 total yards, 8 TDs; Roddy White (9) 75 receptions, 1,127 yards, 8 TDs; Michael Jenkins (53) 34 receptions, 541 yards, 4 TDs; Tony Gonzalez (2) 70 receptions, 772 yards, 6 TDs; Jason Elam (21) 40/41 XPs, 23/26 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||@New England Patriots||36||21-28|
|5||@San Francisco 49ers||59||21-19|
|8||@New Orleans Saints||48||25-28|
|11||@New York Giants||31||18-26|
|12||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||66||29-22|
|14||New Orleans Saints||47||27-27|
|15||@New York Jets||37||19-24|
|17||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||70||28-23|
Carolina Panthers (8-8)
Last season we projected the Panthers to win the division in large part due to in easy schedule. In 2009, it's the opposite as they take another step back from a playoff team to missing the post-season. Carolina has a brutual schedule featuring 13 teams that finish .500 or better in our projections. The Panthers average 22.2 points per game (#11) and allow 22.6 points (#21) against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Most Significant Newcomer: Everette Brown, DE - Brown isn't even expected to start, yet he earns the honor by default because the Panthers only added three non-drafted players and one of them, wide receiver Marcus Monk, played basketball, not football, in college last season. Brown is undersized, but has a tremendous gift for getting to the quarterback. He will likely be used on passing downs and is projected to make 27 tackles and three sacks. Brown also serves as some insurance if the Panthers have to move Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers this season or in the near future.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Offense - Carolina has a good, young offensive line and two great running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The team also added speedster Mike Goodson, who is probably better-suited for success in the NFL than in college, in the draft. Similar to the Falcons, the Panthers are one of the few teams in the league that can rely on the run as the most integral part of a high-scoring, explosive offense. Carolina projects to run for 2,489 yards on 543 carries.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Schedule - As mentioned above, the Panthers play a remarkable 13 games against teams we project to be .500 or better. They play seven games against 2008 playoff teams and nine games against teams in our 2009 playoffs. There are deficiencies with everything about this team besides the running game and they will be exploited throughout the season by the great teams on the schedule.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Jonathan Stewart, RB - From a fantasy standpoint, we are projecting a significant step back for DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for 1,515 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in 2008. Expect the Panthers to maintain a great rushing attack by keeping both of their top running backs, Williams and Stewart, fresh and involved in the gameplan. In the projections, Stewart, a second-year player out of Oregon, totals 934 yards and eight touchdowns on 185 touches.
Closest Game: New Orleans Saints (Week 17) - Carolina is only favored in six games, yet has greater than a 44% chance of winning six others. The Panthers should go 8-8, but, depending on their ability to win (or lose) close games, they could realistically finish anywhere from 3-13 to 12-4. Since we have just one game separating division winner New Orleans and Carolina in the division race, Week 17 could be pivotal to the outcome of the NFC South.
Fantasy Notables: Jake Delhomme (28) 2246 yards, 14 TDs, 11 INTs; DeAngelo Williams (17) 1,400 total yards, 10 TDs; Jonathan Stewart (31) 934 total yards, 8 TDs; Steve Smith (6) 69 receptions, 1,218 yards, 7 TDs; Muhsin Muhammad (46) 49 receptions, 657 yards, 4 TDs; John Kasay (5) 36/37 XPs, 28/33 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|6||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||58||25-24|
|9||@New Orleans Saints||47||24-27|
|12||@New York Jets||49||18-20|
|13||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||65||28-21|
|14||@New England Patriots||32||20-27|
|16||@New York Giants||44||18-22|
|17||New Orleans Saints||50||26-24|
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
The Buccaneers cleared house after a disappointing collapse to end last season. Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired. Veterans Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn, Cato June, and Ike Hilliard were all released. The Bucs new regime of GM Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris watch a young team battle all year, but to little avail. Tampa Bay averages 20.6 points per game (#21) and allows 26.3 points (#29) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 0-16
Most Significant Newcomer: Byron Leftwich, QB - There are several options from which to choose, like running back Derrick Ward, tight end Kellen Winslow, linebacker Angelo Crowell and kicker Mike Nugent, but Ward has only had one good season in five years, Winslow is an injury and off-field risk and Crowell and Nugent's spots as starters are not guaranteed. As of right now, Leftwich's spot as the starting quarterback for Tampa Bay is not guaranteed either, but we assume he'll ultimately win the battle over Josh McCown, Josh Freeman and others. Leftwich may just be considered a stop-gap before Freeman, the team's 2009 first round pick takes over in the future, yet he could be a great asset to this team as an efficient veteran at the helm of this offense. We assume that Leftwich will start 12 games, throwing for 2,281 yards, 14 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Biggest Strength: Pass Defense - Unlike the offensively-minded Jon Gruden, new head coach Raheem Morris has a strong defensive background and should bring toughness to the team. 34 year old veteran cornerback Ronde Barber should act as an extension of his (younger) head coach. Starting at the other corner, second-year player Aqib Talib, is poised to break out after sitting behind departing free agent Phillip Buchanon. In 2008, the Buccaneers finished third in the NFL with 22 interceptions and 11th in fewest yards-per-attempt allowed. The secondary is one of the few things intact from last season, so the group may actually be a little better.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Defense - Whereas the secondary is intact, Tampa Bay's front seven has been overhauled. Gone are linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June and tackle Jovan Haye. All three were fairly effective players last season and the team still allowed 4.3 yards-per-carry. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and defensive end Gaines Adams are the new faces of their respective units, yet neither is an elite run stopper. Teams like Atlanta (twice), Carolina (twice) and New York (twice) will run all over the Buccaneers in 2009.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Earnest Graham, RB - With the addition of Derrick Ward as the feature back, don't lose track of Earnest Graham who totaled 737 yards in just ten games last season. We are essentially predicting Ward to match his 1,409 yards (1,419 yards is the projection) from last season. Raheem Morris will likely focus on running the ball more than Jon Gruden, so expect Graham to get ample opportunity as well alongside Ward. Fifteen touches a game from Grham should not be out of the question. We project him to tally 912 yards and seven touchdowns on 200 touches is 13 games.
Closest Game: @Buffalo Bills (Week 2) - Wins will be hard to come for the Buccaneers, but an early season game on the road against a Buffalo team that has the potential to be an early win. Tampa Bay will likely have a healthy secondary that looks like one of the best in the league, while Trent Edwards, Terrell Owens and the Bills may still be trying to jell.
Fantasy Notables: Byron Leftwich (24) 2281 yards, 14 TDs, 6 INTs; Derrick Ward (14) 1419 total yards, 10 TDs; Earnest Graham (36) 912 total yards, 7 TDs; Antonio Bryant (14) 69 receptions, 1,066 yards, 7 TDs; Kellen Winslow (9) 61 receptions, 669 yards, 4 TDs; Matt Bryant (29) 35/36 XPs, 22/25 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||New York Giants||33||19-22|
|7||New England Patriots||24||17-24|
|9||Green Bay Packers||54||25-22|
|11||New Orleans Saints||40||26-27|
|14||New York Jets||32||20-24|
|16||@New Orleans Saints||21||20-33|
Click here to view a schedule of 2009 NFL previews and see others that have been posted.
Paul Bessire is the Product Manager of Content and Quantitative Analysis for WhatIfSports.com, a division of FOX Sports Interactive specializing in fantasy football simulation analysis and football sim games. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!
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