With the New Orleans Saints hamstrung as a result of the Bounty-gate scandal, they’re no longer the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC South. Sure, they have the offensive firepower to beat anyone in the league, but will their defense be able to hold up their end of the bargain?
The young Carolina Panthers appear ready to make a run at the Saints, and the Atlanta Falcons head into the season feeling like they can out score Drew Brees & company. Tampa Bay is focusing on developing their young talent for 2013 and beyond. Which players in the NFC South have had the best preseason?
WR Julio Jones: The former Alabama star had a tremendous rookie season in 2011, but he was still overshadowed by fellow Falcon Roddy White and the stellar rookie season A.J. Green had in Cincinnati. However, if the preseason indications hold true, there won’t be too many receivers in the league that are able to hold a candle to Julio Jones' 2012 performance.
The Falcons have left little doubt about their plans for Jones in the coming season. He’s constantly been the target of Matt Ryan’s deep passes, and for the most part it’s been a successful strategy. Jones has put up big numbers (240 yards on 13 catches), and he’s played a big part in the emergence of Ryan during the preseason. Their connection has appeared to be impeccable at times, and they should produce big numbers together this fall.
OG Peter Konz: The Falcons have had well documented problems on the interior offensive line, and they selected OG/C Peter Konz in the second round in the hopes that he’d be part of the solution to those problems.
Konz has continued to outplay Garrent Reynolds the incumbent starter at right guard, but he has yet to break into the starting line up. Until Konz is allowed to face off against first teamers it will be difficult to totally get a feel for how he’s played. However, he’s gotten no bad reviews to this point and is expected to earn the starting nod soon.
LB Luke Kuechly: It won’t be a surprise to anyone who watched Luke Kuechly relentlessly pursue the ball for three years at Boston College, but through three weeks in the preseason it’s obvious that the linebacker has an insatiable appetite for getting to the ball carrier.
Kuechly recorded ten tackles in a little over two quarters of play against the Jets on Sunday night, bringing his total for the preseason to 17. For the most part he’s looked like a natural starter at the weak linebacker spot and looks to be a formidable threat for years to come.
WR Louis Murphy: A big key to the success or failure of the 2012 Carolina Panthers will be whether or not they’ve been able to add additional weapons to their offense. If they’ve done that, Cam Newton will have a much better chance to repeat his 2011 performance.
The Panthers acquired Louis Murphy from the Oakland Raiders during the offseason in an attempt to do that, and so far the results have been positive. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFelll are the clear cut top receivers, but Murphy appears to have solidified his hold on the third spot. He’s made plays through the air (he caught a touchdown pass Sunday night) and on the ground (a 31 yard reverse in week one of the preseason). His addition should provide Newton with valuable third option in the passing game.
New Orleans Saints
TE Jimmy Graham: We all knew that Jimmy Graham was likely the best tight end in the league. But just in case we forgot, Graham has made it a point to remind us during the preseason. He’s made some spectacular plays, and it even appears that he’s added more muscle to his frame.
Graham has been nearly indefensible during training camp, and it’s showed in his week three preseason debut. He recorded three catches for 48 yards and a great touchdown. If Graham puts up a similar performance during the season, he’s got a great chance to break the 100 catch barrier in 2012.
DT Akiem Hicks: The Saints’ defense has been pretty awful for the most part during the season, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any bright spots. One of the few things to feel good about has been rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks’ progression during the summer.
Most rookies have a “welcome to the NFL” moment where a veteran takes advantage of a rookie’s inexperience. The opportunity was there for Hicks to experience that when he was matched up against the New England Patriots’ Dan Connely. But instead, Hicks blew through the veteran guard and hit QB Ryan Mallet as he was throwing the ball, resulting in an interception. He’s going to play a big role in the Saints’ defensive line rotation in 2012 and could push for starting position in 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Doug Martin: The Buccaneers new head coach Greg Schiano knew that his offense needed a reliable running back that was a threat on the ground or through the air, and he knew that incumbent starter LeGarrette Blount wasn’t that player. Tampa Bay instead acquired Doug Martin in the draft, and early returns indicate that Martin is exactly the player Schiano was hoping for.
His performances during camp and the preseason have caused Tampa Bay coaches to compare Martin to guys like Ray Rice. While those comparisons are certainly lofty, they aren’t without merit. The two are similar players – and after all, Schiano coached Rice at Rutgers, so who would be better qualified to compare the two?
RB Michael Smith: Everyone expected fellow running back Doug Martin to have an impressive camp, but it’s less likely that many people had high hopes for seventh round selection Michael Smith. In spite of that, Smith has had a heck of a preseason and can now make a case as to why he should see a few carries a game during the regular season.
He returned a kickoff 74 yards against Miami, and had a yards per carry average of over 6 yards against New England . He’s got a great combination of speed and strength that will make him a handful for defenses to plan for. His strong summer has him in line to take over for the Bucs’ third running back spot, and he could be breathing down LeGarrette Blount's neck soon.