http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap200000 ... on-in-2014
NFC South emerges as NFL's most entertaining division in 2014
By Adam Schein
NFL Media columnist
Published: March 18, 2014 at 01:03 p.m.
Updated: March 18, 2014 at 02:35 p.m.
I get paid to have an opinion. That's how I make a living. The words "I don't know" usually don't fly in my world. However, I'm asking for an exception.
Because when it comes to ranking the four teams in the NFC South -- the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- well ...
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I don't know.
I am sans clue. This division is shaping up to be the NFL's most fun and most competitive in 2014, based upon some early offseason developments.
Conventional wisdom says the NFC West is the best division in football. I won't go against the trend; in fact, in a lot of ways, I'd like to think I helped perpetuate it. I penned a column last August saying the NFC West could be the greatest division since realignment. And it certainly didn't disappoint, boasting the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, arguably the second-best team in the NFL in the San Francisco 49ers, and the 10-win Arizona Cardinals. All of those teams have gotten better. And the St. Louis Rams, who are armed with two first-round picks, are talented and well-coached. Don't sleep on them -- especially if Sam Bradford can stay healthy.
But there's a new leader in the race to be the NFL's most balanced division -- and it's not the AFC West, despite that division fielding three playoff teams in 2013.
The NFC South is the only division in which the downside for each team appears to be eight wins. Three of the four squads are off to an excellent offseason thus far, while the fourth is the defending division champ.
Yes, the NFC South is legit, and en route to being the place for entertainment in the 2014 season.
Think about it: In the middle of March, when madness rules the sports world, you can truly make an intelligent argument as to why each of the four teams should win the division and/or make the playoffs. Conversely, injuries or close losses could have any one of the squads dwelling in the cellar -- with eight wins!
Truth be told, I'm not the only one mentioning the NFC South in the same sphere of competitive intrigue as the vaunted NFC West. New Bucs general manager Jason Licht made the comparison when we talked on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports." And Licht has an awesome and unique perspective: He was Cardinals GM Steve Keim's right-hand man before teaming with Lovie Smith to right the ship in Tampa. And boy are Licht and Smith having a sensational start to the offseason.
I loved the Bucs' intelligent pickups of Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, Josh McCown, Anthony Collins and Clinton McDonald. They're not building a "dream team" in Tampa -- they're wisely adding ideal fits for the new regime. Licht told me Johnson was the first name to come up in offseason discussions with Smith, because the defensive end is such a perfect fit for the coach's system. And these two studied Collins hard, believing the offensive tackle is a better player on the left side and will make an immediate impact. Plus, running back Doug Martin is progressing in his recovery from a season-ending shoulder injury.
Talent wasn't the issue for the Bucs in 2013. Smith's approach to dealing with players is the antithesis of former Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano's drill-sergeant methodology, and that's good for the team. Smith and Licht are a fantastic new combination; players want to play for these guys.
And Tampa Bay isn't the only NFC South team off to a splendid start this offseason ...
Thomas Dimitroff needed to fix the Falcons' identity; the Atlanta GM had to increase the levels of talent and tenacity in the middle. Other teams' free agency moves will draw more fanfare, but few had as much logic behind them as the Falcons'.
Forget about where Tyson Jackson was drafted and whether or not he's lived up to that billing. At this point, he's simply a good, solid football player who nicely fills a need for Atlanta at the 5-technique spot in coordinator Mike Nolan's versatile defense. Paul Soliai, meanwhile, was an instant upgrade at defensive tackle; the same should be said for offensive guard Jon Asamoah.
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Upon further examination, none of those moves should have been remotely surprising. Dimitroff had great Kansas City intel on Jackson and Asamoah from his new assistant general manager, former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. And Nolan raved about Soliai, whom he coached in Miami. Dimitroff is one of the best general managers in the business. Atlanta didn't live up to my Super Bowl expectations last season, but the cupboard is hardly bare. It's fair to believe 2013's futility was a blip, not a trend.
And the Falcons aren't done. They will add a cornerback. They will add to the defense early in the draft. (How good would linebacker prospect Khalil Mack look in a Falcons uniform?) And coach Mike Smith will create competition at every position on the offensive line after the unit underachieved last year.
Meanwhile, Julio Jones is working back from injury. Matt Ryan is solid. Bottom line: Don't forget about the Falcons.
And the Bucs and the Falcons were the bottom-feeders last year. They have the talent, the coaching, the mastermind builders and the motivation to significantly improve. Both should be able to win about nine games.
New Orleans has a star quarterback and made the best move of free agency, signing safety Jairus Byrd. As I wrote last week, teaming Byrd with Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan holds tons of promise; Saints fans can fall into a deliciously dizzy daydream thinking of what that trio will have in store. New Orleans was a playoff team last year. Even after the Saints traded away running back Darren Sproles -- a move that was made possible by the emergence of Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson -- you cannot downgrade this team.
The Panthers won the division last year, but they've had a shaky start to the offseason. They foolishly cut Steve Smith, who can still play. Ted Ginn Jr. jumped to Arizona. Brandon LaFell left, too. Long story short, Carolina needs help at receiver -- badly. Cam Newton needs someone to throw to. I would've argued that the Panthers needed to add a receiver even if they had held on to Smith and LaFell!
Sure, the Panthers' defensive front seven is great, but can it carry the entire team? Is it possible that Carolina goes from first to worst? The fact that this is a question brings the entire point of this column home.
You still have to view the Panthers as a team with a strong foundation, one that learned how to fight and win close games in 2013. There was a period of time last season when it appeared they were becoming a consistent, top-five NFL team behind a dynamic young quarterback coming into his own. Don't forget this.
Last year was an anomaly for Atlanta. The arrow is pointing way up for Tampa Bay. New Orleans is a playoff team. Carolina was elite in 2013 ... and yet, there's virtually no difference between the Panthers and Bucs on paper.
It's the most balanced division in pro football -- and this is before the draft.
Buckle up, because the NFC South race is going to be a wild ride.