In the third part of his 2006 NFL preview, Bullseye-Sports.com’s Dwayne Bryant offers his thoughts and predictions for the NFC South. Teams are listed in the expected order of arrival.
1. CAROLINA PANTHERS
Offense: WR Steve Smith came back from a 2004 injury and lit up the championship last season, scoring 103 receptions, 1,563 yards and 12 TDs. With newly acquired Keyshawn Johnson on the other side, Smith should face fewer doubles and triples. Not only will Keyshawn help the offense in this regard, but his excellent run-blocking ability will help open the race lines for RB DeShaun Foster. Foster has been plagued with injuries throughout his career, so don’t be surprised to see DeAngelo Williams, chosen in the first round, get the carry portion of him. Manager John Fox prefers a running attack first, but with Smith and Johnson at WR and QB Jake Delhomme in the middle, Fox would be better served with a more balanced attack. This offense went into full steam at the end of last season and I’m looking for more or less the same in 2006.
Defense – This is a tough defense that can do it all. It all starts with fierce phenomena Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. They combined for 18 bags and three fumble recoveries, in one year. Carolina added DT Maake Kemoeatu to the team with Kris Jenkins in the middle. They also added Damione Lewis from St. Louis to add needed depth to the line. Dan Morgan leads the LB team but has a history of injury problems. Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble provide solid coverage and excellent leadership skills in high school. In 2005, Carolina’s defense ranked third in yards allowed per game and fifth in points allowed. They also totaled 45 bags and 42 take-out food. Look for this defense to remain among the best in the league.
Special teams: There is always the possibility of a TD return when Steve Smith handles repatriation duties. Kicker John Kasay hit 26 of FG’s 34 attempts with 5 of 8 misses from more than 50 yards.
Forecast: they can run. They can pass. They can defend the race and pass. There is nothing this team cannot do. Look to Carolina to win the tough NFC South and you will most likely get a first-round sendoff in the playoffs.
2. BAY BUCCANEERS PRINT
Offense: As the Cadillac goes, so does this offense. Coach Jon Gruden prefers a conservative approach, which means a lot of touches for Williams. He will look to stay healthy and put together an even more impressive season than last season’s rookie campaign in which he scored 1,178 yards and 6 TDs despite an ankle injury. Joey Galloway was Chris Simms’ main target in 2005. However, with Michael Clayton back in good health, I hope Clayton is the go-to player in the passing game this season. The offensive line came close to killing Simms last season. The Bucs have signed multiple OLs through the draft and free agency to improve this unit. However, cohesion will take time. So I see this line as a work in progress.
Defense: The Bucs’ defense was No. 1 in yards allowed last season. DE Simeon Rice had 14 sacks, good for third-best in the league. Tampa Bay has a solid LB body with Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece. They can run, cover and knock down the passerby. The second features CB directors at Ronde Barber (5 INT in 2005) and Brian Kelly. Safety Dexter Jackson’s departure to Cincinnati could leave this unit vulnerable in the middle. This is an aging group, but they are still talented enough that this defense will be formidable once again in 2006.
Special teams: The kickoff return team was virtually invisible in 2005. Mark Jones averaged 9.6 yards on punt returns. Kicker Matt Bryant made 21 of 25 free throw attempts, including 18 of 19 from 30-49 yards.
Prediction: The Bucs will compete for a Wildcard seat and should get one as long as Cadillac Williams can stay healthy. Tampa Bay could fight for the division title if the offensive line stabilizes sooner rather than later, but I see it will be later.