NFC South preview: Saints pace a division leaning on impact rookie WRs
The NFC South has had a number of worst-to-first teams over the last decade, but in 2013, it was a first-to-worst saga that was the biggest story. The Atlanta Falcons, who had amassed a 36-12 regular season record and posted three straight years of 10 or more wins from 2010 through '12, fell through the basement, finishing with a 4-12 record. This, plus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' predictable implosion in the second year of the Greg Schiano era, allowed the Carolina Panthers to rise up from out of nowhere and take the division with a 12-4 mark.
True to form, though, there's little in the way of stability in this division. Carolina lost its three top receivers to free agency in the offseason, leaving Cam Newton with a new group of targets. The Falcons went heavy with their offensive and defensive lines, but outside of their star turn on Hard Knocks this year, there isn't quite enough to catapult them back into the big time. That leaves two teams with seemingly the best shot at this year's division title -- one team that's been at or near the top for a long time, and another that looks more than ready to play into January again.
The favorite: New Orleans Saints
The Saints finished second in the division last season, and in the offseason, they made a few moves to set things right. They acquired ex-Bills safety Jairus Byrd to cover the back end of their defense -- Byrd might have the best range of any player at his position not named Earl Thomas -- and added Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks to an offense that's already stacked with playmakers. Rob Ryan's defense is one of the most multiple in the league, and the Saints are hungry -- they've made the playoffs in three of the last four years but haven't made it past the divisional round.
The Bucs couldn't wait to fire Greg Schiano -- the overbearing coach had worn out his welcome in two seasons -- and in hiring Lovie Smith as his replacement, the team added a much-needed injection of stability and proven NFL success. Smith will install his defensive concepts, and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has some new toys -- quarterback Josh McCown was added in free agency, and former Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans was added in the draft. Evans will combine with Vincent Jackson to form one of the more physically intimidating receiver groups in the league, just as free-agent acquisition Michael Johnson will bring his talents to the end of a defensive line defined by tackle Gerald McCoy. The Bucs were a better team in 2013 than their 4-12 record showed, and with Smith on board and all those additions, this will be a team to be reckoned with in 2014 and beyond.
Most important player: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
The Panthers lost Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn to the vagaries of free agency, but general manager Dave Gettleman didn't seem concerned. Gettleman seemed to believe that Smith was too much of a handful, and the other guys were eminently replaceable, but that's the point -- he's got to replace them. To supplant Smith as Cam Newton's top target, the Panthers drafted Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, a big (6-foot-5, 240), physical, fast receiver who still needs to get the hang of the NFL-level route tree. The good news, according to all accounts, is that Newton and Benjamin have forged a close relationship.
"We respect each other enough to be able kick it with each other, but also push each other to be great," Newton said in mid-August. "We've got that unique relationship that we hold each other to a standard."
The Panthers may have a bit of a setback as their new receivers get the hang of Mike Shula's offense, but there's more there than meets the eye. Benjamin can be dominant in the red zone, Jerricho Cotchery is a sneaky-good slot receiver and Jason Avant is a serviceable third man. But it's Benjamin the Panthers are counting on, and it's Benjamin who will have to learn quickly for his performance to meet his potential.
Rookie to watch: Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
Darren Sproles replaced Reggie Bush as New Orleans' primary satellite player from 2011 through '13, but when the Saints traded him to Philadelphia in March, they already had another replacement in mind. When they took Oregon State's Brandin Cooks in the first round, it was already decided -- the 5-10, 189-pound Cooks would replace the 5-6, 181-pound Sproles. Sounds implausible for a speed receiver to replace a fireplug running back? Not according to Drew Brees.
"Hey, we go out in the draft and get a guy in Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State -- an explosive player, great speed, great talent, tremendous young man, loves to learn, loves the game of football. … From all indications, this guy can do a lot of things for us, and he’s eager to fill a role that we need him to on offense."
Cooks played in an offense at Oregon State that is compatible with the one he'll now help to define, and he can do so in multiple ways -- taking the top off a defense from outside or in the slot, blowing right up the field on screens and swing passes, and succeeding with the jet sweeps that have been part of Sean Payton's arsenal since he became New Orleans' head coach in 2006. It's a different way to set opposing defenses on edge, but Cooks appears to have what it takes.
On Thursday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Don Banks and NFL writer Chris Burke discuss which rookie quarterbacks are ready to play now and who should learn from the sidelines.