The NFC South has had quite the offseason. Leading with the scandal to end all scandals in New Orleans bountygate, the South is a wide array of question marks. With New Orleans grip on the division slipping, which team will come and take the reigns as the new leader? Will the Saints use this as a rally cry and take the momentum to a division title, or will Atlanta's core take them to new heights? Will Greg Schiano bring new life to a lifeless Tampa Bay? Can Cam Newton's star continue to rise? All great questions that will soon be answered, but not here. Here we are looking for the stories that haven't been said a million times. The ones you aren't sick of hearing.
Last year we saw Steve Smith have a revival in Carolina and Darren Sproles show he was the back the Saints were hoping to get. They may be names you heard of, but nothing that they did in 2011 was expected. Under the radar stars like this is what brings you and extra two or three wins, crucial in the NFL. There is no doubt these happenings will be repeated in 2012. Each team has a guy licking his chops to show the world what he is capable of.
New Orleans Saints- Sedrick Ellis
The Saints have a microscope over their entire operation in 2012. So much has been said about bountygate and the loss of head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. These are two big holes that the team will have a hard time filling. The defense will look like there is something missing without Vilma, and someone will need to step up in his place. This is where Ellis comes in. Sedrick Ellis has been nothing that they thought they were getting when they took him with the seventh overall pick. What is different now, you ask? He has to, that's why. He was a sophomore on the Saints team that won the Super Bowl, and that attention fueled him to have a career year in 2010. Last year he had the worst year he's had as a pro, with only half a sack for the year. Ellis is looking at this season as redemption. Redemption for himself and redemption for his team. He is going into his fifth season, and with Vilma gone he is going to be looked at as a veteran presence. He will thrive in that position and we will see the 2010 Ellis return to action.
Atlanta Falcons- Asante Samuel
A bird by any other name, smells so much sweeter. Samuel became an afterthought in Philadelphia with the additions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Samuel does his best work when he is one on one with a receiver, something he couldn't do with the Eagles. He only had three interceptions (still great for a third string cornerback) after leading the league twice prior. He is the typical high risk high reward cornerback. The reward will pay out in 2012. In a division with Drew Brees and Cam Newton, you need a guy to make you second guess before you make the throw. Since 2005, Samuel has been in thirteen playoff games and had an interception in seven of them. He owns the record for most playoff interception returns for touchdown. He plays hardest when the lights are brightest. He is on a mission to show the Eagles he was the wrong guy to get rid of. He wants to end that dynasty Michael Vick keeps talking about. He will be back to Pro Bowl form, and just wait when the Eagles and the Falcons meet on October 28th. You know Samuel will be looking to take a Vick pass to pay dirt, and he has the skill and tenacity to make that dream a reality.
Carolina Panthers- Jon Beason
Carolina was a surprise team last year even though they ended the season with only six wins. The defense, however, was not the reason for this. The passing defense ranked 24th and their rushing defense ranked 25th. Their offense was head by the Rookie of the Year, a recharged veteran receiver, and a two headed monster at running back. Their defense just could not keep them in games. Most of that can be attributed to the fact that Beason was lost in the first game of the season and never saw the field again. It is hard for your defense to recover when your field general is taken out within minutes of the season starting. In four previous seasons, he never had less than 120 tackles and never missed a game. Beason will be ready for training camp and he will be back to form. He will anchor a defense that will match the offenses intensity and will help make the Panthers a contender this year. Beason will make noise on the defense that will have a massive turnaround in 2012.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Amobi Okoye
Remember this guy? He was the youngest person ever drafted to the NFL. Okoye is twenty five and already has six years of NFL experience. He has not been the same player since his rookie year, but being on three teams in three years will make you grow up fast and realize this can be taken from you before you know it. His sack numbers have been slowly increasing the past three years and that trend will continue in 2012. Very few defensive tackles are known throughout the NFL. They anchor the line and make it easier for the ends to cause havoc. This will not be the case for Okoye. Gerald McCoy will be taking up most of the double teams, leaving Okoye to take on one man on his way to sack the quarterback. The sack numbers will go up, and so will the tackles. The Bucs made big splashes in free agency, but the most under the radar pick up will most likely be their biggest.