It’s almost here. In just over a week, the NFL will be back in stadiums and back on TV’s all around the nation, and I can’t wait. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been previewing every team for the upcoming season, and we are continuing that today with one of the toughest divisions in the league: The NFC South. How do we think the Saints will fare without their coach? Let’s break it down.

1. Atlanta Falcons: 11-5

Fresh New Face: CB Asante Samuel- Samuel was all but forgotten in the Philadelphia Eagles defense after they brought in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last year. Samuel made the Pro Bowl in 2010, so he’s still a great talent for a defense that was overshadowed constantly by this high powered offense last year. Samuel brings the potential for a shut down corner, which could be huge against players like Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, and other receivers they may see in the playoffs.

Won’t Be Coming Back: FB Ovie Mughelli– Fullback is one of the most under appreciated positions in football, yet Mughelli was one of the better know ones. He was a threat out of the back field, but more importantly, he was a great bruising blocker for Michael Turner. I have a feeling that he will be sorely missed in this offense, and they didn’t get much to replace him, as they just place his replacement, Bradie Ewing, on injured reserved.

Season Prediction: Two years ago, the Falcons overachieved when they went 13-3 for the #1 overall seed in the NFC.  They got spanked by the Packers, then got spanked again last year  by the Giants in the Wild Card game. Point is: this team is pissed. Well at least they should be. Combine that with the fact that their bitter rival Saints had a terrible offseason, and they should find enough to win the division again.  All the buzz out of camp is surrounding Julio Jones, who is looking to continue his second half success from last year. And we haven’t even mentioned their pro bowl wide out Roddy White, and their pro bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.

2. New Orleans Saints: 11-5

Fresh New Face: LB Curtis Lofton- New Orleans wasn’t a popular destination for free agents this summer, as the team was going through bounty gate hell.  However, they were able to snag Curtis Lofton at linebacker, and he will likely be replacing Jonathan Vilma, who was one of the players suspended.  It works doubly well for the Saints, as Lofton came over from the Atlanta Falcons. He will be a great addition to a defense that is suspect at best, and rarely has a great day.

Won’t Be Coming Back: G Carl Nicks– Everyone knows about the suspensions from bounty gate (Sean Payton and Jonathan Vilma are the main ones), so we decided to go with their all-pro guard Carl Nicks, who jumped ship to Tampa Bay.  It was pretty simple for the Saints this offseason.  They were obviously keeping Drew Brees, so they had to decide between Nicks and Marques Colston.  They chose to keep Colston, dumping Nicks and Robert Meachem in the process.  Amazingly, the Saints still have one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines in the game, so they shouldn’t miss him as much as other teams would.

Season Prediction: Earlier in the month, it was announced that the NFL offered Vilma a reduced 8 game suspension if he dropped his lawsuit against the league.  That has yet to be confirmed, but in my opinion, it will be the deciding factor for the season.  If he’s gone the whole season, I think the Saints go 10-6, and probably miss the playoffs in this really hard conference. However, if Vilma comes back, I think the Saints can go 11-5 or 12-4.  As I have it right now, I have the Saints and Falcons both winning 11 games, but the Falcons having the slight edge, as I think the Saints probably drop an extra divisional game.

3. Carolina Panthers: 8-8

Fresh New Face: LB Luke Kuechly- The Panthers didn’t grab a ton of people in the free agent market, so we will go with their top draft pick from Boston College.  Defense was a weak point for the Panthers last year, so they are hoping that Kuechly will pair with star linebacker Jon Beason in the middle.  This is a young team, and this season won’t be the year they make the playoffs.  However, with young guys like Kuechly on the defensive side, they will be the team to beat in the NFC South in a few years.

Won’t Be Coming Back: TE Jeremy Shockey- Cam Newton lost one of his more reliable targets in Jeremy Shockey this offseason.  He certainly didn’t put up the best numbers for a tight end, but he was a security blanket for his young quarterback.  The Panthers are short enough on weapons, so I’m not sure why they didn’t resign him. I thought he paired with Greg Olsen very well, and I think he will be more missed then many would expect.

Season Prediction: Cam Newton is too good to go through a sophomore slump. The problem is the people around him, both on offense and defense. They have weapons in the backfield with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and Steve Smith is still going strong, but they don’t have much else.  They also improved their defense, but they are still a work in progress. I think they will be improved, but they still won’t be making the playoffs this year.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-11

Fresh New Face: G Carl Nicks- I mentioned this in the Saints preview, but I’ll elaborate a bit more on it here.  Nicks will be a huge addition to this team, as they are a running team first.  He will open up a ton of holes, and will give a young quarterback in Josh Freeman a level of comfort immediately. Offensive Line gets no love from the general fan, but NFL execs know that a good offensive line is often the center stone of a championship team, so this signing is a big step in the right direction for the Bucs.

Won’t Be Coming Back: DTs Albert Haynesworth and Da’Quan Bowers- Both these players are known more so for their off the field issues then their recent productivity, but their absence will still be felt this season.Haynesworth has bounced around from team to team in the last few years, and the once pro bowl DT can’t seem to fight a home. His stay in tampa lasted just one year. Meanwhile, Bowers, who at one point in college was the top projected player in the draft, plummeted to the 2nd round, and hasn’t done much in the NFL. He tore his Achilles Tendon in the offseason, and he will miss the whole season.

Season Prediction: It’s looking bleak for the Bucs again this year. They have some young talent, but this is a stacked division, and the Bucs don’t have what it takes to keep up with the likes of the Falcons and Saints.  They will show some promise, and pull off some kind of upset like they did against New Orleans last year, but they won’t do much else.  It’s going to be another long season for the Pirates in Florida.

How do you think the NFC South will shake out? Let us know in the comments!

Photo from Sportingtimes.com.