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Second of an eight-part series
In PFW's midseason team reports, we focus on each team's biggest surprise and biggest disappointment, a fantasy football MVP, an assistant coach on the rise, and a fearless prediction for the second half of the season.
Biggest surprise: The impact second-year SS William Moore has made this season wasn't exactly expected. After missing all but two games last season because of an injury, Moore replaced Erik Coleman as the starter after Week One and has earned high marks for his performance. The 2009 second-round pick looks like one of the league's better young safeties.
Biggest disappointment: Signing CB Dunta Robinson in the offseason was supposed to help the Falcons' pass defense, but it is still ranked toward the bottom of the league. The bar was set high for Robinson, who dealt with a few different injuries in the first half, and thus far he hasn't delivered.
Fantasy MVP: It has to be WR Roddy White. He's among the league leaders in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. White has been consistently productive, gaining 69 yards or more in each of the first seven games (the Bucs held him to 49 yards receiving in Week Nine, largely because a first-quarter knee injury forced him to miss part of the game), and is a reliable fantasy producer every week.
Assistant coach on the rise: Bill Musgrave, who has served as the Falcons' QB coach since 2006, was promoted to assistant head coach/quarterbacks in the offseason after he was pursued by the Texans, who wanted him to work with QB Matt Schaub. Musgrave has played a large role in developing QB Matt Ryan, who continues to make progress.
Fearless prediction: Atlanta will finish one game ahead of the Saints in the NFC South race and will make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Biggest surprise: They were clearly not as good as the Falcons and Saints heading into the season, but it didn't seem like anyone expected the Panthers to be scrounging for a victory or two. On an offense with playmakers like Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams, the unit is one of the league's least productive, and head coach John Fox already seems to be looking toward his next job.
Biggest disappointment: Take your pick. QB Matt Moore was supposed to hold down the starting job and keep the Panthers competitive until rookie QB Jimmy Clausen was ready, but Moore played so poorly that Fox decided he had to give the rookie a chance, only to have that move backfire, as well. The offensive line also has not played to its potential.
Fantasy MVP: While he's been a disappointment to fantasy owners, WR Steve Smith is the best of a poorly performing bunch of Carolina players at the skilled positions. Smith was off to a decent start — he caught a touchdown pass in each of the first two games — but his production dropped off and an ankle injury sidelined him in Week Five.
Assistant coach on the rise: In his first season with the Panthers, WR coach Tyke Tolbert was put in the tough position of bringing along a position group that includes three rookies. Rookie WRs Brandon LaFell and David Gettis have improved since the season began.
Fearless prediction: The Panthers will surprise at least an opponent or two in the second half, winning games in which they were the underdog. Fox will leave his post on a low note, though, finishing a season with fewer than seven wins for the first time since he became the team's head coach in 2002.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Biggest surprise: The Saints actually trailed the Browns by 20 points in Week Seven. They don't lose at the Superdome often and have rarely lost by double digits in recent seasons. That's what made Cleveland's 30-17 win in New Orleans so surprising. QB Drew Brees was uncharacteristically sloppy, throwing four picks.
Biggest disappointment: Head coach Sean Payton thought he had the personnel on offense to maintain the balanced attack that fueled the Saints last season, but the running game has struggled. Injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush left the team with undrafted rookie Chris Ivory, who has played well at times, and declining veterans like Ladell Betts and Julius Jones.
Fantasy MVP: Brees is a must-start quarterback every week, and there aren't many of those in fantasy football this season. He's thrown more interceptions than his fantasy owners would like, but he's still among the league leaders in passing yards and touchdowns. Injuries to New Orleans' top two running backs have Brees throwing more often than he did last season, which has to make fantasy players that drafted him happy.
Assistant coach on the rise: The Saints' offensive line hasn't been quite as good as it was last season, when it sent three players to the Pro Bowl, but it's still highly regarded, as is Aaron Kromer, who coaches the offensive line and coordinates the running game. It won't help his reputation if the Saints' running game doesn't improve in the second half, but he has the pedigree and could be coordinating an offense in the near future.
Fearless prediction: The Saints will never get back to showing the form of their Super Bowl season but will get back to the postseason as a wild card.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Biggest surprise: Having the Bucs contend for the NFC South lead this late in the season is a development no one expected. Most people figured Tampa Bay would finish in last place again after it opted to stay away from high-priced free agents in the offseason, but several young players have stepped up and Raheem Morris is growing into his role as head coach.
Biggest disappointment: The Bucs were optimistic that FS Tanard Jackson had put some personal issues behind him after he was suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy last season. He failed another drug test, though, and was suspended indefinitely after Week Two. The Bucs turned to rookie Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick, to replace Jackson.
Fantasy MVP: Those owners who gambled on rookie WR Mike Williams in fantasy drafts have been rewarded. Williams is QB Josh Freeman's top target and his touchdown production — he already has five TDs — was unexpected.
Assistant coach on the rise: QB coach Alex Van Pelt is going to become an attractive option for teams with young signalcallers if Freeman continues progressing at this rate. Van Pelt was put in a tough spot last season, coordinating the Bills' offense after Turk Schonert was fired just before the regular season started, and he's making the most of his opportunity with Tampa Bay.
Fearless prediction: The Bucs will hit some rough patches in the second half, and their dreams of a playoff berth will not be realized. Freeman will be a top candidate for most improved player, though, and the head-coaching shake-up some were predicting won't happen.
You can read more midseason team analyses in the current print edition of PFW (cover date: Nov. 14, 2010) — including categories such as team MVP, player to watch and keys to the second half — on sale now at retail outlets. You can also purchase a print or electronic (PDF) copy of the issue at PFWstore.com.