NFC South looks to keep ROY streak going

The NFC South, a division where fans often complain about a perceived lack of national attention, has had one market cornered in recent years.

When it comes to Rookie of the Year awards, “small markets’’ haven’t stopped NFC South players from receiving big honors.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton won the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in the 2011 season. Last year, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly won the defensive award.

Can the trend continue in 2013?

Well, I see at least one potential candidate for each team. But any rookie awards in the NFC South will almost certainly come from the defensive side of the ball because division teams didn’t use early draft picks on offensive skill position players.

Let’s take a look at the guys I think have a chance to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Atlanta Falcons. There’s a very strong candidate here. That’s first-round pick Desmond Trufant.

All indications are the Falcons plan to start Trufant immediately after releasing Dunta Robinson and letting Brent Grimes leave via free agency. Letting those veterans go wasn’t an accident. The Falcons wanted to get younger at this position and they also used their second-round pick on cornerback Robert Alford.

The hopes also are high for Alford, but it’s Trufant that the Falcons are expecting big early returns from. The plan is to start him opposite veteran Asante Samuel and let Alford compete with Robert McClain for the job at nickel back.

That means Trufant will be targeted early and often because opponents always test rookie cornerbacks. But the Falcons believe Trufant is polished and NFL ready. If he can rise to the challenge, he could put up some big interception numbers and that could make him a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Carolina Panthers. I actually see two candidates here. The Panthers used their first two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotulelei was the first-round choice and his best shot at any postseason honors will come if Carolina’s run defense has a strong season. Lotulelei is known more for his run-stuffing abilities than his pass-rushing skills, so he’ll really need to dominate in the middle to turn heads.

Sacks are the statistic people look to when they’re talking about defensive linemen. That’s why I think Short, a second-round pick, might have a better chance to grab attention than Lotulelei. The scouting report on Short is that he can play the run well, but also is capable of generating a pass rush from the interior.

That could translate into big production. Surrounded by the strong duo of defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards produced six sacks last season. If Short can beat out Edwards right from the start, I could see him ending up with even more sacks and that could bring awards.

New Orleans Saints. In recent years, the Saints usually have brought rookies along slowly, often not starting them until their second year. But I get the sense the plan with safety Kenny Vaccaro is different this year.

The Saints blew up their defense after ranking last in the league last season. They brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and Vaccaro was the first player drafted to fit his scheme. That means Vaccaro won’t be sitting on the bench.

If Vaccaro can put up some significant interception and tackle numbers and the New Orleans defense shows strong improvement, the rookie could be in the spotlight.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The big offseason news in Tampa Bay was the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis and the free-agent signing of safety Dashon Goldson. But there’s another guy who should benefit tremendously from the those two moves.

That’s second-round pick Johnthan Banks. He’ll either start opposite Revis or get a lot of time in nickel situations if the Bucs elect to start Eric Wright.

Either way, Banks could be in a situation where he has a chance to shine. With Revis and Goldson protecting him, Banks could have a chance to come up with a bunch of interceptions.

And keep the Rookie of the Year award in the NFC South.