Written by Stephen Brown III
The NFC South might be experiencing the big power shift of all NFL divisions. This division has been dominated by the Saints the last few years, but the addition of Tom Brady with a slew of weapons threaten the Saints position as kings of the south. But even with Tampa Bay loading up, are they good enough to dethrone Drew Brees and co?
New Orleans Saints, Last year record: 13-3, 1st place
The Saints have won the south each of the last three seasons, and despite 11, 13, and 13 wins respectively in each of those seasons, their playoff runs ended in heartbreak: the Minneapolis Miracle, the missed PI call, and then an OT loss in the wild card round last year. Fortunately for the Saints, they return all their key pieces.
On offense, the big returning piece is all-time great Drew Brees. Brees continues to perform well despite being over 40 years old. And of course, the young talent around him helps with that. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas return and are in the primes of their career. Adding to the supporting cast, the Saints signed Emmanuel Sanders in the offseason. Coupled with a reliable target like Jared Cook, a solid offensive line, and the X-factor, Taysom Hill, there’s no reason this offense shouldn’t be just as good as last year. Honestly, there isn’t much to say about this offense. The personnel is solid, they have chemistry, and they’re once again led by their innovative head coach. As long as father time doesn’t catch up to Drew Brees, the offense should once again, be the strength of this team.
Defensively, this team was rock solid last year, ranking 8th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. And personnel-wise, this team returns their solid mix of young stars and seasoned vets. Studs like Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore are surrounded by proven guys like Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Davenport, Demario Davis, Janoris Jenkins, and Malcolm Brown. Just like the offense, there’s no reason this defense shouldn’t be top 10 again.
This team is once again, one of the most complete teams on paper. There’s absolutely no excuse for this team to not once again win 11+ games and be at the top of the NFC. The Saints are the NFC Super Bowl pick for a lot of people and they are hoping that this year, they don’t disappoint. And with Drew Brees getting older, they might not have many chances left.
Final Record: 12-4
Atlanta Falcons, Last year record: 7-9, 2nd Place
Since their Super Bowl collapse in SB LI, this team just hasn’t been the same. They made the wild card round the following year and have since had two 7-9 seasons. This team still has all the offensive firepower to be great, but have had a revolving door of coordinators and have a head coach who constantly seems to be on the hot seat. Unfortunately for the Falcons, I anticipate their woes continuing this season.
On offense, this team returns a lot of their core. Former MVP Matt Ryan leads the way and will be throwing to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley again. He may have lost Austin Hooper, but the Falcons did acquire Hayden Hurst, who could have a breakout season as the number one tight end in Atlanta. The final big acquisition for this offense is running back Todd Gurley. If Gurley can look even 75% of what he was two years ago in LA, this offense could rival the Saints and Bucs for top in the south.
On defense, this team has been all over the place. Last year, their late-season success was largely due to their defense starting to figure it out (and thanks to an exotic play calling method). This unit has a lot of solid players, like Takk McKinley, Dante Fowler, Keanu Neal, and Grady Jarrett. Unfortunately, despite consistently having solid players on paper, this defense can just never seem to perform well during the season.
The Falcons are stuck in mediocrity. If you ask me, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Clearly, this group is still haunted by their Super Bowl loss. Until they clean house and start fresh, the loss of that stench will always hang over their heads. And right now is the perfect time for a rebuild. By the time Brees and Brady retire, this team could be ready to own the division. And with elite players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, this team could stockpile first-round picks in no time. While I like this Falcons team a lot, I just don’t see a path for them to make the playoffs with this group.
Final Record: 6-10
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Last year record: 7-9, 3rd Place
This team definitely has the most excitement surrounding them this year. There was already some buzz last year after they hired offensive genius Bruce Arians. With all the talent they had on offense, Arians figured that as long as he could “coach the stupid” out of Jameis Winston, this team would be a playoff team. Well, 30 interceptions later, it turns out even Arians couldn’t fix Winston’s turnover problems. However, with a new quarterback who’s much better at protecting the ball under center, Arians’ offensive vision might finally be recognized.
Obviously, the biggest addition to this team is Tom Brady. Considered the GOAT by many, Brady enters his age 43 season with arguably the most talented supporting cast in his career. At receiver, Brady will be throwing to two arguably top ten receivers with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. The tight end group has the potential to be dynamic too. OJ Howard will be looking to finally have the breakout season he’s been waiting for. Taking some attention away from him is future hall of famer Rob Gronkowski. And rounding out the weapons are a slew of talented backs with Ronald Jones, Lesean McCoy, and Leonard Fournette. There’s absolutely no reason this team shouldn’t be a top 5 offense.
The biggest surprise from this team last year was their defense. This team was ranked 6th in DVOA last year according to Football Outsiders. Fortunately, this team returns all of it’s key defensive players, including Shaq Barret, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, and Lavonte David. The big addition to the unit via the draft is DB Antoine Winfield Jr., who should help secure the secondary, which is the weakest part of the defense. And of course, the biggest piece of this defense is their DC, Todd Bowles. Bowles, while not successful as a head coach, has found a lot of success as a DC. His short time in Tampa Bay has been no different.
Just like the Saints, the only thing that could slow down the Buccs is Tom Brady’s age. But as long as Brady can just be above average, this team should make the playoffs. However, I am cautious about this team’s success. Bruce Arians’ scheme is all about taking deep shots. Based on watching Brady last year and his age, I’d be concerned about Brady’s ability to find success with constant downfield shots. While many are optimistic about the GOAT in such a high-powered offense, I tend to think this team is more likely to fall short of expectations than meet them.
Final Record: 10-6
Carolina Panthers, Last year record: 5-11, 4th Place
The Panthers are long removed from their days of dominating the division behind the play of Cam Newton. In fact, this team is basically in full rebuild mode. Newton is gone, Olsen is gone, Kuechly retired, and they have a new, offensive-minded head coach. However, even with so much change, I don’t expect this team to be totally terrible.
On offense, this team returns their biggest star: Christian McCaffery. A year removed from a 1000/1000 season, CMC should expect to see even more touches this year. This team lacks explosive weapons everywhere outside of CMC. Even though guys like DJ Moore and Robby Anderson are good receivers, CMC should be the go-to guy in most situations. However, the biggest addition to this offense is OC Joe Brady. Joe Brady is known as the guy who orchestrated Joe Burrow’s historic season at LSU last year. With Brady, a solid QB like Teddy Bridgewater, and Run CMC, this offense could be a threat to put up points.
As previously mentioned, this team’s biggest loss on defense was Luke Kuechly. They return some key pieces such as Brian Burns, Kawann Short, and Shaq Thompson. Adding to the unit are rookies Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos. While this defense has some good players, I don’t expect them to be great. At best, they might end up being middle of the pack.
This team is obviously in rebuild mode. At best, they should expect to be battling for third place with the Falcons. However, with Joe Brady and CMC, this offense could put up some big games and play spoiler for some playoff teams.
Final Record: 5-11
This division is absolutely a two-horse race. In fact, these two horses both have a chance to legitimately compete for the one seed (which is the only seed with a bye with the new playoff format). Or, maybe father time will continue his undefeated streak and finally catch up to both Brady and Brees, leaving this division wide open. While that’s probably not going to happen, in the NFL, anything can happen.