Written by The Blitz Team
The NFL regular season is almost upon us! For all the fans that have been waiting to put the 2017 season behind them, besides Eagles fans, of course, this will give everyone a chance at another run at the Lombardi Trophy. For this month’s All32 series, we are giving an outlook on what to expect from each team and give an idea how the season may turn out. The preseason gave us a little glimpse of how some players and teams are looking so far in 2018, but that is in the past and ‘real football’ is back again. We don’t know about you, but The Blitz Team is beyond excited that the 2018 season is here!
One burning question for the Falcons: Can the offense regain its 2016 form? It’s no secret that last season, Atlanta’s offensive production fell off from the prior year, going from a whopping 33.8 points per game to a mediocre 21.6, and dropping 14 spots in the rankings. Many attribute this drop-off to the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, as replacement Steve Sarkisian struggling with the offense. Atlanta also led the 12 playoff teams last season in drops with 34.
Matt Ryan was named the third best quarterback of 2018 by Pro Football Focus, behind only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, two of the best quarterbacks of all time. Also, on his passes last year, Ryan’s interception-worthy passes were only 1.6% of his throws, the lowest of any qualified quarterback. The Falcons also finished eighth-best in total defense last season, their highest ranking since the 1998 season, when they defeated the 15-1 Vikings en route to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
While it could be easy to go along with most analysts about the Falcons’ record for this season, I can’t get ahead of the full outlook. The Falcons open the season with three of last season’s playoff teams, including an opener against the Super Bowl Champion Eagles on September 6th. Following that, the team plays Carolina and New Orleans at home, which are critical towards a division title and possible playoff tie breaking procedures. A 2-1 or 3-0 start would be huge for the organization, but one must remember three years ago they started 5-0 only to struggle the rest of the way to finish at 8-8. That said, the team does want to become the first team to play in the Super Bowl on their home turf (Super Bowl 53 is in Atlanta this year), but history shows teams can struggle with that added pressure.
Final record: 10-6; potential seed in NFC: 3rd or 4th-
The Panthers offense has gone through dramatic change this offseason. Long time running back Jonathan Stewart was released after 10 seasons, which opens the door for Christian McCaffrey to take over a larger role in the offense. McCaffrey had a good rookie season and looks to have added more muscle to his frame. He is set to be the workhorse in a backfield that also includes newcomer C.J. Anderson and Cameron Artis-Payne. Receiver looks different as well, as the team welcomed deep threat Torrey Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles and drafted D.J. Moore 24th overall. While Kelvin Benjamin was traded to the Bills, Devin Funchess has shown the ability to step up and handle that role. Greg Olsen remains at tight end, and rookie Ian Thomas has flashed some playmaking ability during preseason. The O-Line has definitely seen its better days. Daryl Williams, Amini Silatolu, Jeremiah Sirles, and Matt Kalil all are going to miss time with injuries. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula left to the New York Giants after 7 seasons with the team and is being replaced by Norv Turner. The Panthers have good talent around their star quarterback Cam Newton, but the offensive line play will decide how the offense operates this season.
On defense, Luke Kuechly is still arguably the best linebacker in the NFL. If he can stay healthy and avoid problems with concussions, that alone will make this a formidable defense. Alongside Kuechly will be Shaq Thompson and veteran Thomas Davis, who will serve a PED suspension for 4 games. Kawann Short is a force at defensive tackle and will be joined by newcomer Dontari Poe to lock down the interior of the line. The edge-rushers will consist of Julius Peppers on the right side and Mario Addison on the left as well as rookie Marquis Haynes, who has shown a lot of potential during the preseason. The secondary is the weakest part of this defense. The Panthers drafted LSU cornerback Donte Jackson 55th overall and will still rely heavily on James Bradberry. After those two, however, the Panthers have decisions to make regarding a rotation that will include Corn Elder, Captain Munnerlyn and Kevon Seymour. The safety position includes Mike Adams and Da’Norris Searcy as the starters with Rashaan Gaulden and Collin Jones providing depth. The main question that will have to be answered is whether or not the secondary can mesh and play to their potential. The Panthers have to play teams with lethal receiving options in their division, as the Saints and Falcons both boast tons of talent at receiver.
The Panthers have had a roller coaster ride of ups and downs since they appeared in Super Bowl 50. Cam Newton went from an MVP season to struggling with consistency and injuries. The Panthers are going to need the young guys in the secondary to learn quickly and Newton to be “Super Cam” again if they are going to find their way back to the promised land. Fans should be excited to see how everything plays out and watch the Panthers make a run for the playoffs once again.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are an NFL juggernaut this year, with a roster chock full of talent top to bottom but an intriguing amount of upside and potential. They also have a diverse group of newcomers that could set them apart from the rest of the NFC.
Offensively, the the team is led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, and he is entering what could be his final NFL season in 2018. Brees is expected to break Peyton Manning’s all-time passing yards record sometime around week 6 this season. Although Brees has gotten older, he still has plenty of weapons to play with. Alvin Kamara is one of the league’s premier playmakers out of the backfield, and he has the ability to score on any given play. He is entering his second season, and Kamara will be asked to do more given the fact that Mark Ingram is out for 4 weeks. On the outside, Michael Thomas is an absolute monster. He runs precise routes and is able to get open on any short, medium, or deep play. I look for him to be one of the most heavily targeted receivers in 2018. I also think Cameron Meredith will have a nice season after he was injured early on in 2017 with the Bears. The Saints’ offensive line is well above average. They should help protect Brees and create holes for the running game as well.
On the defensive side, they are not quite as talented, but still have enough playmakers to warrant top 10 defensive upside for 2018. The best player on their defense is Cameron Jordan. He’s a high motor player that can get to the quarterback, but is also a stout run defender. I think incoming first round pick Marcus Davenport can provide some value on third downs as well. The linebacking corps should be solid, but reigning Rookie-of-the-Year Marshon Lattimore is the star of the back 7. I look for him to once again be a huge factor in the Saints’ pass defense.
Overall, I believe that the Saints have what it takes to make a very deep playoff run in 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have tried valiantly to compete in what many might call the best division in football, the NFC South. Of course, that makes sense considering they have six games a year against two former NFL MVPs (Matt Ryan and Cam Newton) and a Super Bowl MVP in Drew Brees.
What can be said about the Buccaneers offense? For starters, the team does have some excellent playmakers in the most important positions. Jameis Winston can really make some plays despite being portrayed by many as below average, but as head coach Dirk Koetter said to him on last year’s “Hard Knocks”, “Your greed gets the better of you. You’re a good quarterback, but your greed takes over and you make bad decisions.” In the backfield, Peyton Barber has flashed potential star talent, but this year will be his first true chance as a No.1 starter. On the outside, their wide receiving corps is starting to come alive, with Mike Evans continuing to shine and Chris Godwin showing he could be a scary No. 2 receiver. And on the inside, the Bucs have two speedsters in Desean Jackson and Adam Humphries, which just proves they can beat you outside and in the slot. The problem for the Bucs offense, however, is the offensive line. They have some good players up front, but recently the injury bug has bitten left tackle Donovan Smith, arguably the backbone of the line (tests came back negative, so they avoided a major scare). As for the rest of the line, the group of Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Caleb Benenoch, and Demar Dotson need to step their game up and be able to protect every angle, especially in their division with guys like Vic Beasley, Cameron Jordan, and Luke Kuechly coming around the bend.
The Buccaneers invested heavily in their defensive line after last season’s horrendous numbers (last in sacks). They went after big name talents, trading for former Giants right end Jason Pierre-Paul, signing Vinny Curry from the defending champion Eagles, and drafting Washington’s Vita Vea in the first round. So far, his presence has been nasty with Gerald McCoy next to him. The linebacker corps of Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David, and Cameron Lynch keep the middle of the field in check and even make some great plays in pass defense. The secondary has its own challenges, but they can make plays when needed and give the offense chances to capitalize.
Prediction: This Bucs team unfortunately has a major challenge to start the season, losing Winston for the first three games of the season to a suspension. The three games he’s missing are against New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Ryan Fitzpatrick can only do so much, which is why everyone wants to immediately write off Tampa and wait for next season. Pump the brakes there, because Tampa could shock the world if they went 2-1 or 3-0 with Fitzpatrick, though that might lead to a quarterback controversy. This division and conference is the best by a mile and a half and has the best chance for turnover. Look for the Bucs to potentially turn some heads. Prediction: Buccaneers finish 9-7 and come in second place in the NFC South this season.