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NFC South Preview (2022)

(Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA Today Sports)

The final NFC division we are going to talk about is the NFC South. The Bucs have been the favorite for the past couple years, and while the Saints have been able to give them trouble in the regular season, the Bucs have always won when it mattered. But with Tom Brady waffling on retirement, is this the time for someone else to take over the division?

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-4, 1st place, Lost to Rams in Divisional Round

It looked like things were going to be shaken up in the south. Tom Brady and Bruce Arians both retired, and the Bucs were without a solid backup plan at QB. However, less than two months after retiring, Brady decided to come back, making the Bucs the favorite to win the division again.

In terms of weapons, not much has changed on offense. Brady is back under center, with Leonard Fournette at running back and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at receiver. Godwin suffered a torn ACL last year, but is projected to be back sooner, rather than later (maybe even week 1). The team even added Julio Jones, who is looking to bounce back after a down year in Tennessee. The biggest question mark this year for the Bucs is their offensive line. Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith remain at tackle, but Ali Marpet (retired), Ryan Jensen (IR), and Alex Cappa (signed with the Bengals) no longer make up the interior of the line. Brady is notoriously bad when faced with pressure up the middle, so if the interior of the line doesn’t hold up, Brady could be in trouble.

The saving grace for the Bucs is that their strong defense returns. The Bucs have surprising done a good job of drafting defense, with nearly their entire lineup made up of guys drafted by the Bucs, including: Antoine Winfield Jr., Devin White, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Vita Vea, Lavonte David, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis III, and Mike Edwards. That solid lineup is solidified by the signing of Akiem Hicks. With Todd Bowles still in the building (with a promoting from DC to HC), I expect the defense to be just as good, if not better than last year.

This team’s entire season will ride on whether the interior of the offensive line can hold up. The good news is, with this division and the NFC in general being weak, they have plenty of time to figure it out without having to worry about being out of the running. If this line CAN hold up, then this team can be as good as any in the NFL (unless Brady’s production finally falls off a cliff. But I’m not betting against that).

Final Record Prediction: 10-7

2. New Orleans Saints, 9-8, 2nd place

The Saints had a lot going for them last season. Despite Saints’ legend Drew Brees retiring, they seemed to get a solid, less turnover prone version of Jameis Winston to step in. But, with Michael Thomas out for the year and Jameis tearing his ACL, they just couldn’t get enough wins to squeak into the playoffs. But coming off a 9-8 season, they have a lot to look forward to.

On offense, the key players return. Jameis is back from his torn ACL and is sporting a new 2-year contract. Michael Thomas seems to finally be healthy, and reports out of camp state that he’s looking great. Alvin Kamara has seemed to avoid a suspension for an incident that happened this offseason and Taysom Hill seems to have a more permanent role in the offense that doesn’t include part time QB. This stout offensive line returns as well. And perhaps most importantly, Jameis will have some new toys to play with, including first-round pick Chris Olave and free agent signee Jarvis Landy. This offense was by no means explosive last year with Jameis, but they were very efficient. With the addition of Olave, Landry, and the return of Thomas, this offense should be trending upwards.

This defense also returns some key pieces, including Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Marshon Lattimore, and 2021 first-round pick Pete Werner. On top of their best players returning, the Saints also added safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. There really isn’t much to say about the defense. They were top 5 last year, didn’t really lose any key pieces, and added some better ones. And like the Bucs, their DC stays in the building, with Dennis Allen getting promoted to HC.

This team is not only strong, but underrated. They roster is rock solid from top to bottom with very few holes. My biggest concern is how they handle the loss of Sean Payton. Even though Payton is gone, their OC, Pete Carmichael, is still there. Even though Payton handled a lot of offensive gameplanning and play calling, Carmichael has been the OC for over a decade and has reportedly always been very involved in the Saints prolific offenses over the year.

Final Record Prediction: 11-6

3. Atlanta Falcons, 7-10, 3rd place

Somehow, the Falcons once again managed to squeak their way to a mediocre 7 wins. This team always seems to be stuck in mediocrity, never being good enough to make playoffs, but never being bad enough for the number one overall pick. Well with Atlanta trading Matt Ryan, it seems like this might finally be the year that they have a full reset.

The offense looks very different from last year, with Marcus Mariota finally getting his second chance as a starter, replacing Matt Ryan, who was traded to Indy. Calvin Ridley missed most of last year, and due to a suspension for gambling, will miss this entire season as well. Fortunately, Mariota will have stud tight end and 2021 first-round pick Kyle Pitts to throw to. Pitts topped 1000 yards in his rookie year, and will be looking to put up monster numbers as basically the only target in Atlanta. Cordarelle Patterson returns as RB1, after a surprising career resurgence. The Falcons also used a first-round pick on receiver Drake London and a fifth-round pick on running back Tyler Allgeier. The offense has a chance to be not terrible, but it’ll entirely depend on Marcus Mariota. If he’s good, this offense will be middle of the pack. If he’s not, then third-round rookie Desmond Ridder will be waiting in the wings to prove if he can be the franchise QB moving forward.

The Falcons had one of the lowest ranked defenses in the league last year, and it doesn’t get much better this year. Grady Jarrett and AJ Terrell return and are joined by newcomers Casey Heyward and Rashaan Evans. Outside of those four, there isn’t much to get excited about defensively. If you’re a Falcons’ fan, you’re most likely looking for Arnold Ebeketie, Troy Andersen, or DeAngelo Malone, the Falcons’ three Day 2 picks, to develop into strong pieces for the future.

I’m really excited to see Marcus Mariota get a second chance. By all accounts, he’s a super nice guy and deserves it. However, I thought the Falcons was an odd choice. Their HC, Arthur Smith, was the OC in Tennessee when Mariota was run out of town in favor of Ryan Tannehill. It seems odd to go back to a system where you weren’t seen as successful. But maybe there were some other factors that resulted in Mariota’s benching (such as outside factors). Outside of Mariota, Pitts, London, and down the road, Ridder, there isn’t much about this team worth watching.

Final Record Prediction: 3-14

4. Carolina Panthers, 5-12, 4th place

I really liked what the Panthers did last year. They took a highly drafted prospect, got him for cheap, and took a chance on him. For three games, that looked great. But the wheels fell off pretty quickly and it was a short ride on the Sam Darnold hype train. Now, the Panthers will look to try the same strategy, hopefully with better success.

In Sam Darnold’s defense, he was playing great until Christian McCaffery got hurt. It just goes to show what a difference maker McCaffery can be when he’s on the field. Unfortunately for Darnold, he won’t get to see a full season with CMC. The Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has had an up and down tenure in Cleveland, capped off by a less than stellar year last season, which can largely be chalked up to him playing through a plethora of injuries. Baker joins CMC, Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, and Tommy Tremble. The offensive line also saw a boost, with the Panthers’ first-round pick being used on Ikem Ekwonu. As long as Baker is an above average QB, this team has a good enough oline and strong enough weapons to really be a threat on offense.

On defense, this young, talented team gains a year of experience, which is huge for a defense as young as this. This defense is littered with young picks who have all been performing well, including Jaycee Horn, Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown, Donte Jackson and Yetur Gross-Matos. While this team didn’t make any big, splashy additions on defense, they really didn’t have too. This young core is ready to make the next step and potentially catapult this defense into one of the best in the NFL.

Matt Rhule’s time as Panthers’ HC has not gone great. He’s gone through multiple QBs, multiple OCs, and multiple losing seasons. With as much talent as this team has, and as weak as the NFC is, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be competing for a wild card spot at the very least. If they have another sub .500 season, then Matt Rhule’s seat could start to get very hot.

Final Record Prediction: 9-8

Final NFC South Standings

1. Saints, 11-6

2. Buccaneers, 10-7

3. Panthers, 9-8

4. Falcons, 3-14

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