NFC South Preview

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Updated: August 21, 2015
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The NFC South was deemed the worst division in all of football last year, as the winner (Carolina Panthers) had a record of just 7-8-1. But there is a ton of talent embedded in this division, and all four teams will approach this season with something to prove.

Both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are depending on their offenses to help right the ship, while the Panthers will lean on their highly-paid quarterback and a stout defense. As for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have a new sheriff in town running the offense, in first overall draft pick Jameis Winston. They’re putting their faith in the former Florida State Seminole to help lead them back to to the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at how this division will unfold, as we get closer and closer to the start of the 2015 NFL season.

 

Atlanta Falcons (Prediction: 10-6)

Mike Smith has coached the Falcons for seven years, and led them to three playoff appearances and a conference championship. However, the last two years were seen as big disappointments, as many believed the Falcons underachieved. Now the Falcons bring in Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, to sure up their defense, and take this team to the level that Smith simply couldn’t.

It’s hard to believe, but Matt Ryan is entering his eighth year as the Falcons’ starting quarterback. Ryan has been a consistent piece for the Falcons, but many question if he can take his game to the next level in order to lead this team to another deep playoff run.

The offense is primed to be very good again, as this hasn’t been the concern among Falcons fans. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman give the Falcons a nice young rushing duo, something they have lacked for awhile. And while Steven Jackson was a big name, his departure was needed in order to improve the running game.

Julio Jones and Roddy White once again lead the Falcons’ receiving group. Jones has the potential to be a top-five receiver in the NFL, but he just needs to be able to stay on the field. As for White, even at his advanced age, he can still be an above average receiver, as his route running abilities and awareness are still top notch.

The Falcons’ biggest question on offense lies within their offensive line. A lot will be asked of second-year offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who struggled when put on the left side last year. After Chris Chester, there is not a lot of starting experience on this line, and the Falcons will be relying on guys who haven’t really proven themselves.

Overall, the Falcons’ offense has the potential to be really good. But their offense wasn’t the problem last year, as the Falcons’ defense gave up the most yards in the league.

Their defensive line play was pretty awful last season, and their pass rush was the worst in the league. So it was no wonder that the Falcons drafted defensive end Vic Beasley eighth overall, who was one of the more highly touted pass rushers in his class. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson were brought in to sure up their defensive line last year, but both struggled in their first season with the dirty birds. If Soliai, Jackson and Kroy Biermann can improve, this line may not be as terrible as last season.

Justin Durant was an underrated signing for the Falcons, as he was brought in to play weak-side linebacker along Paul Worrilow and Brooks Reed.

Desmond Trufant is already establishing himself as one of the best corners in the league, and teams are already game-planning around him. Just having a guy like that in your secondary can do wonders, even when your back end lacks talent. The Falcons are hoping Robert Alford can finally reach his potential in his third season, and Ricardo Allen and William Moore aren’t a complete disaster combo at safety.

Final Prediction – The Falcons’ offense carries them through the season, and under Quinn’s control, they become at least a top-22 defense, giving them enough to finish with a 10-6 record and the NFC South crown.

 

New Orleans Saints (Prediction: 9-7)

The Saints have seen many players come and go, but the one constant throughout has been Drew Brees. When Brees is the quarterback of your football team, you’re almost always in a position to make the postseason. Brees is coming off a season where he threw for nearly 5,000 yards, yet again, was fifth in the league in QBR, and completed 69 percent of his passes. Yeah, no big deal.

Brees will be accompanied by Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller in the backfield, a combination that may be one of the most intriguing in the league this year. If Spiller can stay healthy, this could be a lighting and thunder duo for head coach Sean Payton. Marques Colston returns for his 10th season with the Saints, as he pairs up with last year’s first-round pick Brandin Cooks, who is one of my breakout players this year.

The Saints’ offensive line added one of the best run-blockers in football this offseason, in Max Unger, who they got in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for tight end Jimmy Graham. Add in Jahri Evans, and Terron Armstead, and you have a pretty good offensive line. The Saints’ offense should run like a well-oiled machine, it’s the other side of the ball that people have major concerns with.

The Saints’ defense gave up the second-most yards in the league last season, and will have to improve upon that if they want to get over the .500 mark. They have obvious holes however, and lacks depth. Their defensive line is anchored by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is one of the most underrated players in the league. They also will be leaning on longtime pro Kevin Williams, who at this stage of his career is more of a rotational player if anything. The fact that Williams will be asked to play a good amount of snaps says a lot about the depth on this defensive line.

Their linebacker corps will be led by David Hawthorne and Dannell Ellerbe, who was a big disappointment in Miami.

The strength of the Saints’ defense lies in their secondary, where veteran Keenan Lewis and newly signed Brandon Browner man both corner spots. Lewis has always been a really solid corner, and pairing him with Browner gives them a formidable tandem. Add in former All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd and former first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, and the Saints have the making of a pretty good secondary if they can all stay healthy.

Final prediction – Brees bounces back off a little bit of a down year by his standards last season, and the defense plays well enough to keep them in games. They go 9-7, with once again one of the top offenses in the league.

 

Carolina Panthers (Prediction: 7-9)

Cam Newton has been freshly signed to a five-year, $100 million extension, and looks to lead the Panthers to another divisional title. The Panthers look to improve their offense, after finishing in the middle of the pack in total yards last season. After parting ways with longtime running back DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers will look to Johnathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker to eat up yards in the backfield.

With Kelvin Benjiman out for the season with a torn ACL, the Panthers will have to look to wide receiver Devin Funchess to step up big in his rookie season. Journeymen like Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery will have to step up in Benjamin’s place, and they even may count on Corey Brown to produce, who was an undrafted free-agent signing for them last season.

The offensive line will be the biggest question mark for the Panthers, as it has been the last couple of seasons. Michael Oher is slotted at the left tackle position, and lets just say his movie career — even though he didn’t actually play the role of himself in The Blind Side — has gone a lot better than his NFL career. Ryan Kalil represents the only plus-offensive lineman on the roster, and even he has regressed some. If the Panthers’ front line plays like they did last year, Newton could see himself battling many injuries again.

The Panthers’ defense represents the strength of their team, led by Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson. Their defensive line looks to be stellar again. Johnson has been a main stay, and has compiled 6.5 sacks over the last two years. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei represent one of the most underrated defensive tackle duo’s in the league.

The Panthers’ linebackers look to be stellar again, with Kuechly and Davis, who might be the best linebacker duo in the league. Add first-round pick Shaq Thompson to the mix, and this is a group that could be really dangerous.

Charles Tillman was brought in to sure up the secondary, and even in the latter stages of his career, Tillman can still produce. Josh Norman looks to build off his strong second half of last season, as well as Bene Benwikere. The Panthers’ secondary may have some unknowns, but if they can build off how they played during the second half of last season, they could be a lot better than what most would think.

Prediction – The Panthers’ offense will be up and down, but their defense carries them most of the season, as they finish 7-9.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Prediction: 6-10)

After finishing with the worst record in the league last year, and taking Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the draft, the Bucs look to hit the reset button in Lovie Smith’s second season as the lead man. The Bucs were on the quiet side this offseason, cutting both Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins, whom they signed to big contracts last offseason.

While the Bucs have many questions marks on their roster, they’ll get the opportunity to see how productive Winston can be in his first season. We’ve become so accustomed to quarterbacks coming in right away and succeeding, that sometimes we forget it usually takes time for most young gun-slingers. Winston was deemed “pro ready” coming out of college, and he will have to be just that in order for the Bucs to have a good season.

The strong point of their offense resides around their receiving duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Both eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving last year, and Evans looks primed to get even better after a stellar rookie season in which he caught 12 touchdowns. Doug Martin also faces an interesting situation, as it’s the contract year for the.

The Bucs’ offensive line is their biggest question on offense, as they will trot out two rookies (Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet) along with two veterans who struggled last season (Logan Mankins and Evan Smith). If the offensive line struggles like last year, it will be a long year for Winston and company.

The Bucs’ defense is led by All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and newly-signed linebacker Lavonte David. Outside of those two, the Bucs’ defense lacks star talent. They brought in Bruce Carter from Dallas to sure up their middle linebacker position, and they are hoping that either Jacquies Smith and George Johnson can create pressure, in which the Bucs struggled to do so last season.

The secondary is led by cornerback Alterraun Verner, who comes off a disappointing season after signing a long-term deal with the Bucs. Safety is a question mark for Tampa Bay, as Major Wright and Bradley McDougald, a rather underwhelming pair, takes up the two safety spots.

Season prediction – Winston will have his ups and downs, as most rookies do, but finish the season off strong. The Bucs improve to a 6-10 record, despite shaky play out of the offensive line and defense.

 

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