NFL Previews and Predictions: NFC South

With another Sunday passing, we’re getting closer to the start of the NFL regular season. Therefore, it’s time to continue on with our division previews and predictions, this time looking at the NFC South. This division has been won by Saints the past two seasons, but they’ll have heavy competition, and as a result, this division could come down to the wire? Can Drew Brees and the Saints recover from heartbreak? What can a healthy Falcons team do? Is Cam Newton healthy enough to lead the Panthers to the playoffs? How will the partnership of Jameis Winston and Bruce Arians work for the Bucs? Let’s examine.

First Place: Atlanta Falcons 

Photo Cred:

Record Prediction: 10-6

Best Case: 13-3

Worst Case: 6-10

Power Ranking: 14th

Offense Ranking: 10th

Defense Ranking: 18th

Info: The Falcons came into last season with Super Bowl aspirations, but injuries on the defense came back to haunt them. Now that they’re healthy, they should be considered the favorite to win this division and a sleeper Super Bowl candidate.

Offense: As per usual, the Falcons should have an elite passing offense in 2019. Quarterback Matt Ryan may have some flaws, but with his strong supporting cast, he continues to put up elite, eye-popping numbers. That supporting cast included arguably the league’s top mismatch in receiver Julio Jones, who could blow up for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns any given week, a young, rising receiver in 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley, and a reliable target in receiver Mohamed Sanu. Meanwhile, tight end Austin Hooper is serviceable, and this team committed a lot of resources to the offensive line. They used two first-round picks on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary, have two glues at left tackle (Jake Matthews) and center (Alex Mack), and a number of serviceable players in guard James Carpenter, swing tackle Ty Sambarilo, and guard Jamon Brown. Add in the duo of Devonta Freeman (when healthy) and Ito Smith at running back, and there’s an awful amount of talent for new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to work with.

Defense: This season, the Falcons will be getting both their safeties (Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal) back from injury, and will hopefully have linebacker Deion Jones for a whole season. Therefore, the defense shouldn’t be poor unit it was last year. In the secondary, Allen and Neal are a great safety pairing, and Desmond Trufant remains an above-average cornerback. Who plays opposite of Trufant is a question, but 2018 second-round pick Isiah Oliver is a lanky corner who fits well in this scheme, so they should be fine. There’s also the versatile Damontae Kazee, who excelled last season in place of Allen. This season, he’ll likely play the nickel this season, and should be an upgrade over what they had in last year with Brian Poole. Meanwhile, Jones is excellent both in coverage and as a sideline to sideline specialist, and De’Vondre Campbell is a suitable complement. My main concern with this defense is the pass rush; Takkarist McKinnley has proven to be a solid #2 pass rusher, but unless Vic Beasley can replicate his 2016 form, he’ll have little help on the edge, though Grady Jarrett will provide some pressure on the interior. There are plenty of exciting players on this defense with Jones, Jarrett, Neal, Trufant, and Kazee, but they still may struggle a little in pass defense, and as a result, they’re probably more of a top 20 defense than top ten. Still, that’s not bad given how talented their offense is.

Final Thoughts: With a lot of playmakers on both offense and defense, the Falcons have a very high upside in 2019. Plus, they’ll have a third-place schedule due to last year’s struggles, and as a result, they have the upper-hand for a division title.

Second Place: Carolina Panthers

Photo Cred: ESPN

Record Prediction: 7-9

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 6-10

Power Ranking: 12th

Offense Ranking: 12th

Defense Ranking: 14th

Initial Thoughts: Like the Falcons, the Panthers were doomed last season due to injuries. After starting out 6-2, quarterback Cam Newton went down with a shoulder injury, and as a result, their season crumbled. It’s unclear what to make off Newton’s injury and team’s outlook this season, but after a nice offseason, their roster is talented enough to make a playoff run if Newton is healthy.

Offense: It’s very hard to project the Panthers offense this season, as they have the potential to be a potent unit if Newton healthy, but if not, they don’t stand a chance. Newton was in the midst of a tremendous season when he dealt with the injuries; he meshed really well with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The offense can be dynamic with him, because there are a lot of athletic playmakers to deal with. Outside of Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey is the best dual-threat running back in the league; he’s a rare talent and one of the few running backs that can actually make a huge impact in the win-loss column. Furthermore, receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel can contribute as traditional receivers or in the screen game as a pure runner, and the tight end duo of veteran Greg Olsen and second-year player Ian Thomas should get the job done. The main difference between this year and last year should be the offensive line, which should be much improved this season. The front office added one of the top centers in Matt Paradis, re-signed tackle Daryll Williams, drafted tackle Greg Little, and has two other strong players in guard Trai Turner and tackle Taylor Moton. It’s a fringe top-five offensive line, and as a result, Newton should be protected much better this season. This is easily a top-ten offense if Newton is healthy, but if not, who knows.

Defense: The Panthers’ identity has always been with head coach Ron Rivera’s defense, and although it’s regressed in recent years, it still remains a solid unit. Linebacker Luke Keuchley is a top-two player at his position, and if Shaq Thompson’s conversion to inside linebackers goes as planned, they’ll have one of the better linebacker duos in football. The same can be said about their underrated safety duo of Tre Boston and Eric Reid, who complement each other perfectly. I also like their interior defensive line, as both Gerald McCoy and Kawann Short provide nice interior pressure, and if first-round rookie Brian Burns is an instant contributor, the pass rush as a whole should be fine. What concerns me with Carolina is their cornerbacks. James Bradbury is a fine #2 corner, but he’ll be expected to guard the likes of Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans in this division. Yes, Donte Jackson had a lot of interceptions this season and athletic, but he’s also inconsistent, and behind them, this is a very thin position group. Overall, this could be a top-ten defense, but there a lot of uncertainties, so it’s hard to know what they’ll be in 2019.

Final Thoughts: The Panthers are one of the biggest unknowns in football right now. If they catch a few breaks, they have the upside to win this division. However, if they don’t, they could look a lot like they did during the second half of last season.

Third Place: New Orleans Saints

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
Photo Cred: Saints Wire- USA Today

Record Prediction:6-10

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 4-12

Power Ranking: 5th

Offense Ranking: 3rd

Defense Ranking: 21st

Initial Thoughts: After several mediocre seasons, the Saints have broken out following an elite 2017 draft class, winning the division the last two years and coming just one win away from reaching the Super Bowl last season. After falling victim to an absurd missed pass interference, New Orleans will be looking to overcome heartbreak once again. However, with an incredibly brutal schedule and some red flags, New Orleans will likely not have the chance to avenge that loss this season.

Offense: With head coach Sean Payton calling the shots, the Saints will always sport a terrific offense. However, this isn’t the flawless offense it was previously. Quarterback Drew Brees showed clear signs of regression last season; he doesn’t have the arm strength to be the prolific player he once was. He does have one of the game’s best receivers in Michael Thomas to throw to, and the best running back in the league in Alvin Kamara, who can do it all. However, a major weakness with New Orleans is that they don’t have a lot of options outside of them. Tight end Jared Cook is solid, but inconsistent, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is an odd fit here as a deep threat, and the team has a clutter of uninspiring options at receiver to fill out the roster. Furthermore, although still a top-five group, the offensive line has potential holes at center (second-round rookie Erik McCoy) and left guard (Andrus Peat), though Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk may be the best tackle duo in all of football. This offense has the talent to be great this season, but it’s not on par with offenses like the Chiefs and Patriots, and that’s a concern given Brees’ regression and this defense.

Defense: Following some strong drafts, the Saints have done a nice job to add talent to their defense. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (2017 first round), safety Marcus Williams (2017 second round), linebacker Alex Anzalone (2017 third round) and edge rusher Marcus Davenport (2018 first round) have all been added in recent years, but none, outside of Lattimore, none of them are standout players. The only true impact player on this defense is defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is elite as a pass rusher and as a run defender. However, without Sheldon Rankins (injury), the interior pressure won’t be strong, there is no cornerback depth outside of Lattimore (sorry Eli Apple), and the linebackers (Demario Davis, Anzalone, AJ Klein) are fine, but nothing special. This defense is on to the low end of mediocrity, and since the offense won’t be able to carry them this season, the team will take a step back as a result.

Final Thoughts: If it wasn’t for their schedule, which includes road games against the Rams and Seahawks to start the season, perhaps the Saints could be seen as a wildcard team. However, they don’t have a strong enough team to manage that schedule, and as a result, this may turn out to be a lost season for them.

Fourth Place: Tampa Bay Buccanneers

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp
Photo Cred: FOX Sports

Record Prediction: 4-12

Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 2-14

Power Ranking: 27th

Offense Ranking: 21st

Defense Ranking: 30th

Initial Thoughts: The Buccaneers made a splash hire this offseason, reeling head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. The hope is that he’ll be able to transform Jameis Winston into a franchise quarterback, and due to that, they’ll be a playoff contender. However, I have serious doubts about that happening; Tampa Bay looks like the odd team out in this division once again.

Offense: Few quarterbacks are more inconsistent on a play to play basis than Winston, who has the ability to make incredible plays, but then throw an interception on the very next play. If anyone can fix that issue though, it’s Arians, who is a known quarterback whisperer. If that happens, this passing offense could have a very high upside; Winston has elite targets in receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, as well as emerging tight end OJ Howard. However, for this offense to be a potent unit, Tampa Bay will need their offensive line to step up. Despite the hefty contract he received, Donovan Smith is clearly a below-average left tackle, while the interior of the offensive line is fine, but inconsistent and right tackle Demar Dotson is starting to decline. Then, there are the running backs; although it isn’t a super important position, you need to do better than Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones to add any sort of intrigue. A receiving back, or a dual-threat back, could really help Winston, but they don’t have anyone who can fill that role. This offense could surprise people this season, but then again, there’s a great chance that it’s very inconsistent and mediocre.

Defense: The Bucs offense better exceed expectations this season, because this defense is not strong at all. They had arguably the worst passing defense last season, and there’s nothing to suggest that won’t be the case this season. Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, MJ Stewart, and Jamel Dean are all decent players, but they’re more of depth players than starting-caliber players, and the projected safety duo of Jordan Whitehead and Darian Stewart may be the league’s worst. The pass rush isn’t much better, as Carl Nassib, Noah Spence, and Shaquil Barrett are decent, but not exactly #1 or #2 pass rushers. There is optimism for this team regarding the linebacking duo of fifth overall pick Devin White and veteran Lavnote David, which could be amazing, but David is starting to regress and it doesn’t make up for the lack of a pass defense. Neither will their investments on the defensive line, as first-round pick Vita Vea is only a nose tackle and is injured, while Ndamukong Suh wasn’t very productive with the Rams last season. Long story short, this defense, outside of the linebackers, will be really bad this season.

Final Thoughts: The Bucs could be seen as a sleeper team, given their high upside, but they’re not particularly strong in any area, besides their offensive playmakers. Furthermore, their pass defense is a massive liability; unless Winston plays like an MVP, they’ll struggle to win games in a competitive NFC.

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