The NFC South is one of the strongest divisions from top to bottom. It boasts the NFC champion from the previous two years (Carolina Panthers in 2015, and Atlanta Falcons in 2016), one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees, and an up and coming superstar in Jameis Winston. This is such a tricky division to predict because, in reality, any team can win it.
Atlanta returns pretty much all of their starters but lost their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Carolina fell off the wagon after their disappointing Super Bowl 50 performance, but Cam Newton should be fully healthy after surgery and they got, in my opinion, the best all-around running back in the draft in Christian McCaffrey. The Buccaneers barely missed the playoffs last year and with the additions of DeSean Jackson, and O.J. Howard, and more consistent play out of Winston, Tampa Bay is a true contender. The Saints added some defensive pieces, a lot of running back depth, and as long as Brees is under center, you can never count them out.
Well here goes nothing, enjoy!
Atlanta Falcons: 1st Place
Best Position in the Division: Offensive Line
Some will scoff at the fact that the Falcons have Julio Jones and yet I have not listed the wide receivers as the best in the division. It all comes down to depth. After Jones, there is a significant drop off to Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. For that reason, I cannot list them above my team with the top receiving corps.
The Falcons do, however, boast far and away the best offensive line. At the conclusion of last season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons’ O-line sixth overall, with center Alex Mack receiving the second best overall grade (imagine how good the Browns line could be if they didn’t let Mack walk). The teams that garner the greatest success in the playoffs are the ones with solid play in the trenches. The Falcons are able to create mismatches in the run game and protect Matt Ryan in the high-octane ariel assault.
Weaknesses: Defensive Front-Seven
Outside of Carolina, the NFC South has fairly weak defensive front-sevens as a whole, which bodes well for Atlanta, allowing them to not fall too far from the curve. The Falcons finished 24th overall, according to Pro Football Focus, and were fortunate that the offense gave them early leads so they didn’t have to deal with the rush too often. Vic Beasley turned in a very nice year that he will look to build on, and the addition of Dontari Poe will aid in improving the run defense. The drafting of Takk McKinley will boost the d-line as well as the unit will need to improve if they want another run at the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2nd Place
Best Position in the Division: Wide Receivers
The Buccaneers have been building something for a while. Last year they were an overtime loss against the vaunted Raiders from making the playoffs. I think that this is the year they turn the corner.
I realize that the best singular receiver resides in Atlanta, but when it comes to depth, the best in the division is Tampa Bay. Mike Evans has solidified himself has a top 10 wideout in the entire league, and with the addition of DeSean Jackson, the Buccaneers have a true number two and a scary deep threat. Technically they are tight ends, but tack on Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard and you have a receiving unit that is going to be hard for any secondary to stop.
Jameis Winston continues to mature and seems to be 100% dedicated to becoming one of the great ones. The franchise record for passing touchdowns in a career is 80, held by Josh Freeman. Winston has 50, in his first two seasons as a pro. He will be poised to break this record in only his third season and lead the Buccaneers to a long sought after playoff birth.
Weaknesses: Running Back
When healthy, Doug Martin is a very good running back. In five seasons as a pro, Martin has been selected to two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team. He rushed for over 1,400 yards in 2012 and 2015, being that those were his only complete seasons. In the other three years he finished with less than 500 yards rushing, and this year he will be suspended for the first three weeks due to a PED infraction. Charles Sims is a very capable backup, but that’s what he is, a backup. With his lack of consistency, and inability to stay on the field, the Muscle Hamster is just another running back in the huddle.
New Orleans Saints: 3rd Place
Best Position in the Division: Quarterback
I don’t care how old he is. Drew Brees is still the best quarterback in the division and a top QB in the entire league. You can read my entire NFC South quarterback rankings here.
I can throw all the stats at you if you’d like. Five 5,000+ yard passing seasons. When playing a full season, he has only thrown under 4,000 yards twice. 10 Pro Bowls. 465 touchdowns. A career completion percentage of 66.6. Blah, Blah, Blah. The Saints would have had far darker days if number 9 wasn’t under center. Even with the loss of Brandin Cooks (insert Ted Ginn), he will make his case again for MVP, and will probably get snubbed again. New Orleans will fight for the division and it will be because of Brees.
The Saints attempted to address the putrid defense in the offseason, but until they can prove themselves on the field, the entire unit is still the weakness of the team. By drafting Marshon Lattimore they get a shutdown corner that they hope can be the guy to cover the top receivers in the game. Unfortunately, he has to cover Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin twice a year. Talk about getting thrown in the deep end before you learn how to doggy paddle.
If the defense can improve even a little bit, they will be viable contenders for the division. That is a big IF.
Carolina Panthers: 4th Place
Best Position in the Division: Linebackers
It’s hard to think that after going 15-1 and making it to Super Bowl 50 the Panthers could finish last in their division in back-to-back years. Do I think that the Panthers can turn it around and win the division? Yes. But I also think that they have the lowest ceiling and lowest floor, and we could see a repeat of 2016.
If they do compete for the NFC South title, it will rest largely on the shoulders of Luke Kuechly and the rest of the linebacker corps. Kuechly is arguably the best middle backer in the game and Thomas Davis seems to get better with age. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense is a mere shell of what it was in 2015. The departure of Josh Norman hurt the secondary more than maybe expected, and this offseason they traded away their best player in Super Bowl 50, Kony Ealy. Julius Peppers returns for his farewell tour in Carolina, but this defense could be in for a long season against the high-octane offenses of the NFC South.
James Bradberry. Kurt Coleman. Mike Adams. Captain Munnerlyn. As of now, that is the Panthers’ starting secondary for 2017. Doesn’t exactly strike fear into opposing offenses. In fact, only one of them started on the 2015 Super Bowl squad. The Panthers finished 29th against the pass last season and it doesn’t look like its going to get a whole let better in 2017, especially considering they have to face (as mentioned before) Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and Jameis Winston and Mike Evans twice a year. It’s hard to argue that this defense will be able to slow down anybody. I think they go 1-5 in the division and have to play the likes of New England and Green Bay. Could be another tough year for Cam and the Panthers.
Final Division Predictions:
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6
New Orleans Saints: 9-7
Carolina Panthers: 6-10