If there’s one thing guaranteed in the pass happy NFC South it’s that the pigskin will spend a lot of time in the air. With a top quartet of Quarterbacks and a bunch of elite Wide Receivers, the Secondary always have to keep on their toes.
Offense (1RB, 3WR, 1TE)
Quarterback – Cameron Newton (Carolina Panthers)
Who else but Super Cam? Drew Brees is at the tail end of his career, Matt Ryan blows hot and cold and Jameis Winston is at least 12 months away from challenging Newton’s crown. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore the current MVP. The NFL poster boy as far as dual threat QB’s are concerned (sorry Mr Wilson c/o Seattle), Newton will be determined to make amends for the Super Bowl loss and subsequent fall out from his post-match interview. The fact that he will have his main target back from a year long injury (Kelvin Benjamin) will only enhance his reputation as one of the NFL’s elite.
Running Back – Doug Martin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The Dougernaught is still in Tampa after a will-he-won’t-he sign saga. Regaining his form from his rookie season, Martin was back to his best last season. Finishing 2nd in the rushing yards behind only Adrian Peterson, Martin was top of the yards after contact stat. A fleet-footed RB with the ability and patience to find the gaps, Martin was a big factor in Jameis Winston’s record breaking rookie season. By no means perfect, Martin was prone to a few fumbles throughout the season, however, if this side of his game can be improved then expect him to be in the top 5 RB’s in the league.
Wide Receiver #1 – Julio Jones (Atlanta Falcons)
Drafted in 2011 when the Falcons gave up a bounty of picks to move up to get their man, few can argue the Falcons overpaid for one of the game’s premier Wide-outs. Jones’ 70 yard touchdown against the Panthers just demonstrates what this guy is about. One of the fastest receivers in the game paired with great hands makes Jones’ practically unstoppable on his day.
Wide Receiver #2 – Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The first Wide Receiver since Randy Moss to surpass 1000 yards in first two seasons in the league, Evans is a big bodied target and main focus of the Bucs passing game. Whilst not having the same speed as Moss, there is no denying that Evans has the makings of an elite WR. Whilst regularly making the difficult catches look easy, Evans biggest criticism to date is his apparent lack of concentration with the easier catches which I am sure will be an area he’ll be looking to improve this year.
Wide Receiver #3 – Kelvin Benjamin (Carolina Panthers)
Missing out on the 2015 season due to a knee injury, Benjamin will be looking to make up for lost time this season. In his rookie season (2014) Benjamin was the Panthers number one Wide-out, and prior to the injury, he was Newton’s favourite target outside of Tight End Greg Olsen and at 6ft 5inches, he’s a big target man for a team who already had the league’s top scoring offense in 2015.
Tight End – Greg Olsen (Carolina Panthers)
One of the top Tight Ends in the league and since Jimmy Graham’s trade to Seattle has comfortably become the top Tight End in the NFC South. Averaging more than 70 receptions and 6 touchdowns over each of the last four seasons, Olsen is a favourite target for Cam Newton in Carolina. The 2-time Pro Bowler has surpassed the 1000 yard mark for receptions over the last two seasons.
Right Tackle – Mike Remmers (Carolina Panthers)
Despite his struggles against Von Miller in the Super Bowl (although he would have benefitted from some assistance from his teammates) Remmers will be looking to make amends for that night in Santa Clara. A starter in Carolina since week 10 of 2014, the Panthers have only lost 4 out of 26 game Remmers has played in and he should continue to make the position his own.
Right Guard – Trai Turner (Carolina Panthers)
Aged only 23, Turner has the chance to stay Right Guard for the foreseeable future. First given his chance in Carolina mainly due to a lack of depth due to injuries or retirees in 2014, Turner grasped the opportunity with both hands and has been an ever present since week 5 of 2014 and plays with a maturity which defies his age.
Centre – Ryan Kalil (Carolina Panthers)
31 year old Pro Bowler has just signed a contract extension with the Panthers. Entering his 10th season, Kalil has been a rock in the middle of the Panthers front line. A crucial part of the Panthers run game, Cam Newton will be delighted the only Centre he knows is sticking around town for a bit longer.
Left Guard – Andrew Norwell (Carolina Panthers)
Another relative youngster in the Carolina front 5, Norwell has been part of the high flying Carolina Offense since getting his chance midway through the 2014 season. Allowing few sacks on his QB and punching big holes for his RB, the Panthers struck gold when they picked Norwell up as an undrafted free agent.
Left Tackle – Terron Armstead (New Orleans Saints)
Preventing a clean sweep of Panther Lineman is Armstead. Entering his fourth season in the league, Armstead continues to improve season after season and was rated third best tackle in NFL in 2015. Excels in both run blocking and pass protection, Armstead should be in Orlando next year in the Pro Bowl unless the Saints make the Super Bowl………….
Defense (4-3 Front)
Defensive Tackle #1 – Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
A pro-bowler for the past four seasons in a team finishing with a losing record over those four years, McCoy’s talent is recognised by his peers. He is the team sack leader since he entered the league in 2010 and with a little more help in the middle of the trenches could be the first Buc to reach double digit sacks since the great Simeone Rice did in 2005.
Defensive Tackle #2 – Star Lotulelei (Carolina Panthers)
Since being selected for the All-Rookie team in 2013, injuries have hampered Lotulelei’s career since and has been overshadowed by his fellow teammate Kawann Short. With the Panthers securing Lotulelei’s services for the next couple of seasons and with a pre-season clear of injury thus far expect Star to regain his rookie season form and carry on creating space for his defensive teammates.
Defensive End #1- Cameron Jordan (New Orleans Saints)
A shining light in the Saints front line, Jordan is without question the top Defensive End in the division. Averaging just under 10 sacks per season over the last four years, the two time Pro Bowler regular gets to the opposition QB, however, with the Saints ranking 27th in sacks registered last year it’s obvious that Jordan could benefit from help from his fellow lineman.
Defensive End #2 – Kony Ealy (Carolina Panthers)
Based on his incredible performance in last season’s Super Bowl, Ealy will be under increased focus this season. There was no denying that Ealy was the standout performer for the Panthers in the loss to the Broncos and the 2014 2nd round pick will be looking to carry on his form from the end of last season.
Weak-Side Linebacker – Lavonte David (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The greatest secret in the NFL, the man with the back to front name is a tackling machine. A freakish athlete with unbelievable speed and a nose for where the threat comes from, David is an inspiration as he patrols behind the Bucs front line. Very few players can cover the ground between middle of the field and the touchline quite like David. At this point in his career, David is surpassing the stats of a certain Derrick Brooks. Just saying………….
Middle Linebacker – Luke Kuechly (Carolina Panthers)
Use your force, Luke. Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 (youngest recipient of the award), Kuechly has been dominant since being drafted in the 1st round by the Panthers. A complete 3 down player with a natural ability for interceptions (isn’t that right Tony Romo?) Kuechly is unstoppable in the middle of the field and is one of the top, if not top, middle Linebacker in today’s NFL.
Strong-Side Linebacker – Thomas Davis (Carolina Panthers)
Davis has come back from not one, not two but three ACL injuries to the same knee over the course of his career and is playing the best football of his career. Mentally as tough as they come, Davis’ reputation for playing through injuries is legendary. Winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and Bart Starr Award, Davis is respected on and off the pitch as well as the community. Forms an intimidating 1-2 with Kuechly in Carolina.
Cornerback #1 – Desmond Trufant (Atlanta Falcons)
Trufant was on an upward trend since he started in the league in 2013. Whilst impressive against stopping the run, Trufant didn’t progress to the next level as expected in particular when defending the pass and this season will provide an insight into whether or not he can be included in the discussions with regards to the top Corners in the NFL.
Cornerback #2 – Delvin Breaux (New Orleans Saints)
Although Breaux playing in the NFL is somewhat akin to a fairytale story he is on the list purely on merit. Due to an injury sustained during a high school football game, his route to the NFL has been challenging to say the least. An impressive rookie season in 2015 will have given him the confidence that he can perform at the highest level and expect an even better season from a player who greatly appreciates the chance he has been given.
Strong Safety – Keanu Neal (Atlanta Falcons)
The first rookie on the list, Neal will be an instant starter in Atlanta for a team which was in real need at this position. Neal has the speed but also combines this with the power of a Linebacker. Opposing Tight Ends shouldn’t enjoy as much space against the Secondary with Neal at Strong Safety as they did in 2015.
Free Safety – Jairus Byrd (New Orleans Saints)
Dogged by injury over the past two seasons, Byrd is finally healthy and looking forward to getting back to his best when he was in his Prime at Buffalo. During his five seasons with the Bills, Byrd averaged over four interceptions per season and the Saints will be hoping he can repeat those numbers given his clean bill of health especially in a Defence that was ranked one of the worst when defending the pass in 2015.
Kicker – Roberto Aguayo (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The most successful kicker in College history ever. Say no more especially with regards to the 3rd and 4th round picks which the Bucs gave up to get their kicker.
Kick Returner – Devin Hester (Atlanta Falcons)
The greatest kick returner in NFL history and returner of the opening kick-off in Super Bowl XLI for a TD. A toe injury in 2015 curtailed Hester’s season and he will be looking to return to full health in 2016 to increase his tally of kicks returned for touchdowns which will be a record sure to remain in place for a long time.
Stuart is a big NFL fan who loves the roller coaster of emotions that comes with being a Buccaneers fan. When he isn’t watching the NFL he is busy daydreaming about spending the rest of his days on Clearwater Beach with a Tampa Bay Cheerleader. P.S. Don’t tell his wife that. Stuart can be followed on Twitter @stuarty1973.