Up until recently, picking the winner of the NFC South was easier than most divisions as there was a proven formula; ignore the previous winner and pick one of the other three teams. By the end of the 2012 season there had never been back to back champions of the division. Since 2013, however, the Carolina Panthers have owned the NFC South and here is what the other teams in the division are doing to get back to challenging for the division.
Where do you start when it comes to predicting the Falcons? The Dirty Birds are capable of the sublime and the ridiculous in quick succession. Starting last season 5-0, the Falcons then proceeded to lose eight of their next eleven games to miss out on the play-offs altogether. Looking at their first five wins, four were won in the 4th quarter or OT. Granted, a win is a win but 5-0 was only a couple of plays from being 1-4 and the winning run was destined to be stopped eventually. Still, they were the only team to inflict a regular season blow to the Panthers in week 16.
In the off-season, the Falcons decided to call time on Roddy White’s career in Atlanta based on declined production over the last couple of seasons. During his prime, White had 6 continuous 1000+ yard seasons and was an elite Wide Receiver. With Julio Jones now firmly established as No.1 Wide Receiver at Atlanta (and possibly in the league), Mohamed Sanu from the Bengals has been brought in to compliment Jones in Kyle Shanahan’s Offense. If Sanu can repeat his numbers from his 2014 season then I’m sure the Falcons would be happy although lack of consistency appears to have hindered him during his time in Cincy. The Offensive Line was in need of an upgrade and signing Alex Mack from Cleveland will certainly help. Vic Beasley seemed to be a slow burner during his rookie year and if he can begin this season as he finished last then along with new signing Derrick Shelby at DE then then Falcons should be able to get to the QB with more success than last year. A couple of additions in FA at the Line-Backer position should also help; ex-Raven Courtney Upshaw has been added along ex-Cardinal (and ex-Falcon) Sean Weatherspoon. Where the Falcons do not require help is at the Corner Back position where they have the talented Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant who continued to perform well despite the lack of pass rush.
With the trio of Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and the incredible Julio Jones on Offense, the Falcons can never be discounted from any game, however, if they still struggle to rush the passer when playing six divisional games against QBs Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Drew Brees then this may be a long season for the Dirty Birds.
New Orleans Saints
When talking about the Saints, it’s impossible not to mention the recent tragic death of Defensive End Will Smith. Smith was a disruptive force on the Defense for the best part of a decade which included victory in Super Bowl XLIV. A first round draft pick who was as much an inspiration off the field as he was on it, Smith was voted in to the Saint’s Hall of Fame in March this year and was due to be formally inducted during a home game this season. Only 34 years old, Smith leaves behind a wife and three young children. Heart-breaking.
The trading of Jimmy Graham at the beginning of last season left the Saints with a huge hole to fill on the Offense, however, Ben Watson’s break-out season was perfect timing for the Saints. Unfortunately, Watson has since signed a two year deal with the Ravens leaving another large hole at the Tight End position to try and fill. Another big question must be the future of future HoF QB Drew Brees. On his day, Brees is still one of the elite passers in the NFL however at 37 years old and another season interrupted due to injuries can he keep performing at a high level? Of course if there’s no-one to catch the ball then Brees health is irrelevant. With Brandon Cooks as their top WR, I would expect the Saints to improve the depth at this position during the off season. Brandon Browner has re-signed with the Seahawks after a less than successful season in NO (albeit possibly due to injury) so a replacement at CB position has also to be a priority. Ex-Ram James Laurinitius has been brought in to shore up the Line-Backer corps.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Holders of bottom spot in the division since 2012, the Bucs are hoping to go from last-to-first which was exactly what they did after being bottom dwellers in 2006 and top dogs in 2007. As a history lesson, the NFC South winners from 2003 to 2007 were teams who finished bottom the previous season. To challenge for the Division, the Bucs decided it was time for a change at Head Coach position. Out went Defensive minded HC Lovie Smith and in came Offensive Co-ordinaries Dirk Koetter. Koetter’s first move was to bring in ex-Falcons HC Mike Smith as the new Defensive Co-ordinator so expect Tampa’s defensive scheme to be completely different and more aggressive when compared against the previous regime.
As far as personnel is concerned, the Bucs best bit of business in the off-season was tying up Running Back Doug Martin on a long term contract. Martin burst on the scene as a rookie in 2012, however, two injury plagued seasons resulted in him looking as if he was on his way out of Tampa. Fortunately, one healthy pre-season led to Martin returning to his rookie season form and helped lead an impressive 1-2 punch at the Running Back position with Charles Sims. Obviously the positions to be upgraded were on Defense where there was a distinct lack of pass rush and coverage in the secondary. The Bucs looked to improve both these areas in FA with the addition of DE Robert Ayers from the Giants and Brent Grimes from the Dolphins. Grimes may well be on the downside of his career but is a big improvement at the position and his experience should prove valuable for the younger members of the secondary.
With the relationship between Koetter and Winston intact, the return of Doug Martin and a new defensive scheme complimented with what will be a defensive minded draft, the Bucs have the best chance of challenging the Panthers Divisional dominance.
Without question, not only the dominant team in the NFC South but also the dominant team in the NFC. Even the top teams in the NFL always need to keep improving and the Panthers are no exception.
One position that looked as if it wasn’t in need of an upgrade was at Corner Back. That all changed when the Franchise Tag was removed from Josh Norman due to a lack of agreement over a long term deal. In this instance I get the feeling that no-one really wins; the Panthers have lost one of the top corners in the game and Norman may never get that close to a Super Bowl again. Granted, Norman has signed a bumper contract, however, he would still have received a multi-million dollar contract with the Panthers whilst maintaining a realistic shot at getting a ring or two. Where the Panthers don’t have to worry about an upgrade is at the QB position. Cam Newton aka Super Cam. Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him. Obviously the Super Bowl result and subsequent sulk during the post-match interview has brought its fair share of negative press and he will be under the spotlight more than ever when the new season kicks-off.
One signing the Panthers did make was the re-signing of Defensive End Charles Johnson. Johnson had talks with the Giants and the Bucs when a free agent however he returned to sign for Carolina and, if the media is to be believed, for half the money he was offered by New York. In this day and age, Johnson’s decision not to simply follow the money has to be applauded. The return of Kelvin Benjamin after a serious knee injury is a massive boost for the Panthers. Cam will be delighted at the prospect of a fully fit Benjamin teaming up with Tight End Glenn Olsen. The Panthers also exercised their 5th year option on Defensive Tackle Star Lotulelei who was the team’s first round pick in 2013.
To summarise, the Panthers must be hot favourites to top the NFC South again but it will be far more competitive than last season’s canter to the title.
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