NFC South Season Preview

By the TFL Staff

This week the crew tackles the division that lost two straight Super Bowls but still looks to be the strongest in the NFC Conference. Despite the lack of Super Bowls this division has failed to get in recent years, this is a division that always brings intense football. Forget about an ominous 28-3 lead, forget about a silly robbery at a Super Market, this is 2017 baby, and these teams are packing heat for some serious competition!

Offensive Player of the Year- Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Two years into his career Winston has been every bit of what we saw in college. He has a cannon, can run, and loves to take risks. Heading into this year Jameis should be poised to take a step closer to the elite QB conversation.

The Bucs clearly went into this offseason looking to help the third year QB. Adding arguably the biggest impact player in this draft by taking TE O.J Howard in round one. Shortly Desean Jackson packed his bags to move to Tampa and I know Jameis loves this one. Now he has a player that will just run downfield most plays who he can just sling it to. Add that with Mike Evans and you have three legit weapons. I didn’t even mention Cameron Brate or Adam Humphries as weapons he has chemistry with today.

Winston started last season off on a bad note having a TD ratio in the same category as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jared Goff… yikes. But in the final 11 games he balled out. He posted a 19/10 TD rate and was one of the best red-zone QBs in the league. With a revamped offense those final 11 games can become more of the norm for Winston. You will still probably see a higher number of pics thrown by him, but thats expected, he plays QB as if he is in a flag football league. This guy LOVES to take risks, and that is what makes him so dangerous.

The only thing I can see holding back Jameis is his running game. Doug Martin was one of the better backs in the league then just fell apart last year. That leaves Charles Sims atop the depth chart. Lets just put it this way, your team most likely wont have a top-15 run game with Sims and an average offensive line. Tampa Bay drafted Jeremy McNicols out of Boise State in the fifth round and he can become the feature back in Tampa, but not this season. But with Winston chucking the ball 40 times a game it is hard to develop a run game, but him throwing it 40 times doesn’t require one. The good thing about their RB situation is that they can all catch passes. Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers are exceptional receiving backs, and the short passing game can be an extension of the run game. Due to sheer firepower a weak running game shouldn’t hold Winston back. Just ask Aaron Rodgers how much a run game, or the lack there of, can hold you back.

It is going to be more than fun to watch Winston play like the backyard quarterback he is and orchestrate one of the best offenses in the league. With an improved defense and a relatively weak schedule when it comes to passing defenses, I love the potential of Winston to have an MVP type year and play in a playoff game or two.

Predictions: 4,250 yards, 34 TDs, 12 INTs, 180 rush yards, 3 rushing TDs

Defensive Player of the Year- Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers

There were two players that caught my eye for this selection; LBs Vic Beasley and Luke Kuechly.

But because the Falcons drafted DE Takkarist McKinley in the first round, LB Duke Riley in the third, and signed DT Dontari Poe and DE Jack Crawford, Beasley’s chances as a sack machine will slim down.

No disrespect to Beasley, but Kuechly is just flat-out needed on the Panthers. The superstar linebacker has reached a Pro-Bowl in every year of his young career since 2013 (Although he deserved one in 2012 if you look at his stats). Where would the Carolina defense be if Kuechly wasn’t racking up at least 100 combined tackles a year? The reason Kuechly gets these numbers (and excuse my Madden phraseology) is because of his awareness and recognition of offensive plays. According to Pro Football Focus, Kuechly has had the highest run stop rate in the last two seasons (and he missed 9 games too). The pass is no difference, because he’s a proven ball-hawk and holds one of the lowest passer ratings against linebackers and his 12 interceptions are the most among Linebackers his age.

Similar to how Cam Newton is needed on the offense, Kuechly is needed on the defense. Have fun while ya can Carolina, because a player like this comes once in a lifetime.

Prediction: 140 combined tackles, 5 sacks, 9 pass deflections, 3 interceptions (1 for TD), 3 Forced Fumbles (1 recovered)

Rookie of the Year-  Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers 

Say what you want, this kid is good, and is a legitimate contender to win ROY in this division. McCaffrey will be considered the best rookie when all is said and done, simply because he has the easiest path to gaudy stats. Cam Newton can use a weapon who has the speed to go deep and the shiftiness to get away from defenders near the line of scrimmage, and McCaffrey should get plenty of carries behind an oft-banged up Jonathan Stewart. He’s also, bluntly, a running back who is already plenty famous from school, which helps his case whether we’d like to acknowledge that or not.

He’s not just a running back who can catch and be effective when removed from the backfield. When he leaves and is in the slot or even split to the outside, McCaffrey is a wide receiver. This not only makes Cam Newton very happy, but only gives him more of an opportunity to make plays.  The 20-year-old’s vision and his intricate footwork are the foundational skills he used to pile up 5,128 yards from scrimmage for the Cardinal. His collegiate career was highlighted by 2,019 rushing yards in 2015 and, more importantly, an NCAA record-setting 3,864 all-purpose yards that same season as he eclipsed Barry Sanders’ record by a mind-numbing 614 yards.

The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up also became the first player in the Rose Bowl’s storied history to finish with 100-plus rushing and receiving yards. He’s a three-way threat and ended that season among the top five in rushing yards and kick return yards. Injuries slowed him at times in 2016, but he still posted 1,913 yards from scrimmage while missing two games. He can do everything and at a high level. I really like this kid to take home rookie of the year in this division.

Teams Playing in January:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The NFC South is a confusing division. You’ll see the division champ lose the Super Bowl, then fall off the face of the earth for the team to take the division. The Bucs are that next team.

Looking at the roster it’s hard to think anything less of 10 wins for this team. Last year Tampa barely missed the cut at 9-7. And if it wasn’t for Doug Martin going a wall there is a good shot this team would’ve snuck into the playoffs. 

It’s is a new year however. Martin for the most part isn’t in the mix after being suspended for the first four games. Jameis Winston is primed to take advantage of his front offices great offseason. Mike Evans is ready to post his 4th straight 1,000 yard season is as many years. Add new addition Desean Jackson is the NFL’s active yards per catch leader averaging 17.7 yards, this is just what the doctor ordered in Tampa. And the offensive line is young, healthy, and ready to improve after a mediocre year. All arrows point up for the Bucs. You look around and it is hard to find a negative besides Martin heading into September. It all hinges on Winston and how he performs. And what he has shown, there is no reason he can’t make them a playoff team.

There is no doubt this offense can rank in the top-10 come January, but the defense will make or break the season. It is weird to say that looking at this defense on paper. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are two of the best at their respective positions but can’t seem to step up when need be. Everything else is fine, last year the Bucs forced 27 turnovers, thats enough to put your team into the playoffs. Even with forcing all those turnovers this team only managed to have the 23rd ranked defense in yards given up. The bright side, the Falcons were ranked 25th and made it to the Super Bowl… then proceeded to blow a 28-3 lead, I’m sorry I had to do it once, right? But the Bucs got little production out of their two best players. McCoy is has a salary just north of $15 million a year and had only 34 tackles, that flat out is not enough. Yes he made a Pro Bowl but thats politics nowadays. David had an average year, but when you record 130+ tackles your first four years, proceed to net a huge contract, 87 tackles in 16 games is not enough. Just imagine how dangerous this team can be if their two biggest money makers earn their money. If David and McCoy can get back to form with emerging youngsters Noah Spence and Kwon Alexander, we have a top-12 to 15 defense right here.

You look at this division and as of right now it is a race between Atlanta and Tampa Bay. I don’t see the Falcons collapsing like the Panther did after Super Bowl 50, but combine an improved Bucs team and the fact that this division is the hardest to win, I see a new division champ.

Prediction: 11-5, NFC South Champs

Atlanta Falcons

Losing on football’s biggest stage is not an easy pill to swallow, but blowing a 24 point lead on the biggest stage, is a scar that never heals. After blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl last season to New England, Atlanta is faced with the grueling task of trying to overcome a distasteful end to a remarkable season. The Falcons took to the headlines this past week when they signed star Running Back, Devonta Freeman, to a five-year contract extension that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid running back. The Falcons have been as one of the more up and down teams in recent years in the NFL. I think many Falcons supporters were in shock that the 2016–17 team wasn’t an 8 win team. The team managed to overcome one significant injury and other relatively minor injuries and were able to bring together enough talent on defense to help a historic offense earn wins. The team embraced the “next man up” philosophy like no other Falcons team I’ve ever seen. But, in the NFL injuries can include an element of luck and the Falcons were very lucky with injuries throughout the regular season. The season goes southward very quickly if  any of Ryan, Coleman, Freeman, the whole O-Line, or any other speciality player were to go down. The truth is that last year was more of an open window than this season will be for the Falcons, but this team is still very capable of crowning another division title.

The loss of Kyle Shanahan will no doubt hurt Atlanta’s offense a little, but not by a wide margin. Shanahan was outstanding during an 11-5 regular season. But he became the Super Bowl scapegoat when Atlanta couldn’t run out the clock in the fourth quarter. He’s gone, and how well former USC head coach and brief Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian replaces him is more important than any on-field position battle.

The next thing to focus on beyond the OC position, is how Matt Ryan will respond after last season. The argument surrounding Ryan’s “eliteness” ended in 2016. The veteran was both statistically impressive (4,944 yards, 38 TDs, seven INTs) and a commanding force in two playoff wins. Sarkisian’s play-calling tendencies in the college game promoted play-action and no huddle, which jibes with the aspects of Shanahan’s system that elevated Ryan’s game. Ryan hasn’t missed a start since the 2009 season, but Atlanta extended the agreement of backup Matt Schaub, the most reliable No. 2 option the Falcons have had in years. Let’s not even get started on Devonta Freeman. Freeman was the breakout star of Atlanta’s offense last season. Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver if not its most physically impressive. Perhaps more important for Jones was that the big free-agency price paid for Mohamed Sanu (59 catches on 81 targets). Jones and Sanu thrived when Ryan consistently hit supporting targets (Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper and breakout sensation Taylor Gabriel), forcing defenses to avoid bracket and double coverage. Sarkisian’s burden will be to continue to spread out targets in his play calls as well as Shanahan did. Sanu and Jones are known quantities, but Gabriel, Hooper, Justin Hardy and re-signed tight end Levine Toilolo have to prove they weren’t merely system successes.

But of course, with positives, their does come negatives. The truth is that the defense is still very young, and was one of the main reasons they were not able to hoist the Lombardi trophy.  But this loss will be easy to make up if they can start to develop their young players, as well as translate their new rookie talent into superstars. In the offseason head Coach Dan Quinn fired defensive coordinator Richard Smith and promoted Marquand Manuel after the Super Bowl collapse. Nowhere has the Quinn era created more change than in the front seven. Atlanta again shed old bodies during the offseason and again drafted with a focus on defensive speed and versatility. First-round pick Takkarist McKinley will become a pass-rushing complement to Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks (15.5) last season. Run stuffer Dontari Poe was a literally massive signing in free agency. The emergence of rookie tackle Grady Jarrett was a surprise in ’16. The Falcons must continue to develop a pass rush beyond Beasley and contend with a division that’s spent 2017 trying to balance its elite quarterbacks with big runners. The Falcons’ fourth quarter vs. New England in the Super Bowl was a snapshot of what this very young defense must improve upon, and that is depth and disruption. Another year has allowed Quinn to stock personnel better suited to his signature Cover 3, but the Falcons lived and ultimately died by the variety of pressures they could create up front.

They may have the most loaded roster in the league and should get a boost opening their new stadium. The big questions about the NFC champs are the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, and the Falcons went on an unprecedented bender, the loss of OC Kyle Shanahan and a midseason stretch of four road games in five weeks that includes trips to New England and Seattle. This team is very capable of returning right back to where they left off, but it will come down to how they perform in the big games, as well as the overall mentality after last year’s super bowl lost.

Prediction: 10-6

Teams who will join the Browns:

Carolina Panthers

From Super Bowl in 2016 to a no-show in 2017, the Panthers are scaring their fans right now. The rise of the Buccaneers and Falcons isn’t helping their case either. This team, like many others, has the pieces to make another run for the Lombardi trophy, but also lacks the ones needed to soothe the process.

If you look at Cam Newton’s year-by-year statistics on the pass, they’re not too great (except his monstrous 2015 MVP Campaign). And in 6 playoff games, he’s only had 10 touchdowns to 11 turnovers. However Cam has potential. His strong arm and ability to run has given him the opportunity to soar as a QB. And his weapons are something to write home about.

In the backfield you have first-round pick RB Christian McCafrrey who avoids tackles and is an effective pass-catcher, and veteran Johnothan Stewart is still around to bring depth. The WR situation looks great too. If Kelvin Benjamin can remain healthy, he, with the help of second year receiver Devin Funchess and second round pick Curtis Samuel, can give Newton the opportunities he needs to prove haters wrong. Don’t forget about veteran Greg Olsen who proves every year he’s at least a top 10 TE.

The main problem with this offensive unit is the line. The loss of Michael Oher isn’t the issue, it’s more so the depth at Tackle. So the Panthers signed former Viking Matt Kalil, who has performed less than average so far. They also drafted Taylor Moton in the second round, who they hope to be wildcard on the line. At Guard, Trai Turner is great but he gets flags too often and his production is dropping off. This was mostly due to the lack of depth at tackle and Darryl Williams’ poor performance.They got rid of Mike Remmers which is a blessing, but this O-Line needs to do a better job at protecting their former MVP Quarterback.

The Panthers defense is solid but spotty, and the main reason this team has trouble winnings games.

At the secondary, SS Kurt Coleman and FS Mike Adams are both playing well down the field, but the cornerback situation is still a little iffy. The Panthers will rely on second year CBs James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, who had some serious growing pains their rookie season. It’s not fair to say they’re bad, because they’re not, but it’s up to them to make something of this secondary this season.

Luckily for the Panthers D, they’re front seven is what can save them this year. At LB, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson control the middle of the field, and the depth at the position is brimming with talent (David Mayo, Jared Norris, Jeremy Cash). And DTs Star Lotuleilei and Karan Short disrupt the run. The Panthers signed Julius Peppers too, who can surprise many despite his age. He will join Charles Johnsona and Mario Addison in what looks like a solid pass rush.

I would love to be excited for this Panthers team, but the questions on the offensive line and secondary are too much for Ron Rivera and his boys to handle. However, this team can pick up within the following years and perhaps regain their Super Bowl form.

Prediction: 7-9

New Orlean Saints

There’s no hiding it Who Dat Nation, your Team isn’t doing squat this year…Now before you start plotting a revenge against me, hear me out. A lot of the Saints problems will not be fixed in 2017.

Let’s be real, the defense is a mess, a real mess. The Saints lost a lot this offseason too. Although safeties Jairus Byrd and Roman Harper showed signs of aging and mediocre play, they were still starters. And while I admire the Saints’ draft picks being focused on defense, I doubt first and second round picks CB Marshon Lattimore and FS Marcus Williams will have serious impact on year one, which leaves the secondary in danger if they don’t perform to expectation. The Saints also signed free agents LB Manti Te’o and DE Alex Okafor. Well that would be great if Te’o didn’t always have injury issues and subpar play. and while Okafor could finally get a chance to shine after being hidden under Arizona’s defensive unit, there’s not much you can say about him because he doesn’t have many snaps under his belt.

DE Cameron Jordan stands to me as the only great defensive player on this unit, (with the exception of DT Nick Fairley who is missing the season due to a heart condition). That’s the problem. You can’t have just one great guy.  This defense needs numerous great players under a solid Defensive coordinator in order to succeed. The Saints organization keeps boasting about the improvements of second year players and veterans who returned from injury, but how much of that is really true? Will the return of SS Kenny Vaccaro and CBs Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams really help this defense? They were never really great in the first place, and injury returns don’t make you better. Will the improvement of second year players SS Vonn Bell, CBs Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris really mean improvement, or just less snaps for less embarassment? The Saints had the worst pass defense last year and the second worst the year before. Their run defense has picked up since 2015 (going from 31st to 14th), but let’s hope the front seven can keep it up.

The offense is where the Saints can relax, because under center lies one of the greatest QBs who ever lived. Say all you want about Drew Brees, but his stats will make you wish you had a gunslinger like him. The 38 year old veteran hasn’t thrown for less than 4,000 yards since 2005, when he was in San Diego! Brees hasn’t scored less than 30 touchdowns in a season since 2007. He’s also the only QB to throw for 5,000 yards FIVE times! No other QB has more than one 5,000 yard season. He holds virtually every Saints Franchise record and numerous NFL records. So if you were to ask me if Brandin Cooks leaving will hurt Brees? I’d answer with a laugh and let the season prove you wrong.

Brees may have lost a weapon but the Saints didn’t leave him in bad hands. In the backfield Brees will be supported by RBs Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. Three years ago I would say let Peterson take starting reps, but Peterson’s age and Ingram’s steady improvements leave that question up in the air.  Peterson was limited to 20 games in the last 3 seasons due to suspension and injury, which has definitely made an impact on the half-back. I still think he can be a good addition to the squad, but don’t expect him to show anything flashy.

The Saints have a stable line, and Brees knows that. The trade for C Max Unger seems to have been a good one, and 2015 first round pick LG Andrus Peat has developed smoothly. Add in good supporters Like T Terron Armstead and RG Larry Warford and you’re sealing off the pressure. The Saints don’t have an all-star line, but with Brees and consistent play, it’ll get the job done.

If you’re a receiver for the New Orlean Saints, then pat yourself on the back because your stats are about to get an upgrade. WR Michael Thomas had an amazing year one, and his height and skill could very well make him WR1. His supporting cast consists of veteran Ted Ginn, who’s known to either make plays or miss them, the 6’6″ Brandon Coleman whose size will dominate small corners, and the young but proven Willie Snead who has been a reliable weapon for Brees recently.

Why are the Saints doing bad this year? Well it’s not really their fault, their division is tough, and the Saints just don’t have what it takes this year to step up and claim the South, unless HC Sean Payton has another “bounty” idea. I would say everything is going to be okay, but the Saints need to get some success before Brees retires. Maybe they’ll surprise us this year.

Prediction: 5-11

That’s all for this week folks! Join us next time as we look at another group of teams who may or may not have what it takes to be an American Ninja War- I mean Super Bowl Champ!

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