The NFC south is home of the Super Bowl Champs. However, while the ageless wonder returns to the NFL’s most and only pewter jerseys, there is a ton of change at the helm of half the division. Meanwhile Matt Ryan is hanging around hoping the Chick-fil-A will eventually open on Sundays.
#1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5): A lot has been made about Tom Brady’s ability. This is with good reason. Brady is the greatest quarterback I’ve ever seen (yes I saw Montana play and grew up during his era of dominance). This doesn’t mean that external factors don’t play a role. For years he got to beat Ryan Fitzpatrick in the AFC east and a year after his arrival in the NFC south it looks positioned to be one of the worst divisions in football. The Falcons are a team who are a far cry from their Super Bowl appearance just a couple of years ago. The Carolina Panthers are armed with a QB who feels more at home on the set of Paranormal Activity than in the packet. Additionally, the Saints are set to rebuild in the wake of the retirement of their future Hall Of fame former QB Drew Brees.
Tampa Bay is the first team in the Super Bowl era to return all of their starters after winning the Super Bowl. The team has depth at their skill positions. While neither Ronald Jones, nor Leonard Fornette are elite, the two of them offer fresh legs and similar skills for continuous contribution. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are as goos as any top tier trio of pass catchers in the league and the triumvirate of Cameron Brate, OJ Howard and Gronk are dependable. Certainly Gronk is not the player he was and Howard has shown that at times he may be susceptible to injury but in a game as violent as this this type of depth is what gives a quarterback a feeling of security.
The Bucs are well aware of Tom Brady’s importance and his age. They have the fourth highest paid offensive line in the league. Still they didn’t grade as high as such a high priced unit should they were and should be solid enough for Brady’s quick read and the team’s spread run concepts. Defensively, we saw what the front line looked like in the Super Bowl when they had Pat Mahomes’ step counter melting in his pocket. Vita Vea and Ndamakong Suh ater up blockers last season and I expect the same to be true in 2021. The defense on the whole improved and we quickly learned how Antoine Winfield Jr. and Carlton Davis III.
Carolina Panthers (8-9)
We’ve all had a laugh at Sam Darnold. He did what we all say we want athletes to do (answer questions honestly) and got roasted for saying that the New England Defense has him “seeing ghosts”. I know the wording was unfortunate but we all know what he was trying to say. The truth of the matter is Sam Darnold isn’t “that bad”. I know this sentiment seems blasphemous. However, we’ve also seen when talented people leave the grasp of QB whisperer Adam Gase. Case in point: Ryan Tannehill.
Still I have my doubts. Christian McCaffery is a generational talent. He is explosive and does EVERYTHING you want a running back to do. He runs with speed and power, he blocks, he catches and strikes terror into opposing defences. They added Chuba Hubbard to spell him with the loss of Mike Davis but, Mike Davis is a very talented football player and while Chuba may have better raw skills, he will have a lot to learn if he would need to take over the way Davis had to last year. Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore are remarkably talented receivers and seem to have fit into their roles well last season. Moore is as dependable as it comes and given that he lines up in the slot he should get a lot of targets from a QB that has always favored his inside receivers.
However, the greater issue for the Panthers offense may actually be up front. They surrendered 36 sacks last season and will need to keep Darnold upright if they expect him to improve. The line is anchored by Taylor Molton but other than extending him the team did little to address this issue. On defense Jaycee Horn looks ready to have an impact immediately and this should be the strength of the Panthers defense as the young talent joins a unit that also added A.J. Bouye. The rest of the team’s defense seems lackluster at best. Sam Darnold will need to score often in order for this team to be more than just middle of the pack.
New Orleans Saints (7-10)
I know this team is talented. I know they were competitive for most of the season last year. I also know that Drew Brees is retired and as a Dolphins fan, I know how hard it is to replace a franchise QB. Stepping in is Jameis Winston 2.0. Lasers have given his eyes new life but whether or not his reading of the defense has been cured of linebacker blindness remains to be seen. I think Winston is talented but in this era where QBs really protect the ball well he seems to be the outcast. We will see some Taysom Hill as well and having him come in as a gadget player is probably the best role for him. The offense looked stagnant at times when he started but he does add offensive flexibility to an offense that may surprisingly need it.
Get ready for the Saints to be super run heavy. Something rarely attributed to Sean Peyton is that he’s a coach that actually runs the ball. The Saints had the 5th most rush attempts last season. The teams ahead of them (Ravens, Titans, Patriots, Browns) all had more mobile QBs than the Saints do. So clearly there’s a concentrated effort on behalf of the saints to run the ball. The tandem of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray will be busy, and with questions at the quarterback position and in the absence of Michael Thomas, the Saints will likely be playing a style of football that is slow, and will require a lot of efficiency to be successful.
The Saints allowed the 5th most passing yards last season. I do think this will be remedied somewhat by pace of play but the unit is not vastly improved. David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport and first round pick Payton Turner should be able to at the very least limit ground game efficacy and rush the passer. However, given everything I laid you, this means they will be playing in a lot of games with a razor thin margin and I DO NOT trust Jameis Winston in that situation.
Atlanta Falcons (4-13)
This one’s hard for me. My home away from home is Atlanta, Georgia. Many of my friends and family are Falcons fans and I want them to have enjoyable Sundays. The team just seems incomplete. Kyle Pitts will be a very good professional tight end. However, first year tight ends are rarely at their peak in their first seasons in the NFL. Calvin Ridley is insanely talented but without Julio Jones on the field he will garner a lot of defensive attention. Still, the offense should be competent enough. I do have slight questions at running back. Mike Davis looked good at times as the lead back in Carolina but he did wear down at times. There is also limited depth behind him.
Last year Atlanta’s defense improved through the season but never really scared anyone. Despite their improvements they allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the most passing yards last season. This team feels a lot like the Dallas Cowboys early last season. They will however be the budget version of that. The offense will score but obviously isn’t as talented as the Cowboys and the defense has a lower ceiling than last year’s Cowboys. They also have an issue with depth across the board. This wafer thin offering may crumble and leave your mouth dry before the season’s second act.
For the record, that last sentence doesn’t mean anything. No one said words HAVE TO mean something.