ALL 32 of the NFL’s franchises are making their final preparations for the regular season, having completed training camp and played their four preseason games.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the state of play in each division, continuing this time with the NFC South.
Please, please remember that for all articles the preseason games will be ignored, no matter how good or bad a team looks. That means stellar preseason performances like Dak Prescott’s unfortunately have to go unappreciated.All signs in the NFC South point to Cam Newton – aka SuperCam – leading his Carolina Panthers to (at least) the playoffs. The reigning NFL MVP might have looked a shadow of his regular-season self in the Super Bowl but for the 2016 season he has 6’5” receiver Kelvin Benjamin back from injury, who led the team in yards (1,008) and touchdowns (nine) in 2014. With Newton’s continued improvement as a passer in 2015, the re-introduction of the former Florida State WR is huge for the QB’s development and the offense as a whole, as it will open up more opportunities for star tight end Greg Olsen.
The defence lost Josh Norman. That gotta hurt, even if they won’t admit it. For all his aggro (on and off the field), Norman was a legitimate All-Pro last year. Out of the Panthers five draft choices in the 2016 draft, three were cornerbacks. Their bid to try and replace the Coastal Carolina product didn’t go as they would have hoped as only two made the squad: small-schooler James Bradberry of Samford and West Virginia standout Daryl Worley. Zack Sanchez from Oklahoma University hits the practice squad. With a diminished secondary, Carolina will be hoping for even better play from its front seven. They’re lucky they have the league’s best middle linebacker in Luke Kuechly and a resurgent Thomas Davis, who at 33 is playing arguably his best football since he was drafted following a spate of ACL injuries between 2009 and 2011., earning his first ever First-team All-Pro selection in 2015. The retirement of future Hall of Fame candidate Jared Allen won’t be felt too much by a defensive line that contributed to a top-five run defence because 1) he didn’t play the whole season and 2) though he started every game in Carolina, he wasn’t used on every down. Kony Ealy will ramp up his efforts to ensure a similar veteran need not be brought in this year.
The Atlanta Falcons finished the 2015 season on a 2-7 win-loss run – but one of those two wins was against the Panthers. That counts for something, if not a whole lot, because the defence last year was so bad you’d be forgiven for forgetting a former Seattle Seahawks coach was the man in charge and the offense under Matt Ryan choked at key moments like Pat Ewing’s Knicks against Reggie Miller’s Pacers (I just watched the Miller Time documentary by ESPN – hence the reference. Sorry, Knicks fans!)
Ryan still threw for over 4,500 yards but it was his 16 interceptions that made this offense stutter. Even more so considering he kept throwing these picks in the red zone. However, Julio Jones is still a top-five receiver in this league. Devonta Freeman had a breakout campaign. The Falcons signed Alex Mack in free agency to shore up the offensive line. All of the offensive starters, save for Mack, are in (at least) their second year of offensive co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Mix all that together and you have the recipe for a hot return to form…
Until you remember the defence was so bad you’d be forgiven for forgetting a former Seattle Seahawk coach was the man in charge. The Falcons were in the bottom half of the league for total defense, passing defense, turnover differential and sacks – the latter of which they ranked dead last. Vic Beasley will have to step up following a mediocre rookie campaign for a top-ten pick and this year’s defensive draft choices – De’Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal – will have to contribute quickly. Good news: they received rave reviews in the offseason. Bad news: Neal is out injured for at least three weeks. With Atlanta’s schedule starting off with four divisional games they need him back as quickly as possible before the team has to play catch up.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new head coach in Dirk Koetter. He’s not a completely new face however, as he moves up from the offensive co-ordinator position following the firing of Lovie Smith. The Smith firing was a weird one, but if nothing else it showed Tampa has full faith – and is putting full trust – in its new franchise QB Jameis Winston. Winston had a fine rookie year and threw for over 4,000 yards and didn’t display any of the negative vibes he was rumoured to emit coming out of college. Doug Martin had his best year rushing the football since 2012, his rookie year, and the Bucs made the right decision by eventually re-signing him. Mike Evans had somewhat of a drop off from his own rookie year in 2014 (pardon the pun), leading the league in drops and catching only three touchdown passes compared to 12 last year. If Austin Sefarian-Jenkins can move past his injury issues and have a full year with a clean bill of health a la Jordan Reed, this offense should have no problem staying in the top five.
Tampa’s defence struggled against the pass and particularly in generating turnovers. Top draft choice Vernon Hargreaves, from the University of Florida, along with free agent Brent Grimes from Miami, should make the unit more exciting (and successful). Elsewhere, defensive lineman Gerald McCoy is still one of the best at his position but the addition of Robert Ayers should improve the pass rush.
The New Orleans Saints have Drew Brees. And they’ve finally locked up him on a new contract too. But the have Drew Brees and nobody else really. The receiving corps doesn’t scare anyone, even if Brandin Cooks conjures up another 1,000+ yard season and rookie Michael Thomas fills the Marques Colston void. The running game features two injury-riddled backs in Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller. The former might just be turning the corner but Spiller was basically a non-factor last season. Brees is a sure-fire Hall of Famer but his offensive line is, on a good day, slightly above average at best. Max Unger and Terron Armstead are the only guys with much credit. Add in the fact that the Jimmy Graham trade has proved a lose-lose situation for all involved and this offense is the definition of a one-man show. Brees is like Tom Brady in that respect.
Where Brees is let down though is by his defence. While the New England Patriots defence features few Pro Bowl names, it is at least meticulously well coached. The same cannot be said for the Saints. Finishing in the bottom two of both pass and rush defense and dead last in points allowed, the Saints front office did the right thing and addressed these needs in the draft and free agency. Welcome aboard defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, to stop the run; safety Vonn Bell to shore up the back end and provide turnovers; and linebacker James Laurinaitis to provide veteran leadership. Unfortunately the most important of those three, first-round pick Sheldon Rankins, is injured and sidelined for at least two months.
1st– Carolina Panthers
2nd– Atlanta Falcons
3rd= Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3rd= New Orleans Saints