How you feel about the NFC South says a lot about you. If you’re a glass half full person: the South has sent a team to the Super Bowl two years in a row, fielded the NFL MVP in both of those years, and retained most of the key pieces that helped it reach those highs. Things are chugging along nicely, you tell yourself, for the NFC South: the best division in the NFL.
On the other hand, if you like your glasses half-empty, you’re thinking that the NFC South has blown the Super Bowl two years in a row, both times in either controversial or embarrassing fashion, that the Carolina Panthers still haven’t got over a record-setting Super Bowl hangover, and that the explosive offense that brought the Atlanta Falcons achingly close to the Lombardi Trophy has packed up and left for San Francisco. The Falcons were a gimmick that was exposed in the last game of the season, the Buccaneers are trying to build around the second-best quarterback in his draft class, and Drew Brees is 97 years old. They had a couple good seasons, sure, but the other shoe is about to drop for the NFC South: the most overrated division in the NFL.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: there’s no truly woeful team in the South. It’s hard to project any of them to be worse than 7-9, and each of the four could have a great season. Whether they can all be fantastic at the same time, however, is a totally different question. The NFC South could be the toughest division in football for a good team to have a great year, and the Bucs missing the playoffs despite a respectable 9-7 season goes a long way to proving that.
Atlanta Falcons: Over 9.5
Well, at least you know the offense will be in shape. Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, and most of the other key pieces are returning, so look for another year of ludicrous passing stats and efficient rushing. Everyone’s at least a little concerned about the loss of Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco and the hiring of Steve Sarkisian — Sarkisian’s record as a coach is far from spotless, and at least part of what made this offense work was the scheming of Shanahan — but you can draw a lot of parallels between Shanahan and Sarkisian offenses.* The personnel are all here for another great season, and there’s no reason to expect that the Falcon offense will take a dramatic step backwards in 2017.
The defense is, well, less attractive. That’s probably why defensive coordinator Richard Smith was fired after the Super Bowl disaster. On the plus side, they’re an aggressive, flashy unit, and Vic Beasley gets to the passer more than anyone. But the defensive line was, as a whole, inconsistent. Drafting Takk McKinley should help (he might have been the best edge rusher in the draft), as will signing the inimitable Dontari Poe. The linebacking corps is getting a refreshed, modern look, and the secondary is promising, but ultimately this model of defense relies on creating pressure up front. The Falcons are fielding a young defense, this time with a little veteran help, that should improve on last year and hopefully move past 2016’s disappointments.
Winning ten games against this schedule is totally doable for a Super Bowl team that both retains most of what made it great and improves on what made it unreliable. People are down on the Falcons because of what happened in the title game, but don’t let 1.5 quarters of panicked play-calling by a departed offensive coordinator dissuade you from one of the most efficient teams in football.
*Both lost championship games in 2017, for example.
Carolina Panthers: Under 8.5
There are Super Bowl hangovers, and then there’s this: the Carolina Panthers regressed from 15-1 to 6-10 and from first in scoring to 15th. Then Cam Newton got hurt. His shoulder’s improving, certainly, and there’s some very dramatic video of him playing catch in a locker room, but that’s no reason to expect a big step forward from last year.
The Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey with their first-round pick, taking the Stanford running back for his versatility, his hands, and his ability to make big plays. The idea is that surrounding Newton with talented ball carriers and dump-off options will alleviate pressure and allow him to do more of what the Panthers drafted him to do.
Fortunately, the pass defense that allowed some record-setting numbers in 2016 should be improving. The secondary, which at this time last year consisted of Kurt Coleman, three hurt rookies, and safety Tre Boston, has been improved with the addition of Mike Adams at safety and the return of Captain Munnerlyn at corner. You can also expect a better start to the season from second-year corners Darryl Worley and James Bradberry, the latter of whom Pro Football Focus gave the highest grade of any rookie corner in 2016 by year’s end.
Hopefully things get better for the Panthers in 2016, but projecting nine wins is a bit much. If you happen to be an orthopaedic surgeon with some deep understanding of Cam Newton’s recovery, this might be a good bet, but otherwise this team is too volatile and in too competitive a division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Over 8.5
In a division stacked with some of the most potent offenses in professional football, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have adopted a bold strategy: double down on offense.
The Buccaneers used their first-round pick to draft O.J. Howard, the criminally underused tight end from Alabama, who exploded for 208 yards in the 2016 title game against Clemson. He’ll give Jameis Winston something to throw to outside of Mike Evans, who led the league in targets last year. Their reliance on Evans also motivated the Bucs to add free-agent DeSean Jackson and draft Penn State receiver Chris Godwin. Expect a more varied passing attack this year.
All this focus on the offense leaves the defense looking a little thin. The team has made 26 draft picks with Jason Licht as GM, and only eight of them have been defensive players. This year they added safety Justin Evans in the second round, and LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith in the beginning of the fourth. This doesn’t really constitute an overhaul and most of their offseason transactions were related to retaining defensive players, so you’ll see broadly the same squad as last year. Defense hasn’t been the focus of the Tampa front office, because defense isn’t how a team succeeds in this division.
The investment in receiving tools and offensive threats indicates that the front office is all in on Jameis Winston, who has performed admirably for a young QB but needs to move to the next level if the Buccaneers want to be a playoff team. Playing in a division that features Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton makes it easy to look a little underwhelming, but Jameis has put up respectable numbers, albeit with a few too many turnovers. Throwing 18 picks and surrendering four fumbles isn’t a great stat for a franchise quarterback, but hopefully they’re markers of aggression rather than incompetence. If he continues to improve, particularly with all the support he has now, this could quite plausibly be a 10-win playoff team.
New Orleans Saints: Over 8.0
The Saints haven’t won eight games since 2013, and have finished with exactly seven wins three years in a row. Picking them to win nine is bold, I understand, but it might just be great value.
Disclaimer: Drew Brees is 38 years old. If you’re not comfortable with that, step away from the sportsbook now. That said, he’s never relied on his physicality; his skillset is less obvious than that, and as franchise quarterbacks get older, their teams get more and more urgent about winning championships.
To this last point: Drew Brees is being joined by fellow pensioner Adrian Peterson, who is set to share the workload with Mark Ingram and hopefully contribute some of the magic that made him a fantasy football darling for so long. Adding Peterson isn’t likely to help the Saints for much more than one year (coincidentally the term of his contract) but will help the offense of a team looking to make a playoff run in 2017.
The Saints’ defense improved in its second year under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, but that’s not exactly setting a high bar. Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins did some nice work pressuring the passer, but the sacks just didn’t come and the pressure wasn’t converted into effective defense. They’ve sought to improve at linebacker, signing free agent Manti Te’o, A.J Klein and Alex Anzalone, but their success depends on Dannell Ellerbe’s ability to stay healthy and contribute on the weak side.
The Saints are trying to win in one of their last years with Drew Brees, who is a free agent in 2018. Winning nine games will be tough, particularly in this division, but I’m always attracted to teams that know they’re on their last legs before rebuilding, or signing Matt Stafford, or something equally terrifying.