NFC South Divisional Breakdown: The Saints Reclaim Their Throne
With NFL teams set to return to offseason camps and training programs, we take a closer look at how each team stacks up in the NFC South. In a division up for grabs this season, I’ll analyze how each team fairs in their attempt to secure the division crown.
My rankings are comprised off of odds, win total projections, and additions to each team in the draft and free agency.
|Team||Odds to win Division||Win Totals||2019 Record||2019 PF||2019 PA||DIFF|
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have won the NFC South title six times since 2005 and have won the last three in a row. Their recent stretch of dominance should not come as a surprise as the Saints have one of the best head coaches Shawn Peyton and have an all-time great quarterback in Drew Brees. Last season, the Saints again claimed the NFC South crown with a 13-3 record. The team was 5th in scoring per game and cruised through the regular season despite Brees missing five games. They are the favorites to come out of the NFC South (-110) and experts have pegged them to win 10.5 games this season.
What separates New Orleans from the rest of the division is its consistent track record and stability across the organization. They have one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in Drew Brees and Michael Thomas. Last season, Thomas set the record for receptions in a single season (149) and also recorded the most receiving yards in the NFL (1,725). Many consider him to be the best receiver in all of football. New Orleans also returns all of its starting offensive line, which ranked 5th as a unit last season, according to Pro Football Focus. They have one of the best tackle duos between Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. Drew Brees’ quick passing game combined with one of the league’s best pass-blocking lines resulted in the lowest pressure rate in the NFL last season (24.9%).
Along with Michael Thomas, the Saints added receiver Emmanuel Sanders who proved to be a difference-maker last season on the San Francisco 49ers. When healthy Sanders has produced at a high-level, as the wideout has five seasons with at least 850 yards receiving. Since trading Jimmy Graham to Seattle in 2015, the Saints have been looking for an adequate receiving threat at the tight end position. The addition of Jared Cook proved to be a good one last season, as the tight end racked up 705 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. New Orleans also boasts a top dual-threat running back in Alvin Kamara, who regressed last season but should bounce back in 2020. In a down year, Kamara still produced 797 rushing yards, 81 receptions, and 6 total touchdowns.
Defensively, the Saints ranked near the middle of the pack last season, as they had the NFL’s 14th ranked scoring defense (21.6). The teams addressed many of the holes on defense in free agency and the draft. New Orleans added Wisconsin linebacker Zach Baun in the 3rd round of the draft and free-agent safeties Malcolm Jenkins and D.J. Swearinger during the offseason. Baun ranked 4th at his position before Saints took him in the third round- one of the steals of the draft in my mind. As a senior, Baun recorded 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. The additions of Jenkins and Swearinger should undoubtedly help a secondary that ranked 19th in passing yards per game last season (240.8). The former Eagle’s captain gives the Saints an excellent safety duo between Jenkins and safety Marcus Williams. New Orleans also re-signed 2019 starters David Onyemata (DT) and P.J. Williams (CB).
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa comes off a season in which they tied for the second spot in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons. They currently have the second-best odds (+160) to win the division and projected to win 9.5 games in 2020. The Bucs made the biggest free-agent signing this offseason when they agreed to a two-year deal with former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The addition of Brady alone makes the Bucs instant contenders in the NFL, and I could see them taking the NFC South title over the Saints.
With Brady at the helm, Tampa transitions from an offense led by Jameis Winston to the best quarterback of all-time. While Winston threw thirty interceptions last season, Brady has yet to meet that number in his previous three seasons combined. Last season Brady managed to throw for 4,057 yards and 24 touchdowns despite having a depleted wide receiver corps. In Tampa, Brady should be able to put up eye-popping numbers, as he has a ton of weapons at his disposal. At wideout, the Bucs have two 1,000-yard receivers between Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. They’re even more stocked at the tight end position. Former teammate Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join the Bucs and bolsters a unit that already features Cameron Brate and former 1st rounder O.J. Howard. Brady will now have three legitimate options at the tight end position, and this pass-catching group could prove to be the best in the NFL this season.
The Buccaneers also had the 7th ranked offensive line last season. While they lost starter Demar Dotson in free agency, the team selected OT Tristan Whirfs in the first round of the draft. Whirfs was the highest-rated offensive lineman in the 2020 draft class and should be a day 1 starter for Tampa Bay. The additions of Gronkowski and Brady should help a unit that finished 4th in points per game last season (28.6) become one of the NFL’s elite once again. Although the team is elite on offense, defensively Tampa has a ton of question marks. Last season they were one of the NFL’s worst scoring defenses (28.1 OPPG). The team managed to re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul (EDGE), Ndamukong Suh (DT), Ryan Smith (CB), and Shaq Barrett (EDGE) in free agency. Barrett led the NFL in sacks last season with 19.5 and should make Tampa’s pass-rush one of the game’s best this season.
In the secondary, the Bucs addressed a massive need for the team at safety and selected Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr in the second round of the draft. Winfield was ranked as the 5th best safety coming into the draft. The safety should start right away for a team that ranked 30th in passing yards per game (270.1) If the defense gets to opposing quarterbacks much like they did last season, the defense should fare a little better than it did last season. Much of Tampa’s success this season will rest on the shoulders of the defense as their offensive unit projects to be one of the league’s best units.
3. Atlanta Falcons
As I mentioned previously, both the Falcons and Buccaneers finished with 7-9 records last season and tied for the 2nd spot in the NFC South. Then again, you don’t receive any awards for finishing second in your division. Unlike Tampa, the Falcons didn’t do much to improve their odds at winning the division during the offseason. Experts give the Falcons the 3rd best odd to win the division (+700) but I see the division crown as a two-team race between the Buccaneers and Saints.
Although talented and full of potential, the Falcons have primarily been decimated by injuries and inconsistent play over the past couple of seasons. Following their Super Bowl appearance in 2016, Atlanta has only made the playoffs once (2017), and their roster has been relatively the same. They haven’t engaged in a rebuild, but a couple of key players on the NFC championship team have been traded or lost in free agency. Those include cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is now in Detroit, and tight end Austin Hooper who signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Underachieving running back, D’Vonta Freeman was also cut to create cap space. On offense, the team is once again led by veterans Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Although Ryan hasn’t produced at an elite level since his MVP season in 2016, a team featuring a tandem of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should always garner playoff consideration.
Jones isn’t the only elite wideout in Atlanta, as they also have a future star in receiver Calvin Ridley. The youngster has produced back-to-back 800-plus receiving yard campaigns and 17 touchdowns in two seasons. Fan-favorite Austin Hooper joined the Browns in free agency, but the Falcons filled the gap at tight end when they agreed to a trade with the Ravens, receiving TE Hayden Hurst in return. Hurst should provide a nice boost to the passing game as he has shown some potential despite being overshadowed by Mike Andrews in Baltimore. The Falcons also agree to a one-year deal with free-agent running back Todd Gurley, who was cut by the Los Angeles Rams. If the Falcons can manage Gurley’s load in 2020, he should be able to produce close to his former All-Pro level.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta was plagued again by injuries. Starting safety, Keanu Neal tore his Achilles in the third game of the 2019-20 season and has been limited to just four games in the last two seasons. Getting a healthy Neal back would help the Falcons tremendously, as they had a 21st passing defense last season, giving up 244.9 yards per contest. While they do have some terrific players in their front seven, including Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, the Falcons desperately needed help on the defensive side of the ball. In free agency, they added DT Tyeler Davison and edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. who recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks last season for the Rams. In the draft, the Falcons addressed the loss of Desmond Trufant by selecting Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick. Although a bit of a reach, Terrell will start right away for Atlanta and receive valuable experience from day 1. The team also drafted Auburn’s Marlon Davidson, the 5th overall ranked defensive lineman in the draft. The additions of Davidson and Fowler should help the Falcons replicate the formula of their Super Bowl run in 2016 with a terrific pass-rush.
4. Carolina Panthers
As of today, the Panthers are in full rebuild mode. The team cut former NFL MVP Cam Newton and lost star linebacker Luke Keuchly in a surprise retirement decision. Without a quality quarterback last season, Carolina finished with a 5-11 record. Experts currently have the panthers with the second-worst win total, as they are expected only to win around 5.5 games this season.
Although most of last year proved to be negative for Carolina, there were a few bright spots to the season. Running back Christian McCaffrey exploded during the 2019 season and produced 1,000+ yards rushing and receiving. The running back also recorded 116 receptions and 19 total touchdowns. Second-year receiver D.J. Moore also broke out during the 2019 campaign and recorded 1,175 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. In free agency, the Panthers added wide receiver Robby Anderson on a 2-year deal and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on a 3-year contract. Bridgewater appeared in 5 games for the New Orleans Saints and compiled a 5-0 record in Drew Brees’ absence. Bridgewater looked to be fully healthy, throwing for 1,384 yards, 9 touchdowns, and only 2 picks in the five wins. Although not a huge splash, Bridgewater could bring some needed stability to the organization for Panthers.
On defense, the Panthers finished 31st overall in scoring defense. In free agency, the team agreed to terms with CB Eli Apple and S Tre Boston. In my opinion, the Panthers had a great draft. They used their first-round pick on Auburn’s Derrick Brown whom many considered as the best defensive lineman in college football. Caroline also added edge-rusher Yetur Gross-Matos who recorded 9 sacks last season for Penn State. The DE tandem of Gross-Matos and Brian Burns should give Caroline something to build around in the future. The team also selected S Jeremy Chinn, who was the 4th ranked safety in the draft. All three rookies could start on opening day and prove to be potential building blocks for the franchise.