The NFC South is the most fascinating division in the NFL. The NFC champion has come from the South each of the last two years in the Falcons and the Panthers. This is the division that unquestionably has the best group of quarterbacks top to bottom. You never really know what to expect with the NFC South and it’s absolutely amazing. So, with that being said, I look ahead to the 2017 season and try to predict how the best division in football will shape up this year.
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
After an incredible year in 2016, the Falcons will be looking to avoid the Super Bowl hangover this season. On top of that, they’ve had to replace Kyle Shanahan, the mastermind behind their explosive offense. Despite these two obstacles I believe they will repeat as NFC South champions due to one little word. That word is talent.
This roster is stacked. Julio Jones is the best receiver in the game with a very good quarterback, Matt Ryan, to throw to him. To balance that out they also have the best running back tandem in the league in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. And while the offense is the heart of the Falcons success, the defense looks pretty strong too.
Atlanta signed DT Dontari Poe and drafted DE Takk McKinley to improve the defensive line. This will allow their fast linebackers like Deion Jones to run freely and make plays all over the field. All in all, Atlanta has the talent and experience to stay on top and that’s exactly what I expect them to do in 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10-6
It looks like things are all starting to come together in Tampa. They have a young franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston who’s proven he can elevate everyone around him. They also have one of the best groups of linebackers in football with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander who are both top five players at their position. Now they’re looking to build on last year’s success with a strong offseason.
The Bucs went out and signed explosive wide receiver DeSean Jackson as well as a few nasty defenders in J.J. Wilcox and Chris Baker. In addition they drafted a few big playmakers in tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin. Now the Bucs have to take the next step and live up to the talent they have on their roster. The jump from good to great is a difficult one, but that is the next step and the expectation of the Buccaneers this season.
Carolina Panthers: 7-9
There is a lot that I like and a lot that I don’t like about this Panthers team. I love the addition of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. I think he’s a perfect compliment to Cam Newton as a runner out of the backfield (on top of what he brings as a pass catcher) and he’s my pick to win Rookie of the Year. I also really like the Panthers front seven, particularly up the middle. Carolina has the best combination of defensive tackles and the best middle linebacker in the game today.
On the other hand, the secondary does not impress me. The Panthers have done a good job making the most of their talent on the back-end in recent years, but with a new defensive coordinator I’m not sure that will be the case. I’m also not sold on the Panthers passing attack. As good as Newton is as a runner, he’s proven to be a below average passer over the course of his career. On top of that, I’m also worried about Newton’s health if he continues to play with his physical running style. He’s already coming into the year coming off a shoulder injury and he’s taken so many hits in his career.
Overall, there are things I like with this team, but I have more concerns than I do confidence with the Panthers in 2017.
New Orleans Saints: 6-10
At this point, we know what the Saints are. They’re a passing team who can be explosive on offense, but can’t really stop anyone. That hasn’t changed too much going into the 2017 season. However, there are a few changes worth mentioning.
First and foremost, the team traded away star receiver Brandin Cooks. His speed, explosiveness, and production are irreplaceable with what they have on the roster. That absence will be felt by aging quarterback Drew Brees. It seems unreasonable that Brees continues to dominate the way he has in the past as he approaches 40 and lost his top playmaker. It’s for that reason that I think he and the Saints offense take a step back this year, although Michael Thomas looks like the next great receiver in the league.
On the other side of the ball I do believe New Orleans is heading in the right direction. They added a couple of really good players to their secondary in the draft (corner Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams) to go with a pretty decent defensive line. With that said, it usually takes defensive backs a little while to adjust to the NFL game. With offensive regressions and defensive growing pains, I expect the Saints to have their share of struggles this season.