By Lucas Kochevar
The NFC South was an absolute disaster last year. It might be worse this year. Although the teams are worse, the division should still be competitive. It has the intriguing storylines that you would look for in a division. Can the aging Saints get back to winning the division with a new quarterback at the helm? Can Bryce Young lead the Panthers out of obscurity? Can Arthur Smith finally put an explosive offense on the field? Lastly, what do the Buccaneers look like post-Tom Brady? It's crazy to think that this division had Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan just two years ago. It's a friendly reminder that the NFL is constantly a revolving door for teams and it can change on a dime. This entire division has a low floor and a mid-level ceiling. The storylines are there and it'll be intriguing to see who rises to the occasion in this division.
New Orleans Saints (7-10 Last Season)
The New Orleans Saints were a mess of a team last season, but still managed to put seven wins on the board and compete until the end in the division. They were forced into a new era after both Sean Payton and Drew Brees were officially gone and it's safe to say they missed their consistency. They had to roll out a couple of quarterbacks in Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton and Taysom Hill. Although they were all serviceable, none of them provided that extra notch to elevate the offense. Along with that, nagging injuries to players like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas held back the team. The bright spot they had was rookie wide receiver Chris Olave. He had a little over 1,000 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie year and did this with the odd circumstances around the quarterback position.
Going into this year, Olave should be looked at as the number one option, even with Michael Thomas coming back. It sounds like a casual thing to say because there are many factors that go into this, but the Saints need to find a way to get Olave the ball more in the endzone. The Saints offense feels like a jumbled mess of good pieces that are led wrong. The way that they're looking to get the unit back on track is by plugging Derek Carr in at quarterback. The longtime Raiders quarterback makes his way over to New Orleans after a number of years in Oakland and Vegas. Carr is a solid starter, but something has felt off about him since his ACL injury in 2016. There hasn't been quite the same level of efficiency for Carr since then and I think he'll be tasked a lot with turning around New Orleans. If New Orleans had a structured offense like the 49ers or Rams, I would like Carr here, but I'm not sure if he can thrive in chaos. Carr dealt with chaotic situations with the Raiders, but it's not like he was ever incredible there on a week-to-week basis. I'm just very curious to see how he rebounds with the team.
All these weird puzzle pieces on offense seem to over shadow the defense and how good they are. That's truly how the Saints will win games. Their defense is full of veterans that have grown together and have an amount of cohesiveness that makes them dangerous. Head coach Dennis Allen may have no idea how to help his offense, but he does know the defense very well. Cam Jordan, Demario Davis and Marshon Lattimore look to hold the unit together at all three levels. Looking at the entirety of this Saints team, I truly have no pulse on what this team will be. If I had to take a guess, I think they'll handle business at home and drop a couple games they should win. I think they'll be a solid 9-8 team on the verge of making the playoffs. Derek Carr is the biggest X-factor in the NFC South and he'll be paramount for New Orleans if they want to win.
Atlanta Falcons (7-10 Last Season)
The Atlanta Falcons are one of those teams that feel like they're frisky and have some pieces, but they can never quite deliver on a competent product. In the Arthur Smith era, the team has yet to make the playoffs, however, they increased their win totals from Smith's first year to his second. Now, he's got multiple starters at skill positions that he's drafted along with the quarterback. Desmond Ridder is another piece of the formula that'll be crucial in turning this thing around in Atlanta. Ridder played the last four games against inferior opponents, but he got some much needed experience to help lead him into this upcoming season. The Falcons were also big time spenders in free agency on the defensive side.
With names like Jessie Bates III, Calais Campbell and a number of other players, the Falcons defense is expected to take a leap. The Falcons defense hasn't been a considerable threat since 2017 and these acquisitions should lead to a more comprehensive defense on all three levels. The biggest X-factor for that defense is Jeff Okudah, who they acquired in a trade with Detroit. The former third overall pick was healthy last season for the Lions and had an up-and-down season with the team. The corner showed some flashes early on, but later got benched. Both sides needed a fresh start and that's what Okudah gets in Atlanta. The defense is very important to Atlanta's playoff push, but the offense will be the driving force. They've been disappointing since Smith took over, but now with a fresh offseason and talent across the board, Atlanta should at least be a respectable unit. Drake London and Kyle Pitts have shown flashes, but have been too inconsistent. First round pick Bijan Robinson looks to be a huge piece of the offense running the ball and catching the ball. As I said earlier, Ridder will be the key piece to this offense.
Ridder will be under a microscope this season from the jump, but I think he'll put together a solid season. In my eyes, Ridder is like Alex Smith where he can get you to a certain place with solid play, but there's a definite ceiling. That type of quarterback play is good and can win some games. I think that's the main goal for Smith and co., who could be on the hot seat this year. The Falcons feel like a solid team that can take a jump this season. They managed to get seven wins last year with the horrid play of Marcus Mariota and with Ridder at the helm, I think they can get a couple more. With the division in flux, I think Atlanta gets to the playoffs with a very generous schedule. Although I think they have a tough end to the season, I can see Atlanta winning ten games. It's a big year for the entire team that hasn't won anything in years. Let's see how they respond.
Carolina Panthers (7-10 Last Season)
Out of the four teams in this division, the Panthers feel like a true wild card. With a new head coach and the first overall pick in Bryce Young, the Panthers could be a great story and make the playoffs or they could be working through first year kinks. Either way, the progress of Young will be the most important thing to monitor this season. Young had a vaunted two year career at Alabama that earned him the first overall pick. Many people think he can turnaround the team, but others also think he is a bit too small.
The Panthers offense is lead by a rookie so it shouldn't be shocking if they start out slow as Young finds his footing in the league. Outside of the uncertainty with Young, the rest of the Panthers offense is actually pretty solid. They brought over Miles Sanders, Adam Thielen and D.J. Chark in free agency to revamp this offense. Sanders could provide a spark after a productive year with the Eagles. Thielen and Chark have dealt with injuries over the past couple of seasons, but could bounce back in a way with Reich. They also have a fairly underrated offensive line. A unit that used to be laughable has turned out to be a productive unit. The Panthers defense is also pretty solid with a number of productive players. Brian Burns is one of the underrated pass rushers in the league and Derrick Brown started to breakout last season. Their linebacker Frankie Luvu is an emerging player too. Overall, I like this roster a lot for the development of Bryce Young. They have it set up in a way that isn't too committal on big contracts while also having enough quality players to turn it into a playoff team.
The Panthers have a similarity to the 2012 Seahawks in my eyes because of how their defense is young and emerging and they have a small rookie quarterback with talented veterans. I think the Panthers have that potential, but they'll struggle to find that. Due to having a good year, they actually have a harder schedule than the Falcons and Saints. It's also good to remember that rookie quarterbacks are bad at first. The guys that come out swinging are rare and if you think of the top five quarterbacks, none of them came into the league as superstars. I still like Young and think he'll be a good player, but give him time to grow into his NFL body and learn the tricks. I have the Panthers going a modest 7-10 in Young's rookie year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9 Last Season)
The Buccaneers love going through peaks and valleys. They either win Super Bowls or roll around in the mud. Its admirable as too many teams just suffer in the middle with no Super Bowls. With Tom Brady gone, I'm anticipating them to enter that purgatory towards the bottom of the league, even though the roster still has a number of veterans from the Super Bowl team. Having a coach who hasn't had a whole lot of success and Baker Mayfield is not the recipe for a winning team. Objectively, Todd Bowles has not been a winning coach. Yes, he was with the Jets and we know how that goes normally, but he had Tom Brady last season and it was still an absolute mess.
Navigating the waters post-Tom Brady will be tough. The level of stability he brings is huge and replacing that with Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask is like replacing a race car with a mini van. The offense still has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin so they could be threatening if they employ some type of Big 12 offense, but I don't think it'll be enough. The Tampa offense will need to rely on Mayfield to look somewhat competent. That's something that hasn't happened since 2020 and I'm not sure it'll comeback this year. If I did have to point to something positive, it's the defense. Their defensive line should be legitimately scary. They retained Lavonte David and Devin White along with a secondary that has a number of playmakers. Cornerback Jamel Dean is one of the more underrated guys in the league. Sadly, I don't think they'll be good enough on this side of the ball to make up for the offensive deficiencies.
I hope Baker Mayfield sees this (he won't) because it might put that chip on his shoulder that makes him play competent football. It's been a pain to watch him play football and for the Buccaneers sake, I want him to look a little bit like he used to. Sadly, I cant see the career renaissance coming this season and I have the Buccaneers falling to a measly 4-13. Todd Bowles will be out as coach and the Buccaneers will look to draft the quarterback of the future. As I stated earlier, there's nothing the Buccaneers love more than going from Super Bowl to absolute trash cans. Good luck, Tampa Bay.