The Carolina Panthers won their third straight NFC South title last season on the back of an MVP year from Cam Newton, an opportunistic defense and several breakout stars. Prior to this three-year stretch of crowns for Carolina, no team in the division had won back-to-back titles since realignment. All four teams have made moves this offseason to reshape and retool and now it’s time to find out if it’s worked out. How do the Panthers, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers shape up against one another?
Quarterback: 1. Newton 2. Brees 3. Winston 4. Ryan
Cam Newton started his career by riding ridiculous physical gifts and a strong supporting cast to success. Last year, however, the script flipped. The physical gifts remain, but Newton put the rest of the roster on his shoulders, legs and right arm en route to a 15-1 season. The reigning MVP isn’t close to a finished product as a passer, a scary thought for the NFC South, the NFC, and the entire NFL.
Drew Brees fought off a shoulder injury and father time in 2015 to deliver yet another insane passing season. Nearly 5000 yards, 32 touchdowns and a record-tying seven touchdowns in a shootout with the Giants. Now 37 years old, I’m not ready to double down on doubting Brees for a second straight season.
I don’t think people fully appreciate how massive Jameis Winston’s arrival was to the Tampa Bay organization. They were on their third head coach in six seasons, coming off a horrendous season and were uninspiring at almost every spot on the field. As charismatic as he is talented, Winston has come in and completely flipped the attitude of the organization. The Bucs are a team on the rise and will hang on as Winston soars to new heights.
Rapidly becoming the median for replacement level quarterback play, Matt Ryan has digressed every year since the Falcons were a game away from the Super Bowl in 2012. The entire roster has followed suit, so it’s hard to say which is the catalyst. One thing's for sure; with one of the premier pass catchers and a dynamic running back, it’s time for Ryan to get back to Matty Ice.
Running Back: 1. Tampa Bay 2. Carolina 3. Atlanta 4. New Orleans
The return of Doug Martin! After an ultra exciting rookie season, Martin was downright bad for most of 2013 and ’14. A rebuilt offensive line and a clean bill of health in 2015 helped Doug Martin return to form, rushing for 1402 yards, good for second in the NFL. Add in Charles Sims and the Bucs may have the best 1-2 punch in the league.
Jonathan Stewart got to play the part of the feature back for the first time in 2015 and flourished. He started a career high 13 games and rushed for 989 yards while being perhaps the hardest running back to tackle in the entire league. If you wanted to argue Stewart and the most dangerous red zone threat the league has ever seen as the best running game in the division, I wouldn't disagree.
Devonta Freeman cooled off in the season’s second half after a red hot start, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry over the final 8 games while reaching the endzone just 4 times. Tevin Coleman, who opened 2015 looking more promising than Freeman, could surprise some people in 2016 by retaking the starting job.
A late 2014 shoulder injury didn’t appear to hamper Mark Ingram at all in 2015 as the former Heisman winner was running as hard as he was before the injury while starting a career high ten games. As talented as Ingram is, his lingering health concerns and CJ Spiller’s nondescript first season in New Orleans finds them bottom of the division.
WR: 1. Tampa Bay 2. Atlanta 3. Carolina 4. New Orleans
Veteran Vincent Jackson remained on the Bucs roster despite his $12 million cap hit for 2016. Keeping the Jackson and Mike Evans partnership intact for the sophomore Winston was a crucial decision that should help to keep the development train rolling. Behind the two massive targets is worrying, but as long as Winston has a healthy stable of ‘backs and Evans/Jackson, that can be dealt with in 2017.
Atlanta overpayed mightily to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Cincinatti, and the names behind him do not inspire any sort of confidence. Luckily for everyone involved, the name ahead of him is priceless. Julio Jones is perhaps getting overshadowed by a wide receiver renaissance, but the former ‘Bama star is truly one of the most gifted receivers of all-time.
Cam Newton made Ted Ginn Jr a semi-productive NFL wide receiver in 2015, an accomplishment in its own right. But good news, Cam, because you have your own version of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Kelvin Benjamin figures to be fully recovered from his torn ACL and Devin Funchess is reportedly ‘leaps and bounds’ ahead of 2015.
The Saints may have improved on the departed Marques Colston by drafting Michael Thomas, but he is still an unproven rookie. Behind him, Brandin Cooks is as promising as ever but disappointed at times last season. Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman made the most of their opportunities in 2015.
Tight End: 1. Carolina 2. New Orleans 3. Atlanta 4. Tampa Bay
Greg Olsen continued to flourish in Carolina in 2015, going over 1000 yards for the second straight season. With the return of Benjamin, Olsen should be able to do even more damage in 2016. Behind him, Ed Dickson is a terrific blocker and can help out in the passing game when needed (17 catches on 26 targets in ’15).
The Saints paid Coby Fleener big to get him in free agency, and Drew Brees recently said "He’s always open." While this means nothing because it’s June, Fleener should be able to replace Benjamin Watson’s production.
Incumbent starter Jacob Tamme is purely a blocker and was asked to do far too much route running in 2015. While he did admirably (59 catches), the addition of rookie Austin Hooper should be met with a warm welcome, especially in the red zone where the former Stanford standout could find a lot of joy in his rookie year.
After a disappointing 2015, Austin Seferian-Jenkins is doing everything he can do get cut. Behind him, the team loves former Harvard player Cameron Brate, who they brought back early in 2015 after he was signed from the team’s practice squad.
Offensive Line: 1. Carolina 2. New Orleans 3. Tampa Bay 4. Atlanta
An over-performing unit was found out in the Super Bowl, when Von Miller and company feasted on Cam Newton for four quarters. Despite the swinging doors at the tackle spots, Ryan Kalil remains a top center in the league and Trai Turner enjoyed a breakout 2015, keeping some consistency on the Carolina offensive line.
Terron Armstead got a well deserved pay day this offseason, as the Saints left tackle continued to be one of the most underrated offensive lineman in the league. Former Seahawk Max Unger will be as solid as ever, while last year’s first-round pick Andrus Peat is expected to be a day-one starter at guard.
Bucs GM Jason Licht went 2/2 on offensive lineman in the 2015 draft with both Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith starting and playing well last season. The team over payed to get JR Sweezy to come fill in at left guard, but such is life when you have buckets of cap space. Nothing wrong with a good, young line getting another season together.
Jake Matthews was improved in 2015 but still has a long way to go to fulfill the expectations of a top-10 pick. The names around him didn’t get any better except for the center spot where free agent acquisition Alex Mack should help to improve the unit as a whole.
Defensive Line: 1. Carolina 2. Atlanta 3. Tampa Bay 4. New Orleans
Part of the reason the Panthers eventually removed the franchise tag from Josh Norman was their desire to spend the money elsewhere, specifically, the defensive line. Kony Ealy, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are all blue chip players needing to be re-signed in the next couple seasons. For now, the trio, along with Charles Johnson and Vernon Butler, give Carolina an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line.
Last year’s first round selection Vic Beasley is moving to SAM linebacker but will continue to get after the passer in obvious passing downs. Ra’Shede Hageman has been a disappointment but Beasley’s fellow 2015 draftee Grady Jarrett played well in his rookie season. At the other end of the line, former Dolphin Derrick Shelby’s versatility will be a welcome addition to Dan Quinn’s defense and could likely end up being seen as a better deal than what the Giants gave former teammate Olivier Vernon.
Voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl in 2015, Gerald McCoy has been as solid as they come for the Bucs since being selected in the first round six seasons ago. Too often a one-man army last season, the team retooled the pass rush in free agency and the draft in the form of Robert Ayers and Noah Spence. Ayers collected nine sacks in 2015, the best player on a bad pass rushing unit in New York, while Spence is a natural enough of a pass rusher to contribute right away.
The Saints were in the midst of converting Hau’oli Kikaha from linebacker to defensive end to assist a non-existent pass rush when the former Husky tore his ACL. Beyond that injury, the team will have new additions Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley manning the inside. Rankins, one of the best players in this year’s draft, can be expected to improve a historically bad unit in 2016. One of the best defensive ends in the league, Cameron Jordan, will finally have some help next to him this year after years of being wasted on a bad defense.
Linebacker: 1. Carolina 2. Tampa Bay 3. New Orleans 4. Atlanta
Shaq Thompson hit the field more consistently towards the end of his rookie season and is expected to be a full time starter in 2016, adding even more athleticism to the rangiest group in the entire league. Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis are both coming off tremendous seasons and there’s no reason to expect any different in 2016.
Sophomore linebacker Kwon Alexander was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before a four-game suspension ended his season early. The other star on the Bucs defense, Lavonte David, should be his usual ball-hawking self in 2016. On the other side, veteran Daryl Smith will start after three productive seasons in Baltimore.
After starting all sixteen games at middle linebacker in his rookie season, Stephone Anthony is moving to the outside to accommodate free agent signing James Laurinaitis. The duo will be joined by Dannell Ellerbe, who suffered an injury riddled first season in New Orleans.
The Falcons linebackers have the potential to be one of the league’s fastest in 2016; Vic Beasley is moving to the strong side, while rookies De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones could very well start in the middle and weak side. As exciting as that prospect is, there current starters inspire far less excitement, with Phillip Wheeler, Courtney Upshaw and Brooks Reed in the mix. We’ll give the Falcons the most room for improvement, but they’ve got to prove it.
Cornerback: 1. Atlanta 2. Tampa Bay 3. New Orleans 4. Carolina
Desmond Trufant has improved every year, with 2015 seeing him climb into the upper-echelon at the position. Robert Alford was moved inside to the slot this offseason, a move the team was excited about, but the plans at corner became more unclear following 2015 second round pick Jalen Collins’ four game suspension.
Despite the disappointing play of Alterraun Verner since his arrival on a $25.5 million contract in 2014, the cornerback spot is a relatively deep one for the Bucs. Rookie Vernon Hargreaves and free agent signing Brent Grimes should be the day one starters, with Verner continuing to see nickel looks. Hopes were high for Johnthan Banks heading into 2015, but his performance was disappointing as Banks started just seven games.
Delvin Breaux was more than a nice story in 2015, playing well as the lone bright spot in New Orleans’ disastrous defense. He’ll be joined once more by Keenan Lewis, who, after a bright two-year start to his time in New Orleans, played poorly in his six starts in 2015. P.J. Williams is healthy after missing all of 2015, with the former Seminole (who some liked more than Ronald Darby prior to the 2015 draft) set to finally make his NFL debut.
While the decision to let Josh Norman leave may end up looking smart in the long run, in the short run it devastates the cornerback spot in Carolina. Bene Benwikere will be moved outside opposite Robert McClain, while the rest of the group is very much one for the future; James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez all fit the Panther mold but need time.
Safety: 1. Carolina 2. New Orleans 3. Atlanta 4. Tampa Bay
Kurt Coleman was a revelation in 2015, picking off seven passes after a nondescript career up to that point; whether he can repeat in 2016 is a whole different question. Former reserve Tre Boston is set to take over at strong safety after playing well in spot duty in 2015, particularly in the playoffs.
Vonn Bell can make a difference right away, but needs to add more physicality to his game to survive the NFC South. Jarius Byrd can’t be counted on for anything at this point, while Kenny Vaccaro’s bright start to his career dimmed significantly after a bad 2015.
Similar to the linebacker spot, the safety spot is one of both unknowns and excitement in Atlanta. Ricardo Allen has reportedly taken on a leadership role within the defense, taking Keanu Neal under his wing. The duo’s relationship has to translate to the field, but more reason for excitement for Dan Quinn’s Falcons.
The depth the Bucs will flaunt at cornerback in 2016 may be tested by a poor safety group. Lovie Smith holdovers Major Wright and Chris Conte are joined by Keith Tandy, he of two career starts, and last season’s starting free safety Bradley McDougald.
The NFC South is a division of high-octane offenses and brimming-with-potential defenses. Last season we saw the good and the bad that comes with it, with the Panthers being a historically great offense and the Saints being a historically bad defense. In 2016, I like the Panthers to win a fourth straight division title, with the Bucs and Falcons taking a step forward and Drew Brees keeping the Saints on the edge of relevance once more.