The final division in the NFC we’ll cover is the NFC South, which a year ago was easily the weakest in the NFL. Carolina may have won the division, and a play-off game against an injury riddled Arizona outfit, yet they did so on the back of a 7-8-1 regular season record. The other teams in the division are the fading New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished last season with the worst record in the NFL. To find out who to keep an eye out for on each team, just scroll down.
Key Additions: OG Chris Chester (free agency), OLB Brooks Reed (FA), DE Vic Beasley (draft), CB Jalen Collins (draft)
Key Losses: RB Steven Jackson (FA), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (FA), OT Sam Baker (FA)
Last season’s below par record saw Mike Smith lose his job as the Falcons head coach, with former Seattle defensive co-ordinator Dan Quinn chosen as his replacement. Quinn will be tasked with turning around a defence that has been suffering for quite some time now, while the offense will similarly hope for a new lease of life. Julio Jones remains as the team’s top playmaker and with Matt Ryan under centre Atlanta will hope it can return to its perennial play-off form of just a few years ago, although they’ll have to do so without the released running back Steven Jackson. While Quinn has a rebuild on his hands it’s not on as large a scale as the one another former Seattle DC, Gus Bradley, inherited in Jacksonville, so it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the Falcons can challenge for a division title in 2015. However if they’re to do so Ryan will have to return to somewhere near his best, while the defence will have to buy into Quinn’s methods immediately, and completely.
Key Additions: RB Jordan Todman (FA), CB Charles Tillman (FA)
Key Losses: RB DeAngelo Williams (FA), DE Greg Hardy (released)
When wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down for the year in the second week of pre-season, quarterback Cam Newton’s heart will have skipped a beat as he contemplated playing without his most potent offensive weapon, after Benjamin enjoyed a spectacular rookie season. However Newton can take some solace in the fact that he has one of the NFL’s better tight ends, Greg Olson, to throw to and a stable of productive, if injury prone, running backs led by Jonathan Stewart. Whether or not that supporting cast will be enough to help “Superman” Newton lead the Panthers to back-to-back division titles remains to be seen, although the defence will try to play it’s part after a couple of stellar years. Led by inside linebacker Luke Kuechly the Panthers yield little on the ground, although the pass defence suffered mightily from the suspension of defensive end Greg Hardy early on in 2014. With Hardy now in Dallas the pass rush will face fresh questions, and in turn the secondary could find itself exposed on a regular basis. Ultimately Carolina look a similar unit to the one that finished under .500 last season; it’s unlikely that they’ll return to the post-season with an equally mediocre record this time around.
New Orleans Saints
Key Additions: C Max Unger (trade), RB C.J Spiller (FA), CB Brandon Browner (FA)
Key Losses: TE Jimmy Graham (trade), WR Kenny Stills (trade), RB Pierre Thomas (FA), ILB Curtis Lofton (FA)
The Saints laboured to a 7-9 record in 2014, struggling to replicate their scoring power on offense from previous seasons while the defence suffered as one of the worst in the whole league. An early season injury to newly acquired safety Jarius Byrd didn’t help the secondary, and things snowballed from there on in as New Orleans eventually surrendered the third most points in the NFC. On offense Drew Brees looks to have lost some zip on his fastball over the past couple of years, and the lack of a deep passing game has been notable as the Saints have lent more heavily on intermediate targets and the running game in recent seasons. With Jimmy Graham now gone, having been traded to Seattle for centre Max Unger and a first round pick, Brees will be without his favourite red zone target and a lot of pressure will fall onto diminutive receiver Brandin Cooks’ shoulders, even though he has so far underwhelmed in his short NFL career. One positive that did come out of 2014 for New Orleans was the breakout of former first round running back Mark Ingram, who finally began to fulfil his potential as the team’s lead back. Former Buffalo Bills rusher C.J Spiller will help support Ingram this year following his signing in free agency, so expect Brees to hand the ball off more often than not in 2015. Things look up on the other side of the ball, with Byrd and his big money contract back in the fold and solid cornerback Brandon Browner having signed in free agency the secondary should be much improved, while Cameron Jordan offers a pass rushing presence from defensive end. It may not be enough to return New Orleans to the NFC’s elite, but it could well be enough to help them win what remains a very weak division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Additions: QB Jameis Winston (draft), TE Tim Wright (FA), DT Henry Melton (FA)
The only way is up for Tampa Bay following their 2-14 debacle in 2014, and if they’re to head in that direction it’ll be the man they drafted number one overall, Jameis Winston, who’ll lead them there. Winston enjoyed a prolific career at Florida State, and although the Seminoles came up short in the first ever college football play-off it was through no fault of his. A rejuvenated Doug Martin in the Bucs backfield would go a long way to helping Winston settle in at the pro level, and if Mike Evans can build on his stellar rookie campaign Winston will have a genuine number one receiver to hook up with. The same recipe served Peyton Manning well when he was drafted by Indianapolis in 1998, and if Martin and Evans can serve as Winston’s version of Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James he’ll have a great chance to be the player Tampa Bay need to return to relevance. The Buccaneers defence struggled as much as the offense did last year, however DT Gerald McCoy offers hope, while cornerback Alterraun Verner and linebacker Lavonte David are also reasonable building blocks for the unit. No one expects Tampa Bay to challenge for a post-season berth in 2015, but a steep improvement would certainly help placate a frustrated fan base who haven’t had much to cheer about since the 2002 Superbowl victory.