Part two of my NFL season preview features the NFC South, arguably the toughest division in the whole league, featuring two of the previous three NFC representatives in the Superbowl. Former league MVP’s Cam Newton and Matt Ryan lead the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, while the timeless Drew Brees is back for another year at the helm of the New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay are no slouches, either, although they’ll be without QB Jameis Winston for the first quarter of the season as he serves a four game suspension. Keep reading to find out who each team has added, lost and where I think they’ll finish.
1. New Orleans Saints
Notable Additions: Marcus Davenport (DE), Cameron Meredith (WR), Ben Watson (TE), Patrick Robinson (CB)
Notable Losses: Coby Fleener (TE), Nick Fairly (DT), Kenny Vaccaro (S), Mark Ingram (RB, suspended first four games)
New Orleans were one, agonising blown coverage away from progressing to the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, and although they weren’t able to accomplish that goal in 2017 they return the core of an ascending young team for the 2018 season. Alvin Kamara pairs with Mark Ingram (suspended to begin the year) to form arguably the best 1-2 running back punch in football, while Michael Thomas might be the most underrated WR in the game. The defence came on leaps and bounds last year and after surprisingly trading up in the draft to select pass rusher Marcus Davenport, should be ready to take the leap into the league’s elite this campaign. Of course, you can’t mention New Orleans without mentioning future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. All the time number nine is under centre in the Big Easy, the Saints will have an excellent chance of doing damage deep into January.
2. Carolina Panthers
Notable Additions: D.J Moore (WR), C.J Anderson (RB), Torrey Smith (WR), Donte Jackson (DB)
Notable Losses: Jonathan Stewart (RB), Andrew Norwell (OG), Kurt Coleman (S)
2017 wasn’t a vintage year for Carolina; nonetheless they still progressed to the playoffs as a Wild Card team and with former MVP Cam Newton returning under centre the Panthers will hope to repeat the trick this season. With Panthers legend Jonathan Stewart moving on via free agency the backfield is now Christian McCaffrey’s to own. Receiver D.J Moore was added in May’s draft to give Newton another downfield weapon, while the defence will, as ever, rely on stud linebacker Luke Kuechly to stay fit and anchor the middle of an otherwise league-average unit. Carolina has a few holes in their roster, more than the Saints, but they remain one of the more efficiently run teams in the NFL and head coach Ron Rivera has gained the respect of his peers across the league.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Notable Additions: Calvin Ridley (WR)
Notable Losses: Adrian Clayborn (DE)
A relatively quiet off-season for Atlanta may not be an altogether bad thing, particularly compared to last summer where all involved were made to recount their Superbowl collapse over and over. If the Falcons are to return to the big game they’ll need Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to have bounce-back campaigns, while the addition of rookie wideout Calvin Ridley surely won’t hurt. Defensively Atlanta remain built on speed and have an underrated unit, but there’s something missing for a team that many feel may have caught lightning in a bottle during their memorable 2016 run. Nonetheless, there’s enough talent here to give any team fits on Sundays, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Notable Additions: Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Vinny Curry (DE), Vita Vea (DT), Ronald Jones II (RB)
Notable Losses: Doug Martin (RB), Jameis Winston (QB, suspended first four games), Chris Baker (DT)
In many other divisions, you could easily predict the Bucs to finish second or even first. However, the strength of the NFC South, and the impending four game suspension for QB Jameis Winston, mean they could be consigned to the basement for the second consecutive year. Even when Winston plays he hasn’t shown the growth many would expect from a former first overall pick, as he threw just 19 touchdowns in 2017 compared to 11 interceptions. One thing Tampa Bay should be given credit for is improving their defensive line depth with the free agent signing of Vinny Curry, a trade for former Giant Jason Pierre-Paul and first round draft choice Vita Vea. It’s entirely possible the Buccaneers win eight or more games – however that’s unlikely to be enough in this stacked division.
Who do you think will win the NFC South? Have your say in the comments or by tweeting @fredjstanley.