Vault Valuables: NFC South Preview
While the NFC South has been competitive and dominant in the last ten years, the landscape has changed with some recent additions and departures from the division’s four teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa is last year’s super bowl champ. They have the greatest quarterback of all time. There is a reason that they have -200 odds to win the division. Couple that with “keeping the band together,” and they sure have a good shot at another super bowl ring.
It’s Tom Brady. Enough said.
At running back, the Bucs bring back Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, and second year Ke’Shawn Vaughn. They also brought in Giovani Bernard on a free agent deal. Fournette and Jones will be the main rushers (they can both catch the ball too), and Vaughn and Bernard will be the main pass catchers. Bernard is likely a welcome sight for Tom Brady, as he loves to check down to his running backs. Bernard is almost exclusively a receiver out of the backfield. He will likely play on all third downs/obvious passing downs. The Bucs are set at the running back spot.
At receiver, they have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown as the first three. They are all veterans that have and will get it done for Brady and the Bucs. Godwin may also be extra motivated as he got franchise tagged this offseason. Behind them are Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Jaelon Darden. Darden, a rookie, has received rave reviews out of training camp. Miller played a bit last year in place of an injured Brown and did well. Overall, this group will excel, especially with Tom Brady at the helm.
At tight end, the Bucs are also deep. They have Brady’s friend in Rob Gronkowski, get OJ Howard back from injury, and also have Cameron Brate. Gronkowski is a fantastic blocker at the tight end spot and Howard is a great receiver. Brate excels at both.
Overall, Brady’s weapons are elite, and they are only made better by the greatest quarterback ever.
With Tom Brady taking over, the Buccaneers number one goal was to get him protection last year. They certainly did that. From left to right, their starters on the line are Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, and Tristan Wirfs. Smith, Marpet, and Wirfs are the highlights here. While they had Smith and Marpet when Brady got there, they had a huge hole at the right tackle position. They solidified that when they drafted Tristan Wirfs in the first round last year. In his rookie year, he made the transition from college to the NFL gracefully, as he played about as well as any tackle in the league. Honestly, while there are some concerns with this line, they seem to be unfounded, as they found the tackle of the future in Wirfs, and Tom Brady gets the ball out so fast, it really doesn’t matter.
This front seven is the definition of elite. On the line, the Bucs have Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, William Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaq Barrett. While this group is largely old, it has elite rushers all over the board (even if some are a tad past their prime). The backups on the line are Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Steve Mclendon, and Joe Tryon. Mclendon and RNR are big bodies in the middle, while Tryon will be on the outside. Tryon was the Bucs’ first round pick this year, and Bruce Arians has showered him with praise for his performance so far in training camp. This group made Mahomes look human in the super bowl, and I think they will continue to ruin QBs’ days this season.
The Bucs don’t just have an elite line, they also have some of the best linebackers in the game. Matter of fact, they may even have the best linebacker duo in the entire league. Devin White and Lavonte David will wreak havoc on the second level. Devin White is freaky fast. He can chase down anyone and can cover anyone. Last season he had 140 tackles in fifteen games. His partner, Lavonte David, has only had one season below 100 tackles in his 9 year career. The Bucs were lucky to re-sign him, because plenty of teams would’ve given him huge money if he made it all the way to the open market. Behind them are Kevin Minter and KJ Britt who have both done it in this league.
As good as the front seven is for the Bucs, the secondary is not far behind. Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Ross Cockrell will be the corners on the outside for Tampa Bay. Davis and Murphy-Bunting had coming out parties last year, and Dean and Cockrell will be solid backups. While they may not be household names, they do their jobs and don’t make huge mistakes.
At safety, the Bucs have Antoine Winfield Jr and Jordan Whitehead. Last year, Winfield Jr was drafted in the second round rather than the first due to concerns about his speed and height. Let it be known that he put those concerns to rest. He played so well in his rookie season that he even taunted Tyreek Hill in the fourth quarter of the super bowl after he caused Hill to drop the ball. He should be a starter in this league for a very long time. Last year, Whitehead had two interceptions and 74 tackles, both respectable numbers. While he is nothing special, he certainly doesn’t have to be with all the talent surrounding him on the defensive side of the ball.
As is evident, this team is really good. They have the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, great weapons, a great offensive line, and an elite defense. Pair all that with a good head coach in Bruce Arians, and there is a good chance this team can repeat as the champions in 2021.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have perennially been atop the NFC South; however, now that Drew Brees retired, that reign looks to have ended. At +325, the Saints have talent, but are certainly on the outside looking in when it comes to the division.
After losing a first ballot hall of famer in Drew Brees, the Saints are not going to stay stable. They will certainly downgrade, but the problem is that they don’t know who their quarterback is yet. Their choices are down to Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. While Winston is more of a traditional quarterback, he tends to be the exact opposite of what Drew Brees was. Winston likes to throw deep, into coverage, and tends to make bad decisions. While he can lead his team down the field quickly, he can also turn a game on its head extremely quickly. Meanwhile, Hill is not a traditional QB (at least he has not played it much in the league). In the NFL, he has played running back, tight end, special teams, QB, etc. He is a chess piece, but has a good arm and legs as well. We haven’t seen a huge amount of Hill at quarterback as we have with Winston, so maybe they use preseason to determine the starter. Honestly, I don’t think anyone knows how this battle will play out, but I believe that I would start Winston and continue to use Hill as a chess piece (albeit less than before, as he very well could become the starter due to Winston’s play).
The Saints are set at running back. Alvin Kamara is one of the best backs in the league. He can run and catch the ball. He is so elite that he had 6 touchdowns in a game last year, and could have had seven if he was not pulled early from the game. Behind him is the big bruiser in Latavius Murray who is also capable of leading a backfield (he showed he could do so when Kamara was hurt last year). They also just (puzzlingly) signed Devonta Freeman out of free agency. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have talent, but the signing honestly just seemed unnecessary with the talent they already have.
Receiver will be a bit of a question mark this year. While they have one of the top receivers in the game in Michael Thomas on the roster, there is some tension between him and the organization due to the timing of his ankle surgery/rehab. There is not much information out about when he will return from the surgery, but assuming he is out for around half the season, it may be rough sledding for this position group. Behind Thomas, the Saints have Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, and a couple of young guys who have not proven much in the league. Smith has shined in moments when Thomas has been injured, but is not consistent enough, and Callaway is going into his second season in the league. While he has drawn great reviews out of training camp, he has not proven anything in this league. As said earlier, it might be rough for the receivers.
At tight end, the Saints also lost Jared Cook. Replacing Cook is Adam Trautman who had 15 catches in his rookie year. While he is many reporters’s breakout candidate for this team, he hasn’t proven anything yet and can not be trusted until he can consistently catch and block. Behind Trautman is Nick Vannett who is a former third round pick. Vannett has not found much success in this league, as he has never had thirty or more receptions in his five year career.
Overall the skill positions may be the worst the Saints have had in quite a long time (even if they only looked better due to Brees’s work).
While much of this Saints offense is not extremely strong, the same can not be said about their offensive line. Their O-Line might be the best part of their entire roster. From left to right, their starters are Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Erik Mccoy, Cesar Ruiz, and Ryan Ramczyk. Every position on this line is strong, with a lot of draft picks and money invested in it (thanks to the wizardry of their front office). Ruiz can improve, but that is expected when you switch positions in a transition from college to the NFL. Ramczyk was thought to be on his way out due to salary cap issues, but the Saints structured it in such a way that they could keep the elite right tackle. Overall, they will open up holes in the run game and should give their quarterback time to throw.
Up front, the Saints have Cameron Jordan, Malcolm Roach, and Marcus Davenport as their notable players. Jordan is elite, Roach is a mass of a man that is a great run stuffer, and Davenport is a former first round pick that is beginning to put everything together. Overall, this group should be able to succeed, both at putting pressure on the quarterback and setting the edge in the run game. They do not have much depth, but their 4-3 base defense can hopefully hold up with the linebackers behind them.
Regarding the linebackers, the main two are Kwon Alexander and Demario Davis. Davis is one of the best in the game, especially against the run, and Alexander is one of the best linebackers when it comes to pass coverage. There is not much behind them, and that is likely due to the aforementioned salary cap problems that are plaguing this team (even if they have a salary cap wizard in the front office).
While they have talented players in the secondary, they are still missing one cornerback (hence why they tried to trade for Xavien Howard recently). While they have the young and cagey lockdown corner in Marshon Lattimore on one side, on the other they have former Dolphins third teamer Ken Crawley. That will likely be a problem as this season goes on; look for the Saints to make a trade after losing Janoris Jenkins. In the slot, they will have CJ Gardner-Johnson, who is a good nickel corner, but can get in some fighting issues with the opposing team. Behind them, they have Prince Amukamara (a bit aged at this point in his career), and Brian Poole (who has started for a couple years on other teams).
Safety is certainly a strong suit on this New Orleans team. The strong safety for this team is Malcolm Jenkins who has played about 99% of snaps in his career. He has had an absurd streak of health for any player in the NFL, let alone a hard hitting safety. Next to him is the young Marcus Williams who is most infamous for his part in the Minnesota Miracle. Besides that play, Williams has had a great and promising career, and can solidify himself as a top 10-15 safety in this league with another strong year. Behind Jenkins and Williams is PJ Williams, a strong backup that could probably start on a number of teams around the league. Long story short, the Saints are strong in the secondary, but they definitely need one more cornerback (via trade?).
Overall, this team is strong, as they have competed for super bowls and NFC championships for years. As explained earlier, their fall is due to the loss of Drew Brees. Whether it is Winston or Hill under center, they are unlikely to win the division, but they are certainly second.
At +800, the Falcons seem to be trying to put off a rebuild, but sometimes the best way to build up is to tear down first. After getting rid of Julio Jones this offseason, there were talks of drafting a QB at 4th overall. Instead, they selected Kyle Pitts. While a great player, Pitts will not elevate this team into playoff contention. Stay away from this bet.
As written above, many thought the Falcons would draft a quarterback in the first round for Matt Ryan to mentor. However, Matt Ryan is still the starter, and there is no young exciting first rounder to root for. So, Ryan will continue to start. While he can put up gaudy statistics regarding yards and touchdowns, he is also prone to throwing interceptions and taking sacks. While he can certainly win the Falcons games, he can also lose them some as well due to his poor decision making. Ryan will be fine for them, but they are going to need to find a new quarterback soon for the future.
The Falcons are not very deep at running back. The starter is Mike Davis who has never started (besides when Christian Mccaffrey was injured), and the backups look to be Cordarrelle Patterson (who is not a natural running back) and Qadree Ollison.
After losing Julio Jones to a trade, the Falcons aren’t very deep at receiver. Calvin Ridley will surely be their starter, as he had a huge year last year and will likely duplicate that (or maybe even improve upon it). Russell Gage has now moved up from the number three receiver to the two, and Olamide Zacceaus moved into the three slot. Behind them is Tajee Sharp. Besides Gage and Ridley, no one has really proven much in the NFL.
At tight end, their big addition was the 4th overall pick, Kyle Pitts. He is almost like a receiver and can create mismatches anywhere on the field. If he lives up to the hype coming out of college, the Falcons may have a hall of famer on their hands. Behind him is last year’s starter, Hayden Hurst. While Pitts will be the main tight end, he may line up in the slot so that Hurst can be the in line tight end.
The offensive line has been a big part of Matt Ryan’s sack-taking. While they have spent many assets on it, they haven’t gotten great production (partially due to injuries). From right to left, their starters are Jake Matthews, Matt Gono, Matt Hennessy, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary. They drafted Jalen Mayfield as a depth piece on the line. While I don’t expect them to be terrible, I don’t expect this group to be anything better than average (more likely bottom third in the league).
After missing on Vic Beasley and Takk Mckinley, the Falcons d-line is missing some pieces. Inside, they have one of the best defensive tackles in the league in Grady Jarrett. He can get to the QB and plug holes in the run game. In terms of pass rushing, they have Dante Fowler Jr who is fierce off the end, but not so much in the run game. Besides those two, their line isn’t much to write home about.
At linebacker, Atlanta has one of the best and fastest in the game in Deion Jones. He is a turnover-causing machine but is sometimes injury prone. Beside him is Foyesade Oluokun, another speedster. Unfortunately, behind them there is essentially nothing, which led to this Falcons team being one of the worst defenses in all of football last year. I don’t expect this year to be much different.
At cornerback, the Falcons have former first rounder AJ Terrell and Fabian Moreau with essentially nothing behind them for depth. As written above, this defense is likely to be bad, a far cry from their defense when they lost the super bowl to the New England Patriots in an embarrassing collapse.
At safety, Atlanta has Duron Harmon and Erik Harris. Harmon was successful in the New England system, but most are. It is yet to be seen if he can carry it over to a different defense. Harris has had his share of success, but can make huge mistakes like blown coverages, missed tackles, etc.
All in all, there just isn’t much talent on this Falcons team, especially on the defensive side. They would not be my pick to win the division.
At +1000, Sam Darnold will look to lift this team to the playoffs, something he couldn’t do with the Jets.
After a disappointing season with Teddy Bridgewater under center and bad contract to pair with it, the Panthers decided that experiment was over. Instead, they opted to trade for Sam Darnold, the former third overall pick that did not pan out with the Jets (to be fair not much has panned out there recently). Still only 24 years old, he has much more experience but is the same age as many quarterbacks drafted last year. He made far too many mistakes last year, causing the Jets to draft Zach Wilson to replace him, but hopefully a change of scenery will do Darnold wonders.
Everyone knows CMC. Christian Mccaffrey is one of the best running backs in the game. He can catch and run like no other. He is the unquestioned number one pick in fantasy football drafts. He handles the rock more than any other player on this team, minus Sam Darnold. As long as he stays healthy (which he didn’t do last year), he is good for at least 20-25 touches a game. Behind him, the Panthers drafted Chuba Hubbard who was projected to be a second round pick last year.
At receiver, the Panthers have Robby Anderson and DJ Moore. Both had great seasons last year and are likely to do about as well. Anderson and Moore both have speed, good hands, and great route running ability (Anderson doesn’t just run the deep route like many think). The Panthers also drafted Terrace Marshall out of LSU this past year. Marshall has received glowing reviews out of training camp and could get targeted heavily. However, behind these three, there’s not much depth.
Tight end is not a strong suit either. They have Dan Arnold and Ian Thomas. Thomas was supposed to breakout last year, but somewhat sputtered the whole season. Arnold has been fine throughout his career, but he has never truly put up starting tight end numbers. They will likely work in tandem.
From left to right, Carolina’s starters are Cameron Erving, Pat Elflein, Matt Paradis, John Miller, and Taylor Moton. Overall, this group should be above average, but nothing special. Moton just signed a large extension and should live up to that number. At guard, the Panthers got Deonte Brown for depth. Brown is up there with the largest human beings on Earth but could pan out if he loses some weight and becomes a bit more athletic.
The Panthers have invested a lot into their front seven recently. On the line, Carolina has Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Haason Reddick: all three are former first round picks with lots of talent. Brown had a disappointing rookie season, but hopefully he used the offseason to his advantage. Reddick and Burns will get after the quarterback, a nice up and coming young pass rushing duo. They also have Yetur Gross-Matos from Penn State behind them as another young pass rusher to develop.
At linebacker, Denzel Perryman and Shaq Thompson will be in the middle. They are two extremely talented players (Perryman brought over from the Chargers and Thompson being homegrown). There is not much behind them for depth, but overall, this is a talented core front seven.
This secondary is extremely talented, but also extremely young. On the outside, the two starters are likely to be Donte Jackson and this year’s eighth overall pick, Jaycee Horn. So far, Horn has performed well in training camp, and Jackson had an extremely efficient year last season.
At safety, last year’s breakout rookie was Jeremy Chinn. His highlight of his year was when he had two consecutive scoop and scores in the same game. He looks like he will be the real deal at strong safety, and if he has another strong year or two, Carolina should lock him up for the future. Next to him is Juston Burris who hasn’t ever been all that productive in his seven year career.
I think this team will be better than the bookmakers believe. With development, along with some additions they made through free agency on the defensive side of the ball, they should be able to improve upon their 2020 campaign. As long as Darnold plays about average, this Carolina team can be solid.
Overall, this division looks to already be locked up by the former super bowl champs, but it will be interesting to see if another team can squeeze into the playoffs via wild card (probably not, but there’s always a chance).
I see this division being taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at -200, followed by the Saints (+325), Panthers (+1000), and then the Atlanta Falcons (+800).