Remember not too long ago when the NFC South was known for it’s last place team one year, finishing at the top the next? Lately Carolina has put a stop to all that. But the parity that the NFL so deeply desires and the parity that not so long ago existed in this division appears to be close to returning. Carolina returns as division and conference champs, but after a dismal Super Bowl 50 performance, how will Ron Rivera’s club approach the new season? Atlanta struggled in their last 11 games last year, but they have the running game, they have one of the league’s top WRs, and head coach Dan Quinn is building a mean, fast defense. The Saints may not resemble the team that was perennially contending for the NFC title, but Drew Brees and Sean Payton can still whip up an exciting, high-powered offense. And lastly, Tampa Bay is led by one of the NFL’s young, playmaking quarterbacks, who happens to have some big pass-catching targets at his disposal.
My point is the NFC South should not be viewed as a runaway for the defending champions this season. Here’s a look at what each team can do in ’16.
Cam Newton will not finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting in 2016.
Reigning MVP doesn’t finish in top-10 this year? I do not think that is far-fetched in the least. In fact, while I will not argue one bit with Newton’s talent and God-given athleticism, I contend that his out-of-this-world 2015 season cannot and will not duplicated again — for the rest of his career. He threw for 35 touchdowns and only 10 picks — awesome ratio, awesome season. He threw for just under 4,000 yards — in his previous 4 seasons, he averaged right around 3,600. What I’m getting at is that Cam’s yardage was right about where we’ve seen him be, he limited the mistakes with a career-best 10 interceptions, and he capitalized like never before in terms of passing TDs — 11 more than his previous best of 24. History supports that Newton will continue throwing for somewhere close to 4,000 yards, but his touchdowns, I think, were more of an anomaly and he won’t be able to keep that up.
Carolina has weapons on the offensive side of the ball — no doubt. Devin Funchess got some great, impactful experience last season; Kelvin Benjamin returns after missing all of the ’15 campaign to a knee injury; Greg Olsen is a pass-catching machine over the middle for Cam; and James Stewart is finally able to show off his full skill set as Carolina’s top back now that DeAngelo Williams is a couple years gone to Pittsburgh. All signs point to another magnificent season for the Super Bowl runners-up and their QB leader. But it’s tough to repeat that type of year — and no one will pick or expect the Panthers to navigate their schedule to a 15-1 record this year. More mistakes will happen, luck won’t always be on their side, and Cam Newton will at times look like the Cam of 2014 or 2012. Don’t forget that in his 5 seasons as Carolina’s starting QB, Newton’s only had 2 winning seasons — and if you take out the 15-1 year, he’s merely a .500 quarterback (30-31-1). Cam’s 2015 was magical, but his career as a whole has not mirrored that snapshot.
The Falcons will more closely resemble the team that started 5-0 last season rather than the one that lost 8 of its last 11.
The offense in Atlanta is better than it’s ever been in Matt Ryan’s time as the Falcons starting quarterback. Of course, Julio Jones is still there and dominating on the outside; and he has some nice complimentary pieces at the position too — Mohamed Sanu has come over from Cincinnati and Justin Hardy should garner attention in his own right from opposing defenses. But the most important addition for Atlanta is their ability to now, consistently, run the football. Devonta Freeman proved himself as a workhorse back last season and second year player Tevin Coleman — while losing his starting job in 2015 to injury — is back competing for lots of carries and still has all the qualities of a starter in the NFL.
The offense has the potential to be very explosive, but also very punishing, if offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan chooses to mix it up. On the other side of the ball, expect a faster Falcons defense and a meaner one. Head coach Dan Quinn comes from Seattle, where he helped build the Legion of Boom. In his second year now in Atlanta, Quinn has had some time to get his pieces into the puzzle. To win in the South, you have to be able to score points, but you also need to stop high-octane offenses, like Carolina and New Orleans — and Tampa Bay, who’s no slouch either.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston will begin his NFL career by throwing for back-to-back 4,000 yard seasons.
When you have a wide receiver like Mike Evans at your fingertips and a tight end like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, it becomes pretty clear as to how you may have some success throwing the football. Jameis Winston has these two and also can rely on Doug Martin out of the backfield. New head coach Dirk Koetter will be comfortable with Winston throwing the ball a lot — and he’s probably going to have to be comfortable with it. Koetter was Winston’s OC last season so the two have familiarity with each other. And Koetter knows what he has on offense.
While the cupboards certainly aren’t bare, I’m not sure we can expect the Bucs to go tit-for-tat, score-for-score with division foes New Orleans, Atlanta, or Carolina. Winston and the Buccaneers are likely a year or two away from being a playoff contender — the defense needs to improve by a lot. But while they wait, Winston will certainly have his chances to pad his stat totals. Expect Tampa to be behind in many games this year so the aerial attack will be in full swing.
New Orleans Saints
Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener will combine to be the most productive WR-TE combo in the NFC.
Here’s what I can’t get past with the Saints: Rob Ryan’s defenses were utterly atrocious in his time with New Orleans, aside from 2013. But even before Ryan, it’s not like the Saints were ever known for having a top defense — or even a good defense. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009, the Saints ranked 25th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed. Defense and the Saints go together like oil and water.
So what, right? You can make two things of this: (1) the Saints don’t need defense to win; (2) over the last few seasons since 2009, it’s evident that the Saints cannot win with just having a high-powered passing attack. I tend to take the latter.
Not to mention, Drew Brees is not a young man any longer and he doesn’t have all the weapons he used to have. But he does have Brandin Cooks, and they signed tight end Coby Fleener from Indianapolis during the offseason. Fleener should be the closest thing to Jimmy Graham that Brees has had since the team jettisoned Graham off the nonexistence in Seattle a couple years ago. Head coach Sean Payton knows how to use TEs in his system and loves to involve them — look no further then what he got out of Benjamin Watson last season.
As for Cooks, the speedy third year wideout should improve upon his very nice 2015 numbers, which saw him haul in 84 catches for over 1,100 yards with 9 TDs. He will be the unquestioned top option for Brees in this pass-happy offense. I expect Brees to sit at the top of the NFC in passing yards with Cooks and Fleener being the biggest beneficiaries.
Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.