2016 NFC South Predictions and Preview
Atlanta Falcons (2015 record: 8-8): Under ‘teams ready to implode,’ we see the Falcons. Long an offensive juggernaut, they have only two true weapons left in QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones. For some reason, they vastly overpaid for Mohamed Sanu; he’s never been a consistent threat, though he was often overshadowed by AJ Green and Marvin Jones. They finally think they found Tony Gonzalez’ replacement at tight end, albeit a few years late. Austin Hooper is athletically gifted, but may not contribute much as a rookie. The running game is overrated, as the league caught up to Devonta Freeman in the second half of the season. Neither he nor Tevin Coleman are full time backs, and may not even be a serviceable tandem. The line got a nice upgrade by nabbing center Alex Mack. Though the guards around him are merely OK, the tackles on the outside are decent. The line should be solid as a whole.
The defense is another story, if the story was titled ‘Unmitigated Disaster.’ Aside from the corners, the defense is completely void of quality and depth. The pass rush was non-existent, registering only 19 sacks last year. The line needs former first rounder Vic Beasley to step up and earn his paycheck. The Falcons drafted two new linebackers, but it’s tough to have too much youth on that side of the ball. If Falcons fans thought that the second half of 2015 was tough to watch, they’re in for a rough ride this year.
Carolina Panthers (2015 record: 15-1): We really liked the Panthers going into 2015, and the same holds true this year – especially if the offensive line plays better than it did against Denver in the Super Bowl. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were completely blown off of the line of scrimmage and teams are going to look to attack them this season. The interior of the line is much better. The running game might regress a bit; Jonathan Stewart is certain to miss a handful of games, as he is prone to do – though he was fantastic for much of last season. The receivers should be nicely upgraded, as Kelvin Benjamin and his 6’5” frame are back. He and TE Greg Olsen give MVP Cam Newton two large and talented targets, and they should free up secondary options like Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess for some solid performances, though an upgrade at the receiver slot would’ve been a nice addition to the squad.
The defense returns mostly intact, though the piece they lost was huge. For some unknown reason, the Panthers let All-World CB Josh Norman go after offering him the franchise tag early in the offseason. Nobody knows what the front office was thinking, but this is a tremendous loss to the unit. They ended up spending three of their first four picks on the position, but you cannot replace a Josh Norman. That stings. The rest of the squad, though, is back and is talented, deep, and anxious to repeat. And we think they have a great chance to get back to the dance.
New Orleans Saints (2015 record: 7-9): The Saints look like a team on the verge of implosion as well. Drew Brees is 37 now, and has fewer weapons than he’s ever had. The defense is a complete abomination. And it looks like HC Sean Payton could be on the verge of departure as well; rumors of his impending departure were rampant as the season ended. The WR corps is pretty thin behind Brandin Cooks, who had a nice breakout last year. Willie Snead looks like the #2, but is best served as a third-down option. TE Coby Fleener was signed to replace Ben Watson, but Fleener’s NFL career has been one big fat disappointment – and he had Andrew Luck tossing him the rock (or ‘hot potato’ in Coby’s case). The interior of the line struggled last year and lost its top player in G Jahri Evans. The tackle spot should be good, just not great. There’s not much depth behind brittle Mark Ingram at running back. Equally brittle CJ Spiller and Tim Hightower have seen far better days and cannot handle FT duty when (not if) Ingram gets hurt.
As for the defense – well; it’s hideous. They gave up 30 PPG last season in an atrocious showing. They brought DT Nick Fairly over from the Rams and drafted DT Sheldon Rankins early on; both should upgrade the line significantly. Another edge rusher to complement Cameron Jordan would’ve been nice, but the position was ignored. As was the linebacker spot, which will be an abomination again this year. If teams reach the second level against the Saints, they’ll approach last season’s totals again. And we don’t mean win totals.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2015 record: 6-10): The Buccaneers are improving at the right time, as the division itself (aside from Carolina) appears to be on its way down. QB Jameis Winston proved critics (including us) wrong and been the epitome of a model citizen and teammate. Watching him mature as a man and as a player is going to be a lot of fun, especially if WR Mike Evans remembers how to catch a football. If he can show more consistency and relegate aging Vincent Jackson to the #2 role, the Bucs could be in business. Austin Sefarian-Jenkins looks like he’ll be a fine tight end; he just needs to stay on the field. We’re expecting regression from RB Doug Martin, as he rode the wave of a 1,400 yard season to a fat contract. We don’t, however, think he’ll be as bad as he was in 2013 and 2014. The line struggled for much of 2015 and while some new blood was brought in (JR Sweezy from Seattle), they don’t appear to have significantly upgraded.
The defense, however, is a different story. The Bucs used their first four draft picks on this side of the ball, and signed DL Robert Ayers away from the Rams. CB Vernon Hargreaves and DE Noah Spence will be impact players as rookies, and immediately make the defense better. A rotation of Spence, Ayers, and stalwart DE William Gholston could be quite formidable. The linebackers were solid last year and should be even better, as Kwon Alexander should improve upon a mediocre rookie campaign. Looking for a playoff darkhorse this season? Don’t look past Tampa.
PREDICTED 2016 STANDINGS
Tampa Bay 9-7
New Orleans 7-9