Not a single team in the NFC South had a winning record in 2014, making them the worst division in the league last year. Due to NFL rules, one team had to be sent to the playoffs, and that honor went to the Carolina Panthers who finished the year 7-8-1 overall while going 4-2 within the division. The New Orleans Saints had an unexpectedly down year after being perennial playoff contenders for several seasons prior. They ended up 7-9 and 3-3 against division rivals. The Atlanta Falcons also took a huge step backwards after going 13-3 in 2013. Last season, they finished third in the NFC South with a 6-10 record going 5-1 against the rest of the South. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the worst record in the league with a 2-14 record, going 0-6 inside the division.
Calling the Carolina Panthers a playoff team isn’t incorrect, but it’s a stretch. Cam Newton offers stability and competence at the quarterback position, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of his Heisman winning college career. He still has second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin to be excited about as a great new target downfield, in addition to one of the best tight ends in the league in Greg Olsen, who was locked up to a five-year extension in the offseason. Beyond that, the offense doesn’t have a lot of playmakers. Linebacker Luke Kuechly will continue to be the leader on defense, but the Panthers lack speed and depth on the defensive line as well as in the secondary. In any other division, the Panthers likely wouldn’t be considered +200 to win, but that’s exactly where they sit in the NFC South heading into the 2015 season.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints could be on the verge of a major rebuild after this year. They traded their superstar tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle and have purged several other aging, long-time household names in the Saints organization. They also brought in cornerback Brandon Browner to shore up what was one of the worst secondaries in the league last year. With Graham gone, quarterback Drew Brees will have to find someone else to force the ball to, and there just isn’t that someone on the current roster. Defensively, the Saints are a bit of a mess. The arrival of Browner will serve to patch a small hole while several remain severely leaking. This all sounds like gloom and doom, but New Orleans sit just behind the Panthers at +224 odds of winning the division. Such is the current state of the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Being the worst team in football last year means the Buccaneers were able to pick no. 1 overall in the NFL Draft this offseason. They chose Jameis Winston out of Florida State, hoping he’ll become the franchise quarterback they thought they were getting when they drafted Josh Freeman in 2009. Jameis has a few off-field hurdles that could serve as distractions while he learns the NFL game, but at least he’ll have second-year breakout receiver Mike Evans to loft the ball to. Beyond Evans, the Bucs really don’t have much firepower to help them score after being ranked 30th in the league on offense last year. Tampa Bay did manage to sign defensive tackle and complete beast Gerald McCoy to a six-year, $95 million contract to find some consistency on the defensive line. The trouble is that the Bucs don’t really have much skill on the secondary. They traded safety Dashon Goldson, a former Pro-Bowler and signed Christ Conte, arguably one of the worst safeties in the league, to fill his shoes. That is why the Buccanners are pegged as +651 to win the NFC South.
The Falcons cleaned house in the offseason and will have a brand new coaching staff heading into the regular season. It’s always a bit jarring for players to have to learn new schemes and coaching styles, but Atlanta is still +200 to win the NFC South. They’ll have Matt Ryan returning at quarterback throwing balls to Julio Jones. Jones is in a contract year, so look for him to really up his production in hopes of landing a mega-contract at the conclusion of the 2015 season. In order for this to happen, the Falcons need to find a way to protect Ryan as their offensive line has been abysmal the last few seasons. The defense has also been in shambles with a real lack of quality linebackers and cornerbacks, making them the 27th ranked defense in the league last year. Not much has been done to fill the glaring holes on defense or the offensive line during the offseason. This year could be another bumpy one for the Falcons, but in a weak division such as the NFC South, they could have a losing record and still make the playoffs.
How Will the NFC South Teams Rank for the 2015/16 Season?
While the Panthers don’t exactly fit the bill of division dominance, it’s likely they’ll manage to win the NFC South again. Cam Newton is starting to find his groove as a pocket passer and Kelvin Benjamin could be great. The Saints still have Drew Brees, but their defense is a major liability. It’s a tough call, but look for New Orleans to finish second in the NFC South if not for any other reason than they still have long-time coach Sean Payton at the helm. It’s always hard to play well right out of the gates with a new coaching regime and that’s exactly what Atlanta will be enduring this season. Unfortunately for Buc’s fans, it’s a long, long road to respectability and a rookie quarterback won’t be enough to bolster your spot at the bottom of the South’s standings.