Carolina ran away with this division in resounding fashion last season. Will anyone be able to challenge the Panthers this season or will this be another season of domination for Cam and that impressive Carolina defense?
4. New Orleans Saints
Key personnel losses – Brandon Browner, Marques Colston, Junior Gallete, Ben Watson, Kenny Stills
Key personnel additions – Coby Fleener, James Laurinaitis, Nick Fairley, Michael Thomas
Clearly the 2009 ”aints” these ain’t, even if Sean Payton and Drew Brees are still walking through that locker room door. After another 7-9 record, many pundits were speculating as to Payton’s next destination. Saints owner Tom Benson decided to ride out Payton and Brees for at least another season, signing both to contract extensions.
With a lackluster supporting cast, this attempt to squeeze out the last ounce of juice from the 37-year-old quarterback will end up being futile.
Out walked leading receivers Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and tight end Ben Watson, in came in rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas and tight endCoby Fleener. Retooling at the skill positions at this point in your franchise QB’s career is not ideal. Especially when you consider that the defensive unit ranked 29th last season and they will be without first round DT Sheldon Rankins who broke his foot in preseason.
Forecast: 6-10. There just isn’t enough to get excited about on this Saints roster, and it seems like the inevitable clean-house-and-rebuild process is around the corner.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Key Losses: Roddy White
Key Additions: Alex Mack, Mohammed Sanu, Lance Moore, Matt Schaub
After winning six of their first seven games last season, the wheels started coming off the ATL bus and the Falcons ended up 8-8. Add another year of mileage on Matty Ice and Julio Jones’s legs, some lackluster free agency activity, and there just isn’t much to get excited about with regard to the Falcons. Or is there?
They have one of the most exciting backs in the game in Devonta Freeman and an offensive line that was already ranked fifth in the league before the arrival of stud center Alex Mack. The Falcons will put up points, no doubt.
Forecast: 7-9. The big question remains their defense, with a 26th ranked secondary and a 29th ranked front seven on defense. Head coach Dan Quinn, winner of a Super Bowl ring with Seattle as a defensive coordinator, needs to work some magic with this unit if the Falcons are to challenge for the NFC East title. The Falcons addressed their defensive needs through the draft (again), but even if you assume this year’s picks are gems (unlike their 2015 and 2014 picks), I believe it is too early for this unit to mature in time to give Matt Ryan and Julio Jones enough help defensively this season for the Falcons to compete for the division title.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key personnel losses: Logan Mankins, Major Wright, Mike Jenkins, Sterling Moore
Key additions: Brent Grimes, JR Sweezy, Robert Ayers, Bryan Anger
In a somewhat surprising (but not really all that surprising) turn of events, the Bucs let go of Lovie Smith, going in a slightly different direction by tapping offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, their former offensive coordinator.
This Bucs offense has plenty of talent at the skill positions. Coming off a solid rookie year, Jameis is looking to break out and become an elite dual threat QB. The slimmed down Winston has plenty of weapons at his disposal, with Pro Powler Mike Evans lining up wide and Doug Martin in the backfield who’s coming off an outstanding year back from knee injury. The only question remains the offensive line, which is still a work in process.
The defense presents some issues, transitioning to a new scheme under new coordinator Mike Smith. A foundation might be developing, though, with the arrival of rookies Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves III looking particularly impressive in the preseason playing alongside Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.
Forecast: 10-6. Obviously, we’re putting this preview out as the Bucs are already 1-0, having beaten their division rivals Falcons on the road, so there is good reason to be optimistic about this Bucs team.
1. Carolina Panthers
Key personnel losses: Josh Norman, Roman Harper, Jared Allen, Jerricho Cotchery
Key additions: Paul Soliai, Gino Gradkowski
Coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, the Panthers did themselves no favors in the offseason, earning a C- for their activities from ProFootball Focus. However, the return of Kelvin Benjamin essentially adds another Pro Bowl-level receiver to the roster so that grade is a little deceiving.
With a top 10 offensive line, a very serviceable running back in Jonathan Stewart, an elite tight end and the league MVP behind center, the Panthers look set to cruise through the division and possibly the conference.
Not so fast.
In an increasingly passing league, the loss of Josh Norman will prove to be costly. The secondary looked very shaky in their first game and it is projected to be among the worst in the league.
Forecast: 12-4. If you’re hitching your wagon to the Panthers, you believe that the defensive front seven is strong enough to constantly pressure opposing QBs to avoid having their secondary exposed. With a tougher schedule than last year, I don’t expect the Panthers to dominate the division in the same fashion. They will not go 15-1 this year, but are still good enough to win the NFC South.
How do you think the NFC South will shape up? Let us know your thoughts below.