The proverbial $64,000 question with the NFC South remains: is this still Cam Newton’s division, with everyone else just living in it? Or are one of the other three teams ready to rise up and dethrone Newton and the Carolina Panthers?
It’s hard to bet against a team that’s lost a grand total of one regular season game since November of 2014, and still has the reigning MVP — and the ultimate realization of every defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare of a true “dual threat quarterback” — under center. But if nothing else, history says the odds are heavily stacked against the Carolina Panthers repeating their incredible success from last year.
For one, the Panthers might’ve lost the services of the top free agent in this year’s market: cornerback Josh Norman. Norman’s former teammates in Carolina all said that Norman was one of the very best players on defense, and that the talent and energy he brought will be missed; rookies James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez might be fine players, but none of them will be able to bring what Norman brought last season.
On offense, even with the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the growth of second year receiver Devin Funchess, and the perennial presence of All Pro tight end Greg Olsen, it’s still almost impossible to expect an encore performance from Cam Newton, after he accounted for a combined 45 touchdowns last year. Plus, what happens if Jonathan Stewart — who turns 29 years old this season — gets injured (yet again)? Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Artis-Payne are nice players, but is that really enough?
The Panthers are still one of the three or four best teams in the conference, and a shoo-in to win the still-depleted NFC South. But it could be very tough for them to make another deep postseason run.
After looking like one of the next great teams in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons have been steadily running along on the treadmill of mediocrity for the past few seasons. After going 13-3 in 2012 and coming one game shy of playing in the Super Bowl, the Falcons have won a total of 18 games over the last three seasons, failing to record a winning season in any of them. So, they spent the offseason adding various parts to head coach Dan Quinn‘s defense and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan‘s offense, hoping to get them closer to their old winning ways.
On defense, the team signed defensive end Derrick Shelby (formerly with Miami) and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (formerly with Baltimore) to bolster their starting front seven, and also added Dwight Freeney (who played in Arizona last season) as a situational pass rusher, as well as linebackers Deion Jones (their second round pick from LSU) and De’Vondre Campbell (their fourth round pick from the University of Minnesota) in the 2016 NFL Draft. With their first round pick in this year’s draft, the Falcons selected safety Keanu Neal, whom Quinn envisions as his version of Kam Chancellor (who Quinn got to coach when he was in Seattle). Offensively, the Falcons bolstered the interior of their offensive line, signing Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (the long time center for the Cleveland Browns) and Andy Levitre (formerly of Tennesee) to play left guard. The Falcons also added wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (formerly of Cincinnati) to take away some of the opposing defense’s focus on superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. The question for the Falcons really comes down to how quickly these additions can come together cohesively, because they’ll be playing in a division full of teams that will provide stiff tests on both sides of the football.
For as good as the New Orleans Saints offense was last year — they finished second in the NFL in overall offense, first in the NFL in passing offense, and seventh in Offense according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) measure — there was just no way they could overcome the historic atrocity that their defense was last year. Ignore the fact that they finished 31st overall in the NFL on defense (they were ranked 31st against both the run and the pass last season); according to that same DVOA measure, Football Outsiders calculated that the Saints had the worst overall defensive grade over the past 26 seasons (even worse than the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went 0-16 that year).
Ironically, the Saints offense — especially its’ passing offense — could be even better this season. Second year receiver Brandin Cooks and ageless quarterback Drew Brees really began to develop a rapport over the second half of last season. Wide receiver Michel Thomas — the team’s second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, who many considered to be the best receiving prospect in the draft overall — will present a younger, faster, and more athletic version of Marques Colston (whose career was rapidly declining over the past couple of years). The Saints also went out and signed tight end Coby Fleener to a five-year, $36 million contract, giving Brees the athletic tight end that he used to have with Jimmy Graham. In the backfield, there’s still running backs Mark Ingram and late-season pickup Tim Hightower, but they could also get a boost from the improved health of C.J. Spiller, who the team signed in free agency last season but was plagued by injuries all year.
Even more ironically, the Saints only made two big personnel changes to that infamously horrible group, drafting defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson with their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and signing middle linebacker James Laurinaitis away from the (now Los Angeles) Rams; Laurinitis will take over the middle linebacker spot, pushing former middle linebacker Stephone Anthony over to strongside linebacker. In the secondary, they jettisoned the totally-coverage-averse Brandon Browner, and will replace him with PJ Williams, the teams’ third round draft pick in 2015. Even given the fact that PJ Williams has never officially played in an NFL game in his career (he was placed on injured reserve in the 2015 preseason), simply getting rid of Browner was a win for this defense overall.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the present and future of the team revolves around the answer to one key question: is Jameis Winston truly the next big thing? Winston set franchise rookie records in pass attempts, pass completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. He was the third rookie quarterback to pass over 4,000 yards in a season (joining Cam Newton and Andrew Luck).
But, for all of his rookie successes, including an appearance in the Pro Bowl, there were still plenty of areas for growth needed by Winston. Recognizing that, he came into the Buccaneers 2016 training camp almost 15lbs lighter and in the best physical condition of his young career to date. The Buccaneers didn’t make very many changes on offense — outside of replacing the retired Logan Mankins with free agent acquisition JR Sweezy (formerly of Seattle) and moving reserve tackle Demar Dotson to the starting lineup to replace the departed Gosder Cherilus — as they wanted to maintain continuity around Winston’s individual growth.
Rather, it was on defense where the Buccaneers focused on making changes, even though they finished the season with respectable rankings of 11th against the run and 16th against the pass (they finished 10th overall in total yards allowed per game, and 18th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric). In free agency, they went out and made a bunch of key signings, adding defensive end Robert Ayers (formerly with the New York Giants), linebacker Daryl Smith (formerly with Baltimore), cornerback Brent Grimes (formerly with Miami), and cornerback Josh Robinson to be their nickel cornerback (formerly with Minnesota cornerback). They also used three of their first four picks on defensive players as well: cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III from the University of Florida (their first round pick who looks to be a starter from day one), edge rusher Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky University (their second round pick who can come in and contribute immediately in passing situations), and cornerback Ryan Smith from North Carolina Central (who’ll be competing for the the fourth cornerback spot on the team). It’ll be up to new defensive coordinator Mike Smith — the former head coach of NFC South division rival Atlanta — to get this unit to maximize its potential, and keep the ball in the hands of Winston and the offense.