NFL Football 2017-18 Season
NFC South Division Preview
With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting tomorrow August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s an outlook of NFC South teams.
There is absolutely nothing to fix in the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta finished 2016 first in points scored, offensive touchdowns and points per drive. The argument surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan’s “eliteness” ended in 2016. The veteran was both statistically impressive (4,944 yards, 38 TDs, seven INTs) and a commanding force in two playoff wins.
So there isn’t much that changed in the Falcons offense beside one move on the sidelines. Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian is taking over the offensive coordinator duties from Kyle Shanahan. Sarkisian’s play-calling tendencies in the college game promoted play-action and no huddle, which jibes with the aspects of Shanahan’s system that elevated Ryan’s game. Ryan hasn’t missed a start since the 2009 season, but Atlanta extended the agreement of backup Matt Schaub, the most reliable number 2 option the Falcons have had in years.
Running back Devonta Freeman was the breakout star of Atlanta’s offense last season. Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver if not its most physically impressive. Perhaps more important for Jones (and Ryan) was that the big free-agency price paid for Mohamed Sanu was worth it (59 catches on 81 targets). Jones and Sanu thrived when Ryan consistently hit supporting targets (Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper and breakout sensation Taylor Gabriel), forcing defenses to avoid bracket and double coverage.
Score more points. This has become the Panthers’ offseason mantra after the offense was average at best in 2016 and failed time and again in the clutch. After a 2015 season in which Carolina finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (31.3 ppg), the Panthers dropped to 15th in 2016 (23.1 ppg). And given that Carolina lost six games by three points or fewer, the goal this year is to once again top the 30-points-per-game threshold.
The “old” is not that old, but quarterback Cam Newton turned 28 in May and will be entering his seventh NFL season. Newton took a couple of steps backward in 2016, suffering a career low in completion percentage. Besides the inherent pressure of attempting to return to his Most Valuable Player form of 2015, Newton has the additional burden of coming back from March surgery on the partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
At running back, bruiser Jonathan Stewart returns but is nearing the twilight of his career at age 30 and in his 10th year in the NFL. Christian McCaffrey, the apparent heir of the running duties, is a far different type of back. He is more elusive and better in space, but not as effective in between the tackles. Fullback Mike Tolbert was released as the Panthers plan to go more to three-wide sets and let their new slot receiver, rookie Curtis Samuel, run a lot of the deep routes that Ted Ginn Jr. used to before he bolted for New Orleans.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has not been able to achieve the separation he needs to from defensive backs. His on-and-off battles with weight are part of the problem as well. He has a lot to prove this season. Tight end Greg Olsen is a consummate pro and has made the Pro Bowl three years in a row. His sticky hands have made him Newton’s favorite target. Devin Funchess has been a poor man’s version of Benjamin, which is not a compliment. Like Benjamin, Funchess badly needs to show improvement in 2017. Damiere Byrd is undersized but very fast and could surprise.
New Orleans Saints
As quarterback Drew Brees goes, so go the Saints. Even at 38, Brees remains one of the elite passers in the league. He compensates for his lack of prototype size and arm strength with anticipation and an encyclopedic knowledge of head coach Sean Payton’s complex offense. Few quarterbacks are given more control at the line of scrimmage, and Brees is a master at reading defenses before the snap and beating coverages with his quick release and uncanny accuracy. Even without big-play threat Brandin Cooks, Brees should enjoy another big season.
The emergence of Michael Thomas and the acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. made the speedy Cooks expendable. Thomas uses his powerful hands and 6’3″ frame to physically dominate defensive backs on competitive balls downfield. He compares to former Saints great Marques Colston with his uncanny body control and innate feel for getting open against zone or man-to-man coverage. With Cooks gone, Thomas is Brees’ clear go-to receiver in the red zone. On another team, Willie Snead might not be a factor, but in the Saints’ intricate, timing-based attack, he excels with his smarts, sure hands and precise route-running. He’s a favorite target of Brees on third down. Ginn fills Cooks’ role as the deep threat. Even at 32 years-old, he can still take the top off a defense with his sprinter’s speed.
Mark Ingram has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around backs. He drives through tackles with his powerful legs and low center of gravity. Ingram has also become a dependable receiver in passing situations. He’s the clear starter. The Saints believe Adrian Peterson has plenty of juice left in his 32-year-old legs and can share the workload with Ingram. If he can stay healthy, he’ll provide insurance for Ingram, who has battled injuries throughout his career. Look for Ingram and Peterson to alternate series and share the workload.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs will face a murderers’ row of quarterbacks this season: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning in addition to NFC South gunslingers Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. Some may believe that that’s what gave the team the excuse to raise ticket prices for the second year in a row. But the truth is, the Bucs believe that quarterback Jameis Winston is more than worth the price of admission.
Winston has to cut down on his turnovers though. He’s had 42 in two seasons (33 interceptions and nine lost fumbles). The Bucs engaged in an offensive weapons spree in the offseason to help out Winston. They’ve added free-agent receiver DeSean Jackson while drafting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Penn State receiver Chris Godwin to go with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.
Wide receiver Mike Evans was targeted an astounding 175 times, the most of any player in the league. He caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 TDs, but he won’t have to carry the offense anymore now that Jackson and Howard are on board.
Brate tied for the league lead among tight ends with eight touchdown receptions. The addition of Howard to the squad allow him to be free to run option routes down the seam.
The biggest question mark on offense is at running back. Doug Martin will miss the first three games serving a suspension for PEDs. The Bucs re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers, and both Charles Sims and Peyton Barber return. Tampa Bay used a fifth-round pick on Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols, who has the best hands and is the best pass protector among backs in this year’s draft.