Complete NFC South Preview
Here is a look at what you can expect from the Falcons, Saints, Panthers and Bucs this season…
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the class of the NFC South and ready to compete with the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Packers for NFC supremacy. The offense remains one of the most dynamic in the NFL, and the talented young defense should only be better with experience. The Saints face a brutal schedule and will do well to equal last year’s 11-5 record, but they’ll again be a factor in the NFC playoff race and are a solid sleeper pick to go all the way.
The Falcons are never the flashy arrival to the ball, but they stand to be one of the more competitive teams in the NFL this season. The addition of wide receiver Calvin Ridley to the offense could be a stroke of genius to get back to their high-scoring ways. Rookie Isaiah Oliver might be the final piece to what could be a dominant secondary, and the youth on the defensive line could give the team some extra push in the pass rush and run support. Still, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s maturity into a capable play caller is the story to watch going forward and could be what separates a good Falcons team from a great one.
The Panthers don’t look that much different on paper from the team that finished 15-1 in 2015 and made it to the Super Bowl. Many of the core players from that memorable squad remain. But it is fair for Panthers fans to wonder if the team is wasting QB Cam Newton and MLB Luke Kuechly prime years. Personnel holes and various injuries in the secondary, at wide receiver and in the offensive line have hamstrung much of the past two seasons — and Newton has never totally regained his NFL MVP form of 2015, either.
This team could go a long way, but a lot of things have to break right. Kuechly and Newton have to stay healthy and play at an elite level. Another legitimate receiving threat must emerge. The secondary has to be better. Running back Christian McCaffrey has to take another step forward.
If all of that happens, the Panthers could win it all. More likely, this is a team that will remain in the postseason picture in the increasingly difficult NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht are on the hot seat. Licht is well aware that his reshaped roster needs to produce. And he’s confident the right moves have been made.
“Last year, there’s no sugar-coating the disappointment,’’ he says of a season in which the Bucs were 3-7 in one-score games. “I feel like we were a much better team than our record suggested, and we’ve talked over and over about the close games that we were in and the ones that we couldn’t find a way to finish. I feel like we’ve added some really quality players that have been in those situations. Not that that’s always the answer, but I just love this locker room. I love the heartbeat of this locker room. I love the vibe, and I think we’re a lot closer than some people think. I think we have a chance to do something really good.”
Quarterback Jameis Winston needs to re-establish himself as a quarterback capable of getting his team to the postseason. The schedule is much tougher, especially in September. If the rebuilt defense is successful and running back Ronald Jones II restores balance to the offense, the Bucs will be contenders again in a tight division. If not, they could easily repeat their last-place finish.