Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 07:51 PM

SEASON PREVIEW: NFC SOUTH

Our 2016-17 NFL Preview will highlight each division in the NFL, with an in-depth look at each team as we head into training camp and preseason football.  We’ll give predictions and summaries of a season.  We’ll also push out our first Power Rankings, as well as an early MVP preview and prediction.  Our next look is of the NFC South, where the Carolina Panthers are looking for revenge following a disappointing end to last season.  Here are the predictions, in order of projected finish:

 

  1. Carolina Panthers

Offense: It’s hard to discount what the Panthers accomplished last season.  This offense was the best scoring team in the NFL last season, and they’ve got the NFL’s best offensive player in Cam Newton.  Newton was spectacular last season, winning the MVP with 45 touchdowns.  And he’s got a better cast around him, as Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers top receiver from two years ago, returns.  He’ll also have promising young Devin Funchess and his favorite targets in Philly Brown and Ted Ginn.  Oh, and let’s not forget the NFL’s second best tight end in Greg Olsen, to catch as well.  The Panthers will again feature the bruising Jonathan Stewart in the running game, but need to find a consistent number two as Stewart has an injury problem.  Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert returns, as well as a solid offensive line in Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, and Michael Oher.  Mike Remmers will also keep his starting spot, which is a cause for concern after last year’s Super Bowl performance.  Overall, the offense features six Pro Bowl players from last season, and should only get better.

Defense:  As crazy as it is for Carolina to have the best offensive player in football, they’ve got one of the best defensive players, too, in linebacker Luke Kuechly.  Kuechly leads a defense that was one of the NFL’s best a season ago.  Kuechly is part of the best linebacker group in football, with Thomas Davis opposite him and young and promising player Shaq Thompson on the other side. The second unit is also deep and strong.  The defensive line is also really good, led by a line that can absolutely terrorize a quarterback.  Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson are great ends, and inside is where the Panthers live with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.  The front seven for Carolina is the best in football.  Where the Panthers have some questions is in the secondary.  The Panthers let Josh Norman walk in free agency, and also saw Charles Tillman hang it up and Roman Harper go.  The safety spots look good with Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman, and Bene Benwikere is a capable corner.  But outside of that, the Panthers are full of unknowns.  They’ve got three rookies in camp battling for the other job along with Robert McClain, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will earn the starting spot.  Carolina will play lots of Cover Two to help the weak back end, but with a line as talented as theirs, they can use linebackers in coverage as well.

Best Case:  The Panthers defense remains one of the best in the league and the offense takes a new step with Kelvin Benjamin and an improved Devin Funchess.  The Panthers roll to another NFC South crown and win the Super Bowl behind another MVP performance from Cam Newton.

Worst Case: The Panthers secondary never comes together, and the defense takes a step back.  The Panthers deal with injuries at running back and receiver and the offense reverts back to Cam Newton targeting Olsen and Benjamin.  The league keys in on Newton and the Panthers get bounced out of the first round.

How They’ll Finish: The Panthers look really good again.  I don’t see any scenario where this team doesn’t make the playoffs, but beyond that it all comes down to the defense.  The offense will be good, especially as long as Cam continues to Cam, and they should be one of the favorites to win the whole thing.

  1. Atlanta Falcons

Offense:  There’s no real way around it: the Falcons absolutely imploded following their 6-0 start last season.  Matt Ryan was really average.  And I don’t think he’s much better than that.  But on the plus side, he’s got Julio Jones to throw to.  The superstar receiver racked up 1,800 receiving yards, as he quickly became Ryan’s only sure target.  This season he’s got Mohamed Sanu, whom the Falcons hope to be an upgrade over the departed Roddy White.  Throw in talented young receiver Justin Hardy and the Falcons seem to have a solid supporting staff for their QB.  The running back’s look solid, as Devonta Freeman had a solid season, establishing himself as the feature back.  The offensive line was a big question last season, falling apart after the Falcons solid start, but they think they’ve shored it up with a coup in bringing in Alex Mack from Cleveland.  Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder will flank him, and should bring new life to the offensive line.

Defense:  Dan Quinn has made no bones about it: he wants to get after the quarterback.  And while they struggled in the first season, the defense should be improved in that department in 2016.  The line is solid, with Grady Jarrett taking over at DT after a great rookie campaign.  Solid run stuffers in Ra’Shede Hageman and new signee Derrick Shelby, who should aid in limiting the rush, flank him.  But if they want to be what Quinn wants, they are going to need 2015 first round pick Vic Beasley to produce.  Beasley was a disappointment in 2015, and is going to have to provide some pass rush.  The linebacker group is a work in progress, with Courtney Upshaw brought in to stabilize the unit. They are going to need Brooks Reed to stay healthy to give them some sort of balance.  The secondary is also a weak spot.  Desmond Trufant is awesome, and one of the best in the business, but Robert Alford and Jalen Collins aren’t so much.  Keanu Neal will be a rookie starting at safety with Ricardo Allen, so expect teams to test Atlanta in the air again.

Best Case: The Falcons find a way to turn into a Dan Quinn defense and Matt Ryan learns how to be a quarterback again.  Julio Jones turns in a 2,000 yard receiving year, and the Falcons challenge the Panthers for the NFC South.  They capitalize on a receding Panthers team and steal the division and into a home playoff game.

Worst Case:  The defense is bad, and Matt Ryan continues to just be average.  The receivers outside of Julio Jones don’t produce, and Freeman stays injured.  The Falcons struggle to reach .500, and they look like a team deep in rebuilding.

How They’ll Finish:  I have no idea. There may not be another team in the league with a wider gap between best case and worst case.  I can see these guys winning ten games, and I can see them losing twelve.  The only reason I took them to be second in this division is a proven commodity.  The Falcons are improving, and I just like them a hair better than the Bucs and Saints.

  1. New Orleans Saints

Offense:  Any discussion on the Saints begins and ends with Drew Brees.  The ageless quarterback returns after throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 32 TDs.  He should do the same again this year, as he’ll have a talented receiving group with standout Brandin Cooks, rookie Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead, as well as newly added tight end Cody Fleener.  The running game is a question; with Mark Ingram is a decent power back but not lighting it up.  CJ Spiller should provide some pop out of the backfield.  The offensive line is veteran and talented, led by Max Unger and Terron Armstead.  This team should be good on offense again, but probably not at 2015 levels.

Defense:  As good as the Saints are on offense, this defense is really, really bad.  Cameron Jordan leads the defensive line, and behind him is… well, nothing really.  They need someone to step up to provide a pass rush, as they were one of the worst in the NFL last season in pressuring the QB.  Nick Fairley should provide some stiff play, but they need some serious help on the line.   If they can upgrade even a bit, the defense will be much improved. The running defense wasn’t much better, and the linebackers are equally to blame for that rough situation.  Stephone Anthony is a promising young player, but they’ll need Dannell Ellerbe to be healthy, and James Laurinaitis to give leadership.  The secondary is pretty solid, with Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro anchoring a capable back end.  The secondary will be the strength of a defense that MUST get better.

Best Case: The Saints defense improves behind a revitalized line of Cameron Jordan and Nick Fairley.  The Saints offense continues to put up big numbers, and the Saints reach the postseason after winning 10 games, as Brees adds to his legacy.

Worst Case:  Brees finally shows some signs of age, and the offense can’t score enough to offset another really bad defense.  The Saints end up in shootouts, and find themselves at 5-11 and at the bottom of the NFC South.

How They’ll Finish:  The defense really is the question.  I like who they’ve added, but this team is so thin that one injury can unravel the whole thing.  I think the defense gets better, but it’s not enough to have the Saints in the playoffs.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offense:  Well, the Bucs are back in reloading mode, as they’ll see a new head coach all over again.  Dirk Koetter inherits a team he was the OC of a year ago, and he’s got quite the talented young QB in Jameis Winston.  Winston dropped 18 pounds in the offseason, and looks to be committed to being a long-term player in the NFL.  He’s got some talent around him, with the offensive line being the strength.  They saw a great season from two rookies in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, and got a great guard in JR Sweezy to replace Logan Mankins.  Winston’s targets will have to get better this season, as they dropped a lot of balls in 2015.  Mike Evans is a terrific player, but he and Vincent Jackson have to become the towering forces that Tampa Bay expected when they got them.  The running game is great, with the Bucs featuring the second-highest rushing player in the league in the backfield. And behind that line, they could stand to just run it to death.

Defense:  The Bucs defense ultimately cost Lovie Smith his job, and was a major source of focus in the offseason.  The Bucs main source of punishment was against the pass, and they went out and spent big money on Brent Grimes, a Pro Bowl corner, and picked up Vernon Hargreaves with their first round pick.  That’s some serious influx of talent opt add to the secondary. The back end of Chris Conte and McDougald at safety is still a concern, however.  The line got some added depth with Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence, and with Gerald McCoy should be improved, but it’s far from a strength.  The linebackers are really good, and are the strength of the defense.  They got Daryl Smith from Baltimore, who’s a terrific run stuffer and tackler, and Lavonte David was a Pro Bowler last season.  The defense should look better than last year, but it still needs some work.

Best Case: The Bucs young talent comes together on defense and sees a renaissance under a new coaching staff.  They become a top-15 defense in the league, and are able to limit the passing game.  Jameis Winston and the offense take the next step, and the Bucs take a trip to the Wild Card round.

Worst Case:  The defense continues to struggle and Winston can’t take his game up another level.  The team takes a step back after a promising 2015, and looks like their stuck in a rebuild as they struggle to find answers at playmaking positions.

How They’ll Finish:  The Bucs have all the tools to be competitive in the NFC South.   But it’s too much of a guess.  I think the team is talented, and the future is bright, but they’re one year away from competing for playoff positioning.  They should fight for .500, however.

Next Installment: AFC West

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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