What will the NFC South look like in a few seasons? We took a look into our crystal balls and gave answers for the Falcons, Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen many cases where franchises achieve significant turnarounds in just one season or complete rebuilds within two or three seasons. The Falcons have done it twice in that time. With that in mind, the major events that will shape the NFC South for the 2020 season likely haven’t occurred yet.
But the Falcons have a strong head start in that the ultra-young defense is loaded with players who will be hitting their prime around that 2020 season. And on the offense, Matt Ryan will be 35 - certainly entering his twilight years but still fully functional. If he continues to train with Tom House (yes, the Braves relief pitcher from the early 1970s) during the offseasons, he should still be throwing at MVP-caliber levels.
Around the division, Tampa will be in another defensive rebuild after Mike Smith is hired away to fill some other team’s head coaching vacancy. After continuing to hover around the 8-8 level, the Saints will finally realize that Mickey Loomis isn’t a cap genius after all and replace him as GM. Riverboat Ron will get his Panthers back on track, but they won’t be able to put it all together quite the way they did in 2015.
Atlanta’s other edge over their division rivals is the strong partnership between the coaching staff, front office and scouting department. It sounds cliche and is easy to blow off, but I can’t stress enough just how important the ongoing communication is to our success. To put it in tangible terms, look at the contributions we’re getting from players taken on the last day of the draft (rounds 4-7), undrafted free agents and fringe prospects. The list includes Freeman (4th), Campbell (4th), Toilolo (compensatory 4th), Jarrett (5th), Allen (5th), Ishmael (7th), Schraeder (UDFA), Poole (UDFA), Gabriel (waiver pickup), Garland (practice squad), and many others.
This team is able to meet many of its needs without top draft picks or major free agents - which allows them to use those key assets to improve other parts of the roster. The effect is about like having two or three extra second round picks every year. If they can keep it going, the Falcons will be one of the NFC’s stronger teams for years to come.
In the year 2020, our focus will be entirely consumed by a Dwayne Johnson and Lane Kiffin bid for the White House. Hey, Kiffin isn’t afraid to ride some coat tails. The scattered seconds we have available to watch NFL football will be precious opportunities to watch something a little less violent.
By the start of the next decade, it seems most likely that Atlanta and Tampa Bay will be the two teams at the top. That’s far from a guarantee, however, as the NFC South has been prone to yearly turnover more than any other conference.
Atlanta’s most valuable long-term resource is the youth on its defense. In three years, players like Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal will be in the midst of their primes and their experience will be talked about as a strength rather than a liability. Offensively, Matt Ryan’s skillset is one that should age well. As long as he is consistent, the Falcons’ offense should continue to evolve around its quarterback.
Tampa Bay has built an offense that should compete immediately, but the key pieces for the future are Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and O.J. Howard. If Winston progresses and Evans continues his ascent, they could push Ryan and Julio as the preeminent duo in the division. That would leave the Bucs able to focus on the offensive and defensive lines in the coming years.
Few quarterbacks mean as much to their team as Drew Brees has to the Saints. With very few other strengths to lean on, both offensively and defensively, it’s hard to believe at this time that they will have success once he is gone. Carolina may begin to see diminishing returns as Cam Newton ages, and it will have to make some decisions regarding its defensive personnel.
Right now, it seems like Atlanta and Tampa Bay will be the favorites for the division in 2020. But, hey, that’s as much a guarantee as saying The Rock and Joey Freshwater will be elected.
This may seem like a lame answer, but in 2020 I expect the NFC South will look about as it does now.
Atlanta should still be a contender so long as Matt Ryan is at the helm and the defense rounds into form in the fashion we expect to. The roster will by necessity look quite a bit different--goodbye, one of Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman, at minimum--but the team has plenty of quality offensive starters under contract and a very good, very young defense.
The Buccaneers should be in the mix, as well. They have their franchise quarterback, they’ve done a nice job of surrounding him with weapons (aside from at RB), and the defense isn’t even close to rounding into shape. Presuming they continue to build, even in a hit or miss fashion, they’ll be a contender.
The Panthers can go either way. I have no doubt they’ll have a division-winning season or two in them between now and 2020, and they have an elite defensive front, an incredibly dangerous quarterback in Cam Newton, and a bunch of weapons on offense. It’s enough to be a problem, but unless that secondary improves and the offensive line rounds into shape in the coming years, it may not be enough to get them back to the Super Bowl.
The Saints might be contenders again by 2020, but they’re the biggest wild card in this group. Their franchise quarterback will not be playing, or at least not playing at a super high level, when we roll over to 2020. If the Saints find a new one, they might be able to hang around. If not, I expect they’ll be the bottom dwellers of the NFC South by this point.