The NFL season is nearly here, and that means it’s time to take a look around the division to see what the Falcons are going to be up against this year. To do so, I’m joined by my friends Brian Beversluis from Cat Scratch Reader, Sander Phillipse from Bucs Nation, and J.R. Ella from Canal Street Chronicles.
We’ll examine the moves each team made this offseason, the challenges these teams are facing, and most importantly, which fan base is the most annoying. (Spoiler alert: Everyone hates the Saints.)
What are the key moves your team made this offseason?
Brian Beversluis: The Panthers adding Matt Kalil turned out to be a major move now that we know Oher is done with football (at least for now). Kalil has looked excellent against Mario Addison so far in training camp and the Panthers may have stumbled upon a really great addition. Kalil says he's never felt better since his hip surgery, and so far the evidence seems to show that there may be some truth to that.
Adding Julius Peppers back essentially means Carolina will now have three "co-starters" at defensive end with Charles Johnson and Addison also warranting a lot of snaps. The Panthers defensive line is looking very scary. Captain Munnerlyn coming back will also give Carolina the nickel option it has desperately needed for the last few years.
As far as the draft, well. Christian McCaffery is giving Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis fits in practice. You all should be REAL excited for him!
J.R. Ella: As we all know, the Saints' biggest problem the past three seasons has been the defense, or a lack thereof. To remedy that, New Orleans added former Panthers middle linebacker A.J. Klein. Although no one in their right mind is about to anoint Klein the next Luke Kuechly, last season showed why he could become a very good starting "Mike" in the NFL. With Kuechly hurt in week 10 and out for the remainder of the season in 2016, Klein stepped in the starting role and never looked back, which earned him the contract he signed with the New Orleans. By making this move, the Saints are hoping that the middle of their second line of defense can finally be solidified for the long term after the debacle that was Stephone Anthony, a first round pick in 2015, who is teetering on the brink of becoming a big time draft bust.
Sander Phillipse: DeSean Jackson. Eh...DeSean Jackson. Some more DeSean Jackson and, I guess, O.J. Howard. That is: two explosive targets for Jameis Winston to take this offense to the next level. Jackson's value is obvious, given his speed, but Howard was a steal and potentially transformative. He's arguably the best tight end to come out since Rob Gronkowski, and is one of those rare tight ends who can both block well, and be a deep threat as a receiver. That gives Dirk Koetter a lot of flexibility in his personnel packages, and it'll be really easy to force defenses into making tough choices--do they want to get cornerbacks to cover Howard, or linebackers to help stop him as a blocker, or safeties who can do neither adequately? If Howard develops well, he could have a massive impact on every aspect of the Bucs' offense.
Jeanna Thomas: The Falcons added Dontari Poe in free agency, and they asked him to slim down a bit in hopes that he'll be able to get some pressure up the middle. Even when he was playing at 346 pounds, Poe was remarkably agile and quick for his size, and we're all eager to see what he can do in Atlanta. They also extended right tackle Ryan Schraeder, which was a smart move.
In the draft, the team brought in Takk McKinley, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but once he's healthy he should be a nice complement to Vic Beasley. Linebacker Duke Riley, who is almost as fast as Deion Jones, was another solid addition, and late-rounder Damontae Kazee finished his final college season tied for second in the NCAA with seven picks. He's showing off those ballhawking skills in training camp, too.
What are the biggest challenges your team is facing this season?
Brian Beversluis: The offensive line is still going to be a concern, mainly at tackle. The center and guards are very good, but the tackles aren't quite proven. Daryl Williams is set to start at right tackle but I am not sure how long that will last. And obviously despite my excitement for Matt Kalil, he's an unknown quantity as well with truly boom or bust potential. The Panthers will try to install a much more effective short passing game but Cam is still going to be Cam and sling the ball deep at times.
On defense, the secondary is in a very good place but a shaky one depth wise. James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Captain Munnerlyn are a pretty good starting three, but behind that there isn't much viable depth. Corn Elder looked promising but he's dealing with a fractured patella. At safety, Michael Adams will join Kurt Coleman giving Carolina two good safety options. But the primary back up to them is Dean Marlowe, who has been impressive over the last three years but has yet to stay healthy and see the field.
J.R. Ella: This may take some by surprise, but the biggest challenge facing New Orleans this upcoming season is going to be keeping Drew Brees upright throughout the year. Although the Saints had a very competent offensive line last season, they start training camp missing two of the most important players on Brees' protecting unit: center Max Unger and left tackle Terron Armstead. Unger, who suffered a foot injury this offseason is expected to be back for the start of the season, while Armstead is out for what could be up to six months after shoulder surgery. While Unger's return is fairly imminent, the absence of Armstead could prove crucial: the candidates to replace him in protecting Brees' blindside are third-year player Andrus Peat, who struggled mightily at the position last year when Armstead was (again) injured. The other potential left tackle is 2017 first round draft selection Ryan Ramczyk, a rookie. Needless to say that none of these two guys could adequately fill Armstead's shoes, but that's something the Saints may have to deal with and figure out as the season goes on.
Sander Phillipse: Getting the defense to play well. The Bucs got a pretty good performance out of their defense last season, but there are a lot of problems with replicating that: Noah Spence is their only true edge rusher right now, Vernon Hargreaves struggled last year, Brent Grimes is old and the safety position is a confusing mess with some potential. There's a lot that could go wrong there.
Jeanna Thomas: The threat of a Super Bowl hangover. As I'm sure you all are aware, the Falcons blew a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI and it culminated in a historic, humiliating loss. They're going into this season with most of the talent that got them that far intact, but it's not been an easy loss for me to bounce back from. It's been infinitely harder for the team.
What’s your projection for the NFC South this year?
Brian Beversluis: I believe it's going to be much closer than people realize. I could see every team fighting for a playoff spot deep into the season. My conservative projection is:
J.R. Ella: In my opinion, the Falcons will not be able to rebound so easily from their Super Bowl loss last February. We've simply seen it too often, the Super Bowl loser's hangover is real. On the other hand, I expect the Bucs to start taking over as the team to beat in the NFC South. I expect the Saints to mount a bit of a last hurrah as the Brees' era comes to and end, while I think the Panthers will stay in their lull into mediocrity. Here's how I see it the NFC South shaking out at the end of the 2017 regular season:
Sander Phillipse: I think it'll be a really close, competitive division that anyone could win. Except for the New Orleans Saints, they're going to go 7-9 again. Ultimately I think the Atlanta Falcons walk away with the division crown again, while the Bucs grab a wild card playoff spot.
Jeanna Thomas: I think it will be more competitive, except the Saints will definitely go 7-9 again.
What NFC South team and their fans annoy you the most, and why?
Brian Beversluis: While I actually haven't had a whole lot of problems with their fans on SB Nation specifically, the Saints fans can really drive me insane some times. I went to a Titans game a few years back and I was shocked at the way the VISITING Saints fans talked to the Titans fans (who were all very nice from what I got of them). They were messing with traffic cones, starting fights, the whole 9. Plus that WHO DAT thing will always drive me nuts.
That said, I personally haven't had a whole lot of issues with fans on all of the NFCS sites. Kudos to you all.
J.R. Ella: It's actually kind of an honor to see that for my three blogging colleagues here, the Saints and their fans are the most annoying among their NFC South rivals. Could that be because New Orleans is the last team to win a Super Bowl in the division? Hmmm... :-)
Ok, I digress, but you know my answer already don't you? Is there a more annoying team than the Falcons? As for their fans, they would actually annoy me if they were actually Falcons' fans. But really, there are no Falcons' fans. There are fans of other teams, who for a reason or another move to Atlanta, and when (that's always a big when) the Falcons are winning, go to the stadium and cheer until the third quarter. Oh wait, the team does the same, they only play for three quarters! The Falcons' are wannabe winners, who can blow a 25-point lead faster than an 85 year old man on Cialis can "Rise Up." And guess what? This isn't about to change anytime soon.
Sander Phillipse: The Saints. You used to be endearing and even a little uplifting before 2009, but then you won a Super Bowl and since then it's been mess of undeserved smugness in the face of constant mediocrity. Although at least the parade of horrible defenses that have graced the Superdome have been amusing, especially with all those expensive free agents and coordinators they keep bringing in.
Jeanna Thomas: The Saints, and it isn't even close. A few Saints fans call me the Tomi Lahren of Falcons coverage and I don't think I've ever been so offended about anything. It's always amazing to me that fans of a team that appears poised to perpetually go 7-9 has time to make Super Bowl LI jokes instead of worrying about the fact that their team is likely poised for another sub-.500 finish. Also, every single one of my blown lead jokes is infinitely funnier than any of the ones Saints fans tweet at me every day. If you're going to come for me, at least be funny. Step your game up, Saints fans.