Recently, we’ve spent a little time talking about how tough the NFC South and the broader NFC are likely to be, which will make for an uphill battle for this extremely talented Falcons team. Today, I’d like to talk about the way the rosters in the NFC South have changed and what that might mean for the 2018 balance of power.
We’re not going to dive into the Falcons, here, because you know exactly what the Falcons have done, and I feel pretty confident in saying that they’ll be a better team than they were a year ago. Whether they win the NFC South will depend on whether they can push past the other three teams on this list, all of which also improved to some degree.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Major Additions: DT Beau Allen, K Chandler Catanzaro, DE Vinny Curry, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, C Ryan Jensen, DT Mitch Unrein
Key Draft Picks: RB Ronald Jones, DT Vita Vea, CBs Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart
Major Losses: None
If the Bucs aren’t significantly better this season, Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht are going to be fired before the season ends. That’s not a prediction so much as it is a statement of fact.
The Bucs started with arguably the worst base of talent in the division, but as a result, they’ve also improved the most on paper. They added a young, dynamic running back and some needed secondary help in the draft, while beefing up their pass rush and offensive line in free agency. Not all of those moves will bear fruit in 2018, but from a personnel standpoint, they tackled most of their key weaknesses and unquestionably have more talent than a year ago. Vita Vea is a player Mike Smith will love.
The key questions concern whether Vinny Curry, Noah Spence, and Jason Pierre-Paul will prove to be quality pass rushers or just mild upgrades, whether Jameis Winston will take a major step forward in his fourth NFL season, and whether that up-and-down ground game will prove to be potent in 2018 or not. Oh, and if the team actually has a decent option at kicker in Chandler Catanzaro, or if they’ll continue to be cursed forever. If most of those things break right, Tampa Bay will be a playoff-caliber team raring to at least spoil some dreams in a highly competitive NFC. If they don’t, there will be an entirely new power structure here a year from now, lest the talent be squandered yet again.
New Orleans Saints
Major Additions: S Kurt Coleman, LB Demario Davis, CB Patrick Robinson, QB Tom Savage, TE Benjamin Watson
Key Draft Pick: DE Marcus Davenport
Major Losses: S Rafael Bush, QB Chase Daniel, OL Senio Kelemete
The Saints had a fairly straightforward free agency period. They added talent at a handful of persistently weak positions, with Kurt Coleman, Demario Davis, Patrick Robinson, and Benjamin Watson probably providing at least competent play. When you have one of the best quarterbacks in the game, a strong offensive line, arguably the most dynamic young running back in the game and a quality receiving corps, your offense is going to be terrific. The defense was at least competent throughout much of 2017, and New Orleans absolutely nailed their draft class a year ago. Making a small handful of safe veteran signings put them in a position to contend once again.
But then the draft happened, and without bias or malice, it completely changed my view of what the Saints are up to this year. The huge trade up to snag defensive end Marcus Davenport may well prove to be a brilliant move, with Davenport becoming the missing piece pass rusher the team needs and helping to carry New Orleans to new heights this year, but there’s no guarantee of that. Swapping away multiple picks, including a 2019 first rounder, for a defensive end is a move so odd and so at odds with the rest of their workmanlike offseason that it gives you pause. Surely the Saints can’t believe that their one missing piece was a defensive end, can they?
The Saints thus enter 2018 with reasonable hopes of being one of the NFC’s best teams, but without any slam dunk 2018 upgrades that should elevate them to new heights. That might be a problem in a division where every other team also improved, however slightly, and in a conference where the Rams, Eagles, and Vikings look loaded for bear. Davenport is no lock to be a big-time rookie contributor, but to be fair, the Saints should be very good without him.
The problem for New Orleans? As great as Brees is, he can’t be great forever, and the team is going to play four games without Mark Ingram, still don’t have an elite set of safeties or linebackers, and if they fall short in any way they’ll head into 2019 with a 41-year-old QB and no first round pick. They have the talent to repeat as divisional champions, but the out-of-nowhere nature of their success in 2017 and their less-than-inspiring offseason has to make Saints fans at least a little nervous.
Major Additions: DT Dontari Poe, LG Jeremiah Sirles, CB Ross Cockrell, S Da’Norris Searcy, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jarius Wright, RB C.J. Anderson
Key Draft Picks: WR D.J. Moore, CB Donte Jackson, S Rashaan Gaulden
Major Losses: LG Andrew Norwell, S Kurt Coleman, CB Daryl Worley, DT Star Lotulelei
Carolina should be better at some key positions. The question is whether that will matter in 2018 or not.
Start with what they did well. Adding Dontari Poe to an already terrific defensive tackle rotation means they’ll still be hell on opposing guards and centers across the NFL, while they took one of the league’s worst receiving corps and added a promising rookie in D.J. Moore and two useful veterans in Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright. Donte Jackson may not be an instant impact cornerback, but he’s fast and has a bright future, and Carolina desperately needed help in the secondary and got at least useful pieces in free agency and the draft. Pair that with Cam Newton, C.J. Anderson, Greg Olsen, and a typically stout front seven, and you have a team that could very well contend. This division is absurdly talented.
So why am I so lukewarm on the Panthers, who I think have a small but real chance of finishing third or even last in the division in 2018? It has everything to do with the secondary, which still has some real question marks to contend with, and more importantly the offensive line. The Panthers swapped out one of the best guards in football in Andrew Norwell for a merely decent starter in Jeremiah Sirles, and they already have Matt Kalil stinking up the joint at left tackle. Carolina made no serious effort to upgrade their line this offseason and will once again be asking Newton to hit his targets while under pressure.
It may not matter—the Panthers still have an awful lot of talent—but Carolina won a lot of close games a year ago and left themselves with at least one massive, concerning weakness on the roster. If this thing goes south, it’ll likely be because of the offensive line and this team’s inability to stop or slow the likes of Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans.