Week 1 is finally upon us! The Falcons play football in approximately 48 hours, which is awesome. Before that, however, it might be a good idea to check in on our greatest competition: our rivals in the NFC South. This is a division that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2017, which is a pretty incredible feat in a stacked conference. Is that likely to happen again in 2018, and who ends up on top when the dust clears? Check out my predictions and thoughts on the other teams below.
For reference, here is how the division finished in 2017:
New Orleans Saints
2017 Record: 11-5
2018 Projection: 10-6
Major Additions: EDGE Marcus Davenport (draft), CB Patrick Robinson (FA), LB Demario Davis (FA), S Kurt Coleman (FA), TE Benjamin Watson (FA), QB Teddy Bridgewater (trade)
Major Losses: S Kenny Vaccaro, OL Senio Kelemete, CB Delvin Breaux, WR Willie Snead, QB Chase Daniel
The Saints were among the NFC’s best teams in 2017, and the trend is likely to continue in 2018. They benefited greatly from a phenomenal draft class that produced five starters, and managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the year. New Orleans also had a ridiculously efficient offense that is likely to come back down to earth somewhat this season.
The Saints added some interesting pieces this offseason. Marcus Davenport required two first round picks—a gamble that the developmental pass rusher will turn into a top-tier player sooner rather than later. Patrick Robinson, Demario Davis, and Kurt Coleman are all serviceable starters. Ben Watson is quite old and their only real option at TE—that position is likely to be a weakness in 2018. A last minute trade for Teddy Bridgewater solidified their back-up QB spot, but it was a costly move that required a 3rd round pick.
New Orleans lost a few big names—Vaccaro and Breaux were long-hyped by Saints fans as high-level players—but nobody that will significantly move the needle for this team. Willie Snead seemed to fall out of favor last season, but had been a quality receiving option before that. Chase Daniel was a dependable and reliable back-up QB—his loss had the Saints scrambling for QB help, and they ended up trading for Bridgewater.
The Saints will still be very good in 2017, but this “all-in” strategy is going to cost them long-term. Giving up next year’s first and third round pick will make 2019 a thin class at the top. We’ve seen how big trades can gut the depth of rosters—look no further than 2013 and 2014 in Atlanta. With the Saints already cutting three of their 2018 draft picks—4th round T Rick Leonard, 5th round DB Natrell Jamerson, and 6th round CB Kamrin Moore—the stage is set for this team to potentially face a serious downfall after Brees’ retirement in 1-2 seasons.
2017 Record: 11-5
2018 Projection: 8-8
Major Additions: DT Dontari Poe (FA), WR D.J. Moore (draft), CB Donte Jackson (draft), S Da’Norris Searcy (FA), WR Torrey Smith (trade)
Major Losses: LG Andrew Norwell, EDGE Charles Johnson, CB Daryl Worley, S Kurt Coleman, QB Derek Anderson
The Panthers were an exciting team in 2017 that—arguably—overachieved based on their roster. Carolina went an incredible 8-1 in one-score games last season, a feat that is nearly impossible to replicate. There is almost certainly going to be some regression to the mean from probability alone, but what about the state of the roster?
Obviously Cam Newton is the engine that drives the offense, and sophomore RB Christian McCaffrey is going to be called upon to become a focal point. The Panthers fired longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula and brought in Norv Turner for the job—the same Norv Turner that quit in Minnesota in 2016. I’m not sure how well Turner’s offensive style fits with the Panthers, but it might not matter all that much.
The reason? Injuries, particularly on the offensive line. LT Matt Kalil is on IR. LG Amini Silatolu is hurt. RT Daryl Williams appears to have made a miraculous recovery after a knee injury that could’ve been season-ending, but he’s still only a little over a month past his surgery. Carolina already lost LG Andrew Norwell—among the best in the game at his position—in free agency. This offensive line could end up being a huge liability.
Former Falcons DT Dontari Poe signed a big deal to join the Panthers and should help solidify a stout defensive line. Carolina added WR D.J. Moore and CB Donte Jackson in the first two rounds of the draft. S Da’Norris Searcy came in to replace Kurt Coleman, but that is likely going to be a downgrade. CB Ross Cockrell—who was expected to be the CB2 next to James Bradberry—suffered a season-ending injury in camp. The secondary is short on proven players with Daryl Worley shipped off to Philadelphia in the offseason. Carolina will be depending on a lot of young players on both sides of the ball to keep them from falling behind.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 Record: 5-11
2018 Projection: 6-10
Major Additions: C Ryan Jensen, EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul (FA), EDGE Vinny Curry (FA), DT Vita Vea (draft), RB Ronald Jones (draft)
Major Losses: EDGE Robert Ayers, C Joe Hawley, S T.J. Ward
Oh, the Bucs. It seems like every year, Tampa Bay gets hyped as the “up-and-coming” team. The trendy pick to go from worst-to-first. And, like clockwork, every year they fall spectacularly short. This year appears no different, but fewer people are behind them now with the news of Jameis Winston’s 3-game suspension. That suspension—for groping an Uber driver—has put Winston’s future with the team in doubt, and he’ll need to put together a very good season for the Bucs to consider giving him a big contract after this year.
That means we’ll get to see Ryan Fitzpatrick once again for the first three games of the season—and those three games are absolutely brutal for Tampa Bay. Most are projecting them to go 0-3, and it would be genuinely surprising if they didn’t. Recovering from 0-3 (or worse) certainly isn’t impossible—we saw the Saints do it last season—but it’ll be very difficult for this Bucs’ team against an absolutely stacked NFC South.
The good news for Tampa Bay is that the defensive line looks much better all-around. Additions like Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry should give the Bucs’ some semblance of a pass rush for the first time in forever. C Ryan Jensen was brought in to replace the retiring Joe Hawley, and he should be an upgrade there. In the draft, Tampa Bay added DT Vita Vea and RB Ronald Jones in the first and second rounds. Neither of those two are likely to have major roles to start the season—Vea because of injury, Jones because of...well, he’s been bad. That’s not a great omen.
Overall, this team basically has the same issues that it has had over the past two years. The offensive line is passable but not a strength. There are big problems in the secondary, where Brent Grimes is solid but the rest of the group is a giant question mark. Somehow, Chris Conte is still a starting safety in Tampa Bay. The Bucs have a quality group of receivers and TEs, as usual, but the RBs are not a position of strength. I think this Tampa Bay team improves in the win column, but not enough to make much of a difference.
The NFC South is still quite talented in 2018, but I expect the Saints to regress slightly and the Panthers to regress in a big way. The Bucs will actually improve—albeit by 1 game—but that probably won’t be enough to save Koetter’s job. This is still going to be a difficult division, and the Falcons’ playoff fortunes will likely rest on how well they play against their closest rivals.
Here is my final prediction for how the NFC South will shake out in 2018:
Atlanta Falcons* 12-4
New Orleans Saints* 10-6
Carolina Panthers 8-8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10
The changing of the guard continues at the top of the NFC South, as is customary, with the Falcons taking home the division title in 2018. New Orleans is right behind them at 10-6, and they lock up a Wild Card berth despite playing a tough first place schedule. The Panthers fall a bit to 8-8 due to some statistical regression and a few very thin position groups—the offensive line and secondary come to mind. Tampa Bay is...well, they’re still in the basement of the division. Until they get a new coaching staff, they’re likely to stay there.
What are your thoughts on the NFC South heading into the 2018 season? Which team are you most concerned about this season? Who do you think might surprise—in a good or bad way—this year?