The NFL season is finally here, with the kickoff game between the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night followed by a full slate of games on Sunday and Monday. Looking at the NFL landscape entering the season, one division stands out as particularly intriguing: the NFC South.
Everything in the South starts with the Atlanta Falcons. They have arguably the best QB-WR duo in the league with reigning MVP Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. As if that weren’t enough, the Falcons have a plethora of complimentary weapons like Mohamad Sanu, Austin Hooper, and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. There is no reason this shouldn’t remain a top five offensive unit, and the Falcons offense will be fun to watch.
Defensively, a young Falcons group showed improvement throughout the season in 2016. They will look to continue that improvement into 2017. Getting more pressure on the quarterback is an area that needs to be better for the Falcons. The potency of the offense takes a great deal of pressure off the defense, and as long as the defense can match what it did last season, Atlanta should be a factor come January.
The most interesting question facing the Falcons is how do they respond to the all-time gut-punch they suffered in their Super Bowl collapse.
The demons of last season aren’t the only thing the Falcons have to contend with, however. Their division is full of big-time quarterbacks, as well as an up-and-coming team and a team with something to prove. The path to an NFC South title is a grueling one.
First, there are the Carolina Panthers. Remember them? They played in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. After falling short against the Broncos, the Panthers stumbled to a 6-10 season last year. They enter 2017 looking to get back to where they think they belong.
As Cam Newton goes, so go the Panthers. After posting the best season of his career in 2015, he had his worst one in 2016. On the field that translated to the Panthers going from NFC champions to finishing dead last in the division. Newton is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but is expected to be ready to go in Week 1. His health and performance will ultimately determine the fate of the Panthers’ season.
The Panthers added playmaking RB Christian McCaffrey in the draft to go along with Jonathan Stewart, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, and reliable tight end Greg Olson. The addition of McCaffrey, combined with a reportedly slimmer Newton, could signal a shift in offensive philosophy and an effort to protect Newton.
The Panthers have already shown what they can be with Newton playing at his best, and they have the potential to be a factor in the division in 2017.
Adding to the intrigue in the NFC South is one of the popular picks for breakout team this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last season the Bucs posted their first winning season since 2010, narrowly missing the playoffs. This year they will look to continue that progression and secure their first playoff berth since 2007.
Leading the way for the Bucs is Jameis Winston. Winston showed improvement in his sophomore season, and in 2017 he will try to take the big next step. He needs to cut down on his turnovers, but if he does, Tampa Bay’s offense could take a big leap forward.
They added DeSean Jackson in the offseason, and his pairing with Mike Evans makes for an impressive one-two punch at receiver. Cameron Brate tied for the league lead in touchdowns from a tight end in 2016, and he will be paired with rookie O.J. Howard. You never know what you’re going to get from Doug Martin, and his three-game suspension doesn’t help, but he has shown the ability to be an impact back. The bottom line is that Winston will have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
All eyes will be on Winston to see if he can start to transition from potential star to established quarterback and if the Bucs can build off last season’s success and break through with a postseason berth.
Along the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Saints are coming off their third straight 7-9 season, and many expect them to finish 2017 in that same range. But with Drew Brees under center and a plethora of weapons at his disposal, the Saints won’t be going down easy.
Despite trading away Brandon Cooks, the Saints still boast Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. on the outside. Willie Snead is expected to make an impact as well, once he returns from a three-game suspension. Coby Fleener provides an interesting option at tight end. But things really get interesting in the backfield.
Already anchored by Mark Ingram, the Saints added two new faces to the backfield. One of those faces happens to be one of the most recognizable names in the NFL, Adrian Peterson. Injuries and suspensions have slowed the all-time great in recent seasons, and his age is a concern as well. That being said, if Peterson has anything left in the tank, this could be a major coup for the Saints.
The team also added rookie Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee in the third round of the draft. Kamara will be looking to make a name for himself, and an injury to Ingram or Peterson could open the door for Kamara to make an impact.
And then there’s Brees himself. Regardless of what has been going on around him with the Saints, Brees has been Mr. Consistent. He has never thrown for fewer than 4,300 yards or 26 touchdowns with the Saints, while averaging 4,888 yards and 35 touchdowns a season in his 11 years with the team. Brees alone makes the Saints worth watching.
Ultimately, if the Saints hope to make any noise in an increasingly loud division, the defense will have to improve. Last season the Saints ranked 27th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. Even with a top-two offense, that proved too much to overcome. If the defensive unit can improve even a little bit, perhaps it will be enough for the offense to win a few games they weren’t expected to win. Regardless of how it plays out, the Saints aren’t making the NFC South any easier.
One thing is certain, whoever emerges as the NFC South champion will have earned it. The division is full of playmakers and storylines, and very well may be the most fun and intriguing division in the NFL.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.