Nov 21, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) breaks a tackle by Atlanta Falcons safety William Moore (25) during the second half at the Georgia Dome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The NFC South is a crazy division. There’s never been a repeat divisional winner since its inception in 2002. Today, we preview the teams and their outlook. Does Carolina have a chance to make history?
Let’s take a look at every team’s offseason so far.
Jan 12, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) warms up prior to the 2013 NFC divisional playoff football game against the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers have lost two franchise players in WR Steve Smith and OT Jordan Gross and a few more key contributors such as CB Captain Munnerlyn and S Mike Mitchell. They were able to keep Greg Hardy around for another year, using the franchise tag: it was impossible to strike a long-term deal with Hardy considering the team’s salary cap situation.
Cam Newton’s team HAD to take a wide receiver in the first round and so they did. Kelvin Benjamin is viewed by many scouts as a “boom or bust” type of player and the Panthers decided to take a chance on him to revamp their offense. Kony Ealy is a great value pick in the second round but he won’t see the field a lot while Greg Hardy is still there. They addressed other needs later, mostly in the secondary, but it’s hard to replace all the starters they’ve lost.
Panthers’ toughest stretch will come after week 5 when they’ll face five teams that made the playoffs last year: @ Bengals, @ Packers, vs Seahawks, vs Saints, @ Eagles. The late bye (week 12) won’t help either.
Not exactly a great offseason for the Panthers: I think there’s a good chance they go from first to last next year, with a maximum of 5-6 wins.
May 9, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and first round draft pick tackle Jake Matthews (with jersey) shown during a press conference at Falcons Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The Falcons weren’t aggressive in free agnecy and tried to build depth rather than signing many starters. Some notable additions: DT Paul Soliai, WR/KR Devin Hester and OG Jon Asamoah. The loss of Tony Gonzalez is a big blow for the offense, especially if your second-string tight end is Levine Toilolo.
OT Jake Matthews and DT Ra’Shede Hageman are two nice picks: with those two selections the Dirty Birds get bigger, stronger and more talented both on the offensive and defensive line. RB Devonta Freeman and OLB Prince Shembo could be impact players in the future but they’re not day 1 starters.
Atlanta has the 11th toughest schedule according to espn.com and they have a couple of back-to-back away games: week 4-5 @ Vikings and @ Giants, week 10-11 @ Buccaneers and @ Panthers. The Falcons will also have an “unofficial” ninth away game: they’ll “host” the Lions in London in week 8, right before their bye.
The Falcons bolstered their roster but they still have some question marks in the secondary, at tight end and at outside linebacker. I don’t think they can turn the team around with only one offseason but they’ll definitely improve their record, winning 7-8 games in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
May 8, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Mike Evans (Texas A&M) poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the number seven overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
The Bucs and new head coach Lovie Smith were very active in free agency, landing some big names such as DE Michael Johnson, CB Alterraun Verner and QB Josh McCown. The defense lost CB Darrelle Revis who left after just one season in Tampa; on offense they traded away WR Mike Williams but they got a big offensive boost through the draft and with the signing of LT Anthony Collins, the former Cincinnati Bengals’ starter.
They went all in on offense drafting three pass-catchers, two linemen and a running back. Kinda weird that Lovie Smith didn’t get any defensive players but they need to keep up with the other NFC South teams like the Saints who score a lot of points. WR Mike Evans and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins are two big targets that can become red-zone nightmares and RB Charles Sims will complement a backfield that is already in good shape with Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey.
Tampa Bay has the 19th toughest schedule for the 2014 season but they’ll have to win some games early if they want to be in playoff contention because the final stretch of the season is tough: they’ll face the Lions in Detroit, the Panthers in Charlotte and then the Packers and the Saints at home.
Whether Josh McCown or Mike Glennon will be under center this offense is loaded with talent and has great potential. I can see the Bucs finish in 2nd place in the NFC South with 8-9 wins.
New Orleans Saints
May 29, 2014; Metairie, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) during organized team activities at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Two words: Jairus. Byrd. That was the most important move of the offseason by a Saints’ organization that wants to win NOW. The Saints lost some notable players such as RB Darren Sproles, C Brian de la Puente, S Roman Harper and S Malcolm Jenkins but were able to keep RT Zach Strief, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush and TE Jimmy Graham (franchise tag) in New Orleans.
The two biggest needs were cornerback and wide receiver and the Saints spent their first- and second-round picks on a wide receiver and a cornerback. WR Brandin Cooks is a great fit in Sean Payton’s offense and CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a raw player that could thrive under Rob Ryan. The Saints also added a couple of linebackers later in the draft to have some much needed depth at the position.
With the 23rd toughest schedule the Saints will kick off the 2014 season in Atlanta, one of the three away games they will play before the bye in week 6. In week 8 they have to play the Packers at home on Sunday Night and then travel to Charlotte for the Thursday Night game against the Panthers in week 9. At the end of the regular season they’ll have to travel to Pittsburgh (week 13) and Chicago (week 15): huge tests to see if the team is ready for the playoffs.
Call me a homer if you want but I honestly believe the Saints have the best shot at the NFC South crown. They can realistically win 11-13 games in 2014.