It was a dumpster fire at the top (and bottom) of the NFC South, with the Carolina Panthers eventually winning the division with only seven wins. This year may or may no be any better, but predicting the 2015 NFC South winner will be just as difficult. New Orleans, normally a powerhouse, lost plenty of players from an underachieving team last year. Carolina lost their top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for the year with a torn ACL; Atlanta is starting a new regime with defensive-mastermind Dan Quinn; and Tampa Bay will be busy grooming franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. Let’s discuss which of these teams in transition has what it takes to win the division.
4th in Division: Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 5-11 W/L Projection
Strengths: What was a definite weakness for Tampa Bay last year should be a benefit this year – the passing game. Top overall pick Jameis Winston may have a learning curve ahead of him, but he’s easily more talented than last season’s QB duo of Mike Glennon/Josh McCown. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, who figure to be one of the league’s best receiving duos, will help his transition to the pros go much smoother.
Weaknesses: When you have to play Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton all twice a year, it definitely hurts when your safeties are bad. Former Bears Chris Conte and Major Wright are likely to man the safety spots for the Bucs, which will no doubt mean plenty of big plays for opposing teams. And it’s not like D.J. Swearinger or Bradley McDougald bring a lot of talent off the bench.
3rd in Division: New Orleans Saints; 7-9 W/L Projection
Strengths: You’re never out of contention when you have Drew Brees under center. And Brees has some very good weapons to work with, most notably new addition C.J. Spiller, who will play the “Darren Sproles” role. Assuming Spiller stays healthy, he and 1,000-year-rusher Mark Ingram will be a fearsome RB pairing. Brees also has Brandin Cooks to work with, who, after breaking his finger last season, will likely notch 100 catches.
Weaknesses: Just having a big-name defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan isn’t enough when your D lacks talent. Letting Junior Galette go after his bizarre behavior hurts because he was the squad’s most talented pass rusher. What’s left is largely a group of underperforming players and aging veterans: Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins, Dannell Ellerbe, Anthony Spencer and Parys Haralson.
2nd in Division: Carolina Panthers; 7-9 W/L Projection
Strengths: While Benjamin’s loss is a crushing blow to the Panthers, the cupboard on offense isn’t bare. Cam Newton once again leads a unit that will include some talented playmakers like TE Greg Olson, RB Jonathan Stewart and second-round pick Devin Funchess. The latter is very intriguing because, at 6’5″, 240 pounds, Funchess should get plenty of red-zone looks. Add in linebacker and tackle monster Luke Kuechly on the other side of the ball, and this is a well-rounded team.
Weaknesses: The Panthers ranked 30th in pass protection last season, with Newton under duress on 36% of passing plays. Considering that Newton has excellent running ability, this is a very alarming stat. Things won’t get much better in 2015 since Carolina addressed their line needs by adding Michael Oher, who’s given up 26 sacks and 102 QB hurries in the past three years.
1st in Division: Atlanta Falcons; 8-8 W/L Projection
Strengths: It just doesn’t get much better at receiver than Julio Jones, who’s coming off a 2014 campaign that saw him reel in 104 catches for 1,593 yards. The guy delivering him the ball, Matt Ryan, is also pretty good after putting up 4,694 passing yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Roddy White will be another solid weapon for Ryan in the passing game while fourth-round pick Kevin Hardy should see some targets too. Atlanta also addressed its defensive weakness in the offseason by adding DE Adrian Clayborne, LB Justin Durant, CB Jalen Collins and drafting LB Vic Beasley in the first round.
Weaknesses: Left tackle Jake Matthews had a disappointing rookie campaign, and must do better in 2015 if the Falcons are to win the division. But at least Matthews is a guaranteed starter; the two guard spots have yet to be decided, and it’s unclear if the available candidates can be quality NFL starters.