NFC South Preview

By The Rex Factor

NFC South preview: Worst-to-first surprise in the weakest division in football? Why not?

Tampa Bay finished last season at 2-14, but a closer look shows that Tampa really was about a 4.5-win team, going a dismal 1-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer. The Buccaneers also lost five games in 2014 that they led at halftime, which portends to immediate improvement if there can just be some regression to the mean there.

Most important, the Bucs got the worst quarterback play in the league over the course of the season. Top draft choice Jameis Winston was brought in to be the savior, and quickly. He supposedly had a great mini-camp and displayed leadership abilities throughout the preseason, trying getting the veterans to buy in. There are two groups when it comes down to the opinion of Winston’s future in the league. Sharp people I respect think he’ll burst into flames and bust dramatically, and other sharp people I respect think he shows the winning leadership qualities and characteristics of being a Lovie Smith pocket-passer winner, a la Rex Grossman.

If he ends up after this or next season as being somewhere in the middle, it would surprise most. The polarizing Florida State standout had many random acts of immaturity and was accused of a rape a couple of years ago, as well. Combine a weak schedule, an improved defense (Smith coached Chicago into the league’s best defense in his second season as head coach there; this is his second season in Tampa), a new offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) that has had success at two other NFL stops in his first season, and two receivers that somehow went over 1,000 yards last season despite the abysmal quarterback play.

There are certain warning signs of another struggle. All other teams in the division should be improved (the Panthers won the division at 7-9 last season, don’t they all have to be better?), the secondary is a question mark and the pass rush looms as a weakness. Still, what if 8-8 wins this division? The Bucs can get to that mark if you are as bullish on Winston as I am; let’s see what happens if they do.

The lukewarm team I pick to finish second in the division is Carolina. The Panthers became the first team to repeat as the NFC South champion EVER last season, and have now signed quarterback Cam Newton to a new nine-figure contract. He was sacked 38 times last season and pressured on more than a third of his dropbacks as the Panthers ranked 30th of 32 teams in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus.

Top weapon Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year, and the line seems to be in shambles. This pick is largely in deference to a Panther defense that should be among the most difficult to score against in the league. If the offense can put up 23 or 24 on any given Sunday, that should be good enough most weeks, even in a league that favors offense.

A lot of pundits are all over the Falcons as a team that could have a quick rebound this season after two straight disappointing seasons. It was just in 2012 when the Falcons were in the NFC championship game and probably should have made the Super Bowl. Two stale Mike Smith-coached seasons later, and he was shown the door. In from Seattle is Dan Quinn, former defensive coordinator there. Quinn has quickly gone about working to seal up the leaky defense.

The offense outside of quarterback Matt Ryan and all-everything receiver Julio Jones remains a work in progress. The O-line does have some continuity but no clear leader to carry the ball. With a weaker schedule (thanks, AFC South), the Falcons could get to .500 but to expect anything more in Quinn’s first season is probably a bit too optimistic.

The Saints get the tepid call for the cellar, even if they might finish at around 6-10 (like Atlanta?). Give New Orleans and its front office credit for shuffling the deck and trying something different after last season’s 7-9 collapse. Jimmy Graham was shipped off to Seattle for a first-round pick and standout center Max Unger. Perhaps this trade will benefit the Saints down the line in a year or two, but in the short term it robs quarterback Drew Brees of his best weapon and perhaps the worst 1-on-1 matchup for any defense in the entire NFC.

On paper, it looks like the Saints are more content to chew up clock, go for less chunk plays and try to keep the defense off the field. Not a bad idea – Rob Ryan’s unit has little to no pass rushing options. Six new draft choices on that side of the ball will take a year to get their feet wet. It will be a quick rebuild in New Orleans after another disappointing season in 2015.

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