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NFC South 2021 Preview

Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

We will preview the NFC South division. The division sports the defending champion Tampa Bay Bucs and some of the best talent at RB and WR. But this division is top heavy with some teams in semi-rebuild mode. We will break this division down team by team to see who will come out on top.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press

Last Year Finish: 11-5

Key Additions: RB Giovani Bernard (from Bengals), LB Joe Tryon (Rd. 1, No. 32 – Washington), QB Kyle Trask (Rd. 2, No. 64 – Florida), G Robert Hainsey (Rd. 3, No. 95 – Notre Dame), WR Jaelon Darden (Rd. 4, No. 129 – North Texas), LB K.J. Britt (Rd. 5, No. 176 – Auburn)

Key Losses: RB LeSean McCoy (FA), OT Joe Haeg (to Steelers)

Outlook: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending champs and looking to repeat, but no team has won back-to-back championships since the New England Patriots in 2003-04. The Bucs are all in to make a run in 2021 by bringing back all 22 starters from 2020. Usually a Super Bowl team loses a starter or two to free agency, retirement, but the Bucs are the exception to the rule. This is a team that got better as the season went on as head coach Bruce Arians learned to work with his star QB Tom Brady. This makes for a scary 2021 outlook for the rest of the league.

Legendary QB Tom Brady is eyeing his 8th Super Bowl ring and it’s not like he needs anything ease to motivate himself. He is only in this to get more rings and he left New England to do just that. The biggest question last year was if he had the arm strength to play in Arians’ deep ball style office. He answered those questions and proved he still can play after some subpar seasons in New England. Brady is flanked by arguably one of the best group of skill position players in the league lead by WR Mike Evans. The front office made sure the Bucs would be right back by bringing back WR Chris Godwin, WR Antonio Brown and TE Rob Gronkowski. They all returned to the fold even though I was sure Godwin would strike gold in the free agent market.

The RB by committee back field is flanked by clear starter Ronald Jones and number 2 back Leonard Fournette. This means good luck trying to set up your fantasy lineups week in and week out. Jones had a nice 2019 season, only missing 1,000 rushing yards because he missed a few games. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 7 rushing touchdowns, but his injury in the playoffs capped off his season. A sneaky good signing was bringing in veteran RB Giovani Bernard as a younger, less worn version of LeSean McCoy. However, finding snaps for all 3 RBs will be difficult but they egos in this backfield is not the issue.

Defense always wins championships and Tampa has one of the best. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' was one of my favorite offseason coaching hires last year as Tampa already had a solid defensive core. Now Tampa has a aggressive defense to get after the quarterback and force turnovers. The Bucs also ranked as one of the better defenses, tallied 48 sacks and allowed a league best 80.6 rushing yards per game.

GM Jason Licht deserves a raise as he was able to keep the defense together, re-signing LB Lavonte David, DE Shaquil Barrett and DT Ndamukong Suh. I was sure David and Barrett would be on the move and Licht got them back, and also found enough money to sign Jason Pierre-Paul to an extension. Another key is having DT Vita Vea healthy and stuffing the run, as he missed 13 games in the regular season and playoffs.

Tampa Bay is the class of the NFC, and it will be only injuries that can keep this team out of the Super Bowl again. Having all 22 starters returning is the huge advantage that most teams don’t get to enjoy. The Bucs made all the right moves in the offseason and the regular season will bend to their will.

Prediction: 14-3 record

New Orleans Saints

Photo Credit: The Athletic

Last Year Finish: 12-4

Key Additions: Nick Vannett – TE (from Broncos), WR Chris Hogan (from Jets), LB Pete Werner (Rd. 2, No. 60 – Ohio State), WR Kawaan Baker (Rd. 7, No. 255 – South Alabama)

Key Losses: QB Drew Brees (retired),WR Emmanuel Sanders (to Bills), TE Jared Cook (to Chargers)

Outlook: The New Orleans Saints have a lot to overcome in 2021: the devastation of Hurricane Ida (my prayers are will all those effected), the retirement of future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees, and the saga of star WR Michael Thomas recovering from ankle surgery. This team has talent to make a run into the playoffs if everything breaks the right way for head coach Sean Payton. But it can easily go sideways if those breaks don’t go their way.

The retirement of Drew Brees wasn’t completely unexpected, but it still is a major blow when it happens and replacing him won’t be an easy task. The QB battle in the preseason was close, but QB Jameis Winston beat out Taysom Hill to win the starting job. Winston is just a better thrower of the football, he’s a former #1 pick, Heisman Throphy winner, and has thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season. His talent isn’t the issue, it was the turnovers that did him in as Tampa Bay’s QB. His last full season as a starter saw him put up 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, that’s not going to get the job done. I think the aggressive nature of Arians’ offense led to those picks, but now Winston must protect the football in New Orleans, or we will have a new QB starting. Hill was given a massive extension a year ago and could step in to lead if needed. Let’s not forget when Brees sat out Weeks 11-14 of last year with an injury, Hill got the starting job and helped keep the Saints in the playoff hunt and eventually the NFC South title.

But there are few questions about this offensive line as it one of the elite units in the league. All-Pro RT Ryan Ramczyk, Pro Bowler LT Terron Armstead, Pro Bowlers G Andrus Peat, G Cesar Ruiz (1st round pick in 2020) and C Erik McCoy (2nd round pick in 2019) has made New Orleans’ o-line loaded at all positions. The only question is the health of Armstead and Peat, but the depth with James Hurst and Landon Young eases those worries. This line gives Jameis Winston the edge for immediate success is has always provided Alvin Kamara running lanes to go crazy. Alvin Kamara will need to run the football like the elite runner he is with star WR Michael Thomas expected to sit out the first month of the season after late offseason surgery. Don’t underestimate the addition of excellent blocking TEs Nick Vannett and Adam Trautman, Kamara might put up some insane rushing numbers.

Even with Michael Thomas healthy, there wasn't a big hope this WR group could be as elite as past years. Emmanuel Sanders was the best New Orleans has behind Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith was mostly inconsistent so far in the NFL. The Saints have unknowns at WR in Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway and Juwan Johnson. Veteran Chris Hogan unfortunately looks like the best WR signing in free agency for the Saints and rookie Kawaan Baker was the only draft pick.

The defense is still one of the better units upfront with DE Cam Jordan, LB Kwon Alexander and LB Demario Davis anchoring them. The Saints secondary will need to improve and hold up in the back as there are questions about the number 2 CB. The Saints are returning a number of starters in the secondary. If he’s healthy, Ken Crawley should get that nod over rookie Paulson Adebo. But a major blow to the Saints' defense is tackle David Onyemata being suspended for the first 6 games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints have talent but so many ifs heading into the season. Can the defense hold up and can the QB play be consistent enough? Replacing Brees is a tall order, but Alvin Kamara should keep the offense rolling behind a talented offensive line.

Prediction: 10-7 record

Carolina Panthers

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Last Year Finish: 5-11

Key Additions: QB Sam Darnold (from Jets), TE Dan Arnold (from Cardinals), CB Jaycee Horn (Rd. 1, No. 8 – South Carolina), WR Terrace Marshall (Rd. 2, No. 59 – LSU), RB Chuba Hubbard (Rd. 4, No. 126 – Oklahoma State)

Key Losses: QB Teddy Bridgewater (to Broncos), RB Mike Davis (to Falcons), WR Curtis Samuel (to Washington Football Team)

Outlook: The Carolina Panthers were surprisingly competitive in coach Matt Rhule's first season, even after losing star RB Christian McCaffrey. However, inconsistent QB play and lack of weapons led to the Panthers often falling short at the end of games. The return of a healthy Christian McCaffrey and QB Sam Darnold, and solid draft picks will hopefully lead to more offensive firepower.

After moving on from former MVP Cam Newton, the Panther inserted Teddy Bridgewater as the starter in 2020. Bridgewater actually performed well early in the season, but his play tailed off at the end of the season as they struggled to score touchdowns. New GM Scott Fitterer then traded for QB Sam Darnold to be the future of the franchise. Darnold is the former 3rd overall pick but his time in New York was terrible at best. Injuries, inconsistency, and bad coaching (see Adam Gase) was his undoing with the Jets. However, I feel that Darnold has the talent to be a good QB in this league under a better system and coach (see Adam Gase).

The return of one of the most electric RBs in the league is enough to boost your overall outlook for the season. Christian McCaffrey is a fantasy beast and was the best weapon on the Panthers. Getting him back just adds a dimension to the offense in the passing and running game. In 2019, McCaffrey finished with the third-most yards from scrimmage in a single season. McCaffrey had 1,387 rushing yards and 1,005 receiving yards, and he also was only the 3rd player to have over 1,000-yard in rushing and receiving in a season. With McCaffrey is healthy, he'll team with Sam Darnold, two 1,000-yard WRs and a number of other newcomers. DJ Moore and Robby Anderson are nice pass-catching threat with 2nd round pick receiver Terrace Marshall and 4th round back Chuba Hubbard. The offensive weapons are in place, something Sam Darnold never had with the New York Jets (see Adam Gase).

On the defensive side, this young defense under defensive coordinator Phil Snow held its own over and was a honest bright spot for the Panthers. The Panthers ranked around the league average in yards (360) and points (25.1) allowed per game, but it was a massive improvement from 2019's awful defense. The Panther relied on rookie safety Jeremy Chinn to fill the leadership fold from losing Luke Kuechly’s retirement. Chinn and LB Shaq Thompson anchored the defense and both tallied over 100 tackles. Cornerback was a huge area of need so enter the #8 overall pick CB Jaycee Horn as he should help the back end. Free-agent Haason Reddick, Denzel Perryman and A.J. Bouye should help sure up the secondary as Carolina will see some talented WRs/TEs in their division.

Superstar Christian McCaffrey back for 2021 and the acquisition of QB Sam Darnold will have some nice results for Carolina. The Panthers should have offensive firepower to make things interesting in the NFC South. A playoff push in Rhule's second season is a lot to ask from this team with New Orleans and Tampa Bay ahead of them, but the future is bright.

Prediction: 7-10 record

Atlanta Falcons

Photo Credit: USA Today

Last Year Finish: 4-12

Key Additions: TE Kyle Pitts (Rd. 1, No. 4 – Florida), RB Mike Davis (from Panthers), S Richie Grant (Rd. 2, No. 40 – UCF), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (from Bears)

Key Losses: WR Julio Jones (to Titans), LB Keanu Neal (to Cowboys), RB Todd Gurley (FA), RB Brian Hill (to Titans)

Outlook: The Atlanta Falcons has still not recovered from that demoralizing Super Bowl lost to New England. The wheels completely came off after last season's 4-12 record. 2020 was the worst season for the Falcons' since 1996. Out is head coach Dan Quinn and enter new coach Arthur Smith. Smith will have to navigate his first head coaching job with a lot of question marks.

While Smith is an internal hire with and offensive mind, it’s going to be a tall order to turn this around. Smith is only 39 years old and served 2 seasons as Tennessee's offensive coordinator. But he is credited for saving the career of QB Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, and the Falcons hope he can do the same for Matt Ryan.

The Falcons decided to move on from WR Julio Jones and trade him to Tennessee (as he asked for a trade). The fired coach Dan Quinn after his worst season in Atlanta as he moved on to Dallas as the defensive coordinator. The Falcons finishing so low in the standings were expected to trade franchise QB Matt Ryan, use the top 5 pick on a new QB, strip the team down and start over. However, the Falcons decided to retain Ryan and draft the star in the making TE Kyle Pitts. No tight end had gone off the board earlier than Pitts did at #4 in NFL Draft history. But the talent Pitts possesses is undeniable and he can be instantly one of the best TEs in the game. But to not strip it down and start over with an aging QB sound very similar to what the Giants tried to do with Eli Manning, and we see how that went.

The addition of Pitts provides Ryan with an explosive playmaker to pair with WR Calvin Ridley. Ridley is a breakout star who I feel was snubbed from the Pro-Bowl last year. Ridley has a nice stat line of 90 catches for 1,374 yards and 9 touchdowns, but now is the number 1 option in Atlanta. These two will be a nice match up nightmare of defenses and the addition of Mike Davis finally give Atlanta a running threat. Davis has a breakout year filling in for Christian McCaffery buy rushing for 642 yard and 6 touchdowns. He turned that into a nice offseason deal with Atlanta and will look to finally see if he can be the work horse.

But the issue wasn’t on offense, it was on the defensive side of the ball that was statistically near the bottom of the league. Atlanta allowed 398.4 yards per game (which was 4th worst in the league) and 25.9 points per game. While they weren’t completely god awful, the inconsistent play was a killer to their season. One week Mitch Trubisky and Chicago Bears would torch the falcon defense, then they would be shutting down a talented Raiders offense with David Carr. Losing LB Keanu Neal will hurt as he tallied 3 seasons with at least 100 tackles. Neal reunites with Dan Quinn in Dallas so that’s a piece they need to replace. CB A.J. Terrell is one of the most talented corners in the league and undervalued, but can Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Dante Fowler be consistent pass rushers? Fowler signed a big deal last season and was a big disappointment for Atlanta as he only manages 3 sacks. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner has shown flashes as a nice rusher, but that is not enough in this league as he needs to be most consistent. Duron Harmon is a solid veteran in the backend with Terrell. Jaylinn Hawkins and rookie S Richie Grant may end up benefitting the most from Harmon as he will teach them like a coach on the field.

Atlanta is setting themselves up for disaster or can turn it around and make real noise. I wanted the Giants to draft Barkley instead of a QB, and that was a mistake. The Falcons had a chance to grab their future and turn the page also and didn’t. The offense is talented, and the defense has a chance to be better than 2020, but that’s a lot to ask for a first year head coach.

Prediction: 5-12 record

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