NFC South Preview

Posted: 09/04/2016 by levcohen in Football

The NFC South has been around since 2002, when the league realigned divisions after expanding to 32 teams. For its first 12 years, the division was remarkably even. No team won it twice in a row, and all four teams had won exactly three division titles. In the last two years, though, the Carolina Panthers have changed all of that. In 2014, they became the first NFC South team to repeat as division champs, and last year they made it three in a row with a dominant 15-1 season that saw them top the second place Falcons by seven games. Unsurprisingly, the Panthers are the most likely division winners in the NFL at -300, which means you’d have to bet $300 to win back an extra $100. The Patriots are next in line at -200. But Super Bowl runner ups often have a tough time of rebounding the next season. Should Carolina really be considered such a sure bet to win the division for the fourth consecutive season?

Carolina Panthers (10-6): This is less a vote of confidence for the Panthers and more an acknowledgement that nobody else in the division has the talent to take advantage if they stumble once or twice. There are a bunch of reasons that I feel pretty strongly that the Panthers will take a large step back this season. The most obvious one is that they just lost the Super Bowl, but there are other pretty bankable reasons. Last year, Carolina took advantage of a league-leading +20 turnover differential and 39 takeaways. That’s not all down to luck, but I also don’t think it’s all that repeatable. Case in point: the Chiefs and Bengals, who finished second and third in turnover differential last season, were both in the bottom half of the league the year before. 2014’s worst turnover differentials belonged to Oakland and New Orleans, each of whom took the ball away more than they gave it away last season. Turnovers fluctuate a lot, and some regression to the mean will likely hurt the Panthers this season. There’s also the fact that the Panthers had pretty much the ideal schedule last season. They got to tee off on both the AFC South and the NFC East, the two worst divisions in football. This year, they get both the NFC West and the AFC West, two of the toughest divisions in the NFL. They went 10-0 outside of their own division last year, but 6-4 might be more likely this year, which would almost entirely explain a drop from 15 to 10 wins. There’s also the fact that they lost both of their starting cornerbacks — Charles Tillman, who played 722 snaps last year, retired while, more importantly, Josh Norman, who posted an 87.9 PFF rating in 1262 snaps last year, signed with Washington. The Panthers will now likely start second and third round rookies on the outside. I don’t know much about James Bradberry or Daryl Worley, but they’re going to have to be pretty darn good if the Panthers want to replicate what they did last season defensively.

And yet… they should still win the division easily. The elite front seven is still there, thanks to All-Pro linebackers Luke Kuechly (the best ‘backer in the NFL. His 98.1 PFF rating was better than any NFL player… by far) and Thomas Davis and stud lineman Kawann Short (11 sacks, 88.9 PFF rating). By letting Norman go, they went all-in on the front seven with the idea that the amount of pressure they can put on opposing quarterbacks will more than make up for any inexperience or lack of talent their secondary has. The defense won’t be as good as it was last season (#2 in DVOA), but it will certainly be the best defense in the division.

The offense is going to be the same as last season, although the wide receiver position looks more talented now that Kelvin Benjamin is back from his torn ACL and 2015 second rounder Devin Funchess looks primed to take a big step forward. It’s a run-first offense, and especially a great inside running offense. Center Ryan Kalil (81.9, #3) and guards Andrew Norwell (86.9, #5) and Trai Turner (84.6, #8) all rank near the top of the NFL at their positions in terms of run blocking. Cam Newton is obviously a tough guy to bring down when he’s barreling down the middle of the field, while Jonathan Stewart might be the most underrated running back in football. He played more snaps than any running back in football besides Devonta Freeman even though he missed three weeks. He’s a workhorse, but he’s also effective, as his 82.2 rating ranked fourth among running backs. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and rushed for at least 50 yards in every game he played before the Super Bowl. And the running game sets up a great play-action game that paid huge dividends last year. How many times did we see Greg Olsen running wide open after play-action? Olsen is the second or third best tight end in football, so we should see a lot more of that this season. Benjamin will only make the offense more dynamic.

I wanted to find someone else in the NFC South to hitch my wagon to, but the Panthers are still clearly the class of the division. They should win 12 games, but it’s tough to bounce back from the Super Bowl and will be even tougher given the schedule the Panthers will face this season.

New Orleans Saints (9-7): Look: the Saints went 7-9 last season even though they had a historically bad defense. So if their defense can rebound to even be just bad, they’ll be able to jump over .500. There’s not much to say about the offense except that it’s going to be at least good again and might well be great. When you have a quarterback who’s as good as Drew Brees still is, it’s hard not to have a dynamic offense. Of course, it helps that the rest of the offense looks very solid, too. The line, led by dominant left tackle Terron Armstead, is excellent. Top weapons Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead are both back, and they should be better now that Brees has other weapons to throw to. Second round pick Michael Thomas awed during camp and will see the field a lot this season, while tight end Coby Fleener is a nice upgrade over Benjamin Watson as a pass-catcher. As for the running back, Mark Ingram has improved a huge amount from when he was a lumbering back who looked like another first round bust. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and also nearly doubled his career total in receptions with 50 catches in just 12 games. His ~100 yards from scrimmage each game just makes the offense that much scarier for opposing defenses to plan for.

Will the Saints have a better offense than the Panthers? If Brees stays healthy, I’m pretty confident that they will. So why can’t they win the division? Well, I really wanted to pick them to pip the Panthers to the championship, but there’s still a yawning chasm between Carolina’s defensive talent and New Orleans’s improved defense. One good thing about having a throwaway season is that you can try out enough players that eventually you’re bound to find a hidden gem. Cornerback and ex-CFLer Delvin Breaux is one of those players. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 10th best CB in football last year. Pencil him in on the left side. Mercifully, Brandon Browner, the guy who played opposite Breaux last season, is gone. Browner played 1,039 snaps for the Saints last year and managed the worst rating for a CB in Pro Football Focus’s 10-year history. That rating? 23.6. Next worst among cornerbacks who played at least 500 snaps was San Diego’s Brandon Flowers at 35.8. Who’s Browner’s replacement? Anyone would be better than the most penalized player in NFL history, but P.J. Williams, a third round pick who spent his rookie season on I.R., could be a really solid player. He was a dominant corner for Florida State, and he turned heads this preseason. Safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd have both been better against the run than the pass, but both are talented enough to make huge improvements. Now that Byrd is another season removed from his 2014 knee injury, I’m confident that he can return to his 2011-13 form, which would make him one of the best safeties in the league. While the secondary looks much improved, the front seven will still have problems this year. Nick Fairley will help the run defense, but this is a pass rush that still starts and stops with Cameron Jordan. Jordan’s a great player who had 70 total pressures last season (#5 in the NFL), but he needs more help. The Saints drafted Sheldon Rankins in the first round to help him, but unfortunately Rankins is likely out through October with a broken fibula.

This is the only team I can see stealing the division from the Panthers. A lot of people are picking them to finish last, but I think they have a pretty good chance of making the playoffs. In Brees I trust.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10): The Buccaneers might have a really bright future. But, as of right now, they still have far too many holes to be considered a playoff contender. First, the strengths. Jameis Winston is already a solid quarterback. He also has weapons in RBs Doug Martin (the pounder) and Charles Sims (the receiver and pass-blocker) and WRs Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Other strengths: I’m very high on rookie corner Vernon Hargreaves, the ex-Florida corner who should immediately become Tampa’s top corner. Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy, and Lavonte David are all solid defenders. This looks like the core of a future contender. But the offensive line is still at best shaky and more often downright scary, especially with the retirement of Logan Mankins. And the defense lacks depth, even with the signings of Ayers and 33 year old corner Brent Grimes and Hargreaves now with the team. Safeties Chris Conte and Brad McDonald both have long enough track records at this point for me to say confidently that they’re not very good players. Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander was the worst LB in football in his rookie year (31.6 rating). And who’s going to rush the passer besides McCoy? After McCoy, who tallied 8.5 sacks last season, the team’s sack leaders were Jacquies Smith (7) and Howard Jones (5). Both Smith and Jones are now rightfully buried on the depth chart, but nobody else on the roster had more than three sacks last season. Ayers will help a little and so will second round pick Noah Spence, but the Bucs still don’t have much of a pass rush. When you combine that with a lack of talent at the second level, you get a below-average defense. They finished 18th in DVOA last year, and I’d expect another similar finish this season. When you combine that with a marginal improvement from the offense and a much tougher schedule (only Carolina had an easier schedule last season), I think another 6-10 season is perfectly reasonable. That would be a disappointment, especially if Bucs fans are listening to the people who are calling their favorite team a sneaky contender. But Winston’s a good quarterback, which means the future is still bright for Tampa.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10): The Falcons went 8-8 last year. They also had the third easiest schedule in football (notice a theme? There’s a reason I’m predicting the division to win five fewer games than it did last season) and finished 26th in DVOA. I see three things about this team that are terrific. Julio Jones is the second best receiver in football. I’m worried about his injury history and I’m worried that he missed time this preseason, but he’ll produce as long as he’s healthy. The offensive line might be the best in football outside of Dallas. They were strong at every position on the line besides center, so they went out and signed Alex Mack, one of the best centers in the league. And I consider cornerback Desmond Trufant to be one of the few shutdown guys in the NFL. There’s a reason he faced only 56 targets last season. There are also a few things about this team that are pretty decent. Quarterback Matt Ryan is a perfect example of “pretty decent.” Devonta Freeman was much better than that last season, and even if he regresses massively he should still be at least a solid running back. The pass rush should be “pretty decent.” I expect last year’s first round pick Vic Beasley to take a step forward, and Dwight Freeney still knows how to rush the passer even as he nears 37 years of age. Everything else? Pretty bad. Jones and Freeman are good weapons, but they’re Ryan’s only weapons. That’s why the Falcons finished just 23rd in offensive DVOA even with Jones (136 catches for 1,871 yards), a great offensive line, a decent quarterback, and an amazing season from Freeman (1,639 yards from scrimmage). They’ve attempted to upgrade their second wide receiver with the signing of Mohamed Sanu, but the ex-Bengal has never been particularly good. He seems like a direct replacement for late-career Roddy White. They also still haven’t found a tight end to replace Tony Gonzalez. Eight years into his career, we know Jacob Tamme isn’t that guy. The Falcons have some of the pieces required to have an upper-echelon offense, but they had most of those pieces last year and were still a bad offense. Whether that reflects poorly on Ryan (is he worse than “pretty decent”?), the play-calling, or the lack of weapons behind Jones (second among receivers last year was White with just 506 yards), all three of those things are the same this year as they were last season. The only difference is the addition of Mack, and while that will make a positive difference, it may well be offset by a much tougher schedule that features Green Bay as well as both West divisions.

The Falcons’ 22nd-ranked defense (by DVOA) was actually their best showing since 2012. They spent three of their first four picks on the defensive side of the ball, so they’re clearly trying to improve, but it’s worrisome that first rounder Keanu Neal and fourth rounder De’Vondre Campbell are being thrust right into the starting lineup. Even more worrisome is the fact that Neal will miss at least the first few weeks of the season. Robert Alford is not a great corner, and he’s going to get picked on a lot with Trufant on the other side of the field. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Paul Worrilow has been consistently bad throughout his career, with PFF ratings of 41.5, 35.5, and 38.4 in his first three seasons. The thing that may have destroyed the Falcons the most last year was big receiving games from opposing running backs. Nine different running backs caught at least five passes against the Falcons in a single game, and eight of those nine went for at least 40 yards. It started badly (Darren Sproles caught 7 for 76 in Week 1, Shane Vereen 8 for 76 in Week 2, Lance Dunbar 10 for 100 in Week 3). It ended worse (in Week 17, Travaris Cadet caught 6 for 77 and Tim Hightower snagged 5 for 41). All in all, the Falcons had a 31.9% DVOA on passes to running backs, which means they were 31.9% worse than average. That was easily the worst mark in football. And I don’t see a single reason to believe that they’ll be any better against RBs this year. When you can’t stop short passes to running backs, it’s hard to get to obvious pass situations, which minimizes the importance of the improvements Atlanta made from a pass-rushing perspective. I think we’ll see a lot of teams dinking and dunking their way to big wins over the Falcons this year.

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