Photo Credit: Atlanta Falcons, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
We continue our Best-Case/Worst-Case series with the NFC South, a division that might be more competitive than it initially appears. Of course, with the ageless Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, it’s hard to bet against the Buccaneers. However, don’t be surprised if the New Orleans Saints continue to play their disciplined brand of football and make a run at the division title.
Though the Bucs and Saints may look like heavy favorites, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are both hungry for a quick turnaround from their disappointing 2021 seasons. With each team sporting brand-new quarterbacks, there’s an outside shot that their offseason moves propel them toward a playoff spot. Given everything Baker Mayfield has been through, wouldn’t that be some karmic justice…
WR Drake London (draft)
QB Desmond Ridder (draft)
QB Marcus Mariota (free agent)
CB Casey Heyward
DT Eddie Goldman
QB Matt Ryan
WR Calvin Ridley (suspended)
LB Foye Oluokun
WR Russell Gage
Best-Case: 10 - 7, 2nd in the NFC South
It’s Mariota Time! After spending the last couple seasons as a backup in Tennessee and Las Vegas, Marcus Mariota finally gets another chance to prove why he was the #2 pick back in the 2015 NFL Draft. He’s looked good in spot starts, but maybe Atlanta is the place where he finally puts everything together. His athleticism has never been in question, and his accuracy looked impeccable in college. He might never be the All Pro that the Titans hoped he would be when they drafted him seven years ago, but he doesn’t have to be for the Falcons to reach the playoffs.
Despite losing some big names over the past few years at the wide receiver position (read: Julio Jones), the Falcons have secured two high-upside prospects with their past two first-round picks - tight end Kyle Pitts in 2021, and wide receiver Drake London this year. Pitts could be a star. Actually, let me rephrase that - Pitts could wind up being the greatest receiving tight end ever. Yeah, that’s no joke.
With wide receiver-like route running ability and hands, Pitts looks like the future of the tight end position. If he can continue to improve upon his impressive 2021 season, he could establish himself as the best tight end in football this season. If that happens, the Falcons’ offense should be more than able to withstand the losses of Ridley and Gage. London, for his part, already looks capable of being a devastating red zone threat and should at the very least be able to draw some attention away from Pitts on the outside.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons, unfortunately, don’t have a lot to write home about. Losing Goldman and Oluokun wouldn’t be a massive hit for most teams, but the Falcons were already dangerously thin. Now, it’s basically up to defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, cornerback A.J. Terrell, and a bunch of guys nobody’s ever heard of. Dean Pees will have his work cut out for him, but the long-time defensive coordinator has had success with previous teams - and the Falcons will be counting on that trend continuing.
It’s also the second year for this Falcons team under head coach Arthur Smith, who came to Atlanta after being the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. He was able to bring out the best in wide receiver/running back-hybrid Cordarrelle Patterson when no one else could. If he can sprinkle some more of that magic powder on this team, the Falcons have an intriguing mix that could lead to a playoff run, if things break right, that is.
Worst-Case: 3 - 14, 4th in the NFC South
Mariota Time could easily become Ridder Time after too long. There’s a reason Mariota has been on the bench for the last three years. As a Cincinnati Bearcats fan, I’m excited to see Ridder play in the NFL, but I’m under no illusions - if he sees the field, Ridder will likely struggle. Most rookie QBs do, not just those who were drafted in the 3rd round to a team lacking top-end talent.
While Pitts and London are talented, the rest of the skill position players are woefully inadequate. Patterson was a nice story last year, but no one should be surprised if he regresses significantly. After all, this guy was nothing more than a kick and punt returner for the first eight years of his career.
It’s the defense though, that will likely cripple this Falcons team. Jarrett is a nice player, but he’s not a one-man-wrecking-crew inside. Without any viable pass rushers, this team will struggle to both stop the run and the pass. Terrell might be a shutdown corner but throwing the ball to the other side of the field will be a piece of cake for opposing offenses. If the offense can’t move the ball consistently behind shaky quarterback play, the Falcons will be in the mix for the first overall pick next year.
New Orleans Saints
S Marcus Maye (free agent)
WR Jarvis Landry (free agent)
S Tyrann Mathieu (free agent)
OT Trevor Penning (draft)
WR Chris Olave (draft)
LT Terron Armstead
S Marcus Williams
S Malcolm Jenkins
Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the NFC South
Don’t look now, but this Saints team looks very, very strong. Up and down this roster, you find nothing but pros - reliable, dependable, professionals. Under former head coach Sean Payton, that was always their brand. Expect things to stay the same under new head coach Dennis Allen, who was promoted after seven seasons as the teams’ defensive coordinator.
As usual, much of the success of this season will come down to quarterback play. With Jameis Winston firmly established under center, the Saints will go as far as the 28-year-old will take them. If he’s put his interception woes behind him, that could be quite far - maybe far enough to a place like Glendale, Arizona for Super Bowl XLII.
When he’s on, Jameis has the talent to be one of the better QBs in the NFL. His poor/lack of/slow decision-making has always hampered him, but a year behind football junkie Drew Brees and two years in New Orleans’ offensive system could have washed him of those stains. With the weapons he has around him, this New Orleans’ offense could return to the highs of the Payton-Brees alliance.
After two lost seasons, wide receiver Michael Thomas returns ready to remind the world why he was named the Offensive Player of the Year in 2019. This year, though, he’s got a lot of horses in that stable with him. Chris Olave, drafted in the first-round, brings explosiveness and the silky-smooth route running to stretch defenses vertically, while Jarvis Landry, signed from the Cleveland Browns in the offseason, brings the sure hands and lateral agility to stretch defenses horizontally. In that vacant space in between, Thomas will be there, along with fellow All Pro running back Alvin Kamara.
Despite losing their two starting safeties from 2021, the Saints return a defense that looks ready to continue their solid play under Allen. To replace Williams and Jenkins, the Saints brought in Marcus Maye from the New York Jets and the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu from the Kansas City Chiefs. Together with shutdown cornerback Marcus Lattimore and the always feisty Chauncy Gardner-Johnson, the Saints will field one of the most formidable secondaries in the NFL.
Up front, defensive end Cam Jordan leads the way, while linebacker Demario Davis cleans up any mistakes. This team has playmakers at every level and plays a disciplined style of football. Winston may be too inconsistent to completely buy-in to the Saints' Super Bowl chances, but with this supporting cast, the Saints will be no easy out in the playoffs.
Worst-Case: 6 - 11, 3rd in the NFC South
Soooooooo…about Jameis’ inconsistency - it’s a problem. Now, even in his most Jameis moments, like his unforgettable 30-interception season of 2019, he still managed to help the Buccaneers win seven games. Even if he implodes, he, and this roster, is likely too talented to disintegrate completely.
Though this may look like a team with a wealth of options offensively, there are a lot of question marks. Thomas hasn’t played a full season in two years. Olave is a rookie, and while he’s certainly talented, he would be far from the first WR to disappoint in year one. Landry was let go by the Browns - and have you seen their depth chart at receiver? There’s a reason they were happy to let Landry walk.
The Saints also saw left tackle Terron Armstead sign with the Miami Dolphins. Although he’s dealt with injuries over the last few years, and the Saints did draft his replacement in the first-round, there’s a chance the offensive line isn’t what it’s been in the past. If that’s true, that could compound Winston's already-suspect decision-making.
Most importantly, Kamara, who has been this team’s engine for several years, has been dealing with legal issues throughout the offseason. If he misses time, or if these issues affect his play, the Saints could end up fielding one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
Defensively, the Saints should be okay, even in the worst-case scenario. Allen, having been the defensive coordinator last year, knows his team well and will be able to make the appropriate adjustments to avoid collapse on that side of the ball. But this Saints team could miss Sean Payton’s offensive-minded brain a lot more than we all thought.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
WR Julio Jones (free agent)
Russell Gage (free agent)
OG Shaq Mason (trade)
DT Akiem Hicks
OG Alex Cappa
OG Ali Marpet
WR Antonio Brown
TE Rob Gronkowski
Best-Case Scenario: 14 - 3, 1st in the NFC South
If we’re talking true “best-case scenarios,” then the Bucs could easily win the whole thing. That’s just what Tom Brady does. If you needed me to remind you of that, you’re probably on the website (don’t leave though!).
Two years after leading the Buccaneers to a championship, Brady returns once again at the helm of a very talented squad. With weapons galore and a defense loaded with playmakers, the Buccaneers are quite deserving of their preseason-favorite position.
Brady’s excellence goes without saying, of course. But with stars like wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Julio Jones, as well as running back Leonard Fournette and a strong offensive line, this has a chance to be the most complete offense in the NFL. Figuring out how to stop this team will be a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Expect the Bucs to be strong defensively as well. Defensive end Shaq Barrett is still around terrorizing quarterbacks, defensive tackle Vita Vea is still around clogging up holes in the run game, and linebackers Devin White and Lavonte Davis are still around being versatile threats against the run and pass. With top corner Carlton Davis also returning on the Franchise Tag, their secondary also remains fully intact. This is a roster with few holes.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the NFC South
Something feels off in the 813. Brady retired, then unretired. Head coach Bruce Arians retired, and then did not un-retire. There were questions about whether Brady had a hand in Arians’ “retirement.” There were questions about whether Brady was trying to play for the Miami Dolphins. Antonio Brown quit the team in the middle of the season and hasn’t stopped running his mouth about the Bucs or Brady since. Rob Gronkowski is gone!
Now, if this were any other team and any other QB, we’d be looking at the Bucs a little cross-eyed. But since this is a team that just won a Super Bowl two years ago and still employs the greatest QB of all time, we give them a pass. In this case - this worst-case scenario - those warning signs turn into full-blown air-raid sirens.
If newly promoted defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is unable to provide the same leadership and expertise that Arians was, especially offensively, we could see this Bucs team slip. As long as Brady is under center, it’s hard to imagine things getting too out of control, but this isn’t the stacked offense of 2020.
After losing starting guards Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet in free agency and to retirement, respectively, as well as the loss of starting center Ryan Jensen to injury in training camp, the Bucs offensive line looks dangerously thin. As we all saw last year with the Cincinnati Bengals, even the most explosive offense can be neutered by poor protection. Besides, for all of Brady’s greatness, he isn’t going to be shrugging off many would-be-sackers at age 45.
And although their wide receiver corps might be frightening on paper, there’s a good chance it doesn’t live up to the billing. Evans may be a monstrous jump-ball target in the red zone, but he’s had struggles separating downfield over the past two years. If he declines, that would be a massive blow for the Bucs deep passing game. Godwin, likewise, is talented, but is coming off a season in which he tore both his ACL and MCL in December. Guys like Julio Jones and Russell Gage have produced in the past, but receiver-needy teams like the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons weren't holding the door for them on the way out.
As for the Bucs defense, like the Saints, it’s hard to imagine they drop off too much. There’s a lot of continuity going for them. However, that doesn't mean there couldn’t be regression on the horizon. And even if there isn’t, this defense might not be good enough to make up for a stagnant offense. If everything breaks wrong for the Buccaneers, this might not be a playoff team.
QB Baker Mayfield (trade)
OT Ikem Ekwonu (draft)
OG Austin Corbett (free agent)
LB Haason Reddick
CB Stephon Gilmore
Best-Case: 11 - 6, 1st in the NFC South
It’s year three under head coach Matt Rhule, and if he’s going to see year four, the turnaround starts Week 1 versus the Cleveland Browns. That’s where newly installed starting quarterback Baker Mayfield will get the chance for revenge on his former team. If this team is going to break out of their losing ways, then Baker will have to play a large role.
After getting poor play out of Sam Darnold and Cam Newton last year, Mayfield gives the Panthers a potentially excellent option at QB. With weapons like running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson, Mayfield could be in the best position of his career. Last year’s miserable campaign could be completely in the rearview mirror.
McCaffrey will be the critical piece of this offense. Without him in the backfield, Carolina’s offense stalled over and over again. Backup running back Chuba Hubbard flashed at times last year, but he doesn't offer McCaffrey’s outstanding production in the passing game. If McCaffrey can have another vintage, healthy season, Carolina’s offense could be explosive enough to be one of the top units in football.
Though their defense lost pass rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency, there’s still plenty of youthful talent to absorb those losses. 24-year-old defensive end Brian Burns is coming off two consecutive nine sack seasons and could be primed for his best year yet. Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn form one of the most athletic and potentially tremendous cornerback tandems in the NFL. Shaq Thompson has some of the best coverage chops of any linebacker in the NFL.
With a surging defense and an offense finally under the guise of a competent QB, coach Rhule is set to blossom in his third year. This Panthers’ squad may not have the ceiling of a team like Tampa, but they’re more than equipped to play spoiler and potentially host a playoff game.
Worst-Case: 5 - 12, 4th in the NFC South
Things could get ugly for Rhule. If the Panthers start slowly, he could end up being the first coach fired this year. If that happens, it’s safe to say the Mayfield-experiment didn’t work.
Despite being the most productive QB he’s played with in his career, Anderson’s reaction to potentially playing with Mayfield was…uh…less than enthusiastic, a little more than complete dread. He says that those issues are behind them - if that’s not true, we’ve already started spotting cracks in the Panthers’ foundation.
Much of this offense’s success will come down to whether or not McCaffrey can remain healthy. Though running back has become devalued as a position over the last twenty years, McCaffrey remains a notable exception due to his tremendous ability as a receiver. Losing him for another significant stretch could cripple the Panthers.
As for the defense, losing Reddick was a big blow. He was another dangerous sack artist that offenses had to account for, and without him on the other side of Brian Burns, there’s a chance Burns can’t replicate his previous production while being swarmed by double-teams. There also isn’t a lot of reliable talent in the middle of the defense, so stopping the run will be a challenge.
Finally, despite having massive potential, Carolina’s secondary is largely unproven, in particular Horn, who played in just three games last year. If injuries have sapped some of his prodigious athletic gifts, the Jackson-Horn duo may disappoint. That could be disastrous for a team without many reliable options in the secondary. Without the defense to pick up a bumbling offense, the Panthers could be in for another rough year.