NFC South preview: A division of change, intrigue and the GOAT

The NFC South underwent more key changes than perhaps any other division this offseason. Each of the four teams is implementing either a new coach or new quarterback. Gone are division stalwarts Matt Ryan and Sean Payton. Remaining is Matt Rhule, who’s the elder statesman of NFC South coaches, the Saints’ usual cap gymnastics and, after an eventful offseason, Tom Brady.

Amazingly, Brady is the longest-tenured starting quarterback in the NFC South. The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota to replace Ryan. The Panthers acquired Baker Mayfield, who finally escaped the drama in Cleveland, and named him their Week 1 starter.

Keeping with the theme of rehabilitating former prized prospects, the Saints are starting Jameis Winston, who backed up Drew Brees in 2020 and had his 2021 season prematurely ended by a torn ACL. In all, the division’s quarterbacks are three Heisman Trophy winners and the greatest signal-caller in NFL history.

While only one team is viewed as a clear-cut Super Bowl contender, it’s nonetheless a fascinating group. Here’s a look at each team’s situation entering the 2022 season (in order of the 2021 standings):

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs’ offseason revolved around Brady, who reneged on his 41-day retirement to play at least one more season. The Bucs are all-in for their 45-year-old quarterback, retaining their key free agents and adding veterans including guard Shaq Mason, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and safeties Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal, among others.

The “others” include two former Falcons receivers in Russell Gage, whom the Bucs identified as a blooming player, and Julio Jones, arguably the best player in Atlanta’s franchise history. Jones, stalled by hamstring injuries in recent seasons, will carry a lesser load with Tampa’s loaded receiving group that’s still headlined by Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Gage recently said of the team’s receivers, “This is probably one of the best groups, maybe ever.”

With Rob Gronkowski retired, Kyle Rudolph, Cam Brate and rookie Cade Otton handle tight-end duties. The interior offensive line is maybe the big unknown. Ali Marpet retired, so left guard will be handled by youngsters. Center Ryan Jensen is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Brady’s headlines overshadowed a coaching change. Bruce Arians retired and shifted to the front office. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the mastermind of the team’s defensive performance that held the Chiefs to nine points in Super Bowl LV, took over. There’s a lot of continuity on the staff, including offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who was a candidate for head-coach openings.

The Bucs prioritized getting younger and faster on defense. They moved on from the aging Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh, two important leaders of their championship team two seasons ago. Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are a good pass-rushing duo. Logan Hall, drafted No. 33 overall, joins Hicks and Pro Bowler Vita Vea inside. Lavonte David and Devin White anchor the linebacker group, while Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr. lead the secondary.

The Bucs boast one of the NFL’s best rosters. They’re going for their second title in three years, and they should have a good chance with their talent.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints’ roster remains strong, further fortified by newcomers Tyrann Mathieu and Jarvis Landry. Like Tampa Bay, the Saints promoted their defensive coordinator to head coach after their Super Bowl-winning headman retired. Dennis Allen replaces Payton, who’s expected to return to the sidelines with a different franchise in the coming years (meantime, he’ll haunt fans of other NFC South teams on Fox).

The offense might lack explosion, especially with how the Saints have managed the turnover-prone Winston since he took over, but Michael Thomas’ expected return is important. The Saints also drafted Ohio State receiver Chris Olave in the first round.

Alvin Kamara is facing a potential suspension, but he’s an outstanding playmaker. The offensive line, without Terron Armstead, who departed for Miami, has more questions than years past. The left side of the line is an area to watch, especially with first-round rookie tackle Trevor Penning going on injured reserve. The Saints have always been formidable because of their trench play.

Familiar faces Cam Jordan, Demario Davis and Marcus Lattimore lead the defense. The Saints lost safety Marcus Williams to the Ravens but signed Mathieu and Marcus Maye (who was charged last week for aggravated assault with a firearm). Allen’s defenses have been excellent in New Orleans. He served as the interim head coach against the Bucs last season, a game the Saints won 9-0, so expect the defense to remain stout.

The Saints could’ve justified a rebuild. They’ve recently lost two future Hall of Famers who introduced the franchise to sustained relevance. Their cap sheet perpetually requires shrewd navigation. But instead of tearing down, the team continued pushing its chips in. The Saints clearly believe in Allen and their infrastructure.

Atlanta Falcons

Scan those early 2023 mock drafts and you won’t have to scroll far to find the Falcons. They’re commonly projected as a bottom-five team. Games aren’t played on paper, of course, but this is a rebuild.

Faced with a dire cap situation, the Falcons opted to reset for a year. They’ll have oodles of cap space and probably high draft picks this offseason, but the months leading into that point might be painful. (Don’t ask coach Arthur Smith about those low expectations: “Who cares? Do a Google search. Go look and see what they thought of the iPhone coming out if you want to humor yourself.”)

The Falcons didn’t acquire Deshaun Watson despite their efforts. Once that fell through, they still moved Ryan, the face of the franchise who oversaw the best era in team history, to Indianapolis. Smith had familiarity with Mariota dating back to their Tennessee days. The Falcons drafted quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round, and if the team struggles as expected, he’ll likely see snaps at some point. The Falcons need to see Ridder in actual games ahead of the next draft.

This team could be intriguing. They’re working a bevy of recent draftees into the mix. Their last two first-rounders, towering targets Kyle Pitts and Drake London, will be fun to see together. Cordarrelle Patterson is electric in space. A.J. Terrell is a top-flight cornerback. Defensive lineman Grady Jarrett will anchor the line. The linebacker group, a mix of reclamation projects and youngsters, is interesting.

If the Falcons overachieve, that’ll be a testament to Smith’s coaching. He eked seven wins out of this team a year ago, which was perhaps better than the talent level. This schedule, as it is for all NFC South teams, is unforgiving. The Falcons draw both Super Bowl participants, the Rams and Bengals, on the road. They have the Bucs twice. They face the Chargers, 49ers, Ravens and Cardinals.

The Falcons’ season is about building a foundation. Perhaps by season’s end the Falcons are viewed as an up-and-coming team. The immediate future, however, looks grim from a wins-and-losses standpoint. On paper, the Falcons are the worst team in this division, but they seemingly aren’t the most directionless.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers, who don’t generate much national attention without Cam Newton, have been somewhat quietly dysfunctional. After orchestrating a remarkable turnaround at Baylor, Rhule’s NFL tenure is a dud. If this season starts poorly, perhaps Rhule’s agent will start phoning colleges to set up his client’s next gig. He’s firmly on the hot seat, a betting favorite for first coach to be fired. The Panthers have been mired in mediocrity and unable to find a competent solution at quarterback – often a coach-killing circumstance.

Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t starting caliber. The Sam Darnold flier proved inadequate. The publicity stunt of re-signing Newton only resulted in memes. The pining for Watson – and failure to even qualify as one of his preferred destinations – only led to further embarrassment. Rookie Matt Corral is done for the season with a foot injury, so he’s not an option should Mayfield stumble.

The cupboard isn’t bare here, though. Carolina has a solid defense led by edge rusher Brian Burns. Running back Christian McCaffrey is a force when healthy, though that’s an important qualifier. D.J. Moore is an underrated top receiver. If Mayfield plays well, the Panthers would be far more competent. He’s proven capable.

Just two years ago, Mayfield led the Browns to a playoff win over Pittsburgh. Carolina opens against Cleveland, and Mayfield has already fanned flames. He recently started selling “Off The Leash” shirts, a clear reference to his departure. Mayfield is a surefire upgrade over their recent quarterbacks, and that alone can create optimism.

This team’s offensive line is still among the league’s weaker groups, even after drafting Ikem Ekwonu and signing Austin Corbett. The secondary is also suspect. Jaycee Horn, the team’s top-10 selection in 2021 who played in only three games due to injury, needs to emerge into a worthy top cornerback.

Carolina faces an uphill climb for a wild-card spot, though not an impossible one. Perhaps the team endures another losing season that could result in sweeping changes as owner David Tepper goes back to square one. The Panthers are among the NFL’s more desperate organizations now. They need to show they’re moving in the right direction or Tepper could reboot the franchise.

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