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NFL Division Preview: NFC South

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The NFC South could be the second most talented division in the NFL in 2014 and all 4 teams can have a legitimate belief that the playoffs are within their reach.

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I have a tough time getting my hands around the NFC South and have little confidence in my picks. I could see any of these teams winning this division and any of the teams finishing fourth. Each team has an element I like and each has at least one element I dislike.

Combine that with a tough schedule (playing the NFC and AFC North), and there likely won't be any teams in this division getting more than 10-11 wins. Can Brees and Payton continue their runs of success? Has Tampa Bay turned the page from the Schiano debacle? Can the Falcons regain their 2012 form? Can the Panthers withstand the mass exodus from their 2013 division win?

1) New Orleans

2014 Prediction: 11-5

2013 Record: 11-5, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 60%

Key Losses:

  • Darren Sproles, RB (Phi)
  • Jed Collins, FB (Det)
  • Charles Brown, OT (NYG)
  • Brian De La Puente, C (Chi)
  • Malcolm Jenkins, S (Phi)

Key Additions:

  • Brandin Cooks, WR (1st Rd Oregon St)
  • Champ Bailey, CB (Den) - should start
  • Jairus Byrd, S (Buf) - should start
  • Stan Jean_Baptiste, CB (2nd Rd, Neb)
  • Erik Lorig, FB (TB) - should start
  • Jonathan Goodwin, C (SF) - should start

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Drew Brees - Brees has lead the NFL in TDs four of the past six years and yards in four of the past eight (including four 5,000+ yard seasons in the last six years). And, for what it is worth, he is second among active QBs (P. Manning) in both yards (51,081) and TDs (363). As long as Brees is behind center, the Saints have to be considered a legit Super Bowl contender.

Sean Payton - Regardless of what you think of him, Payton is an offensive genius and his presence (or lack thereof) was the main reason for the Saints drop in 2012. Payton and Brees have been together for seven seasons and in those seven seasons, they have five playoff appearances, one Super Bowl, three Division titles, two NFC Championship appearances and only one losing season (7-9 in 2007).

Jimmy Graham - With all due respect to Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham is the biggest matchup problem in all of the NFL. LBs, safeties and average corners can't cover him. Teams can put their best CB on him, but then they expose themselves to Colston. And, unless that CB is 6'4" or taller, it is almost like taking candy from a baby in the redzone. In 2013 Graham had 86 catches, 1,215 yards and a mind blowing 16 TDs. Those are great numbers whether you (or the Saints) consider him TE or WR.

The Defense/Rob Ryan - I am no Rob Ryan fan, but, the improvement he made in 2013 with this unit was staggering. In 2012, the Saints were dead last in the NFL in total defense and surrendered 7,042 yards. Yes, you read that correct. In 2013, the Saints were fourth in total defense and surrendered 4,891 yards, or 2,151 yards less than they did in 2012. I think the addition of Byrd, Bailey and Jean-Baptiste will make this defense even better.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The Loss of Darren Sproles - I believe Sproles is one of the biggest matchup nightmare in the NFL and his loss will be significant. The Saints essentially used the dump off to Sproles (71 rec, 604 yds, 2 TDs) as their running attack because he cannot be covered by one guy, especially if that guy is an LB. The most difficult part about the Saints offense was that Brees always had a man open, and that man was Sproles, who is now open in Philly.

Running Game - The 2013 Saints ranked 25th in rushing yards, 26th in YPA, and T-23rd with just 10 TDS. Their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas) had a whopping 549 yards and Mark Ingram, despite his best year in terms of YPA (4.9), only got 78 handoffs. The Saints best running attack was the dump off to Sproles (71 rec, 604 yds, 2 TDs) - and Sproles is now in Philly.

Overall:

As I said at the outset, I could see any of these teams winning this division and any of them finishing fourth. However, one team has a Super Bowl winning QB and coach, and when all else fails, I default to the team with either the best QB or the best coach, and in this case they happen to be on the same team. I trust Brees and Payton more than any other QB or coach in this division and think they have some unfinished business from 2013.

2) Tampa Bay

2014 Prediction: 10-6

2013 Record: 4-12, 3rd Place (Tie-Breaker)

Confidence in Pick: 40%

Key Losses:

  • Darrelle Revis, CB (NE)
  • Lawrence Tynes, K
  • Mike Williams, WR (Buf)
  • Jeremy Zuttah, C (Bal)
  • Ted Larsen, C (AZ)

Key Additions:

  • Josh McCown, QB (Chi) - likely starter
  • Michael Johnson, DE (Cin) - should start
  • Anthony Collins, OT (Cin) - should start
  • Alterraun Verner, CB (Ten) - should start
  • Mike Evans, WR (1st Rd, TX A&M) - should start
  • Brandon Myers, TE (NYG)
  • Evan Dietrich-Smith, C (GB) - should start
  • Clinton McDonald, DT (Sea) - roster depth
  • Mike Jenkins, CB (Oak) - roster depth
  • Major Wright, S (Chi) - roster depth

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Greg Schiano, HC
  • Fired - Mike Sullivan, OC
  • Fired - Bill Sheridan, DC
  • Hired - Lovie Smith, HC (HC, Chi)
  • Hired - Jeff Tedford, OC (HC, University of California, Berkeley)
  • Hired - Leslie Frazier, DC (HC, Min)

Reasons for Optimism:

No More Greg Schiano - I don't know what was worse in Tampa last year, Schiano or the MRSA outbreak - maybe they were in cahoots. I am on record (along with many others) saying this was a terrible hire in 2012; the guy was a control freak and wasn't very good coaching in one of the weakest college football leagues. This team was much better than their 4-12 record indicated in 2013 but there was clearly a divide between coaches and players (see the debacle of handling the Josh Freeman situation, comments by Darrelle Revis and Da'Quan Bowers). Schiano's style may have worked in college or in the NFL during the ‘70's or '80's, but it doesn't work much these days.

Lovie Smith - Lovie Smith is no softie, but compared to Schiano, he will be a welcomed sight for players in the locker room and he has an impressive NFL resume to back him up (unlike Schiano).

Doug Martin - After a great rookie season, Martin was disappointing in 2013 to say the least. Under Smith, there will be some sort of sharing in the backfield and I don't expect Martin to put up 2012 type numbers (see the way Smith used Forte), however, with his running style and ability to catch out of the backfield, I still think 1,500 all-purpose yards and 8-10 TDs is reasonable for Martin in 2014, especially with the weapons they have around him.

Offensive Weapons - Most of the time when a team finishes 32nd in offense like the Bucs did in 2013, "offensive weapons" are lacking, but that is not the case in Tampa. Doug Martin is a top 10-15 RB, Brandon Myers is a solid TE and Vincent Jackson and first round pick, Mike Evans, either are, or have the potential to be legit No. 1s and make up one of the biggest and most talented WR duos in the NFL. With the addition of Josh McCown and an improved O-Line (47 sacks in 2013; T-27), the Bucs should have a very capable offense. McCown's top three targets are 6'5" 230 lbs (Jackson), 6'5" 231 lbs (Evans) and 6'3" 256 lbs (Myers) - defenses will struggle to matchup with those three.


Josh McCown - Speaking of McCown, he may be a 35-year-old journeyman quarterback, but he has experience with Lovie Smith (2011) and last year he looked better than Jay Cutler. In five starts, McCown went 3-2 completing 66.5% of his passes and throwing for 1,829 yards, 8.17 YPA and 13 TD to just 1 INT while compiling a 109.0 rating. Tampa has similar weapons to the Bears and McCown should find similar success.

Defense - The Bucs defense was middle of the pack in 2013 (17th overall, 17th pass, 15th rush). With the addition of Michael Johnson, a top DE, and Alterraun Verner, one of the best CBs in the league, combined with Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier, the Bucs may have a top 10 defense in 2014.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Josh McCown - As impressive as McCown was last year, it was only five starts. The rest of his career has been very underwhelming and guys aren't 35-year-old journeymen quarterbacks for no reason. I believe things began to click for McCown in 2013, but there is always the possibility that it was just a five game flash in the pan.

Division - All four teams in this division have legitimate playoff aspirations and that makes for a difficult road to the playoffs, especially for a team coming off a 4-12 season and breaking in a whole new coaching staff.

Overall:

Usually the team that "wins" the offseason sucks when real football starts, but I've liked the Bucs roster the past two seasons and I really like what they did in the offseason. I think the addition of Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier should account for two to three additional wins and the big free agents they picked up (Johnson, Collins and Verner) are all solid additions from a talent and professional standpoint. If I had the balls, I would pick them to win the South.

3) Atlanta

2014 Prediction: 7-9

2013 Record: 4-12, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 40%

Key Losses:

  • Jason Snelling, RB (retired)
  • Tony Gonzalez, TE (retired)
  • Asante Samuel, CB (released)
  • Thomas DeCoud, S (signed with Carolina)

Key Additions:

  • Jake Matthews, OT (1st Rd, TX A&M) - should start
  • Rashede Hageman, DT (2nd Rd, Min) - should start
  • Devin Hester, WR/KR (formerly with Chicago) - kick / punt return specialist
  • Jon Asamoah, G (KC) - should start
  • Tyson Jackson, DE (KC) - should start
  • Paul Soliai, NT (Mia) - should start
  • Dwight Lowery, DB (Jax) - may start
  • T.J. Yates, QB (Hou)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Health...Presumably - Part of the reason behind the Falcons forgettable 2013 was health...or lack thereof. In 2013, the Falcons lost Jones for 11 games, Jackson for four and White for three. Assuming all three are healthy, this offense should once again be very potent, even with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez.

Improved O-Line - In 2013 Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times. The addition of Jake Matthews, while alone not enough, should certainly improve the line and help keep Ryan upright.

Julio Jones - Jones is a top 10-15 receiver and his absence last year was one of the many reasons the Falcons had a disappointing 2013. All indications are that Jones will be 100 percent by the start of the season. If that is the case, this is an offense that can put up points with the best of them.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The Defense - A top 15 defense would make this team a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They don't have it. In 2013, the Falcons visited stadiums around the NFL with a defense tied for 27th overall (21st pass, 31st run) and they didn't do much to improve it. When you are in a division with Drew Brees, Sean Payton, Cam Newton, Doug Martin, and you are playing the NFC and AFC North, that is a recipe for a disappointing season.  Their second round pick, Hageman has potential, but he is a rookie, seen as a bit of a project. I don't think the offense can mask the deficiencies of their defense.

Steven Jackson - I love Steven Jackson and think he is (and has been), one of the best "Pure RBs" ever. With that said, RBs seem to hit a wall at 30 and Jackson is 31 coming off his worst season ever and a season littered with nagging injuries. To say he has some mileage on his tires and some concern would be an understatement. Jackson is the NFL's active leader in rushing yards (10,681) and carries (2,553) and also has 440 career receptions as well (3,515 yards), most of which were done on artificial surfaces. Jackson has averted major injuries in his career and despite nagging that all, has played during at least 12 games every year in his 10 year career. However, at some point, this workload will catch up with him - and it may have happened in 2013. While the Falcons have some promising young backs, they aren't Steven Jackson.

Mike Smith - He is a great regular season coach, but for a guy with a .625 career winning percentage in the regular season, his 1-4 postseason record is inexcusable (especially given the fact that he has been the No. 1 overall seed two times). His only win came thanks to a miraculous comeback (aided by an opposing coach's brain cramp - I'm looking at you Pete Carroll). Success is gauged by postseason success, so by that standard, Smith's teams have underperformed greatly. A missed playoff in 2014 could - and probably should - end the Smith era.

The Loss of Tony Gonzalez - Gonzalez is the best TE in NFL history (yards, receptions and TDs). Before he retired, he was the active leader in receptions, yards and receiving TDs...not for TEs, for all players. While in 2013 he was no longer the player he once was, he still had an uncanny ability to get open and make big/tough catches. That, along with his leadership will leave a void on this team.

Overall:

The more I look at this roster and this division, the more skeptical I get about the Falcons. I still do not trust Matt Ryan or Mike Smith - especially in big games. I thought Ryan's comeback against Seattle in 2012 may spark a change going forward, but I don't think it has. Despite his impressive regular season numbers, Ryan is 1-4 in the playoffs with 9 TDs and 7 INTs - and six of those TDs came in 2012. Healthy or not, I don't think the Falcons offense is enough to overcome their defense.

4) Carolina

2014 Prediction: 6-10

2013 Record: 12-4, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 35%

Key Losses:

  • Steve Smith, WR (Bal)
  • Mike Mitchell, S (Pitt)
  • Jordan Gross, OT (retired)
  • Geoff Hangartner, G (retired)
  • Jeff Byers, C/G (retired)
  • Brandon LaFell, WR (NE)
  • Domenik Hixon, WR (Chi)
  • Ted Ginn, WR (AZ)
  • Jimmy Clausen, QB (Chi)

Key Additions:

  • Kelvin Benjamin, WR (1st Rd, FSU) - should start
  • Kony Ealy, DE (2nd Rd, Mizz)
  • Jerricho Cotchery, WR (Pitt) - may start
  • Jason Avant, WR (Phi) - may start
  • Tiquan Underwood, WR (TB) - may start
  • Ed Dickson, TE (Bal) - may start
  • Antoine Cason, CB (AZ) - should start
  • Roman Harper, S (NO) - should start
  • Joe Webb, QB/WR (formerly with Minnesota) - roster depth

Suspensions of Note:

  • Greg Hardy, DE (domestic abuse) - starter

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Cam Newton - If you were to design the perfect athlete, they would look a lot like Cam Newton. 6'5", 245 lbs, chiseled from stone and lightning fast. He has had an amazing start to his NFL career, much better than anyone (myself included) could have imagined -- and I believe he is the hardest player in the league to account for. This team will go where Cam takes them.

Luke Kuechly - The guy is a stud. He lead the NFL (as a rookie) with 164 tackles and added 156 more in 2013.

Defense - In 2013 the Panthers had the second ranked defense (sixth pass, second run) and won a number of games on the back of the defense rather than the back of Cam. With the loss of Mike Mitchell (S), and Greg Hardy (DE) facing a suspension for domestic abuse, this defense may take a step back, but it should still be a top 10 defense.

Running Attack - Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams each are top 15-20 RBs in the NFL. Unfortunately for them, they both play for the Panthers and the Panthers seem not to know how to use either, let alone both. With Newton and these two, the Panthers could (and should), have the most unstoppable running attack around. They don't. If the Panthers can figure out how to use both/either, I like this aspect of the team.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Cam Newton - Confused? Here is my deal with Newton: despite my praise above, I still do not trust him. I don't trust his accuracy (59.8%), I don't trust his decision making (49 turnovers in three years and 55.5 QBR) and I don't trust his leadership ability (which has been called into question multiple times). This is a quarterback league, and to succeed, you need a QB that is accurate, smart, trustworthy and team oriented. I see a marginally accurate QB that still seems more interested in self-promotion than team success. I will be the first to admit, I was very impressed with Newton in 2013 and 2014 is now a contract year. But Newton has had a losing record two of his three years in the league and he lost the one guy that could call him out (Steve Smith).

The Loss of Steve Smith - Speaking of Smith, he is definitely on the backside of his career, but he can still produce and is far better than anything the Panthers replaced him with.

The Loss of EVERY Wide Receiver - In 2013, the Panthers had four wide receivers catch passes (Smith, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon), none of them are on the team in 2014. To replace them, the Panthers have brought in first round pick, Kelvin Benjamin (who is not a polished WR) and a few unimpressive veterans (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood). This receiving corps is embarrassingly bad, especially in a pass happy league.

Losses on the O-Line - According to PFF, the Panthers had the seventh ranked offensive line in 2013 and LT Jordan Gross earned a +33.5 grade protecting Cam's blind side. Gross's retirement leaves Newton's blind side a concern and the retirement of Hangartner and Byers leaves some depth and experience concerns as well along the O-Line.

Ron Rivera - Like Cam, I am not sold on Rivera yet either.

No Team has Ever Won Back-to-Back NFC South Championships -

The Panthers have Never had Back-to-Back Winning Seasons -

Overall:

The Panthers (mainly on the Newton potential) were a hot pick in 2013 that paid off. I don't see them staying atop this division and while I don't see any teams going from worst to first in 2014, I do see the Panthers going from first to worst.

**Thanks to our friends at Fantasy Football Impact for the in depth team-by-team offseason moves