Atlanta ran away with this division last season in route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Buccaneers just missed out on the postseason after winning nine games, while the Saints finished a game below .500 and the Panthers suffered ten defeats following a Super Bowl loss the previous year.
Tampa Bay is an ascendant franchise that is hoping to claim the NFC South crown for the first time since 2007. Atlanta has a well rounded roster, including a talented young defense. Carolina and New Orleans should be competitive, but their flaws will make earning a postseason berth challenging. Final divisional standings prediction:
Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan and head coach Dan Quinn are hoping to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl runner-up hangover. Atlanta maintains their identity as a team with an efficient, high powered offense paired with defense capable of holding leads. The offense will be centered around outstanding receiver Julio Jones and a tag team of versatile running backs that benefit from a top notch blocking unit.
Breakout edge rusher Vic Beasley, penetrating tackle Grady Jarrett and rookie Takkarist McKinley give the Falcons a potentially dominant pass rush. The defense is built on speed at linebacker and safety, while top corner Desmond Trufant will return from injury. Atlanta is the class of the division, and a frontrunner to repeat as the NFC champions.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston is poised to elevate his play after the Bucs added explosive receiver DeSean Jackson and athletic tight end O.J. Howard to a receiving corps that boasts elite wideout Mike Evans. However, a subpar offensive line must improve if Tampa Bay is to punch a ticket to the playoffs.
Their defense has some quality pieces, namely defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, edge rusher Noah Spence and corner Vernon Hargreaves. Still, Tampa Bay probably needs to focus next offseason on bolstering their defensive personnel. The Bucs have the makings of a top passing attack, but appear to be a year away from honestly contending.
3. Carolina Panthers
Aggressive head coach Ron Rivera has decided to transition from a power rushing scheme to a more versatile offense that will feature dynamic rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. It remains to be seen how polarizing quarterback Cam Newton will respond to a scheme that does not necessarily play to his strengths. Their offensive line is league average at best and their top wideouts are purely big bodied possession targets.
The Panthers defense is exceptionally strong up the middle with defensive tackle Kawann Short, All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and stalwart Thomas Davis. Beyond second-year corner James Bradberry, the secondary lacks the requisite players to stifle vertical passing attacks. Carolina appears to be an 8-8 team that could over or underperform depending on Newton and the health of their aging defensive leaders.
4. New Orleans Saints
The Sean Payton - Drew Brees duo has lost some luster, as they have failed to carry the Saints to the playoffs since 2013. This franchise seems to be in perpetual limbo, unwilling to take on a needed rebuilding project or go all-in to win now. Adrian Peterson is hoping to resurrect his career behind a line that should be improved. Rookie sensation Michael Thomas is in line to serve as the number one receiving option in his second year and Willie Snead provides a potent slot option. Still, 2017 could be the season 38-year-old Brees finally declines.
End Cameron Jordan is the best defender in New Orleans. Overall, the Saints defense has weaknesses across the board. Barring an unexpected turnaround, their defense will be among the league’s worst. Therefore, 2017 is all about developing young defenders Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore.
Who will win the NFC South?
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