NFC South Preview

The four teams in the NFC South were all within a game of each other last season. As competitive as that sounds, none of the teams finished above .500 with the Buccaneers winning the division at 8-9. This season, the division may get even worse since each team enters with a new starting quarterback. The favorite will be the team with the best signal-caller, although each team has significant holes and questions to be answered.

In New Orleans, the Saints open with former Raider Derek Carr under center. He replaces Andy Dalton, who now serves as a back-up in Carolina. Carr threw for 3522 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has played in only ten games over the past three seasons, will be a primary target, along with Chris Olave, who surpassed 1000 yards in receiving last season. In the backfield, Jamaal Williams replaces the suspended Alvin Kamara.

Defensively, the Saints were very solid against the pass, allowing only 184 yards per game and 17 touchdown passes, while recording 48 sacks. Cameron Jordan leads the pass rushing attack with 8.5 sacks in 2022. The rushing defense wasn’t as stellar, allowing 130 yards per game, but overall, the Saints are deep up front with Jordan, Nathan Shepherd, Khalen Saunders, and Carl Granderson. Rookie Blake Groupe takes over kicking duties, replacing Wil Lutz, now with the Broncos.

Baker Mayfield has in the unenviable position replacing Tom Brady at quarterback in Tampa Bay. Mayfield compiled just a 2-8 record with 2163 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Rams and Panthers last season. He has a good group of receivers to throw in in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and rookie Trey Palmer out of Nebraska. Second year back Rachaad White becomes the main running back after rushing for 481 yards in his rookie campaign. The offensive line was excellent last season at protecting Brady, allowing only 22 sacks. That should bode well for a productive offense this season.

Tampa Bay allowed only 204 yards per game in the air but surrendered 29 touchdowns. Safety Mike Edwards, who is now with the Chiefs, led the team with two interceptions. A secondary consisting of Jamel Green, Ryan Neal, Antoine Winfield Jr, and Carlton Davis III needs to produce more in terms of interceptions than last year’s squad. Much of the pass rush that created 45 sacks remains intact. Defense will be the key for the Buccaneers due to the uncertainty of Mayfield at quarterback. Chase McLaughlin takes over the kicking duties after hitting 30-of-36 for the Colts last season.

The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons could finish in a tie for the basement. In Atlanta, Desmond Ridder will be the starting quarterback after playing in only four games as a rookie. He played well in limited time, completing 64 percent of his 115 passes without an interception. How well he will play as the man under center each game remains a mystery. His primary target will be Drake Landon, who caught 72 passes for 866 yards last season. On the ground, first round draft pick Bijan Robinson will be the lead back, while Tyler Allgeier, who surpassed 1000 yards last season, will be in the mix. The Falcons best bet to move the ball will be on the ground, taking pressure off Ridder.

Atlanta was solid on the defensive side of the ball in 2002, allowing 22.7 points per game. One area of weakness was the pass rush, which recorded a dismal 21 sacks, led by Grady Jarrett’s six. Veterans Calais Campbell (5.5 sacks with Baltimore in 2022), and David Onyemata look to make an impact creating pressure on quarterbacks more consistently this season. Richie Grant, Mykal Walker, and Jaylinn Hawkins each recorded two interceptions last season, although Walker bolted to the Bears via free agency. Kicker Younghoe Koo, who hit seven field goals of at least 50 yards last season, returns for his 5th season with the Falcons.

The Panthers come in with rookie quarterback Bryce Young under center. The number one overall draft pick out of Alabama was solid in the preseason. He will get help his rookie year from a backfield led by Miles Sanders, who rushed for a career-best 1259 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Eagles last season. In the passing game, veteran Adam Thielen will be a good possession target for Young to go along with DJ Chark Jr and Jonathan Mingo, second round pick out of Ole Miss. Gone from the mix are running back D’Onta Foreman and wide receiver DJ Moore, both now with the Bears.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers are led by linebackers Shaq Thompson, Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu. Thompson led the team with 135 tackles, while Burns and Luvu tallied 19.5 of the teams 35 sacks. Jaycee Horn leads the secondary that allowed only 228 yards per game last season. Completing a very good secondary are cornerback Donte Jackson, and safeties Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods. Eddy Piniero, who hit 33-of-35 field goal attempts last season, returns to provide stability to the kicking game.

In perhaps the weakest division in the NFL, expect the Saints to be the favorite behind veteran quarterback Derek Carr. This is little separating the rest of the division. The Panthers could be a surprise team in the division if Young quickly adjusts to the NFL and shows why he was the first pick overall. The division winner will likely be the only team to make the NFC playoffs.