NFL Season Previews – NFC South Discussion

Jimmy Mc Ginty looks at the NFC South as part of his NFL season previews and he expects the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers to improve significantly while the Carolina Panthers could be very weak.

The NFC South was a joke last season with The Carolina Panthers winning the division and making the playoffs with a (7-8-1) losing record. Amazingly they were at 3-8-1 before winning the last 4 in a row. Then they went and won a playoff game, but that was against a QB-less Cardinals side. This Panthers team shouldn’t be considered on the same level as the other divisional round ‘final 8’.

They will not be retaining their NFC South title due to the loss of WR Kelvin Benjamin with an ACL injury. This will put the emphasis on their running game. A game which relies on a very injury prone Jonathon Stewart (missed 20 games over the last 3yrs). His usual backup DeAngelo Williams now finds himself in Pittsburgh. The Panthers also have a below average O-Line which will struggle to protect Cam Newtown whilst he searches for mediocre WRs Brown and Funchess (hamstring injury may see him miss a few early games). If looking for a fantasy tight-end Greg Olsen should see tonnes of passes coming his way. Cam’s ability, especially on the ground, will see him cope better than plenty would with this receiving pack, but I struggle to see the Panthers winning too often unless Stewart stays fit and runs hard all season. That must be considered unlikely.

The addition of Ted Ginn will make their kick returns worth a watch. Greg Hardy has joined the Cowboys but having missed most of last season the defensive end can hardly be considered a loss.

Within the Division I expect the Saints and Tampa in particular to improve and with The Packers, Eagles, Seahawks, Colts, Giants (road) and Cowboys on their schedule the Carolina Panthers will be lucky to get 5 or 6 wins. A better Panthers squad only won 7 last year. Their start will tell a lot. Against the poor Jags and Foster-less Texans they should get off to a 2-0 start, anything less and you’d be very worried. Back Carolina Panthers under 8.5 wins

Marginal favourites for the NFC South this season are the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers look significantly weaker after losing Benjamin, but the Saints have their own losses to cope with. Big tight-end Jimmy Graham now resides in Seattle, whilst WR Kenny Stills is now a part of Miami’s new look (impressive) offense. Stills was inconsistent but good last year (more receptions and yards than Marques Colston) whilst Graham has simply been this team’s best offensive weapon for a good number of years. He had 10 touchdowns last year, 16, 9 & 11 in the previous 3 regular seasons. Without Graham and Stills, and with Colston showing signs of regressing at 32yrs of age, Branding Cooks and Brandon Coleman will be expected to lead the line. Cooks is much hyped after a decent rookie season. He got injured after 10 games but had already amassed over 500yds. He’ll need to deliver for 16 games this season. Coleman went undrafted in 2014 and is hard to get too excited about.

The Saints finished 7-9 last season but it’s worth noting 2 of their wins came in the closing 3 weeks against the Bears and Bucs who’s seasons had spiralled out of control by then. Perhaps they were flattered to even get the 7 victories. Drew Brees is now 36 and coming off his worst season in quite some time.

Last season, running back Marc Ingram had his breakout year after 3 poor years. That’s 1 good in 4; trust him to put 2 back to back? I don’t. They’ve also brought in CJ Spiller who if fit would be a big addition in the backfield, but he’s missed pre-season with a knee injury. On defence the Saints should improve and they badly need to, after using 6 of their first 8 draft picks on defensive players and signing Brandon Bowner from the Patriots. That said given most are just out of college, collectively they could be a year or two away from really improving.

Looking at their schedule, the road games at Cardinals, Eagles and Colts will be tricky, but after that nothing jumps out. Sure the Cowboys and Lions will be hard to beat but they must travel to the Superdome where prior to last year the Saints were very strong. There’s a lot of big ‘ifs’ for the Saints this season. Will Ingram be solid again, is Brees beginning to decline or can he bounce back, will Cooks live up to the hype, can a young defence cope and will they move on from Graham as the go to guy in the Redzone. Too many question marks for a team that were probably lucky to win 7 times last season. If it wasn’t for their easy schedule I’d be happy to take under 8.5 games.

So I’m against the Panthers and Saints (kind of); are the Atlanta Falcons good things in the NFC South? Anything but. The Atlanta Falcons have a top QB in Matt Ryan and a star WR in Julio Jones, but because they have very little else and they’ll be easier shutdown than they should be. Matt Ryan is after having two good seasons (over 4,500 yds) the last twice and the team has a combined result of 11-21, he can only do so much!

The running game was miserable last year, but it’s hardly going to improve with Devonta Freeman (unimpressive as a rookie last year) and Tevin Coleman (a rookie this season) sharing the job. 2nd choice WR Roddy White is now 34 and after having a few injury affected seasons. 3rd choice WR was Harry Douglas, he’s now in Tennessee. Atlanta’s O-Line couldn’t protect Ryan last season and on paper at least they are no better this time around.

They will however improve on defence after taking exciting pass rusher Vic Beasley 8th in the draft. Improve they’ll need to – only 5 teams conceded more last season.

The Falcons schedule as a whole looks relatively friendly, but it’d be no surprise if they started 0-3 after facing Eagles, Giants (road) and Cowboys (road). That would bring some early pressure to get results and the team doesn’t look any better than last season’s 6-10 version.

Don’t laugh now but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could win the NFC South and make the playoffs. Yes the Bucs who finished last season (2-14) and the 2013 season (4-12). They were only 5 wins away from it last season and from what I’ve written above an 8-8 record this season could again be enough to clinch this miserable division. So where does the Bucs improvement come from?

With the first overall pick in the 2015 draft the Bucs picked QB Jameis Winston. Straight away they’ve got an upgrade on Josh McCown and Mike Glennon (they shared the role last year as they were equally brutal). Winston also has some major targets on the field. More than most rookie QBs coming into bad teams would. Aside for the freak that is Odell Beckham, Mike Evans was the top rookie last season. A 21yr old rookie with over 1,000yds despite having a garbage QB. He’s a top class talent at wide receiver. Opposite Evans is Vincent Jackson. Jackson had a slight dip last year but with an improved QB under centre he looks prime for a resurgence. He’s had 6 x 1,000+yd seasons and with Evans on the field he’ll be looking at single coverage all season. Also due to bounce back is running back Doug Martin. Martin suffered a huge loss of form last term (rushed for just 490yds) after a few injuries. It is early days but his impressive preseason form suggests he’s back to the form of his rookie season in 2012 (over 1,400 yds). In addition to those the Bucs have a potential breakout playmaker at tight-end. Austin Seferian Jenkins is a great athlete who played just nine games as a rookie last season, most whilst not 100% fit. He will see plenty of single coverage over the middle as defences try to stop Evans and Jackson out wide.

The Bucs also drafted two blockers to help protect Winston. What they didn’t recruit was help on the other side of the ball. Their defence was poor in 2014 and unless some step up it will be again. Knowing they have an offense that can win games will help and so too will the simple fact the offense can stay on the field for longer than 4 downs to give the D a breather. Also in their favour is the schedule. Only 1 of their opening 9 games is against a playoff team from last year (and that’s Carolina at home). Only 2 of their 16 games are against genuine top class teams (Colts and Cowboys). They play the Texans when Arian Foster will be injured, the Bear and Panthers when their seasons will be well and truly over. There’s so much to like about the schedule if Tampa get it together and Winston develops as a top drawer QB, they’ve so much firepower that they’ll win plenty of games. Back Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win NFC South.

Advised Bets:

1.5 points win Carolina Panthers under 8 games (10/11 Paddy Power)

0.5 points win Carolina Panthers to be lowest scoring team in League 33/1 (Bet Victor & Coral)

1.5 points win Tampa Bay to win the Division (8/1 Coral)

1 point win Saints / Bucs straight forecast (14/1 Totesport)