2015 NFL Preview: NFC South

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The NFC South has been through a massive period of change in recent years after a long battle between two teams has taken a back seat.

For years the South was a fight between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons as the two teams always represented some of the top teams in the NFL.

They continued to battle it out to take the division title and often became Super Bowl favourites after that battle.

Then in recent years the Carolina Panthers came out of the woodwork to enter themselves into the division race.

Last year they won that division race and took the only playoff spot by any South team in a year where the battle seemed to hurt the chances of all of the teams to make it into the postseason.

The Panthers found this new success thanks to their young star quarterback which has become a theme in the division over the last decade.

The South is full of great quarterbacks and no team has become a challenger until they found their quarterback.

For the Saints it was Drew Brees who came to the team in 2006 after being released by the San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers had concerns over Brees after he hurt his shoulder and required surgery and with a young promising QB in Phillip Rivers waiting in the wings they would not match his requested salary.

So he left went on the market where many NFL teams remained concerned about his shoulder with two teams showing interest.

The Saints got him and they immediately became the dominant team in the South as Brees led them to new heights including a Super Bowl win during the 2009-10 season.

Around the same time that Brees joined the Saints a young QB nicknamed “Matty Ice,” thanks to his ability to stay cool under pressure, was drafted by the Falcons.

Atlanta had found their own QB in Matt Ryan and as he developed the Falcons became contenders in every year.

The emergence of both quarterbacks led to the division rivalry between the Saints and Falcons who exchanged division titles for four years.football-sidebar

When one team won the other team took a wild card spot and the rivalry continued well into the playoffs as both teams were the only two fighting for the division year after year.

Then in 2011 the Carolina Panthers joined the action when they drafted Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton to help them get in on the QB battle.

The results weren’t immediate but eventually Newton led the Panthers into the fight for the division.

With Newton at the helm the Panthers have won the last two division titles as the young QB has brought a new era into the South.

This year the last team is getting in on the action as well with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafting Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

Winston was the first overall pick in this year’s draft and has been seen as the future of quarterbacks with a great arm and knowledge of the pro system that can make him very successful in the league.

The Bucs hope they have found their QB of the future and if he does work out the NFC South has only been made that much more interesting.

In a league where the QB is becoming so much more important the NFC South has some great pivots.

There are the veterans who have been successful for years and the young guns who are hoping to establish their careers as being consistently great.

If Winston works out in Tampa there are four teams with great quarterbacks all fighting for one guaranteed spot in the playoffs.

That makes this fight that much more interesting as all four teams could be in the thick of it this year.

It will be tough for every team this year as there may no longer be that one team that is easy to beat and can get you two wins.

It could be one of the best battles in the league and it is sure to be a division watched closely with another top pick in the mix.

The NFC South is a whole lot more interesting this year and as the season is set to begin there is plenty to talk about as the battle begins to become the kings of the south.

atlanta_falcons

The Atlanta Falcons have been suffering from one of the most frustrating things in the NFL over the last few years. They have some of the best talent in the NFL with a quarterback like Matt Ryan and receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White. Yet every year they seem to underachieve and perform far below what they should. For a long time it was making the playoffs as a Super Bowl favourite and then falling short of even making a Super Bowl appearance. Last year it was a losing record and finishing third in the division far away from the playoffs. That underachieving finally went too far last year and the Falcons made a change firing Mike Smith, the team’s winningest coach, and bringing in Dan Quinn. The former Seattle defensive coordinator made plenty of impact in the league with the creation of one of the league’s best defences and the assembly of the “Legion of Boom.” He will enter the Falcons looking to build a similar defence as the Falcons have struggled mostly in that department. They have not been able to find a group of players to get things done on defence and poor decisions on the personnel side of things have hurt them more than anything. Quinn now has control of the team including personnel decisions and he will go to work trying to find an effective defensive group. The impact has already been seen with the Falcons using their first pick in the draft to take Vic Beasley, an edge rusher from Clemson who is sure to provide the pressure that the Falcons have lacked in recent years. Quinn also brought in Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn to add to the defensive depth. On offence, Quinn luckily doesn’t have a lot of work to do as they have some of the top talent in the league. Ryan, Jones, and White form one of the most dynamic pass attacks in the league. The running game will need to be figured out after the Falcons let Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers walk away. Jackson was a veteran who consistently put up good numbers, despite being a bit of a band-aid, and Rodgers was a very promising young back. Now the Falcons look to second year back Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman to lead the way with an inexperienced backfield. The biggest piece of work to be done is getting the line that allowed Ryan to be sacked 31 times last year, up to snuff. Quinn has plenty of work to be done but he is one of the lucky new coaches as there is a solid offensive base for him. As a result he will see some success in his first year as head coach but it might not be enough to bring the Falcons back to the playoffs.

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The Panthers have been the team to beat in the last few years as they became the first team in the history of the division to win back-to-back division titles. It was necessarily a great accomplishment though as they won the division due to a tie during their season. They still did not have the season they wanted as they continued a pattern of inconsistency throughout the years. Ever good year for the Panthers is followed by a losing season and last year was not much different. After winning 12 games in 2013 they went 7-8-1 for another losing season but were lucky enough that it was just enough to win the division. They are hoping for improvements this year and the biggest reason for hope is a healthy Cam Newton. Last year Newton spent most of the offseason recovering from ankle surgery and then broke his ribs in the preseason before a car accident hampered him during the season. This year there are no problems so far and Newton is getting exciting to work with an offence that was rebuilt for him last year. It could have been a more promising year until Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL taking the top receiver out of the equation for the season. The injury means that Greg Olsen, Jerricho Cotchery, and new additions Ted Ginn and Jarrett Boykin could have a bigger role. That extends to second round pick Devin Funchess who lit it up at Michigan until an injury hampered his 2014 season. Behind Newton, Jonathan Stewart takes the reigns as the feature back with DeAngelo Williams now in Pittsburgh. Mike Tolbert should provide some relief if needed but Stewart will be the guy in the running game. The defence is in good hands with one of the best linebacking groups in the league as Luke Kuechly leads the way. New addition Shaq Thomson should factor in to certain packages as the fast backer could have an impact this year to provide yet another weapon on that side of the ball. The Panthers have the talent on the team to make it three in a row but the problem is that many of the teams will be getting better this year and the Panthers did not do a lot to get any better. They could have used improvement on defence to everything except the linebacking corps and an upgrade on the offensive line could have helped. The simply didn’t improve enough this year and with the loss of Benjamin the hopes of having a better season certainly took a shot. The Panthers could pull out a good season as once again it seems like too many teams are rebuilding giving them a better chance than most to win the division for the third straight year, although a deep run seems out of the question.

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The New Orleans Saints finished second in the division last year but it was not a good spot for this team especially with a weak division. A 7-9 finish was far from the pace they needed to make the playoffs and the Saints were not happy with the finish. After all they are used to competing for the division and for a playoff spot not competing to get a winning record. Their disappointment was seen in a big way this off-season as the Saints went on a massive overhaul of their entire team. There were few position groups that were left alone as starters at almost every position were let go or traded away. None of the moves were bigger than when the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. They did get a great lineman in Max Unger but they lost their leading receiver and the biggest impact player on the team. Graham was the favourite target of Drew Brees and now that target is gone leaving a group of receivers to fill in for him. The Saints also saw their second leading receiver Kenny Stills walk away as well and for Brees that leaves Marques Colston and the young speedster Brandin Cooks as his two main targets this year. In the running game Pierre Thomas is gone but he has been replaced by C.J. Spiller to fill that third down role. The starting role still belongs to Mark Ingram who will try to stay healthy this year and provide a balance that the offence will need without their two top receivers. On defence the Saints have often been lack luster and the biggest issue has been their pass rush, or lack thereof. The line needs to be better as Cameron Jordan and Akeim Hicks will need to step up on the ends and get that pressure going if the Saints want to be better than their 34 sacks all of last year. The linebacking corps is widely changed with leading tackler Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette now gone. That leaves David Hawthorne to lead the group that will likely see a few rookies step in after the Saints drafted Hau’oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony this year to fill the holes created. The defensive backs are also taking on a new look with the signing of Jairus Byrd and Brandon Browner. Unfortunately Byrd has not participated too often this year after suffering a knee injury last season in Buffalo. Browner could be the best addition as the former “Legion of Boom” member is a big and physical cover man who has won two Super Bowls in the last two years, One with Seattle and last year with New England. There seems to be a lot of excitement around this new-look team but even though they have the leadership to be successful this much change never works out immediately. Expect them to miss the playoffs again but with a better record than they had last year.

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The Bucs were one of the many teams searching for a new quarterback and have been one of those teams for years. It is the most essential part of a team and is only becoming more important as the passing game continues to evolve. Without a top QB it is hard to stay above water and find the playoffs and the Bucs were the perfect example last year. With Josh McCown and Mike Glennon both splitting the season the Bucs were without that solid pivot and it resulted in a total of two wins all season. Luckily for them the draft contained two quarterbacks that many thought could lead a team and the Bucs had the pick of whichever one they wanted. In the end they picked Jameis Winston who had a lot of off-field issues that made him a dangerous pick. The Bucs have claimed that they have done more than enough research on his personality and determined that he was not going to be a problem in the NFL. As long as he stays out of trouble he could turn out to be the QB they have been looking for as he has won everywhere he has played and has a leadership ability that can’t be taught. He also played in a pro-style offence and knows how to call plays. Winston will enjoy having Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson at his disposal as they both had more than 1,000 yards receiving even with two average quarterbacks. Winston is set up for success in the pass game but he will need to overcome a porous line that will test his ability to work outside of the pocket. In the running game the Bucs don’t have much, partly because of that line, as Doug Martin leads the way after getting just under 500 yards last season. One defence there is really only one positive as the defensive line is a good one with Gerald McCoy leading the way in the middle. After McCoy the talent drops off dramatically and as the linebacking corps has some good players like Lavonte David but the group needs more than just him. The defensive backfield was in rough shape last year and the loss of Dashon Goldson as their leader is not going to make them any better. The Bucs have a lot more problems than just a quarterback and although they should see improvement with a far better passing game than last year they still are not good enough to make the playoffs. Winston should prove to be good on-field but without a line to protect him he can only do so much as he will win more than two games but they will sit at the bottom of the division for another year as the rebuild has only just begun.

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Prediction:
There are a lot of rebuilding phases going on and some top players taking time on the injury list that will affect this race. Finally every team seems to have a quarterback that can lead but some will need some more time to develop while others have to prove they still have it. The entire division is not going to do anything special this year but that might just make the division race that much better. In the end the Saints, Falcons, and Bucs have all improved but just not enough to win the division this year. Although the season will be better for those fan bases none will take the division title this year. Carolina will take their third straight title with Newton leading the way as their rivals all fall just short of giving them much of a battle and falling short of any wild card berth in a very tough conference.

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