2016 NFL Preview: NFC South

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The NFC South is a division defined by quarterbacks more than any other division in the NFL where quarterback is king.

There is no doubt that the NFL values the pivot above all else and for a good reason as no team wins with a terrible QB.

You can win with a good QB and a great defence but the fact is that the quarterback is the most important position in the league right now.

The South is a division with the best collection of quarterbacks in the league and that only became truer in 2015 when the last team without a star QB found their man.

For years the competition was between Drew Brees and Matt Ryan as the veteran took on the young gun to win the division.

It was a great battle as Atlanta and New Orleans put together great seasons and great battles for the division title.

Then came a new breed of quarterback as the Carolina Panthers found their next star in Cam Newton.

He was nothing like Ryan or Brees as his athletic ability was far beyond either of the more traditional pocket-passing quarterbacks.

Newton came in and brought a new level of play to the quarterback position as he could throw and run to give problems to everyone trying to defend him.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the one team that was left out as they couldn’t seem to find their quarterback and as a result, they began to suffer sitting at the bottom of the division for years.

In 2015 that changed though as they drafted Jameis Winston to lead their team and it seems to be paying off for them.

He had his hiccups in his rookie year but it was clear that the Bucs had found their future quarterback and leader.

Last year a new battle between the QBs began as it was now the new faces of the league against the veterans of the league.

Brees and Ryan were the older players that were far more traditional than Winston or Newton and the battle was beginning to see who could come out on top.football-sidebar

Newton led the way for the young guys as he had the best season of his short career making it seem like he was unstoppable.

For the majority of the year, the Panthers were and it had everything to do with Newton playing loose and having fun.

Winston couldn’t follow suit entirely but there were flashes that the young QB could make an impact in Florida.

Meanwhile, the veterans took steps backwards rather than keeping up with the new type of player.

Brees struggled to repeat the formerly unstoppable offence that kept them at the top of the league and Ryan struggled with a new offence.

In the end, it was Newton and his Panthers who took the division title and ran all the way to the Super Bowl, where they dropped the game to the Broncos.

Now a new season is just about here and that battle between the old guard and the new stars begins again.

Ryan and Brees will look for recovery years as both have the talent to compete with anyone in the league.

Meanwhile, Newton hopes to build on an MVP year and Winston hopes that his second season leads to more development.

The champion of the division will come down to the quarterbacks as it has for years in the AFC South.

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The Atlanta Falcons were once one of the most potent offences in the league and a team that was very hard to beat. They constantly fought with the Saints for the division title but rarely found success in the playoffs. Then things began to fall apart in a big way as they went from a 14-win season in 2012 to only four wins in 2013. It was the start of a rebuild for this team and last year they took another step in the rebuild bringing in former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to lead the team. It seemed to have worked for the Falcons but a team that was so far down still couldn’t make the playoffs. They will look to change that this year as they go into another season in their second season with a new coaching staff. That should help Matt Ryan who looked like he didn’t fully grasp the new concepts that were being brought in for the Falcons. He gets another year with it and hopefully that will mean some great results with the Falcons hoping to return to the playoffs. They are moving on in the passing game as Roddy White was released in the off-season which left a hole in the passing game. They are luck yin that they already have a replacement for him in Julio Jones and the signing of Mohamed Sanu provides an important second threat out wide. On the ground, Devonta Freeman was the lone bright spot in 2015 as he broke 1,000 yards for the first time although he seems like he will split carries with Tevin Coleman. If the only issue was the adjustment to a new system the Falcons will be back on offence but if 2015 was a sign of Ryan’s decline this offence will struggle. The defence was never a strength of the Falcons as often it was the reason many gave for them not being successful in the playoffs. With Dan Quinn in place, the Falcons improved last year but there is a lot of work to be done. A lot of the issues have been a bad pass rush that has not been able to get to the quarterback to challenge teams. Adrian Clayborn returns and won’t get as much attention with the signing of Derrick Shelby on the line. Vic Beasley will rush from the second level while Sean Weatherspoon can provide a stable presence on the other side. In the secondary, the Falcons will depend on a young group where no player has more than four years of NFL experience. That includes rookie Keanu Neal and sophomore Ricardo Allen at safety. That could be trouble as the young group is unproven but Quinn has a way with the secondary. The Falcons are a team still in transition with their new coach and the entire season will depend on whether or not they can make that adjustment.

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The Panthers started out their 2015 season in a bad way as the pre-season saw their top receiver end his season. Kelvin Benjamin had blown out his knee in training camp and the hopes of the Panthers seemed to be over immediately. Without their top receiver, how could they do anything? They proved everyone wrong in a massive way as Cam Newton stepped up and became the best quarterback in the league leading the best team in the league. The Panthers wouldn’t lose a game until the end of the season as they didn’t need Benjamin to have the best season in franchise history. They came up just short in the Super Bowl with a disappointing end to a great season. Now they enter a new year hoping to take that final step and this time with their star receiver in the lineup. Cam Newton played the best football of his life last year as he was a menace on the ground and through the air making it impossible for teams to defend him. He will enjoy having his best target back as well with Benjamin returning from injury to lead the receiving corps. Jonathan Stewart also returns this year to lead the running game that allowed the Panthers to be more than just the Cam Newton show. Newton was a big reason for the success of the Panthers last year but there were games where he was shut down. That is where the defence came in as they were another big reason for the great season in Carolina. The heart of the defence is in the linebacking corps where Luke Kuechly continues to be one of the best linebackers in the league. The development of Shaq Thompson could make this group even better with Veteran Thomas Davis solidifying the weak side. In front of the linebackers is a group that hasn’t been the greatest but is not terrible either. They lack the true rusher that can challenge the QB and there wasn’t much change to that group. Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy will have to step up if the pass rush wants to be top of the league. In the secondary, the Panthers will miss the leadership of Josh Norman who had a great year in 2015. In his place, the Panthers go with a rookie which is a theme for the defensive backfield. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley will both be looking to prove that they belong but could be the weakness of the team if they can’t adjust fast enough. The Panthers are a balanced team which is what brought them to the Super Bowl last year and will likely bring them to the playoffs this year. After getting the division and a playoff spot the challenge is to repeat which is going to be a tough task this year.

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The New Orleans Saints are another team in this division that has become used to winning games and being one of the best teams in the league. They are not used to finishing with losing records but that is what has happened for the last two seasons. In both of those years they have finished 7-9 and in both of those years, they were far from the playoffs. It is not a position that Sean Payton or Drew Brees are used to with both leading very successful campaigns for the team. They have no doubt as to the issues with the team as they have been the issues even when they were winning. Those issues are generally on the defensive side of the ball as they have never had a strong defensive team. More often than not it is the ability of Brees that takes them to the playoffs and even to the Super Bowl. Still, they need a better defence if they want to compete and they went to work this year trying to fix the holes they had. They drafted Sheldon Rankins to add to a young line that has plenty of potential. They also signed a new leader in the linebacking corps bringing in James Laurinaitis to lead a young group that includes promising sophomore Stephone Anthony. In the secondary, the Saints were struck with injuries last year hampering and already shaky group. The one positive was the discovery of Delvin Breaux who came from the CFL and was their most consistent defensive back. They hope that Kenny Vaccaro can continue to develop while a healthy season from Jairus Byrd should help the growth of this group. On offence, the Saints still depend highly on Brees who can still close in on 5,000 yards like he did last year although it doesn’t seem to translate into wins for the team. Brandin Cooks has turned out to be a great target for Brees while Willy Snead IV was a bit of a surprise in the passing game. Coby Fleener will need to replace a favourite target of Brees to provide the yardage in the middle. The running game is in good hands with Mark Ingram although he doesn’t have the break-out ability that many other backs have. The Saints are a team that has been used to winning and their last two seasons have not been what they were hoping for. It could be a sign of decline until they begin a rebuild or just some off years as they seem to clearly have the talent. Their young talent needs to continue to develop though because without that development they will be sunk. The Saints are still a dangerous team but they haven’t been able to challenge in the last two years which may continue as their young players may prevent them from putting it all together again.

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The Buccaneers are looking into the future right now and they are seeing a return to greatness. That has everything to do with their 2015 first round draft pick, Jameis Winston who has proven to be everything that was promised. As controversial as he remains for his off-field issues in college on the field and in the locker room he has won over fans. He has turned out to be a great leader from the start of his career while on the field he has made things happen. In only his first year he threw for more than 4,000 yards and helped the Bucs improve. This year he looks to take the next step and bring the Bucs into the playoff hunt but he will need to avoid a sophomore slump to do that. He has the talent on the offence to do it as Mike Evans was his favourite target a year ago while he also enjoyed having another big target in Vincent Jackson. Both will return giving Winston two top-tier talents in the passing game. The running game is just as good with Doug Martin breaking 1,000 yards last year and giving the Bucs two dimensions to their offence. The offence looks good as they now have a quarterback to lead them and it is paying off but that isn’t what hurt them a year ago. That would be the defence that still needs a lot of work for them to be a contender. Bringing in Mike Smith is supposed to help that as he has always been a great defensive coach and should help bring out the potential in a player. At the line Gerald McCoy has been great but there has been little pressure from the outside of the line. They hope that changes with the signing of Robert Ayers who struggled with Denver but closed in on 10 sacks with the Giants. At the second level, the Bucs will enjoy the new freedom they have as Lavonte David has never really been used properly but might be under Smith. The development of Kwon Alexander is essential here as he returns from suspension and needs to step up in his second year for this group to be successful. The biggest hole for the team was in the secondary and they looked to try to figure it out in the off-season. The addition of Brent Grimes should provide a much-needed veteran presence while Chris Conte, Alterraun Verner, and Bradley McDougald all hope to figure things out after bad seasons last year. The Bucs are a young and talented team but they may be far away from competing at the top of the league and the division. They still have growing pains to go through and because of that, they won’t be fighting for the division this year.

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Prediction:
The NFC North is in a weird space right now as there are less dominant teams making it much tougher to figure out. There are teams that could have a great season or continue to struggle depending on how their players come out for the new season. In Tampa it doesn’t matter as much as they are still a rebuilding team and despite great years from a number of players in 2015 they sat at the bottom. Not enough has changed to say that they get out of the bottom of the division but they will be tougher this year. The Saints and the Falcons may find themselves in another battle but this time for the second place spot and the potential of a wild card spot. The Saints have not improved their defence enough to win the battle and will sink to third. The Falcons are a better team this year and will improve with another year under their new coach but not enough to challenge for the top spot. The Panthers have that spot locked up as they are a complete team in the division and will take a division title. They will likely make a deep run as well but another Super Bowl appearance might not be in the cards.

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