2017 NFL Preview: NFC South

nfc-southThe division of quarterbacks is just beginning to get more interesting as all four teams now have Pro Bowl calibre quarterbacks.

The quarterback position has only become more important as the seasons move on in a new era of the league where the passing game is the most important part of every offence.

Without a quarterback, it is extremely tough to compete with the best teams in the league.

Finding that quarterback can be tough though as teams in the NFC South know as any number of players can try to make the transition from college to the NFL but few do it successfully.

The game is so much faster with more moving parts and as important as the physical gifts are for QBs the mental game is just as important.

A quarterback needs to know how to think as much as they need to know how to throw the ball.

Reading a defence and making the right decision can make the difference between scoring a touchdown or throwing a pick-six.

It can be a tough transition for a lot of quarterbacks and many have failed to really make that transition leaving teams without a true starter.

The South was a division of the haves and the have-nots as the Falcons and Saints both found their quarterbacks years ago.

That led to years of both teams fighting for the title while Carolina and Tampa Bay struggled to keep up without stars under centre.

Matt Ryan and Drew Brees defined this division as one where great offences are held and it created real contenders in the playoffs.

Brees got his ring while the Falcons still await their first championship but both teams set the tone for the division and the development of the other teams.

The Buccaneers and the Panthers needed to build offences that could compete with two of the best and the key was to find a quarterback that could change their teams.

The Panthers were the first to find theirs as they drafted Cam Newton out of Auburn to help lead them in the quarterback fight.

It turned out to be a good decision as Newton has been one of the best young QBs in the game helping to redefine how the game is to be played.

He, of course, has his issues as many see him as a bit of a cry baby, especially when he loses and he hasn’t put together a lot of consecutively great years.

He still has all of the talent and for the Panthers, he has been a big difference in their team becoming a contender.football-sidebar

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a little longer to find their guy but in 2015 they finally seemed to figure it out.

That was when they drafted Jameis Winston from Florida State who turned in a Rookie of the Year performance in 2015.

He continued to develop last year and has some trouble with his decision-making but is still a bright young QB.

Both Newton and Winston have been added to a stable of quarterbacks that is unmatched by any other division in the league.

Although Newton and Winston do not have the same pedigree of Brees or Ryan they are still the future of this division and have proven to be NFL-calibre quarterbacks.

The question now becomes when they will finally take over the division and push past the old-guard.

Brees is nearing the end of his career while Ryan is right in the middle of his and has been leading the Falcons for a number of years.

Both have had their time in the spotlight and although neither will give up that time easily there will come a time where the young guys take over.

That is the most entertaining and intriguing thing about the South as two young guns are hoping to drive past the dominant teams and begin their own battle.

After years of seeing Brees-Ryan and comparing the two similar QBs the tide is beginning to turn and focus is shifting to two young quarterbacks.

Both are similar in the way they play as they are both part of the new breed that can run as well as they can throw.

That is the future but whether or not the future arrives this year will be up to the teams around these quarterbacks as another year means another chance to take the division for themselves.

atlanta_falcons

The biggest question for the Falcons is simply, What Now? They did everything right in 2016 as they finally made good on the promise that had followed them for years. With one of the league’s best offences they headed into the Super Bowl looking like a real challenge for the New England Patriots. They proved to be exactly that at the start of the game running out to a 28-3 lead in the first half and seemingly burying the Patriots. Then atl-statscame the greatest comeback in the history of the Super Bowl as the Patriots came back to shut out the offence in the second half and took their fifth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era. The collapse is now the legacy of this Falcons team unless they can change the narrative and be the team that blew the biggest lead but then came back to win the Super Bowl. Last year they were led by the offence and they will look to Matt Ryan to lead the team again. The biggest change for the offence was the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who has been replaced by former USC coach Steve Sarkisian. He takes over an offence that is as complete as any offensive coordinator can hope for. Ryan took the MVP last year thanks in large part to his connection with the best receiver in the game, Julio Jones. Mohammed Sanu turned out to be a great compliment to Jones and both are back to help Ryan put up the same numbers while Austin Hooper hopes to provide another target with more responsibility. Devonta Freeman continues to be the reliable back that the Falcons need and gives them that balance that helps the passing game in the long run. Where the issues have always lied have been the defence which was good last year but not good enough. The line will be full of new, and most importantly young faces as the veteran focus is gone for the Falcons. They signed Dontari Poe who provides a big body in the centre while rookie Takkarist McKinley hopes to play a factor at end and Grady Jarrett hopes to continue his development in his second year. Vic Beasley was the star last year leading the league in sacks and hopes to do a lot of the same this year alongside a young group that includes second-year backers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. In the backfield, the Falcons are already in trouble as Desmond Trufant will miss the season due to injury while Jalen Collins is suspended for the first ten games of the season. It leaves them with some serious gaps that Keanu Neal and Brian Poole will need to fill if they want to get back. The offensive talent on this team makes them scary again but some gaps and some young faces on defence make things a little more unknown as they will compete but another Super Bowl run is going to be tough.

carolina_panthers

Things seemed to finally click for the Panthers in 2015 when their young quarterback took over the league in his 5th season under centre and the defence counted amongst one of the best. The Panthers had a great situation but like many teams that get to the Super Bowl for the first time, they fell short against a more experienced team. There was no need for panic though as the Panthers still had a number of players coming back and car-statsready to take on another year. That wasn’t the case in 2016 as their amazing NFC Championship year gave way to a serious Super Bowl hangover. Cam Newton collapsed failing to come close to his numbers from the year before and injuries to other members of his offence didn’t help things. The Panthers are hoping that 2016 was simply a speed bump on their way to the top and they certainly still have the talent to get there. Newton is the straw that stirs the drink for the entire team as he is a great motivator and leader, at least he is when things are going well. The team tends to take on his attitude and when the team is losing that attitude can seemingly be pretty toxic. Newton needs to shake off that immaturity to lead this team when things don’t go so well but beyond that, he has all of the ability to take over a game. He will be missing a few weapons but he still has a lot of talent in the passing game. If Kelvin Benjamin and Ron Funchess can step up and win those key receiver-corner battles they are an unstoppable one-two punch. Meanwhile, in the backfield, Jonathan Stewart returns as a steady veteran while top draft pick Christian McCaffrey has every team worried with the amount of ways he can be used on the field. On defence, things aren’t very different despite their performance a year ago as they are still going to rely on the middle for their leadership. It is a good middle as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are among the best linebackers in the game. Up front, Kawann Smith will need to justify his big contract extension while the Panthers hope Julius Peppers still has some gas left in the tank as he takes his victory lap with the team that drafted him. The departure of Josh Norman left the Panthers with a big hole to fill in 2016 and it took some time for them to adjust. Rookie Daryl Worley will look to continue the momentum from the end of the year while Captain Munnerlyn returns to stabilize the defensive backfield. The Panthers have the talent but everything went so wrong in 2016 that it is tough to think that they will get back to their 2015 season, although a return to being competitive isn’t out of the question.

new_orleans_saints

The Saints have enjoyed a great era under Sean Payton and with Drew Brees under centre but things have not been as great as in the past over the last few years. The Saints are still a dangerous team every time they step onto the field but that magic that made them Super Bowl champions seems to have disappeared over the last few years. 2016 was just another lacklustre season where they couldn’t really do anything close to what no-statspeople have become used to in New Orleans. They will enter another year with a sense that this could be a year that Payton needs to prove that he can still make this team special. If he can’t get them back to the playoffs and to being competitive the Payton-era might come to an end in New Orleans. As usual, they head into a new season with one player that will make all of the difference as to whether or not they can make a run at the playoffs or not. Drew Brees is the key to this team as they can only win when he is playing at his best. He can’t carry the entire team though which was proven in 2016 when he threw for over 5,000 yards but still saw the team end the season with a losing record. He hopes to keep his passing ways up and will hope for some help from everyone else or the coach he has found the most success with might be without a job. Brees has some new faces to work with has Ted Ginn will join Michael Thomas as the main receiving duo, although he will still miss the ability of Brandin Cooks. Behind him, the Saints added a second back that will be able to spell Mark Ingram as both the team and Adrian Peterson believe that the former Viking still has what it takes to be a top back. The Saints have always had a good offence with Brees but their issues have usually come on the defensive side of the ball. This season they will try to get a better pass rush from the line as Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins need to start getting to the backfield more often. They will hope that the improvement they saw last season continues with a healthy Dannell Ellerbe and new addition Manti Te’o hoping to make his presence known. The secondary features a number of young players that have made the group into a good one as Kenny Vaccaro has proven to be worthy of a top pick while Vonn Bell hopes to improve in his second year. The Saints are a group that has always been a bit of a mystery as there is talent on the team but it never seems to be enough and for that, they will likely miss the playoffs and see a new era begin.

tampa_bay_buccaneers

Tampa Bay is now officially a part of the NFC South arms race as they took a chance to draft Jameis Winston in 2015 and that chance paid off. There were a lot of questions when it came to Winston as he constantly got into trouble as a member of the Florida State Seminoles and some questioned whether or not he had the maturity to be an NFL quarterback. The Bucs did their homework and determined that Winston was going to be tb-statstheir guy as they took a risk and drafted Winston to be their next quarterback. It was the move they needed as the rest of the division had great quarterbacks and they couldn’t seem to find theirs until Winston. His Rookie of the Year performance in 2015 gave the Bucs some hope going forward and 2016 was going to be a big test as the sophomore needed to show that he could lead the team. Although the Bucs couldn’t find their way to the playoffs in 2016 they did improve and Winston stepped up to be the leader that Tampa Bay needed. They enter a new season with a clear goal as they hope to continue their development and head to the playoffs as one of the rising teams in the league. That rise has everything to do with Winston and their success this year will depend on how good he can be in his third season. He has all of the ability and the skill but he needs to make better decisions as he has built a reputation for being a gunslinger and that has got him into trouble more than a few times. He has plenty of options to help him out as Mike Evans is among the best receivers in the game and the addition of DeSean Jackson provides a second option and veteran presence that can take this passing game to another level. In the backfield, Jacquizz Rodgers will take over for the start of the season as Doug Martin serves his suspension leaving a bit of a question to start the season. Gerald McCoy leads the defence from the front alongside new addition Chris Baker as both will look to get after the slew of great quarterbacks they have on their schedule this year. In the secondary, the Bucs will look to Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves although both are ageing and nobody really knows how much longer they can be effective. At linebacker Kwon Alexander leads the way but there are really not much else to be excited about on the second level. The Bucs are looking to their offence to lead the way in a division full of great offences and that will put a lot of the success on the shoulders of Winston. If he continues his development he can make the difference and bring this team to the playoffs for the first time in a long time.

Prediction:
The AFC South will be a battle of quarterbacks again and how each quarterback plays will determine where they will be when the season ends. The Falcons are still the most talented team in the division and although they won’t make the Super Bowl this year they will take the division again. Meanwhile, the Bucs will make the leap as they take a playoff spot although Winston won’t be able to take a division title. Newton will have a bit of a bounce back but it won’t be good enough to take a playoff spot this year. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints will get a great year from Brees but like last year it won’t be enough and changes will be on their way.

nfcs-prediction

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