The NFC South was a laughing stock in 2014; the Carolina Panthers won the division with a losing record (7-8-1). Carolina did its best to return the division to respectability in 2015, posting a 15-1 regular season record before getting upset by the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But the other trio of teams all finished at or below .500 once again.
Roster moves have shaken up all four squads this offseason. Are the Panthers still the cream of the southern crop? Are the young bucks (make that the young Bucs) ready to dethrone the champs? What about the aging Saints and inconsistent Falcons?
None of these revamped rosters have taken the field in their current form, but that won’t stop me from putting them in their rightful pecking order (as I’ve already done with the AFC East, NFC East, AFC West, NFC West, and AFC South).
Preseason NFC South Power Rankings
1. Carolina Panthers:
It will be hard for the 2015 NFC champions to repeat their 15-1 regular season of yesteryear, but they’re still the best team in this quartet by a longshot.
The Panthers offense will remain a pound-the-rock unit, relying heavily on the legs of RB Jonathan Stewart and dual-threat QB Cam Newton. The passing game, which was surprisingly good last year, should only get better with the return of WR Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the entire 2015 season due to injury. (Benjamin had 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season.)
The major concern for Carolina is the secondary. It already looked vulnerable (see the second half of their playoff game against the Seahawks) and now they lost top CB Josh Norman to free agency. Opponents will look to exploit the Panther pass defense on a weekly basis. Luckily, they have a pretty fearsome pass rush.
2. Atlanta Falcons:
The Falcons 2015 season was a disappointment, on the whole. They started 5-0 and looked like NFC contenders under first-year head coach Dan Quinn. But the team nose-dived after that, closing the year 3-8 as the offense, supposedly the strength of the team, sputtered on a weekly basis.
Atlanta added receiver help in the offseason to take some pressure off Julio Jones and I don’t expect QB Matt Ryan to struggle with turnovers like he did last year, but the Falcons still have too many issues on defense to be realistic Super Bowl challengers. Quinn is a defensive-minded coach who will turn the unit around in time; he simply doesn’t have the personnel at the moment, especially on the defensive line.
3. New Orleans Saints:
Not only does the New Orleans Saints defense need a complete overhaul, but QB Drew Brees is in a contract dispute. Brees doesn’t want to restructure his (massive) deal, but the front office is pushing for it, knowing they need to use the money elsewhere if the team is going to be competitive.
I won’t spill too many words on the porous defense in the Bayou. I’ll just note that they were historically bad last year and won’t be much better this year.
If this team is going to win, it will be thanks to Brees’ arm. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the weapons he once did. Tight end Jimmy Graham left for Seattle two years ago, and now his out-of-nowhere replacement Ben Watson (who, in his 13th season, put up career highs in basically every statistical category in 2015) is now in Baltimore.
Can ex-Colt Coby Fleener takeover where Watson left off? If not, then it’s all on Brees, his undersized receiving duo of Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, and rookie Michael Thomas. Uh oh. Another 7-9 season looms.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Jameis Winston showed promise in his rookie season. He kept the Bucs in the playoff hunt until late in the year, ultimately guiding the team to a 6-10 finish. I expect him to be even better in year two. However, after switching head coaches yet again, Tampa, as a team, may not make the same strides. Dirk Koetter’s resume doesn’t scream “here come improvements!”