Last season, the NFC South put three out of its four teams into the playoffs (Saints, Falcons, and Panthers). With strong seasons by each of those three teams, the Buccaneers did not fare well in 2017, finishing 5-11. With this division providing 50% of the NFC’s playoff teams just a year ago, what should we expect out of this group in 2018?
New Orleans Saints
Possibly the most exciting team in the division, the Saints had perhaps the best running back duo we have seen in quite some time with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara, being a rookie, started the first few weeks slow with little action. By midway through the season he was playing like a veteran and absolutely torching defenses.
New Orleans has plenty to be excited about in the upcoming season partly due to how young of a team they are. Improving on the defensive side of the ball as of late, second year standout CB Marshon Lattimore is set to take on any opposing receiver as he’s let his play do the talking. Their secondary should only get better as players like Ken Crawley, Vonn Bell, and Marcus Williams will show improved tendencies as they add a year of experience. They also added former Panthers S Kurt Coleman to provide a veteran presence in their secondary. The one drawback for this team is their LB core as their run defense was exploited more often than not last season.
On the other side of the ball, the offense of New Orleans is elite. Along with their RB tandem, WR Michael Thomas is proving why he’s on of the best in the league. With the addition of former Bears WR Cameron Meredith, the receiving core for the Saints should be lethal barring any injuries with Thomas, Meredith, Ginn Jr., and Brandon Coleman. Expectations will be even higher for New Orleans in the upcoming season, and they have the talent to meet or potentially exceed them.
Losing Kelvin Benjamin midway through the season provided no roadblock to the Panthers road to the playoffs a year ago. They did however come up short in the playoffs thanks in part to their rivals discussed above. They were a strong, well-rounded group last year and finished the regular season on a high note. Stout on defense along with the versatility on offense, Carolina should enter 2018 with playoff expectations.
The Panthers own one of the league’s’ best all around defenses. Big up front on the defensive line, a mix of strength and speed in the middle with their LBs, and sound coverage in the secondary, Carolina arguably has no major hole on the defensive side of the ball. The cornerstone of their defense is their linebackers with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson. When healthy, those three can command much of the field whether it be stopping the run or dropping back into coverage, they can do it all. A possible weakness that may have to be addressed is their secondary. Cornerbacks James Bradberry and Captain Munnerlyn will have to shoulder the load against opposing receivers as they don’t really have much else. Their safeties are manageable with Mike Adams, Da’Norris Searcy, and Colin Jones.
The diversity of the Panthers offense is what makes them who they are. Cam Newton running the offense at any point can tuck and run or sling a 60 yard pass downfield. It’s what makes Carolina so unique and keeps opposing defenses always guessing. Throw in second year elusive RB Christian McCaffrey and this offense is fun to watch. Although losing RB Jonathan Stewart, they gained a replacement being former Broncos RB, CJ Anderson. The receiving core is respectable for the Panthers as Funchess will have to handle most of the work alongside former Eagles WR Torrey Smith. Second year receiver Curtis Samuel should show strides from last season as he looks to fill the slot receiver position. Not to mention, sure-handed TE Greg Olsen provides a big body target in the middle of the field and redzone. In 2018, it will be another year of Carolina being a contender, yet their season’s success is in the hands of Cam Newton and what kind of play we will see from him.
Coming off what some saw as a disappointing season, Atlanta saw their playoff hopes vanish with a loss to the Eagles. Something seemed off with the Falcons last season and it seemed like they had a case of the Super Bowl hangover (the loss to the Patriots in SBLI).
Retaining most of the defense from last season, this grouped underperformed a year ago and should look to get back on track because the talent is there. Their strength on the defensive side comes from their secondary with Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Justin Bethel, and Brian Poole manning the cornerback positions. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal provide strength at safety to round out the defensive backs. The two most talented players for the Falcons defense are LB Deion Jones and DE Vic Beasley. Both players gives opposing offense nightmare matchups and have shown consistency being at the top of their respective positions. Expect a much better defensive showing from this group in 2018 compared to a year ago.
This offense is best described as electric, however it all hinges on Matt Ryan’s production. Another great tandem at running back is Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who provide a lethal combination of power and speed, forcing defenses to gameplan both inside the tackles and outside on the edge. Of course Julio Jones can’t go unmentioned as he looks to have another elite-caliber season. Although losing Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu is still their #2 receiver. A new face to this receiving core is Alabama first round pick Calvin Ridley. One of the nation’s best receivers a year ago is ready to take on the big stage as he has big play ability written all over him.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs had a tough season a year ago with their defense basically getting embarrassed. Quarterback Jameis Winston struggled at times as well which certainly didn’t help them. With recent news of Winston being suspended for the first three game of 2018, the Bucs can’t say they’re off to a good start.
A big weakness for this team last season was the defense. The secondary in particular struggled as offenses seemingly aired it out with ease from start to finish. Going into the season, it’s hard to say they improved much at all. CB Brent Grimes is the only player who can be trusted in that secondary. Yet Auburn second round pick CB Carlton Davis looks to step in and immediately take over the #2 role alongside Grimes. Besides their secondary, the front seven for the Bucs looks to certainly give offenses something to think about. New additions include former Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, Washington first round pick DT Vita Vea, and former Eagles DE Vinny Curry. Alongside Tampa’s veterans DT Gerald McCoy, LB Kwon Alexander, and LB Lavonte David, there is hype surrounding this front seven for the Buccaneers.
On the offensive side, they need to provide more consistency. Jameis Winston went through some growing pains a year ago and hopes to use those to make improvements but not until week 4 after he serves his suspension. With the loss of Doug Martin, Tampa Bay drafted USC second round pick RB Ronald Jones to hopefully fill the void and compete for the starting job. WR Mike Evans has shown why he belongs at the top of WR lists by performing at a level higher than most receivers in the league. Alongside Evans, DeSean Jackson always provides that deep threat for defenses but young WR Chris Godwin can use 2018 to serve as his “coming out party” as he hopes to make a name for himself in that #3 WR spot. With the offense remaining mostly the same, the defense for Tampa must play to their ability as expectations will be elevated for the Bucs, but it’s just a matter of how well they will perform on the field in 2018.