2017 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

The last 2 MVP’s in one division. That’s competition

The Sideline Reports preview of 2017 NFL season continues today with a look ahead to the entertaining NFC South, a division which has represented the NFC in the last two Superbowls.

Atlanta

Key Additions 

DT Dontarie Poe, DE Jack Crawford, DE Takkarist McKinley

Key Losses

OC Kyle Shanahan, G Chris Chester

What does a successful season look like?

After a collapse for the ages in Superbowl 51 last season, the Falcons are looking to become the first team to return to the big game having been beaten in it the season before since the Buffalo Bills of the early nineties. History won’t be on their side, however this is arguably the most talented roster in the NFC, and only a wise man would bet against these young and hungry Falcons. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is now the main man in San Francisco, so reigning MVP Matt Ryan will be looking to prove his phenomenal 2016 campaign was not just a product of Shanahans scheme, returning with basically the entire offense from a season ago (bar right guard Chris Chester). If Ryan, RB Devonta Freeman and freak WR Julio Jones can make a smooth transition from scheme to scheme, there’s no reason to suggest this offense can’t lead the league in scoring for a second year running. With the Additions of Dontarie Poe and Jack Crawford along with he defensive line, and the added pass rush threat of rookie Tak McKinley, Atlanta now have a front 7 that is as rich in quality as it is quantity. If last seasons exciting rookie tandem of linebacker Deion Jones and Safety Keanu Neal can take things to a new level in 2017, and number one cornerback Desmond Trufant slots back into the lineup with aplomb, this could be an unstoppable group of dirty birds. There may be only 2 teams in the league that can realistically even contemplate a perfect regular season, and the Falcons are one of them.

What does a disastrous season look like?

There doesn’t look to be too much standing in the way of this Atlanta team this season. The NFC South is always a minefield for aspiring teams, and history says no team has ever won a Superbowl after losing in the game the season prior. Atlanta only has to look at their division rivals, Carolina, to see just how difficult it can be to get back to the big game the very next season. Their are many around the league who believe last seasons offensive success was due in large part to coordinater Kyle Shanahan. If this proves correct, and Ryan and co on offense struggle to put up points at will as they seemed to do in 2016, this could be a team that sinks quickly in a division with no shortage of offensive firepower. Atlanta finished with an 8-8 record one year before making it to Superbowl 51, and if they were to regress back to a similar record in 2017, it would be a woefully underachieving season.

Cold Hard Truth

This is an Atlanta team that has been built to win, both immediately and long term. The first season in the Mercedes Benz Superdome looks to be a memorable one. There will be challenges come from within the division and outside too, but conventional wisdom suggests this is the team to beat in the NFC. 11-5 again this season in what looks like a much tougher schedule should be enough to claim a second successive divisional title, and a top 2 seed.

Carolina

Key Additions 

OT Matt Kalil, CB Captain Munnerlyn, LB Julius Peppers, RB Christian McCaffrey

Key Losses

FB Mike Tolbert, OT Mike Remmers, DE Kony Ealy, OT Michael Oher

What does a successful season look like?

After falling flat in 2016, the Panthers will be out to prove last year was just a blip on the radar. And, frankly, this is a team far too talented to miss out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season. After QB Cam Newton was mauled by pass rushers at times last season, the Panthers have done what quite a few franchises have done this offseason, spend big money on average starters on the offensive line. Left tackle Matt Kalil comes across from Minnesota to join his brother Ryan on the line, while the team also drafted guard/tackle Taylor Moton to help upgrade the perimeter of a line that desperately needs it. There’s much hype surrounding two more rookies; RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Curtis Samuel. If the line can create seems for McCaffrey to run through and time for Newton to find him down field, the Panthers could have an offensive rookie of the year on their hands. If WR Kelvin Benjamin can finally have an unhindered season, the Panthers could soar to new heights. The defense really did struggle at times last season, but fans are hoping last years rookie cornerback combo of James Bradbury and Daryl Worley can continue their excellent late season form in 2017. The loss of defensive end Kony Ealy, but the Panthers will be hoping Julius Peppers’ can have a brilliant return to the team where he once made his name. If the backbone of this defense: linebacker Luke Keuchly, can avoid the chronic concussion issues that seemed to haunt him last season, this could be a seriously fun battle between the Panthers and Falcons for the Division. 10 wins or even more wouldn’t be a surprise for a team that is as honest as they come.

What does a disastrous season look like?

Anything similar to last season, where everything that could go wrong seemed to, would be bitterly disappointing. This is a much better team than last seasons record of 6-10 suggests. There is major concerns on the offensive line (like many teams), and if these problems can’t be cured, the young weapons Cam has at his disposal will be rendered useless, and the Panthers could finish with another top 10 draft pick that almost certainly be used on an offensive tackle. The defense is crying out for young players such as defensive tackle Vernon Butler, edge rusher Daeshon Hall, CB’s Bradberry and Worly and linebacker Shaq Thompson to emerge, as this is a defense that relied too heavily on too few last season. If the offensive line is a mess and a the defense stagnates again, this is a Panthers team that could be overtaken quickly by other emerging teams in the division and conference. Anything less than last years 6-10 would make the dream Superbowl run in 2015 look even more of an anomaly.

Cold Hard Truth

Getting  back to 15-1 seems unrealistic, and catching the Falcons seems unlikely also. The Panthers could be stuck in a 3 way battle for second spot in the division, and 10 wins should take them pretty close. However, a lot will depend on the impact of young RB Christian McCaffrey. If he can have a big impact this season, these Panthers could springboard back into the national spotlight. 10-6 seems par for a roster far better than last seasons debacle.

New Orleans

Key Additions 

RB Adrian Peterson, WR Ted Ginn, LB Manti Te’o, CB Marshon Lattimore

Key Losses 

WR Brandon Cooks, RB Tim Hightower, S Jairus Byrd, DE Paul Kruger, G Jahri Evans

What does a successful season look like?

For the Saints to rid themselves of the “7-9” jokes that have been thrown at them the last few seasons, it has to start with improvement from the defense. Whenever a team has Drew Brees at the helm they will always be competitive offensively. However the defense has been a real problem for Coach Sean Payton, and not enough of a problem for opposing offenses. There’s a good young secondary coming together in the ang Easy, with the Saints drafting highly touted Cornerback Marshon Lattimore to pair with Delvin Breaux. The Saints also liked what they saw from first year safety Vonn Bell in 2016, and if the 3 defensive backs can emerge together in the coming seasons, this is a defense that looks well equipped to handle the monster receivers in the division. Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins showed real promise on the line once back from a leg injury last year, and if the Saints can just find a pass rush threat opposite Cameron Jordan, this could be a defense ready to rock. On offense, pairing running back great Adrian Peterson with future hall of famer  Drew Brees could turn out to be a combination Saints fans reminisce about in 20 to 30 years time. This has the look of one of the most dynamic running back depth charts in the league, with rookie Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram ready to spell Peterson on passing plays and even in the return game. With receivers Michael Thomas and Willie Snead still in the mix as downfield playmakers, the Saints could go marching back into the playoffs this season. Tough division, but certainty capable of at least 9-7.

What does a disastrous season look like?

The past few seasons have been disastrous, but only in regards to the defense. The Saints have infused some young talent both up front and in the secondary, but this is still one of the most uninspireing linebacker groups in the league. This could cause enormous issues in a division that consists of running backs who excel in the passing game (Devonta Freeman, Christian McCaffrey and Doug Martin). On offense, QB Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger, and if Father Time unexpectedly catches up with Brees this season, things could unravel quickly for the Saints. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the onus is on the much maligned defense to improve, or it could make for an uneasy season in the big easy. If the Saints finish 7-9 again, championship winning coach Sean Peyton would surely be out the door.

Cold Hard Truth

Expect the Saints to be in a few shootouts once again this season. The offense is championship worthy, but this is a defense still a stud or two away from taking the Saints back to the top. A team that is more than capable of beating anybody in the division looks headed for an 8-8 record, which m, in quite a strong division, more than likely won’t be good enough to finish anywhere other than last.

Tampa Bay

Key Additions 

WR DeSean Jackson, DE Chris Baker, S JJ Wilcox, TE OJ Howard

Key Losses 

QB Mike Glennon, WR Vincent Jackson

What does a successful season look like?

There aren’t too many teams heading into the 2017 season with more hype than the Bucs. After just missing out on the playoffs in QB Jameis Winstons’ first two seasons, it seems like it might be Tampa Bay’s year. After adding speedster DeSean Jackson and star rookie tight end OJ Howard to an offense already blessed with Winstons magical connection with gun receiver Mike Evans, this Bucs offense looks like being one of the most exciting in the league in 2017. The Buc will have to overcome an early season suspension to RB Doug Martin and some slight offensive line queries, though this looks to be a fine young offense overall. Tampa have a really interesting mix of veterans and rookies on defense, starting with free agent pickups Chris Baker and JJ Wilcox, and two young front 7 players who look destined for big things this year in linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive end Noah Spence. Spence is the key, looking every bit the next great Buccaneer pass rusher. If second year CB Vernon Hargreaves and rookie safety Justin Evans can add some juice to a secondary that has lacked it for most of the decade, it could be a 3 way tussle in the Sourh. Divisional games will be huge for the Bucs, and if they can at least square the ledger, it could be these young Bucs who are 12-4 and top of the division come January.

What does a disastrous season look like?

Despite the buzz, these Bucs have a few issues they’ll need to overcome to get over that playoff hump. The loss of RB Doug Martin for the first quarter of the season could prove challenging, as the Bucs may have to rely on rookie Jeremy McNichols or undrafted second year back Peyton Barber to take some pressure off the passing game. If the offensive line struggles like it did at times in 2016 (most notably left tackle Donovan Smith), Winston could be forced to weave his magic where the head office doesn’t want him to; outside the pocket. The defense struggled early on but really gained momentum as the season wore on, and fans will be hoping it’s the improved defense they see in the new season. The kicking game is also something to keep an eye on, after Roberto Aguayo’s up and down rookie season. Carrying a hot and cold kicker into the postseason can often cause fatal, just ask Minnesota fans. There’s no excuse for the Bucs not to make the leap in 2017, but if this defense can’t keep up with an emerging offense, it could be another mediocre season in Tampa Bay, as mediocre as 8-8 suggests.

Cold Hard Truth

If people want a dark horse in the NFC, they need look no further than these Bucs. If QB Jameis Winston can make the leap in year 3 that many around the league believe he can, the NFC South could have a team come from nowhere to make the Superbowl for a third year running. This is a team that has some exciting playmakers on both sides of the ball, and it will be up to this group to get the Bucs back to the promised land. The Bucs-Falcons matchups will be fun this season, and this young Tampa team will be desperate to wrestle the division title back from the Birds. 10-6 is a conservative prediction, for this is a team that could trump that respectable win-loss ratio by 3 or 4 wins.

2017 NFL Preview: AFC North

The AFC North boasts both veterans and rookies

The Sideline Report’s preview of the 2017 NFL Season continues today with ever ultra-competitive AFC North

Baltimore 

Key Additions 

S Tony Jefferson, CB Brandon Carr, RB Danny Woodhead, WR Jeremy Maclin

Key Losses 

OT Ricky Wagner, LB Elvis Dumervil, WR Steve Smith, LB Zach Orr, DT Timmy Jernigan, C Jeremy Zuttah

What does a successful season look like? 

This is a Ravens team that will need to get good contributions out of their rookie class immediately, due to the amount of talent lost this past off-season. If Joe Flacco and Jeremy Maclin can hit it off from week 1, this all of a sudden becomes a different Baltimore offense. Former first round pick Breshad Perriman’s break out year could finally be on the cards, which would be a welcome sight for Ravens fans. RB Kenneth Dixon’s season ending injury is a blow, so finding somebody, anybody, to carry the load on the ground behind an offensive line missing two starters from last season (centre Jeremy Zuttah and Guard/tackle Ricky Wagner) will be critical. On defense, the Ravens may need to ask a bit of rookies Chris Wormley and Tim Williams, while they will be hoping safety Tony Jefferson brings his career best form from Arizona across to Baltimore to match with last year’s gun recruit Eric Weddle. All going well, this has the look of a sneaky play-off team. Injuries could wreak havoc due to lack of depth, but remember, this is a Ravens team that led the AFC North most of last season until that famous Antonio Brown touchdown.

What does a disastrous season look like?

This doesn’t look like a team that will implode, despite the question marks. That’s just not what John Harbaugh coached teams do. However, this is a team that has lost plenty of talent over the off-season. If they can’t replace Wagner on the line or Smith on the perimeter on offense, Flacco may have a long season under centre. The Ravens return a top 10 defense last year in both yards and points allowed. After losing Orr, Jernigan and Dumervil from the front 7, there may be too much asked of the Raven rookies. If the offense falters again and the defense can’t match the output from a year ago, it could be just another average season in Baltimore.

Cold Hard Truth 

There’s just too many questions on this team, particularly the defense. Despite the ifs and buts, this is a group that always seems to benefit from great coaching. Playoffs look beyond them, but 8-8 or possibly 9-7 could be a good result for a team with more questions than answers.

Cincinnati 

Key Additions 

LB Kevin Minter, RB Joe Mixon, WR John Ross,  OT Andre Smith

Key Losses 

G Kevin Zeitler, OT Andrew Whitworth, LB Rey Maualuga

What does a successful season look like? 

2015 draft picks Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbeuhi finally fulfil their potential as quality bookends on an offensive line that could be make-or-break this season. Joe Mixon stars in his rookie season after being a controversial selection in last Aprils draft, rushing for well over 1,000 yards and is at the top of the offensive rookie of the year lists all season. John Ross stays healthy and proves a demon, not just opposite gun wideout AJ green, but also as the Bengals designated return specialist. Rookie DE Jordan Willis proves to be a steal out of the third round, pushing double digit sacks in a standout first campaign, while second year CB William Jackson proves why he was a first rounder 2 seasons ago, helping an otherwise mundane secondary that dearly needs an influx of youth and talent. There’s a lot resting on the shoulders of the first and second-year players, but all going well, the Bengals have the makings of a team ready to go toe to toe with the Steelers in the division.

What does a disastrous season look like? 

Similar to last year. The offensive line is in disarray, unable to recover from the key losses in Free Agency, meaning whenever QB Andy Dalton’s playmakers AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Boyd get open down the field, Dalton is on his back six yards behind the line of scrimmage. If the defense doesn’t get any impact from its exciting rookie class, coach Marvin Lewis may be on his last legs. Last year was poor at 6-9-1, anything less than that would be a disaster.

Cold Hard Truth 

The offensive line looks like it may hold an otherwise decent football team hostage. Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are keen to prove last season an aberration, but if the defense struggles again with no difference makers and the offensive line makes it impossible to move the chains, the playoffs look a stretch. More than capable of 10-6.

Cleveland 

Key Additions 

C JC Tretter, G Kevin Zeitler, CB Jason McCourty, DE Myles Garrett, S Jabrill Peppers, TE David N’Jokou, QB Brock Osweiler

Key Losses

TE Gary Barnidge, WR Terrell Pryor, QB Robert Griffin

What does a successful season look like?

With just one win in 2016, it wouldn’t take much to improve on a terrible 2016 campaign for the Browns. The Browns would love for one of their young signal callers to step up and show they have what it takes, be it second-year pleasant surprise Cody Kessler or rookie Deshone Kizer. Kessler will be given the starting job after showing promise last season, while Kizer will almost certainly get his chance at some point. If one of the two flourishes throwing to two exciting pass catchers in Corey Coleman and TE David N’Jokue behind a quickly pieced together solid offensive line, it could be an exciting season on offense. On defense, fairly or unfairly, rookie pass-rusher Myles Garrett and defensive back Jabrill Peppers must make immediate impacts for this not to be another lost season in the brutal AFC North. If everything falls into place, the Browns may be able to head into the offseason with enormous draft capital off the back of a promising 5-11 campaign.

What does a disastrous season look like?

If this rookie class struggles in the big time in their first season, questions will be asked of Sashi Brown and the new regime. Myles Garrett must come as advertised, and if the young stud looks out of his depth in season 1, the Browns will be accused of whiffing on a number 1 pick once again. If no true running back emerges on offense, there may be simply too much put on the young QB’s shoulders, regardless of the name. One thing is for sure: this Browns team has more young talent than last years, so wins should be more common, though still rare. Another 1 win season would be soul destroying.

Cold Hard Truth

If the Browns are to get back to the playoffs within the next 3 to 4 years, it has to begin with the most recent draft class. Garrett doesn’t have to be the reincarnation of Bruce Smith, but he does have to be the once in a generation type prospect scouts unfairly labelled him this preseason. If Garrett gets to double digit sacks and wins defensive rookie of the year honours, it could mark the turning point of a hopeless franchise. 4-12 and another top 5 draft pick sounds like progress.

Pittsburgh

Key Additions

WR Martavis Bryant, RB Knile Davis, DE Tyson Alualu, LB TJ Watt

Key Losses

LB Lawrence Timmons, WR Markus Wheaton, TE Ladarius Green

What does a successful season look like?

A successful season in Pittsburgh usually end with black and gold confetti falling on the QB, coach and owner. Every season is deemed a failure in Pittsburgh if the Steelers don’t return home with the Lombardi. The last 2 years, the only things that have stopped the Steelers are injuries, and Tom Brady. On paper, this might be the most talented roster in the AFC, and with touchdown gluten Martavis Bryant back in the fold, this is an offense that looks unstoppable when fully healthy. Le’Veon Bell will look to break all sorts of records playing healthy for 16 weeks for the first time, while the defense will be hoping to take the next step after the pass-rush improved mightily down the stretch last season. If rookie TJ Watt can have an immediate impact on the edge, coupled with a young, emerging secondary led by second year players Artie Burns and Sean Davis taking the next step against the best QB’s in the conference (you know who), this Steelers team looks destined for another Championship game appearance,

What does a disastrous season look like?

Missing the play-offs would be a disaster, and is surely impossible unless the Steelers get an injury run of Charger-like proportion. If the secondary regresses, and rookies such as TJ Watt and CB Cam Sutton don’t have an impact, it could put too much of a load on an offense that, in all honesty, can carry much of the load. Ben, Bell and Browns health are paramount, and if any of the 3 miss a significant amount of time, it could bring Cincinnati and/or Baltamore back into the divisional race. Hard to see any less than 8 or 9 wins.

Cold Hard Truth

This is a championship calibre team all round that is certainly a contender to go all the way with a little injury luck. The Steelers have had an ordinary record against the Patriots with Brady at the helm (as have most teams), but rivalries and fortunes in the NFL can change quickly and off the back of just 1 game or even play. This is a Steelers team to watch.