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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.