With the reigning Super Bowl Champions returning completely intact, is there any other choice than the Buccaneers to sit atop the NFC South, or will the Saints continue to dominate within the division despite long-awaited change at Quarterback???
For the first time since in over a decade the NFC South will be ushering in a new season with one of their residents wearing the distinction of Super Bowl Champions, and for the first time in four years someone other than the New Orleans Saints enters the campaign as the undisputed favorite. That’s because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers return all twenty-two starters from last year’s Lombardi winners, none more noteworthy than (seven-time champion) Tom Brady, who in his first year with the franchise piloted them to the team’s second Super Bowl Title. Even at the age of forty-four, Brady appears more than capable of making the necessary plays to keep the Bucs among the league’s elite, with a supporting cast that is littered with talent and experience on both sides of the football. As for the rest of the division, the Saints have won each of the previous four NFC South Titles, but enter 2021 without (future Hall of Fame Quarterback) Drew Brees for the first time since 2005, with a Quarterback Competition between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston likely to decide just how far this group can advance in the aftermath of their talisman’s retirement. And then there are the Panthers and Falcons, with the former looking to make a leap after the bold acquisition of (former highly-touted Quarterback) Sam Darnold, while the latter usher in a new era under the leadership of (new Head Coach) Arthur Smith, though he’ll have to do so without (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones. So with that said, let’s take a run down the NFC South and if the Bucs will be met with any obstacles during their victory tour…
The Favorite: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For the first time since 2003, the Buccaneers enter a new campaign as Super Bowl Champions, and all it took to do it was signing the greatest Quarterback in the history of the National Football League. While it was far from the smoothest of seasons for either Tom Brady (65.7%, 4,633 YDS, 40 TD, 12 INT, 72.5 QBR) or Tampa Bay, the marriage between them ultimately proved to be nothing short of immensely successful as the ageless Quarterback led the franchise to an improbable Lombardi Trophy, dethroning the Kansas City Chiefs in a dominant performance. While the celebration continued well into the Spring, many expected the Bucs to fall the way of many previous champions only to see the franchise do something that has become totally unprecedented, particularly in the Free Agency era: they retained the services of all of their starters on both sides of the football, effectively returning the same team that was so successful in 2020, albeit possessing the value of championship experience as an added bonus. Even at 44-years of age, Brady continues to prove that he can get the job done provided he’s surrounded with the requisite talent to do so, and that certainly the case on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The likes of Leonard Fournette (367 YDS, 3 TD), Rob Gronkowski (623 YDS, 7 TD), Antonio Brown (483 YDS, 4 TD), Chris Godwin (840 YDS, 7 TD), and Shaq Barrett (8.0 Sacks, 16 QB Hits) all signed new deals to remain in Tampa Bay in Free Agency, while (Head Coach) Bruce Arians will be happy to know that his longtime collaborator, (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Bowles, is staying put as well. So with that said, after a last year’s campaign ended in triumph, what will a proper, stable offseason full of familiar faces bring the Buccaneers? At this point, so long as Brady remains upright and healthy there is no reason to think that this team won’t count themselves among the NFL’s elite, particularly given how they handled themselves on the road during the Playoffs. And with that said, they appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of their neighbors within the NFC South, for the only issues that this team can expect to battle is complacency. Look for Brady and the Bucs to follow up the franchise’s second Lombardi with what would be their first division crown since 2007, and with a little bit of good fortune they could very well find themselves doing something that hasn’t happened since 2004: repeat as NFL Champions. Then again, Brady would know a little bit about that, given he was the last Quarterback to achieve that feat.
The Contender: New Orleans Saints
As the Saints walked off the field in defeat at Mercedes-Benz Superdome last January, one couldn’t help but get the feeling that their Super Bowl window had finally shut after winning the NFC South in each of the previous four seasons. After all, New Orleans was finally saying goodbye to (longtime Quarterback) Drew Brees after fifteen successful years with the franchise, which culminated in bringing them their first (and only) Lombardi Trophy back in 2010. Coming into 2021, the only question anyone is asking is who will be filling Brees’ considerably large shoes under Center? (Head Coach) Sean Payton has long proven to be one of the most innovative and consistently productive offensive minds in the NFL, and has managed to get the most out of his other Quarterbacks in recent years with Brees sidelined due to injury. Last season, Payton adjusted the Offense to accommodate the unique skillset of Taysom Hill (72.7%, 928 YDS, 4 TD, 2 INT, 58.8 QBR), who in Brees’ absence led the Saints to a 3-1 record. However, the offseason has been dominated by the competition between he and Jamies Winston (63.6%, 75 YDS, 0 TD, 0 INT, 15.6 QBR), with the former Heisman and No. One Overall Pick eventually proving to be the victor. Say what you will about Winston and his time in Tampa Bay, but his talent is undeniable; the 27-year old led the NFL in passing yards (5,109 YDS) in 2019, with his 131 career touchdowns undermined by his predilection for committing turnovers (88 INT in 76 career games). Given his success in the preseason, there is reason to believe that he’ll be a hit within Payton’s scheme, particularly when you consider that his arm strength and mobility will bring some tools to the table that Brees lacked. Furthermore, his appointment will allow Hill to continue to be utilized in other areas, where he has proven very effective, rushing for 457 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Like their chief competition within the division, New Orleans remains flush with talent and depth on both sides of the football, with (All-Pro playmakers) Alvin Kamara (1,688 YDS from Scrimmage, 21 TD) and Michael Thomas (438 YDS) in place to facilitate Winston’s transition, while the Defense led by (Pro-Bowl Lineman) Cameron Jordan (7.5 Sacks, 16 QB Hits) and (impressive Cornerback) Marshon Lattimore (2 INT, 11 PD) is expected to to continue it’s growth. The pieces are indeed in place for the Saints to challenge within the division and return to the Playoffs, but as expected it will ultimately boil down to Winston and how much he’s grown for this team to full realize their newfound potential.
The Wild Card: Carolina Panthers
While the Bucs and Saints continue to battle atop the NFC South, one of the more interesting subplots within the division are the Panthers and their continued growth as they enter the second phase of their rebuild under (Head Coach) Matt Rhule. There was plenty to like about Carolina despite their 5-11 finish last season; they were a hard out against just about everyone they competed against, with all but five of their games being decided by one possession. With that said, they ultimately struggled to get over the hump in said situations, winning just three of those eleven contests. Heading into 2021, they’re looking to prove that can indeed finish games, and given the additions that they’ve made offensively there is plenty of reason to feel a strong sense of optimism. First and foremost, Rhule parted ways with (journeyman Game Manager) Teddy Bridgewater after juts one season with the franchise, in favor of trading for (former No. Three Overall Pick) Sam Darnold (59.6%, 2,208 YDS, 9 TD, 11 INT, 40.1 QBR) in a deal with the New York Jets. Almost universally viewed as a casualty of the Jets’ incompetence, Darnold is remarkably still young enough (24-years old) to show considerable development, which is what the Panthers believe will happen after a much-deserved change of scenery. Right off the bat he’ll have exponentially more talent to work than he did during his tenure in New York, what with playmakers such as D.J. Moore (1,193 YDS, 4 TD) and (former teammate) Robby Anderson (1,096 YDS, 3 TD) highlighting the Receiving Corps, and the return of a healthy Christian McCaffrey (374 YDS from Scrimmage) lining up beside him in the Backfield. The 25-year old All-Pro led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2019 (2,392 YDS), and will looking to prove that last year’s injury woes are indeed behind him after being relegated to just three games. As the Offense looks to develop the necessary chemistry with their new Quarterback, the young Defense must continue to show growth as well; Rhule spent all seven picks of his first Draft Class on that particular side of the football, and continued to emphasize the need to get better with their First Round Selection, (South Carolina Cornerback) Jaycee Horn. Given his reputation as builder, and a quick one at that, the Panthers certainly have enough intriguing pieces make a play at a Wild Card, though they’ll need to avoid the unfortunate injuries that hampered them throughout 2020 as their overall depth isn’t on the level of the teams that they’re gunning for… yet.
The Rest: Atlanta Falcons
Given how last season ended in Atlanta, many would argue that the franchise should have indeed turned the page on the Dan Quinn era much earlier than allowing he and his Coaching Staff one more go at it despite everything working against them during the pandemic-influenced campaign of 2020. With that said, Quinn was relieved of his duties following an 0-5 start in which the Falcons remarkably lost back-to-back games to the Cowboys and Bears despite holding a lead of fourteen or more points in the Fourth Quarter of each affair. Then again, this team simply hasn’t been the same since that monumental collapse following a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, oftentimes succumbing to episodes of mental fragility. After last year’s disappointing 4-12 finish, (Owner) Arthur Blank decided to completely start over in not only removing Quinn, but (longtime General Manager) Thomas Dimitroff to boot. Replacing them is the duo of (former Saints Lead Scout) Terry Fontenot and (former Titans Offensive Coordinator) Arthur Smith, who collectively look to renovate a talented, but glaringly top-heavy and unbalanced roster. Unfortunately, in order to replenish their arsenal they had to make some very difficult decisions, with the most significant being the trade of (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones to the Titans. No player had amassed more receiving yards over the past decade than the 32-year old, who had signed a mammoth contract renewal in 2019, but at 32-years old was coming off a season in which he had appeared in just nine games. Atlanta also entertained trade offers for (former MVP Quarterback) Matt Ryan (65.0%, 4,581 YDS, 26 TD, 11 INT, 67.0 QBR), though ultimately decided to retain the services of the 36-year old, for replacing both franchise pillars proved to be a medicine that was indeed too strong to stomach. Smith believes that Ryan has plenty left in the tank, and given that there are still plenty of weapons around him, the Offense can continue to perform above league average, particularly with the inclusion of (No. Four Overall Selection) Kyle Pitts at Tight End. With that said, the mandate will be improving upon a Defense that despite closing last season strongly, still finished the campaign ranked twenty-ninth in total yards allowed (398.4), with the NFL’s worst pass defense proving to be the main culprit (293.6). Even with (venerable Defensive Coordinator) Dean Pees joining him in Atlanta, this particular unit lacks playmakers on all levels, and figures to be tested often within a division in which each of their neighbors can put points on the board in waves. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, 2021 looks more like the beginning of a long rebuilding project than a quick turnaround, and they should expect it to get worse before it gets better…