During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article holds a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC South defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2017 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense
The Best: Atlanta Falcons
The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
At the division’s deepest position, Matt Ryan is the head of the class. In his ninth season, Ryan amassed personal bests in yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), passer rating (117.1) and completion percentage (69.9) en route to becoming the league’s MVP and leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl. His 2016 success catapulted him into the popular “elite quarterback” conversation. While many pundits and fans credit his former playcaller Kyle Shanahan for his career year, Ryan has always been a productive passer professionally. As one of the NFL’s most steadiest signal-callers, Ryan has earned a Pro Bowl selection under three different offensive coordinators. What makes that anecdote more impressive is that his two head coaches in the pros–Mike Smith and Dan Quinn–are both defensive minded. Though Ryan has been gifted with phenomenal weapons for ball distribution, he has remained the constant cog for the Falcons franchise.
Though he’s the eldest statesman in the NFC South, Drew Brees is still unquestionably one the game’s premier passers. On top of his 37 scoring strikes, 101.7 passer rating and 70 percent completion percentage last season, Brees surpassed 5,000 yards for the unprecedented fifth occasion. His efforts helped New Orleans place number one in offense for the sixth time since 2006. Despite his brilliance, Brees can’t carry his abilities into the postseason because the defense has failed him year after year. In the final season of his contract, the defense needs to do all it can to alleviate the team load off of Brees. Thankfully for the Saints, even at age 38, he has shown no signs of slowing down.
After becoming the NFL’s poster boy two years ago, Cam Newton took a vast step backward in 2016. After his dominant 2015 showing (3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and a 99.4 passer rating), the former MVP regressed to 3,509 yards for only 19 scores with a 75.8 rating. Although he disappointed, Newton is still one of the most talented players in the NFL. While he hasn’t been afforded the most transcendent of offensive weapons, he still has one of the best defensive units in the game. When healthy, it’ll be difficult to see any further decline in his play.
For Jameis Winston, there should be no shame in being both the youngest and least-accomplished quarterback in this division. While Ryan, Brees, and Newton are each better players right now, Winston is one of the league’s brightest young stars. Elected to the Pro Bowl in his rookie year, he’s already proved that he can compete among his professional contemporaries. Combining for 8,132 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first two seasons, his career arrow is pointing upward. Winston’s numbers should continue to soar now that DeSean Jackson is on the roster to complement Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans and the highly-touted rookie tight end, O.J. Howard. If the defense can complement their already-skilled offense, Winston can lead the Buccaneers into the playoffs.
The Best: Atlanta Falcons
The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Devonta Freeman inked a five-year/$41.25 million extension this off-season, and he is worth every penny. Entering his fourth season, Freeman has already accumulated 2,383 yards and 23 touchdowns in his short career. As one of the game’s most multifaceted backs (157 receptions for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns since 2014), his versatility is one the key factors for Atlanta’s high-powered offense. Now as the richest ballcarrier in football, he can further focus on becoming a household name. Behind Freeman is third-year rusher Tevin Coleman, who reached career highs in running (520 yards and eight scores) and receiving (421 yards and three scores) last year. Critics will argue that the Saints have the best rushing core in the division (for obvious reasons), but these Falcon tailbacks have brighter futures.
New Orleans has the most fascinating backfield in football right now with Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. Ingram, who got off to a relatively slow start in the NFL, has developed into a quality starting running back. After making his first Pro Bowl in 2014, he posted a career-best 1,043 yards last season. With the Saints operating such an open offense, he is an asset in the passing game as well. While Peterson is clearly the better all-time player, Ingram is the most versatile. Though he’s passed his prime, Peterson is still a capable producer. In his last full season (2015), the seven-time Pro Bowler rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer is the perfect complement to Ingram and the rest of the Saints offense. Rookie Alvin Kamara has open eyes all throughout camp and preseason. Based on his skillset, he is projected to become the next Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles for the team.
Rushing for at least 700 yards in seven of his nine NFL seasons, Jonathan Stewart has always been a consistent runner. Turning 31 next March, the Carolina Panthers will be ushering in the Christian McCaffrey era as Stewart grows older. After an illustrious collegiate career, the Stanford product brings his triple-threat package of rushing, receiving and returning to the pros. If he remains healthy, the former Heisman finalist can become of the NFL’s most entertaining players.
Tampa Bay rusher Doug Martin has weathered one of the most up-and-down professional careers. Immediately making an impact as rookie (1,454 yards, 11 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl selection in 2012), he combined for only 1,371 yards and six scores in three of the subsequent four campaigns. The “Muscle Hamster” seemingly returned to his old self in 2015, but that was just another outlier. He’s had his fair share of injuries, but he has a suspension that will carry into this season. Though the Bucs have Charles Sims, he isn’t seen as a difference-making figure.
The Best: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers
As aforementioned, Jameis Winston should have an exceptional passing year, thanks to pass catchers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. Evans has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in each of his three NFL seasons; two of those years he caught 12 touchdowns. After setting career marks in receptions (96) and yards (1,321), the 6’5 star should continue to overwhelm defenses with the assistance of the 10-year veteran Jackson. Since entering the league in 2008, Jackson has been one of the game’s most electrifying players. A game-breaking play waiting to happen, the three-time Pro Bowler’s speedy game perfectly compliments the size of Evans. Prayers for opposing secondaries will be needed.
With Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Michael Thomas, the Saints boasted one of the NFL’s best receiving corps from 2016. Now that Cooks plays for the New England Patriots, more targets will be awarded to Snead and Thomas. A pleasant surprise as a rookie (92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns), Thomas is a budding star that is expected to have a breakout season. Obtaining career highs in receptions (72) and scores (four), Snead plans to be superb in a contract year. Though he’s notoriously recognized for not being sure-handed, Ted Ginn will be a critical piece in the vertical and return games. Based on his reportedly-strong camp, Brandon Coleman is another receiver to look out for. The Saints have achieved elite-level numbers regardless of who’s on the field catching the football, and this season shouldn’t be any different.
The Falcons placing third at this position does not take away from Julio Jones being the best wide receiver in football. Already a multi-time Pro Bowler, Jones took over 2016 to help Atlanta reach the Super Bowl. Slighted early in his career for being labeled just as a speed guy, the former Alabama standout has the developed into the complete pass catcher. Compiling 497 catches for 7,610 yards and 40 touchdowns, only injuries will show him down. Even during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals, Mohamed Sanu has been a reliable second–or third–receiving option. Despite hauling in only 35 balls, Taylor Gabriel did have 579 yards and six scores.
Wide Receiver has been Carolina’s weakest offensive area since the departure of franchise great Steve Smith. Veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery were respectable contributors, but neither put fear in defensive backs. Kelvin Benjamin has shown is abilities when healthy, but hasn’t deployed into a game-altering force for the Panther offense. Devin Funchess is another big-bodied receiver, but he’s yet to prove he’s a factor in his young career. With their physical gifts, however, they can definitely show some promise.
The Best: Carolina Panthers
The Rest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons
Since Jimmy Graham’s shocking trade to the Seattle Seahawks, Greg Olsen has easily been the NFC South’s premier tight end. After a quiet beginning to his career with the Chicago Bears, he’s enjoyed a stellar emergency with Carolina. Grabbing at least 69 passes for at least 800 yards since 2012, he’s been nothing short of dependable. His three-consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns from 2014-2016 have made him into one of the better late bloomers in recent memory. For a team that’s lacked the high-end productivity at wide receiver, Olsen has been the ideal security blanket for Cam Newton.
The Buccaneers have a promising tight end tandem in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Despite only starting 10 games in 2016, Brate caught 57 passes for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. Selected 19th overall in April’s draft, O.J. Howard will participate in some capacity. Even with their Pro Bowl wideouts, it’ll be intriguing to see if Tampa will utilize two tight end sets against defenses.
New Orleans has endured a tremendous tight end void since parting ways with Graham. Josh Hill has provided when called upon, but he can only give so much as a career-long backup. Coby Fleener was the team’s big-name Free Agent signee last off-season, but he didn’t impress WhoDat nation. Though 50 receptions for 631 yards typically isn’t a stat line to dismiss for a tight end, Saints fans have witnessed better, and that outing is insufficient based on the contract he received.
With the wide receivers and pass-catching running backs in Atlanta, tight ends are the odd-men out in the aerial game. Both Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo combined for 535 yards five touchdowns. With All-Pros Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman active, this tight end pair will be hard pressed to accumulate stats.
The Best: Atlanta Falcons
The Rest: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Because of their upper-echelon skill position players, Atlanta’s offensive line didn’t get their full credit. Free agent center Alex Mack headlined their front five as he made his fourth Pro Bowl to help anchor the offense. Alike Mack, left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Ryan Schraeder both had Pro Football Focus grades of at least 83. Left tackle Jake Matthews graded out with a 74.2. Atlanta’s lowest-graded offensive lineman was Ben Garland (59.9), but he was a backup playing out of position.
One year after having one of the best inside trios in football, Carolina’s interior line dipped in their play. Left guard Andrew Norwell, center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner dropped down to the seventies in their PFF scores. Despite their demise, they are each still capable and significantly better than the linemen in New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Even with his individual excellence, Drew Brees has greatly benefited from exceptional offensive line play for most of his tenure with the Saints. Since 2013, the New Orleans front has gradually fallen from its peak. Once intact with Pro Bowlers Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks and Jermon Bushrod–just to name a few–the Saints have done some shuffling at multiple places. Right tackle Zach Strief remains the best of the quintet with his 86.2 PFF grade. Shipped in from the Jimmy Graham trade, center Max Unger has been a solid addition, but he only graded at 78.3 in 2016. Larry Wofford was brought in to help solidify the right guard spot. Andrus Peat and rookie Ryan Ramczyk will be placed at alternative slots to see what’ll work best for the team.
Lastly is the abysmal line of the Buccaneers. Though Ali Marpet and Demar Dotson have PFF grades of 84.9 and 80.6, respectively, left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Kevin Pamphile were atrocious with their sub-48 counts. Hopefully, JR Sweezy can be a huge boost for their front.
With offense being the division’s strongest trait, how does the defense look in the NFC South?
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