NFC South preview: Best bets for every team

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The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews and best bets for the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Even though the Falcons insisted they were not in a rebuild, they’re in the middle of one this year — and should’ve started one years ago. The roster lacks talent at several positions, and they pursued a trade for Deshaun Watson, which was the cue for Matt Ryan to seek an exit from Atlanta after 14 seasons. Atlanta has one year to find out if its long-term replacement for Ryan is on the roster with free agent Marcus Mariota and third-round pick Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) competing for the starting job. Second-year head coach Arthur Smith had a great deal of success in Tennessee as its offensive coordinator, but he is going to need both time and patience from Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

Offense

Mariota didn't play much last season and was used only sparingly by the Raiders in 2020, but he is still a small favorite to hang on to the starting quarterback job over Ridder. On the surface, both QBs look like stopgaps until Atlanta perhaps has a crack at either Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud in the 2023 NFL draft.

Atlanta ranked 31st out of 32 teams in rushing offense last season, which should not come as a surprise considering wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was the leading rusher at 618 yards (1,166 yards of total offense). Damien Williams comes in from Kansas City while fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier (BYU) could be an immediate factor, as his physical running style is a fit for Smith’s scheme.

Tight end Kyle Pitts lived up to being the No. 4 overall pick in 2021 with 68 catches for 1,026 yards and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. However, he only had one touchdown, so the Falcons must improve dramatically in the red zone. Fellow tight end Anthony Firkser played under Smith at Tennessee and could help free up Pitts for more red-zone opportunities. With Calvin Ridley out for the season due to a gambling suspension, No. 8 overall pick Drake London (USC) will be the primary target at receiver. Bryan Edwards also comes in via free agency from the Raiders, but there isn’t much proven production elsewhere at wideout.

Longtime left tackle Jake Matthews signed an extension in the offseason, and right guard Chris Lindstrom is in line for a new deal. After these two, there are a lot of holes still up front.

Defense

Atlanta is coming off a season when it was 26th in the NFL in total defense and 30th in scoring defense. However, Foye Oluokun is now in Jacksonville after leading the NFL with 192 tackles. Safety and fourth-leading tackler Duron Harmon left for the Raiders.

Grady Jarrett has been a mainstay up front in Atlanta for his entire seven-year career. He has had to carry this group and may have to do so again, which is not a good thing considering the Falcons were the only defensive line last season that had a PFF grade below 50. Atlanta took some steps to make things better this offseason by bringing in Lorenzo Carter (career-high five sacks in 2021) and Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State) on the edge.

They also added third-rounder DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky), and Adetokunbo Ogundeji was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season. The inside linebacker group loses Oluokun but gains former first-round pick Rashaan Evans, who was with Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees in Tennessee. Evans hasn't quite lived up to his draft status, but he should slot in decently as Oluokun's replacement with 2020 draft pick Mykal Walker. Will linebacker Deion Jones has been inconsistent the last couple seasons. Second-rounder Troy Andersen (Montana State) should push for time in the middle.

No cornerback duo heading into 2022 gave up fewer yards last season than Casey Hayward and A.J. Terrell, who combined to allow only 588 yards. Granted, Hayward was playing with the Raiders, but corner is the Falcons’ strength on defense. Safeties Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins must get better if the pass rush does not improve.

Outlook

The Falcons were outscored by 146 points last year, the fifth-worst scoring differential in the NFL. Atlanta was also 30th in Total DVOA and had the third-best injury luck metric per Football Outsiders. This was a bad team that somehow won seven games because it went 7-2 in one-score games. That is bound to regress dramatically this season. 

Pick: Under 5

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have gone 22-43 since owner David Tepper purchased the team in 2018. Tepper retained coach Matt Rhule, who is in the middle of a seven-year, $62 million deal, even though he has gone only 10-23 in his first two seasons. Carolina started last season 3-0 then finished on a 2-12 nosedive. Sam Darnold showed some early promise before reverting to the QB that the Jets gave up on. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady — not too far removed from being hailed as a genius for his work with Joe Burrow at LSU — was abruptly fired during Week 13. After attempting to be a part of the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes, Carolina traded for Baker Mayfield, the man Watson replaced in Cleveland. Rhule is clearly under the gun to show substantial improvement.

Offense

Darnold won his first three starts in 2021 and then it all came apart. Christian McCaffrey is one of the league’s best running backs when healthy, but he has only played in 10 of 33 regular-season games over the last two seasons. The offensive line started 13 different combinations due to injuries and Darnold started to see the ghosts he saw in New York reappear. Furthermore, he sustained a shoulder injury, which meant the Panthers tried to recapture the magic with Cam Newton. That started with fireworks but quickly morphed into a series of bad losses, as Carolina, once 5-5, ended the season with seven straight defeats. Much of that was due to an often-embarrassing offense, which ended the year ranked 30th in yards and 29th in points.

Darnold is back and the Panthers also drafted Matt Corral (Ole Miss), but the quarterback job belongs to Mayfield, who is in the final year of his contract. Mayfield has certainly had his ups and downs (29-30 as a starter in Cleveland), but he has at least shown some upside at the position. Considering Carolina ranked last in Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt and QB Rating last season, they should improve at the position.

Mayfield’s life can be made easier if McCaffrey can stay healthy. He changes everything about this offense by making third downs much easier to pick up and touchdowns easier to score. Nevertheless, Chuba Hubbard, who had a solid rookie season last year, should pick up plenty of work to ease McCaffrey’s workload. The offensive line should be better. Returners Taylor Moton and Brady Christensen are supplemented by free-agent additions Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett and first-round draft pick Ikem Ekwonu, who is a strong run blocker but needs to get up to speed protecting on the left side.

Wide receiver D.J. Moore has gone over 1,100 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons and is one of the NFL's best at yards after the catch. Robbie Anderson is a deep threat whose receptions and yards numbers were cut in half. Tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble also need to give more production.

Defense

Carolina has drafted in the first round on the defensive side of the ball in five of the last eight seasons. Four of those draft picks remain as starters — LB Shaq Thompson (2015), DE Brian Burns (2019), DT Derrick Brown (2020) and CB Jaycee Horn (2021), plus the Panthers traded for 2020 first-round corner C.J. Henderson. The talent is here for an elite unit and the group was second in the league in total yards allowed last season.

Burns has 25.5 sacks in his first three seasons but will see more double teams due to the departure of edge rusher Haason Reddick. Yetur Gross-Matos has shown flashes and could be in line for a breakout year at the other defensive end spot. Brown was benched briefly for poor play last season and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, one of the league’s best, will need to get more out of him.

Thompson has 327 total tackles in the last three seasons and is the leader of the defense. Chinn starts at free safety but can also play linebacker and has 224 tackles in his first two seasons.

Donte Jackson, Henderson and Horn give Carolina one of the stronger cornerback corps in the league. Horn, in three starts last year, allowed only one catch on five targets for eight yards before being lost for the season with a broken foot. 

Outlook

Yes, the quarterback play was abysmal last season, but McCaffrey missed 10 games and the Panthers went 2-6 in one-score games. The defense has way too much developing talent to not keep them competitive in most games. Mayfield will be an upgrade at quarterback. McCaffrey’s health is always in question and anything the Panthers can get out of him is a bonus. In terms of the season win total, 6.5 at DraftKings is probably a pass or lean to the Over, but Over 5.5 with a -165 tag at BetMGM is worth a bet.

Pick: Over 6.5 

New Orleans Saints

One season after Drew Brees retired to start a television career, Sean Payton, with three years left on his contract, elected to do the same. Payton announced his departure (note: not retirement) in January after 16 seasons in New Orleans, the most successful coaching tenure in the history of the franchise. Payton led the Saints to nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. It is officially a new era in “The Big Easy” with Dennis Allen being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach. Allen’s first head-coaching stint did not go well in Oakland (8-28 from 2012-2014). However, he has a much better chance this time around with a defense he took over in 2015 and built into one of the league’s more consistent units. 

Offense

The 2021 Saints were the worst offense of Payton's tenure, finishing with the franchise's lowest ranking in total offense (28th) since the Mike Ditka era. A combination of a lack of explosiveness and injuries, plus a conservative playbook for a new starter in Jameis Winston, led to a disappointing season. The Saints still won nine games despite having four different quarterbacks start games.

After a failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson, the Saints brought Winston back on a two-year contract. Winston is coming off a torn ACL that ended his 2021 season after seven games. In his seven starts, he posted a 14-3 TD-INT ratio and the highest QB rating of his career. Winston only averaged 25.2 passing attempts with Michael Thomas being out for the season and the more conservative game plan. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was on the Saints’ staff for Payton’s entire tenure, but this is the first time he will be calling plays. Will he loosen the reins on Winston? Andy Dalton was brought in as insurance and Payton’s pet project, Taysom Hill, has moved back to tight end.

Thomas is back from his ankle injury and has looked good in camp, but can he rediscover his form of 2019 when he led the NFL with 149 receptions? Even if he falls short, this receiving corps gets a massive upgrade with the addition of first-rounder Chris Olave (Ohio State) and five-time Pro Bowler and New Orleans native Jarvis Landry.

It remains to be determined whether running back Alvin Kamara might be facing league discipline after his offseason arrest in Las Vegas on suspicion of battery. The recent rumors are that Kamara may avoid suspension or it might be shorter than expected, which would be a nice bonus for an offense that lacks depth in the backfield. The offensive line, long a source of strength for the Saints, also needs to rebound after a disappointing year that saw many of its starters go down with injury. Erik McCoy is a strong anchor at center and Ryan Ramczyk is one of the league’s best on the right side. 

Defense

Allen will still retain play-calling duties even as head coach. Up front, the Saints amassed 46 sacks (eighth in the league) despite a slow start from Cameron Jordan, who did heat up down the stretch with 8.5 sacks over the last four games. Marcus Davenport missed a month last year but posted the best sack figure of his career with 7.5. Payton Turner, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Carl Granderson also provide depth.

New Orleans has had a top-four run defense in each of the last four years. Demario Davis is a wrecking crew in the middle and has a running mate to help in second-year linebacker Pete Werner, who posted 62 tackles while starting eight games in his rookie season.

In the secondary, the Saints lost both of their starting safeties with the retirement of Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams signing with Baltimore. Former Jets safety Marcus Maye will replace Jenkins at strong safety while All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu takes over for Williams at free safety.

At corner, Marshon Lattimore turned in arguably the best season of his career in 2021 with career highs in tackles and passes defended. Paulson Adebo, a third-round pick last year, intercepted three passes as a rookie. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is back in the slot. There should not be any dropoff for this defense. 

Outlook

The Saints still won nine games last season with a plethora of injuries and turmoil. While Allen’s first head-coaching tenure was a miserable failure, he likely finds a roster that is ready to hear a somewhat new voice. This team still has some question marks including Kamara’s status and Winston’s continued development. However, this roster is healthier and looks more talented than last season. The betting market has been lukewarm on the Saints, but this is a veteran team that should not surprise anyone if they are better than expected.

Pick: Over 8.5

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay had the most volatile offseason of any team in the NFL. Tom Brady retired on Feb. 1 and then unretired on the eve of free agency. Not all of Brady’s mates elected to run it back as Rob Gronkowski and Ali Marpet retired. Bruce Arians moves upstairs, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles gets another shot as a head coach. The Bucs tied with Green Bay for the best record in the NFL last season at 13-4. Tampa Bay outscored opponents by 158 points and were ranked favorably by Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders, earning the fourth overall team grade at PFF and ranking third in Total Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and fourth in Weighted DVOA at FO. Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich are loaded with weapons on offense. At 45, can Brady do it one more time?

Offense

In his 22nd season, Brady led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdown passes (43). However, he also led the league in passing attempts (719) and has made it clear he’d like a better balance. The Bucs re-signed workhorse Leonard Fournette and veteran Giovani Bernard to go with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Arizona State rookie Rachaad White may be the receiving back Brady has needed since he left the Patriots. Nevertheless, Brady did take a leave of absence from the team on Aug. 11 to attend to “personal things.”

Chris Godwin tore his ACL in Week 15 and is likely to miss the early portion of the season. Mike Evans has been battling hamstring issues but has eight straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons and can carry a heavier load until Godwin’s return. Julio Jones and Russell Gage spent several years together in Atlanta and now return to the NFC South.

The tight end group is nearly brand new with the departure of Gronk and O.J. Howard. Cameron Brate regains his starting job but will be challenged by fourth-rounder Cade Otton (Washington) and Kyle Rudolph.

Questions remain on the offensive line with Marpet’s retirement, Alex Cappa leaving for Cincinnati and center Ryan Jensen going down in training camp with a potentially season-ending knee injury. The Bucs traded for Shaq Mason and drafted tackle/guard Luke Goedeke (Central Michigan) in the second round.

Defense

Last season, the Bucs allowed the most completions (445) but also had the most passing attempts against (680) as teams largely abandoned the run against the league's best rush defense over the past three seasons. Still, the Bucs needed to get younger and more athletic on the defensive front, so they said goodbye to edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, the team's first-round pick in 2021, takes Paul's place. The Bucs traded out of the first round to select Houston defensive end Logan Hall at No. 33 overall. Hall is a good pass rush who can complement Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea. Akiem Hicks also comes in from Chicago via free agency.

Bowles will still be the play caller on defense and the keys to his operation are linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who is recovering from a Lisfranc injury. David has been playing at an elite level for almost a decade, but White declined from nine sacks in 2020 to 3.5 last season. Shaq Barrett had 10 sacks last season and leads the NFL in quarterback pressures (232) since joining the Bucs in 2019.

Strong safety Jordan Whitehead left for the Jets, but the Bucs have continuity in the secondary, led by cornerback Carlton Davis III, who re-signed a three-year deal. Davis missed seven games due to injury but still had 11 passes defensed and one INT while drawing the best opposing receiver each week.

Corner Sean Murphy-Bunting also battled injuries and returns with Jamel Dean and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. In all, the Bucs have four starters still on their rookie deals. The secondary is one of the better groups in the league and gets even better with the addition of two veteran safeties in free agency: the Falcons' Keanu Neal and the Giants' Logan Ryan.

Outlook

The Bucs remain a strong favorite in the AFC South. Injuries have mounted during training camp, especially on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. The schedule is tough to start the season with road games at Dallas and New Orleans, which has defeated the Bucs in seven straight regular-season games. Then Green Bay and Kansas City come to town. The Ravens and the Rams, who defeated Tampa in the final seconds of the divisional round after the Bucs came back from a 27-3 deficit, also visit Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs are on a mission team after ending the season in gut-wrenching fashion. However, there is still a lot of change in just one year and there could be more on the horizon.

 Pick: Under 11.5 

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