Watch for Falcons in tight NFC South

By Brady Kannon  () 

Since realignment in 2002, the NFC South has been one of the more well balanced in the NFL, with each representative claiming the crown multiple times. Only twice has the division champion repeated, with the Carolina Panthers winning three straight titles from 2013-15 and the New Orleans Saints winning three straight from 2017-19. The Saints are a heavy favorite to make it four in a row, but it should be very competitive in 2020 — with possibly another changing of the guard.

 

 

Atlanta Falcons

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 7.5

2020 division odds: %plussigng5

2020 non-division games: at Cowboys, at Packers, at Chiefs, at Chargers, at Vikings, Bears, Lions, Broncos, Raiders, Seahawks

 

Last year was almost like two separate seasons for the Falcons. Before their bye week, they went 1-7, and coach Dan Quinn was on the hottest of hot seats. He survived the extra week off and came back with a vengeance, beating New Orleans and Carolina as road underdogs in the first two games out of the break. The Falcons finished on a 6-2 run.

 

Keeping the momentum going, Atlanta got to work in the free-agent market with some big-name signings. Running back Todd Gurley and edge rusher Dante Fowler have come over from the Los Angeles Rams. The Falcons released Devonta Freeman after ranking 26th last season in rushing offense. Gurley gave the Rams a top-10 rushing offense in three of his five years there. Hayden Hurst was acquired via trade with Baltimore to fill a need at tight end vacated by free agent Austin Hooper. Laquon Treadwell was added to fill the No. 3 wide receiver spot. As far as offensive skill players, Atlanta begins the season with Treadwell, Russell Gage, Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones at wideout, Gurley in the backfield, Hurst at tight end and, of course, Matt Ryan at quarterback. That’s a very good start.

 

While the Falcons ranked third in passing offense last season and look well equipped heading into 2020, their passing defense left a lot to be desired, ranking 24th in the league. Desmond Trufant has been lost from the secondary in free agency, while Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Sharrod Neasman were retained. Atlanta has six draft picks. The 16th choice in the first round could be used to bolster the secondary or the pass rush, giving Grady Jarrett and Fowler a huge lift up front. Atlanta also has second-, third- and seventh-round choices along with two picks in the fourth round.

 

The skinny: It’s not hard to like the way the Falcons finished the 2019 season or what they have done in the offseason. They finished last year ranked 17th in DVOA and had a turnover differential of -5. I think this team will challenge for the division title. I expect Gurley to have a resurgence, and the offense ought to be excellent. If the Falcons can strengthen the secondary and the pass rush in the draft, this team should be very good. Even though their non-division road schedule is brutal, I will bet this team’s season win total Over 7.5, and I think %plussigng5 is absolutely worth a crack to win the NFC South.  

 

Carolina Panthers

2019 record: 5-11

2020 season win total: 5.5

2020 division odds: 25-1

2020 non-division games: at Redskins, at Packers, at Chiefs, at Chargers, at Vikings, Bears, Lions, Broncos, Raiders, Cardinals

 

While Tom Brady joining Tampa Bay is certainly a big development, the Panthers might be the most interesting team in the NFC South. Matt Rhule is the new coach, coming out of the college ranks from Baylor. Joe Brady is the offensive coordinator, coming back to the NFL after spending 2019 as the passing-game coordinator at LSU. Former league MVP Cam Newton is no longer the starting quarterback, former Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly has retired and wholesale changes have been made to the roster. The oddsmakers are not giving this team much of a chance at 25-1 to win the division and a season win total of just 5.5. We’ll see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carolina ends up better than many are thinking.

 

The Panthers have been very aggressive this offseason, primarily letting go of older veterans and taking on youth at affordable prices. They have done so at all positions, grabbing three wide receivers, including proven commodity Robby Anderson from the Jets. The defense has added or retained two backs, an end and a linebacker, while a tight end, a guard and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater have been added on offense. Pharoh Cooper comes over from Arizona as a special-teamer and adds depth at wide receiver. As part of the youth movement, veterans Gerald McCoy, Eric Reid and Bruce Irvin were let go on defense.

 

Carolina has seven selections in the draft, with one pick in each round. Its first-round pick is seventh overall, and its second-round choice is No. 38. With a run defense that ranked 23rd in the league plus the loss of All-Pro Kuechly, the Panthers could opt for Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons with their first pick. Simmons is versatile enough to play on the edge and drop back into coverage, filling multiple needs for a team that continues to overhaul in all areas. Carolina was second in the NFL with 53 sacks on defense but was dead last in sacks given up with 58, meaning offensive line could be another area of priority.

 

The skinny: I like the top end of the coaching staff. Rhule is an exciting shot of new blood who has had tremendous success at the college level. Brady has worked with Bridgewater with the Saints and obviously had a successful 2019 at LSU. New defensive coordinator Phil Snow was part of Rhule’s staff at Temple and Baylor. Despite being just 5-11 last season, ranking 31st in DVOA and with a turnover differential of -14, Carolina ranked 14th in rushing offense, 19th in passing offense and 15th in defending the pass. The turnover differential is likely to adjust positively, and with all the new faces added via free agency and eventually through the draft, I expect this team to be young and mistake-prone but also improved. I’m inclined to make a season win total bet of Over 5.5. A division championship bet will have to wait, but maybe for only one year, as this team could be in very good form come 2021.

 

 

New Orleans Saints

2019 record: 13-3

2020 season win total: 10

2020 division pdds: -115

2020 non-division games: at Bears, at Broncos, at Lions, at Raiders, at Eagles, Packers, 49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, Vikings

 

The Saints were my pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl before the 2019 season began. It is not silly to make that pick again. This team has spent its offseason primarily retaining would-be free agents and keeping the roster nearly identical to what it was in 2019. Teddy Bridgewater is gone, but Taysom Hill is a great backup to Drew Brees. A.J. Klein, Eli Apple and Vonn Bell have departed on defense, so expect linebacker and defensive back to be areas of focus in the draft. Otherwise, this team once again has one of the most talented rosters in football. My question is: What do the Saints get out of 41-year-old Drew Brees, who it appears will be playing his final season?

 

Good news for Brees and his crew is an offensive line that remains intact and is one of the finest in the NFL, allowing only 25 sacks last season. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders comes over via free agency and is a tremendous complement to All-Pro Michael Thomas. Free-agent Ted Ginn is likely gone, however, so a speedy deep threat might be something New Orleans will consider drafting. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was acquired and will look to aid a passing defense that ranked 19th in the league last season. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray start at running back for a team that ranked 16th in rushing offense. Fullback Michael Burton was signed via free agency, but we’ll have to wait and see if New Orleans does anything further to improve the rushing attack.

 

The Saints have only five draft choices — in the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. Their first-round pick is No. 24 overall. New Orleans has only three choices within the first 130 picks. I’ve seen people calling for help at linebacker with the first pick, running back Jonathan Taylor out of Wisconsin could be a big boost and I’ve seen Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault’s name being thrown around as a real playmaker. These would be areas New Orleans is likely to address, as well as cornerback.

 

The skinny: While it might not have appeared as spectacular as seasons past, Brees put together another very solid 2019 statistically. He flourished in his typical areas of success: a high completion rate, accurate passing, avoiding turnovers and avoiding being sacked. But coach Sean Payton turned to Hill on occasion when looking to throw a deep ball. One thing that jumps out when considering wagers on the Saints is their 2019 turnover differential. They led the NFL at %plussign. If they reach this mark again, yes, they might win it all. But turnovers tend to be random, and %plussign is a very fortunate turn of events that is unlikely to be repeated. The season win total of 10 looks like the right number, but I have to lean to the Under. As far as the division crown, no way I am laying a negative price versus the field.

 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 9.5

2020 division odds: %plussign5

2020 non-division games: at Bears, at Broncos, at Lions, at Giants, at Raiders, Packers, Vikings, Chiefs, Chargers, Rams

 

The biggest NFL story this offseason has been quarterback Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl championships to sign with the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay’s second-biggest move was keeping its front seven on defense together. The unit ranked first in the NFL in defending the run and tallied 47 sacks. Along with a passing offense that ranked first in the league, the Bucs look to be off to a good start on building for the new season.

 

I don’t believe many will question that we saw Brady decline last season. However, he didn’t have much to work with. This year he gets one of the best wide receiver combinations in football in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Brady also inherits tight end O.J. Howard, who I’ve always thought would be a big hit in the NFL coming out of Alabama in 2017. Howard has been average, but now he hooks up with a quarterback who has a habit of making big tight ends his favorite target.

 

To keep Brady upright and effective, Tampa Bay will have to upgrade its offensive line and its running game, as the Buccaneers ranked 24th in rushing offense last season. They were also 30th in passing defense. So what to do in the draft with seven picks? Tampa Bay has the 14th selection overall, and most believe it will be an offensive tackle. The Bucs have no seventh-round choice but have two fourth-rounders. With their first five picks, they will have access to the top 139 selections.

 

The skinny: In forecasting the Bucs, consider the inflated numbers due to the signing of Brady. If you are thinking Over the season win total, you are basically banking on Brady to win three more games for this team than it did in 2019. The true odds for the Buccaneers to win the division are probably much greater than %plussign5. However, this team was probably better than a 7-9 record would indicate, as it ranked 14th in DVOA and had a turnover differential of -13, nearly the league’s worst. There is little doubt that Brady will take better care of the ball than Jameis Winston did last year. There is no way I am betting this team to win the division at what looks to be a low price. I am also leaning Under the season win total. 

In all, I think the Panthers will be improved, but it will come down to Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta competing for the division title. And at %plussigng5, I think the Falcons are the best bet in the NFC South.

 

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