Y-New Orleans Saints 13-3
The 2017 National Football League season saw the New Orleans Saints end their three-year playoff drought which included knocking off the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Wild Card Round. The Saints appeared poised to advance to the NFC Championship Game until the final moments of their divisional round clash with the Minnesota Vikings. The Saints defense could not close the deal as they allowed the Vikings to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired. The Saints had the look of a team that could win it all until that play, and now they must find a way to get that momentum back heading into the new season which is never easy.
Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have been together with the Saints for the past 12 years, and it is safe to say that they have a strong working relationship. Together Payton and Brees helped the Saints win their only Super Bowl Title in franchise history. Both Payton and Brees have become icons in the French Quarter as the head coaches ability to draw up plays, and the quarterbacks wherewithal to make it happen on the field has not waned.
Brees is 39-years of age, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In each of Brees’ 12 years with the Saints, he has passed for at 4,000 yards in each season, while he is also one of the most accurate quarterbacks that the National Football League has ever seen. Brees led the NFL in completion percentage last year at 72%. Brees is a technician when it comes to getting the football out of his hands quickly to his receivers, while he also knows how to spread the love in order to keep everyone in the offense involved. And as the Saints are expected to have another big year on offense, Mr. Brees will be leading the way.
The recipients of Brees’ passes are consistently changing, but he has a new go-to-guy in wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas made the Pro Bowl last year has he hauled in 104 receptions for 1,245 yards. In watching Thomas play, he is eerily similar to former Saints wide receiver Marques Colston who had the same frame, while also being a dependable option for Brees when it came time to move the chains. Brees is in that rare air of quarterbacks that can make his receivers better, and thus Thomas should be in store for a big season.
In recent years the Saints have focused on rebuilding their offensive line, and the result is now that they have one of the better units in the National Football League. Left tackle Terron Armstead has become an anchor on the Saints O-line. But aside from Armstead, the Saints have a wealth of depth on their offensive line which includes center Max Unger and guard Andrus Peat, while they are welcoming back tackle/guard Jermon Bushrod who began his career with New Orleans before leaving in free agency in 2013.
A big reason for the Saints turnaround last year was due to the fact that they rededicated themselves to the running game. The Saints worked on their offensive line, and they also found the ball carriers who could get it done. Each of the last two years have seen running back Mark Ingram gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground as things are finally coming together after New Orleans drafted him in the first round in 2011. However it will be tougher for Ingram to gain 1,000 yards on the ground this season due to the fact that he will miss the first four games of the upcoming season after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
But even without Ingram for the first four games, the Saints rushing attack won’t skip a beat due to the ability of running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints drafted Kamara in the third round last year, and he came to the National Football League without a ton of hoopla. However Kamara would soon become a household name as he rushed for 728 yards. But it just wasn’t Kamara’s ability as a runner due to the fact that he was the Saints second leading receiver with 826 yards as that as well as his running ability led to him being selected as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Now Kamara will look to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”, but we could be looking at one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL.
Last year the Saints were 17th in the National Football League in total defense, and under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, this unit could be scary good. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is coming off of his best season in the NFL as he recorded 13 sacks in 2017 en route to being named to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins consistently commands a double team which will open up players such as Jordan to make more plays, while the expectations are high for the Saints first-round pick this year in defensive end Marcus Davenport. And if the Saints defensive line able to consistently create pressure, it will set everything up for the linebackers and defensive backs behind them.
Of the Saints first seven games this year, only one is versus a team that made the playoffs last year. And a fast start by New Orleans could be just what the doctor ordered as not only are they looking to win the NFC South for the second consecutive year, but also winning the Super Bowl.
X-Carolina Panthers 12-4
Four of the last five years have seen the Carolina Panthers reach the playoffs, and each year has them add a new chapter to their disappointment. But last year’s playoff disappointment was a little bit tougher for the Panthers due to the fact that they were eliminated in the NFC Wild Card Game at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. In defeating the Panthers in the playoffs, the Saints were able to pull off the rare trifecta as they defeated their NFC South rival three times for the season. In being swept by the Saints, Carolina was beaten at their own game in regards to being physical which is something that has stayed with them. The Panthers have been at work this off-season not only looking to figure out the necessary formula to get past the Saints in the NFC South, but to also get back to the Super Bowl, and this time win it all.
The key to any success that the Panthers are aspiring to have begins with quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is never going to be a quarterback who will string together consistent 300-yard passing games, but it is his ability as an overall athlete that gives the Panthers a chance to be successful. Throughout Newton’s seven-year National Football League career, he has only completed 58.5% of his passes, but that will be changing this year.
This off-season saw the Panthers part with offensive coordinator Mike Shula in favor of Norv Turner. Turner has a stellar reputation around the National Football League in regards to his ability to work with quarterbacks. Some of Turner’s stops as an offensive coordinator in the NFL include stints with the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, while he was also the head coach of the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers. Turner has excelled at putting his quarterbacks in the best possible spot to succeed which includes getting the football out quick, and spreading it around to multiple receivers and backs. Newton already has one NFL MVP trophy on his mantle, and working with Turner will allow him to take his game to the next level as the Panthers need him to be more of a quarterback than an athlete if they are going to win the Super Bowl.
But for the Panthers to get to where they want to go this year offensively, they must continue to focus on running the football; however what must change is that Newton cannot be their leading rusher like he was last season. Last year the Panthers used a first-round pick on running back Christian McCaffrey, and he didn’t have the impact that most people expected him to. Some of that can be chalked up to the Panthers offensive scheme, but I expect Turner to make the most of McCaffrey’s physical attributes as both a runner and receiver which should open things up for Carolina’s offense.
Tight end Greg Olsen is looking to bounce back after a broken foot limited him to only seven games last year. But at the age of 33, will Olsen be able to once again become the Pro Bowl player that was a few years ago, while also being a big part of Carolina’s passing attack?
After spending the last seven years as the Panthers defensive line coach, Eric Washington is now the team’s defensive coordinator. Washington inherits a veteran group which was seventh in the National Football League last season in total defense, and they know how to create havoc for opposing offenses.
Even at the age of 38, defensive end Julius Peppers continues to get it done at a high level. Last year marked the tenth time in Peppers’ career that he recorded at least 10 sacks in a season. And another strong season from Peppers in regards to rushing the quarterback will put him in third place on the NFL’s all-time list for sacks.
Last year the Panthers were third in the National Football League in run defense, and they’ll once again be very stout in that category. Carolina lost defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in free agency to the Buffalo Bills, but they didn’t skip a beat as they signed veteran defensive tackle Dontari Poe. At 6’3″, 346 lbs., Poe is a very imposing figure that consistently commands a double team which allows for his defensive teammates to be freed up to make plays. But Poe won’t be the only “space eater” on Carolina’s defensive line as they also have Kawaan Short and Vernon Butler Jr. I can see the Panthers rotating this trio in order to keep them fresh in their pursuit of shutting down opposing offenses.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to be the best at his position in the business as he is continuing to preserve the Panthers history of strong play at the middle linebacker position which began with Sam Mills, and carried over with Dan Morgan. Kuechly has great instincts in regards to reading opposing offenses, while his range to play both the run and pass will once again led to a Pro Bowl selection as well as putting him in the discussion to be the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
It will once again be a battle in the NFC South, and as the Panthers will face the Saints two times in the final three weeks of the regular season, maybe they will finally be able to reverse the tide against their division rival.
Atlanta Falcons 8-8
So close, yet so far is the best way to sum up the Atlanta Falcons in recent years. We all remember what happened to the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 when they blew a 25-point lead against the New England Patriots which will be remembered as the worst collapse in National Football League history. The Falcons would dust themselves off of the mat last year to going 10-6 en route to earning a playoff berth. Atlanta’s playoff experience would should up as they went on the road to knock off the Los Angeles Rams in the first round of the postseason, but they failed to get it done the following week as they fell to the eventual Super Bowl Champs in the Philadelphia Eagles. And now as the dawn of a new season is upon us, will the Falcons be able to distance themselves from their legacy of being unable to get it down in the big game?
Matt Ryan has been the Falcons starting quarterback since 2008, and during his tenure with the team, he has rewritten the franchise’s record book for passing, while he also has a National Football League MVP Award to his credit. But personal accolades aside, Ryan has been unable to cement his legacy as an elite quarterback due to his inability to get it done in the big moments. Whether is be the regular season or the playoffs, Ryan has folded too often which makes you wonder if he’ll ever be able to lead the Falcons to a championship. And although that the Falcons should once again contend for a playoff spot this year, while Ryan will once again have a big passing season, it won’t mean a thing unless he finds a way to win at least three games when the calendar shifts to 2019.
And as Ryan is set to have another big passing season, you can expect wide receiver Julio Jones to be a big part of it. When you start to rattle off the names of the top wide receivers currently in the National Football League, it will not take you that long before you mention the name of Julio Jones. The Falcons famously moved up 20 spots in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft in order to select Jones and he has been worth the compensation that Atlanta had to give up to the Cleveland Browns that day.
At 6’3″, 220 lbs., Jones is a freak of nature due to his speed, power, and athleticism. Jones is a terrific route runner who is rarely out of position on a ball that is thrown by Ryan as a big season could see him surpass Roddy White as the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving yards.
But as dominant that Jones can be in the passing game for Atlanta, this team needs balance with their rushing attack. In 2016 when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl, they were fifth in the National Football League in rushing which included running back Devonta Freeman gaining 1,079 yards on the ground. Atlanta took a step back last year as they were 13th in the league in rushing, but it didn’t have the same effect being that Freeman nor running back Tevin Coleman were able to gain 1,000 yards on the ground. For too long the Falcons have attempted to make Ryan “the guy” on offense when in actuality he needs to depend on the players around him at the skill positions; especially from the aspect of running the ball to set up the play-action pass to Jones.
Atlanta will be without the services of their two leading tacklers from last season in middle linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal as both are on injured reserve which is a huge blow to their defense. And under defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the onus is going to be on this defensive line to create pressure. After leading the National Football League in sacks in 2016 with 15.5, defensive end/outside linebacker Vic Beasley took a huge step back in 2017 as he was only able to tally 5. And for the Falcons to offset the loss of both Neal and Jones, Beasley will need to have a monster year as this defensive line must create pressure in order to create opportunities for the back seven behind them.
In 2017, the Falcons used a first-round pick on defensive end Takkarist McKinley. McKinley did have a solid rookie season with 6 sacks, but now will be the time for him to ratchet his production up to another level.
It’s quite clear that the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are the class of this division as there is a good chance that the playoff ship will past the Falcons by.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4-12
For the sixth time in the last seven years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are entering a new National Football League season fresh off of a last place finish in the NFC South. Not only did the Buccaneers go 5-11 last year, but they also had to sit back and see all three of their division rivals make the playoffs. Overall the Bucs have not made the playoffs since 2007 which is the second longest current postseason drought in the NFL, and you have to go back to Super Bowl 37 to find the last time that they were able to win a playoff game. Since Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl, they have only been able to put together five winning seasons, and any chance of them putting together a winning campaign here in 2018 will be difficult.
In 2015, the Bucs made quarterback Jameis Winston the first overall pick of the draft as they were anticipating him being their franchise quarterback. That season Winston would be named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year as his physical tools gave the Buccaneers something to build around. However the same off-the-field issues that plagued Winston during his collegiate days at Florida State are showing up in the NFL.
Winston will not be available for the first three games of the upcoming season due to the fact that he has been suspended by the National Football League for violating the personal conduct policy. And as Winston is entering his fourth year in the NFL, this is the time where his maturity should be taking center stage, but it is his immaturity that is making people question if he can be a franchise quarterback.
In Winston’s absence,Tampa will rely on veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is a well traveled journeyman as this is his second season with the Bucs, while they are the seventh different National Football League franchise that he has played for. Fitzpatrick has been up and down throughout his NFL career, and it will be imperative for Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter to put him in the best possible position to win.
Last year Tampa Bay had one of the best passing offenses in the National Football League as they were fourth in the league in passing offense, and regardless of whether it is Winston or Fitzpatrick at quarterback, they should once again be able to air it out. Wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson have each made at least one Pro Bowl in their respective careers, while they each have the potential each have the potential to gain 1,000 yards receiving this year.
Last season as a rookie, tight end O.J. Howard only had 26 receptions, but he was able to average 16.6 yards per catch. At 6’6″, 250 lbs., Howard is faster than most people expect him to be, and I see Koetter using more two-tight end packages with him and Cameron Brate in order to utilize their abilities as pass catchers.
But as good as things were in regards to the Bucs ability to throw the football last year, it was equally as bad for them on the ground. In 2017, Tampa was 27th in the National Football League in regards to running the football with their leading rusher being running back Peyton Barber with only 423 yards. In each year under Koetter, Tampa has struggled to run the football, and without that balance, along with a questionable offensive line, it will be difficult for them to keep up in the competitive NFC South.
Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith is set to begin his third years as the defensive coordinator of the Buccaneers, and there is only one direction that his unit can go. Last year the Bucs were last in the National Football League in total defense as they surrendered more than 378 yards per game.
The first thing that Tampa did this off-season was to address their issues on the defensive line. Last year the Bucs were only able to tally 22 sacks which was last in the league. And in a division where quarterback Matt Ryan and Cam Newton have each been MVPs of the National Football League, while Drew Brees has Super Bowl MVP on his resume, the Bucs must find a way to get to the quarterback.
Tampa Bay already has defensive tackle Gerald McCoy who is a six-time Pro Bowl anchoring their offensive line, but they went out and got him some help. This off-season the Buccaneers were able to acquire defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul from the New York Giants. Pierre-Paul brings his experience as Super Bowl Champion with him to Tampa, but he has not been the same player since a fireworks accident saw him lose parts of two fingers in 2015.
Aside from picking up JPP, the Bucs spent a first-round pick this year on defensive tackle Vita Vea. Vea joins the Bucs after a stellar collegiate career at Washington which included him being named as the Pac-12 Conference’s Defensive Player in 2017. At 6’4″, 347 lbs., Vea is a mountain of a man that is hard move, and the Buccaneers are hopeful that he can anchor their defensive line, while freeing up his teammates to make more plays.
The Bucs will sorely miss Winston as their first three games of the season will be against teams that playoffs last year in the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and Pittsburgh Steelers. And without any soft spots in their schedule, the Bucs could be staring at another losing season, while Koetter’s days with the franchise could be numbered as well.