It’s time for Regular Season Predictions! For this article I’ll be predicting the 2018 NFC South teams, predicting the worst record they could have (Floor) and the best (Ceiling). Let’s not waste any time dealing with a division that has three quarterbacks that have won First Team All Pro and Offensive Player of the Year, as well as two quarterbacks that have won MVP.
1. New Orleans Saints
At long last the Saints have a real defense, and that’s made them a competitive team once again.
That’s something Drew Brees has lacked after his only Super Bowl appearance. The future Hall of Fame quarterback was also asked to do less, as the focal point of the Saints offense was Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who were studs running and receiving. But Brees’ impact is still felt, as he’s one of the best quarterbacks in football. His smooth, fast mechanics, quick brain, and otherworldly accuracy have always stood out, and with a stronger supporting cast he was able to break the single season record for completion percentage.
Losing Mark Ingram for the first four games of the season is rough, but those games should be manageable, as they’re opening against Tampa Bay and Cleveland at home while facing Atlanta and the Giants on the road. Alvin Kamara’s stock is rising as a result. Kamara was a phenomenal rookie last year, looking as agile as any rookie back I’ve seen while being arguably the most versatile back Sean Payton has ever had. His rookie record 6.1 yards per attempt will most likely regress, but he should still have a really good season.
On the receiving end, the Saints lack an explosive tight end (again), but Michael Thomas is one of the best receivers in the league. His intelligence as a route runner stands out, and I love how he attacks the ball sets himself up in positions where he can easily get yards after the catch. Ted Ginn has otherworldly speed as a deep threat in addition to inconsistent hands, but Cameron Meredith, a talented receiver in Chicago, gets a second chance after a brutal knee injury suffered before the 2017 season. Tre’Quan Smith, the rookie, remains an interesting name to watch.
The Saints also have easily one of the best offensive lines in the league. Max Unger is a high quality center, Ryan Ramczyk is a stud right tackle, Larry Warford had a career year in 2017 at right guard, left guard Andrus Peat is returning from injury, and Terron Armstead is perhaps one of the best tackles in all of football. Further enhancing that group is Sean Payton’s play action, option heavy scheme, which will allow Brees to get all sorts of time in the pocket to cut up defenses.
Speaking of defenses, that group is no longer a joke for New Orleans after finishing in the top 10 statistically in 2017. I like the defensive front, including the excellent Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, and Trey Hendrickson, who looks like he’s going to be a stud. Marcus Davenport’s selection was controversial considering the Saints gave up two first round picks for a guy that wasn’t considered a first rounder (plus Drew Brees’ window), but he does give the defensive end group more depth.
Marshon Lattimore’s rookie season was incredible, especially for a cornerback. Lattimore wasted no time making an impact, becoming the focal point of that defensive secondary. Ken Crawley is also a fine corner, and Marcus Williams deserves better than the reputation he acquired after the Minneapolis Miracle. It’s not a perfect defense, but it’s one that actually has life in it.
Despite Ingram missing four games to suspension, I still have high expectations for this Saints team. They’re well coached, well quarterbacked, and the success of the 2017 draft class is going to become huge for them this season. I see them repeating as NFC South champions.
2. Atlanta Falcons
In regards to the roster, the Falcons have not been this talented in a long time, maybe ever. With lots of options on offense and defense, they could return to the Super Bowl if they ever had a competent offensive coordinator.
Steve Sarkisian was the difference maker in the Falcons’ offense massively regressing in 2017. Whereas Kyle Shanahan made every player better in a spread offense, Sarkisian couldn’t compete, and instead halted the offense numerous times, forcing the skill players to beat coverage with athleticism more than typically getting open like in Shanahan’s system.
One player that actually got better, to me, was Matt Ryan. I actually thought Aaron Rodgers was the best quarterback of 2016, as Ryan got a little lucky with dropped picks in 2017. But Ryan was terrific in 2017; When the offensive line, run game, scheme and receivers played worse, Ryan stood strong, playing great against pressure while continuing to provide some of the best movement inside the pocket as well as one of the game’s most accurate quarterbacks.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman dropped more passes than they should have, but they’re still one of the best if not the best backfield combinations in the league. Freeman is an electrifying runner and a fundamentally sound receiver, while Coleman offers a more explosive skill set on the receiving end. Coleman is in a contract year, and depending on how the Falcons feel about him and rookie Ito Smith, he could be with another team in 2019.
An issue with Julio Jones last year was that he was less consistent at the catch point than in 2016, but even then he’s still a top receiver in the league, with world-class breakaway speed being the highlight of his skill set. Adding Calvin Ridley in the draft gives the Falcons great receiving depth along with Mohamad Sanu. Austin Hooper flashed in his first two seasons in the league, and should provide a much bigger role this season. Meanwhile the offensive line should also improve this season, with Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and Ryan Schrader standing out.
The defense should easily be a top ten unit in 2018, maybe even top five. Vic Beasley is back to a more traditional pass rushing role, where he has been sensational at, and Takkarist McKinley to his right forms an extremely strong defensive end tandem. Grady Jarrett is an otherworldly defensive tackle that deserves to hit the pay dirt, and the Falcons invested in further depth with Terrell McClain and the third-round rookie Deadrin Senat, who looks extremely enticing.
The back seven is extremely strong. Deion Jones is one of the most dangerous linebackers in football, combining a lethal dose of speed, toughness and vision to his game, while De’Vondre Campbell is also very good as the middle linebacker. Keanu Neal is a great young safety, while Ricardo Allen adds additional quality at strong safety. The cornerback depth is tremendous, with Desmond Trufant being a top player at the position, Robert Alford turning into quite the corner, the rookie Isaiah Oliver looking intriguing, and Brian Poole being one of the best slot corners in the league.
The Falcons are loaded in talent, with a few analysts actually predicting them to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. How far they go depends on how far Steve Sarkisian lets the offense go, which is why I have them below the Saints in the division. Still, there’s so much talent that they’re still a playoff team in my book.
3. Carolina Panthers
Every time I have the Panthers missing the playoffs, they end up making it in. And every time I have them making the playoffs, the miss it. This year I have them missing the playoffs. You’re welcome, Carolina.
Cam Newton is one of the more polarizing players in football, but he’s one of those players where the tape tells a better story than the stats. Newton began the season hurt with a shoulder injury, then went through a finger injury in the middle of the season. That affected his consistency, but when he was healthy (like in the playoff game at New Orleans), he was great. Newton’s probably the best running quarterback in the league, and as a passer he combines excellent composure under pressure with elite arm strength and deadly downfield accuracy. Simply put, he carries the Panthers day in and day out.
The supporting casts the Panthers have given Newton have generally been bad, and the offensive line might get him killed this year. Matt Kalil is atrocious (and is on injured reserve), his brother Ryan doesn’t seem to have a lot left in the tank, and Taylor Moton is second on the depth chart when he should be starting; He’s the best tackle the Panthers have.
In terms of skill players, it’s at least an upgrade from previous seasons. The Kelvin Benjamin trade allowed Carolina to run a faster offense, and Christian McCaffrey should be the focal point, as he’s an excellent receiving back that received horrible run blocking in his rookie season. Signing C.J. Anderson could be a big deal, as he is a smart, tough runner that should help the backfield a lot. Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd were intriguing players before their injuries, Devin Funchess is inconsistent but offers some explosiveness, Greg Olsen is the most reliable receiver, and D.J. Moore looks like he can be really good.
Of course, not all the skill players are golden. As I said, Funchess isn’t all that great, and signing Jarius Wright and Torrey Smith didn’t make much sense. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas is a name to watch though. I can’t say that this is the worst supporting cast the Panthers have given Newton, but it’s not a great group either.
Thankfully, the defense offers more quality. I can’t say for certain how much left Julius Peppers has left in the tank in his battle against Father Time, but going out and pairing Dotari Poe with Kawann Short gives Carolina an explosive defensive tackle tandem. Mario Addison is a fine pass rusher himself, while Luke Kuechly is one of the best defenders in football. Shaq Thompson is in line for a breakout season too.
The secondary is more of a concern. James Bradberry is talented, but needs to show more consistency at corner. Mike Adams was a nice surprise last year, but is 37. Da’Norris Searchy is an adequate safety but isn’t a game changer, while rookie corner Donte Jackson gets his chance to prove himself, as he is set to start week 1.
Hopefully Norv Turner has a better grasp on the play calling than Mike Shula did at offensive coordinator. A healthy Cam Newton will keep this team competitive, but I don’t see them making the playoffs in a loaded NFC. Their roster, to me, can’t compare to others, especially the Falcons and Saints.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like the Chiefs, the Buccaneers have polar opposites with an enticing offense and a lackluster defense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is in for the suspended Jameis Winston for the first three games of the season, and as a starter he’s terrible. Winston is better, but hasn’t developed a lot of consistency up to this point (though his downfield accuracy got better in the last quarter of the 2017 season). His decision-making and overall accuracy have to be refined for the Buccaneers offense to be more explosive.
Even with Fitzpatrick rearing his head into the picture, the Buccaneers offense features enough talent that could be wasted by poor quarterback play. Mike Evans is clearly a top pass catcher with insane ball skills, and the speedster Desean Jackson is equally good on downfield routes (though it should be noted he is in the last year of his contract and is 31). Chris Godwin could be a starter by the end of the season, and Adam Humphries had a solid year in the slot in 2017. The tight end duo of Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard is the best in the league without question.
The run game was a train wreck last year, so Tampa Bay has used their options wisely by investing in Ronald Jones III for the future. Peyton Barber had some flashes last year and is the starter, while Jacquizz Rodgers is holding off Jones at the second string. The offensive line isn’t brutally painful, as Ali Marpet and DeMar Dotson offer some quality, but it’s not a unit that can particularly handle a vertical passing offense well.
Buccaneers fans have hyped up the defense, and while it’s better than in 2017, I don’t think it’s good at all. Gerald McCoy is still excellent, but Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry are not the players they used to be. Vita Vea is second on the depth chart at right defensive tackle, hopefully giving him more time to develop.
I have low expectations for the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves has been mostly bad (although admittedly he’s a better slot defender than he is outside), I’m not a Chris Conte guy, Brent Grimes has been fine in Tampa Bay but could be on the decline. I hope Justin Evans continues to develop, because that secondary desperately needs it.
To be honest, this is one of the weaker teams in the NFC. In the AFC, they’d probably be an average team, but in the NFC they’re near the bottom. I really like the skill players on offense, but the quarterback play has killed the receivers downfield, and the defense doesn’t have enough talent in my opinion. This is a team that could very easily start out 0-3, and that’s not easy to recover from.