Since the NFL realigned the divisions in 2002, few have been quite as balanced as the NFC South Division. The New Orleans Saints have won the division seven times, the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won five teams each, while the Falcons have won four titles. This year will be no different, as the defending champion Buccaneers saw their star quarterback, Tom Brady, retire.
That move alone has all four teams thinking this could be their year. While no one in the division will be favored to win the NFC crown, the lack of a dominant team, or quarterback, should make for a fun race this season. Compared to other divisions, this one seems the most likely to produce a surprise entrant to the postseason. The division will be highly unlikely to produce a Super Bowl participant.
Defending Champions Hope Baker is the Answer
Hope usually springs eternal. When it comes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ plan at quarterback, they are banking on the promise of potential. Baker Mayfield had his moments in Cleveland, but the former first-round pick quickly fell out of favor. Now, with another option to be the full-time start, Mayfield will see if he can guide Tampa Bay back to the playoffs.
The Buccaneers provided him with some weapons in the passing game to help him out. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are dangerous when they aren’t dinged up. Leonard Fournette departed in free agency, so the Buccaneers will lean on running back Rachaad White to be in the starting lineup.
Tampa Bay invested a lot in the draft to help improve its defense. The Buccaneers drafted defensive lineman Calijah Kancey in the first round, who is a bit undersized but built a reputation as a ferocious pass rusher. Tampa Bay also was able to get cornerback Jamel Dean to hang around. Dean has put up good numbers defending opposing wide receivers.
There are some things to like about this team, but coach Todd Bowles will have a challenge on his hands post-Brady. Tampa Bay will need to use this season to try and build a bridge to the future. If Mayfield plays well, they could surprise some people, but things need to be perfect around him.
Can Bryce Young Handle the Big Time?
The Carolina Panthers have spent the years since Cam Newton departed looking for their next franchise quarterback. Much like other rebuilding franchises, the Panthers will need to take some risks with young players to get them experience. Carolina did so this season by drafting former Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick.
Young doesn’t have an NFL body type, as he is just 5-foot-10 inches tall and weighs 204 pounds. In order for Young to be successful, he is going to have to find a way to stay healthy in a league where many defenders will outweigh him by a significant margin. What Carolina did to help Young adjust was bring in a bevy of veteran, skilled players.
The Panthers signed wide receivers DJ Chark and Adam Thielen, running back Miles Sanders, and tight end Hayden Hurt. Carolina also brought in long-time veteran quarterback Andy Dalton to help mentor Young.
The Panthers still have questions in their secondary. Carolina does have a number of talented players returning on defense — pass rusher Brian Burns, defensive lineman Derrick Brown, and cornerback Jaycee Horn — if the offense can make plays, the Panthers could challenge in a weak division.
Atlanta Needs Ridder to Be the Man
The Falcons aren’t slow-playing Desmond Ridder’s development at the start of his second season. As a rookie, Ridder saw limited playing time as Atlanta chose to go with veteran players under center. When Ridder did play, he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 708 yards in four appearances. Atlanta signed veteran Taylor Heinicke as a backup plan.
Atlanta did its best to build around Ridder in the offseason. In the first round, the Falcons picked talented running back Bijan Robinson out of Texas. The Falcons also added an offensive tackle in the second round out of Syracuse. But the Falcons’ additions on offense were pale in comparison to the defensive overhaul.
Atlanta added edge rusher Bud Dupree, linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Kaden Elliss, along with defensive linemen David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Eddie Goldman. Atlanta was able to utilize having the second-most cap space to great effect. The fanbase is hoping for a playoff berth, and the Falcons’ hopes may ride with Ridder.
Saints Ready to Break in New Carr
Former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has landed in New Orleans. The Saints will welcome his experience in the league after struggling to get through last season with Jameis Winston and others under center last year.
Carr will have to overcome a poor 2022. By the end of the season, Las Vegas coach Josh McDaniels and Carr weren’t on the same page. Carr was benched by the end of the season and later let go. The Saints were also able to bring in wide receiver Michael Thomas to support Carr. People around the league are also excited about rookie wide receiver A.T. Perry, who made big plays last season while suiting up for Wake Forest.
In the NFL Draft, the Saints worked on replacing some holes in their front seven. New Orleans drafted Bryan Bresee and Isaiah Foskey, both defenders, in the first two rounds. The Saints still show a need for more depth at linebacker.
Despite still having some flaws, New Orleans isn’t that different from its division rivals. The Saints could be good this season, but they could also be bad as well. In a division race that will come down to the end of the season, New Orleans will need to stay healthy to have a chance at the playoffs.