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122815 ATLANTA: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman gets past Panthers Jared Allen for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 during the second quarter in a football game on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Why the NFC South will be the Most Competitive Division in Football

It wasn’t too long ago that the NFC South was the worst division in football.  In 2014, the Carolina Panthers won the division despite the fact that they won less than half of their games in that season. With a 7-8-1 record, the Panthers had the 19th best record in the NFL, but were at the top of the NFC South. For some perspective, the best division in football that year was the AFC North, and the team that finished last (the Cleveland Browns) had a record of 7-9.  Now the tides have turned and the NFC South contains the last two Super Bowl runners up, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history, and one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Things could get very interesting in the NFC South.

The Atlanta Falcons

In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons had an incredibly prolific offense. Not only does the team have arguably the best quarterback and WR1 combination in the league with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, they have two extremely talented running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. One of the largely over-looked factors to the Falcons’ offensive success was their offensive line. The addition of Alex Mack prior to the 2016 season made the entire group stronger. Guard Chris Chester retired following their Super Bowl run in 2016. Although he was the weakest link on the Falcons’ offensive line, they will need to figure out how to replace him and hopefully upgrade the position. The Falcons will also look to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco, who left in free agency, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is now the head coach in San Francisco.  

Defensively the 2016 Falcons relied on youth and speed, and they acquired more of both in the NFL Draft. First round pick Takkarist McKinley will add to their pass rush and they could also see production out of linebacker Duke Riley and corner Damontae Kazee. They also made a big free agent acquisition in defensive tackle Dontari Poe. The Falcons have definitely upgraded their defensive personnel and should see development amongst their young returning players as well. Matt Ryan must get on the same page with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian quickly in order to avoid a post-Super Bowl slump.

The Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers know a thing or two about slumping after a Super Bowl run. After making it to the big dance following a 15-1 regular season in 2015, they did not even have a positive record in 2016 and finished last in the division. Cam Newton was vocal about how he was getting hit, and while he blamed the officials rather than his offensive line, the Panthers have looked to make some improvements to their pass protection. They added veteran tackle Matt Kalil and rookie guard/tackle Taylor Moton. They also added two dynamic offensive playmakers through the draft in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. Both can lineup in the backfield or at receiver and should make the Panthers’ offense a lot of fun to watch.  

The Panthers did little this off-season to address their defense, which struggled last season with the departure of top cornerback Josh Norman. Bringing back Julius Peppers will give their pass rush a bit of a boost, but the biggest changes for the team in 2017 will be on offense. Adding McCaffrey and Samuel to a Cam Newton led offense could produce an offense that causes major problems for opposing defenses.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston. Winston relied heavily last season on Mike Evans, but this year the Bucs acquired veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson through free agency and drafted tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. The addition of these two should help to open up the offense and create more big play opportunities. The Buccaneers, however, did not take any major steps to improve their offensive line, which is generally seen as one of the weaker units in the league. The Buccaneers added other young players with a chance to contribute, including safety Justin Evans, linebacker Kendell Beckwith, wide receiver Chris Godwin, and running back Jeremy McNichols.

The New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints always produce on offense and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. Drew Brees is still a top quarterback and adding Ted Ginn Jr. to a receiver core that already contains Willie Snead and Michael Thomas will produce big time results. Adding Adrian Peterson to complement Mark Ingram in the backfield will add even more nuance to this offense. The team also managed to improve their offensive line by drafting Ryan Ramczyk at the end of the first round. The big news on draft day, however, was on the defensive side of the ball. The Saints got a steal when corner Marshon Lattimore slipped to the #11 pick in the draft. The Ohio State corner was seen as one of the top talents in the class. They also drafted potential contributors in safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.  

The Saints’ off-season reminds me a bit of the Falcons’ off-season in 2016. They added a talented offensive lineman and a plethora of young defensive talent. The Saints have never had an issue scoring points. If they can get production from these young defenders, they could definitely make a championship run in 2017.

The NFC South will be the most competitive division in football in 2017. All four teams have top tier quarterbacks who are surrounded by playmakers on offense. The improvements that the Falcons and Saints have made defensively, and that the Panthers and Buccaneers have made offensively, will have a major impact on the result of the 2017 season.      

 

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