A Look at the NFL: NFC South

Teams around the NFL have closed minicamps and are away for the summer until training camp. We’ve learned a lot about clubs during their offseason workouts. So where are they now? Who will be doing what? Who looks like they’re improving? Who might not be? So let’s take it division by division, team by team, highlighting the good news, the bad news, and the overall outlook.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints  (7-9, 3-3 Div.)

Good News – Brandin Cooks and Jairus Byrd will be back.

Last year’s rookie standout Brandon Cooks will be back this year to fill the void left by some major departures (see bad news). Before injuring his thumb and ending the season on injured reserve, Cooks flashed real skill, hauling in 53 passes for 550 yards and three scores in ten games. Quarterback Drew Brees will be looking for a new favorite target to keep this offense atop the NFL rankings in 2015 and Cooks is expected to be that guy. Jairus Byrd is the other big name who will be returning from injury. The free safety was New Orleans big free agent pick up a year ago, but he failed to live up to expectations. Before his season was cut short due to injury, Byrd looked lost and confused in Rob Ryan’s defense. However, most of Byrd’s problems had to do with the fact that he barely participated in offseason activities last year. He had back surgery soon after signing his contract and entered training camp on the physically unable to perform list. This year has been a different story. Byrd is nearly fully recovered from his torn meniscus and was able to participate fully in OTA’s and minicamps. His play-making ability will help the Saints defense rebound from a season in which they ranked 31st in the league in yards allowed and 25th against the pass.

Bad News – Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills are gone.

If you haven’t heard (and possibly have been living under a rock this summer), star tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks back in the spring. This shocked the NFL world. Graham is a 6’ 7” monster redzone threat that has scored 51 touchdowns in 5 years. He was Drew Brees’ favorite target and was a matchup nightmare with his size and speed and can do things like this:


A player of that caliber does not get replaced easily. Kenny Stills is another target that is now playing elsewhere. Stills was traded to the Miami Dolphins soon after the Graham deal went down. While he may not have the same impact that Jimmy Graham did, he was still a reliable target for the Saints passing game, averaging more than 16 yards a catch during his career and nearly amassing a thousand yards last year. When you lose a guy like Graham, every receiver becomes more valuable.

Overall Impression – The Saints scared a lot of fans and analysts by trading away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, but if anyone can handle losing talent like that, it’s the offensive minds of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Brandin Cooks will be utilized much more next season along with lesser known targets such as Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill. Don’t forget, the team also signed running back C.J. Spiller from Buffalo, who possibly could fill the void left by Darren Sproles. I like where the Saints are going. If Rob Ryan can get his defense to stop someone, this team could be dangerous in 2015.

Carolina Panthers (8-9-1, 4-2 Div.)

Good News – The Panthers passing game will be one to watch this season.

Kelvin Benjamin proved he could be a legitimate number one receiver last year, racking up over a thousand yards as a rookie. The Panthers drafted a compliment to him in Devin Funchess in the second round back in April, giving Carolina two solid targets out wide to go along with one of the most underrated tight ends in football in Greg Olsen.

Bad News – Who will be running the football for Carolina?

DeAngelo Williams now plays in Pittsburgh and Jonathan Stewart has struggled to stay healthy. Cam Newton is an excellent runner, but he is your big money quarterback. He can’t be the primary ball carrier and have a long career. Carolina drafted Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne this year who could compliment Stewart well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where someone like Chris Johnson or Ray Rice ends up.

Overall Impression – The Panthers were the best team in the worst division a year ago. They became the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record. They seem to have done little to improve that mark this year. Funchess will be a productive player, especially with Benjamin commanding more attention in coverage, but this team has really given off the impression of remaining idle this offseason while the rest of the division has made strides to improve.

Atlanta Falcons: (6-10, 5-1 Div.)

Good News – Dan Quinn and Vic Beasely are in town.

This team has struggled defensively, ranking dead last in the NFL in total defense in 2014. What better way to improve defensively than bringing in the brains behind Seattle’s Legion of Boom? Dan Quinn led Seattle’s defense to a top ranking in the NFL both years he was defensive coordinator. The team also drafted star pass rusher Vic Beasely in the first round this year. The additions of both Quinn and Beasely will help this defense drastically improve in 2015.

Bad News – The Falcons look good on paper…again.

Atlanta has had a habit the last few years of doing all the right things in the offseason, then crashing and burning during the regular season. Look where we were last year. The team drafted Jake Matthews to help a struggling offensive line, signed Tyson Jackson to increase pass rush, and added Devin Hester to improve special teams. Yet the team went 6 and 10 and missed the playoffs. The Falcons have again addressed their needs, this time in a much more drastic fashion. Again expectations are high for this team, but will they live up to those expectations?

Overall Impression – The Falcons have done an excellent job of addressing their needs. They had the worst defense in football last year so they hired the man behind the best defense in football to fix it. They drafted a start pass rusher in the first round. They already have one of the best offenses in the NFL so if their defense improves, this team should be in the postseason in January. However, they have had these expectations before. Why should this time be any different?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14, 0-6 Div.)

Good News – The team drafted Jameis Winston.

The Buccaneers were the worst team in the NFL last year. So with the first overall pick, they selected the guy that will be the face of their franchise for years to come. Jameis Winston was the best quarterback in the draft this year. He came out of a pro style system at Florida State and is a proven winner, winning a national championship and a Heisman Trophy and only losing once in his college career. He has the mechanics of a great passer and does not need to spend time working on his technique or footwork and can just focus on learning the playbook in Tampa.

Bad News – The team drafted Jameis Winston.

Here’s the deal with Winston. He is a great football player and has the talent to succeed in the NFL. Unfortunately the biggest question about him is his character. His time at Florida State produced two things: wins and distractions. First he was accused of rape, then he stole crab legs from a local seafood vendor, then he grabbed a microphone and yelled profanity in front of a crowd of people. He displayed immaturity several times when he was in the spotlight and it got worse as his career progressed. Now he is in the NFL. He is the number one overall pick and is getting paid millions of dollars. Winston will be the 2015 version of Johnny Football. Will he produce the same type of performance on the field as Manziel did last year? We’ll see, but one thing is certain. He is a media magnet and will be watched like a hawk by the press this year.

Overall Impression – This team is far from competing in the postseason. Their defense is still suspect. They have no secondary. They’re offense should improve, but not by much. If this team comes away with 6 wins in 2015, they should be happy.

Winner

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons have only done good things this offseason. Their weakness is defense so they have focused on improving it. Their offense is already elite. Matt Ryan is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but their defense could not stop a nosebleed last year. The only question now is can they handle the expectation? The Falcons have done enough to win this division. Now we just wait and see if they can produce like their talent level says they can.

 

*Featured Image from L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

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