NFC South 2018 Team Previews

Our NFL 2018 season preview continues in this next article with the NFC South teams. Check out what we had to say about the New Orleans Saints, the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Overview

Considered one of the historically toughest divisions in the NFL, the 2017 NFC South did not disappoint. In addition to the first place champion New Orleans Saints, it also provided both NFC Wildcard teams, the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons.

The 11-5 Saints started off slow (again) 0-2, and then had an eight game winning streak. When the Falcons beat the Panthers in Week 17, the Saints clinched the top spot in their division and went on to beat the Panthers in the Wildcard game, 31-26. The Casey Keenum led Vikings were too much for Brees’ Saints and they fell in the fourth quarter 29-24 to end their season. Their offseason was spent trying to make the pass defense better and finding more targets for Brees.

The AFC South second place Carolina Panthers went 11-5 in 2017, which was quite a bit better than their 6-10 output from the season before. And it was also good enough to score a Wildcard spot in the playoffs, which they lost to the Saints 31-26. Their main goal this offseason has been to improve their 19th ranked offense and find some hot targets for quarterback Cam Newton.

Third place in the NFL is normally unacceptable, but last season in the AFC South, it was good enough to score the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons a Wildcard spot in the playoffs, which the defending NFC champs almost took all the way to the Super Bowl. They beat the LA Rams 26-13 but lost to the eventual Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles 15-10. To return to greatness in 2018, their three best players have to play even better.

Coming off their 9-7 record in 2016, the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers expected to do a lot more than finish last in the NFC South for the seventh time in nine seasons with a record of 5-11. Their season was marred by poor defense and an early kicking situation. If their offseason moves don’t turn things around, the Bucs front office may be in danger of losing their jobs.

The New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints went 11-5 in 2017, which far exceeded their previous season’s 7-9 production but was barely good enough to win the NFC North. If the Saints hadn’t gone 4-2 in their divisional games, and if the Panthers wouldn’t have lost to the Falcons in Week 17, and if their defense had been as good as their offense…there’s been a lot of ifs that general manager Mickey Loomis has tried to address this offseason.

Even the best teams have chinks in their armor, and last season for the Saints (if you had to name something), it was their defense, ranked 17th in the league overall. Of course, when you consider that the two years prior they were ranked 32nd and 31st, they’ve obviously improved.

But when you look at his 2018 offseason moves, Loomis expects even more from his team.

The Saints defense will be deeper in 2018

Coordinator Dennis Allen’s defense did shine in several areas – they ranked third in the league in interceptions (20), ranked tenth in opponent points per game (20.4) after ranking 31st in 2016 and tied for seventh in sacks (42). As is his habit, Loomis moved up in the draft and in the first round grabbed an edge rusher, UT San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport, who’s considered raw but talented. He made 8.5 sacks in 2017 earning him Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.

This offseason Loomis made sure his quarterback hunting defensive end Alex Okafor was happy by signing him to a two year deal so that he and Cameron Jordon can continue racking up the sacks in 2018. Defensive end George Johnson was late to the 2017 Saints party, but he played well enough to earn a one-year extension for just over $1 million in 2018. 

Free agent strong side linebacker Demario Davis (NYJ) signed a three-year deal for $24 million to help defend the run after the Saints allowed opponents to rush 111.7 yards per game, which ranks in the middle of the league at 16th.

The backfield’s two All Rookies, cornerback Marshon Lattimore (5 picks last season) and free safety Marcus Williams (4 picks) and safety Vonn Bell (4.5 sacks) will be joined by free agent corner Patrick Robinson (PHI) who’s fresh off a Super Bowl win and ready to return to the team that originally drafted him.

Brees is back, surprising nobody

After much speculation (and hopeful dreaming by many) that quarterback Drew Brees would become a free agent and make some non-Saints NFL team a winner, he ended up signing a two-year deal with New Orleans worth $50 million, which caused some “Saints got a real steal” whisperings.

Brees is 39 years old in 2018, but that’s certainly not slowing down his production. Last season he threw for 4,334 yards (4th in the league) with a career high completion percentage of 72.0. He threw only 8 interceptions, which is a little over half of the previous year’s total of 15 picks. Brees only put up 23 touchdowns in 2017, which is actually low for him by at least 10. In 2016, he put up 37 touchdowns and in 2015 it was 32, numbers he’ll have to return to in 2018 if he expects to win yet another Super Bowl.

Coordinator Pete Carmichael’s offense set, except Ingram

Running back Mark Ingram, whose 1,124 total rushing yards last season ranked 5th in the league, will be suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s PED policy. He ran a career-high 230 times last season for 12 rushing touchdowns and caught 58 balls for 416 yards.

Filling in for Ingram will be All Rookie, second-team All Pro running back Alvin Kamara, who had the first ever 700/700 season by a New Orleans Saint, rushing for 728 yards and making 826 yards worth of catches. In 2017, Kamara was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Wide receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. return to the 5th ranked passing offense after having impressive 2017’s. Thomas caught 104 balls for 1,245 yards and 5 touchdowns and Ginn Jr. had 53 receptions for 787 yards and 4 touchdowns. Loomis has packed the wide receiver room, signing free agent Cameron Meredith (CHI), re-signing undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman and drafting Tre’Quan Smith (Central Florida) in the third round.

Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson (BAL) was signed for his hands, having caught 61 balls in 2017 for 522 yards and 4 touchdowns. To compete, Josh Hill will have to put up better numbers than 2017, targeted only 22 times for 16 catches, 125 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 lost fumbles.

Carmichael has to be happy with the Saints offensive line, edged by tackles Terron Armstead and All Rookie Ryan Ramczyk. The squad only allowed Drew Brees to get sacked 20 times last season, good for second best in the NFL. Loomis has given the O-line depth this offseason by signing Jermon Bushrod (MIA), who can play either guard or tackle, and by drafting Florida State tackle Rick Leonard in the fourth round.

Bottom Line: You give Drew Brees even more targets and a better defense to work with and you’re going to get a New Orleans Saints team that makes another Super Bowl run. Their 2018 schedule is tied for second toughest and their divisional competition will be fierce, but  that’s rarely stopped Brees in the past, so why should it in 2018?

ESPN predicts the Saints will go 11-5 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Saints will go 9-7 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Saints 2018 over/under win total at 8.5

The Carolina Panthers

Second place is normally undesirable, but last season in the AFC South, it was good enough to score the 11-5 Carolina Panthers a Wildcard spot in the playoffs. The Saints beat them 31-26, the Panthers’ main problem being an offense incapable of scoring anything but field goals until the fourth quarter.

Of course, head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton both understand it’s up to franchise man Newton to start putting up bigger numbers. To help him accomplish this, interim general manager Marty Hurney has done his best this offseason to use free agency and the draft to find some hot new targets for Newton.

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Lots of new guys for Cam to throw at

Last season, Cam Newton ranked 18th overall in passing yards, throwing 3,302 yards but with only a 59.1 completion rate. He threw for 22 touchdowns but had 16 interceptions and nine fumbles, only one of which were lost. Newton also ran 139 times for 754 yards and 6 touchdowns, which was over a third of the team’s 4th in the league total rushing yards of 2,102.

It was decided Newton needed more deep-threat targets to throw to besides Devin Funchess, who caught 63 balls for 840 yards and 8 TDs. Hurney’s front office traded the Eagles for wide receiver Torrey Smith who made 36 catches for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns for the Super Bowl winners.

In the first round, Hurney drafted speedy Big Ten Receiver of the Year D.J. Moore who spent his final year at Maryland making 80 catches for 1,033 yards and 8 TDs, a school record. Many say Moore could be the big man to finally replace legend Steve Smith, including Smith himself.

Tight end Greg Olsen signed a two-year extension and if he can keep his foot healthy, he can put up numbers similar to the three seasons prior when he averaged 77+ catches, 1000+ yards and a total of 16 touchdowns. Fourth round draft pick Ian Thomas (Indiana) has the hands and blocking skills to compete with Chris Manhertz for snaps in the two-tight end formation the Panthers use often.

Same Panthers O-Line making holes and keeping Newton safe

The offensive line is back, the same squad that kept Newton somewhat safe with 35 sacks, tied for ninth best in the league last season. The Kalil brothers are hoping for big 2018 numbers – center Ryan needs to stay healthy after only playing 6 games last season and left tackle Matt needs to start earning the sweet five-year, $55 million contract he signed in 2017.

New offensive coordinator Norv Turner is now in charge of dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey, a first round draft pick last season whose rookie numbers are great – 117 rushes for 435 yards and 2 touchdowns on top of 80 catches for 651 yards and 5 touchdowns. Another running threat was added by signing free agent C.J. Anderson who ran for just over 1000 yards and 3 touchdowns for Denver last season.

Even the Carolina defense was attended to

After defensive coordinator Steve Wilks left to head coach the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason, former line coach Eric Washington was hired for the job in January. Carolina’s defense finished ranked 3rd in sacks in 2017 with 50 on the season, which isn’t surprising since they’ve finished top ten in sacks five of the last six seasons. That’s largely due to nightmare defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison who grabbed 11 sacks apiece in 2017.

Washington will now have a Carolina run-defense that’s ranked in the top six in the league in four of the last six seasons. All Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly will be back after combining for 125 tackles and grabbing 1.5 sacks and 3 interceptions last season. Panthers deepened their linebacker corps by drafting three in the later rounds this offseason – Marquis Haynes (Mississippi), Jermaine Carter (Maryland) and Andre Smith (NC). Weak side linebacker Thomas Davis will miss the first four games for violating the league’s PED policy.

The Panthers beefed up their 18th ranked pass defense by signing free safety Da’Norris Searcy (TEN) and cornerback Ross Cockrell (NYG) who had 1 and 3 picks respectively for their teams last season. They also drafted two cornerbacks in the third round – LSU’s Donte Jackson, who’s undersized (5-foot-11) but lightning fast (ran a 4.31 40-yard dash) and Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden, who can play safety and corner and is a good open field tackler. 

Bottom line: If the Falcons can’t step up again, it looks like the winner of the NFC South will be decided in the final weeks of the 2018 season. The Saints and the Panthers meet in Week 15 on a Monday night in Charlotte and then again in Week 17 in New Orleans. But if Newton plays well with all of his new toys, none of that will matter since a Wildcard spot looks to be the least that Carolina will manage in 2018.

ESPN predicts the Panthers will go 10-6 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Panthers will go 8-8 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Panthers 2018 over/under win total at 8.5

The Atlanta Falcons

Believe it or not, head coach Dan Quinn’s Atlanta Falcons were the only NFC team from the 2016 playoffs to qualify for the 2017 playoffs. 2016 had been one of the most successful seasons in Falcons’ history – quarterback Matt Ryan was named the league MVP after barely losing Super Bowl LI to the Patriots in overtime 28-34.

Last season, Atlanta’s playoff run was a game shorter.

After the Wildcard Falcons beat the LA Rams 26-13, they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles 15-10, a game in which the Falcons’ 8th ranked offense could only manage to score one touchdown. General manager Thomas Dimitroff didn’t spend the offseason changing everything, though, doing little with free agency and drafting more or less for the future.

2018 will be the second season the Falcons play in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and just as Dimitroff is counting on its retractable roof system to function a little better this season than last, the same could be said about the Falcons offensive triplet.

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The Falcons need to get back to playing Super Bowl football

Second year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian needs even more production from his star players, who seemed to lose a step the season after their previous coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, left to head coach the 49ers. Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan’s 2017 stats are definitely impressive – he completed 342 passes for 4,095 yards (6th in the league) and 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 91.4.

The only thing is, his 2016 Super Bowl season stats were a whole lot better.

That season Ryan completed 373 passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions for a passer rating of 117.1. If the Falcons want to get back to the big game in 2018, Ryan needs to put up bigger numbers like he did in 2016.

Same goes for running back Devonta Freeman. Compare his 2016 Super Bowl season numbers to his numbers last season. In 2016, Freeman ran for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 54 passes for 462 yards and 2 TDs. But in 2017, Freeman only ran for 865 yards and 7 TDs and only caught 36 passes for 317 yards and 1 TD. Freeman has to have a bigger 2018 for the Falcons to make another run at the Super Bowl.

All Pro receiver Julio Jones had a Super Bowl type of regular season, catching 88 balls for 1,444 yards (2nd in the league) for 3 TDs, but his postseason play came up short compared to 2016. In both season’s playoff totals, Jones caught almost the same number of balls (18 and 19) but for 139 less yards and 2 less TDs in 2017. For the Falcons to return to glory in 2018, Jones must return to the end zone a lot more often.

Falcon free agency was light…

Free agent blocking tight end Logan Paulson (SF) signed a one year, $1 million contract to block and back up Falcons catching tight end Austin Hooper, who had a solid 2017 with 49 receptions for 526 yards for 3 TDs.

Falcons also signed right offensive guard Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games for the 49ers last season and the team averaged 3.9 yards per carry on runs behind him. He’ll help All Pro center Alex Mack and left guard Andy Levitre with the middle of the offensive line that only allowed 24 sacks last season, tied for 3rd best in the NFL.

…but the draft was heavy

In the first round of the draft, the Falcons took Calvin Ridley, the speedy wide receiver who had 63 catches for 967 yards and 5 touchdowns at Alabama last season. He’ll join Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy and a passing offense that gained 249.4 yards per game, 8th best in the league.

Under coordinator Marquand Manuel, Atlanta’s passing defense was ranked 12th. It was made deeper in the draft with cornerback Isaiah Oliver (Colorado) whose speed and size (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) will allow him to compete with Robert Alford as an outside corner opposite Desmond Trufant.

The Falcons are hoping the defensive tackle they drafted in the third round, Deadrin Senat (South Florida), will help fill the hole left when Dontari Poe left for the Carolina Panthers.

Drafted Yale linebacker Foye Oluokun will join a solid linebacker crew led by Deion Jones, who ranked 4th in the league with 138 combined tackles and who also managed to snag 3 picks last season.

Bottom line: The 2018 Atlanta Falcons have to play like they did in 2016 if they expect to compete in the tough AFC South. The Falcons have to do at least one win better than their 2017 divisional record of 4-2 if they hope to get past Brees’ Saints and Newton’s Panthers. But if they can avoid injuries and sub-2016 numbers, there’s no reason the Falcons can’t at least make another Wildcard run at the Super Bowl in 2018.

ESPN predicts the Falcons will go 9-7 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Falcons will go 9-7 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Falcons 2018 over/under win total at 9.5

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2017 may have been Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter’s 3rd season, but it was the team’s 10th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. After going 9-7 in 2016, the Bucs only won 5 games in 2017, lost 11 and ended up (once again) at the bottom of the division.

General manager Jason Licht spent the offseason addressing the team’s defensive and kicking needs. Licht’s job is in jeopardy (as are many others) if his 2018 Bucs can’t figure out how to turn close losses into wins.

It all starts with a healthy Jameis Winston.

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The man is back and says he’s healthy

Bucs quarterback Winston missed three games last season with a shoulder injury and still managed to throw for 3,504 yards and 19 touchdowns, putting him 13th best among NFL quarterbacks. Winston’s healing shoulder didn’t keep Licht from picking up his fifth-year option that gives Winston $20.922 million in 2018 guaranteed against injury. Winston is back healthy in 2018, hoping to stay safe behind a front line that allowed 40 sacks last season.

Speaking of which…

After the 2017 season, center Joe Hawley became a free agent and then promptly retired to pursue a passion project – he gave away all his stuff to live out of a van while exploring the country with his dog named Freedom. Free agent Ryan Jensen, whose Baltimore squad only allowed  27 sacks (4th best), was brought in to replace him with a four-year, $42 million contract with $22 million guaranteed. This makes him the highest paid center in the NFL.

The Bucs passing game is on target…

Last season, the stronger side of coordinator Todd Monken’s 9th ranked offense was their passing game, which ranked 4th by averaging 272.9 yards per game. With no wide receivers picked up through free agency and only one drafted – Justin Watson (Penn) – Winston will have the same targets as last season.

Returning wide receivers Mike Evans (71 catches for 1,001 yards and 5 TDs last season) and DeSean Jackson (50 catches for 668 yards and 3 TDs) will have to keep producing in 2018.

Another of Watson’s favorite targets, tight end Cameron Brate, has been on a roll. Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 52 catches for 625 yards and 7 TDs. It looks like the ‘Brate Train’ is in the Bucs station ready to haul some 2018 pigskin.

…the run game, however, needs work

The weak side of Tampa Bay’s 9th ranked offense was their running game, the Bucs ranking 27th overall in rushing yards per game (90.6). Tampa Bay is lacking a power running back.

Doug Martin has gone to the Oakland Raiders after a slow 2017 (138 carries for 406 yards and 3 TDs). Returning backs Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers have to have bigger numbers in 2018. Barber had 108 carries for 423 yards and 3 TDs with 16 receptions and 2 fumbles. Rodgers ran for 244 yards and one TD and nine receptions.

They’ll now be competing with 2nd round draft pick Ronald Jones, a quick running back from USC who’s said to be a “classic slasher with the wiggle and explosiveness to elude open-field tacklers”.

The defense needed a reboot

Coordinator Mike Smith’s defense was ranked 32nd overall last season, last in passing yards/game (260.6) and ranked 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game (117.5). This offseason, the Bucs have attempted to overhaul much of it. Weak against both pass and run, they used free agency and the draft to try to fill the holes.

Bucs brought in three new defensive ends – they traded the New York Giants for Jason Pierre-Paul and signed free agents Vinny Curry (PHI) and Mitch Unrein (CHI).

Tampa also went out and got two new tackles – first round draft pick Vita Vea (Washington) and free agent Beau Allen (PHI).

Bucs deepened their backfield that allowed an NFL worst 260.6 yards per game and snagged only 13 interceptions by drafting two cornerbacks, M.J. Stewart (North Carolina), Carlton Davis (Auburn) and a safety, Jordan Whitehead (Pitt).

The kicker problem addressed

After a rough season of failed kickers, the Bucs signed big-footed Chandler Catanzaro from the Jets who’s made 84.4% of his field goals and 94.4% of his PATs. Last season Catanzaro kicked a 57 yard field goal, the longest in Jets franchise history.

Bottom Line: In the NFL, there’s no room for a last place defense or an inconsistent kicker or an injured franchise quarterback, but if the 2018 Buccaneers have indeed fixed those problems, the race for the NFC South could be on. But if they really want to compete, the Bucs have to better their last season’s 1-5 divisional record and 1-7 record on the road. Tampa Bay with better D and a healthy Winston could really make 2018 a lot more interesting.

ESPN predicts the Buccaneers will go 8-8 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Buccaneers will go 7-9 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Buccaneers 2018 over/under win total at 6.5

Final Take

All four of the NFC South teams have played in Super Bowls, and two of them have even won it. With a lineup of healthy quarterbacks like Brees, Newton, Ryan and Winston, there’s no reason to doubt that any one of them could be playing in Super Bowl LIII. Last season, this division gave us three playoff teams, and with the Saints leading the way, that could very well happen again in 2018.

NFL 2018 Season Previews

American Football Conference (AFC)

National Football Conference (NFC)