In this new series, we’ll be reviewing each division in the NFL - taking a look at each team’s 2019 season, their ups and downs, as well as looking ahead to what their 2020 might look like. This week, it's NFC South.
As far as talking points go, the NFC South has an abundance. The Falcons released some questionable new uniforms, the Panthers made McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the league, the Buccs got a new quarterback (you might have heard about this), and the Saints have signed Jameis Winston to a one year deal.
Indeed, there is a high level of intrigue within the division. Both the Panthers and Falcons have fallen at the final hurdle in recent campaigns, while the Saints on-going battle with referees in the league persists.
As for Tampa Bay, this might be their first season where they challenge in a long time.
It is not so long since the Atlanta Falcons were competing at the very top. Shanahan was calling things as their offensive coordinator and Matt Ryan was MVP. Life was good.
A lot of the goodwill earned back then is still there, because going into the 2019 season, many picked Atlanta to return to contention.
Alas, contend they did not. They finished 7-9 for the second season in a row, and Dan Quinn was on the hot seat for much of last year. They (somewhat) got it together towards the end of the season, and actually finished second in their division when all was said and done.
They won their final four games, Quinn kept his job, and they released some new uniforms for good measure.
One of those final four victories was in San Francisco, and they also won on the road in New Orleans after their bye week. So it is tricky to say just how good or bad this team is.
Fewer teams will have felt like bigger letdowns in 2019 than they did, but perhaps there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Atlanta signed Todd Gurley to help kick-start the 2020 season. It might be the other side of the ball that requires bigger help though. The Falcons placed 25th on PFF’s secondary rankings for 2019 – which includes 27 touchdown passes and an average completion rate of 70.9% to opposing quarterbacks throughout the year.
Selecting AJ Terrell in the first round of the draft was mooted as a reach by some, but in any case, it was a huge position of need.
Signing Dante Fowler could help galvanise this Atlanta defense, but in a division where New Orleans have proven to be incredibly resilient and Brady has just landed in Tampa Bay, the likelihood of Atlanta winning feels low.
Still, there’s enough talent on the roster for them to be decent, if nothing else.
Matt Rhule was hot property in January. With several teams hunting for their next head coach, Carolina may feel they pipped out the rest to land the former Baylor man. He is known as a coach who can drive tremendous team culture and turn fortunes around in a relatively short amount of time.
He took Temple from being a 2-10 team to a 10-4 team in three seasons, and transformed Baylor from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019.
If the above is anything to go by, then 2020 will be a year for him to learn. Frankly, he will have to learn a lot, because with Cam Newton released, new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will have a scheme to figure out via remote access, and Rhule will not get his one on one time to help him adapt either.
Of course, the global pandemic will impact many of us, but within the NFL, that is especially pertinent for teams with a new head coach and/or new quarterback. What they can rely on (assuming the season goes ahead) is Christian McCaffrey.
CMC rushed for 1,387 yards, 15 touchdowns, plus he had the second-most receptions in the league in 2019, with 116 catches for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. They thanked him by making him the highest-paid running back in the league.
Paying a running back has not proven to be the smartest decision a GM can make recently. Gurley got big money only to fade away in LA, while David Johnson commanded a huge deal in Arizona, only to suffer the same fate.
The workload a young back takes on means that an elongated career at the same standard is highly unlikely.
Regardless, Carolina can rely on CMC in the short-term if nothing else. In the draft, Carolina focused entirely on their defense. They needed help though, because any team that has to go up against Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Julio Jones twice a year (each) needs all the help they can get.
Derrick Brown could develop into a monster to lead this unit.
New Orleans Saints
Many NFL writers will agree – the Saints are one of the best teams in the league, and have been for the last few years. But there is an issue. Every year, they get close and something goes wrong. One of those things is refereeing decisions.
It’s well documented that they have had a rough time with the call against the Rams, and to a lesser extent, against the Vikings in the playoffs just gone. They also suffered a loss from the Minnesota Miracle in 2018, too.
But in the wider scheme of things, it could be argued that Sean Payton gets it wrong in the playoffs. They should not have been chasing the games against Minnesota or LA. They were better on both occasions but fell short.
In their most recent failing, Taysom Hill was putting on a clinic in swiss army knife football, but they moved away from it. Brees had a poor game, but they kept going back to him when Hill was on form. The fault lies with Payton.
That is the main criticism of this team, because they really are talented across the board, and in spite of Payton’s shortcomings in January, his regular-season efforts are constantly excellent.
Drew Brees is back for two more years, and just when you thought their offense couldn’t get any better, they’ve also signed Sanders. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Emmanuel Sanders. That is a lot of skill.
The Saints have been a top-five offense for four seasons in a row in terms of points per game (third, third, fourth and second), so there is no reason to suspect they’ll dip in 2020 unless Brees falls off a cliff.
Even on defense, there is some fearsome talent. Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Davenport are names any team would be delighted to have on their team sheets. Some may argue they could draft their future quarterback (sorry Taysom), but the signing of Sanders would suggest they’re giving Brees toys to play with for a few more rolls of the dice.
Even signing Ruiz as their new centre in the first round of the draft would make you think they’re looking to protect Drew as much as possible.
New Orleans are good enough to get to the playoffs again and again, and they are resilient enough to bounce back from heartache – they have shown this for a few years now.
How far they can go is predicated on post-season coaching and avoiding major injuries. The Saints can beat anyone on their day.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There is a lot of hype around how good the Buccs could be this year, and that is because of the Tom Brady signing. Tom Brady, in isolation, shouldn’t be the reason for Buccs fans to get excited though. They were a pretty good team in 2019.
What Brady can do for this team is instil a level of stability and safety that Jameis Winston just does not offer.
The 2019 Buccaneers were exciting to watch. The aforementioned Winston threw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions – a feat never managed before by any quarterback in NFL history.
A part of what made them so exciting was that uncertainty at the helm – he was as likely to throw an interception as he was a completion, and that made them highly watchable.
Brady will take over from a team with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans as receiving options. So it’s no wonder why Brady saw the appeal of moving down to Florida to place under Bruce Ariens – they have great weapons. Adding an out-of-retirement Gronkowski only adds to the entertainment, albeit past his prime.
Not only that, but their pass rush amassed 47 sacks throughout 2019 (tied seventh in the league), so there are strengths to build upon on defense too.
Tampa Bay have not made the playoffs since 2007. It’s a long drought that few other teams can empathise with. However, a cocktail of Brady, Ariens, that receiving corpse and some talented pass rushers could mean that the Buccs contend for the first time in over a decade.
They will need their pass coverage to step up and they may look to the draft for help there. That said, you do not sign Tom Brady without wanting to maximise his window with this team. Protecting him is crucial, hence the Tristan Wirfs pick in the first round.
That could be the difference between the Buccs succeeding or not in 2020 – how well Brady performs. He has the coach, he has the receivers, and if he has the protection, then he can have no excuses either. Winning this division with New Orleans in it is tough, but if they fire on all cylinders, then Tampa Bay could have a nice season in store.
Having said that, good teams on paper do not always equal good records. See Cleveland in 2019 for reference.
Written by Matthew Carolan.
Check out the rest of Matthew Carolan's Off The Ball divisional series reviews here: