Projected record: 10-6 (Playoffs)
Second in NFC South
The Atlanta Falcons have a difficult start, with six of the first nine games against teams that made the playoffs in 2018, and four of the six are on the road, starting with the Minnesota Vikings. Their first division game won’t be until they play The New Orleans Saints on Nov. 10, coming off their bye week. Also, the start of five straight division games begins and ends at home against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on December 8th.
The Falcons will benefit from only having four outdoor games this year, four of their road games will be against indoor opponents; at Minnesota, Indianapolis, Houston, and Arizona. Four of their final six games are at home, giving the Falcons a chance to have one of the better records in football during that stretch.
A concern for the Falcons and a potentially explosive offense that averaged 25.9 points per game last season will face five top-10 defenses from a year ago in the Titans, Jaguars, Texans, Vikings, and Colts.
The health of star running back Devonta Freeman will determine how good the Falcons will be. They do have some depth at running back, with Ito Smith, Brian Hill and rookies Marcus Green and Qadree Ollison. There is a chance they could survive without Freeman if his injuries continue. The Falcons have arguably the best trio of receivers in the NFL with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and my pick for the player to watch Calvin Ridley. They have the potential to put up big numbers this season.
The Atlanta defense is anchored by a very talented front seven, the question for them will be the secondary Ricardo Allen is returning from an ACL tear. The experience that Damontae Kazee gained last year is a blessing in disguise. If the Falcons defense can stay injury-free, they have the potential to return to the Super Bowl.
Projected Record 9-7
Third in NFC South
The Carolina Panthers have made the playoffs four times in the past six years. Dynamic players such as running back Christian McCaffrey, a threat for MVP this season and wide receiver DJ Moore, capable of having a breakout Pro Bowl season, with the addition of free agent Chris Hogan; paired with Greg Olsen. This Carolina offense should be fun to watch. Cam Newton, now 30, coming off two surgeries in less than three years on his throwing shoulder. The hopes of any postseason chances once again will rest upon his health.
The Panthers’ did draft with that in mind when they selected West Virginia’s Will Grier in the third round, but Grier doesn’t have the arm strength of Cam. If Newton goes down again, it will be learning season for Grier. Scratch. Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, who both started games while Newton was injured, they will also compete for the No. 2 job.
Christian McCaffrey set an NFL record for running backs with 107 receptions in 2018. He is primed as a legitimate MVP candidate. DJ Moore is a tremendous runner after the catch and should get the ball more in 2019. The Panthers are molding him to be their clear No. 1 wide receiver. Curtis Samuel and free-agent acquisition Chris Hogan give Cam Newton viable options.
Samuel scored a touchdown every 6.7 touches from scrimmage in 2018. Hogan can be used in the slot and is a bonafide deep threat. Jarius Wright should make an occasional key contribution. If Greg Olsen can play the entire season, the Panthers’ third-down conversion percentage will improve. Second-year tight end Ian Thomas is a raw talent but has shown flashes of big game potential.
After ranking among the top six in sacks from 2015-17, they hid what was too often an average secondary due to an aggressive pass rush recall the Panthers ranked 27th in sacks in 2018. In the NFC South which features effective quarterbacks, they exposed a secondary that was burned more often than in years prior.
The secondary’s personnel will be mostly unchanged. Panthers No. 1 pick Brian Burns, a speedy edge rusher from Florida State, hopes to help change that weakened pass rush. He will have a considerable amount of playing time, considering the retirement of Julius Peppers. The Panthers signed 31-year-old veteran defensive end Bruce Irvin, odds are Irvin’s best seasons came in Seattle, but he can contribute to a struggling defensive unit.
If the defensive pass rush can hide yet another average secondary led by hard-hitting Eric Reed, and Cam Newton’s health is a non-issue he should return to the pace he was on last year before the injury. The Panthers have a legitimate shot at winning the NFC East crown.
Projected record 8-8
Fourth in NFC South
Despite Jameis Winston’s struggles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished third overall in total offense with 415.5 yards per game and had the league’s most productive passing offense with 320.3 ypg. A talented receiving corps, including receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin as well as tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, who combined for 11 touchdowns in 2018.
If Howard can stay healthy, he has a chance to become one of better tight ends in the game. The Bucs did lose a reliable slot receiver Adam Humphries to free agency, and DeSean Jackson was traded to Philadelphia. They went out and added speed with free agent Breshad Perriman and drafted Scotty Miller.
Running back, Peyton Barber, who was 19th in the NFL in rushing with 871 yards and five touchdowns. The depth at this position is a weakness, Ronald Jones is coming off a bad rookie season in which he only rushed 23 times for 44 yards. The Bucs will try to develop second-year running back Shaun Wilson into a third-down back. The offensive line has some holes, particularly on the right side, and does not loom well if the Bucs want to be one of the best offensive teams in the NFL again, they did not address this issue in the draft.
Todd Bowles takes over as defensive coordinator. The Bucs will be scrapping the traditional Tampa 2 and deploy an attacking 3-4 defense to hopefully improve a defense that allowed 29 points per game last season. Jason Pierre-Paul led the team with 12.5 sacks last season, but how he will adapt to playing outside linebacker or being asked to drop into coverage.
JPP’s health could be an issue after being injured in a car accident in the offseason. Defensive tackle Vita Vea. The first-round pick missed all of training camp in 2018 and the first three games of the season after a calf injury. He did recover to finish strong with three sacks and four quarterback hits in his final seven games.
Tampa Bay let go of longtime defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and signed free agent Ndamukong Suh as a replacement, with the belief the 32-year-old still has enough left to have an impact up front. Carl Nassib, who had a solid year with 6.5 sacks and 29 tackles after being claimed off waivers from the Browns. They also signed Broncos free agent Shaq Barrett and are moving Noah Spence to outside linebacker in hoping that will revitalize his career.
Linebacker Devin White, the No. 5 pick in the draft, is the Bucs biggest defensive addition. The Bucs lost Kwon Alexander in free agency. It is assumed that Alexander will become the future leader of the defense. Bowles utilizes a lot of blitzes for pressure, especially from his linebackers, Alexander should be a perfect fit for that.
The Bucs defensive backs will now play press man-to-man on outside receivers. This should play into the strengths of cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis. For the second straight season, the Bucs made three draft picks fortifying the secondary, which is believed to be the strength of the defense. Rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and Rookie safety Mike Edwards will battle for starting spots. Should the line provide Barber running lanes and if Winston can get more time, followed by the defense living to potential. Tampa has a chance to surprise a lot of people and be a serious contender for the NFC South’s top spot.
Projected Record 11-5
First in NFC South (Playoffs)
The strength of the team will again be the offense, arguably the best in the NFL. An All-time great in Drew Brees, a dominant offensive line with playmakers Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Brees, who has shown no signs of slowing down. Kamara is one of the best all-around running backs in the league and will have an expanded role now that Mark Ingram is in Baltimore. Backup Latavius Murray is not nearly as explosive as Ingram, but at 6’3″, 230, he has the size and vision to be a weapon in short-yardage situations. Dwayne Washington gives the Saints a reliable third option in the backfield.
The running game also features do it all Taysom Hill in short-yardage situations. He is also a threat to burn defenders in coverage. The No. 2 spot behind Thomas is veterans Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith as the most likely candidates. Meredith will try to regain his Chicago form after suffering a severe knee injury. Ginn Jr. is 34. It is not certain he has much left in the tank. The Saints have young reserves Tre’ Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr. Jared Cook should become a factor in the middle of the field. Josh Hill is a reliable No. 2 option and is an outstanding blocker. The offensive line will continue to be elite.
The Saints aren’t dominant in any single area on defense but are solid on all three levels. They play well as a unit and are difficult for offenses against the run. Cameron Jordan anchors the left end. He is their best player on the defensive side of the ball. The Saints now have a bookend complement to Jordan named Marcus Davenport. He flashed play-making potential as a rookie, but injuries stunted his progress. Already a sound run defender, he has the potential to develop into a double-digit sack man with improved strength.
Defensive tackle Malcolm Brown was signed as a free agent to replace Tyeler Davison and will become the run stuffer inside, with a lot of potential because of his athleticism and power but remains a raw talent. Mario Edwards Jr. and David Onyemata will share the 3-technique position until Sheldon Rankins returns. Rankins remains a question mark. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the playoffs. It is not known if he returns any time soon.
Demario Davis leads the improved linebacker unit as the play-calling captain in the middle of A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone. Depth will be a question mark with backup Craig Robertson as the only serviceable option. Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams will have to rebound from sophomore slumps. Lattimore covers the opponent’s best receiver in single coverage.
In most cases, he has won more than he has lost. Eli Apple solidified the corner spot after a midseason trade with the Giants. Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams will compete for the starting nickel back spot in the slot. Marcus Williams’ will be asked to increase production as it dropped significantly in his second season but has the potential to be great. Vonn Bell shows his strength at the line of scrimmage.
Fourth-round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has the talent to play early and should be a contributing factor. If the Saints can get over the hangover of two straight postseason heartbreaks, they should be the odds-on favorites to not only win the South but the NFC and the Super Bowl.