NFC South Preview 2020
The NFC South has been known for its explosive offenses. The New Orleans Saints lead the way, combining a lethal offense with an up-and-coming defense that has an ability to force timely turnovers. The Atlanta Falcons have fallen on hard times since a recent Super Bowl appearance. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones lead the offense, but injuries and a suspect defense have held them back. Tampa Bay adds the legendary Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to an immensely potent offense. Their defense will be the key to their season. The Carolina Panthers hired Baylor's Matt Rhule as their head coach. With so many personnel changes, it's difficult to see them competing this year.
Wide Receiver: Before starting this article, I did not expect to find so many holes in this roster. I just thought they had just suffered too many key injuries the past couple of seasons, but wide receiver and the secondary are the only positions you could conceivably call strengths. Julio Jones is a big part of that. Having Jones gives Atlanta the best player on the field in most games. The rest of their receivers need to step up, but Jones makes this unit respectable.
Secondary: There's talent here. They've just had to deal with so many injuries that it's difficult to tell exactly what they have. Keanu Neal is a beast at safety when healthy. At the other safety spot, they'll rely on serviceable veterans Ricardo Allen and J.J. Wilcox. Wilcox has had rough time since he left Dallas, but can still make an impact. At corner, they'll have to replace Desmond Trufant, who was a big piece of the unit. They have promising 2nd-year Kendall Sheffield, rookie A.J. Terrell, and veteran Darqueze Dennard to fill the void. Dennard had an up-and-down start to his career in Cincinnati, but Atlanta hopes a homecoming for the Georgia native will be exactly what he needs.
Running Back: I'm sure Falcons' fans are longing for the days of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. That combination was one of the best backfields in the league. With both players gone, they'll have to turn elsewhere. The problem is that all the RBs on this roster are complementary backups. They did sign Todd Gurley, and it will help tremendously if he can find some form of his early career.
Defensive Line: I originally thought the defensive tackles were okay, but then I saw how much they are really going to have to rely on non-starters as starters. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler are the only two you can say are definite starters. The rest are younger veterans and rookies. Very rarely are rookies ready to be starters on day one, so, when you can't really tell the difference in production between those two groups, it's usually a problem.
If there's one player that's going to help Julio out, it's Ridley. His career at Alabama made him a first round pick and had scouts buzzing about his pro potential. Now in year three, he's done nothing to discourage that. In fact, if not for an injury that sidelined him for 3 games, he probably would've gone for over 1000 yards as a rookie. If he can finally reach that mark this year, it will be a big boost for this offense.
Can they avoid key injuries?
I briefly touched on this earlier. Atlanta has had to deal with many injuries to key players (Keanu Neal, Devonta Freeman,etc.) that have possibly derailed their seasons. While those roster were certainly deeper and more talented, this team needs those players on the field to compete at all.
Can Hayden Hurst (or others) adequately replace Austin Hooper at tight end?
The Falcons traded for Hayden Hurst from Baltimore this offseason. A former first round pick, Hurst was widely considered the best TE prospect in the 2018 draft, but hasn't lived up to expectations. Their other options include veterans Luke Stocker and Khari Lee, who have only been backups, and rookie Jared Pinkney.
Final Record: 7-9
Offensive Line: Carolina has a solid group of o-linemen, led by veterans like Russell Okung, Matt Paradis, and Michael Schofield. All three of those guys have had successful careers playing for some of the better teams in the league. They also added John Miller, a guard who has started for Buffalo and Cincinnati when healthy. While they have a couple younger guys that will go through growing pains, that's a good base to start with a great group to learn from.
Tight End: When healthy, Greg Olsen has had a great career, but he is now in Seattle. They need Ian Thomas to step up. So far in his career, Thomas has only be the primary backup and not had the pressure of a starting role. He's flashed the potential, but the Panthers have nobody good enough behind him.
Secondary: Donte Jackson and Eli Apple will make a decent duo at corner. At Safety, they really only have Tre Boston. Most of the other DBs are rookies or 2nd years, so they have limited exposure to the NFL game. I would expect either Jeremy Chinn or Kenny Robinson, both rookies, to win the other safety job. Robinson played well in the XFL, and Chinn made some noise in the offseason with his instincts and athletic ability. Still a very young unit to have to rely on.
Ok, so Bridgewater isn't you're typical breakout candidate. He had some good years to start his career in Minnesota before injuries derailed his career. His play as a backup filling in for Drew Brees last season earned him another shot as a starter. As a true dual-threat quarterback, I think the offensive system this staff puts in will suit him very well. He has great weapons at running back and receiver, so I think he'll remind everyone of what he can do,
How will the almost entirely collegiate level coaching staff adjust to the NFL?
I almost listed this as a weakness, but decided to put it here instead. Most of these guys have NFL experience as lower level assistants. Head coach Matt Rhule has only been the head coach in college. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady left the Saints to help install a pro offense at LSU, which found great success. However, he has not called plays at the pro level, which has more complex defenses filled with better athletes to face. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has been an NFL linebacker coach, but only coordinated for college teams. How quickly will they adjust?
Does the elimination of the preseason help them since college has no preseason games?
Speaking of college coaches, they do have one advantage in this unique season. While it's strange for the NFL not to have preseason games, it's the norm in college. College teams usually use their first couple games as a sort of preseason. Could that approach work in the NFL this year and will they use it?
They drafted mostly defensive players. Which ones will make an impact this season?
I think this will mostly be seen in the secondary and defensive line. They almost certainly will have at least one rookie starting, and most of the rest of them are the next man up in case of injuries. It will be interesting to see who plays and what impact they have.
Final Record: 5-11
New Orleans Saints
Quarterback: Drew Brees is one of the best QBs in league history. His new backup, Jameis Winston, was a top draft pick and starter for Tampa Bay. He has a ton of potential and could learn a great deal from Brees and Sean Payton. Then there's Mr. Everything, Taysom Hill. If you don't know (first, where have you been?!), the Saints use Hill at many different positions. He is a unique talent with his speed, size, and athleticism. They will use him as a kick returner, receiver, running back, and undersized receiving tight end. With all the talent and versatility, New Orleans has one of the NFL's best quarterback groups.
Running Back: We all have seen how good Alvin Kamara is. He's shown a great ability to affect the game as a runner and as a receiver. They also have veteran Latavius Murray, whose style is the perfect complement to Kamara and the others. Former WR Ty Montgomery also joins the backfield. Montgomery made the position switch because of depth issues in Green Bay and was good enough to make it a permanent change. He's never been a premier back, but his background makes him an ideal pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Offensive Line: Terron Armstead, Rayn Ramczyk, and Andrus Peat are all very good NFL tackles. Nick Easton has been a good center and has both Cesar Ruiz and Erik McCoy behind him. One of those 2 may have to slide over to guard, but their a strong unit up front.
Tight End: They've always had decent tight end play, but never quite had another Jimmy Graham. Jared Cook is a good veteran player and has thrived in this offense (though not at a Graham level). Josh Hill and rookie Adam Trautman aren't terrible backup options, I just feel like this offense is missing another level of player at the position.
Davenport has all the tools to be a premier pass-rusher in the NFL. So far, he has been a solid player for the Saints, improving from year one to year two. Year 3 is the year he needs to announce himself to the league. After 6 sacks in 2019, I think he has a shot to reach double digits in 2020.
Can the offense continue to be one of the best in the league?
The New Orleans offense has been a well-oiled machine since Payton and Brees have been there. They've been innovative in surviving personnel changes and adapting to the emerging trends in the league. They've also been good at adding players and getting good contributions from some relatively unknown players. They should continue to dominate with the additions they've made, but how long can they sustain it?
Does the young defense continue to grow?
They've done a good job of drafting and developing guys on defense and mixing in veterans. Cam Jordan has become an elite defensive end, Demario Davis has been a big help in the development of their linebackers, and the secondary has made great strides. If that growth continues on the same pace, you may be looking at a top 10 unit.
Final Record: 12-4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Wide Receiver: Going into last season, this was all about Mike Evans. Chris Godwin's breakout year was a big development and gave their QBs a go-to secondary target. Those two are one of the best tandems in the NFL. They also added a great value with Minnesota's Tyler Johnson in the 5th round of the draft. He could emerge as a good number three.
Tight End: With the combination of Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard, Tampa conceivably has 3 starter quality tight ends. Brady used his good tight ends well in New England and will benefit from this group. They might be the league's strongest.
Quarterback: Tom Brady. Enough said.
Offensive Line: This is the biggest question on the offense. While they have the skill players, they haven't had the o-line to go with them. They need to have a solid line to allow the skill players to do their thing. They have a couple good pieces, but will they mesh?
Secondary: They like the young players they have, I'm just not sure they're a good unit yet. It takes time to develop young players, especially in the secondary. I do think this will eventually be a strong unit, just not this year.
Defensive Line: Aside from the veterans Kyle Love and Ndamukong Suh and promising third year Vita Vea, they don't have much. Considering those 3 all play DT, it's an issue. Will Gholston had a good college career has yet to emerge in the pros. I know they made it work last year, but they may have a more difficult time this year.
Who? Well, you'll know who he is soon enough. As a rookie in 2019, the former Central Michigan Chippewa started 10 games and recorded 3 interceptions. As a tall, ball-hawking corner, he's exactly the kind of player this young, developing secondary needs. Expect big things.
Is the offense overhyped?
They have the talent, no question. Sometimes that talent doesn't blend together the way you would hope. With the age of some of these guys and the time off, they might not click the way everyone has thought.
How does Brady adjust to a new system?
After an illustrious career thus far, Tom Brady is now playing in a new city with a new offensive system. There has been an on-going argument about whether Brady made Belichick better and vice versa. This looks like the year we'll find out. If Brady is on the same page as his teammates and the staff, he should be fine.
After a year out of football, can Gronk be the same player he was?
Gronk's retirement wasn't totally surprising, but I am a little surprised he came back so quickly. Reports from Tampa say he looks like he hasn't missed a beat, but we'll know for sure when the games start.
Is there too much pressure?
Some have predicted Super Bowl for this team, and those people need to slow down. Yes, they've added good pieces, but they haven't made the playoffs since the 2007 season. They were only 7-9 last year and haven't upgraded the defense. So, yes, they'll put up points, but they aren't ready to compete for a Super Bowl.