Over the past few years, the NFC South has been the pinnacle for teams in the NFC. Whether it was the Panthers in the Super Bowl or the Falcons or even last season when the Saints were clearly the best team in the NFC but missed out on a Super Bowl appearance based on a blown call. The NFC South has seemingly three teams each season who are in contention to make the playoffs. While a lot of people focus on more popular divisions like the NFC East, the south sends at least one team deep into the playoffs every single season.
Last season: 7-9
Key players to watch: Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Keanu Neal
Projected record: 10-6
After missing out on the playoffs in 2018, the Falcons seem to be healthy again. Atlanta has always had the talent on their roster to make a deep playoff run, the issue has been staying healthy. Last season, after losing multiple defensive starters for the season in week 1, all hope seemed lost for the season.
As the year progressed, the Falcons continued to win games they had no business winning with their injuries. With players such as Ito Smith and Calvin Ridley stepping up and making an immediate impact, there was still hope for the Falcons offense. Even while battling injuries, the Falcons were in multiple games that slipped away late. Finishing the season tied for 2nd place in the NFC South, Atlanta missed the postseason.
Coming into 2019 with their star players healthy, the Falcons are looking to win now. They traded multiple picks in this year’s draft to get a second first-round pick. The Falcons used both of their first-round picks to strengthen their offensive line. If the Falcons can stay healthy this season, they will be a threat to make a deep playoff run.
Last season: 7-9
Key players to watch: Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, Luke Kuechley
Projected record: 9-7
After losing Super Bowl 50 to Denver, Carolina has struggled to get back in rhythm. Quarterback Cam Newton has made a lot of sacrifices in order to get healthy heading into the 2019 season.
The Panthers have been using the draft to get Cam Newton weapons to take some of the load off of him. After selecting Christian McCaffery with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, they came back the next year and took Maryland receiver, DJ Moore. In his rookie season, Moore started off slowly but became Newton’s top target by the end of the season. Catching 52 passes for 788 yards, and adding 13 rushing attempts for another 172 yards, Moore is primed to have a breakout sophomore campaign.
With young weapons Moore and McCaffery, a lot of the unnecessary hits that Newton has taken in the past should drop drastically. On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina has a great mix of old and young players, as well as speed and strength. With the addition of Gerald McCoy as well as drafting Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns, the Panthers pass rush will be much stronger this year after ranking 27th in the league in sacks last season.
If safety Eric Reid can be the game-changer in the secondary he has proven to be in the past, Carolina’s defense should be very good this year. If the Luke Kuechly led the defense and Cam Newton and company can avoid injury this Panthers team should be very competitive in the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
Last season: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship
Key players to watch: Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore
Projected record: 12-4
In 2018, New Orleans had the most dominant offense in the entire league. With Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees distributing the ball to his young weapons, they seemed unstoppable. In the AFC Championship Game, they were stopped, by the refs. The infamous no-call on a blatant pass interference cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. Now heading into 2019, the Saints have some new faces on their offense.
The biggest name is Jared Cook, the former Packers’ tight end had a career year with Oakland in 2018. New Orleans also signed running back Latavius Murray to help soften the blow of losing Mark Ingram II to the Ravens. The biggest offseason move made by New Orleans was resigning All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas to a 5-year deal worth up to $100, making him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
Along with Thomas, the Saints also have Alvin Kamara, who many believe is the most explosive running back in the league. The only concern with Kamara is he has not had to be a three-down back for an entire season, so durability will be something for them to keep an eye on.
Undrafted rookie from Northern Arizona University, Emmanuel Butler has been turning heads at Saints training camp so far. Look for Butler to get some playing time eventually in 2019, as a redzone threat on the perimeter. As long as the Saints defense can hold opponents to under 40 points per game, the offense still has enough firepower to make a Super Bowl run in 2019.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season: 5-11
Players to watch: Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Lavonte David
Projected record: 6-10
After selecting quarterback Jameis Winston with the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, many people around the league believed Tampa Bay was only a few years away from being great. The whole Winston experiment has not gone exactly as planned. Tampa Bay has finished in last place in their division three out of Winstons first four seasons as the starting quarterback. While Jameis has a lot of untapped potential, the clock is ticking on his time in Tampa Bay.
Heading into 2019, The Buccaneers appear to have a good, young group of playmakers on the outside lead by Pro-Bowl receiver Mike Evans. In addition to Evans, they also have Chris Godwin and OJ Howard, who are both coming off of career years in 2018. The biggest concern with Tampa Bay on the offensive side of the ball is the running back position.
They selected Ronald Jones, a shifty back out of USC, in the second round of the 2018 draft. Jones spent the season battling injuries and was never able to get into a rhythm. Heading into this season, Jones is in competition with running back Peyton Barber, who handled the majority of the teams rushing attempts in 2018. If Jones is able to stay healthy and adjust to the speed of the NFL, the Buccaneers should be much better off in 2019. On the defensive side of the ball, Tampa is young, but they have some players that could become perennial-Pro type players.
They selected LSU linebacker Devin White with the fifth overall selection to play alongside Lavonte David, who is always near the top of the league in tackles. Tampa released defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was the face of their defense for almost a decade and Replaced him with Ndamukong Suh. Tampa Bay will be better this year then they have been in years past, but they still are a few years away, especially in a loaded division such as the NFC South.