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With Saints as three-time NFC South champions, division retools on and off the field

The South is going to look very different next year

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Since its inception in 2002, the NFC South has had a team win the division three years in a row twice. The Carolina Panthers from 2013-2015, and the New Orleans Saints from 2017-2019. Other than these two instances, no team has won the division multiple years in a row. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the South three times, the Panthers five, the Atlanta Falcons four and the Saints six.

With New Orleans reigning as three-time NFC South champs, the division has completely retooled itself for next year in a myriad of ways. The Panthers poached Saints’ fan-favorite Teddy Bridgewater to start at quarterback, the Falcons have added Todd Gurley to their running back stable, and the Buccaneers signed Tom Brady to take the helm. Amid all of this are two jersey redesigns in the division, with Tampa Bay going back to basics and Atlanta doing completely the opposite.

With all of the bustling below them, the Saints have stayed pat. Drew Brees will be back at quarterback next year, Andrus Peat will be protecting him on the line again, Malcolm Jenkins will be back in black and gold and Emmanuel Sanders will be lining up opposite Michael Thomas. Make no mistake, even with all of the scrambling to catch them, New Orleans is still the team to catch in the division until further notice.

With that in mind, here is how each team is going to look different heading into the 2020 season — whenever it ends up starting of course.

Atlanta Falcons

Key additions

  • RB Todd Gurley
  • TE Hayden Hurst
  • OLB Dante Fowler Jr.
  • OL Justin McCoy

Key losses

  • TE Austin Hooper
  • CB Desmond Trufant
  • OLB Vic Beasley

Bonus: Extended FB Keith Smith

The Falcons were fairly busy this offseason, but they didn’t do anything earth-shattering. Letting go of Desmond Trufant was a bizarre move in retrospect without a clear replacement in mind, but most of their other major moves were tit for tat. They let Beasley go to the Titans only to sign Fowler Jr., and Hooper was involved in the trade to get Hurst from the Ravens. Gurley was the only player addressing a major position of need directly.

Atlanta also, interestingly, re-signed Keith Smith at fullback. While the move is inconsequential economically, it does illustrate that a.) the Falcons appear committed to trying to protect Gurley and b.) Dirk Koetter may be trying to add a running game. Atlanta was 30th in the league last season in running the ball, so their offseason moves illustrate a philosophy shift that could benefit that team. Journeyman lineman Justin McCray was also added to the fold.

Off the field (technically on it but it’s not personnel related), the Falcons changed their jerseys to these:

You can draw your own conclusions as to how that unveiling went.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key additions

  • QB Tom Brady
  • T Joe Haeg

Key losses

  • RB Peyton Barber
  • OLB Carl Nassib
  • QB Jameis Winston

Any way you slice it, this is fun as hell. Adding Brady to face off against Brees twice in a season is an extremely cool wrinkle to add to the South. And yet, outside of this massive move — the biggest the NFL has seen since Peyton Manning joined the Broncos, the Buccaneers smartly stayed pretty quiet in the offseason.

This is a team that has a good core of players. Mike Evans is possibly the most talented receiver Brady has thrown to since Randy Moss, and Haeg was the sixth man on a phenomenal Colts line last year (ask Senio Kelemete how valuable that can be). Chris Godwin can stretch the field as well. The biggest question for Tampa Bay is at running back. Ronald Jones II produced well for the Buccaneers last year, so they’ll need him to hit the next level.

Defensively, Tampa Bay mostly stood pat. The Buccaneers were 18th in the league in team defense last year, but Tampa Bay was dead last in the league in defensive starting field position last year. Teams started at the 31.7 yard line on average last year, largely a product of Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions. Brady has thrown 29 interceptions in the past four seasons COMBINED. So that number will change for the Buccaneers defense.

The Bucs also did the opposite of the Falcons. They unveiled new jerseys that have a distinctly familiar feeling.

How you like these and compare them to the Falcons’ threads depends on who you are and what you like, but one thing is for certain: Brady rocking classic threads just feels right.

Carolina Panthers

Key additions

  • QB Teddy Bridgewater
  • WR Robby Anderson
  • DE Stephen Weatherly
  • S Tre Boston
  • LB Tahir Whitehead

Key losses

  • S Eric Reid
  • CB James Bradberry
  • DE Mario Addison
  • DT Vernon Butler
  • DT Gerald McCoy
  • QB Cam Newton

Note: Signed Baylor’s Matt Rhule as head coach

As you might expect from a team with a new head coach, the Panthers were big movers and shakers this offseason. They lost Addison and Butler to the Bills (no Panthers defender goes unchecked by that front office), and McCoy is now a Cowboy. Then there’s the elephant in the room: Louisiana sports fans must now wrestle between their feelings for division rivalry and Joe Brady running an offense helmed by Bridgewater.

Newton not being in the division anymore will definitely be a change, but this team is likely to experience some growing pains. Giving Bridgewater Anderson to throw to is a step in the right direction, and Curtis Samuel will be a valuable tool for him.

Rhule is bringing his defensive coordinator from Baylor Phil Snow to Carolina, so he’ll be dealing with some challenges. The abrupt retirement of Luke Kuechly is a big one, but Whitehead brings a veteran presence to that room. Reid will be replaced by Boston in the secondary for the Panthers, while the hope is that Weatherly can bring a steady pass rush.

This team is going to be making a lot of adjustments throughout the course of the season, but its flurry of activity should be exciting for Carolina fans. Bridgewater will need to gain some confidence in his deep ball to succeed in Brady’s high-tempo, heavily speed-based offense. However, Saints fans know as well as anyone he’s extremely capable.

New Orleans Saints

Key additions

  • WR Emmanuel Sanders
  • S Malcolm Jenkins

Key losses

  • LB A.J. Klein
  • S Vonn Bell
  • CB Eli Apple
  • WR Ted Ginn Jr.
  • FB Zach Line

The Bills scooped up yet another former Panther in Klein this offseason, but for the most part the Saints used this offseason to keep their house in order. They re-signed David Onyemata, Peat and placed a first-round tender on Taysom Hill. The biggest moves they made were getting Sanders to play opposite Thomas and Jenkins to take Bell’s role as a box-roaming safety.

The question of Brees’ retirement (at least for this season) was also answered, as New Orleans signed him for another year. With Ginn walking, Sanders will ostensibly be his replacement.

The Saints aren’t resting on their laurels, but they certainly aren’t going crazy either. They recognize that Brees’ window is closing, and this is very likely his last season (sentences said in 2016, but true nevertheless). With that in mind, New Orleans has placed an emphasis in keeping their units mostly together. That’s true on defense and on the offensive line, where continuity is very important.

The loss of Line could lead to a big philosophical shift for the Saints as well. New Orleans ran 2-1 personnel 24 percent of the time, or third-highest in the league behind only the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings. Sean Payton is one of the most innovative coaches in the league, so while it’s not necessarily a concern, it’s something to factor in when talking about how the Saints could use Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray next year.

New Orleans will still likely be favorites in the division next year, but the margin for error is only getting slimmer. There’s a lot of talent up and down the division, but how much Brady has left in the tank could end up being a determining factor.

The Saints have placed emphasis on building talent in-house, so the draft should shed a bit more light on the state of the division. However, one thing is for certain: The NFC South is going to look very different next year, and it will find itself more in the spotlight than ever.