The NFC South has been an arms race this offseason. The Panthers moved off of Ron Rivera and hired Baylor rejuvenator Matt Rhule, the Buccaneers added Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to the fold, and the Falcons continued their quest for a pass rush by signing Dante Fowler Jr.
The Saints, meanwhile, added Emmanuel Sanders on offense and Malcolm Jenkins on defense, as they continue to try and add another Super Bowl to the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. While the Saints are still favored in the NFC South, it’s clear the rest of the division isn’t resting on its laurels after the Saints’ third straight NFC South title. But every team in the division still has at least one thing; one fatal flaw; that could derail its playoff aspirations.
Here’s a look at what has to surprise each team in the South before they can be seriously looked at as contenders.
Carolina Panthers: New coach blues
Getting a new coach is an exciting thing. Getting a new coach who helped to turn around a program rocked with scandal and controversy is a better thing. But getting a new coach with a new quarterback and relatively high expectations is a serious challenge.
The Panthers didn’t fire Ron Rivera because he was incapable of winning. It was because they didn’t feel they’d ever take the next step with him at the helm. He was 76-63-1 with the Panthers, and he led them to the playoffs as recently as 2017. Even without Cam Newton last season he was 5-7 before being fired.
Matt Rhule is an excellent coach, and he’ll have success with the Panthers, but he’s missing something that coaches who have already been in the NFL have: A network. The Bills hired Sean McDermott, for example, and they’ve been following a tight blueprint. We’ve seen a flurry of activity from the Panthers this offseason, but their moves have been disjointed. They got a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, but the roster is far from filled out.
The Rhule-led Panthers will get better, but their situation isn’t dissimilar to the Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals outside of at quarterback: There are a lot of building blocks to fill in, and they aren’t going to fix everything in just one season.
In addition to all of this, the defense will have a huge adjustment to make. Rivera always worked closely with the unit, but it won’t be getting that kind of attention from the offensive-minded Rhule. Rhule brought Phil Snow to handle the defense, who also doesn’t have any NFL experience as a coordinator. Losing Luke Kuechly is losing a key part of that transition, so expect from struggles from the Panthers defense early this season as players settle in.
Atlanta Falcons: Old coach blues
Very few coaches have done less with more in the past few seasons than Dan Quinn, who is in danger of making the Falcons what fans mocked the Saints for during the 7-9 years (and who may be on his last chance). Since a playoff loss to the Eagles in 2017, the Falcons have gone 7-9 in the past two seasons, largely due to a completely inept running game.
In response the Falcons have signed Todd Gurley, who is one of the biggest question marks in the league heading into this season. Gurley rushed for just 857 yards last season, after rushing for at least 1,250 in each of the last two previous seasons. The Falcons’ success will likely end up being determined by Gurley’s health, as the second-stringer is Ito Smith — who hasn’t shown in his career that he can carry a load on offense.
It’s a hard situation to be in for the Falcons, and they haven’t shown willingness to adapt on offense. As a result, Matt Ryan has put up big numbers but the team as a whole has underperformed.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s last three teams have been sixth, third and first in the league in passing percentage the last three seasons, and that will have to change if the Falcons are going to get better. In order for it to change, Gurley has to stay healthy.
In short, the Falcons are relying on a lot of variables. Dan Quinn’s defense has spent too much time on the field and it has struggled in that role. The team now has Dante Fowler Jr. to contribute to the pass rush, but pass rush has just been a symptom for the Falcons. They need an overhaul in offensive gameplan to see any real change.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The outside offensive line
Tom Brady may or may not struggle in his first year outside of Foxborough, but it would be foolish to assume he’ll lose a step. Bruce Arians is no stranger to coaching veteran quarterbacks — he did it well with Carson Palmer — and Brady’s pedigree doesn’t have to be rehashed.
However, before anything else, the Buccaneers need to protect him. Their interior line is excellent — Ryan Jensen was one of the best centers in the league last year — but bookends Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs are OK and a rookie, respectively.
Smith was pushed around a bit last season, and the Bucs as a team still allowed 47 sacks and a 7.6 percent adjusted sack rate. Part of that was due to Jameis Winston holding the ball longer, which Brady could help with. But Wirfs is going to be an immediate contributor as a rookie, and in Week 1 he has the unenviable task of going up against Cameron Jordan and the Saints. Although Wirfs has a ton of potential, the jump to the NFL can be difficult for tackles.
The Buccaneers are going to need to ensure that their line is sound early on. Signing Brady also makes their window extremely tight, so if they have to make a big move partway through the season to replace Smith then that’s what they have to do. They’re in a challenging position, but Brady’s extremely quick release could mitigate that challenge.
The Buccaneers are one of the NFL’s most exciting teams this year, but those watching them for the past few years know that their roster still has holes. There’s a lot of potential, but we all know that no matter how good a quarterback, not being protected leads to struggles.
New Orleans Saints: Fatigue
No, Drew Brees’ comments aren’t going to sink the Saints. The biggest thing that can hurt the Saints right now is complacency. Winning three straight division titles and losing three straight times in playoffs — two of those times at home and in overtime — can take it out of a team.
This being Brees’ likely final season will add to the urgency, and the roster has gotten better. The Saints have added Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins this year, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be in the mix for a championship this season. With that being said, continued success is exhausting.
One reason for that is having to walk the tightrope between improving and keeping a successful core intact. Certain players are untouchable, but the Saints adding Sanders and Jenkins shows that Mickey Loomis understands the Saints have to get better at certain positions.
But guys like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Brees have to continue to improve and play well in order to get back to the postseason. The NFC South has been built to beat the Saints now, and that’s something to look out for.
This season, it’s going to be a race. The Saints aren’t likely to run away with the division. Every team looks different to some degree. However, the Saints haven’t been sitting around waiting for everyone else to catch up. For three teams, these flaws will fatal. For one, they will be overcome.
What are your biggest flaws in the NFC South? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel.