2018 NFL Preview - NFC South

by Corey Mansfield, BBM Managing Editor

Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons finished the 2017 season at 10-6 and didn't win the division, after winning it the previous season with a 11-5 record. They didn't even finished second in a tough NFC South, but rather third behind the Panthers and Saints, with the Saints winning the division. The Falcons have one of the most balanced offensive attacks in football. Matt Ryan is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the league but always seems to win. He has one of the best receivers in the league in Julio Jones, who put together another solid season in 2017 when he finished with 1,444 receiving yards but only had four touchdowns. Beyond Jones the Falcons were very thin at receiver so they drafted another former Alabama receiver in Calvin Ridley. Ridley should compliment Jones nicely and give Ryan another big play target. Devonta Freeman leads the Falcons rushing attack but he has seen his stats decline over the last few years. Keep in mind, Freeman missed two games last season but he saw his yards per carry drop to 4.4 per game and his carries per game dropped to 14 per game. The Falcons need to do a better job of establish their running game with Freeman, who can wear defenses down which will open the play-action down the field for Ryan.  Defensively, the Falcons lost two major contributors to free agency in defensive lineman Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn. They'll look to fill those voids with journeyman Terrell McClain and rookie Deadrin Sanat. Sanat is a still a work in progress but should see significant playing time this season. The Falcons are a perennial playoff team and this year should be no exception.

New Orleans Saints - The Saints lost their first two games of the 2017 campaign but then rolled off eight-consecutive wins, which helped them to the NFC South Division title. Drew Brees has been and elite quarterback in the league for years but he's getting older and at age 39, the Saints need to start looking towards the future. During this offseason they acquired QB Teddy Bridgewater from the Jets, which not only solidifies their back-up quarterback position but their short term future if Brees starts to break down. The Saints will rely heavily on star running back Alvin Kamara, who had a breakout rookie season totaling 1554 all-purpose yards (728 rushing yards 826 receiving) and 15 touchdowns (eight rushing and five receiving). Kamara's rolling in the offense is even more important since RB Mark Ingram will miss the first four games with drug-related suspension. Defensively, the Saints look to improve on a so-so 2017 season when they were middle of the pack. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was a huge surprise for the Saints last season and hopes to get better in his second season. They also signed former Jets linebacker Damario Davis, and reunited with former cornerback Patrick Robinson. One of the major unknowns is their 2018 first round pick, defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport has the size (6'6" and 264 lbs) and speed (4.58 40-yard time) to be a great edge pass rusher. However, there is concern about how long it will take him to develop at the NFL level. Sean Payton is one of the best coaches in the NFL and his teams are always in the playoff mix - this season will be the same.

Carolina Panthers - The Panthers have been up and down over the last few seasons but have found consistency in their organization with head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton. Newton has turned into one of the better quarterbacks in the league with his size and play making ability. However, much rests on his shoulders and sometimes he puts himself in harm's way, which could cause him to get injured. The Panthers have almost no depth quarterback with journeyman Taylor Heinicke as their backup going into the season. So an injury to Newton could prove fatal to the Panthers this season. Running back Christian McCaffrey will have an expanded roll this season now that Jonathon Stewart has left for the Giants. McCaffrey is an all-purpose back who down the road could who break the 1,000 receiving yards before he rushes for 1,000 yards this season. McCaffrey is even more valuable when you consider the Panthers lack of the depth at receivers. Let this sink in...their #1 receiver is Devin Funchess. The Panthers defense was one of the better defensives in the league last season led by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a tackling machine and one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson could develop into a shutdown corner, something the Panthers have missed since they lost Josh Norman.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - The Buccaneers looked to improve on their 2016 season when they finished 9-7 but fell a part last season, finishing 5-11. The Bucs looked to turn a page this offseason but things got worse when franchise quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended three games for violating the league's code of conduct policy. Character concerns have always surrounded the 2015 top overall pick and the Bucs have to consider whether they should move forward. Journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will step in and man the helm for the Bucs until Winston returns.  Fitzpatrick has always been a solid quarterback and will keep Tampa Bay competitive in every game. He'll also have a big time target in receiver Mike Evans.  Another big positive in the Bucs offense could be TE O.J. Howard who was used minimally last season. Howard is a big target and could turn into a Pro-Bowl tight end. The biggest concern in the Bucs offense could be their lack of consistent running game. Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers will split time in the backfield but neither has seen a massive workload in during their careers. An injury to either one of them could open the door for rookie Ronald Jones. Jones has the skillset to be a great NFL back but needs to cleanup his pass blocking before he can be trusted in the Bucs offense.  Tampa Bay had one of the worst defenses in the league last year. However, they had key injuries to Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David which hurt them. If they can stay healthy this season, then they the Bucs can have a top 10 defense.  They drafted DT Vita Via with their first pick in this year's draft and signed free agent DE Jason Pierre-Paul to sure up their defensive line.

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