We’ve hit the halfway mark with our division previews.
With the East and North divisions for both conferences now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to adjust our focus and shift it towards the last two sets of divisions, the South and the West.
This week, we’ll be focusing on the AFC and NFC South divisions. Both divisions possess some form of intrigue and unpredictability that’s special in it’s own way, but they both also have a bit of dullness that takes away some of the excitement.
Either way, I’m going to preview these divisions to the best of my ability and round out my division preview series in style. First up is the NFC South, which should be a doozy now with Drew Brees now enjoying the peaceful ins and outs of retirement.
Let’s jump into it.
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
3. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
Overview of 2020 for the NFC South
In contrast to previous years, the New Orleans Saints had some real division competition in 2020. Tom Brady made his way over to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and generated the amount of off-season hype you’d expect a legend of the game to command.
But even Brady’s addition wasn’t enough to topple the division dominance displayed by the Saints over the last few years or so.
Drew Brees’ limitations in the offense held back much of the unit’s potential in 2021. But what made up for Brees’ limitations were his skill position teammates picking up the slack and reaching the pinnacle of their skill set, along with the defense playing at an elite level for the second consecutive year.
Such factors led to the Saints winning the NFC South once again and proving that a flashy addition wasn’t enough to overthrow their divisional kingdom. But they weren’t the ones who got the last laugh, in fact their supposed division rival that made a flashy addition at quarterback ended up winning the war of attrition over the battle of sheer force.
Tampa Bay made a big gamble signing Brady last off-season. There weren’t many questions regarding his personal game, but whether he was the right man to lead this franchise to the highest of heights at the ripe age of 43. Not only that, there were some questions about how this team was going to take the next step. They were a roster full of legit contender level talent, but the quarterback play in previous years made reaching the next peak as a team extremely difficult.
Once Brady stepped in however, things weren’t so smooth right off the bat, likely due to Brady’s continued acclimation to his new surroundings.
Once things started to click though, this team took off.
They rode that newfound success into the playoffs, where they ripped off three straight road playoff wins — including one against the division rival Saints — en route to the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl title. It was another example of a Tom Brady’s influence changing a team’s fortune for the better, something that’s been taken for granted over the course of his long career.
The Carolina Panthers weren’t expected to compete for anything major in 2020. That was fine considering their status as a rebuilding franchise looking to turn the page on the previous cycle. Although they didn’t win much — only five wins to their name in 2020 — they competed each and every week. It was a good indicator on the short progress Matt Rhule had made during his first year as head coach and it brought some promise regarding his potential promise as this team’s leader moving forward.
They’ve continued to rebuild the defense from scratch, adding a variety of young pass rushers and secondary pieces to signal significant advancements towards bringing this unit back to its former glory days. The defense isn’t the only unit that’s going through a bit of a makeover either. Teddy Bridgewater was traded to the Denver Broncos this off-season, paving way for another quarterback to enter the fray and accelerate this offense’s journey towards finding stability post Cam Newton.
Newly acquired castoff Sam Darnold seems like the one that’s destined to take the starting spot with his immediate future on the line. We don’t know for sure if that’s a bad thing or not considering his previous stop in New York was riddled with bad play, with all of it not connected to his own personal skill set. He has the talent, he just simply has to put it all together at this point.
Atlanta’s direction is clear as the powder blue sky.
There’s a new head coach and general manager in town, the team is still about as cap strapped as any team in in the league, and the roster isn’t up to par. These factors all come together to form the status of this team right about now.
A rebuilding franchise.
That status was further proven by the trade of franchise icon and future Hall of Famer, Julio Jones.
This organization shouldn’t compete for anything crazy in 2021 barring some unforeseen circumstance, so you can brush them aside for now.
Best Offense for 2021
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Unless the Saints dropped a bomb on the league and brought in a high profile replacement for Drew Brees, they simply weren’t going to be able to take the top spot on this list. As you all know they didn’t do just that, instead they opted to roll the dice on Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill as options for the starting quarterback job.
That paves the way for Tom Brady’s Bucs to take the top spot here.
We’ve said it plenty of times over the last year or so, but this offense is stacked. Brady’s 43 but still playing at an elite level, Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette both had their moments last season, the offensive line is one of the best in football, and the wide receiver group is littered with depth and proven talent.
It’s hard to not see this unit taking a continuing their run of good play in 2021, especially now that Brady has gotten a year of experience playing in Bruce Arians’ system and Byron Leftwich has retained his position as the team’s offensive coordinator. There’s no excuse for this unit to continue the play that led to so much success in 2020, but I doubt they’ll fall short of doing so anyways.
So no worries for me.
One thing I’m personally intrigued to see play out is the tight end situation. O.J. Howard is back after an Achilles injury ended his season last year. His athleticism can bring a whole new dynamic to an already explosive Bucs offense, so it’ll be interesting to see how he looks post surgery and if he can grab his previous role back.
Best Defense for 2021
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- This is the only choice that should be on the table.
We saw how disgustingly dominant this defense was against the often invincible Kansas City Chiefs offense in Super Bowl 55. Patrick Mahomes ran for his life snap after snap, never finding even the slightest bit of comfort. It was the main reason why the franchise won the Super Bowl with such ease, although at least some credit has to be given to Brady and company for handling business on their end.
After that dominating Super Bowl performance, the team went out and retained all 11 starters, showing utmost confidence in this unit’s ability to run it back and sustain the form that garnered so much attention across the league. What’s even more scarier is the fact that the entire defense is still relatively young.
Vita Vea is 26, Shaquil Barrett is 28, Devin White is 23, Carlton Davis is 24, Sean Murphy-Bunting is 24, Jordan Whitehead is 24, and Antoine Winfield Jr. is only 22. These were all major contributors on defense last season, both in snaps and overall effectiveness.
That should terrify you not only if you’re a fan of another NFC South team, but as a fan of an NFC team period.
I truly believe they’re going to come close to repeating the outstanding year they had in 2021, which is saying something since I’ve never been the biggest believer in defenses sustaining year to year play.
Best Head Coach for 2021
Sean Payton- Until he leaves the division, Sean Payton will remain the NFC South head coaching king.
You saw how he worked around Drew Brees’ declining arm strength last season and how it led to another fantastic year for Alvin Kamara. Now with Jameis Winston likely to start the season as the starter in the Big Easy, you should closely watch how Payton integrates Winston’s downfield aggressiveness into an offense that’s lived on involving its running backs in the short passing game.
Winston has yet to show he’s grown out of his insane turnover phase, but if he’s gotten rid of the tendency to create turnovers because of his aggressiveness, then this Saints offense might not be so bad in 2021.
Potential Breakout Player to Watch for Each Team in 2021
New Orleans Saints- WR Marquez Callaway
Speaking of downfield aggressiveness, Marquez Callaway is a player that should stand to benefit greatly if Payton decides to adapt to more of a downfield passing attack this season.
With the absence of Michael Thomas due to injury, Callaway has stepped into Thomas’ role during the offseason and preseason. He’s looked sharp, and he looks set to have a really nice year if things go well for him.
Keep an eye out for Callaway early on in the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- S Antoine Winfield Jr.
I just touched on Winfield Jr. and how his play stood out despite his young age.
Now with a full season under his belt, you can bet on Winfield Jr.’s play standing out even more in 2021. He’s a physical presence that brings coverage skills to the table as well, a lethal combination for any sort of safety. He’ll be leaned on quite a bit in 2021, so you should expect to see him all over the field as a result.
Carolina Panthers- CB Jaycee Horn
Horn was the 8th overall pick in this year’s draft, so labeling him as a breakout candidate might be asking too much out of him. But he’s an uber talented corner that should see his physical game translate well to the NFL.
Plus he’s one of two corners on the team that stands to contribute the most, so I’m really high on his potential as a rookie.
Atlanta Falcons- WR Calvin Ridley
With Julio Jones now in Tennessee, Calvin Ridley is set to show he’s a true WR1.
When Julio wasn’t on the field due to injury last season, it was Ridley who stepped up and took on the responsibility of being this team’s most dangerous threat on the outside. Arthur Smith’s play action passing game should open up a lot of opportunities to destroy opposing secondaries down the field and in the intermediate part of the field, two areas that Ridley has shown he can an elite threat in.
I’m so high on Ridley that I’m even debating on taking him with an early selection in my upcoming fantasy drafts. Okay maybe not an early selection, a middle round selection is more likely.
You get the point.
Who Wins the Division in 2021?
Unless Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill(I pray to God I don’t have to watch him play significant snaps at quarterback this season) make a big splash for New Orleans this season, I just don’t see how they’ll be able to snatch the division from the hands of Tampa Bay.
Tampa has returned all 22 starters from last season’s Super Bowl team, so any worries about change have been effectively burned to ashes. Carolina and Atlanta aren’t ready to jump back into the race for the division since both are in the middle of phases of their own.
With all that in mind, give me Tampa Bay as winners of the NFC South in 2021.
I’ll even bet some money on it if push comes to shove.