The NFC South typically is one of the most competitive divisions in the league. While most of the buzz has centered on the Bucs and their acquisition of Tom Brady, players and coaches still expect tough sledding in the division.
“I think it’s going to be extremely competitive,” coach Bruce Arians said. “When you look at the four quarterbacks in this division, it starts with those guys. And everybody’s got a guy who can beat you, and can beat you in a lot of ways. So I think health is a big, big factor, who can stay healthy, keep their guys COVID-free plus football-injury free and just keep playing week to week. But it’s going to be a knockdown, drag out.”
Inside linebacker Lavonte David agrees.
“Every year it’s going to be a battle. It always comes down to the last game in this division," he said. "Each division game, you almost try to count it as two games because that’s what it’s played like. It’s like it’s two games. ... It’s going to be tough and physical and that’s the type of division we have.”
Here is a look at how the other teams in the NFC South stack up.
2019 record, finish: 7-9 (second in the NFC South)
Coach: Dan Quinn (43-37 overall record)
Key addition: Former Lakewood High and UF standout Dante Fowler Jr. is coming off a career-high 11.5 sacks last season with the Rams. Fowler also set career highs in quarterback hits (16), tackles for a loss (16) and passes defended (six), earning him a lucrative three-year, $45 million deal with the Falcons. Atlanta didn’t get to the quarterback much last season, tied for second to last in the league in sacks (28) and third-worst in quarterback knockdowns (29). The addition of Fowler should help the Falcons get to the quarterback more, which in turns helps the defense as a whole.
Key loss: Desmond Trufant had been the Falcons' No. 1 cornerback since 2013, until the team cut him in the offseason as part of a purge to gain some salary-cap relief. Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, selected 16th overall in the April draft, will step into a starting role immediately and will have a tall task guarding the likes of Michael Thomas (Saints) and Mike Evans (Bucs) in the division.
They can win the division if: They get off to a fast start, similar to their fine finish last season. The Falcons were 6-2 down the stretch after opening the season 1-7. The reason the Falcons started so slowly was because of a defense that was porous early on. One of the team’s biggest offseason acquisitions was signing former Rams workhorse running back Todd Gurley. If Gurley can show flashes of the past, the Falcons will undoubtedly improve their 30th ranked rust offense and take the pressure off quarterback Matt Ryan, who the Falcons struggled to keep upright last season. Ryan was sacked a league-high 48 times.
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2019 record, finish: 5-11 (fourth in the NFC South)
Coach: Matt Rhule (first season)
Key addition: New quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s 5-0 record as a starter last year with the Saints earned him a three-year, $63 million deal and the reins of the Panthers offense. Bridgewater isn’t flashy like his predecessor, Cam Newton, but he has a 65 percent winning percentage over his career and completed nearly 68 percent of his pass attempts last season. He doesn’t make mistakes — he threw just two interceptions in 196 pass attempts, but the Panthers likely will need more dynamic plays from him to win with a depleted supporting cast.
Key loss: Linebacker Luke Kuechly was the heart of the Panthers' defense for eight seasons before abruptly retiring in the offseason, one of six defensive starters that Carolina has lost from last season. Kuechly — who was still an elite linebacker when he retired, recording 144 tackles last season — left a gigantic hole on a defense that has seen a lot of turnover.
They can win the division if: They are able to clone Christian McCaffrey, one of the league’s most talented and versatile offensive weapons. The problem for the Panthers is that might be one of the only players you recognize on this team. Rhule transformed Temple and Baylor into winners, but this isn’t the college game. Carolina’s new offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, ran LSU’s high-octane pass attack last season and before that worked with Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees as a New Orleans special assistant. The Panthers' young defense, which could include four rookie starters, needs to grow up quickly, and that will be difficult given the level of quarterbacks they will face in this division.
New Orleans Saints
2019 record, finish: 13-3 (first in the NFC South)
Coach: Sean Payton (131-77 career record)
Key addition: How does a receiving corps led by Michael Thomas, who had 149 catches and 1,725 yards, upgrade? By adding former Broncos and 49ers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who can serve as the perfect complement to Thomas. Sanders has averaged 67 catches over his NFL career, and that kind of output would give the Saints the most production they’ve seen out of a No. 2 receiver in several seasons.
Key loss: A.J. Klein started 42 of 43 games at the strong-side linebacker spot for the Saints. He’s now in Buffalo, and the Saints drafted linebacker Zack Baun in the third round to fill his spot. At least in the short term, New Orleans could miss Klein’s experience. The Saints replaced safety Vonn Bell with a more complete player in Malcolm Jenkins.
They can win the division if: They continue to get the most out of one of the league’s most talented and deepest rosters across all three facets of the game. Quarterback Drew Brees is one of the best ever, but he did consider retiring in the offseason. As quarterbacks get older, they can regress quickly, even the best ones, and Brees is 41, so it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank. The Saints have found ways to compensate for Brees' diminished arm strength in recent years, and he’s surrounded by tremendous weapons in Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara and Sanders. Regression is the only reason to believe the Saints will fall from their perch atop the division. But they’ve been postseason disappointments of late, so they have to overcome that mental hurdle.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.