2021 NFL Preview: NFC South

Matthew King

Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on.  Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.

Next up is the division where the reigning Super Bowl Champions reside: the NFC South. The division looks even more different than it did last year when Tom Brady entered the fray. Drew Brees has retired and the Panthers have another new quarterback. Julio Jones is also gone. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay stayed with the exact same players that won them a Super Bowl in February. Will that be a recipe for success once again?

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2021 Prediction, 14-3)

This one was pretty obvious. The defending Super Bowl champions brought back every starter on both offense and defense. Add in that everyone in the division got worse and Tampa Bay seems to be a shoe in to win the NFC South.

It all starts with that man under center. Tom Brady looked like he was finally slowing down in his last year in New England and the first half of his debut season with Tampa Bay. After their bye week however something clicked. They didn’t lose a single game after that and dominated the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The offense was balanced with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones doing some nice work out of the back field. Brady had Mike Evans to throw to who might be the best jump ball receiver in the NFL. Chris Godwin saw a little bit of regression but that is to be expected. Jameis Winston was an all or nothing quarterback so his receivers had big numbers but he also had a lot of interceptions. That isn’t Tom Brady’s style. Brady is as methodical as they come and it isn’t about awards anymore. Brady only cares about winning rings. He will look for his 8th this season.

The defense caused havoc in the playoffs. They gave three elite quarterbacks fits, shutting down Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes and harassing Aaron Rodgers. Tampa Bay’s defense had the 2nd most pressures last season, only behind Pittsburgh. They don’t have a weak spot on defense. I could talk about each player on the defense but that linebacker core is what makes this defense run.

Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Devin White are just constantly flying around the field. The trio can drop back into pass coverage, run sideline to sideline to make plays in the run game and can cause nightmares for quarterbacks and offensive lines. Add in a veteran like Jason Pierre-Paul and this crew might be close to unstoppable.

I could write an entire article about this team but we are going to make this short and sweet. The entire division is worse and they play a second place schedule. Tampa Bay will play the entire NFC East as well and the AFC East. If you asked me what prediction I feel most confident in, it would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the NFC South.

  1. Atlanta Falcons (2021 Prediction, 8-9)

This one might come as a surprise to some people. I think the Falcons will surprise some people and will capitalize on New Orleans’ quarterback situation. Atlanta choked a lot of games away last season. Those seasons happen. I think they flush it and get on a streak where they close those games out. Matt Ryan doesn’t have too many years left but I think he has a pretty solid season.

There will be some new looks on offense in Atlanta in 2021. The biggest change will be the absence of Julio Jones. Jones left for Tennessee in the offseason and that opens the door for A speedy dynamic wide out. Calvin Ridley now becomes the top guy in Atlanta. Ridley is coming off his first 1,000 yard season finishing with 90 catches for 1,374 yards. After coming into the league as a deep ball guy, Ridley has really worked himself into being an all-around receiver. Kyle Pitts is in my opinion the best player drafted in 2021. He is a freak athlete and can block well in the run game. He and Ridley can be a lethal duo for many years to come.

Speaking of the run game, the Falcons have some question marks in that area. Todd Gurley did not work out at all like they hoped last season. This year it will be Mike Davis leading the backfield. Davis is coming off a career year in Carolina where he filled in for Christian McCaffrey. Davis finished with 1,015 all-purpose yards and 8 touchdowns for the Panthers. Now he gets his first full time starting job with Atlanta. The Falcons like to air it out but Davis is more than capable of being a weapon in the passing game.

On the defensive side of the ball is where the Falcons could run into trouble. They have a respectable front seven led by a fantastic pass rusher in Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones who is coming off another solid season. The depth on defense is the issue. It is nearly impossible to stay as healthy as Atlanta needs to on defense. A couple of injuries could send them spiraling out of control.

I don’t see Atlanta making the playoffs again in the Matt Ryan era. They had their window and they had an epic collapse in their Super Bowl opportunity. I think Matt Ryan is one of the more underrated quarterbacks of the 2010s. That decade is over though. They finish a distant second behind Tampa Bay.

  1. New Orleans Saints (2021 Prediction, 8-9)

Now let me explain myself before you all think I am crazy. The Saints have a lot of talented players. There isn’t any doubt about that. But they don’t seem to be a team. The players seem to be in it for themselves rather than in it for the team. Drew Brees is gone and he was the leader of that team. You can’t think of the Saints and not immediately think about Brees. With him gone, who do they have to step up and be a leader?

The guy who will step up and replace Brees under center is Jameis Winston. Winston watched and learned from Brees in 2020 and that could change him into a new Jameis we haven’t seen before. Or he could still be the guy that throws over 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions with his all or nothing approach. Until I see otherwise, I just don’t trust him. He has to prove that he can lead a successful offense.

New Orleans will no doubt have a better vertical passing game this season. Brees’ arm was shot so he was forced to throw intermediate passes all season long. That won’t be an issue with Winston. He is going to throw it down the field. The receiving corps is young and unproven however. Michael Thomas is going to miss some time recovering from foot surgery. Tre’Quan Smith is going to go from the number three receiver to their top guy until Thomas gets back. They also lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook. Adam Trautman is expected to have a big year but he is banged up coming into the season. There are just a lot of variables at receiver.

One thing that isn’t up for debate is who will lead the run game. Alvin Kamara has proven himself to be one of the best all-around running backs in the league. He is so quick and shifty and can cause misdirection on defense. He also is lethal out of the pass game. Nobody is better than Kamara at taking a check down pass and turning it into a big play. Kamra is explosive and extremely difficult to tackle in open space. He needs to see a bigger role in the offense this season.

The defense should once again be a top 10 unit. Marshon Lattimore will remind everyone just how good of a corner he is. Cam Jordan is the leader of this defense and leads the pass rush up front. A career year for David Onyemata in 2020 gave another pass rushing option for New Orleans, but a suspension has taken away some of that promise. My biggest concern about this defense is how much I think they will be on the field. Winston either scores quick or turns the ball over. This defense will get worn down and injuries could be a result of that. Their conditioning will be tested.

It’s a new era in the Big Easy. I would feel more confident if Taysom Hill was the quarterback but Jameis Winston is the starter to begin the year. An absolute wild card makes it extremely difficult to predict this team. They could get into the playoffs and have an 11 win season or they could struggle with turnovers and finish below .500. I am going with the latter.

  1. Carolina Panthers (2021 Prediction, 4-13)

Another new quarterback in the NFC South is Sam Darnold for the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers finished third in the division last season with a 5-11 record. That wasn’t good enough to keep Teddy Bridgewater around. Thus the QB carousel in Carolina continues.

The third overall draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft has not found the success a lot of people expected so far in his NFL career. He is hoping a change of scenery will turn the tides. Turnovers have plagued Darnold’s career so far but part of that is due to a terrible offensive line in New York. Things won’t be better in Carolina. The line looks to be bad at best which will cause big problems for Darnold. He needs to be more mobile if they want a chance to not finish in the basement of the NFC South.

Sam Darnold will see an upgrade in offensive weapons with his new squad. There will be some familiarity between the quarterback and Robby Anderson as the two played for two seasons together with the Jets. Anderson hauled in 11 touchdowns in those two seasons but is coming off his best season in his first year with the Panthers. While the touchdown numbers were down, Anderson broke 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. DJ Moore will be another great target for Darnold. Moore is a dangerous deep ball threat. He is coming off back to back seasons of over 1,000 yards and can beat you in many ways. The loss of Curtis Samuel, who left for Washington, takes one weapon away, but there are plenty of guys to make this a good passing attack.

The best offensive weapon on this team is Christian McCaffrey. I got to watch him in college when he was at Stanford and he is extremely talented. Injuries completely derailed his 2020 season but he is back and looking to make up for lost time. McCaffrey is the best all-around running back in the league. His injury issues are some reason for concern, but if he is on the field, he is one of the best players in football.

The defense in Carolina is extremely young. They are not expecting to compete for a Super Bowl, so this is a good time to let these young guys go out and see if anything sticks. One guy that looks like he could be a permanent piece is Brian Burns. Burns just continued to get better with each and every game. He finished with nine sacks in 2020 and showed a lot of potential. In the secondary the Panthers are just looking for a step in the right direction. A.J. Bouye will improve the secondary when he returns from suspension. The youth movement was picked apart last season but these guys are extremely fast. If they can get more comfortable against the high level competition, that will bode well for the future of this team.

Carolina will be a pesky team to deal with this year but don’t expect them to make a push for a Wild Card. I think they will pull off a large upset at some point this season, but nothing much more than that. I don’t think Sam Darnold is the answer at quarterback. Don’t be surprised if P.J. Walker gets a start or two at quarterback, but I think they need pull off a trade this offseason to really be headed in the right direction.

 

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