In 2016, the Carolina Panthers will face increased competition from some NFC South foes. Others, not so much. Here is how the NFC South will finish.
1st Place – Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are the favorite to win the NFC South again for an unprecedented 4th consecutive season. Even fans of opposing teams will admit as much. If the Panthers can stay healthy, they simply have far more talent at key positions than anyone else in the division. For instance, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are two of the top ten players in the entire NFL and they just so happen to play the two most important positions on the football field.
The Panthers are not perfect, however. The biggest weakness for the them is the revamped defensive secondary, where inexperience could lose them a few games this year. Still, even with that taken into consideration, they look like at least a 12-4 team.
Are the Panthers guaranteed to win the NFC South? Of course not. The games still need to be played. But looking at the division as a whole, it is difficult to see how anyone else has a better chance.
2nd Place – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay is an up and coming team in the division and I believe will take a big step forward this year. Jameis Winston will prove to be the second best quarterback in the NFC South by the end of 2016, if not sooner. Winston is a true franchise quarterback, which in itself will fix many of the Buccaneers ills. I suspect third year wide out Mike Evans will recover from his sophomore slump with a solid season. Running back Doug Martin will keep defenses honest and allow Winston and Evans to produce through the air.
The Bucs bolstered their defense through the draft, with 3 of their first 4 picks being defensive ones. First round pick cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is a perfect fit for a Tampa Bay defense looking to get its swagger back.
In short, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on track to being a respectable franchise again.
3rd place – Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were the only team to defeat the Carolina Panthers during the regular season last year. You might think that would rank them higher in this projection, but it doesn’t. The Panthers simply did not play their best football in that game (more than one player confirmed this to me personally). They overlooked the Falcons after thoroughly pummeling them only weeks before in Charlotte. It happens.
This season will be more of the same for Atlanta. Decent players, average coaches, but no grit. Julio Jones will keep them respectable, but their lack of toughness will be their downfall once again.
The Falcons defense has taken a step backward from 2015 season, as impossible as that sounds. One of their more productive defensive line players, Paul Soliai, jumped ship and joined the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons drafted safety Keanu Neal in the first round, which was gross overreach at pick 17 in the draft. The Falcons failed to address the lack of pass rush that has plagued them for years. Bad news for them, good news for their opponents.
The Falcons finished 8-8 last season. I suspect that would be an optimistic record for them this year.
4th place – New Orleans Saints
2016 finds the New Orleans Saints once again a franchise on the decline. Drew Brees is now 37 years old, an age that has not proven to be kind to NFL QB’s. Brees had a solid year last season, but I am not sure how much longer that will last for the Saints. Even with Brees performing very well, the Saints finished 7-9 and came no where near sniffing the playoffs.
Tight End Ben Watson was a big target for Brees last season, but is now a Baltimore Raven. The Saints were forced to sign a lesser player in Coby Fleener to an overpriced contract.
The Saints defense is, well, the Saints defense. Because of salary cap limitations, the Saints have never really been able to bolster the talent on their defense. Instead, they have to try to outscore opponents in their dome. Unfortunately for them, the New Orleans Saints offense will regress this season, and their record will reflect it.
The Saints went 7-9 last season. A five win season is a realistic record for them this season But hey, that is a really nice draft pick for a Drew Brees replacement, right?