The NFC South remains one of the most bizarre divisions in football. Every team has a franchise quarterback, and three of the four teams should have year-in, year-out playoff potential. But after a 2014 season where the Carolina Panthers won the division at 7-8-1, only the Panthers emerged in 2015 with a winning record (a nearly undefeated season, 15-1). The Falcons finished 8-8 after starting the season 5-0. The Saints finished 7-9, leading some to believe that the end of the Drew Brees era was near. The Buccaneers finished 6-10, but are viewed as an ascending franchise. Jameis Winston was promising on the field, and another solid draft class could lead to another divisional shakeup.
Still, we see the Saints as a team that should eventually make a return to prominence. The Falcons, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and a rebuilt offensive line, should be a better team than they were last year. It also will be difficult to replicate a 15-1 season, even if the Panthers are young and healthy in terms of salary-cap space. How quickly can the rest of the division make up the difference?
Because of some inconsistencies, the NFC South finished sixth in Around The NFL's recent power rankings. That can change quickly in 2016, though.
The major changes in Atlanta happened a year ago when the team hired head coach Dan Quinn and brought in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The only difference between then and now is a thin layer of optimism that still exists from a 5-0 start at the beginning of the Dan Quinn era.
This offseason has been about bringing in more players that can fit the system on both sides of the ball. A slew of new arrivals, including Courtney Upshaw and Derrick Shelby, highlighted the upgrades on defense whereas the upgrades on offense started with their main area of weakness -- offensive line. Alex Mack is a 30 year old former first-round pick who has made multiple Pro Bowls, but his age and price tag made him an easy casualty in Cleveland. The Falcons are hoping he can glue together a unit that contains some under-performers and developing high draft picks.
» The Falcons need to decide if this defense is going to be competitive enough to keep them in games this year, or if they will need to build an offense that can negate what they still lack on defense. That means doing more than just adding Mohamed Sanu, who was an interesting and risky high-priced free agent from Cincinnati. He was explosive in an offense designed around him by current Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson. Will he have similar success under Shanahan?
» Vic Beasley was a nice addition in the draft and held his own fairly well despite a weight differential in 2015. That being said, he needs to take a massive step forward alongside former second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman. The unit needs a nastiness upgrade across the board, which could be addressed in the draft. Consensus has the D-line position fairly deep through the second and third round.
» The signing of Mack was nice, but rarely do you find a veteran free agent capable of completely upgrading the front five. The Falcons have struggled to develop an identity up front since the 2010-2011 'dirtbag' unit that featured the likes of Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo. If Sanu takes time to gel, the Falcons would love to fall back on their zone running game and accentuate what has been an explosive cadre of running backs. This is a Shanahan specialty, but the last time he did this, he had an offensive line that featured Joe Thomas, Mack and promising rookie Joel Bitonio.
As we said a year ago around this time, Dave Gettleman is one of the best general managers in football. He has an idea of how to build a team and he never rests on his laurels. After the Panthers were pounded in the Super Bowl by the Broncos, he went to work signing former Falcons nose tackle Paul Soliai. He got Charles Johnson back on the cheap and there is little doubt he will look to strengthen the cornerback and pass rushing units via the draft.
The only thing that is different? The Panthers have been completely stripped of their plucky upstart charm. They were a ton of fun to cover in the Super Bowl this past season with their faux hotel nightclubs, penchant for Cowboy boots and utter fearlessness in the face of intense media scrutiny. That being said, there is a major target on their backs heading into the 2016 season. While this is normally a cliché tacked onto suddenly-good football teams, it will be a case study in how a group of young, explosive personalities can maintain their dominance from year to year -- especially if the club opts to not load up on a heavy veteran counterweight like they did in 2015.
» Continue to build. The Panthers have some excellent young pieces in nearly every positional group and have spread their draft picks around brilliantly. In 2016, many eyes will be on Kony Ealy, the 2014 second-round pick who turned in an epic Super Bowl performance. Despite just a few snaps, Ealy logged a title-game performance for the ages. Will he take on a more significant role in 2016?
» Developing Devin Funchess. Funchess, and to a lesser extent Stephen Hill, will be a major part of the 2016 season. A 2015 second-round pick, Funchess was expected to pair nicely with Kelvin Benjamin last season. The two towering wideouts are physically imposing and rangy enough to handle throws just about anywhere. Funchess, however, didn't catch on until the end of the season -- and even then his stats were buoyed by a seven-catch, 120-yard performance over the Buccaneers in the regular-season finale. If he can live up to his promise as a versatile wideout who can play across three positions, Carolina's offense could take a leap forward from last year's stellar breakout. If not, it had better hope Benjamin is healing OK.
» Go out and win the damn thing. It took some analysts like myself months to begrudgingly accept the Panthers' dominance -- so much so that I picked them as double-digit favorites over Wade Phillips' defense in the Super Bowl. Carolina was that good at times in 2015, but now it needs to come back and do what it couldn't the year before. Almost as important as learning to play with a target on their backs is exorcising the demons that came with a breakdown in the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Saints
Everyone is back, and seemingly recommitted. There was a time when it looked as if the Saints era would fall apart. Maybe coach Sean Payton ran his course over 10 seasons and maybe Drew Brees needed an Eli Manning-like shift at offensive coordinator to reinvigorate his career. But their attitude -- which can sometimes be the most important, over-arching factor in team success -- is pointing in the right direction.
The Saints need to get better. Their offensive line needs to improve and they need to organize what has been a chaotic shift between various defensive philosophies over the years. Because of a top-heavy salary cap and a few strategic missteps along the way, finding a bedrock of reliable talent hasn't been easy. However, they do have a good left tackle (and a good developmental prospect in the pipeline), a premiere pass rusher and some emerging talent in the secondary. It could be worse.
» Build a front seven. Stephone Anthony was a good start last year but the team still needs more help. New Orleans cannot go into 2016 with the same pass rush that finished 27th in sacks and needs to pair Cameron Jordan with more help on the left side. Bobby Richardson, an undrafted free-agent signing last year, is slated to start there at the moment. Richardson logged 0.5 sacks and 20 tackles last season and nine quarterback hurries.
» Redevelop the focal points of New Orleans' offense. The team lost Ben Watson at tight end. Darren Sproles is long gone and, for some reason, it seems like the aging and eventual release of Marques Colston caught the team by surprise. Brandin Cooks was targeted more than 120 times in 2015, and he caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns. Finding someone to ease that burden will be important, and in a draft class that some evaluators believe will be deep at receiver, they might get lucky. This is not to say Willie Snead was not effective a year ago, either. The 23 year old flashed plenty during the season and is on a nice developmental curve as well.
» Continue getting younger in the secondary. Having two good (or situationally overrated) safeties doesn't mean much without cornerbacks who can play the system and cover receivers. We liked the ball skills and aggression out of Delvin Breaux a year ago and are eager to see P.J. Williams in action after what amounted to a redshirt season in 2015. Williams was a heralded prospect coming into the draft but slipped due to some off-the-field issues. But teams lose games fastest at quarterback and cornerback, and the Saints already have things figured out at one of those positions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Remarkably, a new head coach. Lovie Smith seemed to gel with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston last year, but not enough to fight back the front-office urge to promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who finally gets his chance to be an NFL head coach after spending years designing some of the most lethal offenses in the league.
The Buccaneers will be defined by their promise until something better happens. The team locked down Doug Martin and will strive for a balanced attack. Koetter wants to see Jameis Winston and Mike Evans named among the best quarterback and wide receiver tandems in football, but will they achieve that level in an offense under their leadership?
» Linebacker Kwon Alexander was thrown into the fire last season. The former fourth-round pick played more than 800 snaps inside, which is good if the plan is to make him the future anchor at that position. Despite missing four games due to suspension, he lit up the box score and led the team in tackles. Pairing him and Lavonte David with another capable, high-upside player could do wonders for the defense, especially a pass rush that needs to come around.
» Tampa Bay nailed it with Robert Ayers, who has been one of the better pass rushers in football over the past two seasons. Though age is a concern, he could hold the fort down while Tampa Bay grooms a pass rusher of the future. At the moment, the Bucs' defensive line, along with Gerald McCoy is as follows: William Gholston, Akeem Spence and Ayers. There is a noted lack of drafted talent there, and general manager Jason Licht will need some time.
» The offensive line remains a work in progress, but not for lack of effort. The team selected a tackle, Donovan Smith, and a guard, Ali Marpet, in the second round alone last year. Smith did not light the world on fire, but offensive line is a slow position to develop in the NFL -- just Look at top 50 picks over the past five years. This season is about continued development. The addition of former Seahawks guard J. R. Sweezy should help.