Three of four teams from the NFC South reached the postseason last year with the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons all getting their playoff tickets punched. Let’s preview each team in the division and see what the oddsmakers are thinking as well.
New Orleans Saints (2017 season record: 11-5) – Drew Brees may have seen his stats regress from 2016 to last year, but much of that had to do with the emergence of rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who exploded onto the scene as a rushing and receiving threat, which took a great deal of the heat off of Brees and freed the offense from its addiction to the pass. Kamara will be back again and in tandem with Mark Ingram (suspended first four games) as a powerful one-two punch in the backfield. The Saints signed 37-year-old tight end Ben Watson, taking over the starting role from Coby Fleener, but that position is undoubtedly the weak link in the chain. New Orleans also signed free agent wideouts Cameron Meredith and Brandon Coleman while drafting UCF wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith in the third round to augment their passing game around burgeoning superstar Michael Thomas.
Defensively the Saints made a bold gambit to get their man when they traded up from No. 27 to No. 14 and tabbed UT San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport as their man on the edge. At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Davenport is slated to bring the heat in the Saints’ 4-3 defense and will hopefully have the same success as last year’s top draft pick, Marshon Lattimore, who became one of the best shut-down corners in the league. New Orleans suffered a litany of injuries last season to valuable assets and if all return and remain healthy then New Orleans could be the team to be beat in the NFC. A quick check of the odds being dealt by the best online sportsbooks on the planet can be found at one site, Sportsbook Review. Not surprisingly, the oddsmakers have the Saints as the top choice to win the NFC South at +165, +1000 to win the conference, and +1700 to win the Super Bowl.
Carolina Panthers (2017 season record: 11-5) – Last season Carolina got one of the two wild cards but was summarily dispatched by the Saints in the opening round of the playoffs. Cam Newton has asked for more to work with and the Carolina brass responded by picking wide receiver D.J. Moore of Maryland at No. 24 overall. Even if Moore has a terrific rookie season it will be incumbent upon Newton to return to the kind of player that brought the Panthers to the Super Bowl just a few years ago. Perhaps the addition of free agent wideout Torrey Smith will see him bring some of his own Super Bowl mojo after a stint with the Eagles last season. The Panthers also added CJ Anderson, erstwhile Broncos ball carrier, to take the load off Christian McCaffrey in the backfield.
The Panthers have Luke Kuechly as the cornerstone of their defense and Julius Peppers still in the fold, but this is not the same ferocious group that propelled Carolina into the Super Bowl back in 2016. Last season they were stout against the run (ranked No. 3) but soft against the pass (18th) and their secondary remains a liability. The NFL oddsmakers are tepid in their assessment of this season’s Panthers’ edition and have them as the third choice of four teams to win the division at +300,+1500 to win the NFC, and finally, +3750 to win the Super Bowl.
Atlanta Falcons (2017 season record: 10-6) – The Falcons’ offense was not nearly as prolific last season as it was in their Super Bowl run the year before. Matt Ryan’s passing yards per game fell from 309 to 260, and the Falcons’ scoring average also plummeted from 33.8 to 22.1 points per game. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Atlanta eschewed a defensive lineman, which they sorely needed, in order to bolster their offense with Crimson Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley as their first-round selection. This will give Ryan another potent weapon to target besides the illustrious Julio Jones. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman make a solid backfield duo and are both emergency valve options for Ryan if he needs to dump the ball off when no receivers are available.
The only silver lining was that their defense, the one that did them in against the eventual Super Bowl 51 champion New England Patriots, took a big step forward last season. That defense could be even better if Vic Beasley returns to full health after some of the nagging injuries that plagued him last season and the good news is he is slated to return to his natural defensive end position from linebacker where he saw his sack total tumble from 15 ½ in his sophomore campaign to only five last season. The NFL oddsmakers are making the Falcons the second choice, trailing closely behind the Saints, to win the NFC South at +195, and +1100 to win the conference, and +2100 to win the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Bucs (2017 season record: 5-11) – The Bucs notched a meaningless win over the eventual NFC South kings from New Orleans in their last game of the year and then the rest of the division celebrated their respective entries into the postseason. Tampa Bay lost 11 of 16 games and the mood was far from festive and light years removed from the giddy anticipation heading into the 2017 season. Jameis Winston had a disappointing season that saw his touchdown completions drop from 28 the year before to 19 last season, although it should be noted Winston played three games less. Speaking of Winston, he will be sidelined due to a suspension for the first three games of the season with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick taking the helm in his stead. But this team goes only as far as Winston and wideout Mike Evans will take it. Both are superior athletes but some question whether both are devoted enough to their craft.
Tampa Bay needed to retool their defensive line as the Bucs’ defense had the fewest sacks (22) in the league last season. And they did that and more by using their first-round pick to draft a beast in the middle in Washington’s nose tackle Vita Vea. The Bucs’ brass then signed ex-Giant Jason Pierre-Paul and former Eagle Vinny Curry to beef up the pass rush, which will make All-Pro Gerald McCoy even more effective. The secondary is still a bit of a mess but the Bucs are simply looking for respectability if nothing else this season. The oddsmakers have tagged them as the long shot to win the South at +1000, and +3300 to win the conference, as well as +7500 to win the Super Bowl.