2018 NFC South Preview

Welcome to the 2018 NFC South preview.  This is the 7th installment in our 2018 NFL preview series.  If you haven’t had a chance to check out the earlier installments, be sure to catch up on all the action.  As always we are going to go through the division and make predictions against each team’s Vegas win total, take an in depth look at the rosters, and make predictions for the division overall at the end.  The order in which the teams appear is what we are predicting to be the division’s final standings.  Let’s get to the 2018 NFC South preview.

Before we begin, I want to say this in a neutral spot as opposed to working it into the Saints and Falcons capsules.  After looking at each team’s rosters, I think the two teams are as even as possible.  Drew Brees came in 3rd in quarterback rankings among 50 coaches, scouts, and NFL executives, while Matt Ryan came in 5th.  Atlanta has the 3rd best offensive line, New Orleans has the 6th.  The Saints have the 11th best pass rush, the Falcons have the 16th best pass rush.  In the secondary the Falcons rank 5th, while the Saints rank 8th.

One team has Julio Jones, the other has Michael Thomas.  Neither team has a tight end.  One team has Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the other team has Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.  Each team has a good head coach.

The biggest difference between these teams is the schedule difficulty.  According to Mike Clay, New Orleans faces the second toughest slate of opponents in the league, while Atlanta has the 12th most difficult schedule.

I think these are the two best teams in the NFL, better than the Eagles and better than the Patriots.  They happen to be trapped in the same division together.  I can’t differentiate so I’m going with the projected easier schedule in Atlanta for the division title.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to predict that Atlanta ends up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Atlanta Falcons – O/U 9 – Over

This is an easy over.  The Falcons have one of the best rosters in the league so double digit wins should be a guarantee.

Despite regressing from an unsustainable 2016, Matt Ryan still finished 7th in DYAR, 9th in DVOA, 2nd in PFF, 5th in QBR, and 10th in ANY/A.  Whichever way you want to slice it, Matt Ryan is a top 10 quarterback.

According to ProFootballFocus, the Falcons have the 3rd best offensive line in the NFL.  This will help Matt Ryan get the ball to his many, many weapons, as well as open up running lanes for this two headed monster in the backfield.

How much really needs to be said about Julio Jones?  I mean:

Mohamed Sanu has now proven to be a solid second receiver two years in a row.  He may see even worse defenders this coming season as Atlanta spent their first round pick on route technician Calvin Ridley.  This is such an incredible landing spot for Ridley.  He is pro-ready, Matt Ryan can utilize him, and former Crimson Tide receiver himself Julio Jones can take Ridley under his wing (no reporting on if this happened).

Leaking out of the backfield are two good pass catching backs in Freeman and Coleman.  Oh, also, running the ball out of the backfield are too good running backs in Freeman and Coleman.

Touchdown regression and a change in offensive coordinator led to the Falcons offense being a “let down” in 2017 after 2016.  That let down was still the 9th best offense by DVOA last year.  Atlanta, especially Julio Jones, is now due for some positive touchdown regression, so look for the Falcons to hold onto a top 10 offensive ranking and push to be in the top 5.

PFF ranks this pass rush as the 16th best in the league.  Vic Beasley will look to bounce back coming off his worst season as a pro, while Tak McKinley will look to improve in his second season.  Jarrett Brady provides a nice interior rush.

In the secondary the Falcons sport the 5th best unit.  They have one of the better safety tandems in the league, along with two solid starting cornerbacks and a viable slot option.  This team has a habit of not being very good on defense to begin the year, before catching on fire to close out the season.

Each of the past two years the Falcons’ season was ended by the Super Bowl champion.  Atlanta has a chance to be the first team in league history to play a Super Bowl in their home building.  This is a narrative analysis but I think Atlanta is going to be laser focused all season and has an elite roster.  As mentioned in the outset, I picked the Falcons over the Saints based on a projected easier schedule.

New Orleans Saints – 9.5 – Over

Drew Brees is the 3rd best quarterback in the league and I don’t think it’s particularly debatable.  Moving on..

New Orleans has the 6th best offensive line in football, with no weakness if Max Unger can get back to his previous form.

Brees doesn’t have the weapons Ryan does, but Michael Thomas is an absolute stud.  Ted Ginn was his normal Ted Ginn self last year.  Tre’Quan Smith is a really interesting rookie for this team.

But Alvin Kamara is essentially a receiver anyway.  He is due for regression as no one averages 6 yards a carry and a 6% TD rate for their entire career.  But Kamara is supremely talented and looks to be a star in this league.  Mark Ingram is another dual threat running back, but he is suspended for the first four games of the season.  Another slight advantage for the Falcons in order to claim this division.

Finally, after all those years, the Saints have given Drew Brees a viable defense.  This unit actually finished 8th in defensive DVOA last year.  New Orleans was one of five teams to rank in the top ten for both offense and defense in 2017.

The Saints have the 11th ranked pass rush headed into 2018, led by stud edge defender Cameron Jordan.  New Orleans made an aggressive move up the draft board to get Marcus Davenport as they identified him as the missing piece to a Super Bowl run.  Trey Hendrickson is a nice rotational piece, and Sheldon Rankins is progressing well.

The secondary comes in at #8, in large part due to the 2017 draft.  Marcus Lattimore is a shut down corner, and Marcus Williams is another home run draft pick.  Forget the play against the Vikings, Williams is very talented.  Signing Patrick Robinson away from the Eagles is huge for this team, as they now run three deep at corner, and Robinson was the best slot corner in the game in 2018.

The worst thing for the Saints is they have the 2nd most difficult schedule in 2018.  There is too much talent here to not get to double digit wins and into the playoffs, so consider that a lock.  The Saints might just have the best roster in all of football, and they will make a deep playoff run in January.

Carolina Panthers – O/U 9 – Under

This offensive line is a mess.  PFF ranked this as the 21st best unit headed into the season, but that was before Daryl Williams’ injury.  Williams dislocated his patella tendon and tore the MCL in his right knee.  Somehow Williams avoided landing on the IR on roster cut down day, but who knows when he will be back and how effective he will be.  Williams is easily the best lineman on this team, so without him the Panthers are looking at a bottom five unit in the league.

Cam Newton just isn’t very good.  Last year he finished 21st in both DYAR and DVOA, 19th in QBR, and 23rd in ANY/A.  2015 was the clear outlier of Cam’s career as he just isn’t an accurate enough passer to be more consistently affective.  Cam is also one of the most aggressive quarterbacks in the league, throwing into tight coverage at the 5th highest rate last year.

The Panthers have spent two first round picks and a second round pick over the past two years on quick twitch athletes in an effort to change their offensive identity.  Christian McCaffrey, Samuel Curtis, and D.J. Moore were brought in for their explosiveness and ability to quickly create space and rack up yards after the catch.  Joining them in the weapons department is the always dependable Greg Olsen.

So what offensive mind would you choose to mix all these ingredients together?  Why, Norv Turner of course!

Norv Turner is the last guy I would hire as the offensive coordinator for the Panthers.  An inaccurate quarterback surrounded by weapons designed for a quick, precision passing offense, with a play caller who wants the quarterback to stand there for 7 seconds then bomb it 60 yards downfield, all behind an offensive line that is terrible.  None of this goes together.  None. Of. It.

The defense isn’t very good either.  According to ProFootballFocus, the Panthers enter the season with the 22nd ranked pass rush.  They may end up lower in that department if Julius Peppers regresses due to age.

And the secondary is worse.  The unit ranks 29th in the NFL and are now counting on a rookie to be their nickel corner in a division with the Falcons, Saints, and Bucs.  Good luck with that.

The Panthers are, like, the only team in the NFL with a stacked group of linebackers.  So they have that going for them.

Carolina is looking at the 7th most difficult schedule in the league and this roster is shaping up to be a disaster.  This is one of the easiest unders.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – O/U 6.5 – Under

Jameis Winston is suspended for the first three games of the season.  Had he been available for all 16 games I was considering choosing the Bucs to finished 3rd in this division.  Now they’re a clear under.

Filling in for Winston will be Ryan Fitzpatrick who isn’t as good as the 2015 version we saw with the Jets and isn’t as bad as we thought he was after his time on the Texans.  The truth is somewhere in the middle, but that results in just a decent backup quarterback.

The first three games of the season for Tampa Bay are at New Orleans, vs Philadelphia, vs Pittsburgh.  What are the odds the Bucs go 0-3 to start the year? Tampa then goes on the road to Chicago before going on the road to Atlanta in week 5 for the first two games Jameis is back.  The best case scenario for the Bucs to start the year really looks like 1-4.

Whoever the quarterback is has plenty of weapons though.  Tampa goes three deep at receiver with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and breakout candidate Chris Godwin.  If you’re into Adam Humphries then the Bucs go four deep at receiver.

This team may have the best tight end duo in the league as well with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.  Unfortunately at running back, Ronald Jones has been terrible in the preseason and Peyton Barber figures to start the year as the lead back.

And the offensive line isn’t very good.  It is ranked 22nd headed into the year, and left tackle Donovan Smith may miss the first game or two due to a knee injury.  The Bucs also don’t have depth along the line so one injury could sink this unit to a bottom five squad.

The strength of the defense is the pass rush, as it ranks 15th headed into 2018.  Gerald McCoy is one of the best interior disruptors in the league and the team chose to spend it’s first round pick on Vita Vea, the massive defensive tackle out of Washington that does provide interior rush despite his build.

Tampa poached a number of edge players from the NFC East, as they brought in both Vinny Curry and Beau Allen from the Eagles and Jason Pierre-Paul from the Giants.  The Bucs completely overhauled their defensive line, and it will be exciting to see how well those efforts pay off.

But if the pass rush doesn’t get home this team is in trouble.  Tampa’s secondary ranks 31st headed into 2018.  There is room for improvement as Justin Evans could develop in his second year and the team doubled up at corner in the draft with Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart.  Brent Grimes remains but isn’t getting any younger, while Vernon Gargreaves has not lived up to expectations thus far.

Tampa won’t have it’s starting quarterback for the first three weeks and perhaps it’s starting left tackle for the first two weeks.  The Bucs also face the league’s 4th most difficult schedule.  Dirk Koetter is a candidate to be the first coach fired during the season, although the Winston suspension should buy him more time.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons

D.J. Moore might be the safer pick as he figures to see more volume, but Ridley is tied to the better quarterback and the better offense.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vita Vea, DT, Buccaneers

He won’t post eye popping sack totals but no defensive rookie will perform at a higher level than Vea this season.

Breakout Player: Tak McKinley, Edge, Falcons

I was big on Tak when he was in the draft so I’m expecting a significant leap forward in year two.

When Will Kirk Koetter Get Fired?

Ownership will dismiss the first three games, but Tampa will start 0-5 before getting their first win at home against the Browns.  They will then lose on the road at Cincinnati before a loss in Carolina, bringing their record to 1-7 and prompting ownership to move on from their coach.

If I had to bet the over/under on my own prediction I would bet the under.  Over the past few offseasons this team has gone out and brought in a lot of talent only to see it not work at all.  If Koetter let’s the Browns get their first win since Jesus was walking the earth then Koetter can pick up his pink slip on the way out of the stadium.

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