The NFC South had it’s fair share of issues and controversies last season, which could be the chips on shoulders to drive teams to fight for a Super Bowl this season.
Clearly, the Saints are still stinging from that no-call against the Rams in the NFC championship. But also, the Buccaneers lacked discipline, the Panthers imploded in the middle of the season and the Falcons’ litany of injuries caused them to finish the season as average as a dry toast.
However, it’s a new season and NFC South teams have the talent to get far in the playoffs. Drew Brees looks as healthy as ever at 40 and has a steady offense under him in New Orleans, while the Bucs have a new coach in Bruce Arians to freshen things up.
The Falcons have to be healthier this year and can count on the return of safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, while the Panthers’ receiving corps should be solid with a refreshed Greg Olsen and free agent acquisition Chris Hogan.
Here is what to expect from the NFC South in 2019:
Team on the rise:
Last season was a disaster for the Falcons. The team was plagued by injuries, especially along the offensive line, which made quarterback Matt Ryan an easy target (he was sacked a whopping 42 times).
This season, most of the injured starters are back, and if the team can remain healthy, it can keep the pace the Saints have set in the division.
On the defensive side of the ball, Grady Jarrett just came to terms on a new deal with the team and Deion Jones has returned from a foot injury. The Falcons also re-signed Adrian Clayborn, who sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott six times is 2017 but spent last season with the Patriots.
Barring any injury setbacks, a healthy Falcons team could get back to its 2016 level, when it won the NFC.
Team on the decline:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yeah, yeah. This one seems too easy. Despite getting an elite coach in Bruce Arians, there are still some issues with the Bucs that are too much to overlook.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is a key factor — the 25-year-old has been plagued with off-field issues and inconsistent play that saw him benched last season for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Many think Arians can fix Winston, but Winston has barely improved during his time in the league.
Combined with poor defensive play and subpar safeties, Arians might need a couple of years to rebuild this team.
Rookies to watch:
Erik McCoy, C, Saints: New Orleans traded up to get McCoy in the second round of the draft, with the team wanting to bolster an offensive line that was top-tier last season. Unless McCoy struggles in training camp and preseason or gets injured, he’s expected to be a starter and make an immediate impact. He’s already impressed at OTAs and received a lot of first-team reps. He could anchor a line that will make it difficult for any defense to get to Drew Brees.
Devin White, LB, Buccaneers: White was selected with the fifth overall pick, and the Bucs hope he can help begin to solve their defensive woes (27th in total defense in 2018). White has speed and agility, evidenced during his time at LSU. Could he hold the key to making the Bucs a formidable defense? He will work under Todd Bowles, who joined Tampa Bay as the defensive coordinator and is known for his love of blitzing. The Buccaneers likely will hit the ground running with White and use his talents starting in Week 1.
McCaffrey impressed in his second NFL season (1,098 yards rushing, 867 yards receiving, 13 TDs), and there’s no reason he won’t be poised for success this season. He also has become the team’s primary back, with Cameron Artis-Payne and Elijah Hood being re-signed to back him up and the team drafting Jordan Scarlett and signing undrafted Elijah Holyfield. McCaffrey will need his backups’ help to ensure his health, but expect him to surpass 2,000 combined yards this season.
Cam Newton, shoulder: The Panthers quarterback was shut down at the end of last season because of a nagging shoulder injury and underwent surgery in the offseason. He’s altered how he throws to keep his shoulder healthy and hasn’t participated in minicamps as he continues rehab. Will Newton look like his old self by the end of training camp, when the regular season rolls around?
Marcus Davenport, toe: The Saints defensive end’s rookie season was derailed by a toe injury, and he later admitted he never fully recovered. Flash forward to 2019. Davenport is expected to complement Cam Jordan in the Saints’ pass-rush scheme. He’s had a full offseason for his toe to recover from a procedure and the heat is on for him to help turn the Saints defense, 14th in total defense in 2018, into something more formidable.