1. New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have been knocked out of the playoffs two years in a row in heartbreaking fashion. With a roster oozing with talent, the front office used free agency to fill some holes and further support Drew Brees in his quest for a second Lombardi trophy.
The Mark Ingram era is over in New Orleans. Alvin Kamara will get to run the show as the feature back this season, with free-agent acquisition Latavius Murray as his complement. The Saints added TE Jared Cook, who should provide a boost to the passing game and take some weight off of Michael Thomas‘ shoulders.
The defense might be stronger than the offense. The defensive line is solid with Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, and Sheldon Rankins wreaking havoc upfront. The linebacker trio of Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, and Alex Anzalone was impressive last year and should only continue to improve. If this team plays up to their talent and expectations, the Super Bowl could be in the cards for Brees and company.
-Zachary Knerr, PFN NFC South Writer
2. Atlanta Falcons
Injuries and costly on-field mistakes. That was the story of the 2018 Atlanta Falcons and why they finished 7-9 a year after a trip to the NFC Divisional Playoffs, nearly knocking off the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Fortunately for the Falcons, they look to be back at full health, aided by the returns of safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones. Jones returned later in the season but was slow to get back to form. Neal tore his ACL in Week 1 against the Eagles and his season was over.
The Falcons also invested heavily on the middle of their offensive line. They signed free agents James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, while also drafting Chris Lindstrom with the No. 14 overall pick in the draft (as well as tackle Kaleb McGary at pick No. 31).
In addition, you can never count out the Falcons because of how explosive their offense is with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in the passing game and Devonta Freeman in the backfield. Defensively, Grady Jarrett is among the best interior defensive tackles in the league, Jones and De’Vondre Campbell lead a stellar linebacking group, and Desmond Trufant is an excellent cornerback. And head coach Dan Quinn is now calling the shots on defense.
If all systems are a go, it’s entirely possible the Falcons challenge for the NFC South title. But because Quinn fired all three of his top assistants this offseason, if things go south again, Atlanta will probably be looking for a new head coach in 2020.
-Bill Riccette, PFN NFC East & NFC South Writer
3. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are the team in the NFC South with the most upside. However, they also have quite a low floor, evidenced in the second half of last season. Every team in the division will downgrade significantly if they lose their starting quarterback, but perhaps no team more than the Panthers. This team goes as Cam Newton goes, and already in his first preseason appearance, Cam had to leave the game with an ankle injury after facing pressure in the pocket.
While Newton is a risk to play all 16 games healthy, the Panthers are undoubtedly a threat to win the NFC South with a full season of a healthy Cam. The 2015 MVP had a career-high completion percentage and was 7th in the NFL in passer rating at the halfway point in 2018, leading his team to a 6-2 record before things got ugly. PFN’s gambling section has realized this upside and identified value in the Panthers’ win total and odds to win the division markets.
The Panthers have surrounded Newton with arguably the best playmakers he has seen in his career in Curtis Samuel, DJ Moore, and Christian McCaffrey. On the defensive side, the front seven has upgraded massively as one of the league’s best units. If the Panthers can keep Newton healthy, they could reclaim the NFC South for the first time since 2015.
-Scott Gallimore, PFN NFC South Writer
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off a disappointing 2018, and although there is a lot to be optimistic about there are still some major concerns. Their division is the biggest concern. To beat three talented teams, they need to be incredible. But going from inept to incredible is a big step in one season. That issue is compounded by their other major concern, the offensive line. Their line was shredded in the third week of the preseason and Jameis Winston was bombarded with pressure. No matter how good Bruce Arians makes this offense, if they cannot protect Winston, this offense will be flawed from the outset.
The defense should be better this year, but the chances they get above .500 feel slim, and managing to get into a playoff spot is extremely unlikely. This team should be entertaining to watch, but we have seen how important offensive lines are right now in the NFL, and the Buccaneers’ line is a major problem with very little time to solve that issue.
-Ben Rolfe, PFN NFC North & NFC South Editor
NEXT: NFC WEST