NFC South Preview: Off-season Recap and Predictions

NFC South Preview

The NFC South saw a lot of changes this off-season with stars leaving and joining like crazy. Tom Brady faked a retirement and now the NFC South will continue to run through Tampa. Will there be a team to knock off the GOAT? Here’s a look at the offseason moves and a preview of predictions for the NFC South.

NFC South Preview

4. Atlanta Falcons

Key losses – RB Mike Davis, DE Steven Means, TE Hayden Hurst, OLB Dante Fowler Jr., CB Fabian Moreau, LB Foyesade Oluokun, LS Josh Harris, SS Duron Harmon, WR Russell Gage, P Thomas Morstead. QB Matt Ryan

Key additions – QB Marcus Mariota, CB Casey Hayward, OLB Lorenzo Carter, LB Rashaan Evans, RB Damien Williams, WR Bryan Edwards, WR Drake London, DE Arnold Ebiketie, LB Troy Anderson, QB Desmond Ridder, RB Tyler Allgeier

Re-signed – RB Cordarrelle Patterson (2-years), CB Isaiah Oliver (1-year), S Erik Harris (1-year)

Extensions – OT Jake Matthews (3-years, $52 million), DT Grady Jarrett (3-years, $50 million)

In head coach Arthur Smith’s first season in Atlanta, the Falcons went 7-10, finishing 3rd in the NFC South. This would be quarterback Matt Ryan’as last season in red, as he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts. The rebuild is underway for the Falcons and they need to find their franchise QB.

The offense last season finished 29th in the NFL in total offense. They were horrible running the ball, finishing in the bottom three of the league in both yards per carry and yards, and it doesn’t look like it’ll get better this season.

The offensive line is one of the worst in the league, with only two quality starters: tackle Jake Matthews and guard Chris Lindstrom. This doesn’t seem to bode well for Cordarrelle Patterson, who is looking to prove last year’s breakout wasn’t a fluke.

Tight end Kyle Pitts looked good in his rookie season, but is hoping to breakout in a big way this season. The receiving weapons are weak, so Pitts needs to step up. The next most important wideout is rookie Drake London. Two young players could be the focal point this season, and possibly a third if quarterback Desmond Ridder ends up playing. It’ll be another long season for this Falcons offense, as they look to find their identity without Matt Ryan.

It wasn’t pretty on the defensive side last season for the Falcons, either. They finished 26th in total defense, as they were one of the worst teams against the run. The defensive line is better, but still one of the worst in the league. Lorenzo Carter was their biggest upgrade this offseason, so they won’t have to worry about defensive tackles Grady Jarrett getting all the attention.

The linebacker corps isn’t any better than the defensive line. Deion Jones was once thought to be the next great linebacker, but that is proving to be wrong. Rookie Troy Anderson will be the one to watch this year, as he looks to be the spark in the group.

The secondary is the lone bright spot of this defense. A.J. Terrell is one of the best corners in the NFL, with Casey Hayward and Isaiah Oliver creating a solid trio at that position. Erik Harris and Jaylinn Hawkins still have a lot to prove as the safety tandem, but are above average. This defense looks to struggle again this season, hoping to find their long-term solutions at several positions.

Prediction

The Falcons continue to try to find a way back to the playoffs, and I don’t see that happening this year. They’ll be one of the worst teams in football, finishing 4-13 and will go 1-5 against the NFC South this season.

3. Carolina Panthers

Key losses – DT DaQuan Jones, OLB Hasson Reddick, CB Stephon Gilmore, ILB Jermain Carter. RB Ameer Abdullah, C Matt Paradis

Key additions – OG Austin Corbett, S Xavier Woods, P Johnny Hekker, LB Damien Wilson, DE Matthew Ioannidis, C Bradley Bozeman, QB Baker Mayfield, OT Ikem Ekwonu, QB Matt Coral

Re-signed – CB Donte Jackson (3-years), CB Rashaan Melvin (1-year), TE Ian Thomas (3-years)

Extensions – K Zane Gonzalez (2-years, $4.5 million), D.J. Moore (3-years, $61 million)

The Panthers finished dead last in the NFC South last season after going 5-12. However, they traded for quarterback Baker Mayfield to take over. They now have two of the top three picks, both quarterbacks, from the 2018 NFL draft. We’ll have to see if Baker can turn it around in Carolina.

Last year’s offense was ranked 30th in the NFL, and that’s part of the reason they brought in Mayfield. He is hoping to help improve from being the 29th ranked passing attack from last season. Wideouts D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson provide solid weapons for Baker to throw to. Moore specifically was given an extension and is looking to prove the money was worth it.

The offensive line is below average, as a lot depends on how rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu will translate to the NFL. They have potential to become an average line this season, if Ekwonu can breakout. The line will look better if running back Christian McCaffery can stay healthy. He is the most electric back in the league when healthy, as he is elite in both the run and pass game. This offense’s success will ultimately come down to Baker Mayfield and if he can turn it around from last season.

The defense was a different story last season. They finished second in total defense after being lockdown against the pass. They lost some pieces to that defense, so I expect a dip in production. The line is young, with veteran defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis now leading the way. I have this group as borderline top 20 in the league.

The linebacker corps is the best part of the defense, with Shaq Thompson looking like a star. They have Frankie Luvu next to him to provide a solid duo in the group. Even after losing Stephon Gilmore, the cornerbacks are still solid. Jaycee Horn looks to come back as strong as he was before the injury, and Donte Jackson is a consistent corner next to him. The safety duo of Xavier Woods and Jeremy Chinn is solid, as they both thrive in different areas of the game.

Prediction

Going from Sam Darnold to Baker Mayfield is an upgrade, but won’t be enough for the Panthers this season. I believe they will finish 6-11, going 2-4 in the NFC South. This will be the year to see if Mayfield can be a starter down the road.

2. New Orleans Saints

Key losses – FS Marcus Williams, QB Trevor Siemian, OT Terron Armstead, WR Ty Montgomery, ILB Kwon Alexander, S C.J. Gardner-Johnson

Key additions – HC Dennis Allen, FS Tyrann Mathieu, FS Marcus Maye, QB Andy Dalton, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Chris Olave, OL Trevor Penning, CB Alontae Taylor

Re-signed – QB Jameis Winston (2-years), WR Tre’quan Smith (2-years), CB P.J. Williams (1-year)

Extensions – LB Demario Davis (1-year, $12 million), CB Bradley Roby (1-year)

In Sean Payton’s last season as the Saints head coach, they went 9-8, just missing the playoffs. New head coach Dennis Allen will look to do better this season and challenge the Buccaneers for the division title. A solid offseason will give them a chance in a weak NFC.

The offense in 2021 finished 28th in the NFL, and was easily the weak point in this team. They have Jameis Winston at quarterback, who is fully capable of leading the passing attack. He gets some weapons this year, with wideouts Michael Thomas coming back from injury, and Jarvis Landry coming over from Cleveland. Add rookie Chris Olave to the mix, and they should jump up from their 32nd ranked passing attack last season.

The run game is still elite, with Alvin Kamara leading the way. He is a key part to this team’s success, and could be heavily leaned on. The offensive line will be key, as they have rookie Trevor Penning eyeing to show he is the future at left tackle. Besides Penning, they need to get more from their offensive line, as it’s a top 20 group at-best.

The strong point of this team was the defense. They finished seventh in total defense and will be looking to continue their greatness. They have a top ten defensive line that includes edge rusher Cameron Jordan bringing the pressure. The linebacker corps is one of the best in the league, headlined by Demario Davis, who is back on a one-year deal.

The defense is backed by a strong secondary. Marshon Lattimore is one of the league’s best corners, and Paulson Adebo is looking to improve going into his sophomore season across from him. They have Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu deep as the safety tandem, and that should be a top duo.

Prediction

The Saints are still looking for their identity on offense since Brees retired, and I believe Jameis Winston can be the guy to help find it. I have the Saints finishing 10-7 and going 4-2 in the NFC South.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key losses – P Bradley Pinion, OG Alex Cappa, RB Ronald Jones II, S Jordan Whitehead, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DT Ndamukong Suh, TE Rob Gronkowski, OG Ali Marpet

Key additions – WR Russell Gage, DE Akiem Hicks, WR Julio Jones, TE Kyle Rudolph, SS Keanu Neal, CB Logan Ryan, DL Logan Hall, OL Luke Geodeke, RB Rachaad White

Re-signed – RB Leonard Fournette (3-years), DE William Gholston (1-year), LS Zach Triner (2-years), QB Blaine Gabbert (1-year), CB Carlton Davis III (3-years, $44 million), C Ryan Jensen (3-years),

Extensions – WR Chris Godwin (3-years, $60 million), DT Vita Vea (4-years, $73 million)

The 2021 Buccaneers would finish last season losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams. It was still a successful season as they went 13-4, running away with the NFC South. With Tom Brady back at quarterback, they should have another successful season.

The offense ranked secnod in the NFL last season, with the top passing game in the league. They should still be ranked in the top five in passing this season. Brady has weapons to throw to with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin still there, and tight end Cameron Brate looking to make a huge impact.

The offensive line is still elite, even with the losses they’ve endured. Shaq Mason and Tristan Wirfs lock down the right side of the line as an elite duo. This should open up lanes for running back Leonard Fournette, who is looking to help Tampa rise from the 26th ranked rushing attack last season. With the GOAT at quarterback, the Bucs should scare any defense.

Defensively, the Buccaneers finished 13th in the NFL last season. They didn’t lose anyone who would change that either. With Vita Vea and Shaquil Barrett, they will be bringing pressure from all over. On top of that, a top ten linebacker trio doesn’t hurt either. Lavonte David has been elite for years now, and Devin White is looking to get back on track next to him this season.

The scariest part of the defense is the secondary. Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Sean Murphy-Bunting create a top-tier trio that can be lockdown every week. Add in elite safety in Antoine Winfield Jr. next to a high-quality starter in Logan Ryan as the safety tandem, and it becomes a top five secondary in the league, easily. This defense could be the strongest part of this team this year, and will look to lead them to a playoff run.

Prediction

They ran away with the NFC South last season, and I expect the same this year. I have Tampa Bay going 13-4 after going 5-1 against the rest of the NFC South. Tom Brady is still there — and won’t be missing the playoffs any time soon.

Ranking All 13 NFL Alternate Helmets

This season, the NFL has allowed teams to have more than one colored helmet to wear. The rule change saw 13 NFL franchises introduce new helmets for their alternate uniforms.

Before I begin, I want to clarify what I ranked these helmets based on. There were three factors that went into my ranking: 1. Does the helmet itself look good? 2. Does the helmet fit with the rest of the uniform? 3. Could the team have done more with the helmet? With that in mind, here is my ranking for these new helmets.

The New NFL Alternate Helmets: 13-6

Chicago Bears alternate helmet for the 2022 NFL season
Photo Credit: Jacob Funk/Chicago Bears

13. Chicago Bears

I attend a school that wears orange helmets with its orange uniforms. It doesn’t work too well. Same thing goes for the Bears. The traditional navy helmet works so much better with any of Chicago’s jerseys, especially its orange one. This alternate helmet is a miss for one of the NFL’s most iconic teams.

12. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals messed up big time with their new helmets. Arizona plans to wear these with its color rush uniforms. The red pops out with the black real well with those, so why not do the same with the helmets? If these had a red face mask, this could’ve been one of the better helmets. But instead, they go with a bland, black design.

11. Washington Commanders

I’m glad that Washington didn’t leave the “numbers on the helmet” look behind when it rebranded. However, the execution this time around feels poor. The “W” in the front doesn’t sit well. Maybe a stripe, like the Commanders’ primary helmets, would’ve been better. This helmet isn’t bad by any means, but ten other teams did a better job than Washington.

10. Carolina Panthers

This one might have to grow on me a bit. I like the all black concept the Panthers created, but this helmet feels almost too dark. From the photos, it’s difficult to see the Panthers logo. The colors mesh well together, but nothing pops out to the eye.

9. Houston Texans

The helmet itself is one of the best that have been introduced. What’s upsetting is the Texans plan to wear these with their red uniforms, according to gridiron-uniforms.com. These would look significantly better with their blue-with-red-lettering color rush jerseys. The all-red look Houston plans to wear doesn’t sit with me well.

8. New Orleans Saints

The Saints introduced a new look this offseason, and it’s not bad. The fleur-de-lis down the middle helps this helmet represents New Orleans well, and black and gold go together like bread and butter. However, nothing about this helmet stands out; it’s a bit bland. Maybe a gold face mask would help?

7. New York Jets

Now we’re getting to the helmets I really like. The Jets’ nailed this one. New York’s black uniforms look even better with this helmet. The green on the logo and face mask (take note, Cardinals) pop out and give the uniform more vibrance.

6. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles kept their helmet change simple, and I’m all for it. They switched from an already-fresh midnight green and black look to a more fitting all black uniform. A slight change for the better.

NFL Alternate Helmets: The Top 5

Dallas Cowboys bring back the alternate uniforms and helmets for 2022
Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

5. Dallas Cowboys

The Thanksgiving uniforms worn in the late 2000s and early 2010s are iconic. Dallas finally gets the chance to bring them back this year. The simplicity of the helmet gives the Cowboys an old school look, something that somewhat resembles a cowboy. The white pops out with the rest of the uniform, and I love it.

4. New York Giants

The Giants’ white throwback uniform has been a staple amongst fans for a few years now. It’s about time they brought the blue back. The darker shade of blue on the helmet gives the uniform a more classic look. On top of that, the “GIANTS” along the side is significantly better than the block “NY”. A perfect helmet for a classic uniform.

3. New England Patriots

The Pat Patriot look is back! The red, white, and blue look has long been one of the best looks in football. The white stands out with the red jersey really well, giving New England a patriotic look. As someone who watched many Patriots games growing up, I’m so happy to see these back in action.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

Finally. Ever since the Bengals introduced their all-white uniforms, fans have been screaming for the Bengals to wear while helmets. Everyone’s wish came true, and this looks so clean. The new helmets put these uniforms in the conversation for the best in the NFL.

1. Atlanta Falcons

When the Falcons got new uniforms in 2020, I was disappointed they went with black helmets instead of red. Now you see why. The red and black look with a sliver of gold bring back ’80s nostalgia, a more authentic throwback, and one of the cleanest looks in the NFL. It’s about time Atlanta brought these back. These are, without a doubt, the best of the NFL alternate helmets

Patriots Beat Panthers to Get Back in Playoff Picture

With another win Sunday the Patriots are sitting above .500 and in the AFC Playoff picture. Our writer @colbyfau brings 15 observations from a big Patriots victory.

Patriots beat panthers
Charlotte, NC – November 7: Patriots DB J.C.Jackson (27) walks on air as he crosses the goal line as he returns a third quarter interception of a pass from Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) for a touchdown. The New England Patriots visited the Carolina Panthers for a regular season NFL football game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Nov. 7, 2021. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Patriots beat the Panthers and best pal Sam Darnold on Sunday to get to 5-4 and climb back into the AFC Playoff picture. The victory got them above .500 for the first time this season, and the first time since Week 3 last year.

The team has been firmly on the rise for the last three weeks and maybe even in heartbreaking losses to the Cowboys and Bucs but now are getting the results that matter. The good news for this team; if defense still wins championships then we’ll be seeing them play meaningful football in January. The bad news for them; the offense is still showing signs of needing to figure some things out with rookie Mac Jones at the certain of too many mistakes.

As I’ve said here before, a win is a win is a win and as long as that is the result on Sunday’s the Pats will continue to buy time to tinker with their formula. If they can get it figured out, there won’t be many teams wanting to see Belichick’s team come playoff time. And with a couple AFC front runners stumbling on Sunday (looking at Buffalo, Las Vegas, and Cincinnati) the division and conference are suddenly wide open.

Enough about the future and time for 15 observations from the game against the Panthers.

Matt Judon Has Another Great Game

Matt Judon signed a four year $54.5 million contract in the offseason that had many wondering if the Pats had overpaid. 9 games into his Patriots career and not only is he making that contract look like an absolute steal but he is making his case for the best free agent addition of Bill Belichick’s career. Judon is filling up the stat sheet and when he’s not, he’s impacting the play in other ways. He is the newest Patriot to receive “Gronk rules’-where the refs are essentially blind to most penalties against you.

Judon added 4 more tackles, 1 sack, and 1 tackle on Sunday, bringing his season totals to 36 tackles, 9 sacks, and 10 tackles for a loss. He has 40 QB pressures on the season and an incredible 17.2% pressure rate. He has single handedly changed the New England defense.

Pass Coverage

The pressure that Judon is consistently bringing is changing the Patriots into a successful zone coverage team. The Patriots have historically been a man coverage team under Belichick. On Sunday the Pats ran 8 cover-1 coverage snaps compared to 32 cover-3 calls and 10 cover-2 calls. Despite running more zone the Pats were effective in pressuring Darnold, affecting the ex-Jet on 51.4% of his drop-backs. That’s a recipe for success.

Jamie Collins Makes His Presence Felt

Despite only playing 16 snaps Jamie Collins again had himself a productive game collecting 3 tackles, a forced fumble, and an absolutely ridiculous interception. That kind of performance isn’t sustainable for a full snap count but he has to be close to getting more than a part time gig at this point. Collins intercepted the ball 0.17 seconds after release, the quickest interception since 2016.

Another Big Day for J.C. Jackson

J.C. Jackson switched his Instagram handle to Mr. INT and if that isn’t the CB1 energy you want there’s a team in New York that wears green and is taking fan applications. Jackson added 2 more picks on Sunday including his first career pick six-despite playing only 38 of 59 defensive snaps as he recovered from his bout with strep throat. Jackson now has 22 interceptions since 2019, most in the NFL. In a contract year he is becoming a bona fide lockdown corner.

Scoring Offense and Defense

The Patriots are now one of four teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Pats have the number 10 scoring offense and number 4 scoring defense, joining the Bills (#4 offense, #1 defense), Cardinals (#2 offense, #3 defense), and Rams (#5 offense, #10 defense). Good company to keep.

Mac Jones Joins the C

Mac Jones joined Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott as the only rookie QB’s in league history to have 5+ wins, 10+ TD passes, and 2,000+ passing yards in their first 9 starts. More good company to keep.

Mac Jones Concern

For the first 8 weeks Mac made a living making sure he wasn’t the reason the team lost. Last Sunday against the Chargers he graded out as a net neutral, not hurting the team but not elevating them either. Unfortunately against the Panthers he was liability. The coaching staff agreed as Mac had a career low 18 passing attempts. The Panthers defense is no joke but the slowing momentum from Mac brings concerns that opposing coaches staff are figuring something out about the rook.

Mac was making headlines on Monday for his play on the lost fumble. Some among the Panthers have called him a dirty player and are calling for a suspension. Mac will probably be fined. The play in question isn’t great for Mac but also not as bad as people want you to believe. Take a look for yourself.

Offensive Line Excels

The Pats settled on a Wynn-Karras-Andrew-Mason-Onwenu offensive line for the first time against the Jets three weeks ago. Since then the starting five are third in pressure rate allowed (22.4%) and second in pass-blocking efficiency. They’ve also had their three best rushing outputs since installing this combo with a season best 151 yards on Sunday against a stiff Panthers defense.

Christian Barmore Has Another Great Game

If you’ve been reading along this season, you know we’re big fans of Christian Barmore. The rookie had another solid outing Sunday with 3 hurries, 2 run stuffs, and 2 batted passes. He ranks first among rookies in QB hurries and batted passes. His 23 pressures are nothing to sneeze at as his playing time has been increasing over the last few weeks. Barmore is consistently disruptive with his rare combination of size, power, and explosiveness. How he feel to 38 is a mystery but the Pats are very happy to be the benefactors.

Historically Good EPA

The Pats were historically bad in early down situations on defense last year. In 2020 the early down defense allowed 0.13 EPA (expected points added), good for 29th in the league. It’s extremely tough to win in this league if opposing offenses consistently find themselves in third and short situations. They have turned it around this year allowing -0.04 (!!!!) EPA on early downs. This largely has to do with Ja’Whaun Bentley returning to his normal role since Hightower’s return. He has been one of the better run stuffing linebackers in the league through 9 weeks this season. Add in do-it-all safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger playing in the box in nickel and dime defenses and the Pats have a very real recipe for success.

Myles Bryant Steps Up

Myles Bryant has done an exceptional job filling in for slot corner Jonathan Jones. He was involved in two more big hits on Sunday, a week after laying the wood on Keenan Allen for a big stop at a pivotal moment. He is starting to turn some heads around the league.

Former Patriot, Stephon Gilmore, Dominates

Stephon Gilmore played well against his former team, basically being responsible for all of Carolina’s points. His coverage on Jakobi Meyers forced Mac to hold the ball a tick longer on the Burns strip sack before later adding an interception of his own. Jones said after the game he needed to look at the film to see what happened but it appears Meyers was picked by the underneath defender allowing Gilmore a clean break on the ball. Without that contact it looks like Gilmore still would’ve had a pass defensed. He continues to be a top NFL corner.

Stevenson Puts on a Show Before Injury

Rhamondre Stevenson had his best game of his career, totaling 106 all-purpose yards (62 rushing, 44 receiving). Stevenson is a split-legged runner, making it tough for defenders to get a clean shot on him and allowing him to quickly change direction. His open field vision is also starting to show. His 41-yard catch in the second quarter was the spark the offense had been lacking for the first 20 minutes of game action.

Both Stevenson and Damien Harris left the game with injuries. Their status bears watching headed into a physical matchup with Cleveland this weekend.

Season Outlook

With week 9 officially over the Pats hold the final wildcard spot in the AFC playoff picture. Their next six games feature matchups with the Browns, Titans, Bills (x2), and Colts. A big opportunity for them to cement their status as a contender.