Every NFL team within every division has its own set of questions to locate answers for, but the NFC South certainly has more than its fair share. Last season, the New Orleans Saints burst out of the gate as usual in a stretch that included taking Tom Brady's lunch money in his first game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and again in Week 9. But it was the latter who had the last laugh when he walked away with the entire cafeteria -- besting Drew Brees and Co. in in the divisional round at Mercedes-Benz Superdome en route to winning Super Bowl LV.
And while the Saints and Buccaneers jockeyed for position atop the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons died a painful death from a thousand self-inflicted cuts, making their 2020 completely unceremonious. The two clubs finished with a combined record of 9-23, but while the Panthers have made moves to potentially better themselves, the Falcons could be on the verge of carving out the heart of their team as they openly take offers for Julio Jones. And with that, let's take a look at the most flammable round of questions coming out of arguably the most unforgiving division in football.
There are plenty, but these four headline the show.
Atlanta Falcons: To Julio or not to Julio?
Stop me if you've heard this before: the NFL is a business.
Organizations do their best to sell fans on the opposite, namely loyalty, at times to a point where they use it as a means to try and negotiate financial savings on a deal with a player. In the end, however, players almost always find out the hard way that when a team wants to be done with them, it will be. Such appears to be the case for Julio Jones, who signed a lucrative three-year, $66 million extension with $64 million guaranteed in 2019 that ties him to Atlanta through 2023, unless he's released or traded, and the latter is rapidly becoming an increasing possibility. Newly hired general manager Terry Fontenot isn't too keen on the deal his predecessor struck with Jones, and openly admits he's shopping the future Hall of Famer -- albeit in a supposedly "classy" way. Matt Ryan isn't on board with it, however, pointing at the value of Jones to the Falcons offense and to his quarterback career on the whole, but with the phones ringing in Atlanta with offers for Jones and Fontenot seemingly conceded to ship his All-Pro receiver out of town for cap space; the question no longer feels like an if, but instead a when.
Yes, the Falcons drafted Kyle Pitts in April, but there's only one Julio, and he's still one of the best (arguably the best) receiver in the NFL. Fontenot isn't letting a little fact like that get in the way of saving money, though. Even if free agency -- where they'd presumably need the money -- is now mostly dead and gone for 2021.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can Tom Brady do it ... again?
Feels like a silly question, I know.
I mean, let's be real here for a second. This is Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. we're talking about. The very same one who helped turn the New England Patriots into a dynasty before leaving to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win a Super Bowl ring in his first year with the club. All that despite the challenges presented by a raging COVID-19 pandemic. And yes, the very same one with seven Super Bowl rings and five Super Bowl MVP honors, but the question still needs to be asked -- Brady himself keeping it in the forefront of his super-competitive mind as a means of motivation on an annual basis. So, let's circle back to the question of can he do it even if we know he's capable, because we also know all it takes is a hiccup at the wrong time to prevent it from being so. The Buccaneers have achieved the monumental offseason feat of keeping their entire band together from 2020, and that will go a long way to helping Brady potentially hoist an eighth (!!) Lombardi trophy next February. The rest of the league is already adjusting, though, as evidenced in the Chiefs putting the Great Wall of Kansas City in front of Patrick Mahomes for a potential Super Bowl rematch.
Having not lost a step and still tied to the same offensive and defensive weapons from last season, Brady and the Buccaneers are the front-runners to repeat, but pole position doesn't guarantee victory. It only increases the odds of it.
Carolina Panthers: Is Sam Darnold the fix?
It's now officially Sam Darnold or bust in 2021.
After trading for the former No. 3 overall pick in a deal that sent three draft picks to the New York Jets, the Panthers remained in the running to select a quarterback with their No. 8 pick in this year's draft, but instead turned to the defensive side of the ball and grabbed top cornerback prospect Jaycee Horn. As a matter of fact, they didn't draft a quarterback whatsoever, and followed that by exercising Darnold's fifth-year contract option. That locks Darnold in through 2022, but put a pin in that for now because it's all about what he does or doesn't do this coming season that will determine if he's around to enjoy next year's salary in Charlotte. There are mixed reviews on what Darnold is and can or can't be going forward, but head coach Matt Rhule is once again trying to find his QB of now and later after the failed experiment with Teddy Bridgewater. If Darnold achieves his potential in Carolina, Rhule will be all smiles and can begin truly keying in on other team needs. But, if Darnold doesn't, Rhule will enter Year 3 with yet another round of questions at the position, and those will inevitably bleed into speculation on if he is the right man for the head coaching job.
So, while Rhule's seat is ice cold at the moment and in large part because he truly does feel like a good fit for the team, what he's able to pull out of Darnold will go a long way in making sure that remains the case. There's a lot of pressure on Darnold entering the season, absolutely, but also those who wanted to trade for him in lieu of drafting a player like Justin Fields -- who was still available when the Panthers went on the clock.
New Orleans Saints: Who wins the battle for QB1?
For the first time in two decades, Drew Brees isn't on the roster.
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer officially retired from the NFL this offseason, and while it wasn't a surprise decision, it's one that expectedly throws the Saints quarterback room into upheaval. Strapped with a late first-round pick, the Saints reportedly did all it could to make a blockbuster move to go up into the top 10, and while some rumors note they weren't doing it for a quarterback -- you'd be unwise to believe that. Given the capital required for them to do so and the fact they obviously don't have a definitive long-term answer at the position, had they found a dance partner, it's likely a top QB prospect would be in The Boot as we speak. It didn't happen, though, and so the onus falls on head coach Sean Payton to work his magic and either finally turn Taysom Hill into a franchise quarterback or to show he's fixed Jameis Winston, a former top pick who was replaced by Brady in Tampa. No one can question Winston's competitiveness -- or Hill's, for that matter -- but his decision-making has been an albatross to his otherwise promising career.
It's on Payton to help him clean that up and the decision to re-sign him for 2021 hints at the Saints believing they can, and liking what they saw in him as he learned behind Brees in 2020. Hill, who continually has a chip on his shoulder in wanting to prove he's not simply a gadget guy, will fight tooth and nail to beat out Winston for the job of QB1, but rookie fourth-round pick Ian Book is also now inserted into the conversation. Can Book hit the ground running despite being a midround pick, or does he need time? Can Winston regain prime form while eliminating turnovers that cap his ceiling? Can Hill truly be more than just the do-it-all guy called upon as needed as opposed to leading the entire team every week?
The NFC South is filled with burning questions like these in 2021, and the team that answers them best will be the one standing atop the ashes as the division champion in January.