NFC South 2019 offseason grades: Falcons, Panthers make run at Saints, Bucs hope new coach can fix offense
Only one NFC South team had a winning record in 2018 -- that will almost certainly change this season
The Saints ran away with the NFC South in 2018. They won it by six games and at 13-3 were the only team to have a winning record. Not surprisingly, New Orleans was also the most balanced team in the division. The Panthers and Falcons, who represented the NFC in the Super Bowls after the 2015 and 2016 seasons, are looking to rebound from 7-9 campaigns, while the Buccaneers and their new coaching staff hope to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2007 -- when Jon Gruden was the coach and Jeff Garcia was the quarterback.
For now, here's a look at what all four teams in the division have done since the end of the '18 season and whether they're better off than they were just a few months ago.
Grades for all 32 teams can be found.
- Key additions: DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, OL James Carpenter, OL Jamon Brown, RB Kenjon Barner, TE Luke Stocker
- Key losses: CB Robert Alford, DE Bruce Irvin, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Marvin Hall, CB Brian Poole
- Key rookies: OG Chris Lindstrom, OT Kaleb McGary, RB Qadree Ollison
The Falcons went 7-9 last season, a huge drop from the previous two seasons when they went to the playoffs, and were one forgettable fourth quarter away from a Super Bowl title in February 2016. But unlike most organizations trying to rebound from disappointment, there isn't a lot Atlanta needs to do. The offense was a top-10 unit a year ago and the defense was decimated by injuries. That goes a long way in explaining why the unit ranked 31st, according to Football Outsiders, and why, when healthy, it has the chance to be replacement-level at worst.
On offense, it all starts with Matt Ryan, who ranked 4th in value per play among all quarterbacks last season. He threw for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. But he was also sacked 42 times, in part because the Falcons' offensive line was average in pass protection. Turns out, they were worse when run blocking, ranking 24th, which was no doubt exacerbated by losing Devonta Freeman a month into the season. Freeman is back -- and healthy -- though Tevin Coleman, who led the team with 800 rushing yards, is now in San Francisco.
New faces on offense include offensive linemen James Carpenter and Jamon Grown, running back Kenjon Barner and tight end Luke Stocker, all signed as free agents. But it's what the Falcons did early in the 2019 NFL Draft that could have the biggest impact on this offense: The team took guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick and traded back into Round 1 to grab right tackle Kaleb McGary at No. 31. The expectation is the both could begin the season as starters, and if Carpenter also wins the job, 60 percent of the offensive line could feature new faces.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons used the franchise tag on defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, the anchor of the defensive line. The team also added former Falcons D-linemen Adrian Clayborn (he was in New England last season) and Ra'Shede Hageman (he was out of football the last two seasons). Linebacker Deion Jones, who missed 10 games last season, is healthy, and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, who both missed substantial time in '18, are expected to be ready to go by training camp.
Getting healthy is of paramount importance for the defense and hitting on the two first-round picks will determine just how good this offense can be. If it all comes together, the Falcons will be favorites to return to the postseason for the third time in four years.
Offseason grade: B
- Key additions: DT Gerald McCoy, C Matt Paradis, WR Chris Hogan, DE Bruce Irvin
- Key losses: OT Matt Kalil, S Da'Norris Searcy
- Key rookies: DE Brian Burns, OT Greg Little, QB Will Grier, EDGE Christian Miller
Like the Falcons, the Panthers finished 7-9 in what has become something of a trend. Since 2012, even-numbered years have resulted in losing records while odd-numbered years have seen the Panthers win at least 11 games, and in 2015 make it to the Super Bowl. Which means Carolina could be in for a big 2019 campaign. It all starts with Cam Newton, whose injured shoulder forced him to miss the final two games.
How bad was it? He ranked 23rd in value per play among all QBs, behind Derek Carr and Eli Manning. That's a far cry from his 12th-overall finish during his MVP campaign in 2015. As it stands, Newton's still not 100 percent (he underwent surgery in January) but the hope is that he's ready to go by training camp. The good news is that Christian McCaffrey will be a huge part of the offense, but this unit's success starts with the offensive line. Matt Paradis, one of the best centers in the league, was signed in the offseason and second-round pick Greg Little will have a chance to earn a starting gig at tackle. At wide receiver, Torrey Smith was re-signed but Chris Hogan could end up being Newton's new middle-of-the-field security blanket as 34-year-old tight end Greg Olsen enters his 13th season.
There's also the matter of what happens to this offense if Newton isn't healthy. It's why the team drafted quarterback Will Grier in the third round. Grier doesn't have Newton's size, athleticism or arm strength but he put up gaudy numbers at West Virginia and could be a good short-term solution if Newton is sidelined for any reason.
On defense, the questions begin with the pass rush, which explains why Carolina used its first-round pick on Brian Burns, one of the most dynamic edge rushers in the draft. Yes, he played at just 235 pounds last season, but he showed up to the combine at 249 and told CBSSports.com during the draft that he's comfortable playing at that weight. He won't have to do it by himself, however; the Panthers just signed defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and will bookend Burns with a rusher in his image, 31-year-old Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks' former first-rounder.
Carolina did a great job of filling needs since the '18 campaign ended and if Newton is ready to go and the offensive line can protect him, everything else should take care of itself.
Offseason grade: B+
New Orleans Saints
- Key additions: RB Latavius Murray, DE Mario Edwards, TE Jared Cook, RB Buck Allen, OL Nick Easton
- Key losses: C Max Unger, DE Alex Okafor, RB Mark Ingram
- Key rookies: OL Erik McCoy, S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, TE Alize Mack
The Saints should've represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last season but ... well, we know how that turned out. And perhaps one of the biggest offseason additions wasn't a player or coach but rather the league's decision to change the rules concerning pass interference.
Either way, New Orleans was one of the league's best teams in 2018, finishing 13-3 after dominating the NFC South. And there's an argument to be made that they remain the favorites in the division despite losing key players Max Unger, Mark Ingram and Alex Okafor. On offense, 40-year-old Drew Brees is still going strong -- he was No. 2 in value per play among all QBs after only Patrick Mahomes -- and while he'll be without Ingram in the backfield, dual threat Alvin Kamara remains and the team also signed Latavius Murray and Buck Allen in free agency.
More importantly, the league's best wideout, Michael Thomas, is back (he's entering the final year of his rookie deal and will likely get paid what he's worth before the start of the season) and he'll be joined by tight end Jared Cook, who had a huge season in Oakland (68 receptions, 896 yards, 6 TDs) and will likely exceed that production in New Orleans, where he replaces 38-year-old Ben Watson (35 receptions, 400 yards, 2 TDs in '18). Keep an eye on rookie tight end Alize Mack, the seventh-round pick out of Notre Dame who began his '18 college season with some early-round buzz. Mack looks the part but inconsistency plagued his college career. If he can put it together in New Orleans he could be a Day 3 steal.
The Saints only had one pick in the first three rounds of the draft, but they made the most of it drafting interior offensive lineman Erik McCoy, who will have a chance to replace retired center Max Unger. The team also grabbed safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in Round 4 (we thought he was a second-round talent) and then there's Marcus Davenport. Yes, he's entering Year 2, but the Saints gave up their 2019 first-round pick to trade up in 2018 and get him. The pass rusher is looking to improve on a rookie campaign that included 4.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss in 13 games.
Ultimately, there's a lot to like about this roster. We know about the offense, and the defense ranked 11th overall last season. That said, if there was an area of need it was in the secondary, which was 22nd, according to Football Outsiders. Gardner-Johnson helps, but will it be enough?
Offseason grade: B-
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Key additions: DT Ndamukong Suh, LB Deone Bucannon, WR Breshad Perriman, LB Shaquil Barrett, OG Earl Watford, QB Blaine Gabbert
- Key losses: DT Gerald McCoy, LB Kwon Alexander
- Key rookies: LB Devin White, CB Sean Bunting, CB Jamel Dean, DE Anthony Nelson
This is the most important season in Jameis Winston's NFL career. The 2015 first-overall pick has been up and down through four seasons -- he was benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick in '18 -- and the Bucs are currently paying him $20.9 million in '19 to see if he can finally put it all together. The biggest reason to think this will be the year: Tampa Bay hired Bruce Arians, who has had success with quarterbacks young and old throughout his coaching career. There was Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Andrew Luck in Indy and most recently, Carson Palmer in Arizona. And now the plan is to take Winston from replacement-level talent to legit franchise quarterback.
For Arians, it starts with limiting Winston's turnovers -- he had 14 last season against 19 touchdowns.
"I talked to Jameis ... about it and said, 'You and I are going to have hard conversations about our football team,''' Arians told the Tampa Bay Times days before Super Bowl LIII. "'You're not a rookie. So when I come to you, I want honest answers.'"
Arians also understands that Winston can't do it alone.
"Give him a running game," the coach said at the time. "Give him a defense and see how good he can be. I think we can limit (turnovers). Never get rid of them. There's nobody that ever does it. But you can limit turnovers. And you talk about it. You talk a bunch about it on the practice field. That's when it gets ugly. 'What the (expletive) was that?'"
Let's start with the running game. It looks a lot like it did last season, but the expectation is that Ronald Jones, who finished behind Fitzpatrick and Winston in rushing yards (he had just 44 yards in 9 games), will look more like a second-round pick in 2019. The Bucs added wideout Breshad Perriman, and he'll have a chance to earn playing time now that Adam Humphries is in Tennessee. Other than that, offensive lineman Earl Watford adds depth but there were no glaring upgrades to the offense other than the obvious addition of Arians.
The defense, however, is a completely different story. The Bucs hired defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who worked with Arians in Arizona before becoming Jets coach from 2015-2018. The team's first five draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball and for good reason. The unit ranked dead last in defense last season (30th against the pass, 31st against the run). Linebacker Devin White replaces Kwon Alexander in the middle and Sean Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards add a physical presence to the secondary. Fourth-round defensive end Anthony Nelson could prove to be a steal.
Then there's free agency. Yes, the Bucs cut ties with Gerald McCoy but they replaced him with Ndamukong Suh, and added linebacker depth with Deone Bucannon and Shaq Barrett.
Tampa hasn't won at least 10 games since 2010 and they've had just one winning season since 2011. The defense should be much-improved, but If Arians can't find a way to get the most out of Winston, the Bucs will be looking for their next franchise QB after the season.
Offseason grade: C
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