In one of the weirdest NFL offseasons in history, the NFC South helped put on a show. Tom Brady retired only to quickly unretire, and Matt Ryan is no longer with the Atlanta Falcons -- the franchise legend traded away to the Indianapolis Colts. The Carolina Panthers are in on trading for Baker Mayfield, but then they're not, but then they are again (maybe, kinda, sorta?), and the New Orleans Saints are entering their first season without Sean Payton as head coach since the 2006 season (his "Bountygate" suspension in 2012 notwithstanding) when he and Drew Brees began their reign over the division.
Add to this the fact Bruce Arians decided to give the keys to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching castle to his defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, and it's not difficult to see just how much upheaval has occurred in what is often one of the most competitive divisions in all of football. But with so much change comes an equal or greater number of questions, and while there are plenty, there are three for each team that stand out the most ahead of 2022 NFL training camp.
Is Baker Mayfield the Week 1 starter?
Logic dictates the Panthers didn't make a trade for Mayfield with the idea of having him sit behind fellow former top-five pick Sam Darnold, particularly after seeing the failures of Darnold in 2021. After all, when you trade for Mayfield only one year after trading for Darnold, it sends the message to the latter that he's not at all what you hoped he'd be -- maybe more suited for a backup role. Still, the Panthers aren't publicly conceding to the idea of Mayfield being the definitive starter for Week 1, positioning the trade as a design to create a more robust QB competition, one that also involves ... er... um... P.J. Walker. I think it's safe to say we can all bet on Mayfield being tossed the keys before the season gets underway.
Is Mayfield the answer for the future?
Once he is firmly in the driver's seat, the onus is on Mayfield to prove he's everything Darnold isn't: a former first-round pick who is still worth the price of admission. He'll get an early chance at not only making waves, but creating a full-on storm surge, because his first opponent will be the very same Cleveland Browns who traded him away to the Panthers after making a blockbuster trade (and then awarding a historic contract) for Deshaun Watson while Mayfield was still on the roster (ouch). The clash in Week 1 is "circled" on Mayfield's calendar, and that tells you all you need to know about the answer to the question above, but it doesn't yet reveal if Mayfield will be the future of the franchise in Carolina -- something Matt Rhule desperately needs him to become.
Can Matt Rhule climb off of the hot seat?
It was roughly one year ago when I named Rhule as a hot seat candidate, and while some viewed it as premature, I obviously did not and now, as 2022 training camp approaches, it's hardly arguable that he's entering the most pivotal season of his tenure. Once Mayfield takes the reins as the starter in Carolina, it will mark Rhule's third attempt in as many seasons to locate and develop a franchise quarterback, having now whiffed on a big-money deal for Teddy Bridgewater and the aforementioned trade for Darnold. Maybe the third time is the charm for Rhule, and it had better be, because he's 10-23 in his first two seasons with the club, and while you can attribute a portion of that to the loss of an oft-injured Christian McCaffrey, that may not be enough to save him in 2023 -- if he can't muster his first winning season in 2022.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can Tom Brady do it ... again?
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, and 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. Still, the question needs to be asked, seeing as Brady retired this offseason (only to unretire) and remains noncommittal about 2023 and beyond, and he's shown recent vulnerability in losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams on his own field in January. Toss in a swap at head coach and, well, it's not all exactly as it was in 2020.
Will Todd Bowles rebuild his brand as an NFL head coach?
Speaking of the change at head coach, it's now Todd Bowles' show, after having the keys tossed to him by Bruce Arians -- the latter having now moved into more of a front office advisory role with the team. Bowles is no stranger to what it takes to win as an NFL head coach, and he is roundly respected as one of the best defensive minds in the sport, but his exit from the New York Jets left tarnish on his silvery reputation that he's now in position to wipe clean. Despite some changes to the roster, the Bucs still have Brady and are still favorites to take the NFC South and potentially more, which inherently puts that much more pressure on Bowles to deliver as early as Year 1, seeing as there's no guarantee Brady is around for Year 2.
Will Rob Gronkowski go back on his word?
The most obvious change to the Bucs roster is the current absence of future first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, the optimal word here being "current". The again-retired dynamo is seemingly hellbent on staying retired this time around, and it doesn't appear even a call from Brady -- his bestie -- will woo him back onto the field in the future. Of course, we've heard this story before from Gronk, and it was indeed Brady who was able to get him back into an NFL uniform following his retirement from the Patriots. It is clear Brady believes there's a chance for another reunion in 2022, and the Bucs have never closed the door to one, so this will remain a story to watch until it isn't.
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New Orleans Saints
Can Jameis Winston deliver?
Barring the wildly unforeseen, Drew Brees isn't returning to the Saints, but Winston has -- after suffering a torn ACL in what was a chance to be his breakout year in New Orleans. The battle with Taysom Hill is over, as Hill tries his hand at tight end following a disappointing showing at QB1 in 2021, and former fourth-round pick Ian Book isn't remotely close to getting the nod as franchise QB. And so it's Winston's job to lose after signing a two-year deal this offseason, and head coach Dennis Allen is trying to get off to a roaring start in Year 1 of the post-Sean Payton era, so he'll need Winston playing the best football of his NFL career going forward; and especially if he'd like to keep Andy Dalton on the bench.
Is Michael Thomas still a force to be reckoned with?
Which Michael Thomas will the NFL see in 2022? Will it be the record-setting All-Pro who absolutely owned the league in his prime, or the one who struggles to knock off rust after playing in only five games over the last two seasons due to injury? Will it be the one who's completely bought in with the Saints, or the one still carrying a grudge from how the final two seasons he spent with Sean Payton devolved? Time will certainly tell, but the fact is Winston's success will be largely tied to which Thomas variant returns to the field for New Orleans. Having combated ankle issues for two seasons now, something that often steals athleticism away from receivers, the 29-year-old still has a whole lot to prove going forward, and that's saying the least.
Can Dennis Allen get off to a hot start in the post-Payton era?
Easily one of the more respected minds in the Saints organization, it was a smart decision to make Allen the successor to Payton, as evidenced in how players respect him and in how well his defense has been over the years. That doesn't mean moving into the penthouse suite will be easy, because it won't. There are the noted question marks on if Winston can be what he's shown flashes of in the past, if Thomas is still the ace up the sleeve and if the Saints can put it all together to take the division away from Brady and the Buccaneers. The former has shown it can handle the latter during the regular season, but it's what happens in January through early February that matters most, and Brady wants to again have the last laugh over his new rivals.
Can they be competitive in 2022?
This coming season will mark the first time the Falcons have not had Matt Ryan as their franchise quarterback since he took over as a rookie in 2008, the previous season having been one of the most controversial and disappointing in the history of the organization -- led by Bobby Petrino headlines only one season after the Michael Vick dogfighting revelation. Ryan went on to not only become league MVP in his career, but to also become the longest-tenured quarterback in Falcons history, a legend in Atlanta who is now readying to suit up for the Colts in 2022. And while it's arguable if Ryan is on a decline of some sort, it's inarguable that his departure creates a massive void at the most important position in football and thrusts the Falcons into what many view as rebuild mode.
Will Marcus Mariota finally establish himself as an NFL starter?
The acquisition of Marcus Mariota seems admirable as far as potentially making them competitive, but it's also true that Mariota devolved into being a backup for a reason. The former second-overall pick fell from grace in Tennessee and then served as the alternate for Derek Carr in Las Vegas until now, and it feels like quite a stretch to assume he'd be equal or close to what Ryan was/is. Time will tell if Mariota can make the Falcons competitive in 2022 as a bridge to the future, or if that bridge will instead collapse under the weight of a division owned by Tom Brady. So as it turns out, Mayfield and Darnold aren't the only former top-five picks who are desperate to remake themselves with a new team, the irony being all three are now directly competing with each other in some capacity within the same division.
While Ridley sits under an indefinite ban that will, at minimum, cost him the entirety of the 2022 season, the Falcons looked to the 2022 NFL Draft as a means of potentially replacing his production. The decision to select Drake London (USC) with the eight-overall pick instantly makes him the complementary piece to tight end Kyle Pitts, whom they used the fourth-overall pick on in 2021. It's a tandem the Falcons hope will put up numbers and, in doing so, help Mariota make the birds a viable challenge in the NFC South this coming season. London is a former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year (2021) and first-team All-Pac 12 talent (2021), and the NFL has now seen that Pitts can take over games at the professional level, as he did for the Gators.
But it's not Ryan throwing to either in 2022, it's Mariota, and that's not the same caliber of arm talent -- meaning there's much work to be done in camp if there's to be any real chemistry for this trio going forward.