NFC South: 2022 NFL Division Preview

NFC South: 2022 NFL Division Preview

Will Tom Brady reign supreme once more in 2022?

Atlanta Falcons

Last season record: 7-10

Last year was an ugly season for the Atlanta Falcons, who had expected to at least compete in an NFC South that saw Drew Brees retire from New Orleans and the Carolina Panthers begin their rebuild. Instead, they went 2-4 in the division and 4-8 in the conference winning only 2 games at home in the regular season. It is a bit head scratching as the Falcons did some belt tightening to free up $56 million in cap space only to lose out in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes to Cleveland and then up and decide to trade away their 14-year franchise quarterback Matt Ryan. When you keep in mind Atlanta in the previous season traded away their Pro Bowl, though continually injured, wide receiver Julio Jones only one year into his 3-year extension worth $66 million, and this being the second year of the regime of head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot, it begins to make sense. Compensation for both stars were draft picks so the Dirty Birds of Atlanta are fully leaning into a rebuild this season.

Offensively there is not much to write home about unless you are writing to stud wide receiver Calvin Ridley’s home because that is where he will be all season after being punished for legal sports betting. Projected starting quarterbackl Marcus Mariota has not started a professional football game since October of 2019 and was on and off the field for Las Vegas before you had time to get back to your seat after last call for beer. Though the PT was not there the past two seasons, he has been serviceable as a backup and to his credit has played efficient football so far this preseason with a 137.5 passer rating and completing well over 10 yards per attempt.

The Falcons might be tempted to kick the tires on rookie quarterback and two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year Demond Ritter sooner than later. The third rounder out of Cincinnati has been outstanding in a small preseason sample size, making plays with his feet and arm and playing turnover free football while looking like a seasoned pro versus the opposing 2s and 3s. Other offensive hopefuls with massive potential are second-year tight end Kyle Pitts who was only the second tight end in NFL history to record over 1,000 yards as a rookie. As well as #8 overall pick, rookie Drake London who has been described as potentially the next Calvin Johnson. Megatron version 2.0 has already missed much practice and preseason time with foot issues, so we’ll pump the breaks on that outcome.

Cordarrelle Patterson at 30 years old established himself as the true RB1 but his continued dominance is not something to rely upon this season in a division that features 2 of the top 5 run defenses in 2021 and he’s running behind an offensive line that finished 29th in run blocking efficiency and allowed over 200 pressures in the backfield, per Fantasy Football Focus. Defensively this might be a team to start your fantasy team against week in and week out. Their top 2 tacklers Foyesade Oluokun and Deion Jones along with their top sack producer Dante Fowler have all been dealt or will be dealt before Week 1.

Same for longtime Falcon and defensive line anchor Grady Jarrett. The splashy defensive free agent acquisitions Rashaan Evans, Casey Hayward and Lorenzo Carter should help a defense that allowed teams to score at will sometimes and was a bottom 3 team in passing yards allowed and DVOA. Rookie outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie was a steal in the second round and should add some pass rush to a defense that hasn’t had one since 2018 and pairing Hayward with shut down corner A.J. Terrell might make opposing quarterbacks think twice about bombing away deep like they did last year. This iteration of the Falcons has pieces to make the season quite entertaining as they march their way to another sub .500 season but also closer to an NFC South without Brady where they might actually be able to compete again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (current division champions)

Last season record: 13-4                                                                                            

Any thought or sentiment the NFC South would be a free-for-all in the 2022-23 season, ended in exactly 40 days as the greatest quarterback of all time, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., un-retired and rejoined the Super Bowl LV (55) winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now the 45-year-old Brady with newly promoted head coach Todd Bowles, are being placed as heavy favorites to win the NFC South Division a second time in a row (something the Tampa Bay franchise has never achieved in it’s existence) and the odds on favorite to win the NFC Conference, even over last year’s Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.

The task for a back-to-back NFC South banner does not seem all that daunting considering Atlanta and Carolina are breaking in new quarterbacks and New Orleans, who perennially dominated the division, is now fully without future Hall of Fame Head Coach Sean Payton, who retired earlier this year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who retired the season before. It really does look like it’s the Bucs division to lose, but let’s dive in and see if Brady and his boys are up against more than it seems.

For whatever reasons Brady decided to make his return, it certainly did not hurt to stack last year’s second most passing yards per game offense with even more talent. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans return and bring with them 1,000+ yard 2021 performances while combining for 172 catches. Brady’s spread offense got wider and more dangerous with the free agent acquisition of Russel Gage who put up back-to-back 700+ yard performances in Atlanta after Julio Jones went down with injuries and Calvin Ridley was suspended. Todd Bowles taking over for Bruce Arians should be business as usual as Bowles was a very successful defensive coordinator for Arians the past three seasons and is on the record saying he will not attempt to fix what’s not broken. The one item you will see change is the pass to run ratio.

Journeyman starting running back Leonard Fournette has a brand-new deal in place and was pivotal in the Super Bowl LV win as well as last season’s campaign before injury at the end of the season kept him from most of the playoffs. Expect a heavy dose of Fournette and rookie backup Rachaad White, former Arizona State standout, to help give some relief to Brady’s distinguished, but aging arm. On the defensive side, the entire secondary is still intact from the 2020 Superbowl team but with the addition of last year’s New York Giants safety and defensive captain, Logan Ryan. On the defense, Bowles successful and largely opportunistic 3-4 front returns nose tackle Vita Vea who has looked outstanding in preseason and practice.

University of Houston rookie and second-round pick Logan Hall adds youth and tenacity on the defensive end and linebacking veterans Lavonte David and Devin White look to turn in another defensive effort that has been top 5 in stop the run the past 2 seasons. If there is one area of concern, it is on the offense line. Last year’s Buccaneer offense did a good job of keeping Brady upright allowing only 21 sacks which is bottom 10 in the league, but the injury bug has already claimed guard Aaron Stinnie out for the season, and starting center Ryan Jenson out for multiple months.

Starting wide receivers mentioned earlier, Evans, Gage and backup wide receiver Brandon Perriman have also been sat with minor leg injuries until the start of the season, so they will also need to be kept and eye on. Health is always chief concern for a team before the season start but a depleted starting offensive line and Brady’s weapons questionable would make an unreasonable expectation for the G.O.A.T. to repeat his previous two years performances. If everyone stays healthy, especially Brady, it should be another NFC South banner to run up the ship’s mast at Raymond James Stadium.

New Orleans Saints

Last season record: 9-8                                                                                            

The 53 man roster and the eight man practice squad have been set. The Saints will then embark on their 2022 season with some high expectations. Here are some players to watch for this season:

Offensive Breakout Star: WR Chris Olave: Olave will get plenty of looks opposite Michael Thomas as well as in the slot. This team has been looking for a WR2 since Thomas arrived. They thought of him as the best route runner entering the draft, so expect him to get the bulk of the targets that aren’t going to Thomas.

Defensive Breakout Star- CB Paulson Adebo: A tall, rangy CB with speed and skill is hard to find. Adebo is it. Tyrann Mathieu said there’s nothing Adebo can’t do when asked about him recently. CB2 has been a position of flux since Marshon Lattimore came aboard as CB1. Look for Adebo to solidify his spot this season.

Offensive Watchlist: QBs Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton are the clear 1 and 2 on the depth chart. However, Dalton has garnered favor amongst fans for his play. He and Olave’s success will depend on these two big time. If Winston’s play slips, look for the “Red Rifle Agenda” to be in full effect. Rookie OT Trevor Penning will be expected to fill the void of Terron Armstead. While I love his nasty attitude, penalties and pass protection scare me. Big shoes to fill for an FCS rookie. If Alvin Kamara is suspended, Mark Ingram, Tony Jones, Jr., and Dwayne Washington will be relied upon to shoulder the load. The organization likes this trio as backups, so don’t expect a move to get another RB.

Defensive Watchlist: Former 1st rounders Payton Turner and Marcus Davenport have yet to fully prove themselves worthy of that status. It’s now or never for Davenport, while Turner may have another year or so. Mathieu calling Adebo a complete CB is great praise. But what can he and Marcus Maye do as the new pair of safeties to help this defense? Their play may determine how high this already talented defense can fly. As a result of Maye’s arrest on September 1st, safeties P.J. Williams and J.T. Gray will be looked upon for bigger than expected contributions to this defense should Maye get suspended at any point.

The Carolina Panthers

Last season record: 5-12

The 2021 Carolina Panthers season was in one word, “exhausting”. What was supposed to be a team trying to recapture some success when head coach Ron Rivera plateaued back in 2015, has continued to play sub .500 ball after college superstar skipper Matt Ruhle completed his sophomore year. David Tepper, who purchased the franchise back in 2018, has decided to allow Ruhle one more year (most likely) in a make-or-break season. In fairness to Ruhle, this franchise had just about everything go wrong last year. The offensive line was historically bad and injured (they tried 13 combinations of personnel through the season), the most explosive running back in the league, Christian McCaffrey, went down in Week 12.

Sam Darnold turned out to be a basket case before getting injured so they decided to bring back Cam Newtonto predictably be completely ineffective and proved well past his prime. Things should get slightly better for the Cats at the QB position as, after a failed attempt to bring in Deshaun Watson, they ended up trading into the 3rd round to take Ole Miss air-raid passer Matt Corral who promptly was placed on the season ending IR with a foot injury.

Fate “passed” disgruntled ex-Cleveland signal caller Baker Mayfield to Carolina for a conditional late round pick. It will be Baker’s team in Week 1 with Darnold (or maybe P.J. Walker) as the backup. Baker’s success will rely heavily on the newly revamped Carolina offensive line and McCaffrey’s health. Center Pat Elflein, and guards Michael Jordan and Taylor Moton get some much-needed help from free agent Austin Corbett from the champion LA Rams and #6 overall pick Ikem Ekwonu out of NC State who has just been leveling people in the preseason. DJ Moore anchors the receiving corp is really the only viable downfield option Mayfield will have. Robbie Aderson, the team’s burner, and sophomore Terrace Marshall Jr both had incredibly poor performances last year and will really have to step it up as defenses key on Moore and limiting his superb yards after catch ability. With all pieces clicking the Panthers should improve on last year’s bottom 3 ranking in yards and points.

If there was one bright spot-on last year’s team, it was a young, hungry defense that was second to only defense in yards allowed. They lost Hasaan Reddick (68 tackles, 11 sacks) to free agency to Philadelphia, but wisely extended Donte Jackson as their lock down corner. Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns comes back to set the edge with unproven 3-year starter Yetur Gross-Matos on the other side. The linebackers will likely the weak spot again this season as veteran and team leader Shaq Thompson seems to be the only guy at the second 7level who can make a stop. Expect second year defensive coordinator Phil Snow to use the 6’3” 200lb free safety Jeremy Chin (who’s built like a linebacker) in some crash and run stop packages to plug the holes. The Panthers have been consistent in performance, unfortunately, landing on 5 wins the past three seasons. With a little success by Mayfield, some continued success by the defense and avoiding the injury bug for McCaffrey, the Panthers should be looking at least another win total this season to make four-of-a-kind or possibly better as they trudge through another rebuilding year.

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