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NFC South: NFL 2021 season preview

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 18:42, 9 September 2021 | Updated: 21:21, 23 September 2021

The 2021 NFC South has the potential to be the most lopsided division race the NFL has seen in quite some time.

The 2021 NFL season is upon us, We’re here to make sure you’re prepared.

We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this, our penultimate installment, we take a look at the NFC South.

Surely, you’re familiar with the term “haves and have nots”. Well, the NFC South in 2021 is more a case of “have and have nots”.

Barring an absurd turn of events, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who return everyone, including the greatest quarterback of all time, will stroll to the division title. Multiple tiers below is a Carolina team that’s a quarterback away… and just bet on a young quarterback, and a pair of rebuild-resistant legacy contenders on opposite sides of monumental QB changes.

For a division whose outcomes promise little in the way of drama, there’s actually quite a bit going on here!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 11-5, won Super Bowl
  • Head Coach: Bruce Arians
  • Starting Quarterback: Tom Brady
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 12-13 wins, another division title, and great shot at another Super Bowl appearance

The 2020-21 season could not have played out more perfectly in Tampa. In fairness, these things will happen when you equip Tom Brady with a pair of elite wide receivers like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and reunite him with Rob Gronkowski. That the Bucs finished in top three in the NFL in both passing yards and points per game isn’t shocking. That they did so, apparently, with Brady playing on a partially torn ligament in his left knee is terrifying.

That Brady – and excellent running back Ronald Jones – got to operate behind one of the five best offensive lines in the NFL was also helpful.  

If you could simply do that again, you would, wouldn’t you?

Of course you would. And thus, the Buccaneers return all eleven offensive starters from the most recent Super Bowl championship squad.

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For good measure, their third receiver, former star Antonio Brown, should be in better shape after offseason knee surgery. Also, that offensive line, that didn’t lose anyone of consequence, added another quality tackle in the third round of the draft.

That is an immaculate offseason.

On defense, it was similarly unsurprising that the Bucs’ star-studded unit ranked in the top 10, in terms of both points and total yards allowed per game. If not quite shocking, then at least noteworthy is their astounding work against run. Thanks to a hilariously stacked linebacker corps, led by superstars Devin White and Lavonte David, and an awesome defensive tackle duo in Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, Tampa allowed just 80.6 yards per game on the ground. One other team was within 10 yards per game, and only five others were within 25.

The pass rush, meanwhile, not only got a combined 15 sacks from White and Suh, edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5) and Shaq Barrett contributed another 17.5! Meanwhile, star rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. chipped in with three sacks of his own. He’s back, and is once again teamed up with corners Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, and safety Jordan Whitehead. The quartet should, once again, comprise a top-10 secondary. In fact…

If you had an obscenely stacked, best-in-the-league defense that just led you to a championship, you’d do what you could to keep that crew together, right? And maybe add a high-quality edge rusher (Joe Tryon-Shoyinka) in the first round of the draft, for more depth?

Of course you would.

And thus, the Buccaneers return all 11 defensive starters from the most recent Super Bowl championship squad.

Not too shabby.

The Bottom Line: We don’t need a ton of analysis here.

The 2020 Buccaneers rode an incredible star-studded and deep defense (the NFL’s best) and a top-10 offense – powered by Tom Brady, an elite group of pass-catchers, and a great offensive line – to a Super Bowl win. They enjoyed that so much, they’re going to try to do it again. Like, exactly the same way.

For the first time in the NFL’s free agency era, a team is bringing back everyone of consequence – all 22 starters, offensive and defensive.

Add to that some incremental depth, and the value of the experience gained, and there’s every reason to believe that these Bucs could be even better. Add to that a healthy and potentially even more acclimated Tom Brady, who’s now even more familiar with the playbook, and has had a full offseason with perhaps his strongest-ever offensive unit?

It’s astounding.

Carolina Panthers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 5-11, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Matt Rhule
  • Starting Quarterback: Sam Darnold
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 8 wins, without a playoff spot, but on the upswing

Despite their early-April trade for Sam Darnold, the Panthers – who traded 2020 starter Teddy Bridgewater to Denver just prior to the draft – entered the 2021 NFL Draft with the eighth overall pick and, presumably, a need at QB. They then didn’t up trade to grab one of the top three prospects. Nor did they select Justin Fields or Mac Jones, both of whom were available at the #8 spot.

Instead, like the Denver Broncos, the Panthers elected to further strengthen one of the NFL’s better defenses with an elite cornerback prospect. In this case, it was University of South Carolina star Jaycee Horn. The assessment of this pick is identical to that of the Broncos’ selection of Patrick Surtain II with the pick that followed: if Carolina wasn’t enamored of either Fields or Jones, they made a good, solid pick. Horn is, like Surtain, an elite talent at a premium position. Also, his addition doesn’t merely add a premium talent to a losing roster, but potentially catapults the Panthers’ defense into the NFL’s top tier.

Of course, that leaves the quarterback spot firmly in the hands of Darnold, who was selected third overall by the Jets in 2018, but failed to ever find his footing. In swapping Bridgewater for Darnold, not drafting a QB, and picking up an option in his contract worth over $18 million, the Panthers, for better or for worse, have bet big on the restorative power of a change of scenery.

Ignoring much of what we’ve seen thus far from Darnold in the NFL (I know, I know…), there are several reasons why this is a risk worth taking. For starters, he was a top-tier prospect coming out of college, with all of the physical tools to succeed – and he’s only just turned 24. Also, it’s worth noting that, while Darnold was bad in New York, he was working with one of the worst coaches in the NFL in Adam Gase. Finally, the Panthers don’t actually need him to be great. Stable and solid quarterback play should suffice alongside an impressive collection of skill position talent – something that was rare in New York. Darnold would not be the first quarterback to need a couple of years, better coaching and better teammates to find his NFL footing.

In Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have maybe the most complete running back in the league, and one of just three players ever to top 1,000 yards, rushing and receiving, in the same season. When healthy, he’s a guarantee for 1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches out of the backfield, and a big-play threat who executes simple plays well. McCaffrey is simply one of the NFL’s biggest difference makers.

Beyond McCaffrey, there is an excellent collection of receivers on hand. Robby Anderson and big-play threat D.J. Moore, each of whom topped 1,000 receiving yards in 2020, are an excellent duo. While the third receiver from a year ago, Curtis Samuel (77 catches, 851 yards), is now in Washington, holdover David Moore and hyper-talented 21-year-old rookie Terrace Marshall offer, respectively, a big play threat (who’s improved over time) and another tough, big-bodied middle-of-the-field option. 

It’s worth noting that, other than at right tackle, the offensive line is a liability, and the options at tight end are, at best, sparse. The Panthers will need to cobble together some pass protection. If they do even a passable job, there’s plenty to work with.

Then, of course, there is the defense.

We’ve mentioned Horn, who was widely considered the top cornerback prospect in the draft. He joins a young core that includes Jeremy Chin, who turned in a fantastic rookie season at linebacker, but is transitioning to strong safety. Joining them in the secondary is a solid pair of corners, A.J Bouye and Donte Jackson.

Up front, Brian Burns and Derrick Brown have made a major impact in their young careers, and are future stars. The duo, along with veteran signee DaQuan Jones, has the makings of a fantastic line. Linebacking was an issue in 2020, but with new additions Haason Reddick and Denzel Perryman joining solid inside backer Shaq Thompson, this unit figures to improve as well.

There are some new faces to integrate and a lot of reliance on youth, but there are few questions about the Panthers’ defense. They figure to be no worse than solid at any level, and could easily be spectacular. A top-10 ranking for this unit would not be a shock.

The Bottom Line: The Panthers are the rare case of a team that’s both betting big on a young quarterback, but positioned to bounce back if it doesn’t pay off.

Sam Darnold was a top prospect for a reason. If it turns out that coaching, offensive scheme and a lack of quality skill talent were all that stood between him and NFL success, then the Panthers have gotten a franchise quarterback and changed the entire trajectory for virtually nothing. If he’s merely average, the price (a second-, fourth-, and sixth-round pick) is still a bargain.

If it turns out that Darnold is a lost cause, the Panthers will still have skill position talent and an outstanding young defense, along with a high draft pick with which to pursue their next QB.

I am on the optimistic side here and believe that, with proper coaching and a strong supporting cast, Darnold can develop into at least an NFL-caliber starter. Given the defense and skill talent, if the pass protection holds up, in a division with only one “sure thing”, that’s enough for a near-.500 record and second place. The playoffs are probably still a year away, but 2021 could be encouraging in Carolina.

New Orleans Saints

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 12-4, lost in Divisional round to Buccaneers
  • Head Coach: Sean Payton
  • Starting Quarterback: Jameis Winston
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 7 wins, without a playoff spot

For a decade and a half, Drew Brees was the heart and soul of the Saints. From the moment he signed as a free agent in 2006, one of the NFL’s most downtrodden franchises was a contender. Along the way, he set records, earned a dozen Pro Bowl selections, passed for more than 68,000 yards, and threw nearly 500 touchdowns.

Sean Payton also arrived in New Orleans in 2006. The pair – one of the NFL’s great offensive coaches, and an elite on-field mind – were immediately a perfect match. Together they won 142 regular season games, appeared in three NFC Championships games (including in their first year together) and one Super Bowl (an absurd blown call in 2018 kept them from a second), which they won.

In 2021, for the first time in 15 years, the Saints will kick off a season with someone other than Brees at quarterback. These days, that title belongs to Jameis Winston. Before serving as Brees’ backup in 2020, Winston was Tom Brady’s predecessor in Tampa. In five seasons with the Bucs, he threw for more than 19,000 yards (he led the league in 2019, with 5,109), at a rate of 7.7 per attempt, with 121 touchdowns.

He also struggled with accuracy, failing to complete at least 61% of his passes three times, and had a terrible propensity for turning the ball over. 58 interceptions and 38 fumbles over his first four seasons were far from ideal. However, his talent and lofty draft status bought him extra opportunities. Finally unpalatable was his 2019 showing, when he threw an NFL-high (and almost unfathomable) 30 interceptions, and fumbled another dozen times. By comparison, Brees threw at least 20 INTs once in his career, and last fumbled more than seven times in a season in 2011. Winston is not a plug-and-play solution.

The Saints have an otherwise talented, if wobbly roster. The offensive line is one of the best in the league (led by tackle duo Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk), and running back Alvin Kamara is one of the top dual-threat running backs in the game. Kamara has caught at least 80 passes and gained at least 1,330 yards from scrimmage in each of his four NFL seasons, topping 1,550 three times. He’s coming off of a career-best total of 1,688 (932 rushing and 756 receiving), with 21 touchdowns. As the team transitions to Winston, there’s a good chance Kamara gets an even bigger workload.

Outside of Kamara, the Saints’ corps of pass-catchers is currently led by second-year players Marquez Callaway (WR) and tight ends Juwan Johnson and Adam Trautman, all of whom are all unproven. Gone are receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. Of course, there’s also the issue of all-universe receiver Michael Thomas, who’s been one of the best pass catchers in league since his arrival in 2016.

Thomas was limited to just seven games (and 40 catches/436 yards) by an ankle injury in 2020. However, he had an astounding 174 catches (with an equally amazing 82.5% catch rate) and 2,330 yards the two seasons prior. There were some concerning signs in 2020, even when he was healthy, as his per-game output fell to 62.6 yards, down from his career mark of nearly 88.  

The Saints were hoping that the injury could heal over the offseason and that Thomas would be back at full strength. However, he did not have surgery to repair the ankle until June. He’s since been placed on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, and will miss at least the first five games of the season. It was also revealed that Thomas ignored communications from the team for three months during the offseason. Reports are that fences are being mended, but the situation all around is not great.

Meanwhile, the defense, top-five in the league a year ago, is still talented, but dealing with heavy losses of its own. Defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson, Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins are gone, as are veteran cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson. Meanwhile, defensive tackle David Onyemata is suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. 

The normally aggressive Saints did nothing in free agency to offset the losses, though they acquired an edge rusher, linebacker and cornerback in the first 100 picks of the draft. That young talent will need to step in quickly and mesh with the established stars, like defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. That’s hardly a guarantee, and depth is likely to be an issue all over the unit. Replicating last season’s stellar defense will be a tall order.

The Bottom Line: Six defensive players who played at least 300 snaps in 2020 are gone, a starting defensive tackle will miss six games, their star receiver will miss at least the first five games and, of course, Drew Brees is retired. 

For as much talent as remains on the roster, it’s tough to be optimistic here. That the Saints opted against making a move at quarterback suggests that 2021 may be the start of, if not a full rebuild, then a period of retooling. Rather than go all-out trying to compete in a hopeless division in a tough NFC, this is a chance to get Thomas healthy, allow some contracts to fall off of a loaded cap sheet, and see exactly what they’ve got at QB.

It’s possible that Winston steps comfortably into Brees’ place and, along with Kamara and the line, returns the Saints offense to the NFL’s elite. The problem is that, unlike Brees, Winston has never shown an ability to protect the ball, and is prone to some baffling decisions. In all likelihood, Winston remains a version of the player he’s always been, and the Saints wind up with some decent draft picks with which to refresh the roster.

Atlanta Falcons

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 4-12, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Arthur Smith
  • Starting Quarterback: Matt Ryan
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 3-4 wins, out of the playoffs, and into a rebuild

Sometimes, a team is enters into a rebuild, and it’s plain for all see – except for the team itself.

To be fair to the Falcons, they were caught off guard by Julio Jones’ offseason trade request. However, despite an aging and pricey core and diminishing returns, the Falcons have continued to try to compete in the NFC, rather than tear down the roster and start fresh. Jones’ presence was a big part of that. 

It can’t be easy to part company with a franchise icon, seven-time Pro Bowler, future Hall of Famer, and arguably the NFL’s most prolific wide receiver over the past decade, but this is the kind of move that’s felt a bit overdue. And, setting aside Jones’ significance to the franchise, for a team with no realistic shot at competing in the short term, swapping a 32-year-old receiver with a $15.3 million base salary for 2021, in exchange for second- and fourth-round draft picks is decent business.  

Once Jones was gone, attention shifted to Matt Ryan. Now 36 years old and 13 years into his career, Ryan will almost certainly not be a part of the next good Falcons team. It seemed a natural time to move on from their longtime franchise quarterback, accumulate more picks, and begin building the franchise’s next contender.

Plus, as a result of 2020’s 4-12 record, Atlanta held the fourth overall pick in the QB-rich 2021 draft. None of the top three fell into their laps, but Atlanta did have their choice of either Justin Fields and Mac Jones. The Falcons stood pat with Ryan, and instead selected University of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.

If either Fields or Jones goes on to become a bona fide franchise quarterback, the decision will be endlessly relitigated, and the verdict will not be kind to Atlanta. However, if the Falcons were not enamored with any offer, for either Ryan or the #4 pick – or Fields or Jones – as we’ve said before (just up the page, with regard to Carolina, and about the Denver Broncos), they made a fantastic pick.

Pitts has a wide receiver’s speed in the body of a tight end (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), with a wingspan (33.5-inch arms) and vertical leap (also 33.5 inches) that puts just about every pass in his catch radius, and the sure hands to reel those balls in. Kyle Pitts is a matchup nightmare, and as nailed-on a can’t-miss prospect as exists in the sport.

Thus, the Falcons enter one more season with Ryan under center. Calling the shots now is new head coach Arthur Smith, formerly offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Smith is credited with reviving Ryan Tannehill’s career as a QB, and constructed a potent offense around Tannehill and all-universe running back Derrick Henry. It will be fascinating to see what he cooks up with an experienced QB like Ryan and a pair of elite pass-catchers in Pitts and fourth-year wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who had career-highs of 90 catches, 1,374 yards and 15.3 yards per catch, with nine TDs, in 2020.

However, if this offense is going to thrive, there are significant hurdles that must be cleared. For starters, the offensive line consists of solid left side (tackle Jake Matthews and guard Chris Lindstrom), and a series of question marks – some of whom do have upside. A huge blow is the departure of Alex Mack, who’s been one of the NFL’s top centers for more than half a decade.

Behind Ridley, the wide receiver pecking order is unknown. A number of young receivers – Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Tajae Sharpe and rookie Frank Darby – will compete for the #2 and #3 spots. Whether anyone is prepared to step in as a legitimate second receiver is to be seen. Fourth-year man Gage (72 catches, 786 yards in 2020) is the favorite.

The biggest question, of course, is at running back, where Smith can no longer rely on Derrick Henry to occupy every defender’s uninterrupted attention. The league has devalued the running back position over the years, but a unique talent like Henry, around whom the game orbits, is a still huge luxury. Replacing Henry with unremarkable seventh-year man Mike Davis almost seems unfair.

We’ve barely touched on the defense, and probably with good reason. There is talent on hand – defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is a star, and linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are also excellent.

Beyond that, there are only questions – and virtually no depth – at all three levels. The pass rush is reliant on Dante Fowler regaining his 2019 form, despite not having Aaron Donald around to soak up attention. The linebacking corps is extremely light, on both talent and simply bodies, beyond the top two. The secondary, meanwhile, could be a complete disaster. All four safeties who played at least 200 snaps in 2020 for Atlanta are gone, while at cornerback, 2020 first-round pick A.J Terrell leads a young group that, between them, has yet to put together one actual, good NFL season. It will be a miracle if defensive coordinator Dean Pees can keep this group out of the NFL’s bottom five.

The Bottom Line: The Falcons are basically a worse version of the Saints. At the top end, they boast fantastic players. However, each roster is a pricey remnant from a competitive window that was never actualized.

In Atlanta, the wave crested in February 2017, with Super Bowl LI. When the Falcons blew a 28-3 second half lead to the Patriots, it was the end of an era. They did bounce back with a 10-6 record, but lost their first playoff game, and have won just 18 games in three regular seasons since.

That Matt Ryan is still the QB is a bit confusing. Truly baffling is the fact that the Falcons have done NOTHING to address life post-Ryan.

Given the state of the line and defense, and the fact that Ryan will likely be moved on at season’s end, things are going to get worse in Atlanta before they get better.