With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 NFC South Predictions.
The NFC South teams have to play the AFC North and NFC North this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. New Orleans Saints
Projected Finish: 12-4
You have to like New Orleans this season. Quarterback Drew Brees has looked very sharp this preseason and the weapons at his disposal are as good as they have ever been. Despite a relatively down season a year ago (if you can call a playoff season that), New Orleans will return to top of the NFC, competing for a Super Bowl appearance.
Brees is unstoppable. With tight end Jimmy Graham, Brees will be able to move the ball at will. Receivers Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and rookie Brandin Cooks have to replace the production of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore in the passing game, but Cooks was incredible in training camp, so New Orleans may have found their replacement already. In the run game, Mark Ingram has finally begun to look like the guy we saw in college with great quickness, balance and power. I’d like to see him finally take the starting spot and “run” with it (shameless pun). Pierre Thomas remains the third-down back who will help replace Sproles. Second-year back Khiry Robinson may be an even better runner than Ingram, but right now finds himself down the depth chart. New Orleans will find a way to move the ball offensively and there are very few defenses that will be able to slow them down.
Even though last season felt like a down year, New Orleans made the playoffs and only fell to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Seattle. The offense was solid all year, but the defense was really the story. Rob Ryan, the Saints defensive coordinator, put together a unit that finished fourth in the NFL giving up only 305.7 total yards per game. Safety Kenny Vaccaro will be a bigger name this season as a playmaker and Jarius Byrd joins him in the secondary. Byrd was a star for Buffalo before signing a nice big contract with New Orleans this spring. These two guys will come up huge as teams try to keep up with New Orleans’ offense. With Ryan calling the shots, you can also assume there will be blitzing and they will get to the quarterback. Outside linebacker Junior Galette just signed a contract extension after securing 12 sacks last season.
The Saints will return to the top of the NFC South barring injury. Brees has so many weapons and has head coach Sean Payton calling the plays. There’s enough on offense to make them favorites, but their defense may be even better than the improved version we saw last season. Playing with their home-field advantage certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Player to Watch: WR Brandin Cooks – He has been talked up like crazy heading into the regular season. His speed makes him a potentially dynamic playmaker to add to the Saints arsenal.
2. Carolina Panthers
Projected Finish: 8-8
Carolina finally broke through to the playoffs last season as a number two seed. They then fell at home to the San Francisco 49ers. After an offseason riddled with question marks, what Carolina team will we see this season?
Quarterback Cam Newton played very well last season, but Carolina’s offense as a whole struggled to make big-plays happen in the passing game. Even the run game was more of a pounding, meticulous approach. So, Carolina entered the offseason and let receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. walk. Ginn and Lafell weren’t too bad to replace, but the problem was that Carolina didn’t replace them until they drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the NFL Draft. Benjamin will be a great player this season due to his size and strength, but he is just one guy entering his rookie season. Newton used the offseason to get surgery on his ankle and throughout the preseason, he looked to be favoring it. Between Newton’s recovery, which could lead to a slow start, and the Panthers’ lack of receivers, Carolina could be in for a rough season offensively. The only real saving grace for this team could be the return of running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart has hardly ever been healthy in his NFL career, but when he has been healthy, he has been a great player. He is a guy to watch if he can finally play a season of football.
The defense was ridiculous a season ago and was led by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a bonefide star at linebacker. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were a great pass rush tandem last season and they figure to be great this season too. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei should continue to develop after a great rookie season. The secondary still lacks a lot of the big names you would expect from a unit that played as well as they did last season, but I expect we won’t see much of a drop-off in play.
Carolina has a strong defense and their run game is probably the best part of their offensive attack. That is enough to keep Carolina around in games. A healthy Newton makes Carolina a team to contend with, but I think New Orleans is just too good.
Player to Watch: WR Kelvin Benjamin – The rookie has flashed some immense talent in the preseason and I expect him to be great as the year progresses considering how he is, by default, Newton’s top option.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Projected Finish: 6-10
Atlanta is hard to project. Much like Houston, they earned a top draft pick this past spring, but a lot of Atlanta’s struggles a year ago stemmed from injuries, not talent. Much like Kansas City did last season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta made a run, but in my predictions, I couldn’t pick them over New Orleans or Carolina.
The NFC South has been a league that, bizarrely, has been normally won by the team that finished last in the division the year before. The would mean Atlanta this season and while it’s hard to ever count on something like that, there is a lot to like about Atlanta from a talent perspective. Quarterback Matt Ryan is a great quarterback, but isn’t “elite”. However, he has Roddy White and Julio Jones to throw to and Steven Jackson to hand the ball off to. These are quality starters or stars. White and Jackson are declining, but are still solid contributors. Jones is going to breakout for a monster season if he stays healthy. Throw in Devin Hester as an “X-Factor” on offense and you have an intriguing offense. The real issue here, and why I question Atlanta’s ability to make a run, is their offensive line. Sam Baker, their starting left tackle, is gone for the year due to injury. Former first round pick, Jake Matthews is moving over from right tackle to fill-in, which isn’t too bad. You could do a lot worse. Atlanta struggled to run the ball or protect Ryan last season though and that is what ultimately doomed the Falcons. Until they demonstrate they can protect Ryan and open lanes for Jackson, I’m going to question Atlanta’s chances.
Atlanta’s defense struggled last season, finishing 27th in the NFL and giving up 379.4 yards per game. They don’t appear to be much improved on paper. I like Sean Weatherspoon at inside linebacker and Roger Alford at corner. Desmond Trufant is a young guy who should get better in his second season at corner. William Moore and Dwight Lowry are solid safeties with Moore earning a Pro Bowl trip in 2013.
Atlanta has the offensive firepower to make some noise this season, but there are questions along the offensive line and on defense, which limits their potential in my mind. I have them winning six games, but more isn’t out of the question considering some of the star power on offense.
Player to Watch: WR Julio Jones – You were already going to watch this guy, but this is the year he really blows up to scoreboard.
Projected Finish: 6-10
Tampa Bay is on the right track, but there are still too many questions for me to like their chances in the crowded NFC and deep NFC South.
Quarterback Josh McCown has been a journeyman backup his entire career, but now he has his shot under new head coach Lovie Smith. I like McCown and though he played very well for Chicago last season, he doesn’t have the high-ceiling to carry a team – much like a Brian Hoyer or Chad Henne. He needs the structure, skill and strategy in place to maximize a team’s chances whereas guys like Andrew Luck or Cam Newton bring something to the table that makes the team better. To be fair though, the talent isn’t too bad in Tampa Bay with Doug Martin at running back and the massive receivers on the edge. Rookie Mike Evans and veteran Vincent Jackson are great targets, similar in size and playing style to the Bears receivers McCown was throwing to last season (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery). They also added Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the draft who is another huge target at tight end. That will keep McCown and the Bucs competitive, but I’m not sure if they can challenge for the division title with the offensive line struggling as it did during the preseason. Call this prediction more skeptical than anything as there is talent on this roster, albeit young and relatively unproven.
The defense was middle of the road last season and I expect that to improve this season. The defensive line added Michael Johnson from Cincinnati, who is an all-purpose tool at defensive end. He will have an impact. The front line also features Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn. McCoy looked fantastic in the preseason and should turn that into a great regular season. At linebacker, Lavonte David has been exceptional and I think he will only get better. Tampa Bay’s secondary has seen a couple renovations and the current unit of Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron should be the best they’ve had in a long time.
Tampa Bay’s defense will improve and their offense will be better than they were a year ago, but the schedule is tough and the rest of the division will be very challenging. The Buccaneers could make a run if McCown is able to fully utilize those big targets and the defense plays lights out, but in my predictions, I have them finishing third or fourth in the NFC South.
Player to Watch: WR Mike Evans – The former Texas A&M star will get his fair share of targets. In the lead-up to the draft, some compared him favorably to this guy named Randy Moss. Evans could be something special.