Continuing my summertime tour through the eight NFL divisions, this week, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the four NFC South teams. As always, teams are listed in alphabetical order within the division.
The Atlanta Falcons (lined at 7 or 7.5 wins for 2016, depending on the book) went 6-1 SU to open the season last year, but stumbled down the stretch with a 2-7 finish, finishing the season with an improved, yet still disappointing 8-8 SU record. They were money losers (6-10 ATS, including a 2-10 slide to close out the campaign) despite their two win improvement from 2014 to 2015. That came on the heels of a two win improvement (from four to six victories) from 2013 to 2014.
The Falcons mainstream stats show one clear weakness from 2015, despite facing one of the easier scheduled in the NFL last year. Their 30 giveaways ranked among the bottom five teams in the NFL at avoiding turnovers. They finished +0.0 yards per play, (obviously) right at the league average with the #7 ranked offense and the #16 ranked defense based on yardage numbers. Both coordinators return from last year’s units; Kyle Shanahan (and his complicated playbook) on offense and Richard Smith on defense. This year’s schedule (based on 2016 season win total numbers) is significantly tougher than it was a year ago.
Atlanta got a big upgrade on the OL when they signed center Alex Mack, who worked in Shanahan’s system in Cleveland; a perfect fit for what they needed. And the addition of WR Mohammed Sanu was much needed after Roddy White’s no show last year while Leonard Hankerson moved to Buffalo. But the Falcons still have significant salary cap problems. They have major Issues with a non0-existent pass rush, hoping Vic Beasley can stay healthy after a promising but injury riddled rookie season. Top 2 picks safety Keanu Neal (Florida) and LB Deion Jones (LSU) are being counted on to shore up areas of need on defense right away.
The Carolina Panthers are lined at 10.5 wins after a breakout 15-1 season last year. The Panthers were significant money winners on their way to the Super Bowl last year, finishing 11-5 ATS in the regular season; 10-5-1 to the Over.
Carolina’s key mainstream stat was their +20 turnover margin, best in the NFL by a wide margin. The defense generated 39 takeaways, again, by far the best in the league. Carolina’s +192 point differential in 2015 lapped the league – only six other teams were even +75 or higher. Based on yardage, the Panthers had the #11 ranked offense and the #6 ranked defense. Their +0.7 yards per play differential between offense and defense ranked #6 in the NFL.
In short, the Panthers run to the Super Bowl was well supported by their impressive stats – it didn’t come out of nowhere. And even though the Panthers faced a very easy schedule last year, their SOS for 2016 didn’t take a huge jump; still facing one of the weaker slates in the NFL.
Personnel wise, the Panthers have big questions in their secondary. Charles Tillman is coming off a torn ACL and still unsigned. Pro bowl cornerback Josh Norman left for a big payday in Washington. Bene Benwikere is coming off a broken leg. And Roman Harper is gone at safety too. For a team that was +20 in turnovers last year, losing that much veteran talent out of the secondary is clearly problematic. Carolina is counting on 2nd, 3rd and 5th round draft picks to contribute right away as well as free agent signee Brandon Boykin.
Still, Carolina’s Front 7 is lethal. DC Sean McDermott was passed over for a head coaching gig, back guiding a D that has ranked in the Top 10 each of the L4 years (one of two teams, Seattle is the other). Mike Shula is back as the offensive coordinator after engineering a massive improvement from Cam Newton in his fourth year as the starter. Even if the defense declines, they’ll get Kelvin Benjamin back at WR after a season lost to injury. This offense might be really dangerous; and the OL is loaded with a pair of pro bowlers anchoring the unit.
Since winning the Super Bowl to close out their 2009 campaign, the New Orleans Saints have a grand total of two playoff wins in the last six seasons. They’ve gone 7-9 SU three times in the last four years, a record that was good enough to earn Sean Payton a massive contract extension. They’re lined as a 7 or 7.5 win team again this year. The Saints did finish with a winning ATS mark last year (8-7-1 ATS), while going 9-6-1 to the Over. They had a positive turnover margin (+2) and the #2 ranked offense in the NFL.
That being said, their #2 ranked offense was outgained by 0.7 yards per play for the season, thanks to a defense that was historically bad. New Orleans ranked dead last (#32) in the NFL in DVOA (a key advanced metric stat). The #31 defense (Chicago) was close to New England (ranked #12) than they were to the Saints (ranked #32). Coordinator Rob Ryan got axed, replaced by Dennis Allen.
Allen brought in Nick Fairley to shore up the DL, and drafted DT Sheldon Rankins #1 (Louisville) who has drawn Aaron Donald comparisons. The Saints signed James Laurinaitis in free agency to be their starting MLB. These are upgrades, yes. But this D has issues all over the secondary and lacks quality depth everywhere. It’s hard to picture a dramatic improvement from a team in a terrible salary cap position, especially given their skill position talent decline and Drew Brees’s advancing range.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are lined at 7 wins in 2016, coming off a 6-10 season. The Bucs put together some impressive mainstream stats last year – the #5 ranked offense, the #10 ranked defense and a +0.7 yards per play differential that ranked #5 in the NFL. Still, those stats weren’t good enough to make money with Tampa as they finished 7-9 ATS and 9-7 to the Over.
Lovie Smith got the axe following the campaign, replaced by Dirk Koetter. Koetter is the reason why we talk about Boise State every year in college football – he built the program, but left for a mediocre tenure at Arizona State. Koetter has been an NFL offensive coordinator since with the Jags, Falcons and Bucs. For a team that has had nothing but coaching turmoil since Jon Gruden left eight years ago, Koetter seems like a good fit. Mike Smith (former Falcons head coach) is the new defensive coordinator. Todd Monken, who has worked with Koetter before and is coming off a successful gig as the Southern Miss head coach, will be Koetter’s offensive coordinator.
Jameis Winston enters his second season in the league off an impressive rookie campaign, with a solid receiving corps to throw to and a workhorse back to rely on in Doug Martin. Most of the offseason personnel moves came on the defensive side of the ball; looking to improve a stop unit that allowed a QB rating of 102.5 while giving up 70% completions (in sharp contrast to their mainstream total defense numbers); intercepting only six passes all year. The Bucs brought in veteran help on D in the form of pass rusher Robert Ayers and LB’s Brent Grimes and Darryl Smith. First round pick Vernon Hargraves (CB Florida) should help right away. But the Bucs schedule is much tougher this year compared to last; a potential stumbling block to their continued improvement in 2016.