You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into.
So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.
Today, we’re taking a look at the NFC South, where the Carolina Panthers are the reigning champions and quite frankly, the rest of the division didn’t put up much of a fight after the first seven weeks of the year.
Camp Begins: July 27 – Flowery Branch, GA
Will Dan Quinn’s defense continue to round into form in Year 2?
Dan Quinn made his bones in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and his coupe de grace was building the ferocious Seattle Seahawks defense, also known as ‘The Legion Of Boom.’
Now, in his second year with the Falcons, Quinn is continuing to work towards building what he had in Seattle in Atlanta.
Among the many changes we’ll see this year on the defensive side of the ball, the most interesting and potentially important one will be 2015 first round pick Vic Beasley’s transition from the LEO defensive end/pass rusher position into the SAM linebacker role.
The SAM role will call for Beasley – the team’s No. 1 pass rusher – to drop back into coverage on certain downs as well as rush the passer, which could be a difficult transition for the young linebacker. The goal of the switch, which Quinn used in Seattle on pass rusher turned SAM linebacker Bruce Irvin – is to keep Beasley on the field for more downs and keep him off the line of scrimmage where his effectiveness had been counteracted by bigger offensive linemen last season.
The blueprint is very clear and Beasley is just the beginning of Quinn’s quest to turn the Falcons’ unit into L.O.B. 2.0.
Their first round draft pick, Keanu Neal, out of Florida, is known as a hard-hitting safety who can cover almost as well as he can knock the socks off of unsuspecting receivers unfortunate enough to enter his airspace.
That combined with snagging defensive end Derrick Shelby from the Dolphins as a free agent along with the continued progression of defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman means the Falcons should prove to be a much more stout unit overall.
Can Devonta Freeman replicate last season’s success?
I don’t know about you, but I owe Devonta Freeman a permanent debt of gratitude for almost single-handedly winning me my fantasy league last year. Once Tevin Coleman got hurt, Freeman ran away with the starting running back job and didn’t look back. He put up 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in addition to being a major threat out of the backfield in the passing game, hauling in 73 catches for 578 yards as well – the second most catches and third highest receiving yard total on the team.
His gaudy statline aside, Freeman helped take a ton of pressure off of Matt Ryan – who still struggled mightily at times last year – and will be a key to key component to Atlanta’s success on offense once again this year.
The Falcons will also be boasting a reinvigorated offensive line thanks to the addition of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, which should help pave some clearer lanes for Freeman to run through.
Freeman undoubtedly excelled in coach Shanahan’s zone blocking run scheme – a notoriously complicated system, especially for a first year back – so that bodes well and could be a sign of better things to come for the young back and a team that’ll be counting on him.
Will Matt Ryan improve in Year 2 under Kyle Shanahan?
If you listen to what Matt Ryan has to say on the matter, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. If you watched any of the last eight games of the year the Falcons played in, you might not be as sure.
Ryan looked out of sorts throughout much of the end of the year and threw 16 interceptions and fumbled 12 times, losing eight of them as the Falcons limped to an 8-8 record after starting the year 6-1.
However, it’s a clean slate for the Falcons’ franchise quarterback and he says that things are already moving much more seamlessly in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive as Year 2 approaches. Reports leaked last year in the middle of Ryan’s struggles that he was ‘overwhelmed’ by Shanahan’s offense, which is alarming but somewhat unsurprising considering Ryan thrived under former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system and Shanahan’s was a major departure from that scheme.
But a full offseason to digest a playbook could work wonders for Ryan, who should be able to rebound from a down year.
Besides that, he’ll also have better protection in the form of the aforementioned Alex Mack, who came over from Cleveland in free agency and Mohammad Sanu, who the Falcons have tasked with replacing Roddy White as the No. 2 receiving option opposite Julio Jones.
Camp Begins: July 27 – Spartanburg, SC
Can their secondary withstand the loss of Josh Norman?
The Carolina Panthers are a deep, well-balanced team predicated on the whole team being greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s spurred them on to three straight division titles, last year’s 15-1 record and Super Bowl berth.
That’s the method the Panthers and have stuck to and they made very clear based on cutting ties with Pro Bowl/shut-down-corner extraordinaire Josh Norman and drafting three cornerbacks in the 2016 draft.
While all three cornerbacks are – by most experts’ accounts – more than capable, high IQ, scheme-fitting guys, only one of them will be able to attempt to fill the massive hole Norman leaves in this defense at a time.
Consider this: Even though Norman was widely considered to be a shut-down cornerback last year the Panthers still were only 11th best when it came to stopping the pass and allowed an average of 234.5 yards per game through the air.
Without Norman locking down the opponents No. 1 target, the Panthers could be exposing themselves and their secondary to an increase in aerial attacks that could become more effective without his presence.
Norman managed to limit opposing quarterbacks to a 54.0 rating when they threw in his direction – the best league wide in 2015. That has to be especially worrisome for a team that shares a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and the burgeoning Jameis Winston.
The Panthers should maintain their strong pass rush from 2015 that saw them finish 6th in the league with 44 sacks and that will undoubtedly continue to help their secondary. But unless one of their three draft picks turns out to be a – well… a Josh Norman I suppose – in the making, the Panthers’ secondary may become a liability really quickly in 2016.
Where does Cam go from here?
After a campaign that saw him throw 35 TDs and rush for 10 more, defensive coordinators aren’t going to let Cam Newton run roughshod over there units without putting up a fight.
A huge part of what makes Cam, Cam, is his size, speed and natural athletic ability to simply play football, or ‘ball out’ if you’d prefer. Basically, he’s going to get his due, but you can rest assured that new strategies will be employed league wide with the goal of stymieing some of what Cam does best.
Working in his favor will be the return of a healthy Kelvin Benjamin, back from an ACL tear along with his favorite targets Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr. Not to mention Devin Funchess, who will be expected to fill the No. 2 receiver role vacated by Jerricho Cotchery this offseason in his second year.
In theory, the offensive line should still be able to give Cam the time he needs to work his magic, but did the Broncos and Von Miller possibly give the league a blueprint on how to beat the Panthers and pummel Cam?
And how does the post-Super Bowl loss hangover affect the usually happy-go-lucky quarterback who last addressed the media post game in as sullen a manner as we’ve ever seen from the quarterback?
As is always the case with Cam, win or lose, it’ll be interesting to watch.
Can they hold off the rest of the NFC South?
As far as divisions go, the NFC South won’t exactly be a heavyweight division but they’ll definitely be moving up a weight class this year. The Bucs – while likely a year away still from being serious playoff contenders – have made some big strides and have added some key components to their secondary through the draft (CB, Vernon Hargreaves, DE, Noah Spence) and to their offensive line through free agency (OL, J.R. Sweezy).
On top of that, the Falcons should continue to improve for various reasons (listed above) in Year 2 of the Dan Quinn era while the Saints will be prime candidates for a bounce back year with Drew Brees and Sean Payton both returning to New Orleans.
Point being, chances are that the Panthers won’t finish this one with seven more wins than their next closest division opponent.
The Panthers are primed to be one of the league’s best teams yet again and to be a Super Bowl contender as well, but they’re unlikely to waltz through the regular season and lock up their division as easily and as early as they did last year.
New Orleans Saints
Camp Begins: July 20 (Rookies), July 27 (Veterans) – White Sulpher Springs, WV
Defense. Oh Defense? Where for art thou, Defense?
There’s no ‘D’ in New Orleans. Or in Saints, or in Rob Ryan, and I can’t remember where I heard it, but rumor is they’re renaming The Superdome, ‘The Superome,’ because there sure ain’t no D in there either.
The ‘D’ has been as elusive in New Orleans as a sober tourist on Bourbon street these days and it’s been the Saints’ Achilles heel for the last two seasons and the better part of the decade.
Last year the Saints were worst in points allowed by 28 points and 2nd worst in yards allowed at 6,620 on the year (an average of 413.8 per game), so if you’re in search of a bright spot in this seemingly dark depressingly hole of defenseless drivel, it’s that it truly can’t get any worse.
Rob Ryan is out, the Saints have brought in a ton of new talent through free agency and the draft and it’ll all be a matter of how these new players work in the new scheme concocted by former Raiders head coach and new defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen.
At least there’s a ‘D’ in Dennis.
How much does Drew Brees have left?
When the 2015 season ended it sure felt like the Saints as we know them were on the precipice of imploding. Drew Brees’ future with the team was in flux, Sean Payton was seemingly always on the verge of being traded, Rob Ryan’s defense was an abomination and on top of that, they just, kind of stunk all around.
Now, with new contracts for their ‘big two,’ a new defensive coordinator in the house and a blank canvas of a season to work with, New Orleans could be primed for a revival.
By basically every measurable metric one would care about, Drew Brees has still got it. He led the league in yards passing last year (4,870), threw for 32 touchdowns (T-7th) compared to only 11 interceptions and had a quarterback rating (QBR) of 101.0, sixth-highest among all quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts.
A large part of that was the Saints’ offensive line keeping Brees firmly planted on the ground, as opposed to the 2014 season where he was sacked, pressured or hit 233 times. Not ideal.
Brees is now 37 and a pummeling like that could spell big trouble for the likely Hall of Fame bound quarterback but with Brees upright and throwing darts to his young core of wide receivers could keep the Saints rolling on offense this year.
Can they bring the magic back to the Superdome?
In their heyday, which they’re not really that far removed from just yet, playing the Saints in the Superdome was akin to fighting Muhammad Ali with one hand tied behind your back. Basically, you didn’t have a chance.
At one point the Saints won an incredible 20-straight games at the Superdome under Payton between 2011 and 2014, excluding 2012 when Payton was suspended for the year. Last year, the Saints went just 4-4 at home and lost to Buccaneers, Panthers, Lions and Titans. The loss to the 15-1 Panthers is obviously excusable, but the losses to the Titans, Buccaneers and Lions – not so much.
Those three teams had a combined record of 16-32 last year and are teams that the Saints would normally send running out of the Superdome by the end of the first quarter.
So needless to say, if the Saints can get some good ole’ home cooking going once again, they could be contenders in what could be a crowded NFC South field in 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Camp Begins: July 25 (Rookies), July 27 (Veterans) – Tampa Bay, FL
Can Jameis Winston continue to progress?
Last year we saw a lot of positive things taking shape in Tampa Bay around potential franchise quarterback Jameis Winston as he went through his first pro season.
We saw the continued emergence of Mike Evans as a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL, we saw a rejuvenated Doug Martin continue to reclaim his rightful place in among the top 5 running backs in the NFL and we saw the Buccaneers’ offensive line gel and keep a relatively clean pocket for their young QB, allowing only 27 sacks on their young quarterback.
Losing Logan Mankins to retirement hurts the Bucs’ line as he was rock solid on the interior, but J.R. Sweezy coming over from Seattle will help shore up that area and the line should be good once again.
That combined with Evans and veteran Vincent Jackson continuing to develop a rapport with Winston along with Louis Murphy’s return from a torn ACL and there’s no reason the second-year QB should regress in Year 2.
The sophomore slump is a very real thing, but if Winston can rise above and continue where he left off in 2015 the Bucs could be a sleeper pick to win the NFC South.
How will Dirk Koetter fair as a head coach?
The firing of Lovie Smith caught a lot of people around the league off guard as the veteran head coach took a relatively unheralded Bucs team to a 6-10 record with a rookie quarterback in only his second year with the team.
But the Bucs seemingly believe they now have their man at the helm in Dirk Koetter, who ran the offense under Smith in 2015.
Koetter’s first big hire was a relatively predictable one in Mike Smith, his former colleague in Jacksonville in 2007 and his former boss in Atlanta from 2012-14. The two clearly worked well together for years in Atlanta but this time the dynamic will be reversed with Koetter calling the shots and Smith coordinating a unit underneath him.
This should be a workable dynamic considering Koetter is an offensive-minded guy, so Smith should – in theory – have relative autonomy over the defensive unit. Surely Koetter will be able to lean on Smith thanks to their tight-knit relationship when it comes to leading a team as well.
Optimism abounds on offense and on defense, with new additions in the secondary and up front, there’s reason for hope that the Buccaneers can compete this year as well. The question is whether Koetter is in fact the right man for the job and if firing Lovie Smith, who certainly seemed to have things trending in the right direction much of last year, will pan out for the Bucs in 2016 and beyond.
Will the additions to the secondary pay off?
Last year the Buccaneers’ secondary was picked on game in and game out. The Bucs’ secondary allowed 31 touchdown passes last year (T-25th) and quarterbacks averaged a 102.5 passer rating against them, which was good for second worst in the league ahead of only the New Orleans Saints.
In the offseason the Bucs added Miami Dolphins corner Brent Grimes and picked up Vernon Hargreaves in the draft at No. 11 in the first round. Hargreaves was pretty much the consensus best cornerback available in the draft while Grimes was one of the best corners in free agency, so those two additions should help the Bucs shore up their secondary, especially if Alterraun Verner can finally live up to the lofty contract he signed with Tampa Bay in 2014.
The last time Mike Smith coached a defense was in Jacksonville from 2003-07 and those units were particularly stingy with yardage through the air and touchdowns. Over that five season stretch, the most TDs they allowed were 23 in Smith’s first year in 2003. After that, they routinely allowed fewer than 20 per season, so just over one per game through the air.
Granted, the league has changed since then and has become more pass-happy/quarterback and receiver friendly, but with Smith at the helm and a new influx of talent, the unit should be better at defending through the air.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.