NFC South 2014 Preview
In a division that possesses one of the league's best quarterbacks, defenses, and wide receiver combos, the NFC South has plenty to showcase for the 2014 season. Ever since the NFC South came into existence in 2002, there hasn't been one team that has won the division for two or more consecutive seasons. This, of course, doesn't bode well for the Carolina Panthers, who won the South in 2013 and lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the division round of the playoffs. It also doesn't help that the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons will be primed to re-claim the division title. Anyways, it's time to see who I think will win the NFC South in 2014.
1. New Orleans Saints (2013 Record: 11-5)
Although New Orleans was unable to win the division in the 2013 regular season, they clinched a wild card spot and defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs before losing to the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. It's safe to say that even if the Saints don't win the divison or even make the playoffs, they'll surely be in the thick of things late in the regular season. Their offense is led by Drew Brees, who has consistently been one of the four best quarterbacks in the league since his arrival in New Orleans.
The defense will be entering their second season under DC Rob Ryan's 3-4 system, in which they finished fourth in the league. Ryan should also have some fun with newly-signed Safety Jairus Byrd, once he recovers from back surgery. I expect the defense to play as well, if not better than they did last season now that they have cleanly adjusted to the 3-4. As for Brees, he's currently nursing an oblique injury, but as long as he's the quarterback, the Saints will have one of the best offenses in the league.
Projected 2014 Record: 10-6
2. Atlanta Falcons (2013 Record: 4-12)
Let's be honest, the Falcons' 2013 season was something that nobody in that organization expected; their star receiver, Julio Jones, suffered a season-ending foot injury in October, free agent pickup Steven Jackson was severely inconsistent due to injuries and poor performances, and their defense struggled against offenses like New Orleans and Carolina.
Now, Julio Jones is healthy and they signed Defensive Tackles Paul Solai and Tyson Jackson to bulk up the run defense. As for running back, Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman, and Jacquizz Rodgers all have a shot at replacing Jackson as the starter sometime in the regular season. Overall, don't let the 4-12 record fool you; they made the playoffs the last three years before 2013 and they have a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. However, if they once again struggle to earn a record over .500, I think that Head Coach Mike Smith should be worried about his job security.
Projected 2014 Record: 9-7
3. Carolina Panthers (2013 Record: 12-4)
As the NFC South Champions last season, the Carolina Panthers are entering 2014 with several question marks. For instance, Quarterback Cam Newton hasn't been able to do much in the offseason due to an ankle injury. Also, because of salary cap issues, the Panthers decided to release longtime Panther and locker room leader Steve Smith, leaving a void at the wide receiver position.
Another issue that nobody has taken a close look at is their defense. Clearly, they still have one of the best defenses, which is led by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. However, officials this year will be placing an emphasis on pass interference calls, and although this won't personally affect the Panthers' defense, it means that teams won't be able to depend on their defenses as much as before. Yes, I still think that Carolina has a shot at making the playoffs, but I'm not sure how they'll fare facing both New Orleans and Atlanta twice this season.
Projected 2014 Record: 8-8
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2013 Record: 4-12)
The Buccaneers have taken a large dip since the departure of Head Coach Jon Gruden, but expectations are beginning to turn around this season. In order to clean up this five-year mess, the Bucs hired Lovie Smith, who was most recently the Chicago Bears head coach for nine seasons. He also brought with him former Chicago backup quarterback Josh McCown with him, who played sufficiently in Jay Cutler's place in 2013. As for the rest of the offense, Smith and new General Manager Jason Licht has put together the wide receiver combination of Vincent Jackson and 2014 first round pick Mike Evans, which is eerily similar to the Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffery combo in Chicago.
Although Lovie may be mirroring his former team, does that mean that success will come with it? That's where I think the answers may be a bit foggy. I definitely think that he was the right man for the job, but this Buccaneers team isn't some kind of one-year project; anybody that has taken a look at this roster knows that rebuilding Tampa will take some time. However, that doesn't mean that down the road, the Bucs could become contenders in the NFC South.
Projected 2014 Record: 3-13
NFC South Award Predictions
MVP: Jimmy Graham, Saints
Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones, Falcons
Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks, Saints
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Saints
Comeback Player of the Year: Julio Jones, Falcons
Fantasy Sleeper: Davonta Freeman, Falcons
Coach of the Year: Mike Smith, Falcons
I still can't figure out why the NFC South is always overlooked as one of the best divisions in the NFL; three of the four teams in the South are in the playoff discussion, and not many other divisions can say that truthfully. Although I believe that New Orleans is the only team in this division that could actually reach the Super Bowl, the season will progress and the winds will change, which means that so will the standings in the NFC.