For the overall 2017 NFL Preview click here, and see the links at the bottom of the page for the rest of the divisional previews.
Tampa Bay wants to be badass and I think they will be. QB Jameis Winston enters his third season with some new weapons to help fix his Achilles heel (throwing the ball deep). Rookie tight end O.J. Howard promises to be a game changer and the Bucs are putting pressure on receiver DeSean Jackson to be the X-factor he was in Philly and D.C. That’s not to mention already established weapons Mike Evans and Doug Martin. Throw rookie speedster Chris Godwin into the mix and this Bucs offense could be special (assuming their shaky offensive line holds up).
Tampa went shopping in free agency and found some good value for a scoring defense that ranked in the middle of the pack in 2016. Ex-Redskin Chris Baker joins stud Gerald McCoy at tackle, and former Bronco T.J. Ward basically fell in their laps as a surprise cut over the weekend. Special teams should be better too just by virtue of the Bucs giving up on the failed Roberto Aguayo experiment.
If the Bucs run game can overcome Martin’s 3-game suspension — and his baffling inability to string together good seasons consecutively — this is the favorite to win the annually unpredictable NFC South.
The 2017 Atlanta Falcons will be a case study in how much coaching matters in the NFL.
Atlanta returns most of the players that made their offense historically prolific in 2016 but there’s a clear downgrade at offensive coordinator. Kyle Shanahan left for the head coaching gig in San Francisco and now Steve Sarkisian — primarily a college coach, with some demons — is at the helm. If Sark proves himself ready and worthy of the promotion, the Falcons likely won’t skip a beat. But bringing in a coach with some baggage from the outside rather than promoting from within is a risky proposition I’m not sure will pay off.
Furthermore, we’re not sure which Falcons defense we’ll see this year after the unit was a bit of an enigma last season — they sucked for the early part of the year but came on strong late in the season and in the playoffs. First round pick Takkarist McKinley figures to be a key ingredient to their pass rush, the latest in an impressive line of young, talented defenders. Even with the benefit of roster continuity, the Falcons will lose a couple more games while figuring out life without Shanahan…but win just enough to return to the playoffs via tiebreaker.
Carolina had a pretty weird offseason. Cam Newton and Charles Johnson — arguably the two most important players on their respective sides of the ball — each had surgery deep into the offseason, and the organization fired GM Dave Gettleman before training camp only to bring his predecessor (Marty Hurney) back into the fold.
That wasn’t the only reunion for the Panthers — Julius Peppers is back home to add to an already deep defensive line and Captain Munnerlyn (my favorite name in the NFL) comes back to Carolina to help a secondary that struggled mightily last year. Luke Kuechly should be healthy after a scary concussion cost him the final six games of 2016, but he might be one more crying concussion away from retirement. Overall, this is a good unit that will keep Carolina competitive.
The big question mark is the Panthers offense. Rookie Christian McCaffrey looks like he could be special as a playmaker but Newton’s health remains a dark cloud over anything they hope to achieve. And while adding Matt Kalil to protect Cam’s blindside helps, he’s not exactly the best LT in football. Even if McCaffrey and fellow rookie Curtis Samuel have a productive year, Kelvin Benjamin’s good camp and preseason need to translate to the regular season if the Panthers are going to finish above .500.
It feels like this could be the beginning of the end of the Sean Payton Era in New Orleans. At age 38, Drew Brees is playing out the last year of his contract and doing so behind a shaky line that will miss Terron Armstead and Max Unger to start the season. However, the Saints appear to be trying to improve their run/pass balance, dealing Brandin Cooks to New England for what became first round pick Ryan Ramczyk, and adding running backs Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara (who looks like he could be a big play threat out of the backfield) as depth behind 1,000 yard rusher Mark Ingram.
The defense has been at the bottom of the league for three years but figures to be better this season with young cornerstone talents like 11th overall pick Marshon Lattimore and 2016 first rounder Sheldon Rankins. Free agency brought Manti Te’o to the Crescent City, and they’ll need him to be more than an epic sound byte if this defense is going to climb out of the bottom of the defensive rankings.
If this unit improves and AP has any tread left on his tires, New Orleans could contend for a division title. But if Brees has to throw for his NFL-record sixth 5,000 yard season for the Saints to win games, that number of victories is likely to be close to seven. Again.
And a fifth 7-9 season in six years will probably prompt the Saints to move on from the Payton/Brees Era.
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