After discussing the AFC and NFC South via podcast, I want to write a preview for each highlighting my thoughts and predictions going into the 2016 season. First, I’ll start with the NFC South.
Carolina Panthers (15-1 last year)
The Panthers dominated their way into the Super Bowl before they got a healthy dose of their own medicine against the Denver Broncos, losing 24-10. A lot of people are expecting a big downfall in 2016, which is pretty common among teams who lose the Super Bowl the year before. I am not one of those people.
The Panthers scored the most points in the NFL last season, and they actually got better on that side of the ball. Kelvin Benjamin is returning after missing the entire 2015 season, and Devin Funchess is a year improved; the Panthers offense can be even better than it was last year.
On the defensive side of the ball, they decided to let Josh Norman walk instead of paying him the big bucks. They addressed the position via the draft, and they still have one of the best defenders in the game: Luke Kuechly.
Rotoworld has Carolina facing the second-easiest schedule in 2016. I expect another big season, as Carolina will win at least 10 games and cake walk through a seemingly soft division.
Atlanta Falcons (8-8 last year)
The Falcons were actually the only team to beat the Panthers in the 2015 season, but their incredibly disappointing season overlooks that achievement. They started 5-0 under new head coach Dan Quinn, but failed to make the playoffs after finishing the season 3-8. No team in NFL history has failed to make the playoffs after a 5-0 start, so all eyes are on them to see how they rebound in 2016.
Matt Ryan is entering his 9th season in the pros, but has he really gotten any better in the last few years? While this team has a ton of holes, I think Ryan needs an elite team around him to succeed, like he had in 2012 when the Falcons almost reached the Super Bowl.
This team lacks depth and talent on the offensive side of the ball, and their defense speaks the same story except for a few exceptions (Desmond Trufant, being no. 1). I don’t expect much of the Falcons unless Ryan takes a big step forward in his play. This team has 8-8 written all over them.
New Orleans Saints (7-9 last year)
The Saints were abysmal on the defensive side of the ball in 2015. Despite being in the top eight in both yards recorded and points scored — and being the third healthiest offense in the league — the Saints still struggled to win ball games. They let up the most points in the NFL and the second-most yards, which was a big reason they were 7-9 for the second season in a row.
They brought in LB James Laurinaitis and DT Nick Fairley to get some help, but this unit is still going to struggle. Their first-round pick, DT Sheldon Rankins, broke his fibula and will be out for at least half of the season.
I expect another mediocre year, but think the offense can carry them to win at least eight games. I think they’ll be in ball games, but will ultimately lose a few close ones. I like them at 8-8.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10 last year)
The Bucs are an up-and-coming team, but I still think they’re a year away from doing big things in this division. They couldn’t finish games on either side of the ball last year, and their stats prove that. Despite being fifth in yards per game, they were only 20th in points scored. They gave up the 10th least yards in the league, but 6th most points.
I think Jameis Winston and Mike Evans are going to have huge years, and they’re going to improve in Dirk Koetter’s first season as head coach. They have finished last in the division in five straight seasons. That changes this year, but this team is still another year away from the playoffs unless they make drastic improvements on the defensive side of the football.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8 last year)
Like everybody else, I’m washing away the Colts 2015 season. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to predict them back into the playoffs just like that. The Colts still have massive depth issues on the offense, and their brutal offensive line is still a work in progress.
Behind 33-year-old RB Frank Gore, whose play has already progressively declined, they have no one to run the football. Their offensive line will feature at least one rookie with multiple rookies fighting for playing time, but it’s a mess anyway. They have three promising receivers in TY Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett, but no one behind them to help out if one goes down. This team is thin on offense, and it may come back to haunt them.
On the defensive side of the ball, is there one guy opposing offenses are scared of? Robert Mathis is 35 and Vontae Davis is hurt for at least the first month of the season. In my opinion, the defensive line is going to have to carry a lot of the load for this team to succeed, and Luck will have to return to 2014 form. I think they’ll have a good bounce back year, but I’m not sure they return to the playoffs in 2016.
Tennessee Titans (3-13 last year)
The Titans did a really nice job of improving their offense around second-year QB Marcus Mariota. He’ll have both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry running behind him, with Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, Kendall Wright and Andre Johnson to throw to. They drafted Jack Conklin to shore up the O line, and I think their offense will be drastically improved from last year.
Antonio Andrews led the team with 520 rushing yards last season. That will change this year, and so will the Titans’ success on the offensive side of the ball.
I like the Titans to have an encouraging season, but I don’t think they win more than seven games.
Houston Texans (9-7 last year)
The Texans gave Brock Osweiler a ton of money, and he’ll have some good weapons around him to earn it. Lamar Miller was one of the best offseason acquisitions this year, and DeAndre Hopkins will get help from Jaelen Strong, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. This offense is going to be explosive.
It comes down to the defensive side of the ball, where they’re elite with JJ Watt, but mediocre without him. Watt returned to practice this week and is a good look to start the season, but his back injury concerns me. If he stays healthy, this team can win 10 or more games.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11 last year)
I’m all aboard the Jags’ hype train. Jacksonville got a lot better on both sides of the football this offseason. They added Chris Ivory to be their bruiser, while TJ Yeldon is only going into his second year. They will help balance this pass-heavy offense and surely free up the passing lanes for third-year QB Blake Bortles.
On defense, 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler is back, and the Jags added Malik Jackson in free agency to help Jared Odrick and Sen’Derrick Marks create pressure. I love LBs Telvin Smith, Paul Poslusznky and Myles Jack, and behind them is a completely new secondary. The Jags brought in Tashaun Gipson from Cleveland and Prince Amukamara from the Giants, and they drafted Jalen Ramsey top five in the draft.
This team just needs to WIN ball games, create a winning culture and take off. The pieces are set for the Jags to make serious noise, and I’m betting they do.