Two years on from being labeled as the worst division in football when the Carolina Panthers made the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, the NFC South may have the strongest group of quarterbacks in the NFL, as well as a couple of playoff hopefuls.
Can Carolina cruise again?
The Panthers are the clear favorite for the title and with good reason. Fresh off a 15-1 regular season and a defeat in Super Bowl 50, Carolina will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing finish.
Carolina lost a key member of their secondary in Josh Norman, as well as veteran corner Charles Tillman, but are returning the majority of an elite defense that helped guide them to a Super Bowl. The defense is still one of the league’s best but with two rookies starting at corner, it may be their biggest weakness.
Luke Kuechly is the star on defense but 2015 MVP Cam Newton is the physical and emotional leader of a Panthers team that seems to get better every year.
Newton and the high-flying offense should be even better as Kelvin Benjamin returns to action this season after missing last year with a torn ACL. The 2014 first-round pick excelled in his rookie campaign and will only help Newton’s continuous growth.
Falcons aim for consistency
The Atlanta Falcons finished second in the division last season despite winning just one divisional matchup all year long. The lone victory ruined Carolina’s undefeated season but they’ll be hoping to take it a step further and improve on an 8-8 record. An implosion in the second half of last season means consistency will likely be a focus point throughout the coming year.
Julio Jones is likely going to continue to be the most dangerous player in the division but the Falcons’ hopes rest on Matt Ryan's play under center. After a down year, Ryan has to prove that he is still a great player in his own right. Mohamed Sanu should relieve pressure off of Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman will likely continue his great form behind an improved offensive line.
Derrick Shelby may strengthen a weak pass rush while Desmond Trufant headlines an improving secondary alongside rookie Keanu Neal.
In their last season in the Georgia Dome, Atlanta will be aiming to overcome the league’s toughest schedule and make a surprising, yet attainable, run at a playoff berth. One of the biggest talking points over the course of the season will be the future of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who remains on the hot seat.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a team on the rise under new head coach Dirk Koetter. After spending last season as offensive coordinator, Koetter was promoted to head coach. much to the delight of second-year QB Jameis Winston. Winston impressed in his rookie season and looks like the franchise player that Tampa Bay needed.
Winston is blessed with an elite running back behind him, Doug Martin, and a great young receiver in Mike Evans. Accompany that with a young, improving defense and the Bucs could possibly be fighting for a spot in the playoffs toward the end of the season. LaVonte David will hold the spotlight defense but first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III could quickly emerge as a star at corner.
Tampa Bay will still have growing pains but this could be the season that completes the turnaround for the organization. A young team with plenty of hope for the future, Tampa Bay should be excited for the next few years.
Saints head into crucial season
The New Orleans Saints finished third in the NFC South in 2015, largely due to one of the league’s worst defenses. While they have underrated talents in Cameron Jordan and Delvin Breaux on defense, the unit must improve for New Orleans to move forward as a team. Sheldon Rankins, the team's first-round pick, will miss a large portion of his rookie year with a broken leg.
Drew Brees continues to star at the age of 37 and has recently signed a new deal with the Saints, but he may have just a couple of seasons left. The future of Brees with the Saints is nearing its end but he’ll lead a talented offense with plenty of young weapons at wide receiver and a solid backfield. Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas are two receivers that Brees will rely on heavily.
The offense should continue to impress but with huge question marks still surrounding the defensive side of the ball, the Saints may be looking at a sub .500 season again.
The division as a whole is one of the most overlooked divisions in all of football but should be full of closely fought battles throughout the season.
1) Carolina Panthers (12-4)
2) Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
4) New Orleans Saints (5-11)