Cam Newton broke out in a big way last season, turning in a season where he scored 45 total touchdowns, and did it in a year where he lost his top receiver to a preseason injury.
Newton made plays all season, despite the fact that unreliable Tedd Ginn was his top wideout most of the year. Now that Kelvin Benjamin is back healthy, Newton and the Carolina offense could be even more potent. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula did a great job with his schemes a year ago, and should be given a lot of credit for the team’s success.
The Carolina defense suffered some blows to the secondary in the offseason, with Josh Norman, Roman Harper, and Charles Tillman all departing in free agency. The Panthers didn’t address the position in free agency or the draft, so they’ll be relying on a lot of unproven young talent to step up. Kurt Coleman, the lone returning starter, may be much less effective without veterans around him.
The front seven is as strong as ever, with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson anchoring the linebacking positions, and Star Lotulelei clogging the middle.
Carolina is a team that may not be as dominate defensively as they’ve been in the past, but the arrow on the offensive side of the ball is only pointing up. They’re still among the top teams in the NFC, and could be right back in the mix for a Super Bowl title this year.
Projected Finish: 12-4, 1st Place
New Orleans Saints
How much time does Drew Brees have left?
While the elite quarterback is coming off of another strong showing, he’s now 37 years old, and his window of opportunity is drawing nearer and nearer to its close.
Offense won’t be a problem for the Saints. Brandin Cooks is an emerging star at wide receiver, while second-rounder Michael Thomas is expected to be an upgrade over departing veteran Marques Colston. Running back is in good shape as well with Melvin Ingram backed up by Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller.
The problem continues to be defense in New Orleans.
The Saints continue to have a unit ranked near the bottom of the league, and things don’t appear to be getting better, as nine of their starters return from a year ago. Big free agent signing Jairus Byrd has really let them down.
Brees is the engine for this team, and he’s strong enough to keep them competitive and in the mix for a Wild Card spot. However, the Saints just can’t stop anyone.
Projected Finish: 8-8, 2nd Place
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The young team on the rise in the division is Tampa Bay.
Jameis Winston showed tons of promise in his rookie year, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. Running back Doug Martin finally got himself healthy, and rushed for over 1,400 yards on his way to a new contract. The Bucs also have an ascending young wide receiver in Mike Evans, who comes off of a 1,200 yard season, and should only get better as his timing with Winston improves.
The Bucs have some good defensive pieces, but they need more time to develop.
Linebacker LaVonte David is a rock in the middle of the defense, coming off of a season in which he led the team with 147 tackles. Gerald McCoy anchors the defensive line, turning in 8.5 sacks at the defensive tackle spot. The team hopes to get him a little more pass rushing help in the form of Robert Ayers, who was signed in free agency.
The secondary has received a couple of upgrades. The club spent their first-rounder on Vernon Hargreaves, and signed former Atlanta corner Brent Grimes in free agency.
Tampa is gathering more and more young talent by the season. They might not be ready to make a run at the playoffs this year, but they promise to be a tough out for a lot of clubs as they continue to develop.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 3rd Place
A surprising 5-0 start a year ago came crashing back down to earth, as the Falcons collapsed to a 3-8 finish in head coach Dan Quinn’s first season on the job.
The Falcons have a lot of problems. The greatest of which may be that quarterback Matt Ryan seems to have hit his ceiling. Ryan is a solid starter, but seems to be a guy who is stuck on “good” and can’t quite get to “great”.
Ryan threw only 21 touchdowns a year ago, and turned the ball over too many times with 16 picks. He has a record of just 18-30 over the last three years, which is troubling. His protection will be improved this year, thanks to the signing of former Cleveland center Alex Mack.
Julio Jones comes off of a dominant season, with 136 catches, over 1,800 yards, and eight touchdowns. He’s a top three receiver in the game, and the element of the Atlanta offenses that defenses fear most.
Devonta Freeman had a very impressive season for Atlanta, gaining 1,500 yards from scrimmage, but the Falcons want to see more of last year’s third-round pick Tevin Coleman, meaning they aren’t sold on Freeman as a featured back.
Atlanta’s defense was unimpressive in Quinn’s first season. Last year’s top pick, Vic Beasley, failed to make an impact as a pass rusher, collecting just four sacks. The team tried to add some physicality to the defensive backfield by drafting safety Keanu Neal in the first round.
Atlanta just doesn’t have a lot going for it. The Ryan-Jones combo is always good for some electricity, and Freeman and the running game have a few sparks of their own, but ultimately this is a team that doesn’t have the depth or talent to make a rise in a competitive division.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 4th Place