NFL Team Previews: the NFC South

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With the 2016 season quickly approaching and training camps underway, the time is now to start diving into the NFL to gain a better understanding of the teams, their new and different pieces, and how they will look this year.

We will preview the upcoming seasons, one division at a time, until we have dissected all 8 divisions.  First up, the NFC South, featuring the team with 2015’s best record and Super Bowl participant, the Carolina Panthers.

Carolina Panthers

The 2015 Super Bowl runner-up Panthers played as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, not just to opponents, but to much of the entire nation, and even some in Panther Nation.  Essentially, they flew under the radar for anyone who believed the Panthers were successful only because they had a great defense and were great on the ground.  Because the Cam Newton-led Panthers were lethal in the air.  What’s more, they did it without a cadre of receiving talent.  Their best wide receiver was Ted Ginn, a player they, and many other teams cut multiple times.  The rest of the wide receiver corps included Jerricho Cotchery, Corey Brown and Devin Funchess.  Yet remarkably, Cam Newton finished the season 0.8 rating points shy of a 100 passer rating, with 35 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.  Seven percent of his pass attempts were touchdowns, the best rate of any quarterback last year.  In the 15 years since 2000, only 8 QBs ever had a season with a better TD rate than Newton:  Peyton Manning (04, 13), Aaron Rodgers (11, 14), Tom Brady (07, 10), Ben Roethlisberger (07) and Tony Romo (14).  Not bad company at all.

The Panthers were the best team in the NFL at forcing their opponents to strategy at halftime, because they led at halftime by 9.8 ppg on average.  In the last 15 years, the only team to lead by more at halftime on average was the 2007 Patriots (who led by 10.8 ppg on average).  So how did the defensive-minded Panthers lead by such a huge margin at halftime?  Particularly when the offensive-minded 07 Patriots were the only other team to lead by such a margin, and the other teams who averaged huge halftime leads included the 2014 Packers, the 2001 Rams and the 2012 Patriots, all teams with ridiculously strong offenses?  It must have been the strong field position thanks to the defense, right?  Or a lot of defensive touchdowns? Nope. The Panthers defense scored 3 defensive touchdowns in the first half, while scoring 30 offensive touchdowns.  No other team scored 30 offensive first half touchdowns.  The NFL average was only 18.  Additionally, the Panthers average starting field position was on their own 29 in the first half, which was only 12th best in the NFL.

No team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins lost the Super Bowl and won it the next year, and no team since the 1993 Buffalo Bills even made it back to the title game.  However, Ron Rivera can spin the fact that twice in the last 5 years the prior Super Bowl loser made it back to the Conference Championship (2012 Patriots, 2013 49ers).  Additionally, the last 8 Super Bowl losers have all won 10+ games the following season, with 3 of the last 4 winning more games than the Super Bowl champion.  The Panthers can have another great season because their pieces are so similar with the exception of Josh Norman.  They won’t have another 15-1 season.  But if they get back to the playoffs, it likely will be because the offense (with Kelvin Benjamin this time) was able to keep the efficiency up, the turnovers down and continue to build halftime leads, forcing opponents to adjust against their will.

Vegas Perspective:  10.5 Wins, #1 in NFC South

Projected to win 10.5 games, the Panthers are favored in 13 of their 15 lined games.  They have a number of things working in their favor in 2016.  Despite winning the NFC last season, they still are projected to face a fairly easy schedule.  It would be hard to imagine the Falcons, Saints and Bucs not improving slightly over their 2015 teams, but there is a good chance at least one gets worse while another remains the same.  Last year the Panthers played the AFC South and the NFC East.  Considering the year both divisions had, its impossible to have an easier 2016 schedule.  Instead, they get the NFC West and AFC West.  Not an easy draw, but they do get to face many teams in transition, including the 49ers, Rams and Broncos.  They also have the most average rest of any team in the NFL.  However, three things unlikely to repeat:  +20 in turnover margin, 4th in overall health and a 7-1 record in games decided by one score (best in NFL).  

Atlanta Falcons

Typically teams with significant injuries fall apart late in the season.  The Falcons fell apart but still finished 8-8.  They didn’t fall apart due to injuries however.  On the contrary, the team was the 2nd healthiest offense, 5th healthiest defense and 2nd overall after ranking 25th in team health in 2014.  Despite their health, the Falcons closed the season 3-8 (after starting 5-0), averaging 16 ppg and winning their 3 games by just 3, 6 and 7 points over the 3-13 Titans, the 5-11 Jaguars and (shockingly) the 15-1 Panthers.  

But the reality of their 5-0 start included an overtime win and two wins by 2 and 4 points over the 7-9 Eagles and 6-10 Giants.  And the Falcons offense went up against the 3rd easiest schedule of opposing defenses and their defense faced the 6th easiest schedule of opposing offenses.  Despite that, many of their metrics (both offensive and defensive) were well below average.

So where do the Falcons turn in 2016?  Unfortunately, they turn to the mirror & look for improvement vs. a more difficult schedule in a season which should see more games lost due to injury.

Years ago, the Falcons hitched their wagon to Matt Ryan, who will hit the cap this year for $23.75M, fourth largest hit this season.  Landing a legitimate franchise QB is great in their rookie contract, when cap hits are reasonable.  Ryan’s rookie deal ended in 2012, in the 3rd of 10+ win seasons and trips to the playoffs.  Since re-signing with the Falcons, Atlanta hasn’t had a winning season and thanks to his cap hit, the Falcons are now spending the 2nd most on the QB position of any team this year.

Re-signing a legitimate franchise QB can work if his performance is equivalent to his pay, such as Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.  But with Matt Ryan no longer being in his rookie deal and performing at a level far below his pay, the Falcons are stretched seriously thin in their ability to build a competitive roster.  Particularly when Julio Jones occupies $16M in cap space.

Matt Ryan must improve in 2016 against more difficult defenses for the Falcons to continue the year over year improvement they’ve posted after a dismal 2013 season.  The Julio Jones dominant pass offense, while great for fantasy stats, is far too predictable.  Kyle Shanahan was wise to try to employ the run more in 2015 than it was used in 2014, but situationally Shanahan should employ it even more in 2016.  For instance, Atlanta converted 25% more often on 2nd and short runs than passes, yet called passes on these plays well above the NFL average.  

While they must get Matt Ryan to step up his performance to the level his cap hit necessitates, the pass defense also must improve.  And for the Falcons, that starts up front. They largely did nothing to address a glaring weakness which landed them dead last in for 2015: pass rush efficiency.  Dan Quinn must get this unit to play substantially better, and unfortunately, they’ll have to play better on the road in primetime against the Saints, Bucs and Panthers (with multiple games on short weeks).  Atlanta is 0-4 the last 3 years on the road in primetime and 1-10 of their last 11.

Vegas Perspective:  7 Wins, #2 in NFC South

The Falcons improved from 4 wins in 2013 to 6 in 2014 and to 8 wins last year, but the story in the NFC South was all about the 15-1 Panthers, who the Falcons tagged with their lone loss week 16.  The Falcons went 2-4 in games decided by 3 or less points and saw negative margins on the season in turnovers, sacks and penalties.  As such, there is hope the team improve in those areas and gain additional victories.  The problem is their schedule, which is significantly more difficult.  While projected to finish 7-9, the Falcons opened as favorites in just 3 of their 15 lined games and have multiple brutal stretches including CAR/DEN/SEA in consecutive weeks and the physical defenses of ARI/KC/STL in consecutive weeks.  Also note that Atlanta was a tremendous under team last year, going under the posted total in their final 10 games of the season, averaging just 16 ppg.

New Orleans Saints

One year after the San Diego Chargers franchised Drew Brees in 2005, the Saints signed him to a 6 year, $60M deal.  He’ll make half of that this season alone, thanks to his $30M cap hit.  Brees played out that contract, which never hit the cap for more than $12.5M, and in 2012 signed a record breaking 5 year, $100M deal, which hit the cap for $17M in 2013, $18M in 2014, $24M last year and $30M this year.  In his first deal Brees led the Saints to 4 winning seasons, 4 playoff appearances, won 1 Super Bowl and posted only 1 losing season.  Collectively, they won 65% of their games, posting a 62-34 record.  However, since signing his blockbuster $100M deal, the Saints are 32-32, including 1-1 in the playoffs.  They have posted 3 losing seasons and just 1 winning season.    

NFL teams have to have a quarterback to win games, but he doesn’t have to be a veteran, nor does he have to be paid a ridiculous sum.  In fact, often it’s completely counterproductive to have one of that ilk:  the Bears are 11-21 after signing Jay Cutler to a 7 year, $126.7M deal.  The Falcons are 18-30 after signing Matt Ryan to a 5 year, $103.75M deal.  The Ravens are 23-25 after signing Joe Flacco to a 6 year, $120.6M deal.  The Patriots figured out the QB game, signing Tom Brady repeatedly to deals where the cap hit does not exceed $15M.  In fact, despite being one of if not the best QB for over a decade, and winning multiple Super Bowl rights, Brady has hit the cap for $15M only once in his 16 seasons.  That is remarkable.  Tom Brady will hit the cap for the next two years combined for less than what Drew Brees will hit it in 2016.  Brady hits the 2016 cap for $14M (same as his 2017 number), which is 17th in the NFL, behind the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith.

New Orleans put Brees to work:  the Saints were the most pass heavy team in the NFL, and their rate of passing in one-score games increased from 2014 to 2015 by an additional 6% even though they were the 4th most pass-heavy team in 2014.  The NFL average for pass rate in one-score games last year was 58%, so for the Saints to be over 10% above that average was certainly huge.  

To win it all, a team needs much more than just a quarterback.  It takes a 53-man squad, full of capable starters as well as depth to compensate for injuries, plus a sound strategy and game plan.  But the facts are the facts:  from 2003 through 2013 (11 seasons) no QB on anything but his rookie deal or his 2nd deal won the Super Bowl and none had a cap hit that season in excess of $14.1M, with the average being $7.3M.  The unfortunate truth for the Saints is that they must have Drew Brees play off the charts.  For many teams, a season of off the charts performance from the QB position would ensure the team wins the division and heads (deep) into the playoffs.  But that won’t be the case for the Saints.  Due to their roster constraints, it guarantees nothing even if Brees is magical.  The team, particularly the defense, must play a lot better than they did in 2015 to even have a chance.

Vegas Perspective:  7 Wins, #3 in NFC South

The Saints are predicted to have another tough season.  After going 7-9 each of the last two years, they are projected to win only 7 games this year.  That is a big change from 2015’s projection.  Prior to 2015, off of a 7 win season, the Saints were projected to win 9 games.  That optimism from linemakers is nonexistent in 2016.  They were lined as underdogs in 9 of their 15 lined games.  Likely this is in large part to what the Saints were in 2015:  they played an easier schedule, they fared neutral in most game-deciding stats (turnovers, sacks, return TD), and in one-score games they finished with a coin-flip 5-5 record.  In other words, it’s not as if the 2015 team got “unlucky” against a very hard schedule.  They have a lot of work to do in a year that Drew Brees hits the cap for $30M.  One huge edge the Saints maintained for years, their home field, seemingly has evaporated, going 4-4 in 2015 after a 3-5 2014 season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers are one of the up-and-coming teams led by a young QB who is hoping to bring Tampa Bay out of the NFC South dungeon they’ve occupied for the last 5 consecutive seasons.  They gave Lovie Smith 2 years, equivalent to the time they gave Greg Schiano before him, and moved on to Dirk Koetter, their offensive coordinator from 2015.

Many recent NFL success stories have come with a young QB, on his inexpensive rookie deal, leading a balanced team to playoff success.  And sure enough, the Buccaneers are not allocating much cap at all to their QB position in 2015 (26th most) so they can spend elsewhere.   The NFL is a league where you can’t simply buy performance.  You can try, as Dan Snyder did for years in Washington, but you must build a team which plays like a team, with pieces that complement one another and can cover up weaknesses for one another.  It won’t be shocking to Bucs fans to know that the most expensive 4 defenses in 2016 are the Jets, Jaguars, Seahawks and Broncos.  The Jaguars are the team that stands out the most, but they made massive splashes in free agency and needed to spend to exceed the salary cap floor.  But it might be shocking for Bucs fans to know that before the Texans, who check in at #6 most expensive with their solid defense, are the #5 ranked Bucs.

It is a big jump from 2015, when they were just the 23rd most expensive defense.  The Bucs defense has a lot of improving to do to live up to that type of price tag.  Another positional unit with a lot of work to do is the wide receiver position.  Most Tampa Bay fans know how solid Mike Evans has been for the Bucs.  But apart from Evans, the Bucs have an oft-injured Vincent Jackson and little else.  However, just ahead of the Packers, Cowboys and Steelers are the Bucs and their 8th most expensive wide receiver corps.  The Buccaneers are also allocating the 5th most to the RB position in 2016.  

In 2015, the Bucs had the 26th most expensive offense and the 23rd most expensive defense.  They are spending significantly more relative to the NFL average and have moved up into the upper echelon.  They are spending almost $160M cap dollars in 2016, the 4th most in the NFL behind only the Cardinals, Redskins and Packers.  The Bucs are spending like the up and coming team many believe they are.  But it must translate onto the field.

If their 2015 games ended after 3 quarters, the Bucs would have been 7-9.  They won 6 games, and 5 of the 6 wins were by one score or less.  Their defense must play better in the 4th quarter:  in one-score games they allowed 34% of all 4th quarter plays to result in a 1st down, 3rd worst in the NFL.  Offensively, Jameis Winston’s 4th quarter passer rating in one-score games of 78.6 was well below average.  But the Bucs were tremendous on the ground last year which really helped their young QB.  Between the 20s, the Bucs run game was the single most efficient run game in the NFL, with over 51% of their run plays being graded as successful plays.   Their play calling was also strong, allowing the run game to play a large role in their offense, and situationally they were incredible: 77% of 2nd & short plays resulted in a first down, 4th best in the NFL, including 91% when the game was with one-score (NFL avg = 64%).

Vegas Perspective:  7 Wins, #4 in NFC South

The Buccaneers were one of the NFL’s most undisciplined teams last year, falling into a -39 penalty margin.  However, their other margins were not terrible.  They were +11 in sacks, speaking to the fact that they had a solid pass rush.  But they were -5 in turnovers, which is far from ideal but is certainly not debilitating.  In 2016, they are predicted to win 7 games but are favored in only 4.  However, there are 5 games where the linemakers opened between +2.5 and a pick’em, so the Bucs should have a very good shot in those games.  Unfortunately for Bucs fans, the 2015 edition won 83% of their 6 wins by 1 score or less, thus, almost no easy wins.  It’s hard to pull away from the opponent without a big turnover margin if your offense is settling for too many field goals and the defense is unable to prevent large gains on 1st and 2nd down.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.