Training camp primer: NFC South
(listed in predicted order of finish)
New Orleans Saints
Projected 2020 record: 12-4
2019 record: 13-3
2019 summary: A loaded roster and a quality backup quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater helped the Saints go a perfect 5-0 with Drew Brees injured. The momentum carried throughout a 13-3 season, but the offense cooled in an overtime playoff loss at home to Minnesota.
Key additions: S Malcolm Jenkins, WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Jameis Winston, C/G Cesar Ruiz, LB Nigel Bradham, LB Zack Baun, LB Anthony Chickillo, TE Adam Trautman
Noteworthy losses: QB Teddy Bridgewater, G Larry Warford, S Vonn Bell, LB A.J. Klein, CB Eli Apple, FB Zach Line
Cause for concern: The Saints have talent everywhere and depth in most spots, so the biggest concern is the eventual meeting between Brees and Father Time. How long can he stave it off? Sean Payton’s scheme has covered up a dip in arm strength thus far, but decline could arrive at any time.
Position battle worth watching: Most Saints starting spots are secure, but Ruiz and Erik McCoy bear watching. Both centers in college, one will move to right guard to replace Warford. Will it be McCoy, who excelled at the pivot as a rookie? Or Ruiz, who won’t have preseason games to adapt to the NFL? Veteran Nick Easton provides veteran insurance if either struggles.
Over-Under win total from PointsBet: 10.5
Taking the over on a double-digit win total always carries some risk, but the Saints are as complete of a team as you’ll find. It also helps that they have Winston as insurance if Brees gets hurt again. We’d cautiously lean toward the over.
2020 forecast: There’s no roster with more top-end talent in the league, and New Orleans also has depth almost everywhere, making it one of the clear favorites to come out of the NFC. The question is whether the Saints can snap out of their recent playoff funk, which includes home losses in consecutive years.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected 2020 record: 9-7
2019 record: 7-9
2019 summary: The offense opened wide under Bruce Arians, but Jameis Winston couldn’t quite handle the responsibility that came with the power. His deluge of turnovers obscured a defense that quietly made major strides, keeping the Bucs out of the playoffs.
Key additions: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, OT Tristan Wirfs, RB LeSean McCoy, S Antoine Winfield Jr., OT Joe Haeg, RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Tyler Johnson
Noteworthy losses: QB Jameis Winston, WR Breshad Perriman, OT Demar Dotson, DE Carl Nassib, RB Peyton Barber, G Earl Watford
Cause for concern: The Bucs’ roster is in great shape, but there are some age concerns. At age 43, Brady is a marvel, but he’s more affected by pressure than he used to be, and how he fits into Arians’ deep-attacking offense is uncertain. McCoy (age 32) is already declining, and Ndamukong Suh (33) and Jason Pierre-Paul (31) could slip soon. Gronkowski is still just 31 but must prove he’s healthy.
Position battle worth watching: Almost the whole defense returns, but there is much to settle at safety. Andrew Adams and Jordan Whitehead are the incumbent starters, but Justin Evans should be back from injury, and Winfield has the instincts and ball skills to play immediately. Mike Edwards, a 2019 third-rounder, could also demand more reps.
Over-Under win total from PointsBet: 9.5
On paper, the Bucs’ roster is certainly capable of 10-plus wins. But Tampa Bay isn’t as deep as New Orleans, and the marriage of Arians and Brady could get off to a rocky start. There are enough questions to pass on this one.
2020 forecast: The defense should be at least solid, and potentially top-five or top-10 caliber. That brings the focus back to Brady. No 43-year-old quarterback has ever started more than six games in a season, let alone done so at a high level. Brady must do so in a new system. We won’t doubt the GOAT, but the Bucs seem more like a contender for the division title than the Super Bowl title for now.
Projected 2020 record: 7-9
2019 record: 7-9
2019 summary: A team with high expectations got off to a horrid 1-7 start behind a hapless defense. That unit turned around when Dan Quinn gave up play-calling duties, and a late-season hot streak saved his job.
Key additions: DE Dante Fowler, RB Todd Gurley, CB A.J. Terrell, TE Hayden Hurst, CB Darqueze Dennard, DL Marlon Davidson, WR Laquon Treadwell, C Matt Hennessy, LB Deone Bucannon, DE Charles Harris
Noteworthy losses: TE Austin Hooper, CB Desmond Trufant, DE Vic Beasley, RB Devonta Freeman, LB DeVondre Campbell, DE Adrian Clayborn, G Wes Schweitzer
Cause for concern: Bad cornerback play leads to leaky defenses. Terrell is talented, but can he play up to his draft status from Day 1? Isaiah Oliver (2018 second-rounder) has disappointed. Kendall Sheffield (2019 fourth-rounder) showed flashes as a rookie, and Dennard can man the slot, but there’s no surefire reliable starter in a league where great teams need to have two or three.
Position battle worth watching: Hennessy is the heir apparent to Alex Mack, who turns 35 in November. But in the meantime, he’ll get a shot to compete for a guard spot, likely battling James Carpenter at left guard. If he wins it, the Falcons would have a nice young core up front alongside right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary.
Over-Under win total from PointsBet: 7.5
It’s tempting to see the Falcons’ strong finish and expect it to carry into 2020, but history shows little evidence supporting that trend. Atlanta has the offensive firepower to win 10-plus games, but a 6-10 season is also possible. Tread carefully.
2020 forecast: Matt Ryan and the offense should be fine, especially if Lindstrom and McGary take a leap in their sophomore campaigns. But the defense still has major questions, including at edge rusher and cornerback, two spots where weaknesses can be exploited easily in today’s game. The Falcons might need a few breaks to threaten for the division title.
Projected 2020 record: 6-10
2019 record: 5-11
2019 summary: Cam Newton was never right after a preseason foot injury, and he wound up playing only two games. Despite flashes, Kyle Allen eventually looked overwhelmed, and the Panthers’ collapse cost Ron Rivera his job and led to Newton’s release.
Key additions: QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR Robby Anderson, DT Derrick Brown, LT Russell Okung, DE Stephen Weatherly, CB Eli Apple, LB Tahir Whitehead, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, S Jeremy Chinn, S Juston Burris, WR Seth Roberts, G Michael Schofield
Noteworthy losses: QB Cam Newton, CB James Bradberry, G Trai Turner, DE Mario Addison, TE Greg Olsen, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Dontari Poe, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Vernon Butler, S Eric Reid, OL Daryl Williams, G Greg Van Roten, K Graham Gano, CB Ross Cockrell
Cause for concern: The Panthers let go of two franchise icons (three if you include Rivera) and let a host of other talented veterans depart this offseason, including several longtime starters and former draft picks. Perhaps the goal isn’t to win now, but new head coach Matt Rhule has his work cut out for him.
Position battle worth watching: Brian Burns, the 2019 first-round pick, should start on one edge, but who will man the other? Weatherly is a physical, reliable veteran, while second-round rookie Gross-Matos boasts impressive length and bend, but his instincts need honing. Whoever starts, all three should see the field on passing downs — Weatherly and Gross-Matos can rush inside situationally.
Over-Under win total from PointsBet: 5.5
The Panthers have shown their focus is on planning for the future more than the present, and expectations are understandably low. But with so much unpredictability with Rhule taking over and Joe Brady arriving to handle the offense, we’d pass and see how this plays out.
2020 forecast: Many expect Carolina to contend for the No. 1 pick, but we’re slightly more optimistic. For all of the talent that departed, the Panthers have plenty left over, including a quality skill-position group, a steady hand at quarterback and playmakers at all three levels on defense. Bridgewater and Brady have familiarity, and few know what coordinator Phil Snow’s defense will look like, providing an element of surprise.
–Field Level Media