- New Orleans Saints
It will be a really close battle in the NFC South once again this season, but the Saints are still probably the best team in the division. They have a good receiving group led by Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn. The additions of 3rd round pick TreQuan Smith and free agent signing Cameron Meredith makes this group even stronger in 2018. However, the strength of the offense for the Saints is now clearly at the running back position. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram form the best running back duo in the NFL in my opinion. The offensive line is also very talented as well and it only makes the running game even more dangerous. The Saints still have future hall-of-fame quarterback Drew Brees and he is still playing well despite being 39 years old. Brees isn’t the player that he once was, but he doesn’t have to do as much with the running game being so good. There really isn’t a weakness on the New Orleans offense and it should continue to be very dangerous next season. Meanwhile, the Saints really made huge strides on defense last season led by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams. The Saints also have one of the best pass rushers in the NFL with Cameron Jordan. However, they need other pass rushers like Alex Okafor to step up in 2018. The linebacker group wasn’t good at all for New Orleans last season, but the additions of A.J. Klein, Demario Davis, and Manti Te’o should make that group much better this season. The secondary is clearly the strength for the Saints defense and that is important considering they have to face Matt Ryan and Cam Newton two times a year each. It won’t be easy for the Saints in the tough NFC South, but their roster is stacked enough to win the division again.
2. Atlanta Falcons
It was surprisingly the defense that really carried the Falcons to the playoffs last season, but don’t forget about how talented the Falcons are on offense. They especially have arguably the most talented wide receiver group in the NFL. Julio Jones is one of the best receivers in the NFL and they still have Mohamed Sanu as a good 2nd wide receiver. Also, as if that wasn’t enough, the Falcons went out and landed Calvin Ridley who was arguably the best wide receiver in this year’s draft class. The Falcons also have a terrific offensive line led by center Alex Mack and it should be even better with the addition of Brandon Fusco. The Falcons also have a dynamic duo at running back with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, although both of them struggled somewhat last season. The Falcons really need the running game to get going in order to take the pressure off of their passing game. That was probably why quarterback Matt Ryan had somewhat of a down year in 2017, but there is no excuse for him not to play well this season considering the talent surrounding him. If Ryan and the rest of the offense can play like they did in 2016 then this offense could easily be the best in the NFL. Meanwhile, the defense has gotten much better the past couple of seasons. They have a couple of really good young pass rushers with Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley. Also, they have Grady Jerrett who has turned into a stud at the defensive tackle position. The Falcons also have a couple of really good young linebackers with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. However, the real strength of the Falcons is in their secondary with Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant as the main starters while the team also added Isaiah Oliver in the 2nd round of the draft. The Falcons also have star young safety Keanu Neal who makes plays all over the field. Atlanta has a really young talented defense overall and it should help them to be a playoff team once again in 2018. Also, if Atlanta’s offense gets going once again then the team could easily be super bowl contenders.
3. Carolina Panthers
Carolina is still a playoff contender in 2018, but they aren’t quite on the same level as New Orleans and Atlanta considering the key players that the Panthers lost this offseason. However, the Panthers did improve at the wide receiver position by trading for Torrey Smith and drafting speed wide receiver D.J. Moore in the 1st round of the draft. They will be a good complement to number one receiver Devin Funchess and star tight end Greg Olsen in the passing game. The Panthers also figure to have a better running game with Christian McCaffrey as the lead back and the addition of C.J. Anderson as well. The offensive line for Carolina is still good, but that unit took a major loss with the departure of Andrew Norwell. The question mark for Carolina is whether quarterback Cam Newton can perform up to his potential and stay healthy as well. If he can have a good season then the Panthers offense certainly has high potential. Meanwhile, the Panthers still have a good defense heading into this season as it remains about the same as it was last year. The strength of the defense is clearly at the linebacker position where they have Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, and Thomas Davis to form arguably the best group of starters at that position in the NFL. However, it will hurt a lot to have Davis suspended for the first 4 games of the season as he is the leader of the defense. Also, the Panthers have a pretty good defensive line as well led by the dynamic pass rusher duo of Julius Peppers and Mario Addison who both had 11 sacks each last year. The team even has a couple of really good starting defensive tackles with Kawann Short and the free agent signing of Dontari Poe. The major weakness for the Panthers defense is their secondary as James Bradberry is the clear number one cornerback for the team. However, the rest of the secondary isn’t very good to say the least, although rookie 2nd round cornerback Donte Jackson should compete for a starting role right away. The Panthers are above average on offense and defense, although they likely aren’t any better than they were last season.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had such high expectations last season, but they never lived up to the hype. However, there is reason to believe that the Buccaneers are a better team than they were in 2017. They still have arguably the best wide receiver group in the NFL with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, and Adam Humphries. Also, they have a dynamic duo at tight end with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. The main issue for the Bucs last season was that they were terrible in the running game. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue though this season as they drafted Ronald Jones in the 2nd round of the draft to be their lead back. Jones should provide much more balance to Tampa Bay’s offense and take a lot of pressure off of the passing game. The offensive line should be better in 2018 as well as they signed Ryan Jensen to a big contract in order to be their new starting center. The main thing for Tampa Bay’s offense though is the question marks at the quarterback position. Jameis Winston is the clear starter, but he is suspended for the first 3 games of the season. That leaves journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick as the temporary starter at quarterback for the Bucs and that’s not exactly an ideal scenario. Even when Winston returns, he needs to prove that he can be a consistent starting quarterback at the NFL level. He turns the ball over too often and if Tampa Bay is going to improve this season then he needs to start making better decisions. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers defense was an absolute disaster last season, but it appears to be much improved this season. The pass rush was especially bad as they finished last in the NFL with 22 sacks combined. Gerald McCoy continues to be a dominant force at defensive tackle, but now he’ll have help at that position with rookie 1st round pick Vita Vea. Also, the team added proven veteran defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry this offseason which should help improve the pass rush right away. The team also has defensive ends William Gholston and Noah Spence who is returning from missing most of last season. The secondary was awful last season as well, but the additions of rookie 2nd round picks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart should help add some competition at cornerback. Brent Grimes is still the clear number one cornerback and he continues to play well, but the Bucs need the other starter Vernon Hargreaves to have a comeback year. The biggest strength for the Buccaneers on defense is clearly at linebacker as LaVonte David, Kwon Alexander, and Kendell Beckwith form a solid trio of starters at that position group. Overall, the Bucs defense should be much better than it was last season. However, it will be tough for Tampa Bay to compete in the NFC South if they don’t get quality play from Jameis Winston at the quarterback position.