- New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees might be winding down his NFL career at 40 years old, but the good news is that he doesn’t have to be elite anymore because of the amount of talent around him. The Saints don’t have too much talent at the receiver position, but Michael Thomas and Jared Cook provide very good targets for Brees in the passing game. The Saints did lose running back Mark Ingram in free agency, but they still have a good running back duo with Alvin Kamara and newly acquired Latavius Murray. The Saints offense is about the same as it was last season and it should be elite as long as Drew Brees is their starting quarterback. Meanwhile, the Saints defense is very talented as well especially along the defensive line. They have Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport that could form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. The Saints still have some weakness at the linebacker position, but they have plenty of talent in the secondary led by star cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The Saints don’t have a great defense, but it is good enough especially with the Saints still having a terrific offense. New Orleans could have some tough competition in the division in 2019, but they are still the most complete team in the NFC South.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Many people thought the Falcons would be a playoff team in 2018, but injuries especially on the defensive side of the ball really had a negative impact. We all know what the Falcons offense is capable of especially in the passing game. Matt Ryan is still a very good quarterback as he gets older and he has plenty of targets to throw to. In fact, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley form what is probably the best wide receiver group in the entire NFL. The Falcons addressed the offensive line early in the draft when they selected Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the 1st round. Those two players should make a positive impact immediately and for the future as well. The main question for the Falcons is likely at the running back position. Devonta Freeman has proven himself as a very good starting running back. However, Freeman has struggled with injuries in recent years and they don’t have the luxury of Tevin Coleman as a terrific backup option any longer. If Freeman can stay healthy then he could provide some more balance for what is an already good Falcons offense. Meanwhile, the Falcons defense has plenty of talent, but we’ll see if their key players can remain healthy in 2019. The Falcons defensive line has a chance to be very good with Vic Beasley, Tak McKinley, and Grady Jarrett leading the way. Atlanta also has one of the best linebackers in the NFL with Deion Jones, although the Falcons defense was clearly worse when he missed tons of games last season. The Falcons secondary also has a chance to be very good with Desmond Trufant and Keanu Neal as the top players in that group. Overall, the Falcons have enough talent on offense and defense to give the Saints a challenge for the division. Last year was a disappointment for the Falcons, but if they can stay healthy this year then there’s no reason they can’t be a playoff contender.
3. Carolina Panthers
Carolina is stuck in a tough spot because they have some pieces that could allow them to compete in 2018. However, they ended the 2018 season in a tough way and there is still a ton of uncertainty surrounding the team heading into the 2019 season. Quarterback Cam Newton just wasn’t the same player last season because of a shoulder injury and it remains a concern heading into 2019 even after having surgery on it. Carolina still has dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey and he’ll likely have to carry the offense once again. The Panthers offensive line should be better especially with the free agent signing of center Matt Paradis. However, even if Cam Newton is healthy in 2019, he doesn’t have many reliable pass-catchers. McCaffrey is probably the best receiver on the team, although that isn’t exactly the role that he’ll be in all of the time. Greg Olsen was once one of the best tight ends in the NFL, but age and injuries appear to have derailed his career. D.J. Moore is undoubtedly Carolina’s best wide receiver mostly due to his speed, but he probably can’t be relied upon too much because he hasn’t proven that he can be very consistent. Curtis Samuel provides some speed, but he’s not much of a pass-catcher and the rest of the group including Jarius Wright, Chris Hogan, and Torrey Smith doesn’t inspire much optimism. Carolina better be hoping for a big year from McCaffrey because the passing game with Newton and the rest of the receivers is a huge concern right now. Meanwhile, the Panthers defense looks pretty strong heading into the 2019 season. The combination of Shaq Thompson and Luke Kuechly at linebacker is still dynamic. Also, the Panthers have Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, and rookie 1st round pick Brian Burns to lead the way for what should be a really good pass rush. The secondary is the biggest concern for the Panthers defense, but they have a good young cornerback duo with James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. Carolina has huge question marks on offense, but if they can get things figured out then maybe they could be a playoff contender in 2019.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have Bruce Arians as their new head coach heading into 2019 and there is some optimism that the new regime will finally turn Tampa Bay into contenders again. Tampa Bay lost a couple of key wide receivers this offseason when Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson departed. Those losses will have a negative impact on the offense especially since the Buccaneers only signed Breshad Perriman to replace them. However, the Buccaneers still have plenty of weapons in the passing game as they have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate as the top 4 targets. The main thing that the Buccaneers are hoping is that Jameis Winston can become the franchise quarterback and limit the turnovers that he gives up. Winston has had plenty of receivers to throw to in his career and now it is time for him to take his performance to the next level in order for Tampa Bay to be successful. However, the main issue for the Buccaneers is their offensive line and they did absolutely nothing to address it this offseason. Also, the Buccaneers need more from their running game in 2019. Peyton Barber showed flashes of potential last season, but they need more from him and they need Ronald Jones to be much better as well. Tampa Bay’s offense has the potential to be very good, but there is no doubt that they need better play from their offensive line and running backs. Meanwhile, improving the defense was the main priority for the Buccaneers this offseason. They did lose Kwon Alexander and Gerald McCoy, but they likely found upgrades over those players when they selected linebacker Devin White in the 1st round and signed Ndamukong Suh in free agency. The Buccaneers also have Lavonte David who is still one of the best linebackers in the NFL and they have a good young defensive tackle with Vita Vea. The pass rush could be a major issue though this offseason especially with star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul expected to miss about half of the season. That leaves Tampa Bay with Carl Nassib, Noah Spence, rookie 4th round pick Anthony Nelson, and free agent signing Shaquil Barrett. Those 4 guys could be surprisingly effective, but it is still an experienced and unproven group of pass rushers. The secondary appears to still be the main problem for Tampa Bay’s defense as they are very young and unproven in that area. The Buccaneers are hoping that Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis can continue to improve. Also, they are hoping that rookie cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean are able to step in and make an immediate impact. Safety Justin Evans is just about the only proven player in the Buccaneers secondary, so Tampa Bay is hoping that their young cornerbacks can progress rapidly or else Tampa’s defense might get torched once again. Overall, Tampa Bay’s offense provides reason for optimism in 2019 and the defense should be at least a little bit better than last season. However, Tampa Bay likely won’t be a playoff contender once again unless their young players on defense can step up and make a huge impact.