September 10, 2016 by Ell and Mike Sports
Ell’s NFC South Divisional Rankings
Despite coming off a Super Bowl loss the Panthers are still one of the top teams in the NFC and are looking like the top team in the NFC South. QB Cam Newton showed improvement in pocket presence and leadership last season and there’s only more to come, as he is officially in his prime. The RB core continues to be led by star RB Jonathan Stewart, veteran Fozzy Whittaker, and Cameron Artis-Payne who they hope will be even better in his 2nd year. The WR core should be even better with the return of #1 WR Kelvin Benjamin. Devin Funchess should be even better in his 2nd year, while Philly Brown and Ted Ginn established themselves as legitimate pass catchers. TE Greg Olsen will continue to be Newton’s safety blanket while leading that group. The O-line remained intact after locking up LT Michael Oher to protect the blind side again, but the continuity should help with chemistry and improvement. On the defensive side, some changes have been made as the team gets even younger on an already dominate defense. The front 7 added more beef to an already top notch D-line featuring two of the top young DTs in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with veteran NT Paul Soliai and rookie DT Vernon Butler, while DE Kony Ealy will finally become a starter after a solid playoff performance. At OLB, 2nd year OLB/S Shaq Thompson will take over as the full time starter bringing good coverage and a unique mix with his versatility. The secondary will be the biggest change as upcoming star CB Josh Norman was allowed to walk, leaving the secondary in the hands of two rookie starters in CBs James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, as they wait for 3rd year CB Bene Benwikere, who they expected to break out instead of Norman, returns from injury. At safety, FS Tre Boston will take over the starting job for the departing Roman Harper. The Panthers have a good veteran mix to continue to win games in a tough division, but there will be growing pains in the secondary that the front 7 can’t mask.
The Saints should have one of the top offenses in the league with a solid balance off pass and run behind veteran QB Drew Brees and RB Mark Ingram. Brees has a lot of weapons at his disposal this season and should be in for another big year. RB Mark Ingram will continue to lead the way, but will not have as much pressure on him with Tim Hightower as a solid backup and versatile pass catching back C.J. Spiller finally healthy. The WR core is led by speedster Brandon Cooks, last year’s steal Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman who the team liked to replace veteran Marques Colston, and solid rookie WR Michael Thomas who has impressed. The TE core is loaded with pass catcher Coby Fleener who should be even better with Brees, pass catcher Josh Hill who the team really likes, and veteran Michael Hoomanawanui who is a good balanced TE who is a better blocker. FB John Kuhn has been getting the job done for years in Green Bay and should really help Ingram. The offensive line remains intact with decent depth behind it mostly inside. The defensive side of the ball needs to show much improvement from last season and already behind with rookie pass rushing DT Sheldon Rankins and pass rushing DE/OLB Hau’oli Kikaha on IR. The D-line will continue to rely on star DE Cameron Jordan with the losses, but there are some athletic players to work with such as: free agent addition DT Nick Fairley and young NT John Jenkins is a good run stopper. The LB core is led by 2nd year player Stephone Anthony who is moving to SLB, veteran MLB James Laurinaitis is expected to bring some much needed leadership and playmaking inside, while OLB Dannell Ellerbe needs to improve his play. The CB position is very young led by last year’s 2nd round pick P.J. Williams who was supposed to be an instant playmaker and last year’s find Delvin Breaux who led the team in INT’s and is expected to grow. The safety position is led by young SS Kenny Vaccaro who is a solid tackler, but must make more plays and FS Jairus Byrd who should be finally healthy, if not rookie Vonn Bell is in place to steal snaps, and veteran Roman Harper is back on the roster. The Saints should be high scoring offense as long as Drew Brees stays healthy which will help win them a lot of games, but the defense needs players to step up especially in the secondary.
The Falcons have made changes on both sides of the ball, as they hope that this is finally the year they make it back to the playoffs after a meltdown last season. The QB position continues to be held down by QB Matt Ryan who must prove that he can carry this team to the next level. RB Devonta Freeman proved that last season that he is one of the top dual threat backs in the game and the Falcons hope that he can repeat or progress his production. Backup RB Tevin Coleman, who was set to share the load last year, will also be in the mix with good speed and pass catching ability, as well. The WR core is led by star WR Julio Jones coming off another big season giving people the impression that he could realistically reach 2,000 yards in a season, but he must stay healthy. The addition of #2 WR Mohamed Sanu should really help open things up and Justin Hardy is expected be better in his 2nd year in the slot. The offensive line should be improved with LT Jake Matthews showing signs of improvement and the addition of one of the top centers in Alex Mack. There are veteran stop gaps at guard, but rookie Wes Schweitzer is waiting for either spot to slip. Veteran TE Jacob Tamme continues to lead the positon as a solid blocker and decent pass catching options, but the team is intrigued by rookie TE Austin Hooper’s pass catching ability. The defense should be a lot quicker and athletic with the additions of rookies: ILB Deon Jones, OLB De’ Vondre Campbell, and SS Keanu Neal. The D-line should be a lot better with the addition of DE/DT Derrick Shelby, along with the addition of veteran DE/OLB Dwight Freeney who should add some much needed pass rushing; there is also good depth. OLB Vic Beasley is expected to take the leap in his 2nd year to star pass rusher, as he showed good improvement last season, he will be playing with the rookies mentioned above and the Falcons still have good veteran depth behind them. The CB position is led by solid CB Desmond Trufant who must make his way to being a household name and Robert Alford who makes them a nice young duo; however there isn’t much depth behind them with 2nd year CB/S Jalen Collins suspended. The safety position continues to be led by 2nd year FS Ricardo Allen who proved to be an undersized playmaker and while they wait for SS Keanu Neal to recover from injury, spot starter SS Kemal Ishmael will start with veteran Dashon Goldson brought in as depth. The Falcons are a team on the rise with a good young defense coming into place and an offense with one of the better QB to WR duos in the league in Ryan and Jones, but the Falcons will have an uphill battle in a tough division.
The Bucs have a good foundation behind QB Jameis Winston and pieces to work with on both sides of the ball, but this is still a tough division. Winston should see continued growth as he enters his 2nd year, continuing to prove that he is one of the top QB’s in the league. The RB core continues to be led by RB Doug Martin who has proved once again that he is a workhorse back, but will he be as effective this year after getting paid? RB Charles Sims is a good runner and solid backup with good size and hands out of the backfield. The WR core still has a nice duo of two huge WRs in 3rd year player Mike Evans and veteran Vincent Jackson, but someone needs to step up in the slot. The TE core is deeper with TEs Cameron Brate and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins competing for snaps, making it very possible both could be on the field together a lot, especially with the slot problem. The offensive line should continue to grow with LT Donovan Smith in his 2nd year and RG Ali Marpet, but the changes at the other positions could be a thing to watch with not much depth available. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs look quicker and opportunistic. The additions of free agent pass rusher DE Robert Ayers and 2nd round draft pick Noah Spence should help a lacking rush alongside star DT Gerald McCoy. The run stopping ability of free agent LB Darryl Smith helps a nice core of Kwon Alexander who proved that he can be a playmaker and solid coverage playmaking LB Lavonte David. The CB position should be a lot better with the additions of veteran CB Brent Grimes and 1st round pick CB Vernon Hargreaves, as well as, free agent Josh Robinson. However, in a division of big WRs the Bucs don’t have big CBs. The Safety core is the biggest weak spot on the defense with FS Chris Conte and SS Bradley McDougald who must do a better job covering the back end. The Bucs have pieces on both sides of the ball, but it will be tough to win games in the division; the continued growth of Jameis Winston and the defense will be the key to this season.