The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 10.
Today, we look at the NFC South. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2020 standings.)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2019 finish: 13-3, had hearts broken with walk-off TD by Vikings yet again.
The good news: They’ve got the reigning offensive player of the year in Michael Thomas and added Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving corps. Alvin Kamara dealt with injuries in 2019 but is reportedly back to full health. Drew Brees is still behind centre and has led the NFL in completion percentage in each of the past three years. The Saints have all the offensive weapons a team could wish for plus a competent defence that added Malcolm Jenkins to the secondary.
The bad news: They haven’t been able to muster much playoff success despite going 37-11 and winning division titles in each of the past three seasons. Also, Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger and doesn’t have the same zip on the ball he had earlier in his career. The team signed Jameis Winston to replace the departing backup Teddy Bridgewater who went 5-0 as starter with the Saints in 2019.
2020 opt-outs: Tight ends Cole Wick and Jason Vander Laan
Your new favourite player: You’ve seen what Michael Thomas is capable of. Now just imagine what he and the Saints could do if opposing defences had to account for a second high-end receiver. That’s why the Saints added Emmanuel Sanders, a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a 2019 campaign split between Denver and San Francisco. Ted Ginn Jr. was the team’s No. 2 wideout last year and he didn’t even register 500 yards. Sanders has 1,000-yard potential.
Player you’ll miss most: If Brees starts to struggle or gets injured and Winston hasn’t fixed his interceptions problem, the team will really miss having a poised, low-risk arm like Bridgewater, who’s now the starter in Carolina.
Game you should be most excited about: vs. Tampa Bay, Sunday, Sept. 13. This week 1 matchup at home against Tom Brady and Buccaneers is a game that could set the tone for the entire division.
Game you should be least excited about: at Denver, Sunday, Nov. 29. For some reason, Brees has historically struggled against the Broncos. His 2-8 record and 76.5 QB rating against Denver are both career worsts for the quarterback. This week 12 matchup is sandwiched between a pair of games against Atlanta.
2020 season prediction: 11-5, will compete for a fourth straight division title
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
2019 finish: 7-9, missed playoffs for 12th consecutive year
The good news: There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic after the roster’s significant off-season facelift. The Bucs moved on from 2015 first-overall pick Jameis Winston and brought in former Patriots dynamic duo Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. This bolstered a passing game that already had Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The backfield added LeSean McCoy, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Leonard Fournette, who joined Ronald Jones. The all-star coaching staff led by Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles have a lot to work with and that comes with high expectations.
The bad news: There might be a steep learning curve with all the new faces. Also, if you hadn’t heard, Brady is not young and Tampa’s offensive line isn’t a top-10 unit — so if the 43-year-old QB, whose completion percentage has declined in each of the past four years with New England, doesn’t get enough time in the pocket it won’t matter how many talented receivers Tampa can field at a given time.
2020 opt-outs: Brad Seaton, OT
Your new favourite player: This one is relatively easy. If Brady can have an immediate impact and the Bucs are instant contenders it’ll be because the veteran QB has brought his magic to town.
Player you’ll miss most: He was unpredictable, inconsistent, and frustrating, but he was also one-of-a-kind and always entertaining in one way or another. Jameis Winston could at times torch defences but he would routinely find incredible ways to throw interceptions and make mental errors that prevented him from becoming a superstar in Tampa Bay.
Game you should be most excited about: at Saints, Sunday, Sept. 13. As noted above, consider this season opener against Brees and the Saints a tone-setter.
Game you should be least excited about: vs. Chiefs, Sunday, Nov. 29. The Bucs have a Week 13 bye this year, which means they could be a tired, slightly worn-down team by the time Week 12 rolls around and they have to welcome the defending champions.
2020 season prediction: 10-6, qualify for the playoffs for first time since 2007.
Who's ready for this on game days? pic.twitter.com/lBeb4Im0BA
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) September 2, 2020
2019 finish: 7-9, missed playoffs for second straight season
The good news: Matt Ryan is still elite and surrounded by top-level talent. There will be certain packages Atlanta runs where all 11 Falcons on the field will be first-round draft picks from their respective draft classes. Julio Jones can be the best WR in football on any given day and Calvin Ridley is poised for a breakout season. If 2019 first-round picks Chris Lindstrom (OG) and Kaleb McGary (OT) can improve in their sophomore seasons then the o-line should be in good shape – the Falcons were 4-1 last year in games when Lindstrom started at right guard. This bodes well for new starting running back Todd Gurley. This team is bound to improve on their pitiful 51.7 red zone TD percentage.
On defence, safety Keanu Neal is back healthy after tearing his Achilles early last season. He has played only four games since his breakout in 2017 and his absence has been felt.
The bad news: The run defence is somewhat suspect. Atlanta allowed 110.9 rushing yards per game in 2019 and lost De’Vondre Campbell, Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn in the off-season. At least the pass rush should be fine, with a front-seven led by Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, plus the secondary has a few ballhawks.
2020 opt-outs: None
Your new favourite player: With Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper joining the Browns on a record contract, the Falcons filled that void by trading for Hayden Hurst from the Ravens. Sure, Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler Jr. were bigger additions in terms of name value, but Hurst should have an impact on offence while running plenty of routes from the slot.
Player you’ll miss most: Devonta Freeman, now a free agent, became a fan favourite as a 2014 fourth rounder and he reached the thousand-yard plateau and double-digit TDs twice, which was enough to get named to two Pro Bowls. However, he hasn’t been a consistent producer since 2016.
Game you should be most excited about: vs. Buccaneers, Sunday, Dec. 20. The Falcons don’t play Tampa until just prior to Christmas, and then they see them again just after the holidays in week 17. This divisional matchup could have major implications in the playoff race.
Game you should be least excited about: at New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 22. Coming off their bye week, a tough road game against their biggest rival will set the tone for the stretch run. Matt Ryan is 9-14 against the Saints in his career.
2020 season prediction: 10-6, back to the playoffs
2019 finish: 5-11, the franchise’s worst record since 2010
The good news: Carolina is no doubt lacking in many areas this year, and yet they’ve got arguably the best running back in the NFL in Christian McCaffrey, a quarterback to build around in Teddy Bridgewater, and a first-year head coach in Matt Rhule, who’s eager to make an impression.
The bad news: The other three NFC South teams have future Hall of Fame quarterbacks under centre and, overall, they have many more weapons than the Panthers possess. Carolina retooled the defence in the draft with Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos fortifying the D-line, however the linebackers and defensive backs could be in some trouble this season.
2020 opt-outs: Linebackers Christian Miller and Jordan Mack
Your new favourite player: Derrick Brown was the top-ranked defensive lineman not named Chase Young in the 2020 NFL Draft and he has impressed his coaches in training camp.
“He’s a big, physical man inside and obviously, he’s really effective against the run game,” Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “A lot of the people we play are getting rid of the ball really quickly and they’re throwing the ball 5.5-6 yards from the line of scrimmage. So what you need is guys inside not to sack the quarterback, but to put pressure and effect the way they throw. Derrick can really push the pocket inside, so he’s exactly what we thought he was going to be. Obviously he will get better every week and he’s been getting better every week. We’re really happy with him.”
Player you’ll miss most: Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, Trai Turner, Bruce Irvin, Gerald McCoy, James Bradberry and Eric Reid are among the notable faces not returning to the Panthers, but no player leaves a void like the one left by Luke Kuechly when he retired at age 29. Since debuting in 2012 as the ninth overall pick, Kuechly led all players with 1,092 combined tackles. The five-time All-Pro linebacker will one day be in the Hall of Fame. It’s going to feel bizarre watching the Panthers and not seeing Kuechly out there making plays – not to mention, no Newton tossing balls to Olsen.
Game you should be most excited about: at Washington, Sunday, Dec. 27. The week 16 matchup should be a competitive game between non-playoff teams and it’ll give many Panthers players a chance to see former coach Ron Rivera.
Game you should be least excited about: at Kansas City, Sunday, Nov. 8. There’s no reason to think they won’t get lit up by the Chiefs.
2020 season prediction: 4-12 in a rebuilding year.