In the run up to the 2018 NFL season, we’re previewing each division. Have a read of our other previews here. First up: NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the only team without a major question mark over a senior member of coaching staff, but made up for it with a bewildering offseason. In the light of a hyper-depressed safety market, giving a declining Kurt Coleman $18m over 3 years is as eyebrow-raising as trading away a 2019 first-rounder to draft freakish-but-raw defensive end Marcus Davenport.
That said, you can see the logic behind the Saints’ decisions. The young defense appeared from nowhere to close down opponents, and stars like Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams should only improve in Year 2, while the front seven played solidly with one spectacular piece in Cam Jordan.
Oddly, it’s offense where the question marks lie. New Orleans thrived with a two-headed monster at running back, but will be without drug cheat Mark Ingram for the first four games. Tape suggests Alvin Kamara can be a workhorse, but will theory and actuality diverge? They still lack a top-level tight end, but got a potentially great deal snagging Cameron Meredith away from Chicago. The Bears worried about Meredith’s recovery from a knee injury, but he’s already participated in training camp. He should upgrade the slot and complement Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, and electrifying rookie Tre’Quan Smith, a camp standout. The O-Line lacks backup depth, but the starting five are comfortably a top-5 unit, and it’ll be worth seeing if Terron Armstead can keep healthy at left tackle and fulfil his All-Pro potential.
The question on everyone’s lips is whether an offensive coordinator with a rep for being vanilla and old-fashioned can bring back 2015 Cam Newton. With players like Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore there’s the roster for a nice varied playbook. But it’s hard to believe Norv Turner is capable of drawing that up.
There are also offensive line worries in Carolina. 2017 breakout tackle Daryl Williams is gone for the season. Star guard Andrew Norwell is in New York, and his presumptive replacement Amini Silatolu is recovering from a torn meniscus. Carolina will be looking to unheralded replacements like Taylor Moton and Jeremiah Sirles. Of course, Cam can escape, but wasn’t the theory behind bringing in a pocket-passer acolyte like Turner was so Newton wouldn’t have to escape, run, and risk getting hurt?
So, it’ll be down to the defense again. Thing is, there are still plenty of questions. Mario Addison has had two good years on the edge, but Julius Peppers spent much of camp on PUP. Kawaan Short and Luke Kuechly remain elite, but there’s not a huge amount of depth on the edge or at ‘backer. The latest attempt to find a strong corner opposite James Bradberry is second-round pick Donte Jackson. Jackson is lightning fast but in need of some work. Carolina have in recent years schemed well to get the most out of their defense, and they’ll need to do that ever more.
“Adapt or Die” is the message the fanbase has sent to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. And given how much fun Atlanta have been, neutrals should send it too. Guilty of critically misusing Julio Jones and helping Matt Ryan take a step back, Sark might not see out the season if the offense doesn’t step up. But an OC taking a year to get into the swing of things is hardly novel.
He’s certainly got the personnel to do it. Bringing in Calvin Ridley to be Roddy White 2.0 means there’s a stacked skill position corps, from running back to receiver to tight end. Atlanta struggle when one of their back tandem goes down however, and don’t look to have sorted that depth out adequately.
Steve Sarkisian remains the question mark in Atlanta’s coaching staff (Brett Davis/USA Today Sports)
I’m most interested in Atlanta’s defense, which looks appears to lack an obvious weakness. The secondary looks deep if lacking in star talent, though Desmond Trufant and Keanu Neal are very good players. The linebacking corps has whirlwinds in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. The line might be the weakest, and it’ll be interesting if moving to DE can turn Vic Beasley into a full-time top-quality player. Beasley led the league in sacks in 2016 playing often merely as a situational rusher, but you want top-10 picks to be full-time contributors. The ceiling maybe is what Marquand Manuel can do with this defense – elevating a strong unit to elite could be the difference between the Falcons being one and done and hosting a Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It should have been a surprise to no-one in the Bucs organisation that Jameis Winston would end up with an NFL suspension for some kind of gross act at some point, and here we are. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be an adequate fill-in, but he has a skill position corps lacking in quality starters outside of Mike Evans. The Bucs will hope second-year players Chris Godwin and OJ Howard kick on. The running back room however looks as weak as any in the league – I felt Ronald Jones was a reach at #38 overall.
Tampa have stocked up in the front seven. Vinny Curry and Beau Allen have come from that Philadelphia D-line, Jason Pierre-Paul from New York and Vita Vea from the first round of the draft. With Gerald McCoy already in situ, there are quality players. Thing is, defensive coordinator Mike Smith oversaw a unit that was dead last in 2017. We’ll find out early if that was merely a talent issue, and intelligently scheming and rotating those linemen will be key.
Coaching is perhaps the biggest of Tampa Bay’s issues. Dirk Koetter’s retention was almost as unlikely as Hue Jackson keeping his job. He’s shown an inability to get his team out of its own way, to stop its developing players from making the same mistakes, off-the-field as well as on. And he’s not built a balanced roster. That D-Line looked good? Well, Chris Conte is still starting at safety. So there are still big issues here.