By Jacob Ochoa
The NFL season is just three months away, and it will be historic as teams play a 17-game regular season for the first time. In anticipation, we will take a walk from the Darkside and preview each of the eight divisions. We’ll begin in the NFC South, home of defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers– A Super Bowl champion can rarely stay intact in any sport. However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did just that. In addition to Tom Brady, who took a team that won five games in 2018 and seven in 2019 to a Superbowl champion, the Bucs return with their offense and defense completely intact. Key pieces like Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Ndamukong Suh, and Rob Gronkowski were all brought back.
Tampa also added some offseason depth. Gio Bernard was brought in with tons of experience in the pass game. They added linebacker and offensive line depth through the draft and drafted their quarterback of the future in Kyle Trask out of the University of Florida. The coaching staff remains intact, which is rare for a Superbowl champion. The Bucs are favored to win the NFC South, defend their NFC championship, and capture another Super Bowl title. Tampa will open up at home against “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys.
New Orleans Saints– The New Orleans Saints won the NFC South in 2020, but it’s been an offseason of change for the Saints. The most significant being starting the season without future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, who retired after 20 seasons. The Saints signed Jameis Winston to compete with Taysom Hill for the starting job. There are many (including myself) that question Hill’s ability to be a professional quarterback, and Winston has proved his ability to throw the football in the NFL with success. The knock-on Jameis has always been accuracy and his inability to avoid interceptions. In his last full season with Tampa Bay, Jameis threw for over 5000-yards, however, he threw 30 interceptions, compared to 33 touchdowns. Tampa let Winston go, brought in Brady and the rest was history.
Several other Saints will be on another roster in 2021, including tight end Jared Cook, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The good news is New Orleans will be getting standout receiver Michael Thomas back, who missed several games due to injury last season. Alvin Kamara will again pace the running game, and the defense will continue to be led by DE Cameron Jordan and CB Marshon Lattimore. The defense received upgrades through the draft as the Saints spent their first three picks on the defensive side of the ball, and all three players should be in the mix to start the season. The Saints will open the season at home against Green Bay.
Atlanta Falcons– The Atlanta Falcons come into 2021 with a lot of questions and full of changes. New head coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Arthur Pees are both coming over from the Tennessee Titans. The biggest question going into 2021, however, is will Julio Jones be on the team? The prolific receiver has been rumored to be traded throughout the offseason. During the time that Julio spent injured last season, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage filled in admirably. Ridley finished the season as one of the top receivers in all of football. Matt Ryan returns for his 13th season, but the rest of the backfield will look much different with both Todd Gurley and Ito Smith gone and Mike Davis coming in from Carolina.
The Falcons also had an excellent draft highlighted by their selection of tight end Kyle Pitts, fourth overall from the University of Florida. Pitts was the first non-quarterback selected and maybe the most talented offensive player coming out of the draft. The Falcons also added pieces on the defensive side of the ball in defensive backs Richie Grant, Darren Hall, and Avery Williams. The Falcons now have a few local Southern California players in their secondary in Buena Park’s Jaylinn Hawkins, Rancho Cucamonga’s Darren Hall, and JSerra’s Avery Williams. Atlanta will open the season at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Carolina Panthers– The Carolina Panthers had a busy offseason, which was expected of a 5-win team. The Panthers brought in linebackers Denzel Perryman, Haason Reddick, cornerbacks AJ Bouye, Rashaan Melvin, and several upgrades to the offensive line. Carolina also let Teddy Bridgewater go and brought in Sam Darnold. The USC standout struggled in New York but has the potential to be much improved in Matt Rhule’s offense. In Carolina, he will be reunited with receiver Robby Anderson.
The Panthers had an excellent draft, adding top players on both sides of the ball in cornerback Jaycee Horn, receiver Terrace Marshall Jr, tight end Tommy Tremble and running back Chuba Hubbard. The biggest addition for the Panthers will be getting their All-Pro runner Christian McCaffrey back from injury. McCaffrey missed most of 2020 due to injury but should be locked and loaded for another stellar season. The addition of Hubbard should also help provide some quality backup with a 17-game season looming. DJ Moore, entering his fourth season, will look to take a jump ahead into one of the top young receivers in the league.
Carolina will open the season at home against the New York Jets in a revenge game for Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson.
Projected Order of finish:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- (12-5)
New Orleans Saints (10-7)
Atlanta Falcons (8-9)
Carolina Panthers (7-10)
Follow Jacob Ochoa on Twitter at: @coachfootball19