As I noted previously, we're getting close to the time when actual, meaningful football gets played in the Fall. Because of this I've spent some time analyzing all the teams in 2015 for both the NFL and College Football.
Next: NFC South
Projected Record 10-6 First place
After struggling to start 2014, the Panthers went on a tear and made the playoffs with a record of 7-8-1. They benefitted from playing in the weakest division in football and the resulting schedule. For 2015 I predict much of the same. Except that, this team (and division) are going to be somewhat better.
Quarterback Cam Newton is already a star, at least in terms of endorsements, pundit attention, and I think with his newly minted contract in hand he builds on that. If rookie WR Devin Funchess (from Michigan) blossoms into the solid NFL player I think he might then Cam is going to enjoy throwing the ball to a deep, talented group of WR's that includes former Packer Jerrett Boykins and 4th year man Stephen Hill. I expect veteran Jerricho Cotchery to contribute as well. Outside of Cotchery, the Panther's WR group is young, and talented.
At RB I have no doubt that the free agent defection of DeAngelo Williams will hurt, but I think that rookie Cameron Artis-Payne, veteran Jonathan Stewart and 3rd down back Fozzie Whitaker can make up a good rotation. Add to that mix of targets TE Greg Olson and the Panthers appear set at the skill positions. On the o-line I think the Panthers have a good mix of players with Oher and Martin (if the latter's head is right) on the outside and young rotation in the middle. Center Kalil Ryan is a good one, but he is entering his 10th year so that's something to watch.
On defense the Panthers get Kuechly back from injury to solidify the LB corps, and they picked up Charles "Peanut" Tillman who's aging, but still a good CB to play across the field from Chris Houston. On D-line I like the fact that the Panthers have finally decided to address their issues with age, time will tell how this unit gels. Fortunately I think their soft schedule gives them time.
The Panthers are coached by Ron "Riverboat Gambler" Rivera, who I think has been given his moniker by John Gruden based almost entirely on a couple of decisions that weren't all that gambling in the first place. However, I think he's a solid coach and, after the crucible of last year, has what it takes to lead this team into the playoffs.
The Panthers had better mind their business however because of the.....
New Orleans Saints
Projected Record: 9-7 Second place
By every metric, the New Orleans Saints have had a terrible two years. After the bounty fiasco the team had to look in the mirror and realize that what was starting them back in the face was aging, with little in the way of youth to plug the holes. For 2015 the Saints plugged the holes with some timely FA signings, and some pretty solid draft picks that, if they pan out, could provide impact immediately.
On offense the Saints still have Drew Brees, who's status as one of the best quarterbacks in the game was not diminished by two bad team campaigns. Brees is now entering his 16th year in the league but I expect that he's got one or two more quality seasons in him. I expect the Saints to platoon RB's Mark Ingram and veteran Tim Hightower, but I imagine they will try to work rookie RB/RS Marcus Murphy from Missouri into their 3rd down package because of his explosiveness. At WR the Saints have a wealth of riches, which makes them almost worthless in fantasy play but produce real results on the field. Look for 2nd year man Jaelen Saunders (from OU) to possibly have a breakout year. The biggest off-season loss is TE Jimmy Smith, who the Saints will try to replace with a group of players including veteran Benjamin Watson. Along the O-line the Saints have a veteran starting group, who I think will start to be pressed for playing time by a youth movement that possesses NFL talent.
On defense I do worry about the Saints ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They are throwing a lot of mud at the wall in training camp at the OLB (they run a 3-4) position in hopes of finding someone who fits the bill. I think rookie Anthony Stephone from Clemson might be a diamond in the rough. Defensive line is another area where the Saints are rebuilding. This is a hard group to analyze because, again, they have a lot of roster spots taken up by candidates for the position. If nothing else, they are hoping that some of these guys start and the others can make up quality depth, something the Saints have been lacking. At the cornerback spot the Saints brought in New England CB Brandon Browner to shore up the side opposite Keenan Lewis. To be sure, the team looks better on the defensive side of the ball but there are still glaring holes.
Head Coach Sean Peyton is now fully back in charge, having served his penance for the bounty fiasco, and has rightly long been considered one of the top coaches in the NFL. My wonder is if his voice is starting to be ignored in the Saints locker room, and if a change is in order after another year of not making the playoffs. Of all the teams I'm picking to finish with a winning record, I think the Saints have the biggest downside.
If the Saints do stumble they could be looking up at the......
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected Record 6-10 Third place
The biggest question for Tampa Bay is whether or not rookie QB Jameis Winston is of NFL caliber or no. If he is, then this team has a bright future. If not, they're going to find themselves resigned to QB hell for the next three years.
One thing Winston will have going for him is the best 1-2 WR punch in the NFL in the persons of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. IF Winston can get them the ball....look out. At RB the Bucs have Doug Martin penned in as their starter, and while he struggled some last year I think he's due for a rebound year if Tampa Bay can produce something in the way of an NFL quality passing attack. To provide Winston with maximum protection I expect to see the Bucs run multiple TE sets, with blocking at a premium. Outisde of OG Logan Mankins and C Evan Smith the Bucs o-line is young and unproven. It will be interesting to see if they grow up along side him.
Defensively I'm impressed with some of the talent on the Bucs roster but I think their best defensive players (right now) are LB Lavonte David and DT Gerald McCoy. This, I think, is the nucleus they are trying to build around. In the defensive backfield I think the corner tandem of Verner and Banks is solid, but not flashy. It is of note that former Texans starting SS DJ Swearinger is listed as the 3rd string Bucs safety. I don't think Tampa Bay is all that strong at the S position so I think this speaks more to the relative overall weakness of the Texans at that position. At LB I think the free agent signing of former Cowboy Bruce Carter could provide David with some much-needed help.
Head Coach Lovie Smith has been solid, but not spectacular throughout his career, but I think he has the right demeanor to steer a young, talented group through a tough season. Fair or not Smith's success with the Bucs is now tied to the development of Winston at the QB position. Bucs fans had better hope it works out, because they are currently wasting the end of Jackson's career at WR and the beginning of Evans'.
While I think they will struggle, I don't see anyway the Bucs ball behind........
Projected Record 3-13 Fourth place
2014 was as close as you can get to a nightmare for the Falcons. They started off the season on HBO's excellent Hard Knocks series talking about being a tough team. They spent the rest of the season proving to everyone that they were not. As a result, head coach Mike Smith was fired. Obviously seeking to shed themselves of the "soft" label the Falcons brought in Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Mike Quinn to try and turn the situation around. As with all coordinators who are elevated to head coach status, time will tell whether or not Quinn is suited to the job.
On offense, the Falcons flow through QB Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan, who has been both great, and awful, during times in his career. I think he's a good quarterback who's suffered at times from a pillowy soft offensive line with protection issues. To try and remedy this the Falcons acquired free agents Chris Chester and John Assamoah from the 49ers and Chiefs respectively to try and shore up the interior line. The Falcons hope that 2014 1st round draft pick Jake Matthews continues to develop at the LT position although I'm not sure their starting RT (2013 Undrafted free agent) Ryan Schraeder, currently penciled in as the starter, will be able to hold off free agent acquisition Tyler Polumbus for long. At center, they had better hope Joe Hawley lasts the season because they have nothing behind them.
At the offensive skill positions the Falcons still have a very good WR duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White as starters, with do-it-all return man Devin Hester and free agent acquisition Leonard Hankerson behind for depth. At running back they're going all-in on promising 2014 draft pick Devonta Freeman, who showed sparks of brilliance in 2014 but also a frustrating tendency to turn the ball over. I also would worry about Freeman's durability over an entire NFL season were I a Falcons fan.
Defensively this could be an interesting unit. Head Coach Quinn was very successful at Seattle with what I call a 4-4 alignment. The Falcons brought in free agent Adrian Clayborne from Tampa Bay to play opposite veteran Kroy Biermann at the end position and Paul Solai from Miami to man the interior next to Ra'shede Hageman. At outside LB I feel they overpaid to get former Texans LB Brooks Reed in hopes that he can apply some much needed QB Pressure. The Falcons are also hoping that 2015 first round pick Vic Beasley out of Clemson can step in immediately and start. Tough ask. In the defensive backfield everything is pretty much status quo except for the addition of Charles Godfrey at safety from the 49ers.
Even under the best of cases, I think the Falcons are going to need some time to churn the roster and develop depth. I could make a slim case for them improving and contending for the playoffs but that would require almost everything to align perfectly and, as we've seen, that rarely happens in the NFL.
Last year this was rightly considered to be the weakest division in the NFL. While I think this year it's improving and now ahead of the AFC South, I think that all of these teams have a long way to go. While, based on the schedule, these are my picks, I would be less surprised to see it play out exactly as picked than I would be to see the standings and records flipped. This remains a very hard division to handicap.