The SportsCrew | The NFC South Breakdown
NFC South Predictions
Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Bucs
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“Stromme a Better Way,” Facts, Points and Takes: NFC South

“Stromme a Better Way,” Facts, Points and Takes: NFC South

Mike Stromme

 

Predictions:

  1. Carolina Panthers (10-6)
  2. New Orleans Saints (8-8)
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
  4. Atlanta Falcons (5-11)

The Panthers are a GOOD team, not a great one. But, a five-win regression still should be enough to win the division. The Saints still have Drew Brees, still have an explosive offense, still have Sean Payton and still have a defense that holds them back… However, they won’t be as terrible as last year. Bad, but not terrible. The Bucs look eerily-similar to the Carolina Panthers on both sides of the ball… except younger and less-experience. I see them taking a modest step forward in 2016. The Falcons have Julio, Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman… not a whole lot else. Dan Quinn might be one of the first coaches to get the axe in 2016.

Carolina Panthers:

When I think of the Carolina Panthers, I think recency bias.

After finishing the regular season 15-1 and making a Super Bowl run, this team is going to be a favorite amongst many. They will be picked to win the division for a third-straight year, they’ll be picked to win the conference again and some might even picked them to avenge their loss in last year’s Super Bowl.

Let me tell you why you should stop at a divisional crown., for many reasons.

Granted, the Panthers are a GOOD team. They obviously have some talent: Kuechly, Davis, Short and Charles Johnson are the core of an absolutely fierce front-seven. Cam Newton had a breakout season last season, Greg Olsen also had the best season of his career and Jonathan Stewart had the best season he’s had since he was 22. Everything seemed to fall into place for Carolina in 2015.

Yes, they’re talented, there’s no question about that. However, they also had the easiest regular season schedule in the NFL last season. Think about it. They played the NFC East, where every team except Washington had a down year and the AFC South, with the Colts and Andrew Luck at 50% (at best), the Brian Hoyer-led Houston Texans and a couple of young teams in the Jaguars and Titans. The only two legitimate contenders they played all season were the Seahawks and the Packers. Parlay that with all the soft opponents they had within the division last season, and

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers look to repeat as NFC South Champions for a third year in a row (image from sportingnews.com)

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers look to repeat as NFC South Champions for a third year in a row (image from sportingnews.com)

suddenly catching lightening in a bottle seems a little more reasonable.

There were a few games last season, where they would get out to a big lead in the first half, almost check-out in the second, and watch a blowout become a game again.

Week 9 vs Green Bay: 27-7 Panther halftime lead, 37-29 final.

Week 15 vs NY Giants: 21-7 Panthers at the half, 38-35 final.

Divisional Weekend vs Seattle: 31-0 LEAD AT THE HALF, 31-24 final.

You can say that I’m nit-picking, you can say that I’m only selecting games that back my point. And sure, they did close things out in the NFC Championship game, lock things down against the Bucs in Week 17, shut out the Falcons in Week 14, embarrass the Cowboys at home on Thanksgiving and blow-out the Redskins in Week 11. But, that’s what most number one seeds do. They do not almost let not one, not two, but three very sizeable first-half leads slip away. Especially when your offensive bread-and-butter is the run game.

In 2016, the Panthers get the Broncos Week One in a Super Bowl rematch on kick-off night, that means they get the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers; all teams on the rise. They also get the Seahawks, Cardinals,  Rams and Vikings. That’s half of your games against formidable opponents. Sprinkle in some divisional games, which can be tricky no matter what division you play in, and the road to repeatville becomes a tough one for the Panthers.

Not to mention, the Panthers have a very depleted secondary. Sure, we all know that Josh Norman isn’t there, but neither is fellow veterans Roman Harper, Charles “Peanut” Tillman or Cortland Finnegan. In fact, behind starting corners Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain, are THREE rookies! They could be susceptible to the big play, which could be good news for Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re a GOOD team. I just want to put things into perspective, a five-win drop-off in 2016 would still be a double-digit win season (and probably a division title). Just remember, a year ago this time, the Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season with a lot of the same pieces.

Just some perspective, there were some sportsbooks that had the Panthers as a ONE POINT UNDERDOG against the 3-8 Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. The general public didn’t buy into this team until well into the second half. Keep that in mind.

 

New Orleans Saints:

The Sean Payton-Drew Brees era is coming to a close, but rumors of their demise are premature.

In 2016, Drew Brees finished the season at 428/627-4870-32-11 with a QBR of 75.47. He was second in total completions and attempts (behind Phillip Rivers), second in completion percentage (behind Kurt Cousins with 84 more attempts), first in total yards, seventh in total touchdowns, tied for 11th for fewest interceptions among QBs who started 12 games or more and his QBR was the third highest in the NFL.

Now you see why he’s my top fantasy quarterback this year.

With the Payton-Brees era winding to an end, can the duo squeeze out one more run? (image from nola.com)

With the Payton-Brees era winding to an end, can the duo squeeze out one more run? (image from nola.com)

He’s now 37-years-old, the drop-off is coming,  just not in 2016. Maybe not even 2017, but its coming.

The pieces around him are solid as well. The girth in-front of him is stacked with talent: Terron Armstead, Max Unger, Andrus Peat and Zach Strief are all Pro-Bowl-caliber lineman who only let Drew Brees (and briefly, Luke McCown) get sacked on 4.6% of drop-backs (6th in the NFL).

Wideouts Brandon Cooks and Willie Snead combined for over 2,000 yards in 2015 and Coby Fleener comes over from the Colts to play TE. Fleener had his best season as a pro in 2014, where he went 51-774-8 on 92 targets from Andrew Luck. He’s physically-gifted and genetically-lucky at 6-6, 250 lbs. He could be a big red zone target for Brees and this New Orleans offense.

They also drafted Michael Thomas out of Ohio St. to fill the Marques Colston-void. And according to his uncle, Keyshawn Johnson, his nephew is Colston 2.0. There could be a bias (and a strong one at that). But, I love this kid’s upside.

When the Saints do have a lead in the fourth quarter and choose to keep that still horrendous (but not as bad as last seasons’) defense off the field, they can turn to better real-life running back than fantasy Mark Ingram. Ingram is absolutely maddening to own/rely on in fantasy. However, when the game is on the line, and you need to churn that clock late in the game, Ingram is your guy. He brings balance and stability to an offense that would get one-dimensional really quickly otherwise.

Speaking of that still kind of horrendous (but not as terrible as last year’s) defense, they got better (I think?). Well, at least on paper they did. They brought in veterans James Laurinaitis and Nick Fairley from the Rams to play the Mike and add depth at DT respectively. The Saints also spent a first round selection on DT Sheldon Rankins out of Louisville to compete along with Fairley in the middle of that defensive line.

Jarius Byrd was considered one of the best safeties in the game while in Buffalo, but has had trouble staying on the field in New Orleans, Delvin Breaux had a breakout season with 19 total passes defended as a rookie (an undrafted one at that), and Roman Harper returns to the Bayou to, at the very least, push former first round pick Kenny Vaccaro for playing time. Harper was a member of the 2009 Saints defense that won a Super Bowl, a defense that gave up its fair-share of yards, but made turnovers when it mattered.

The Saints were borderline-historically bad on defense in 2015 under former DC (and potato chip/Coors Light enthusiast, probably) Rob Ryan. Under Ryan, fewest amount of total yards surrendered to an opponent was 333 against the Bucs in Week 2; they gave up 26 points in a loss. Ryan’s defense gave up 400+ total  yards in 7/10 games before getting canned over the bye week.

Former Raider head coach Dennis Allen took over after the bye and… they marginally improved. I mean, the bar was extremely low, but still. Allen defenses still gave up 400+ total yards in 3/6 games with the same players. A change in personnel could help, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Saints were the only team in this division to challenge Carolina at all this season. Sure, the Falcons actually beat them, but they were also drubbed 38-0 by the Panthers as well. In their two matchups, the Panthers beat the Saints twice… by a combined 8 points. The Saints held early double-digit leads in each tilt.

If there’s one team to challenge the defending NFC Champs in the South, it’s the Saints. In the twilight of the Brees-Payton era, this could be their final shot at glory.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

To me, the Bucs look closer to the Jr. Panthers than the “Yucks”.

Think about it, a young team lead by a mobile QB with “maturity issues” that can efficiently run the ball with some exceptional talent on defense. Sound familiar?

Feel like playing a quick game of blind stat lines?

Line A: 310/517-4051-21-17 QBR 56.16         126/706/14

Line B: 312/535-4042-22-15 QBR 58.64        53/210/6

Alright, results are in… and Line A is Cam Newton’s rookie season, Line B is Jameis Winston last year as a rookie.

Is Jameis Winston a young Cam Newton? The stats may saw so... (image from tampabay.com)

Is Jameis Winston a young Cam Newton? The stats may saw so… (image from tampabay.com)

Cam beat Jameis in completion percentage and barely edged him in total passing yards, but Jameis won in TD-INT ratio and QBR. Even the rushing numbers would be interesting had Winston ran as much as Newton.

Mike Evans started last year banged-up. His lack of time to build chemistry throughout most of training camp and the early stages of the season hurt Evans’ season, Winston’s season, the Bucs’ season and hell, anybody who had a share of either of those guys in fantasy hurt a little bit. Three of Evans’ four worst games came in the first half of the season. Watch the chemistry between these two in training camp, it should improve dramatically in 2016.

Veteran Vincent Jackson is still around too, he’s still a big-play guy and a deep threat. However, father time is taking his toll; he’s currently entering his 12th year and coming off a season where he posted his lowest receiving yard total since his hold-out season in 2010 (543).

The Dougernaugt, Doug Martin had a career renaissance in 2015, rushing for 288/1,402/6. His teammate and backfield mate Charlie Sims had 1,000+ total yards as well. The pair combined for 11 total touchdowns. The Bucs didn’t have too many late leads (2 of their 6 wins were 4th quarter comebacks), but should have no trouble closing games out in 2016.

I love, love, LOVE the additions the Tampa front office did this offseason. A Tampa front office hasn’t impressed me this much since Andrew Friedman in 2008. Adding to a core of Gerald McCoy and LaVonte David, two incredible young talents, they signed veteran Robert Ayers (9.0 sacks with the Giants in 2015), Veteran LB Daryl Smith brings his 12 years of experience to a young team (71 solo tackles with Baltimore last season), Brent Grimes and his crazy-ass wife take their talents from South Beach (and his 26 career INT) to the Florida Gulf.

The Bucs also spent their first two picks on defense, bolstering their already-solid secondary with former Gator Vernon Hargreaves and adding one of the best pure pass-rushers in the draft in DE Noah Spence.

Just like the offense, the defense is young, but could grow together into something special.

This team looks, feels and (probably) smells a lot like the Panthers did a few years back. I’ll look forward to watching this team grow in 2016. Hell, maybe they’ll even surprise some out there?

 

Atlanta Falcons:

Remember when the Falcons started 2015 5-0? Yeah, me neither…

There were a few teams that made the ’72 Dolphins nervous in 2015, I HIGHLY doubt any of them lost sleep over the Falcons. And for good reason, they finished the season 3-8 after their hot start.

Despite having one of the more talented offensive trios in the league (Ryan, Jones, Freeman), the Falcons failed to do a lot of things that good teams do, and here they are:

3.3% defensive sack percentage (NFL worst)

66.0% completion percentage allowed (26th in the NFL)

17.2% offensive turnover percentage (31st in the NFL)

3,882 passing yards allowed (18th in the NFL)

Matt Ryan threw 16 interceptions in 2015, one short of a career high (image from usatoday.com)

Matt Ryan threw 16 interceptions in 2015, one short of a career high (image from usatoday.com)

34.5% offensive scoring percentage (17th in the NFL)

1,606 total rushing yards (19th in the NFL)

In a nutshell, the Falcons failed to get after the quarterback, allowed teams to dink, dunk and pick up yards threw the air, turned the ball over a TON and struggled to finish off drives despite being one of the better passing offenses. You don’t win if you can’t do three of those things wrong, let alone all five.

By the way, only the Panthers had a softer schedule in 2015. For the record, Atlanta’s first five wins came against the entire NFC East and the Houston Texans… not completely soft, but not exactly a murder’s row either.

But hey, that was 2015! I’m sure the Falcons improved those areas over the offseason, right?

Well…

Mohamed Sanu may or may not put up decent flex/low-end WR2 numbers in fantasy, but he isn’t going to help Matt Ryan throw less interceptions or his teammates drop the ball less.

Alex Mack is a nice addition to the offensive line, but getting sacked wasn’t Ryan’s issue as he was sacked on only 4.9% of dropbacks.

Three of the Falcons’ first four picks of the 2016 draft were on defense Safety Keanu Neal, OLB De’Vondre Campbell and MLB Deion Jones are all expected to either start, or be relied upon in key situations in 2016. Roughly one third of the Falcon defense could be rookies…

They did, however, add Courtney Upshaw from Baltimore to be a OLB/DE pass rusher and Derrick Shelby from Miami, who was just kind of okay playing beside Ndamakong Suh. Both nice pieces, i guess, but neither are difference-makers.

They also played the Titans, Jags, Bucs and 49ers and went 2-3.

In 2016, they get 15 of their 16 games against the NFC West, AFC West and their own division and the Packers. That’s quite a gauntlet for a team that is very one-dimensional on offense and has a very soft and inexperienced defense.

5-0 in 2016? Not a chance.

 

For more football talk with the SportsCrew, tune into our our weekly football radio show, Football with the SportsCrew, where hosts Lou Landers and Zak Sauer break-down the goings-on around the NFL. You may even hear from your’s truly on the broadcast from time to time.

You can also follow me on Twitter @stromme_93

 

 

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