The summer is beginning to draw to a close, and soon, temperatures and leaves will begin to fall. The NFL preseason is currently underway, and true NFL football is nearly here. Welcome to M-FANS 2018 Season Preview, where our staff of talented University of Michigan student writers will share their insight into the NFL’s 32 teams and top players as we get ready for the kickoff of the regular season. Today, we take a look at the NFC South. Enjoy!

By Zane Harding, Matt Orecchio, Ethan Grayeb, and Matthew Jo

 

New Orleans Saints

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 11-5 (1st in NFC South)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Sean Payton
OC – Pete Charmichael
DC – Dennis Allen

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Drew Brees
RB1 – Alvin Kamara
RB2 – Mark Ingram
WR1 – Michael Thomas
WR2 – Tedd Ginn Jr.
WR3 – Cameron Meredith
TE – Josh Hill
LT – Terron Armstead
LG – Andrus Peat
C – Max Unger
RG – Larry Warford
RT – Ryan Ramczyk

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Cameron Jordan
DE – Alex Okafor
DT – Sheldon Rankins
DT – Tyeler Davison
OLB – A.J. Klein
MLB – Demario Davis
OLB – Craig Roberston
CB1 – Marshon Lattimore
CB2 – Ken Crawley
NB – Patrick Robinson
SS – Vonn Bell / Kurt Coleman
FS – Marcus Williams

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Thomas Morstead
K – Wil Lutz
KR/PR – Tommy Lee Lewis
LS – Zach Wood

Other Notable Players
DE – Marcus Davenport (14th overall selection)
DT – David Oneymata
MLB – Manti Te’o
QB – Tom Savage

Season Preview

What a turnaround. The Saints’ 2016 season finished with a disappointing 7-9 record and a 37-year-old Drew Brees. So, what did they do last year? They drafted two pro bowlers with their first-round pick, selecting cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and with their fourth-round pick, selecting running back Alvin Kamara. Meanwhile, free agent signing Larry Warford came over from the Lions and was a pro bowler at right guard, and team veterans Michael Thomas and Cameron Jordan joined him. Even the aging tandem of Drew Brees and Mark Ingram came with them! All in all, the Saints sent seven players to the Pro Bowl, watched as their run game, offensive line, secondary, and defensive line suddenly flourished, and won an extremely competitive NFC South (the Panthers and Falcons also made the postseason). Unfortunately, they lost to a red-hot Minnesota Vikings team in the divisional round due to the instant-classic Stefon Diggs game-winning reception. (Please don’t click that, Saints fans. In fact, I’m sorry for linking it all together.)

The Saints had a best-case scenario type of season in 2017, postseason aside. Will they be able to replicate it in 2018? Well, let’s take a look. Drew Brees is aging as well as Tom Brady, and should perform as well in his age-39 season as he did last year at age 38. The rushing game will be impacted early on, as Mark Ingram will serve a four-game suspension to open the year, and Alvin Kamara, while brilliant in 2017, was so extremely efficient (eight touchdowns and 728 yards on 120 carries, to pair with five receiving touchdowns) that he is bound to regress some. That said, Kamara looked like an elite running back in his age-22 season and posted an astounding average value (AV) of 15, so he should remain elite in 2018. The wide receivers are led by Michael Thomas, who has now posted double-digit AV seasons in consecutive years, but the group falls off dramatically from him to Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith. The offensive line has two starters ranked 50 or worse by Pro Football Focus (center Max Unger and left guard Andrus Peat), yet they still rank as the 6th best line in the league entering 2018 due to their best-in-the-league pass-blocking last year. The offensive line could see a slip in performance in 2017, as right guard Larry Warford was mediocre-at-best prior to his arrival in New Orleans, but the offense should still be a force this coming season.

While the Saints offense caught the world off-guard in 2017, it was their defense that turned the world on its head. Marshon Lattimore entered the league after just one year of starting experience at Ohio State and was a pro bowl cornerback at the age of 21. Wow. Meanwhile, Cameron Jordan wreaked havoc at defensive end, posting a monster 96.2 PFF grade, while Alex Okafor posted an 84.7 rating opposite of Jordan. This unit should continue to dominate in 2017, especially after the team spent a future first-round pick to move up in this year’s draft to select Marcus Davenport. The team’s weakest unit in 2017 was the linebackers, as Manti Te’o was probably the unit’s best player (and he struggles against the pass), but the team signed Demario Davis, who posted a very impressive 87.3 grade with the Jets last season, to remedy the issue. The unit is still the team’s weakest, however, as the secondary is led by a young Lattimore with help from a top-notch veteran nickel back in Patrick Robinson and the solid Ken Crawley. The safeties, Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell, impressed in 2017, as well. Overall, the Saints defense has plenty of impressive pieces, but they will need numerous players who posted breakout performances in 2017 to replicate that play in 2018 to remain elite.

All in all, this team is probably due for a little regression. The Saints had breakout performance after breakout performance in 2017, and it’s hard to expect every breakout star to remain a stud for a second straight season. Additionally, the offensive side of the roster is shallow, and the defensive roster is as well outside of the defensive line. With all this said, this is still a top-notch team that came very close to the NFC conference championship game. I’m not going to doubt the squad with two superstars on rookie contracts.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Players to Watch

Alvin Kamara

As mentioned, Alvin Kamara was extremely efficient in 2017. Will he replicate his touchdown numbers? Probably not. Will he run for 6.2 yards per carry again? Doubtful. Is he being recognized as a top RB in the league after that performance? Oh yeah. Expect big things from Kamara this season, even if he does not receive a ton of carries.

Demario Davis

Demario Davis started all 16 games for the Jets this past season and should shore up the team’s weakest unit. As mentioned, Davis posted a great 87.3 grade in 2017, though his AV of 9 does not scream “elite.” For reference, Anthony Barr, who is likely the odd man out on Minnesota’s vaunted defense as their contracts pile up, has posted an AV of 9 or higher in three straight seasons, while Davis has never posted consecutive 9 AV seasons. For the sake of the linebackers, Davis better keep things rolling in 2018.

Larry Warford

As a Lions fan, I have to ask. Where in the world did that come from? Larry Warford was fantastic in 2017, making the Pro Bowl despite missing two games with an abdomen injury, all while posting 11 AV. He never posted an AV above 7 outside of his impressive rookie season with the Lions.

 

Carolina Panthers

By Matt Orecchio

2017 Record: 11-5 (2nd in NFC South)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Ron Rivera
OC – Norv Turner
DC – Eric Washington

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Cam Newton
RB – Christian McCaffrey
FB – Alex Armah
WR1 – Devin Funchess
WR2 – Torrey Smith
WR3 – DJ Moore
TE – Greg Olsen
LT – Matt Kalil
LG – Amini Silatolu
C – Ryan Kalil
RG – Trai Turner
RT – Daryl Williams

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Julius Peppers
DT – Dontari Poe
DT – Kawann Short
DE – Mario Addison
SLB – Shaq Thompson
MLB – Luke Kuechly
WLB – Thomas Davis
CB1 – James Bradberry
CB2 – Kevon Seymour
NB – Captain Munnerlyn
FS – Mike Adams
SS – Da’Norris Searcy

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Michael Palardy
K – Graham Gano
PR/KR – Damiere Byrd
LS – JJ Jansen

Other Notable Players
RB – C.J. Anderson (new signing)
WR – Curtis Samuel (2017 2nd-round pick)
OT – Taylor Moton

Season Preview

The Carolina Panthers have had a very up-and-down past three years. In 2015, they led the NFL with a 15-1 record, only for their season to end in a disappointing Super Bowl loss to the Broncos. In 2016, they severely disappointed fans by going 6-10 and finishing last in the NFC South. But last year, they bounced back nicely en route to an 11-5 record, finishing second in their division. The New Orleans Saints proved to be the Panthers’ Achilles heel, handing them two regular-season losses and defeating them in the NFC Wild Card game. This offseason, they went through a makeover in the coordinator department. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was replaced by longtime head coach/offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks left town to be the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He was replaced by Eric Washington, the Panthers’ defensive line coach since 2011.

The Panthers had a relatively quiet offseason, losing a few key pieces but replacing them nicely. The big loss on offense was 2017 First-Team All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, who is currently being replaced by backup Amini Silatolu. Veteran RB Jonathan Stewart amassed almost 200 carries for the team last year (RB Christian McCaffrey didn’t run between the tackles much), but he went to the New York Giants this offseason and the younger, more talented CJ Anderson will take his spot. The paltry WR corps from 2017 was also bolstered this offseason with the additions of veteran Torrey Smith and rookie DJ Moore. On defense, they lost DT Star Lotuleilei and S Kurt Coleman, both good players, but they also brought in DT Dontari Poe and S Da’Norris Searcy (also both good players).

The two biggest pickups were Moore and Poe. Moore has been pegged as the most talented receiver in the draft, winning the Big Ten Receiver of the Year Award. Many have called him the Panthers’ next Steve Smith. Poe is a big-bodied defensive tackle who, although a few years removed from his glory days, has two Pro Bowl selections and a Second-Team All-Pro honor under his belt. He also happens to be the largest player ever to throw a TD pass at 6’3”, 346 pounds.

On offense, Carolina was a very middle-of-the-pack team last year, with their strength being on the rushing end. They were 16th in total offensive yards, but 4th in rushing yards per game and 24th in passing yards per game. Part of this is due to the fact that Cam Newton is quite possibly the NFL’s best dual-threat QB (although I must admit Russell Wilson is definitely a better passer), but part of it was due to the fact that the receiving corps last year was Devin Funchess and a bunch of no-names. I expect the Panthers’ offensive numbers to go up across the board in 2018. HC Ron Rivera wants to give more carries to second-year RB Christian McCaffrey, which is a great idea, and even if he disappoints in that department CJ Anderson will be a better weapon than Jonathan Stewart was last year. Add experienced veteran Torrey Smith and the most talented rookie receiver in DJ Moore, and Cam Newton’s passing numbers should see an uptick as well.

Carolina’s defense has been stout for the past five years (at least), and last year was no exception. They ranked 9th in yards allowed per game and ranked 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up 85.3 yards on the ground per game. I expect the dangerous front seven to be just as effective in 2018, led by the rock-solid middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who I believe to be a top-five defensive player in the league. The secondary is the only area of concern and losing CB Daryl Worley and S Kurt Coleman this offseason didn’t help. Still, the front seven will be able to generate pressure and keep this defense at the top of its game.

I don’t think the Panthers are Super Bowl contenders. But they are definitely playoff contenders. The NFC is crowded with good teams and the Panthers don’t seem to have the pieces to compete with the likes of the Vikings, Rams, and Saints. Add the Falcons to the mix and the Panthers will have trouble competing in their own division. Still, they had enough talent last year to go 11-5, and in terms of talent, I think the team didn’t really get any better or worse this offseason. I expect the Panthers to be in the heat of a battle for the playoffs as the regular season comes to a close. But unless the passing offense really clicks this year, they might be going home in early January like they did last year.

Players to Watch

Christian McCaffrey

In any other year besides 2017, Christian McCaffrey would’ve been the best rookie running back in the league. Unfortunately for him, 2017 was a year in which we watched Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Leonard Fournette all over highlight tapes. McCaffrey didn’t impress on the ground, but he’s already cemented himself as one of the best receiving backs in the league. He turned 117 carries into 435 yards, but he was targeted just as many times and had 651 receiving yards. McCaffrey is a player to watch this season because head coach Ron Rivera wants to give him more carries, and I think he’s ready for it. I expect McCaffrey to nearly double his rushing yards numbers from last season and produce the same, efficient output through the air.

Greg Olsen

Greg Olsen has been one of the best tight ends in the NFL since the beginning of time (or it seems like it). The three-time Pro Bowler had a nice four years to start his career in Chicago and has been Carolina’s rock in the passing game since 2011. However, he missed over half of 2017 due to injury. He played in 7 games, but the Panthers did not give him a big workload at all. He’ll be ready to go for 2018, and Cam Newton really needs his stud tight end back. Will Olsen be a Comeback Player of the Year contender, or will his injury from last year send this aging veteran’s career downhill Dallas Clark-style?

James Bradberry

This is a big year for Panthers’ CB1 James Bradberry. He started at cornerback alongside Daryl Worley last year in a secondary that ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed per game. Pro Football Focus ranked him 109th among cornerbacks last year. Now Worley is gone, and so is veteran safety, Kurt Coleman. Bradberry will have to rely on his front seven to generate pressure as he tries to cover the likes of Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, and Julio Jones, twice a year, each. Does anyone in the world have a harder job than Bradberry? He’s a talented young player, but my guess is that by the end of the year we’ll have an entire highlight tape of him getting mossed.

 

Atlanta Falcons

By Ethan Grayeb

2017 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC South)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Dan Quinn
OC – Steve Sarkisian
DC – Marquand Manuel

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Matt Ryan
RB – Devonta Freeman
RB – Tevin Coleman
FB – Ricky Ortiz
WR1 – Julio Jones
WR2 – Mohamed Sanu
WR3 – Calvin Ridley
TE – Austin Hooper
LT – Jake Matthews
LG – Andy Levitre
C – Alex Mack
RG – Brandon Fusco
RT – Ryan Schraeder

Projected Defensive Starters
LDE – Takk McKinley
DT – Terrell McClain
DT – Grady Jarrett
RDE – Vic Beasley
WLB – Duke Riley
MLB – Deion Jones
SLB – De’Vondre Campbell
CB1 – Desmond Trufant
CB2 – Robert Alford
CB3 – Brain Poole
NB – Blidi Wreh-Wilson
FS – Ricardo Allen
SS – Keanu Neal

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Matt Bosher
K – Matt Bryant
PR/KR – Justin Hardy
LS – Josh Harris

Other Notable Players
RB – Ito Smith (126th overall selection in NFL Draft)
TE – Logan Paulsen (New Signing)

Season Preview

2017 was the first season the Falcons called the new Mercedes-Benz stadium home, and their third season under the leadership of Dan Quinn. Their offseason began with a loss in the NFC divisional playoff round to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons lost three important players in free agency – Adrian Clayborn, Taylor Gabriel, and Dontari Poe. Clayborn signed a two year, ten-million-dollar deal with the New England Patriots, Gabriel signed a four year, twenty-six-million dollar contract with the Chicago Bears, while Poe signed a three year, twenty-eight-million dollar contract with divisional rivals, the Carolina Panthers.

The Falcons did not make a huge splash in free agency this year, but they were able to retain kicker Matt Bryant and cornerback Blidi Bertrand Wreh-Wilson. They were also able to trade for offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo, who will most likely be backing up left tackle Jake Matthews. With the limited additions, Arthur Blank and Dan Quinn seem to be content fielding the same team that has led them to the playoffs the past two seasons.

While bringing in a few veterans helped the team, the NFL Draft helped bring in some young and explosive new players. Their most notable selection was Alabama Wide Receiver, Calvin Ridley. He was an explosive threat on the Alabama championship winning team last season, and he will surely have open space as opposing defenses will have their hands full with Julio Jones. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat will help make the Falcons defense even better than last year but will have to work their way up the depth chart.

In 2017, the Falcons were 8th in total offense but 15th in points per game. They will look to improve upon these rankings and reach the playoffs for the third straight year. The trio of Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones is a scary one if all are healthy. Factoring in Tevin Coleman, Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu, and now Calvin Ridley, I do not envy the job of opposing defensive coordinators. When you have a top-end quarterback like Matt Ryan, most of the attention goes to the passing game, but do not sleep on the Falcons’ run game either. The Falcons averaged four point three yards per carry last season, tied for seventh in the NFL. The running efficiency is thanks to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and a fantastic offensive line. The offense is not all Atlanta has to offer this year; the Falcons are returning a top ten defense, led by Pro Bowlers, Deion Jones(LB) and Keanu Neal(S).

There are not many newcomers to this Atlanta team, but that is no reason to think they are not ready to compete. With Steve Sarkisian poised to call plays, the high-powered offensive will be looking to lead to Falcons back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. It would be even sweeter this year for Atlanta, as the Falcons are looking to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but it will not be easy. The Falcons will start their journey to a home Super Bowl playing the defending Super Bowl champions on Thursday, September 6 in Philadelphia.

Players to Watch

Julio Jones

Julio Jones was second in receiving yards and eighth in receptions in 2017. His touchdowns might have been down, but that is all the more reason to expect him in the end zone more this year. He is a proven playmaker and is one of the best wide receivers in the business. Look for Julio dancing in the end zone of your favorite NFL team’s stadium this season.

Takkarist McKinley

Most people remember him from his memorable NFL draft night moment, but that will all change after this season. Twenty tackles and six sacks as a rookie was just the start for McKinley. Playing opposite of Vic Beasley, look for Takk to fill the hole left by Adrian Clayborn and have a breakout second season.

Ito Smith

In an already loaded backfield it will be hard to get touches, but with the high-volume workload that Freeman and Coleman are asked to carry, there will be opportunities for Smith. Look for Ito Smith to take advantage of these changes in this loaded offense and make a name for himself in his rookie season.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Matthew Jo

2017 Record: 5-11 (4th in NFC South)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Dirk Koetter
OC – Todd Monken
DC – Mike Smith

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Ryan Fitzpatrick
RB – Peyton Barber
FB – Alan Cross
WR1 – Mike Evans
WR2 – DeSean Jackson
WR3 – Adam Humphries
TE – O.J. Howard
LT – Donovan Smith
LG – Ali Marpet
C – Ryan Jensen
RG – Caleb Benenoch
RT – Demar Dotson

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Jason Pierre-Paul
RE – Vinny Curry
DT1 – Gerald McCoy
DT2 – Vita Vea
SLB – Adarius Taylor
MLB – Kwon Alexander
WLB – Lavonte David
CB1 – Brent Grimes
CB2 – Vernon Hargreaves
CB3 – Ryan Smith
FS – Justin Evans
SS – Keith Tandy

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Bryan Anger
K – Chandler Catanzaro
PR – Adam Humphries
KR – Jacquizz Rodgers
LS – Drew Ferris

Other Notable Players
QB – Jameis Winston (SUSP 4G)
RB – Ronald Jones II (38th overall selection in NFL Draft)

Season Preview

It’s a hard knock life, the Bucs found themselves buried at the bottom of the NFC South once again at the end of last season.  To be fair, all three of the other teams made the playoffs, but they will need to vastly improve in order to find their treasure.

Although this spring began with farewells to defensive linemen Chris Baker and Robert Ayers and halfback Doug Martin, much of the core of this team has not changed.  Depth at these positions looks better than before with signings such as Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, and Mitch Unrein. Meanwhile, the draft brought in Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round and USC running back Ronald Jones II in the second.

Can Fitzmagic make a return to the gridiron?  Famous Jameis won’t be available at least for the first few games to eat any W’s (depending on how the Bucs organization feels about his actions, we could see them sever ties with Winston for good), but this offense seems to stall in the red zone even with their franchise quarterback at the helm.  Last season, although the Buccaneers ranked 7th in total yards, they finished in the bottom half of the league in scoring and in the bottom 10 for red zone percentage. The offensive line does have a couple solid players in Demar Dotson and Ali Marpet, but last season it was quite middle-of-the-pack, allowing 2.5 sacks per game and only averaging 1.21 yards before contact on runs.  With opposing defenders such as Cameron Jordan, Kawann Short, and Vic Beasley in the division, the Buccaneers will be going against the current for much of the season. The backfield has not looked good in a couple of years, but Peyton Barber looks primed for a breakout year after averaging 5.8 yards per carry and keeping the ball secure as of week 3 of preseason action. Ronald Jones II is also positioned to earn carries as he showed through his USC days that he is capable of scoring often – he had 19 TDs in 13 games last year!  Even with all the ugly in this offense, the receiving corps stands out; Mike Evans just completed his fourth straight 1000+ yard season to start his career, DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries made up 28.2% of the receiving yards for the team, and the tight end tandem of Howard and Brate were feared in the red zone as they caught almost half of the Bucs’ receiving touchdowns last year. This offense is an enigma – it will be their saving grace or their downfall.

The defense is just as puzzling as they let up the most amount of yards out of any team in the league last season.  In fact, within the past 10 years of Mike Smith’s career as a head coach or defensive coordinator, his teams have finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed once. Once. Talent is important, but when the same coach consistently has nothing to show for his efforts, there is more to the story. Regardless, this side of the ball looks like it could be successful on paper.  The secondary will be led by veteran Brent Grimes who was rated by PFF as the 3rd best playmaking cornerback over the past three seasons, the linebacking corps boasts Lavonte David who was ranked 18th on PFF’s list of top 101 players in the league last season in addition to his 2nd-place finish as a premier defender against the run with a run defense grade of 93.4, and the defensive line is extremely deep having a fourth-string defensive tackle in Mitch Unrein who PFF ranked as the 13th best interior defensive lineman last year.  The only real question lies in the safety play as the secondary will also be helped by Hargreaves’ switch to the slot (last season, his yards allowed per coverage snap dramatically went down from 2.16 to 0.41 when this change occurred) and the ferocious front seven. If Smith’s scheme doesn’t hold this roster back, the defense should actually be the foundation of this Bucs team.

 

Featured Image: By Georgia National Guard, Atlanta Falcons, CC-BY 2.0

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