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NFL Kickoff: The 2020 NFC South

Will it be more of the same in the NFC South? Will the Saints win a 4th division title, or will there be a new Division Champion for 2020?

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NFL Kickoff: The 2020 NFC South

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

The status of the 2020 NFL Season seemed to hang in the air, drifting wide of the uprights for months. We all watched with bated breath as the league hurdled towards disaster, then sat back and came up with a plan of changes to ensure that players and coaches remain safe and healthy.

The NFL miraculously split the uprights and now we’re playing football in 2020.

So we’re looking at each of the NFL divisions and diving into how they fit into the new NFL landscape and how they’ve spent the offseason prepping for a run at the Lombardi Trophy this season.

Let’s dive right in and talk about the NFC South.

The Carolina Panthers – 5-11 in 2019

New life has come to Carolina this season. Matt Rhule, who made a name for himself at Baylor University, has taken the reins as head coach – replacing Ron Rivera, who helmed the franchise for the previous 9 seasons. He has some big shoes to fill for sure. While this will be his first stint as a head coach in the NFL, he does have some pedigree to bring to the table, having worked as the assistant offensive line coach in 2012 for Tom Coughlin’s NY Giants. The reaction to the hiring was mixed so it’ll be interesting to see how Rhule fares, especially in the unique climate that this 2020 season will present.

While change on the sidelines is one thing, personnel changes on the field are pretty big too. This roster has been seismically turned over. Cam Newton was let go, Luke Kuechly retired, Greg Olsen is in Seattle, and the list goes on. Players the fans have come to love and expect to see will no longer be there. The most noticeable changes will be on the offense. Teddy Bridgewater, who most recently served capably as Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans, will be the man under center. The team also brought in former New York Jets speedster Robby Anderson, who will offer an additional deep threat.

Of course – the biggest story to follow in Carolina this season (as it has been since 2017) – is Christian McCaffrey.

Since breaking into the league he’s been one of the most consistent weapons on any team. His durability and versatility make him invaluable. He carried the team last year without a seasoned quarterback. Now that he has a mobile QB and one of the fastest WRs in the league to help spread the defense, the sky’s the limit for his potential. The Panthers will go as far as McCaffrey can take them. Given the new additions that may create more freedom, there’s potential for a pretty deep run. How quickly this team can gel without the benefit of a full pre-season routine could dampen those expectations, however. While there is a lot to be excited about for the Panthers this year, I don’t expect they’ll make much noise in the division when all is said and done.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 7-9 in 2019

The Bucs will compete for the division in 2020. Will they prevail when all is said and done? Hard to say – only time will tell. But it’d be shocking if they weren’t in the conversation given their new look heading into this season.

Recently departed QB Jameis Winston threw for over 5,000 yards in 2019, but as we all know – he also tossed 30 INTs. This offseason Bruce Arians has a new (old) toy to play with – some guy who was looking to leave the cold New England winters for the Florida sunshine. He’s joined by a familiar face who decided retirement wasn’t for him just yet. Add a jilted running back from across the state, and you’ve got a very different looking roster. With that trio added to an already potent offense (Godwin, Evans, Howard, Jones II) and there’s a lot to be excited about in Tampa Bay.

Of course, there’s a defensive side of the ball as well. Names like Suh, Pierre-Paul, Vea, and Barrett will all be looking to stifle opposing offenses – something they had a fair degree of success with last season. The defense was 1st against the run, which is impressive when you have guys like McCaffrey and Kamara in your division.

Overall, with the big name additions on offense and a solid returning core on defense, I expect Tampa Bay to build on a decent 2019 campaign and make a run at the division title. They may have even positioned themselves to have the best shot of any team at knocking the Saints off the pedestal.

The Atlanta Falcons – 7-9 in 2019

It’s been a disappointing couple of years for the Falcons, having missed the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. However, they did finish last year with plenty of momentum thanks to a 6-2 record in their final 8 games. They’ll look to build on heading into 2020.

Offensively, their biggest change comes in the backfield. Devonta Freeman and the club parted ways, and Atlanta brought in former LA Ram Todd Gurley to fill his shoes. The hope is that Gurley will return to his stellar form from 2017, when he was named Offensive Player of the Year. The WR core of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will be joined by new TE acquisition Hayden Hurst, who arrived in Atlanta when Austin Hooper headed to Cleveland. That’s a lot of firepower for Matty Ice to work with.

A big reason the Falcons were on the outside looking in last season was because they got off to a horrible start, going 1-7 in the first half. Their defense was getting obliterated to the tune of 30+ points and 385 yards per game. By the time they turned things around in the second half (they forced more turnovers, cut down on points allowed/game, and shaved the total yards/game), there was too big a gap to overcome. Their defense finished the season ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL. If they can replicate their second half, they’ll likely rise in the chart.

Together with the potent offense, the Falcons will look to soar in 2020.

The New Orleans Saints – 13-3 in 2019

The black and gold are on a roll. They’ve won the division each of the last three seasons, winning 11 games or more each time. There’s no reason to think they won’t make it 4 in a row, though it will likely prove more difficult than in recent years.

If something is working, why mess with it? The starting squad remains essentially in tact. When you have Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Jared Cook there really isn’t much reason to look for help. What moves they did make were to help bolster protection for their aging QB while also planning for the future. They swapped backup QBs – letting Teddy Bridgewater head to Carolina while bringing in Jameis Winston from Tampa Bay. Of course, Taysom Hill is still in the mix as one of the more versatile players in the league. This is a high octane offense that can score in multiple ways, and 2020 should be more of the same.

The defensive unit is anchored by Cam Jordan, who has racked up 10+ sacks in three straight seasons. He’s joined this year by Marcus Davenport, who should put up comparable numbers, especially if he can remain healthy. The secondary features well-known names like Janoris Jenkins, D.J. Swearinger, Malcolm Jenkins, and Marshon Lattimore. They’ll be a tough test for opposing offenses looking to keep up on the scoreboard with the Saints offense.

Division Winner:

Making predictions in 2020 is exponentially more difficult than usual. Given the specter of how COVID-19 could impact anyone, anywhere, at any time makes it quite a challenge.

This division is chock full of new faces in new places. Overall, a pretty competitive division has gotten even tougher as far as I’m concerned. Any and all of these teams are capable of getting hot. However, I’m a sucker for a good story. It’s a popular opinion that this will be Drew Brees’ final year playing in the NFL. Winning another division title and maybe even hoisting the Lombardi Trophy sounds like a great way to ride off into the sunset – Sorry Tom.

Joe is an actor who grew up eating, living and breathing sports. He spent many an afternoon on the soccer or baseball field in his youth (and even gave several other sports a shot) before a series of events put him on the path to pursuing a performing career. Subsequently, he's worked almost every other type of job you could imagine while trying to support that endeavor. Whenever he's not working any of those jobs, he can often be found watching, playing or discussing sports in some way. Most of that banter revolves around the Mets, Giants, Rangers or Manchester United. His short term goal is to fully convert his fiance into a rabid sports fan, not someone who leaves the room whenever he turns a game on.

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