Giving our Best Future Bets: NFC South

As we sweep across the NFC we will now touch on the NFC South. 

The first team up: Atlanta Falcons

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 250:1

Conference winner: 100:1

Division winner: 35:1

To Make Playoffs: No -800; Yes +550

Regular Season Win Total: o5.0 +125; u5.0 -145

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Marcus Mariota (QB), Casey Hayward (DB), Rashaan Evans (LB), Lorenzo Carter (LB), Germain Ifedi (RT), Damien Williams (RB), Auden Tate (WR)

Via Draft: Drake London (WR), Arnold Ebiketie (DE), Troy Andersen (LB), Desmond Ridder (QB), Tyler Allgeier (RB)

Via Trade: Bryan Edwards

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Russell Gage (WR), Foyesade Oluokun (LB), Dante Fowler Jr. (DE)

Via Trade: Matt Ryan (QB)

It is no secret that the 2022 NFL season could be a long one for the Atlanta Falcons and one that will have a very, very different feel.  The long-time face of the franchise, quarterback Matt Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts this past offseason.  If that was not enough, young and talented wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for wagering on NFL games last season. 

However, when one door closes, another one always seems to open.  After 15 years of being quarterbacked by Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons agreed to a 2-year deal with once promising quarterback Marcus Mariota.  The deal makes a ton of sense as the Falcons begin their rebuild process.  Head Coach Arthur Smith has some familiarity with Mariota as they both were with the Titans when the Titans made Mariota the #2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.  In my opinion, Smith has an underrated offensive mind.  I do not think the offensive skill players are overwhelming, but if Mariota can avoid the injury bug, I think the offense will have enough to surprise some teams.  Mariota is a question mark for sure, but now is his chance.

For starters, Kyle Pitts is one of not only the best young tight ends in the game, but overall receiving threats.  He is uber talented and can beat a defense in various ways.  His numbers as a rookie (68 catches, 1,026 yards, and 1 TD) held back by a limited offense are just astounding.  The sky is the limit for Pitts.  I’m a little shocked at how bullish I am on the receiving weapons on the outside, but rookie Drake London and newly acquired Bryan Edwards should be enough assist Mariota in the passing game.  I am also fond of under the radar free agent signee Auden Tate (from Cincinnati) and returning slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.

The running back position group is made up of well-rounded players that make for a formidable group.  This group consists of re-signed Cordarrelle Patterson who has proven his abilities to not only be a good running back but just a darn good football player, along with free agent signee Damien Williams, and rookie Tyler Allgeier.  Even more so than the receiving game I think the success of the running game is going to depend on play design and taking advantage of opportunistic situations because the offensive line play needs some work.

With all the positive takeaways I have for the Falcons coaching, quarterback play and skill position players, the true Achilles heel for the Falcons offense is going to be the afore mentioned offensive line play.  It is not only one of the worst offensive lines in the division, but the entire NFL.  And unfortunately, I think it is going to be too hard to overcome over the course of a long season.

If that is not enough to set the Falcons back, the defensive line could arguably be just as weak.  The only true household name on the defensive line is Grady Jarrett and after him there is a significant drop off.   The linebacker crew has a few names we will recognize in Lorenzo Carter (formerly a New York Giant), Rashaan Evans (formerly from the Tennessee Titans), and rookie Troy Andersen.  All three will be looking to make a name for themselves and have quiet the opportunity to do so.  Especially considering the uncertainty surrounding Deion Jones. Jones is coming off surgery this off season and rumors have been swirling that he has requested a trade. 

With all the criticism I have of the defensive line and linebackers, I am quite bullish on the secondary.  The starting secondary consists of second year standout A.J. Terrell, veteran Casey Hayward, and nickelback Isaiah Oliver.  I won’t get into the safety position as many the names Erik Harris, Richie Grant, and Jaylinn Hawkins won’t jump off the page to anyone.  But I will stick my neck out there and say the trio is better than they are given credit.

That Falcons schedule is not making it any easier on them either.  When looking at expected win totals for the upcoming season, the Falcons schedule is ranked 10th toughest in the NFL.  The Falcons have the thirteenth toughest schedule when facing opponents on the road, and the ninth hardest at home.

All in all, despite a mostly negative outlook on the 2022 Season, I do feel the Falcons have some real bright spots.  Unfortunately, I just feel that the combination of a poor offensive and defensive line is going to be too much for this team to overcome.  Arthur Smith is a good coach and will put this team in position enough times to be competitive during certain weeks, but that is what is expected during a rebuild.

Strongest Lean: Atlanta Falcons over 5 wins ~ it’s a long season and the odds are there.  Arthur Smith is a creative mind that will get points on the board.  The question is will the points get on the board during the same weeks that the defense comes to play?

Continuing through the NFC South. 

The second team up: New Orleans Saints

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 40:1

Conference winner: 16:1

Division winner: 3.5:1

To Make Playoffs: No -135; Yes +115

Regular Season Win Total: o8.0 -160; u8.0 +140

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Tyrann Mathieu (S), Marcus Maye (S), Jarvis Landry (WR)

Via Draft: Chris Olave (WR), Trevor Penning (OT)

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Terron Armstead (LT), Marcus Williams (S), Kwon Alexander (LB)

With a projected win total floating around eight victories this season it appears that most of the public do not have high expectations for the New Orleans Saints.  At first glance it appears that the public is considering the loss of Sean Payton (not listed above in Key Departures) to be a dooms day scenario for this club.  This thinking is understandable as Payton is an outstanding coach, but a handful of positive noteworthy actions happened off season that aren’t being recognized.  First off, Dennis Allen got promoted from Defensive Coordinator to Head Coach, replacing Payton.  Dennis Allen over the past few years has led one of the league’s best defenses, has his fair share of coaching experience (head coaching as well), and has gotten to learn a great deal from Payton. 

Speaking of defense.  The core crew returns and what was lost in Marcus Williams and Kwon Alexander has been more than replaced.  There truly is not a weak spot on the defensive side of the ball and it is not a long shot to assume this unit will be a top five defense at the end of this season again when it’s all said and done.  If I had to pick, I would say the linebacking crew is the weakest of the three levels of defense, but linebacker Demario Davis has consistently shown that he can anchor the middle of the field.  Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan are two of the best edges in the NFL and can dominate any game from start to finish.  And there are few teams, if any, that can boast a secondary with names such as Marshon Lattimore, Bradley Roby, P.J. Williams, Chauncy Gardner-Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Marcus Maye. 

The issue last year, and headed into this year, is the offense.  It always stings a little when a play caller as talented as Sean Payton departs.  And can be a bit worrisome to lose a left tackle as good as Terron Armstead in the same off-season.  However, it should be noted that Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael will remain with the Saints, which means continuity both defensively and offensively.  Recently re-signed Jameis Winston will have a shot to show he truly belongs a leader of a club.  Last year Winston and the Saints got off to a hot start and were 5-2 before Winston had a season ending injury (torn ACL).  There are no questions about how dynamic Alvin Kamara can make an offense and from recent reports it appears he will avoid any league disciplinary actions stemming from an off the field issue.  And most importantly, the wide receiving core is revamped.  Michael Thomas is back from injury and ready to prove he still belongs in the conversation of the game’s elite.  Jarvis Landry comes over from Cleveland and has never been anything but exceptional.  On top of that, the Saints used a top 1st round pick (#11 overall), on Chris Olave out of Ohio State to truly help bolster the passing game. 

The tight end position has similar names such as Taysom Hill, Nick Vannett, Adam Trautman and new addition Chris Herndon which all seem pretty vanilla.  But the skill position players are more than capable of lifting this offense.  The biggest area of concern is the offensive line.  Per Pro Football Focus’ offensive line rankings as of June 2022, the Saints unit was ranked #21 out of 32 teams.  That’s an uphill battle and that will rest on rookie left tackle Trevor Penning and underachieving right guard Cesar Ruiz.  If those two can find a way to make consistent positive contributions it will be enough to give Winston, the time he needs to adequately run an offense.

The Saints schedule is one of the tougher ones in the league.  Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, the Saints have the 7th-toughest schedule in the NFL (tied with the Oakland Raiders).  Their opponents for the 2022 seasons went a combined 152-136-1 last year.  It’s a long season, but I think we will know a lot about this team by the end of the first 6 games (opponents include Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Minnesota, Seattle, and Cincinnati).  The Saints open the season with three of their first six games in the dome and the Minnesota game in London).   

All in all, I expect the Saints to rise to the occasion this year.  The backbone of this team is their defense, and the offense got a major facelift from a quarterback (a healthy Winston) and wide receiver standpoint.  The defense is elite enough to keep them in games all year and the offense has more than enough firepower to overcome some lackluster line play. 

Strongest Lean: New Orleans Saints over 8 wins

Onto our next contender within the NFC South

Team of focus: Carolina Panthers

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 125:1

Conference winner: 60:1

Division winner: 11:1

To Make Playoffs: No -475; Yes +360

Regular Season Win Total: o6.5 +100; u6.5 -120

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Austin Corbett (G), Bradley Bozeman (C), Johnny Hekker (P), Rashard Higgins (WR), Matthew Ioannidis (DE), Xavier Woods (S)

Via Draft: Ickey Ekwonu (OT), Matt Corral (QB), Brandon Smith (LB)

Via Trade: Baker Mayfield (QB)

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Haason Reddick (LB), Stephon Gilmore (CB), DaQuan Jones (DT)

Matt Rhule is entering his third season as head coach of the Carolina Panthers.  Although he signed a 7-year, $62 million contract back in 2020, it is safe to say the pressure is on Rhule to get things going in the right direction.  I don’t know if it’s accurate to say he is on the hot seat, but things haven’t exactly got off to a smooth start for Rhule in his early tenure with the Panthers.  After two rough seasons hindered by less than desired quarterback play, poor offensive line play, and injuries to key performers, I think things in Carolina are taking a turn for the better.  I will say this up front and I may be on an island alone here ~ I am very bullish on the Panthers this year.

In a league where points are a premium, the Panthers should feel very confident in the personnel they set on the field defensively to slow down the opposition.  The defense is riddled with play makers on all three levels of the defense.  The interior will be manned by highly touted Derrick Brown and recently acquired Matthew Ioannidis.  The edge is made up of young stars Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos.  That four-man front is ready to burst at the seam with talent (and that’s after losing Haasan Reddick in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles.  The linebacker core is steady-eddy and led by Shaq Thompson.   But for as good as the defensive line is, I think the secondary is even that much better.   Starting cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn are special.  And the position has some quality depth in former first round pick C.J. Henderson.  Additionally, the Panthers have young standout safety Jeremy Chinn paired with the ever so solid new contributor Xavier Woods.  

I generally do not talk about the impact of a special teams player, but the addition of all-pro Johnny Hekker is noteworthy.  He is one of the greatest punters the NFL has seen and is a weapon in his own right.  His ability to change the field and pin opponents deep in their own territory is special.  With a punter as good as Hekker added to the talented defense it is just another advantage this Panthers team holds over the opposition.

In recent years, it is safe to say that Panthers offense has just not found solid footing.  Whether it be injury related, primarily to Christian McCafferty (CMC) as he is the engine to this offense, lackluster offensive line play, or poor quarterback play, the unit has just simply not gotten it done. 

But the Panthers have taken what appear to be the necessary steps to correct these issues.  They did not rush CMC back from injury last year in what was essentially a lost year.  They went out and traded for Baker Mayfield giving up a low draft pick and taking on some of his salary.  And they accumulated some valuable pieces on the offensive line by drafting promising young left offensive tackle Ickey Ekwonu, while signing veteran guard Austin Corbett, and center Bradley Bozeman.  Taylor Moton is the projected Right Tackle and Brady Christensen is the presumed starting Left Guard.  To say the Panthers did a complete overhaul to the offensive line is not an exaggeration as Moton is the only returning starter from the 2021 unit.  Per Pro Football Focus’ offensive line rankings as of June 2022, the Panthers unit was ranked #14 out of 32 teams.  This would be a major upgrade if the line can come together and be what PFF thinks they can be.

Before I get to Baker Mayfield I want to stress at how talented I believe the skill position players are on the offensive side of the ball.  CMC is an all-world talent and, in my humble opinion, believe that D.J. Moore is the most underappreciated wide receiver in the league.  D.J. Moore has quietly amassed over 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons and has only missed 2 of a possible 64 games in his young career.  Despite the Panthers deprived offensive and lowly quarterback play, Moore continues to be a threat.  In addition to Moore, the Panthers have deep threat Robbie Anderson and Rashard Higgins who have both shown their skill sets can be effective if used correctly.  And let’s not forever about second year up and comer Terrance Marshall.  No one can tell me this offensive does not have the ability to be potent. 

I’m not one for stating the obvious, but the time for Baker Mayfield to prove the Panthers right for taking a chance on him is now.  Sure, there is pressure to perform, but it’s a fresh start and all the pieces are there.  Mayfield’s supporting cast is arguably better than what he had to work with in Cleveland.  No more excuses.   

The Panthers schedule is on the more difficult side, but they do have a couple advantageous breaks that they need to take make the most of.  Let’s lead off by pointing out that based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, the Panthers have the 12th-hardest schedule in the NFL.  However, the Panthers are benefactors of a 9-game home slate this year.  In fact, Carolina will play four of its first five games at home, with its opening game being a reunion for new starting quarterback Baker Mayfield.  This game is ever so important because the Cleveland Browns will be without starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, which would have been a much taller task.  The month of October will be the hardest stretch as the Panthers face the Cardinals, 49ers, Rams, and Buccaneers in consecutive weeks, making the first month of the season that much more critical.

With the talent on this team, both on the offensive side of the ball and defensive side of the ball, the expectations for this team from the public is far too low.  I understand the first few years of the Matt Rhule era in Carolina have been murky and filled with disappointment, but things are starting to come together.  I honestly believe this team could be flirting with a record above .500.  Less than seven wins would be a major disappointment and could lead to ownership tearing down the current regime.  It’s time for the Panthers to show out and I believe they will. 

Strongest Lean: Carolina Panthers over 6.5 wins

This leads us to the cream of the crop and NFC South favorite

Team of focus: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 7.5:1

Conference winner: 3.3:1

Division winner: -2.8:1

To Make Playoffs: No +460; Yes -650

Regular Season Win Total: o11.5 +118; u11.5 -140

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Akiem Hicks (DE), Julio Jones (WR), Kyle Rudolph (TE), Russell Gage (WR), Carl Nassib (DE)

Via Draft: Logan Hall (DE), Luke Goedeke (OT), Rachaad White (RB)

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Alex Cappa (G), Jordan Whitehead (S), Ronald Jones (RB), O.J. Howard (TE)

Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Richard Sherman were all on the 2021 roster and are yet to sign.

Its not a matter of “if the Buccaneers will be good”, but rather “how good”?  In a season where I think the NFC in general is down, I think the Buccaneers will clearly be one of the top teams.  But I have my concerns.  This might be the case for most teams, but nothing this off season for Tampa Bay seemed cut and dry.  At first, the greatest quarterback of all time announced his retirement, joining his friend and once great teammate Rob Gronkowski, only to change his mind a few days later.  The offensive minded Bruce Arians stepped down as head coach and handed over the reigns to his defensive minded pal Todd Bowles.  Throughout minicamp Tampa Bay has experienced a slew of significant injuries on the offensive line.  And then Tom Brady took roughly a two-week hiatus to be with his family during preseason.  To me, there are just too many moving pieces and at times almost like this team is just walking through the motions. 

With that being said, Tampa Bay still enters the season with some of the most talent in the league on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.  On defensive, there are not many teams that can say they have play makers on all three levels quite like the Buccaneers do.  And new Head Coach Todd Bowles, a defensive guru, will be sure to get the most out of them.  The front four is not made up of sexy names, but Akiem Hicks, Vita Vea, William Gholston and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are a foursome you will not have to worry about a defensive coordinator.  To put it bluntly, one would be hard pressed to say there is a better linebacker trio in the league than Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaquil Barrett.  And the secondary is most certainly in the upper half of the league.  Corner backs Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis III are highly regarded.  And second year safety, Antoine Winfield Jr. paired with veterans Logan Ryan and Mike Edwards assure the Buccaneers that the back end of the defense is in good hands.   

Above I mentioned that the Buccaneers offensive line has taken some massive blows due to injury and that is worrisome.  Some of the injuries are significant and considered season ending.  Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen and Guard Aaron Stinnie will miss the 2022 season due to knee injuries.  Additionally, standout Right Tackle Tristan Wirfs, backup Center Robert Hainsey, and Left Guard Nick Leverett are battling injuries putting them in question for Week 1.  In most situations, teams would be panicking with a slew of injuries like this, but luckily for the Buccaneers they have Tom Brady who has never required much time in his decision making and getting the ball out of his hands. 

Even with the loss of Rob Gronkowski and Chris Godwin coming off a season ending injury last year, Tampa Bay’s offensive skill players are explosive.  Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich has proven he is one of the best signal callers in the league and there is no reason to think that trend will not continue.  Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette return.  Dependable slot receiver Scotty Miller is still around.  And the Buccaneers added Julio Jones, Russell Gage and Kyle Rudolph to the mix.  They also drafted highly regarded running back Rachaad White.  There is no doubt this offensive is going to put up points.

The Buccaneers schedule, as expected due to their success last year, is rather difficult.  Let’s start by pointing out that based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, Tampa Bay has the 4th-hardest schedule in the NFL.  Further breaking down their schedule, The Buccaneers have the fourth most difficult first half of the season (defined as the first eight games), with a strength of schedule (SOS) of .555.  Only the Chiefs, Bills, and Rams have it tougher.  The Bucs’ SOS in the final nine games is .516, which is only the 12th-hardest in the league.  And their last four contests generate a .485 SOS, which the 18th most difficult.  There is one positive takeaway for Tampa Bay with the way their schedule is laid out.  Obviously, every team in the NFL gets a bye week, but an oddity of Tampa Bay’s schedule is that it will not face a single team coming off its bye week all season.  Moreover, the Bucs will not play against a team coming off what is generally called a ‘mini-bye,’ which is the long weekend that follows a Thursday night game.  It all adds up to a ‘rest disparity of plus-eight days for the Buccaneers in 2022, which is tied for the 4th-highest total in the league.

Strongest Leans: 1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers under 11.5 wins, 2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win the NFC South, 3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to make the playoffs

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