With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Herbie Teope tackles the NFC South below.
Most significant changes from 2017
ATLANTA FALCONS: The Falcons boasted a top-10 defense in 2017, so much of the attention falls on the other side of the line of scrimmage. On paper, Atlanta once again boasts one of the NFL's top offenses, but there is plenty to prove after the unit plunged in numerous statistical categories last year under Steve Sarkisian's direction. The offense returns relatively intact, so the biggest adjustment for Matt Ryan and Co. will be taking the next step in Year 2 of Sarkisian's scheme -- something the offensive coordinator feels confident will happen. Now, it's a matter of properly deploying Pro Bowlers Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, in addition to 2018 first-rounder Calvin Ridley, with the aim of making a deep postseason run.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: The Panthers added a new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner and injected youth at the wide receiver position in first-round pick D.J. Moore. The spotlight, however, falls on Turner, who takes over an offense that finished the 2017 season ranked 19th in the league (323.7 yards per game). The running game, which ranked fourth (131.4 yards per game), is the easy part for Turner, but the Panthers need to improve on last year's 28th-ranked passing attack (192.3 yards per game). Turner believes quarterback Cam Newton, who holds a career 58.5 completion percentage, is capable of achieving a mid-to-high-60s percentage, which would certainly boost the Panthers' aerial game and provide balance on offense. On defense, the Panthers promoted line coach Eric Washington to become the team's new defensive coordinator, after Steve Wilks left to take the Arizona Cardinals' head job. The decision to stay in-house should ensure continuity for a unit that ranked seventh in total defense last season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: A winning feeling has returned to the Big Easy after the Saints endured three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2014 to '16. The 2017 campaign got off to a rocky 0-2 start, but any feelings of deja vu quickly disappeared when the Saints ripped off eight straight wins to finish 11-5 and take the divisional title. The team's foundation on both sides of the ball features an ideal blend of veterans and youth, with a 2017 draft class that produced running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, free safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone. The Saints also hit in the previous two drafts, where they selected guard Andrus Peat (No. 13 overall in '15), defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (No. 12 in '16) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (No. 47 in '16). The offense continues to rank among the league's best with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees in command. Given the talent across the roster, coach Sean Payton has his mojo back with a team built for January football.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS:Jameis Winston's three-game suspension to start the season means next man up for the 2018 Bucs. Ryan Fitzpatrick will take the reins in Winston's absence, and the 35-year-old will have weapons, including wide receiver Mike Evans, whom the Buccaneers took care of during the offseason with a five-year, $82.5 million contract extension. The focus in Tampa Bay falls on the defense, an area the team invested heavily in this offseason to bolster a unit that finished last in the league against the pass. Cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes return, and are reinforced by a pair of 2018 second-round picks, M.J. Stewart (53rd overall) and Carlton Davis (63rd overall). Tampa Bay also added key pieces to the defensive line, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and first-rounder Vita Vea (who missed the entire preseason with a calf injury) joining three-time All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy up front.
One player to watch on each team
ATLANTA FALCONS: Austin Hooper, tight end. Hooper tends to fly under the radar on a team full of superstar offensive players, but make no mistake, the third-year pro is talented. The Falcons need to figure out how to get the most out of him in the offense, especially in the red zone. The offseason work Hooper put in with Matt Ryan appears to be paying dividends, with coach Dan Quinn heaping praise on his tight end in early August.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Christian McCaffrey, running back. The Panthers are dealing with a banged-up offensive line, but McCaffrey possesses the skill set to hurt opposing defenses as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. Now, the second-year pro has an offensive coordinator in Norv Turner whose history with Hall of Fame running backs like Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson, among others, points to the Panthers having fun in how they deploy McCaffrey.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Marcus Williams, free safety. Forget the Minneapolis Miracle because Williams refuses to allow the play to define him. The second-year safety has done nothing but impress with big plays throughout training camp, inspiring his quarterback to compare Williams' ball-hawking skill set to Ed Reed, one of the NFL's all-time great free safeties.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Jameis Winston, quarterback. Winston, suspended for violating the league's personal conduct policy, will be under the microscope when he returns in Week 4. Additionally, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht turned heads recently when he didn't fully commit to Winston as the clear starter once the fourth-year pro returns to the active roster.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
From top to bottom, the NFC South is arguably the toughest division in the league. There's a reason, however, the Saints tied the Los Angeles Rams for the most votes to win Super Bowl LIII in a recent poll among NFL.com analysts. With a strong foundation of players and continuity within the coaching staff, the Saints are built to win now. And the team has extra incentive to secure another Lombardi Trophy sooner than later when considering Drew Brees turns 40 in January.