Projected Starters

NFC South projected starters: Saints' roster is NFL's best

With the 2020 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the NFC South breakdowns below.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Matt Ryan DE Dante Fowler Jr.
RB Todd Gurley DT Grady Jarrett
WR Julio Jones DT Marlon Davidson
WR Calvin Ridley DE Takkarist McKinley
WR Russell Gage OLB Foye Oluokun
TE Hayden Hurst MLB Deion Jones
LT Jake Matthews CB Kendall Sheffield
LG James Carpenter CB A.J. Terrell
C Alex Mack S Keanu Neal
RG Chris Lindstrom S Ricardo Allen
RT Kaleb McGary S Damontae Kazee
  • The decision to pass on wideout CeeDee Lamb in the first round of last month's NFL draft was surprising because the Falcons have such a need at the No. 3 receiver spot, where Russell Gage will play plenty.
  • Instead, the Falcons took A.J. Terrell 16th overall with the intention of starting him right away. Kendall Sheffield may play in the slot on most downs, with Isaiah Oliver on the outside in base packages. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn know all too well that early defensive back picks can be hit or miss, and they really need a quick hit with Terrell.
  • I liked the trade for Hayden Hurst, who is more athletic than departed free agent Austin Hooper. The cost of the trade (Hurst and a fourth-rounder were swapped for a second- and fifth-rounder) indicates Hurst will play a crucial role in a tight end-friendly offense.
  • It's surprising how much the Falcons are counting on Todd Gurley. His backups, led by Ito Smith, are not a threat to his workload. Then again, Gurley ranked in the top five among all running backs in snaps in each of the last two years despite all the concerns about his knee.
  • It bothers my friend and colleague Marc Sessler more every season that Matt Schaub's backup spot behind Matt Ryan feels like a permanent appointment. Perhaps this is the year Kurt Benkert beats him out for the job. Abbreviated offseason backup-quarterback battle, ahoy!
  • The Falcons are counting on the development of last year's rookie first-round offensive linemen, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, to improve the team's group up front. Atlanta's O-line finished 24th overall in PFF's grades last season despite all the resources poured into the unit.
  • The front office added Dante Fowler Jr. and second-round pick Marlon Davidson to add juice to a long-suffering pass rush. The decision to decline the fifth-year option on Takkarist McKinley's contract speaks volumes about their confidence in a potential turnaround from him.
  • Keanu Neal is back after missing nearly all of the last two seasons with a torn ACL (2018) and a torn Achilles tendon (2019). A return to form would help the defense massively, but he might not still be on the roster if his fifth-year option hadn't been guaranteed for injury.
  • Quinn starts this season on the hot seat. It's also worth wondering if owner Arthur Blank will consider totally starting over from scratch after 13 seasons with Dimitroff if the Falcons take another step back. Atlanta feels like one of the highest variance teams in football, with anything between 11-5 and 5-11 on the table.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Teddy Bridgewater DE Brian Burns
RB Christian McCaffrey DT Derrick Brown
WR D.J. Moore DT Kawann Short
WR Curtis Samuel DE Yetur Gross-Matos
WR Robby Anderson OLB Shaq Thompson
TE Ian Thomas ILB Tahir Whitehead
LT Russell Okung CB Donte Jackson
LG Dennis Daley CB Corn Elder
C Matt Paradis CB Troy Pride Jr.
RG John Miller S Tre Boston
RT Taylor Moton S Jeremy Chinn
  • Teddy Bridgewater fits well in an offense that asks him to find the right matchups as a ball distributor. That's what the Panthers are shaping up to be under coach Matt Rhule, with Bridgewater's underrated pocket movement making him tougher to sack in a quick-strike offense. Combine a nice group of skill-position weapons with a potentially poor defense, and Teddy could rack up numbers playing from behind in a high-volume offense.
  • The three starting wide receivers complement each other well. Robby Anderson can provide plenty of value as a vertical threat even if he only catches 40-to-50 passes. Bridgewater was capable of throwing a pretty deep ball before his knee injury, but he barely attempted any with the Saints.
  • Curtis Samuel should be a great YAC option in this offense, but D.J. Moore has been a steadier pro despite Samuel's annual fantasy hype.
  • Rhule should be good for Christian McCaffrey's career, but it's not like there's much room to play more or touch the ball more than he did a year ago.
  • It's fair to be concerned about the offensive line, especially along the interior. Both guard spots appear open and center Matt Paradis was a disappointment as an expensive free-agent pickup last season.
  • The starting interior D-line duo is so good that it could open up opportunities for the surrounding players. Veteran Stephen Weatherly and second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos figure to be in the mix plenty at end, but Rhule's offseason appreciation of Efe Obada shows the International Player Pathway Program graduate also has a chance to start.
  • Brian Burns created a lot of pressure as a rookie outside linebacker before he had to play through a wrist injury. However, he is light for a defensive end (250 pounds) and could be attacked in the running game.
  • Shaq Thompson has to carry the mantle for the Panthers linebackers after Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly held it for so long. Thompson is also the reason the Panthers passed on Isaiah Simmons in the draft. No pressure!
  • General manager Marty Hurney has to find some veteran cornerbacks before the season starts. At this stage, I have a fourth-round rookie (Troy Pride Jr.) and a special teamer (Corn Elder) as strong options to start. Carolina also has a rookie (Jeremy Chinn) slated to start at safety. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are licking their chops.
  • The Panthers drafted only defensive players because they needed to. The youth on the field will match the NFL inexperience on the coaching staff. Expect shootouts.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Drew Brees DE Cameron Jordan
RB Alvin Kamara DT David Onyemata
WR Michael Thomas DT Sheldon Rankins
WR Emmanuel Sanders DE Marcus Davenport
TE Jared Cook MLB Demario Davis
TE Josh Hill MLB Alex Anzalone
LT Terron Armstead CB Marshon Lattimore
LG Andrus Peat CB Janoris Jenkins
C Erik McCoy CB P.J. Williams
RG Cesar Ruiz S Marcus Williams
RT Ryan Ramczyk S Malcolm Jenkins
  • It's crazy how good the Saints' backups look at most positions. No wonder they keep trading up in the draft.
  • Even if Sean Payton says he didn't mean to imply this is Drew Brees' final season, it sure feels like Drew Brees' final season, especially considering the terms of Brees and Taysom Hill's contracts. I can't remember a clearer now-or-never year for such a talented team.
  • It may also be a now-or-never year for Alvin Kamara getting a big extension with the Saints. He just wasn't the same player last year as he was during his first two seasons in the league. Kamara can be the best player at his position if he's locked in.
  • Two things I've learned about projecting the Saints' offense over the years: Josh Hill will play more than expected, and the battle for the No. 3 receiver spot probably doesn't matter. Hill played a similar percentage of snaps to Jared Cook last year, even when Cook was healthy.
  • General manager Mickey Loomis expressed confidence in the homegrown options behind Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, with Tre'Quan Smith the most obvious candidates for snaps after quietly scoring 10 touchdowns in the last two seasons.
  • The Saints' transactions border on cockiness, trading up for nearly every pick they made in the draft. That includes guard/center Cesar Ruiz, whose selection precipitated cutting solid starter Larry Warford. I'd be confident too if I had Payton and Loomis' track record of drafting and developing linemen.
  • The depth of this roster can best be seen on defense. The Saints have backups at defensive tackle, cornerback and safety who would start on many rosters.
  • The depth isn't quite as strong at defensive end, but starter Marcus Davenport reminds me of a young Jadeveon Clowney and he's poised to make a third-year leap.
  • Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson isn't listed as a starter here, but the team will have to find a way to get him on the field after a great rookie season.
  • The linebacker group is worth watching in camp. Demario Davis leads the group, but there should be an open competition for snaps between Alex Anzalone, rookie Zack Baun, Kaden Elliss and Craig Robertson.
  • The Saints get my vote for the best roster in football, although the 49ers are close. This would be their fourth straight year as a top-five regular-season team, a stretch of sustained excellence they didn't accomplish even during Brees' peak years. That makes the pressure even greater to convert the talent into playoff wins.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Tom Brady DE Ndamukong Suh
RB Ronald Jones II DT Vita Vea
WR Mike Evans OLB Shaq Barrett
WR Chris Godwin ILB Lavonte David
TE Rob Gronkowski ILB Devin White
TE O.J. Howard OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
LT Donovan Smith CB Carlton Davis
LG Ali Marpet CB Jamel Dean
C Ryan Jensen CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
RG Alex Cappa S Jordan Whitehead
RT Tristan Wirfs S Antoine Winfield Jr.
  • Most of this offense -- including Tom Brady -- feels boom or bust outside of the top two receivers. Brady spun the ball well at age 42, but he's still breaking all previous age barriers while changing teams after playing in the same offense, with the same terminology, for 20 years.
  • The Bucs ranked ninth in yards per play last season. If Brady can move the offense at a similar level to Jameis Winston while cutting his turnovers in half, they'll have a top-10 attack.
  • The running game and the offensive line have potential, but they come with a lot of ifs. The same is true for the tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. Anything close to peak Gronk paired with Howard would be incredibly hard to defend, but it's anyone's guess how close Gronk will get to his previous form.
  • The Bucs went into the draft wanting a pass-catching back for Tom Brady. Ronald Jones II isn't it, so the pressure will be on rookie third-rounder Ke'Shawn Vaughn to learn the team's protection schemes and where Brady wants him to be during an abbreviated offseason. A veteran pickup or low-level trade at the position (Rex Burkhead?) feels possible.
  • I listed both tight ends as starters instead of a third receiver, although Bruce Arians hasn't shown a fondness for two-TE sets in the past. Justin Watson, Scotty Miller and rookie Tyler Johnson are all candidates for the role. That's another spot where the offense isn't quite fully formed.
  • The Bucs had one of the best run defenses of the last few decades. The key figures in creating that dominance -- Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Lavonte David and coordinator Todd Bowles -- are all back. Devin White, last year's No. 5 overall pick, could also help by missing fewer tackles.
  • Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett were an incredible duo once JPP was healthy last season. Barrett always flashed potential in Denver, but his ability to play at an All-Pro level again will help set the tone for this promising defense.
  • Tampa's trio of young cornerbacks played their best down the stretch last year. Whether that's a sign of an ascending group or a small-sample mirage could decide whether this is a playoff team or not. The Bucs ranked fifth in overall defensive efficiency last season because they stopped the run and forced turnovers, which is how Bowles' defense is ideally built to work.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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