2014 record: 6-10, 3rd place NFC South
Key additions: Brooks Reed, Adrian Clayborn, Tony Moeaki
Key losses: Steven Jackson, Harry Douglas, Sam Baker, Jacquizz Rodgers, Sean Weatherspoon, Osi Umenyiora, Bear Pascoe
Top draft pick: Vic Beasley
The Good: Matt Ryan finished the season at the No. 5 ranked quartberback on Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 20.3 while his top target, Julio Jones was the No. 6 receiver, finishing with a grade of 17.0. Desmond Trufant quietly has a solid season as well, ending the year at the No. 6 ranked cornerback. Opposing receivers only scored twice off of Trufant and he only surrendered more than 80 receiving yards in a game once. Brooks Reed is also a solid addition to the defense, especially in stopping the run, a unit that Atlanta struggled with last season.
The Bad: Unlike Jones and Trufant, their counterparts were less than stellar. Roddy White’s age has finally caught up to him as he finished the season ranked 107th out of 110 wide receivers with a -10.4 grade. Robert Alford was torched all season before landing on injured reserve, surrendering six touchdowns in 10 games. Additionally, middle linebacker Paul Worrilow was the second-worst player at his position in the league last year
The Ugly: Both the offensive and defensive lines are a major weak spot on this team. Rookie left tackle Jake Matthews finished the year at the worst tackle in all of football, receiving a grade of -36.8. Matthews finished the year with only one game in which he received a positive grade and allowed seven sacks last season. The Falcons added Mike Person to take over at left guard in the offseason, but he also played poorly in limited action last year with the Rams.
On the defensive side, all three returning defensive linemen finished with negative grades. First round draft pick Vic Beasley will have to replace the recently retired Osi Umenyiora, who was the one shining light on the Falcons defensive line.
The NFC South is the weakest division in football, allowing Atlanta to stay competitive, but until this albatross of a defense is fixed, they will find themselves in the basement of the division. Falcons fans should keep an eye on Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson or Arizona inside linebacker Scobby Wright when watching college games this season.
2014 record: 7-8-1, 1st place NFC South
Key additions: Michael Oher, Charles Tillman, Kurt Coleman
Key losses: Greg Hardy, DeAngelo Williams, Thomas DeCoud
Top draft pick: Shaq Thompson
The Good: Carolina has talent all across this roster. Cam Newton finished the year at the No. 6 ranked quarterback and Jonathan Stewart quietly finished at the No. 7 running back. Despite the criticism they receive, four of the five players on the offensive line finished the year with a positive grade. On defense, they lost Greg Hardy, but their young defensive tackles, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, already look like one of the league’s best defensive tackle combos. Luke Kuechly ended the year as the best inside linebacker in the NFL.
The Bad: While Newton’s marks are good, it is heavily skewed by his running grade of 10.1, easily the best in the league. He still graded positively as a passer, but his 4.7 grade ranks him 13th among quarterbacks. Fullback Mike Tolbert was a weak link in the running game, finishing at the second-worst fullback in the league. In the preseason, Carolina also lost top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the year with a torn ACL.
The Ugly: While talent exists all across this roster, the Panthers lack talent in crucial positions. New left tackle Michael Oher was terrible on the right side last year. Additionally, outside of tight end Greg Olsen, Newton has nobody to throw to. Kony Ealy is also a weak link along the defensive line, but he could improve in his second NFL season.
On paper, Carolina has a competitive team and should be favored to win this division again, but with bad players at key positions, they won’t be able to make a deep playoff run, putting the Panthers in a bad position where they are too good to land an elite prospect in the draft, but not good enough to win a Super Bowl. Baylor blocker Spencer Drango and Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin are two players the Panthers may look at when scouting college players.
New Orleans Saints
2014 record: 7-9, 2nd place NFC South
Key additions: C.J. Spiller, Max Unger, Dannell Ellerbe, Brandon Browner
Key losses: Junior Galette, Kenny Stills, Jimmy Graham, Ben Grubbs
Top draft pick: Andrus Peat
The Good: Drew Brees was the second-best quarterback in the NFL last season. Mark Ingram finally showed some promise in his contract year and the Saints have a pretty solid offensive line, especially with the acquisition of Max Unger, who was the No. 4 center in the league last year.
The Bad: The Saints defense is terrible on all levels. To make matters worse, they released Junior Galette this offseason after videos surfaced of him allegedly striking a woman. Cameron Jordan, the Saints top defender, also finished the season with a -1 grade.
The Ugly: This secondary may be the worst in football. Kenny Vaccaro endured a sophomore slump, finishing the year as the third-worst safety in football. Jarius Byrd also struggled before being placed on injured reserve. Keenan Lewis received an 11.7 grade, ranking him 98th out of 108 cornerbacks in football and he allowed seven touchdowns. Brandon Browner was signed in the offseason, but he came to the team after a down year in which he received a -5 grade.
Vaccaro and Byrd are both talented enough to bounce back, as evidenced by their 2013 season in which both players finished with a positive grade. Unfortunately, the Saints will need much more than that to shore up this poor defensive unit. Brees will keep the Saints in games, but he can only win so many shootouts. New Orleans should target the top defensive player available in the draft. Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller and Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd are a pair of players to keep an eye on.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2014 record: 2-14, 4th place NFC South
Key additions: George Johnson, Bruce Carter, Gosder Cherilus
Key losses: Josh McCown, Dashon Goldson, C.J. Wilson
Top draft pick: Jameis Winston
The Good: By cutting Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay’s roster has already become significantly better. Mike Evans and Vincent Jacskson are a very potent duo at wide receiver. On defense, the Bucs have three stalwart players: Gerald McCoy, who was the No. 2 defensive tackle in football, outside linebacker Lavonte David, who was ranked seventh and Alterraun Verner, who showed that 2013 was not a one-year wonder, ending the year as the No. 7 cornerback.
The Bad: Tampa Bay’s success this season will rely heavily on the success of two rookies playing marquee positions. First overall draft pick Jameis Winston will take the reigns at quarterback while Donovan Smith will be protecting his blind side. Right guard Garrett Gilkey also struggled in limited action last year.
The Ugly: Punter Matt Koenen was the second-worst punter in the NFL last season and had the lowest average net yards per punt in the league last year. Johnthan Banks struggled at cornerback last year, allowing teams to avoid Verner by throwing to his side instead.
Tampa Bay will be a much better team this season, but with a weak running game, they will rely heavily on Winston. Expect Winston to impress at times and for this defense to keep them in games, but they are not ready for postseason contention. If Doug Martin doesn’t improve this year, the Bucs could sever their ties with him. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott may be a stretch for the Bucs to draft, but pass rushers like fellow Buckeye Joey Bosa and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun are players to keep an eye on for Tampa next season.
Final Predicted Standings:
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers