The Falcons and their video-game offense last season led the NFL in touchdowns, points and percentage of games in which opposing defenses appeared to either hyperventilate, pass out or say, “To hell with it. I’m out of here.” They wound up in the Super Bowl.
It follows that when Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht wrote the word “SPEED” on a grease board in his office several months ago, it was about trying to catch up in the division. That meant not only trying to slow the Falcons’ offense, but closing the gap on offense with their NFC South Division rivals.
Tampa Bay was determined to give weapons to quarterback Jameis Winston. So they signed free-agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafted tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin to go with Winston’s top two targets last season, receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate.
“I asked (coach) Dirk (Koetter) if we should start calling him ‘Air Coryell,’” Licht said after the draft, a reference to the vertical offense of San Diego’s Don Coryell in the early 1980s.
The Falcons, for much of the franchise’s existence, have been in search of the right blueprint for success. Now that they’ve found it, it appears division rivals are mimicking them. The theory seems to be: “If we can’t stop the Falcons, let’s try to outscore them.”
Carolina spent its first three draft picks on offense: running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver Curtis Samuel and guard Taylor Moton. They also signed free agent left tackle Matt Kalil.
New Orleans, trying to squeeze the most out of 38-year-old Drew Brees while he’s still around, added running back Adrian Peterson in free agency, drafted another back (Alvin Kamara) and a tackle (Ryan Ramczyk) and signed receiver Ted Ginn.
So who will reign in the NFC South? Barring injuries, probably still the Falcons, and not just because of their offense. Here’s a recap of this offseason’s key moves in the division and what it all means.
They’re still the best team in the division, and it’s not just because they have the best offense. Dan Quinn’s young defense got significantly better down the stretch last season, and it did so without its best player: cornerback Desmond Trufant, who will return from a torn pectoral.
It doesn’t seem likely that Dwight Freeney, who was a solid mentor for Vic Beasley in 2016 and had what looked (for a while) like a key sack in the Super Bowl, will be back. (Freeney also may retire.) But the defensive front and the pass rush should be better with the additions of first-round pick Takk McKinley, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and end Jack Crawford.
On offense, expect tight end Austin Hooper to have an increased role. The biggest question is whether offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can adequately replace Kyle Shanahan while handling his real-life issues. But it helps that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and others have worked in this offense for two years, and Sarkisian isn’t expected to make significant changes.
2. TAMPA BAY
The DeSean Jackson signing is huge. He’s 30 years old, but he led the NFL last season with an average of 17.9 yards per catch and had 19 of 20-plus yards. Having Jackson and two big targets in Mike Evans (6-foot-5) and O.J. Howard (6-6) also will make the Bucs difficult to defend in the red zone, especially with the mobile Winston (ask the Falcons about that).
If there’s one question about the Bucs’ offense, it’s at running back. Doug Martin is coming off his worst season, spent part of the offseason in a drug-rehab facility and will sit out a suspension for the season’s first three games (Adderall). But there’s only so much Tampa Bay can do there because Martin’s only one year into a five-year, $35.75 million contract ($15 million guaranteed).
The Bucs’ other issue: defense. With the Falcons and others in mind, they got stronger at safety (second-round pick Justin Evans, signing J.J. Wilcox), and Gerald McCoy is still one of the league’s best interior linemen. But I question how much Mike Smith can do with this group.
The Panthers are only two years removed from going 15-1 and playing in the Super Bowl. But I balk at putting them second for mostly one reason: Cam Newton. He was the MVP in 2015, but leadership and maturity have been questioned since.
He’s also coming off statistically the worst season of his career, with a completion percentage of only 52.9, a touchdown-interception breakdown of 19-14 and a 75.8 rating — which ranked 28th in the NFL, right between Case Keenum and Brock Osweiler. Some of that can be attributed to having to do it all himself, but it doesn’t explain everything.
McCaffrey and Samuel should help. But how much better will the Panthers be on defense after slipping from sixth overall in yards allowed and scoring in 2015 to 21st and and 26th, respectively? They got sentimental in bringing back Julius Peppers (who’s 37 years old) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and drafted end Daeshon Hall from Texas A&M. But the void left by Josh Norman’s departure remains significant, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has missed nine games in the past two seasons because of concussions.
Carolina won’t go 6-10 again, but there are enough questions to put the team third.
4. NEW ORLEANS
If there’s one consensus opinion about the division next season, it’s that the Saints will finish last. That may sound strange with the addition of Adrian Peterson, but think about it: He’s a 32-year-old running back who missed most of last season with a major knee injury.
The defense remains a train wreck. (When Dennis Allen was hired last season, he became the fifth defensive coordinator to work under coach Sean Payton.) The Saints finished 27th in total defense and 31st in points allowed, so it didn’t really matter how good the offense was. They finished second in the NFL in scoring to the Falcons, but second to last in points allowed, with a differential of plus-15.
New Orleans is attempting to address the problem. It had six picks in the first three rounds and used four of those on defense: cornerback Marshon Lattimore (first round), safety Marcus Williams (second), linebackers Alex Anzalone and Trey Hendrickson (third). That said, New Orleans’ player evaluation on defense has not been great, so it’s best to reserve judgment.