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Update on the NFC South: Sam Darnold might be the QB with the most upside remaining

A reigning champion and uncertain futures everywhere

Carolina Panthers Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Before we even get into the NFC South, let’s get to the most pressing matter in the conference right now: the rapid decline in quarterback talent relative to the AFC.

Though Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers were all riding high in the AFC not long ago, you would have expected the conference to be taking an inevitable nose dive because of their ages. And then on top of that, Andrew Luck retired. Even though Brady switched sides and immediately won a Super Bowl, the NFC appears to have an open competition for the top-two quarterbacks in the conference over the next three years.

And Matthew Stafford has a fantastic shot at being one of those quarterbacks.

Drew Brees has retired. Brady is 43. Matt Ryan is 36 and to me he seems like the type of player who won’t avoid retiring when he feels he can’t play at a high level anymore. Aaron Rodgers might never play for an NFC team again in his career. Russell Wilson may choose to follow in the steps of Rodgers, Brady, and Matthew Stafford and force a change of scenery in 2022.

Truly no NFC quarterbacks other than Stafford and Dak Prescott feel exceptionally secure to be playing for the same team in 2024. Stafford because the Rams will not show hesitation in paying him a lot of guaranteed money by next year. Prescott because he just signed a new deal.

Just speaking in terms of young quarterbacks who appear relatively secure to be with the same team in three years, there’s Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill, and Justin Herbert, plus the additions of Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson (which to me feel more secure than the Trey Lance pick, but this isn’t to say Lance won’t be better than both) in the draft, the uncertain future of Deshaun Watson, the potential of Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, the second chance for Carson Wentz, and Derek Carr.

It’s not a wild theory to presume that only the Steelers and Broncos really need to figure out a long-term answer at quarterback soon.

In the NFC, no saner or wilder is the proposition that by 2022 the Giants, Eagles, Packers, Bears, Vikings, Lions, Saints, Bucs, Panthers, Falcons, 49ers, Football Team, and potentially the Seahawks could all have different starting quarterbacks than who they had at the end of 2020. That’s three-quarters of the NFC East, the entire NFC North, the entire NFC South, and half of the NFC West. I also might be giving more credit to Kyler Murray than I should be.

I named every team except for the Rams and Cowboys. But it’s not that wild.

Previously: NFC East

Previously: NFC North

New Orleans Saints - Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill?

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

It really came to this?

In 2017, the Saints took Marshon Lattimore over Deshaun Watson, and they could have moved up one or two spots to get Patrick Mahomes. Surely if Sean Payton is the quarterback guru, he wouldn’t have let Mahomes slip by had he suspected what would lie ahead.

In 2018, the Saints traded up for Marcus Davenport. They could have hung back, selected Lamar Jackson. If Taysom Hill is a viable option, certainly Jackson would work for Payton’s offense.

In 2020, the Saints took Cesar Ruiz over Jordan Love and that might turn out to be a good decision. Jalen Hurts was also available in the second round. I only point these moments out because it takes a hell of a lot of confidence to have a quarterback who was 38, 39, and 41 at the time of those drafts and to never do anything to try and find a replacement on a rookie contract. Or a hell of a lot of confidence in Taysom Hill.

In any case, New Orleans’ defense was even better than the offense last season and they still return an offensive line that was always elite with Brees, plus Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. The Saints went 12-4 last season, could they go 13-4 without Brees?

Winston has been cited as the clear favorite, but I don’t think you can just give him a ‘pass’ for falling out of favor with the Buccaneers, like I’ve seen some people doing. Do we really need to cover this? The Bucs WON THE SUPER BOWL with largely the same team that went 7-9 with a quarterback who had 30 interceptions, 12 fumbles, and 47 sacks taken.

In his last 11 starts, Winston threw 25 interceptions and lost five fumbles.

Most interesting free agent signing: DE Tanoh Kpassagnon

Most interesting draft pick: QB Ian Book

I’m not trying to be “outside the box” with the Book pick. I mean really, I just don’t know that New Orleans definitely has the player who will start the most games at quarterback for them next season on the roster right now. Winston wasn’t even the backup quarterback last season. Even Gardner Minshew could step in and play competently as a rookie for the Jaguars in 2019.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers - It’s been 17 years since the last Super Bowl repeat champion

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Minicamp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs will be favored to win the Super Bowl, and someone will say that it is “hard to repeat,” and then the reply will be “Yeah but did you know they brought back all 22 starters?” and then that reply will be “Yes. Everybody knows that. It’s hard to repeat.”

It’s hard to repeat.

Tampa Bay was only 7-5 after 12 games and they had to fight to get into the playoffs. They had the NFL’s best run defense (not that anyone wants to mention that now because “rushing” isn’t supposed to matter on either side of the ball, right?) but overall they didn’t clamp down and become great until the final quarter of the season and the playoffs.

However, it is true that the Bucs will look largely the same as they did last year.

Not only that, but they get to start the year with Antonio Brown, they return O.J. Howard from injury, they added Joe Tryon in the first round of the draft, they get another year of Rob Gronkowski, they see Tristan Wirfs perhaps take another step up in his development, and now Tom Brady goes into the year knowing what it is like to practice and play in Tampa Bay. This can’t be overlooked. Brady said last season that he wasn’t prepared for the difference in heat and that the Bucs couldn’t practice as regularly as the Patriots used to until after it cooled down in December.

When Florida cooled down, the Bucs got hot.

It is entirely possible that the Bucs will win 15 games and get back to the Super Bowl. But nevertheless, it is hard to repeat.

Most important free agent signing: RB Giovani Bernard

Most interesting draft pick: DE Joe Tryon

There is a low probability that second round quarterback Kyle Trask will become an NFL starter. Not so the case with Tryon, a 2020 opt out who has a good chance to get into the pass rush rotation right away. And for a defense that actually has quite a bit of room to grow and get better against the pass.

The team’s leading edge rushers are 32-year-old Jason Pierre-Paul and 29-year-old Shaquil Barrett. Tampa’s current defensive ends are 34-year-old Ndamukong Suh and 30-year-old William Gholston. Tryon was a clear pick for need but he could have also been the BPA.

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Carolina Panthers - Finally, Sam Darnold is paired with Robby Anderson

NFL: Carolina Panthers OTA Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers could have had Justin Fields. You could argue that they could have had Trey Lance. If Carolina was willing to trade picks for Matthew Stafford, surely they would have considered dealing a future first to move up for a quarterback if they felt there was a third one worthy of going in the top-three. The 49ers felt that there was, but the Panthers do not appear to have been in agreement.

Instead, they traded for a quarterback who a) will be expensive almost immediately and b) is arguably the worst starting QB of the last three seasons.

Since 2018, Darnold ranks 28th in passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 800 attempts. There are only 28 qualified quarterbacks on that list. Darnold also ranks 28th in adjusted yards per attempt (by a significant margin behind Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, and Daniel Jones, the quarterbacks ranked 25th, 26th, and 27th), 27th in yards per attempt, 26th in interception rate, 26th in touchdown rate, and 28th in completion percentage.

The reasons that people give for why Sam Darnold is the NFL’s worst statistical quarterback but also supposedly worth a second round pick in trade and a bonafide starter for the Panthers next season?

“It’s not his fault.”

It was the fault of two different head coaches, two different offensive coordinators, receivers like Jamison Crowder, Robby Anderson, Demaryius Thomas, Braxon Barrios, Denzel Mims, Breshad Perriman, running backs Le’Veon Bell and Frank Gore, tight end Chris Herndon, and the offensive line, which included spending a top pick on a really good tackle in 2020. But not Darnold’s fault.

I mean, if Darnold had put up good numbers, maybe we’d also be talking about how he’s never played in more than 13 games.

With the Panthers, Darnold might be able to enjoy the same cheat code passing attack that once bolstered Cam Newton’s accuracy: just dump off the ball to Christian McCaffrey 150 times. But Carolina’s offensive line has a lower ceiling than what the Jets appear to have, the tight ends have no real history of catching a lot of NFL passes, and Darnold will once again be throwing to Anderson. He’ll also have D.J. Moore, second rounder Terrace Marshall, and free agent David Moore.

Oddly enough, I think the 2021 Jets might have better weapons at receiver with Crowder, Mims, free agent Corey Davis, and second rounder Elijah Moore.

I didn’t think that signing Teddy Bridgewater last year was a good idea. In comparison to trading a second, a fourth, and a sixth round pick for Darnold, adding Bridgewater could end up looking like signing Brady.

Perhaps a change of scenery for Darnold will look similar to the change of scenery for Ryan Tannehill, but let’s also keep in mind that acquiring a more-accomplished Tannehill only cost the Titans a fourth rounder. This move will either make Matt Rhule look like a genius, or it is a sign that Carolina is turning into Jets South.

Most important free agent signing: CB A.J. Bouye

Most interesting draft pick: CB Jaycee Horn

Don’t let that Sam Darnold treatment make you think that I believe that Carolina should have drafted Justin Fields over Jaycee Horn. I do not think that. The Panthers had to do something to replace Troy Pride and Rasul Douglas at cornerback and these moves help them cover players like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Michael Thomas, and Calvin Ridley.

In the last four years, the Panthers have drafted DE Brian Burns, DT Derrick Brown, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, CB Donte Jackson, S/LB Jeremy Chinn, and Horn in the top two rounds. This offseason, they also signed Morgan Fox, plus LB Haason Reddick, LB Denzel Perryman, DT DaQuan Jones, and Bouye. (Stashed on the roster is 2020 Rams seventh rounder Clay Johnston, for your record-keeping.)

Defensively, I think I understand the mission here. Offensively, so much depends on Darnold, but maybe the whole idea is to put the offense back on McCaffrey and wait to see if a quarterback falls into their laps.

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Atlanta Falcons - Are the Falcons the most obvious “Worst to First” candidate?

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Erase everything you know about the 2020 Falcons and instead focus on what could be one of the most explosive offenses in the NFC next season:

Arthur Smith replaces Dan Quinn as head coach, and Smith hired Dave Ragone — a former offensive assistant under Sean McVay in Washington — as his offensive coordinator. Smith turned a team with Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Derrick Henry into the number four scoring offense in the NFL in 2020, and did so in spite of the loss of right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and left tackle Taylor Lewan to a torn ACL.

In Atlanta, Smith and Ragone will have Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, and an offensive line with three former first round picks and a bevy of options to compete inside. It’s not hard to see Ridley gaining over 1,500 yards, Pitts competing as Offensive Rookie of the Year, and running back Mike Davis — who somewhat secretly gained 1,015 yards from scrimmage with the Panthers last season — becoming one of the biggest fantasy surprises of 2021.

The Falcons have finished in the top-10 for total yards in eight of the last 10 seasons with Matt Ryan, and a Ryan-led offense has never finished outside of the top-18 in yards or the top-21 in points. Atlanta hasn’t been a great offense since 2016, but the hiring of Smith and the refusal to trade Ryan suggests that owner Arthur Blank expects that to change immediately.

Count me among those who believes Ryan will jump back into the MVP conversation again, but will Atlanta be involved in shootout after shootout?

The Falcons held the Kansas City Chiefs to only 17 points in late December — and K.C. was close to full strength — but then they came back the next week and allowed a season-worst 44 to the Buccaneers.

Atlanta has poured many draft resources into the secondary: Isaiah Oliver in 2018, Kendall Sheffield in 2019, A.J. Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins in 2020, Richie Grant, Darren Hall, and Avery Williams in 2021. But the previous coaching staff was unable to turn around the defense and now they’ll turn to 72-year-old Dean Pees.

Pees didn’t reach the NFL until 2004, when he was 55, and he immediately won a Super Bowl as linebackers coach for the Patriots. Two years later, he was promoted to New England’s defensive coordinator — and it really wasn’t the defense’s fault that the Patriots fell one win shy of a perfect record in 2007. Pees was later hired as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, and he went to his third Super Bowl as a coach, winning for a second time.

Pees served as the defensive coordinator for the Titans in 2018, when they ranked third in points allowed, and 2019, when Tennessee was a surprise entrant into the AFC Championship Game.

The Titans defense took a tumble without Pees in 2020, ranking 24th in points allowed and giving up at least 38 points in three of their last five games of the season.

The front-seven of the Falcons includes Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Dante Fowler, and Foyesade Oluokun, but has plenty of room for improvement. If Atlanta can manage a top-six scoring offense and a top-20 defense, then anything above .500 seems plausible. It may be difficult for the Falcons to out-do the Buccaneers next season, but this could be the team — and not New Orleans — that really challenges Brady.

Most important free agent signing: S Duron Harmon

Most interesting draft pick: TE Kyle Pitts

I suspected that the Falcons would take Pitts, I was just surprised that they also traded away Julio Jones. This could have been such a dynamic offense — it could still be — but that would have been fun to watch for one season. I’m afraid that Pitts will be overrated because the praise has been so consistent and unwavering, but I would trust Ryan to know how and when to get him the ball.

Ryan spent five years with Tony Gonzalez, and Gonzalez made four Pro Bowl appearances. All after turning 34.

Harmon may not be the most talented player that Atlanta added, and I think Mike Davis deserves mention here, but his familiarity with what Dean Pees is going to do (though their time in New England didn’t overlap) could really help get the young secondary on the same page as the old coach.

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Poll

Who wins the NFC South?

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    Bucs
    (37 votes)
  • 5%
    Saints
    (3 votes)
  • 19%
    Panthers
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    Falcons
    (1 vote)
51 votes total Vote Now

One more...

Poll

Who is the most likely team to win a WILD CARD spot out of the NFC South?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Bucs
    (1 vote)
  • 39%
    Saints
    (18 votes)
  • 34%
    Panthers
    (16 votes)
  • 23%
    Falcons
    (11 votes)
46 votes total Vote Now