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Last year after a 1-3 start, the Carolina Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games to take the NFC South division crown. In a division that hasn’t had a back-to-back division champion since realigning in 2002, the door is completely wide open.
However, it does appear that the NFC South will run through New Orleans. They’re a well-oiled machine when they’re in the Superdome. The only thing they lost sleep over this offseason was whether Jimmy Graham was going to get Calvin Johnson money or not. At four years for $40 million, he’s still a bargain. That was the New Orleans Saints’ first real win of the season, and I look for them to keep the wins coming.
Most Important Player: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers enter this season with many unknowns. Four of their offensive linemen from last season retired. They lost Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon this past offseason. It will be up to Cam Newton to get the most out of this offense.
For the Carolina Panthers to reach the success they did last season, Cam Newton is going to have to make plays in every way possible. Look for this season to be critical in the development of Cam Newton as a quarterback and as a leader.
X-Factor: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers took Kelvin Benjamin in the first round with their 28th pick. At 6’5” and 240 pounds, everyone hopes he develops into the big, physical receiver that gives opposing cornerbacks nightmares. This offense will be dying for someone explosive on the outside.
The only problem is, how much time do the Carolina Panthers have to wait for that growth? With the loss of Steve Smith and company, the Carolina Panthers are going to need Kelvin Benjamin to produce coming right out the gate. Is it going to be too much to ask from a rookie?
Best Team: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints finished last season in second place with a record of 11-5 and are looking to improve. Offensively they will have to deal with the loss of Darren Sproles, but I’m sure Drew Brees will be able to find other options in the passing game. Jimmy Graham is back in the fold, Marques Colston is still there, and Brandin Cooks will provide a spark as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the New Orleans Saints have made a big move in bringing in Jairus Byrd, former Buffalo Bills safety. They’ve also brought in former first round pick Patrick Robinson at cornerback. Overall, the Saints have the depth and playmakers available to make them a tough match for any team.
Team That Could Surprise: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
On paper, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a legitimate squad. They’re a borderline playoff contender. With the addition of Lovie Smith, you know that defense is going to improve. The quarterback situation is a little suspect but this team has players on both sides of the ball that can make plays and win ball games. Last year they were better than their 4-12 record suggested, they just had a nasty streak of injuries that plagued them. Don’t be surprised if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers make things a little interesting in this division.
Bold Predictions: The Carolina Panthers will come back down to Earth
With so much overhaul on an offense that was never really amazing to begin with, I have a hard time putting my trust in the Carolina Panthers. A team can only lean on their defense for so long. Doing that with the schedule they have this year spells trouble. Teams won’t be so forgiving. Cam Newton is going to have to make something out of nothing more times than not for this offense to keep the chains moving. I think they’ll struggle as they deal with the changes on the offensive side of the football.
Also, the Atlanta Falcons will struggle! To some, what happened to the Falcons last season was just a perfect storm sprinkled in with some bad luck. Julio Jones missed most of 2013, Roddy White was in and out with injury, Steven Jackson was in his first year with the team, and the offensive line was transitioning. Some of those things can improve, and you should expect them to. The defensive side of the ball is what kills this team. They don’t have the talent on that side of the ball to compete game in and game out. The schedule they have will certainly expose that. Expect the Atlanta Falcons to have a rough season.
Offensive Player of the Season: Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
The man is a machine. I’m not even going to waste time with giving you numbers and stats. You know and I know that Jimmy Graham is going to get his and get his often. Look for him to be very familiar with the end zone this season, even though he can’t dunk the football through the goalpost anymore.
Defensive Player of the Season: Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gerald McCoy is going to love playing for Lovie Smith. Look for Lovie Smith to put together an assortment of schemes in the Tampa 2 defense that take advantage of his athleticism and versatility as a defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy was great last season, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a 4-12 football team. If they can manage to win more games, Gerald McCoy will get more recognition as one of the best defensive tackles in the game.
New Orleans Saints: 10-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9-7
Carolina Panthers: 8-8
Atlanta Falcons: 7-