Culture of Hoops

2015 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

AFC Division Previews: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC Division Previews: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
Preseason Power Rankings | Top 10 Storylines | NFL Players on New Teams | Top 10 Offensive Players | Top 10 Defensive Players | NFL Rookie of the Year | Breakout Players | Bust Players

Position Lists: Top 20 By Position List | Top QBs to Target | Top RBs to Target | Top WRs to Target | Top TEs to Target | Top Ks to Target | Top Team D/STs to Target
Sleepers | Shouldn’t Drafts | Rookies | Breakout Players | Draft Strategy

The collectively abysmal play of the NFC South raised several questions from football pundits: is this the worst division in NFL history? Should the division forfeit their playoff spot to the AFC North? These hard-hitting questions, both valid, lead us to a revamped division. The NFC South, producing Super Bowl-winning teams such as the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2010 New Orleans Saints, failed to produce even one team with a record over .500 in 2014. It’s time for these teams to produce, or face another year as the divisional laughingstock of the league. Read more about the NFC South in this NFL season preview.

Most Important Player: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
No matter how dubious a distinction, the Panthers still won the NFC South last season. While they would eventually get bounced by the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs, the onus is on them to have a repeat performance in 2015. They’ll need a big season from 26-year-old quarterback Cam Newton for that to happen.

Newton, fresh off of a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension, thrives in the red zone, and led the league in nearly all red zone rushing categories. The issue will be protecting the fifth-year quarterback. Newton suffered 38 sacks last season and with an only marginally improved offensive line – including Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin – it’s unclear if Newton will take less damage in 2015. Additionally, the torn ACL injury to Kelvin Benjamin will significantly limit Newton’s passing options.

X-Factor: Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Cooks, entering his second full season in the NFL, seems primed for a breakout in New Orleans. Likely the team’s number one passing option entering the season, the Saints’ success in 2015 largely hinges on the Oregon State alumnus. Cooks, whose 2014 season was cut short due to a thumb injury, will look to become an elite wideout over the course of a whole season in 2015.

Best Team: New Orleans Saints
The Saints took a big step backward last season after posting an 11-5 record in 2013. New Orleans’ underwhelming performance could largely be attributed to the play of quarterback Drew Brees, who tied for a career-low in touchdowns. With the emergence of second-season wideout Brandin Cooks, and a new running back in C.J. Spiller, however, Brees is an excellent candidate to lead New Orleans to victory over an otherwise weak division.

Team That Could Surprise: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have long branded their game on consistency, a strategy that could pay dividends in a division with so much uncertainty. Backed by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Roddy White, the Falcons will be employing a heavier running game under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Additionally, 23-year-old wide receiver Justin Hardy will aim for a key role on Atlanta’s offense as the 2015 fourth-round draft pick has reportedly impressed during the preseason. Look for the Saints and Falcons to be neck-and-neck for much of the season.

Bold Prediction: The Buccaneers will repeat their dismal 2014 performance and won’t win more than three games
Tampa Bay’s big story entering 2015 is their new quarterback, former Florida State standout Jameis Winston. Winston has all of the attributes necessary to succeed in the NFL, but will join a Buccaneers team in complete disarray this season. Their best wide receiver, Mike Evans, has already been injured during the preseason, suffering a hamstring injury that could keep him on the sidelines into the regular season. Winston will need Evans as a passing option to maintain any hope for success in 2015, and with a league-worst safety unit, expect things to get sloppy quickly in Tampa Bay.

Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Jones, a perennial league leader in receiving categories, figures to set himself apart from the field in 2015 as the cream of the NFC crop. Jones, who appeared in all but one game last season after suffering an injury-marred 2013, will increase his red zone activity this season en route to another elite season.

Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly has no peers in the NFC South, as the defensive performance of the 24-year-old over his past three seasons have set him apart in a class all of his own. The durable Kuechly has recorded 150+ tackles in each of his three seasons, while recording a career-high 11 passes defended last season.

Final Standings:
1. New Orleans Saints: 9-7
2. Atlanta Falcons: 8-8
3. Carolina Panthers: 7-9
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3-13

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