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Published October 13, 2023
2023 Season Outlook: NFC South
Written by Alex C.
With the short-lived Tom Brady regime finally coming to an end in Tampa Bay, the NFC South looks to be more competitive as we see who emerges as the new king of the division. There’s just one problem – each team in the division is beginning to look like shells of their former selves through hindering their growth with short-term solutions, wild experiments and lack of long-term direction. The NFC South is far from the explosive division it once was and has become a ghost town, looking for the next stars to fill up the vacancies.
The 2022 season witnessed the most underwhelming NFC South competition we’ve seen in quite a while, with each of the four teams finishing the season with losing records. The Tom Brady Buccaneers went toe-to-toe with the most mediocre squads, which still didn’t help the fact that Brady was facing an off-year himself. There are still many imperfections scattered around each of these teams, but the 2023 season is a issue of trial and error for the four quadrants as they attempt to figure out the trajectories of their future. It’s not a pretty sight, but there are still glimmers of hope shining within each of these franchises – there’s a possibility that this could be the most fun division to watch unfold throughout the 2023 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Previous Record – 8-9
The Tom Brady chapter in Tampa Bay has finally concluded after the star quarterback decided to retire a second time. It’s no secret that the 2022 season was an off-year not only for Brady, but for this entire roster who came into the previous season far from the Super Bowl -winning team they once were. Failed connections, coaching troubles and an Antonio Brown press run really hindered the team’s trajectory as they miraculously clinched a playoff berth with a losing record. Now that Brady’s gone, there’s only so many silver linings this team wields, but that could be the cost of giving everything up for another championship. Tampa Bay was projected to be a struggling team this year, but there could be more to them than what meets the eye.
The Buccaneers’ off-season couldn’t have kicked off in a more chaotic manner. With Brady finally announcing his retirement, it was time for the team to decide if they were going to swing for a quarterback in the draft or pick up a bridge in the meantime. The answer: Baker Mayfield. You can assume what the general reaction was following the signing, but this is Mayfield’s last shot at a starting job and if he can’t perform with one of the best receiver cores in the league – well, it might be wraps them. The team also lost a gem in corner Sean Murphy-Bunting, but were still able to successfully retain linebacker Lavonte David and corner Jamel Dean. The Bucs’ off-season wasn’t as flashy as what other teams were able to accomplish – but a good bulk was spent trying to create short term solutions to the roster, which may or may not cause anymore long-term problems.
The Bucs had a sneaky draft night as they walked away with a handful of gems. They used their first-round pick to snag explosive D-lineman Calijah Kancey, who looks to contribute heavily on a steady defensive line. They also picked up Nebraska receiver Trey Palmer and Eastern Michigan edge rusher Jose Ramirez, who look to be great late-round picks if they can win their positions. There was some emphasis on corner with Kansas State’s Josh Hayes and Kentucky’s Carrington Valentine as well, which could see some good return on investment in the future as they can learn behind a complimenting secondary. Tampa Bay’s draft wasn’t the craziest of the bunch, but it isn’t one that should fly over heads with many players looking to make an great impact when it’s their time to step up.
Now that we’ve gotten a nice two-game serving platter of the rag-tag Bucs squad, it’s clear that this Tampa Bay team can still put up a good fight. Baker isn’t the most gifted quarterback touching the field right now, but he’s putting up solid performances each week that prove Tampa Bay is far from the disaster they were projected to be. Now the question is: are they a legit contender? The answer would be no. So far the Bucs have out-played two very underwhelming defenses – which is still quite a success – but there’s a lot of doubt with how well they fare against a bonafide Super Bowl-contending squad. The division isn’t getting easier either, with each team making great additions on both sides of the ball. It’s hard to determine whether this team is going to be a fluke or not in the long-run, but they should appreciate the success they’ve seen so far in the earliest weeks of the season.
Season Outlook Grade – C+
Previous Record – 7-10
With the NFC South’s choppy conclusion to the previous season, it was hard to tell whether the Panthers were trying their luck at the playoffs or making a slight attempt at soft-tanking. Despite the confusion, they still ended up with the number-one pick in the 2023 draft after a blockbuster trade to Chicago which also sent away a lethal receiver in D.J. Moore. Now, Carolina has no other option than to gamble on their first overall pick – Bryce Young – and see if their new addition is able to properly develop. The Panthers don’t really have the most talented offensive roster – even after the off-season moves they’ve made – so it doesn’t seem like this Carolina squad is well-equipped to the task of developing a quasi-generational talent of a pick, but anything is possible in the NFL.
The Panthers gained more than they lost this off-season, which still isn’t saying a lot when the quarterback replacement for Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker is Andy Dalton. They tried their best at building an “offensive starter kit” for their new quarterback, but the package they put together still wasn’t the most impressive display of talent. They nabbed receivers Adam Thielen and D.J. Chark, running back Miles Sanders and tight-end Hayden Hurst. All have cemented themselves as reliable options in their previous situations, but nobody aside from Thielen has ever performed at an eyebrow-raising level. The defense got slightly better, however, as Carolina was able to nab safety Vonn Bell in free agency. Bell played a significant role in a steady Bengals secondary and looks to contribute heavily to an establishing Carolina defense.
Despite wielding the number-one overall pick, Carolina ended their draft weekend with only five total selections – however, taking Bryce Young with the first selection was projected to happen as soon as the Bears trade news broke. Carolina hasn’t seen reliable quarterback play since the last few seasons that Cam Newton was there – no, we’re not talking about his second stint either – so Young looks to be the signal caller that will bring the Panthers back to contention. Aside from the standout Young pick, Carolina was able to snag wide receiver Johnathan Mingo in the second round. The Ole Miss product fluctuated throughout receiver rankings surrounding the draft, but this is a good opportunity for Bryce to establish a QB-WR connection early on with someone from his class. It could help the team elevate from the clear low ceiling of its current offensive state.
When a team is able to snag the number-one pick in the upcoming draft, the expectation is that said team is able to shoot right back into a competitive position, possibly even transforming into a playoff contender. While having Young really helps Carolina get their feet off the ground, the Panthers don’t employ a championship-caliber roster that will better help their rookie quarterback adjust to the league. The offensive line is not sturdy at all and the receiving room isn’t exactly the sharpest – as a matter of fact, it may be the worst in the league as of right now. Even though Carolina was dealt a chance to flip their franchise around, the process isn’t going to happen immediately with this roster. This season is going to be arguably rougher than their last two combined, as expectations are beginning to pile up. If Carolina can properly build around Bryce and the kid is able to perform at a high level, then we could be looking at the beginning of a consistent championship contender.
Right now though, Carolina is going to be facing quite the challenge.
Season Outlook Grade – B
New Orleans Saints
Previous Record – 7-10
The post-Brees Saints have been anything but great. It’s no surprise that the departure of the future Hall of Fame quarterback has left quite the void in the roster for the past few seasons. The team has tried to compete with temporary patches of Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton and Taysom Hill, but there hasn’t been any success in getting back to the playoffs. The Saints have an outstanding defense and a couple of playmakers on offense, but all that was left was a steady anchor at the quarterback position. Derek Carr has since stepped up as the next quarterback to help bring the Saints back into the playoff race, which buys the organization some time as they properly figure out the future of the position in New Orleans. With the division wide open, the Saints face a great opportunity to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the NFC. It’s going to take more than a season, but they are taking steps in the right direction to get back into the playoff race.
As mentioned, former Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was picked up by the Saints after a nasty breakup with his previous team. Carr’s play comes with its own question marks, but the vet has established himself as a consistent playmaker, stepping up whenever he’s needed. The Saints also added former Raiders tight-end Foster Moreau to give Carr a security blanket on offense. New Orleans brought back superstar receiver Michael Thomas and capitalized off of Jamaal Williams’ record-breaking season by picking him up in free agency. On the surface level, the Saints are doing their best to build up an offense that immensely struggled last year, but defensive moves were quiet as the team only lost defensive end Marcus Davenport while focusing on bringing back defensive end Cameron Jordan. The Saints off-season moves were very flashy to say the least – but putting on a show of this caliber leaves high expectations going into the season.
The Saints’ draft was pretty standard in comparison to other teams. Their first-round pick obtained from Philadelphia prior to the draft was used on Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Breese. Breese looks to help beef up a stable defensive line, being able to learn from some of the best pass rushers in the process. Still, New Orleans lost out on an opportunity to acquire a great prospect, such as a Jalen Carter, in the respective field. Another standout pick the Saints made was drafting Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener. Haener lacked the exposure and accolades of prospects like Bryce Young and CJ Stroud, but the team looks to utilize him a backup role, hopefully developing into a starter by the end of Carr’s tenure in New Orleans. The Saints had a few missed opportunities by the end of the draft weekend, but picked up a solid group of prospects that display a lot of long-term potential.
The Saints invested a lot of resources into building a squad that looks to compete for temporary success, capitalizing off of a divisional power struggle. With four games down, their chances at winning the NFC South are looking tough as the Buccaneers have snatched the lead early on. While their offseason additions were projected to help propel the team on both sides of the ball, the offense is still looking quite shaky, producing low-scoring competitive games with teams who aren’t looking at serious championship odds. The defense has stepped up tremendously, solidifying into one of the top defenses in the league, but the offense has got to be more reliable if the Saints want to win games and compete against championship-caliber teams. It’s still pretty early to judge the Carr transaction, but it’s come with ups and downs as the ex-Raider has both made great plays and fallen into old habits.
All criticism aside, there’s still a good chance that the Saints could turn things around and become a powerhouse in the NFC with the grand majority of teams using this season to figure out the future trajectory of their squads. They fall in this category themselves, but from a bird’s eye view, they have a good start compared to their competitors.
Season Outlook Grade – B+
Previous Record – 7-10
The Marcus Mariota-era in Atlanta was short-lived and ended off on a very sour note with Desmond Ridder being elevated to the starting role in the process. Mariota’s reunion with current Falcons head coach Arthur Smith went completely wrong as opposed to expectations, but the promotion of Ridder has left the team with an even bigger question mark surrounding the quarterback position. This Falcons squad isn’t the same pushover they were in 2022, making a lot of necessary upgrades in multiple skill positions, but all it takes is an inexperienced quarterback to throw everything off-track. All the Falcons require from the University of Cincinnati product is to perform the bare minimum in Arthur Smith’s run-heavy offense. Still, they have built quite the squad this off-season – it would be sad to see another consecutive seven-win record.
The Falcons had a very strong presence in free agency, picking up a multitude of notable names in the process. Perhaps the most remarkable signing that Atlanta made was picking up star safety Jessie Bates. Bates looks to help strengthen a struggling secondary, which was also fortunate enough to acquire cornerback Jeff Okudah from the Lions. The defensive line saw some upgrades with Calais Campbell being another notable addition to the defense. And just in case the Ridder situation doesn’t end up working well for the Falcons, they have a reliable backup option in Taylor Heinicke. With a surplus of available cap space, the Falcons were able to make a lot of depth signings all over the field in order to keep this steady roster competing.
No team besides the Lions had a more polarizing draft than the Falcons. Atlanta had the eighth overall pick in the draft and rather than picking up a well-needed cornerback or edge rusher, they took a swing at Texas running back Bijan Robinson in the first round. Many were skeptical at the fact that Atlanta took a running back so early in the process, which lead to many giving the Falcons low draft grades – however, Robinson has taken the league by storm, landing top-three in rushing yards this season so far. The team eventually fulfilled their needs at corner, guard and edge rusher later on in the draft, but Atlanta’s decision to skip out on a stacked corner class really baffled many.
Surprisingly enough, there really isn’t much to say about the Falcons as they enter the 2023 season. Nobody really expected much, and while they made a surprising 2-0 start to the season, their ceiling is starting to look very clear as they ended their last two games in disappointing losses. Arthur Smith has done a great job of establishing a lethal, run-heavy offensive scheme, but most of the team’s shortcomings are due to Ridder’s recent underwhelming performances. So much can change as the NFL looks to enter the mid-season stretch – but as of right now, Ridder is not the answer for Atlanta at quarterback. He is still named as the starter for the Falcons, but if he continues to disappoint, then they can quickly find themselves slipping from the playoff hunt. This squad has a lot of potential to make some noise – but it’s up to Arthur Smith to make that call, whether it involves Heinicke stepping in or trading for a quarterback before the trade deadline.
Season Outlook Grade – C-