Written by: David Parks – Staff Writing Intern (@_Parskie)
Up next in our countdown is the division that has produced both the last two Super Bowl representatives for the NFC as well as the last two league MVP’s, the NFC South.
Carolina was the latest team to fall victim to the dreaded Super Bowl loser’s curse of missing the playoffs the following year. The decision to let Josh Norman walk backfired in a big way and put the team in an early season hole they simply weren’t able to climb out of.
The team that took their place atop the division standings was the Falcons, behind the league’s most potent offense and league MVP, Matt Ryan. Although they’ll more than likely have to replace Kyle Shanahan, the offense is in good hands so long as the team has Ryan/Julio/Freeman/Coleman.
Many people’s popular pick to break through this season was Tampa. Behind Jameis Winston and a surprisingly good defense, the Bucs came close but ultimately came up short finishing seventh in the conference. Their offseason becomes a lot more interesting given the end-of-the-year shenanigans involving Doug Martin.
Last but certainly not least is the Saints, who will once again be looking to add impact defensive players early and often. They struck gold with Michael Thomas who’s already the team’s number one receiver. Last year they upgraded with Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell – look for them to address the linebacker spot this go around.
Carolina Panthers: 2016 record: 6-10 (Last place in NFC South)
First round selection: 8th
Offseason needs: OT, DE, LB
The above is an all too familiar sight for Panther fans. For a team just one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance, they have an abundance of holes to fill, including along both lines of scrimmage.
Michael Oher and Mike Remmers cannot be the starting offensive tackles in week one next season. Trai Turner is a guard; this team badly needs an improvement at tackle. Eight is too high for a tackle this season, so unless they can trade down this will have to be a target in the second round.
Last year the team brought back Charles Johnson on a one-year deal and while he played admirably, it seems unlikely he’ll be brought back again. Kony Ealy, arguably the breakout player in last year’s Super Bowl, failed to take the next step as an elite edge rusher. Seeing as Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside-out, an end would seem to be the favorite here.
A situation to monitor is Luke Kuechly’s health. Everyone remembers how last season ended; Couple that with Thomas Davis being 34 by opening week of next season, Reuben Foster could certainly be in play here as well.
Derek Barnett, DE – Tennessee
Reuben Foster, LB – Alabama
Ryan Ramczyk, OT – Wisconsin
New Orleans Saints: 2016 record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC South)
First round selection: 11th
Offseason needs: LB, CB, Edge
Once again, the only question is which position the Saints draft on defense. Last year they upgraded their defensive front with Sheldon Rankins but lost him for much of the year to a broken leg. Vonn Bell will likely start or at the very least earn quite a bit of snaps at safety.
New Orleans finished fifth to last in the league in sacks mustering only 30. Strong likelihood an edge rusher will be in play here.
As will a “quarterback” of the defense. James Lauranitis is a nice guy to have for depth purposes, but Reuben Foster would yet again provide an immediate upgrade.
And finally there’s the cornerback position, where the combination of Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams simply can’t stop air. Breaux has battled injuries the past couple of seasons; New Orleans can have its pick of corners at 11.
Reuben Foster, LB – Alabama
Cordrea Tankersley, CB – Clemson
Desmond King, CB – Iowa
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2016 record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC South)
First round selection: 19th
Offseason needs: WR, CB, S
Tampa has done a good job of building a nice young core. They have their quarterback, now they just need to upgrade a couple of positions on both sides of the ball to take that next step and challenge for the division.
Mike Evans is unguardable, which is amazing considering Tampa has nobody else to take pressure off him. An upgrade at receiver must happen because Vincent Jackson can’t be relied upon anymore.
Last year they took Vernon Hargreaves who graded out as one of the worst corners in the league per PFF. One season is too early to panic, but even still, Brent Grimes could stand to be improved upon as well. With a deep corner class, value can be had in a later round.
Safety is another need. Chris Conte and Brad McDougald can’t be the starting combination at safety. Might this be a landing spot for Peppers if the Bucs view him as a full-time safety?
Corey Davis, WR – Western Michigan
Jabril Peppers, S – Michigan
Teez Tabor, CB – Florida
Atlanta Falcons: 2016 record: 11-5 (1st in NFC South)
First round selection: 32nd
Offseason needs: DE, S, OT
Have them beating New England and thus picking 32nd. What a remarkable run in the draft the last two years for Scott Pioli. Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and D’Vondre Campbell in just the last two years alone – they’re not the best or most physical defense but there’s perhaps no defense with greater speed than Atlanta.
Now that they have cores in place on both sides of the ball, the Falcons can afford the luxury of taking the best player available.
While Taylor Gabriel has been a nice story for the Falcs this season, they could still use a more consistent threat opposite Julio. At 32, a guy like Juju Smith-Schuster or Courtland Sutton would make a potent offense that much scarier.
Elsewhere on offense, there’s always the offensive line. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack and Andy Levitre are locked in to form one of the best left sides in football. A guy like Dan Feeney or Forest Lamp to go opposite Levitre at the other guard position would only make their running attack more dangerous.
Despite improving one of the worst defenses in the league, the Falcons are still in need of some help up front. Atlanta finished with 34 sacks as a team, a number that one the surface, doesn’t seem that bad. But when considering that Beasley accounted for 15 by himself, it becomes clear pass rush is still the biggest need for this team.
Carl Lawson, Edge – Auburn
Courtland Sutton, WR – SMU
Harold Landry, Edge – Boston College