The NFC South is dumb. Since its creation in 2002 the division is both the paragon of parity, and an unpredictable mess. Now for the first time in the NFC South’s history we have all four teams rebuilding at once, turning a page and trying to find a way forward. It’s going to make the NFC South not only the league’s most wide-open division, but the first step in what could determine the future of the conference’s power for years to come.
There are different stages of rebuilding, to be sure. The Falcons and Panthers are in the middle of a full teardown and rebuild, the Saints are trying to turn a page with Derek Carr in the hopes they can challenge once more while still recovering from Drew Brees’ retirement — and the Buccaneers, well, they’re desperate to keep their championship roster in a position to win, but have elected to hand that over to Baker Mayfield.
Let’s break down why all four of these teams could finish first or last in the division, because yes, things are that weird in the NFC South.
Why the Falcons could win the division
There’s a lot to like here when it comes to weapons. In fact, if you look at their tools in isolation then Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson are three pieces any team would love to have at their disposal.
This was a team that went 7-10 and pushed for a playoff spot a year ago, despite having the second worst passing offense in the league, which managed to gain just 2,699 yards through the air, ranking 27th in air touchdowns.
The team also boasts a pretty stout run defense, which will get even better with the addition of David Onyemata. While the secondary that struggled added some big-time talent in Jessie Bates III, a piece at safety this team was sorely missing.
In short: A borderline playoff team a year ago despite being bad through the air, got a lot better on both offense and defense. That puts them in contention in the NFC South.
Why the Falcons could be last in the division
Okay, moving on. Jokes aside, the belief this team has in their second-year quarterback could easily be what sinks this team in 2023. Ridder was wholly unremarkable as a four-game starter last season, where he was statistically fine on paper, but struggled to move the ball downfield to the Falcons’ deep threats and displayed spotty ball placement on the simplest of routes.
Ridder’s 6.2 yards-per-attempt was way below what you want from a starting quarterback, especially one with weapons at their disposal. That number will need to get a lot better to move the chains and help this team compete.
If Ridder struggles and/or the secondary doesn’t take a big step forward then this team will be in the cellar.
Why the Panthers could win the division
They almost did last year, seriously. It made absolutely no sense, but Carolina really had a chance to win the NFC South up until Week 16, despite having an interim head coach, trading away Christian McCaffrey and playing Sam Darnold at quarterback.
The Panthers made some of the most profound whole-organization improvements in the NFL this offseason. Frank Reich is a massive upgrade at head coach, and he’s brought in an all-star coaching staff to support a rapid rebuild. We all know the team traded up for Bryce Young to make him their franchise QB of the future, but beyond that they made some really smart free agent acquisitions like Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark, Hayden Hurst, and Miles Sanders to be veteran bridge players to keep things steady while they find more talent.
Defensively this team has a Top-10 pass defense a year ago, and the move to a 3-4 will only benefit Brian Burns and Derrick Brown, who return to their natural positions.
Why the Panthers could be last in the division
Rookie QBs are always going to take their lumps, but in preseason Bryce Young took a lot more than he should have thanks to a spotty offensive line. If that trend continues it’s going to be a long year passing the ball in Charlotte.
This is compounded by the receiving corps, arguably the worst in the league, who are still recovering from giving up D.J. Moore in the Young trade. The issue isn’t that the players are inherently bad, it’s that nobody is great at getting separation. It’s going to make Young’s job difficult in 2023.
If this team can’t protect their future or get him some easy receptions then the Panthers could easily find themselves as the worst in the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
Why the Saints could win the division
It’s really difficult to overstate what a monumental upgrade at quarterback Derek Carr is. In fact, one could make the argument that he’s the most unfairly maligned starting QB in the NFL. Up to this point Carr has consistently been blamed as the reason the Raiders couldn’t get over the hump, when in reality even his “down” 2022 resulted in 3,500 passing yards, 24 TDs and 14 INTs.
This is easily enough to win with in the NFL if you don’t have a 28th ranked defense, which the Raiders had a year ago.
Now Carr is in the position of being savior, taking over a 7-10 team with plenty of talent to utilize. Alvin Kamara will return after a short suspension to add to an attack with Chris Olave, while Rashid Shaheed showed flashes of promise his rookie season. If Michael Thomas can add anything to the attack this could become a pretty dangerous offense.
Meanwhile, the Saints quietly boasted a Top 10 defense a year ago and if these factors hold it’s very easy to see New Orleans not just winning the NFC South, but potentially shocking some people in the playoffs.
Why the Saints could be last in the division
This team really got pilfered in free agency due to their cap situation, particularly on the defensive line. New Orleans starts this season without three starters in David Onyemata (now in Atlanta), Shy Tuttle (now with the Panthers), and Marcus Davenport (now in Minnesota). This has led to a lot of defensive reworking, which could easily misfire.
If the Saints are put in a position where they have to win offensive shootouts it’s unclear if they have the weapons yet to be able to hang. It feels like they’re one or two pieces away from breaking through, and counting on Michael Thomas to offer much this season is more hope that prayer.
There’s a serious chance this attempted run could fall apart and the Saints finish last in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why the Buccaneers could win the division
This team has so much talent, particularly on the defensive side. This team knows how to defend the pass, giving up a stingy 5.6 yards-per-attempt a year ago, while getting a strong rush up the middle with Vita Vea.
It’s difficult to find any team in the NFL with a better group of 3-4 linebackers too, making this team very difficult for most offenses to deal with. There’s a spark here for sure, and when paired with their incredible receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, there’s a lot of reason to believe this team could win the NFC South again.
Why the Buccaneers could be last in the division
Baker Mayfield sucks. Like, he really, really sucks.
Tampa Bay decided to forego punting on the year and seeing what they had in Kyle Trask, instead electing to start Mayfield right now and see what he can bring to the table. Baker is a weird fit for this offense who can’t really drive the ball downfield and stretch, while also making terrible decisions.
Essentially the Bucs are praying they get late-season Rams Mayfield, and not the version in Carolina that sucked so bad he got everyone fired. That’s a bad plan.
If Tampa Bay finish last in the NFC South it will be because of quarterback play. It’s that simple.