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NFC SOUTH Preview by Logan Lepiscopo

2022 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

By: Logan Lepiscopo

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers went through a whirlwind of emotions in 2022, Tom Brady retiring, and then unretiring. Bruce Arians stepped down as head coach shortly after that and left Todd Bowels in charge of the team. During free agency, the Buccaneers had some significant signings; Russell Gage, Logan Ryan, and re-signing Leonard Fournette, Ryan Jensen, and Carlton Davis. In the 2022 NFL draft Tampa Bay just drafted a ton of players for depth, the only two players I see based on the depth chart are starting punter Jake Camarda, backup running back Rachaad White and second-string TE Cade Otton.

Strengths: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a very strong team all-around. To be specific, the Buccaneers are strongest at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, and linebacker. Had Tom Brady not come out of retirement the Buccaneers would not even be getting talked about as super bowl contenders, but now the G.O.A.T is back under center. The starting three wide receivers on the depth chart is in fact the best starting trio in the NFL, Cincinnati is close, but I have the Buccaneers with a slight edge. Offensive line for Tampa Bay may have lost Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet but filling the holes will be Shaq Mason the number four graded offensive guard in 2021, and then Aaron Stinnie who has only ever started one game over his four-year career. The last strength I have for the Buccaneers is their incredibly good linebackers. Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barrett are the best linebacker trio in the NFL; no other team even comes to mind with having a more complete group.

Weaknesses: This section is going to be short, very short. My one and only true weakness for the Buccaneers is the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski seems to officially be done with football, which downgrades Tampa Bay to Cameron Brate. Brate stacks up somewhat close to Gronkowski as far as metrics go; Brate is 6 ‘5 “ and 245 lbs. versus Gronkowski standing at 6’6” 265 lbs. Outside of a now weaker tight end position the only other position I could consider weak is the cornerback position. It is not because the corners are not good, but because of how unhealthy the starting three were in 2021. Jamel Dean played 14 regular season games in 2021, Carlton Davis played 10 games, and Sean Murphy-Bunting played in just nine. The Buccaneers should be in prime position to make another run at the Super Bowl. 

New Orleans Saints

Who Dat Nation! There is a new man in charge for the Saints by the name of Dennis Allen. Along with a new head coach, the Saints made a lot of additions to the team for the 2022 NFL season. Jameis Winston, Marcus Maye, Tyrann Mathieu, and Jarvis Landry to name the big and significant names. But the additions to make a playoff push did not step there; in the NFL draft the Saints two first round picks will set this team up for a great future, Chris Olave and Trevor Penning. Olave will for sure be a starting wide receiver in 2022, but Trevor Penning may have to earn his spot in the Saints’ great offensive line. 

Strengths: Michael Thomas (fingers crossed) being back will be a huge plus for the Saints offense. Many people are ready to write off Thomas because of his injuries but I refuse to forget how incredible he was when he was on the field. The defense is exceptional, I think in terms of fantasy football that the Saints will produce the most out of any team. The safety position being completely revamped in the offseason is absolutely huge. The two edge rushers for the Saints Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport were graded as top 10 edge rushers by PFF in 2021, and two linebackers were graded top 10 at their position (Pete Werner and Demario Davis). Oh and of course how could I forget about the Swiss army knife of the NFL Taysom Hill. 

Weaknesses: Tight end. I know this may seem repetitive for every team in this division (except the Falcons),  but the NFC South has to be the weakest TE division in the entire NFL. Adam Trautman is not necessarily bad, especially since he was just a rookie last season. Trautman played 11 games in 2021 and had just 27 receptions and 43 targets, being 6’5” 253 lbs. should have called for many redzone mismatches, but Trautman disappointed with just two touchdowns. Enough Adam Trautman slander, let’s talk Alvin Kamara. Kamara is currently facing a six-game suspension which may not be the biggest downfall for the Saints, but it will certainly be a weakness if he faces the full suspension. When looking at the defensive side of the ball I cannot decisively put any position as a weakness. One of my  takes for this season is that the Saints win the NFC South. 

Carolina Panthers

This article is especially timely now with the recent trade for Baker Mayfield. Does the trade make the Panthers any better? No I don’t think so, but perhaps a healthy Christian McCaffrey can make all the difference for the offense. The Panthers did solid work in free agency and the draft this year. In free agency the Panthers added Austin Corbett to the offensive line, Xavier Woods to accompany Jeremy Chinn, and re-signed their number one corner from last season Donte Jackson. The Panthers sealed the deal with dedication to the offensive line, drafting Ikem Ekwonu with the number six overall pick of the 2022 draft. The team also drafted a ton of pure athletes with the rest of the draft picks, most notably Matt Corral. 

Strengths: The Panthers roster looks incredibly average with some bright spots to the team. DJ Moore has been consistently getting over 1,000 yards the last three seasons but his touchdown production is significantly lacking. Back in action is the superstar of the offense Christian McCaffrey. Many people will have their doubts about McCaffrey after the past two injury-ridden seasons, but with plenty of time to heal and the team dedicating to upgrading the offensive line I expect him to be right back to 1,000-1,000 McCaffrey. Defensively there are a ton of young guys with high end talent. Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn, and Shaq Thompson to name a few. I expect the Panthers defense to be a lot better than projected and be one of the team’s strengths for the 2022 season.

Weaknesses: Once again, the tight end position is a weakness of an NFC South team. I do not expect whoever the starting tight end is to be involved much in the Panthers offense, if anything Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas will serve as blocking tight ends for Christian McCaffrey. Unfortunately, even with the addition of Baker Mayfield, the quarterback position is a weakness for Carolina. Sam Darnold and Mayfield will be going at it all training camp to win the starting spot with Corral sitting comfortable as the QB3 with the possibility of taking over the starting job in 2023. Mayfield has shown flashes that he can be a quality starting quarterback and Darnold has to, just less frequently than Baker Mayfield has. I expect good things from the Carolina Panthers this season, perhaps a spot in the playoffs is on the horizon. 

Atlanta Falcons

I’d bet 1,500 on the Falcons finishing with a top 10 pick again this year. Calvin Ridley is suspended for the entire 2022 season and Matt Ryan has been traded away to the Indianapolis Colts. The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota to be the starting quarterback in Atlanta, re-signed Cordarrelle Patterson, and brought in veteran cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. In the 2022 draft the Falcons took care of Mariota by grabbing a new shiny toy for the offense, Drake London. London and second round pick Arnold Ebiketie are both currently listed on the Atlanta Falcons depth chart as starters for the team. I expect another disappointing season for Atlanta Falcons fans. 

Strengths: Unlike the other three teams in the NFC South, the tight end position is actually a strength for the Falcons. Kyle Pitts is a beast, and he showed his rookie season that catching the ball and getting yardage is not a problem, just getting into the endzone. Which is bizarre seeing that Kyle Pitts is 6’6”, 68 receptions, 1,026 yards, and one single touchdown in 2021. Another bright spot for the Falcons is cornerback A.J. Terrell who looked like a 5+ year veteran the way that he played last season. Terrell shut down receiver after receiver in 2021 and earned himself the second highest cornerback grade from PFF, right behind Jalen Ramsey. If Terrell can keep up his play, and Casey Hayward Jr. can translate well from Las Vegas to Atlanta, the Falcons have two cover corners that are going to be a force to be reckoned with. 

Weaknesses: Just like the Carolina Panthers the quarterback position on paper is a weakness for the Falcons. Marcus Mariota has not been a consistent starting quarterback in a few years now, and though Desmond Ridder is to have been quoted as the most developed QB in the 2022 draft class, there still remains questions on if he is NFL ready. I unfortunately have to say the wide receiver position is a weakness for Atlanta as well. I expect very big things from Drake London but outside of that all of the other names on the depth chart are incredibly mid. The last position I will mention so I do not rip into the Falcons too hard is the safety position. Erik Harris and Dean Marlowe are not good cover safeties, if for some reason A.J. Terrell or Casey Hayward get beat, the scoreboard operator should add six points, and the graphics guy better throw in a touchdown graphic for the Falcons opponent. Tanking for a quarterback might be in the Falcons’ best interest this season.

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