The once mighty NFC South has now become a bit of a cakewalk. With the Saints in a constant phase of retooling and salary cap manipulation, the Buccaneers going all in on a couple of great seasons with Brady, the Panthers putting themselves in a position to get to the first overall pick, and the Falcons looking for a quarterback, they’re far from the division they were three years ago. Now it seems the winner has a real chance to make it below .500, and who I pick to win may shock you. Let’s see what the NFC South has to offer in 2023.
The Falcons find themselves betting on Desmond Ridder and a strong ground game in 2023. After trading away Calvin Ridley at the 2022 deadline, the Falcons lack a true number-one wide receiver. Kyle Pitts hasn’t produced at the level they would have hoped so far, even though he’s a tight end the expectations were exceptionally high. Drake London has been good, but Atlanta needs another receiver. They elected to draft Bjian Robinson out of Texas with the eighth overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, showing their commitment to Desmond Ridder and a strong ground game in 2023. Their offensive line is sneaky good, with Chris Lindstrom having an excellent 2022 season and receiving a five-year $105 million extension, making him the highest-paid guard in the league. Jake Matthews has been a very solid left tackle his entire career, and Kaleb McGary had a strong 2022 season. The big question mark is Matthew Bergeron, who is likely their starting left guard as a rookie. Overall, their offense ranks pretty high on the fun-to-watch scale.
The Falcons added some strong veterans on the defensive side of the ball. Calais Campbell has continued to play well in a limited snap capacity as he ages, with most of his snaps being passing downs. Jessie Bates inked a four-year $64 million deal after playing 2022 on the franchise tag. Bates is coming off his best year as a run defender as he only missed seven tackles, the fewest in a single season in his career. You can consistently pencil in Grady Jarrett for a solid year, about 40 pressures and 30 stops against the run. A.J. Terrell had a strong year in 2021 but struggled in 2022 allowing the most touchdowns of his career, nine, and the second-highest yards-per-reception of his career at 11. They brought in Jeff Okudah as a reclamation project after he struggled with the Lions. The Falcons have a couple of pieces, although some of them are aging, but they’re still far from the contenders they were a couple of years ago.
The Carolina Panthers have built a sneaky good team ahead of the 2023 season. Owner David Tepper is not afraid to go after what he wants and isn’t too concerned about what it costs. They went out and got Frank Reich as their head coach soon after he was fired by the Colts. They made an aggressive move and traded with the Chicago Bears to move up to the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and select coveted quarterback Bryce Young out of Alabama. They signed veteran receiver Adam Thielen after losing DJ Moore as part of the Young deal. They moved off of Christian McCaffrey for a bounty of picks, and have built a solid offensive line. Weapons around Bryce Young are the weakness of this offense, but they have a great shot at having the best quarterback in the division already. That’s huge and will put them ahead immediately.
Their defense has some studs as well, with Derrick Brown holding down the interior and Brian Burns coming off the edge. Burns put up a career-best 68 pressures in 2022, his previous high was 57 in 2020. Don’t let Derrick Brown’s one sack in 2022 misguide you, he posted a career-high 40 pressures and 31 run stops. Carolina signed Justin Houston to a one-year deal as he continues to be a solid pass rusher in the late stage of his career. Third-year player Jaycee Horn is leading the secondary as their top outside corner, with the opposite side being pretty open with Donte Jackson, Troy Hill, and CJ Henderson all having a shot at grabbing the starting job. They have a sneaky good linebacker core with Frankie Luvu and Shaq Thompson, and they brought in Vonn Bell to start at safety opposite of Xavier Woods. This team is sneaky solid, with a young defense and young quarterback setting them up for a bright future in the 2020s.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the current favourites to win this division after signing Derek Carr to a four-year deal. Derek Carr isn’t and won’t be a top-ten quarterback, and his career can be largely summarized in one play against the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs of the 2021 season. Fourth and goal, he throws it short of the endzone on a checkdown. That timid style of playing has unfortunately become a core attribute of Derek Carr’s play. He has the ability to push the ball down the field, he’s at his best when he does but he just doesn’t do it anymore. The offensive line is questionable with the only lock to be solid being Ryan Ramczyk. Their receiving group is a good one with Michael Thomas likely to return and Chris Olave having a great year as a rookie. Unfortunately, Derek Carr is going to hold this team back.
In contrast to the rival Panthers, most of the key players on the Saints’ defense are older veterans who are near the end of their careers. Cameron Jordan continues to age and decline. In 2022 he posted 37 pressures, the lowest since his 24-pressure rookie season back in 2011 where he also had 151 fewer rush opportunities. Demario Davis has consistently been good for New Orleans and I won’t write him off yet but he’s not getting any younger or better and he missed the most tackles of his career with 17. Tyrann Mathieu continues to play well with most of his snaps being played in the box, and a large portion of the defense is returning with Marshon Lattimore headlining the corner group. The Saints are an aging team that missed their window. They’re desperately trying to keep it open, but their time has gone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off the major high that was Tom Brady success. Now it’s the Baker Mayfield show! Mayfield’s career has been quite the rollercoaster, with his first four seasons being a good year followed by a meh year, then his best year, then a worse year, and then 2022 being the most random year ever which was ultimately terrible but a great first game with the Rams. Mayfield ranks very highly on the fun-to-watch scale. Mayfield has typically been a gunslinger in the NFL, with an average big-time throw percentage of 5.3% and a turnover-worthy play percentage of 3.3. His turnover-worthy play percentage has always been within one percentage point of 3.0, peaking at 3.9 in 2021 and reaching his lowest point at 2.9 in 2022. The risky plays are simply something that you have to live with, but he has to make the big plays for it to be worth it and he just is not consistent enough. His highest big-time throw percentage was 7.7 in 2018 and reached its lowest point at 2.2 in 2022. A one percent gap between the peak and valley of his turnover-worthy plays and the swing of 5.5 percent for big-time throws is something that needs to even out and hit the peak of his big plays for the team to be comfortable. The rest of the offense remains very similar, unfortunately Ryan Jensen is hitting injured reserve due to his knee injury from last year with his future in football in doubt. Tristan Wirfs has consistently been a top right tackle, but flipping sides is not a lock to go well. The later in a career a player gets, the less likely it is for them to seamlessly transition to the other side. The rest of their offensive line is just meh, with Matt Feiler stepping in at left guard, and rookie Cody Mauch stepping in at right guard. Mike Evans is a lock for 1,000 receiving yards if healthy, and Chris Godwin still has some juice. Mayfield has the players around him to reach the peaks of his gunslinger playstyle.
Their defense has some great complementing pieces. Vita Vea and rookie Calijah Kancey are near opposites with Vea being a massive and dominant run defender and Kancey being smaller, shifty, and a good pass rusher. Lavonte David is still one of the best linebackers in the game, and Antonine Winfield Jr. continues to be a great safety. Shaq Barrett is coming off an achilles injury, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has yet to prove himself as a good edge defender. He’s okay, but that’s about it.
The NFC South used to be a strong division, with serious Super Bowl contenders. Now, they’re teams that are either rebuilding or have missed their window. The Buccaneers are dealing with a multi-year Super Bowl hangover, the Saints are grasping at straws to keep their window alive, the Falcons have completely committed to a rebuild and the Panthers have started building their team around Bryce Young, who will be the best quarterback in this division in 2023.
- Carolina Panthers
- New Orleans Saints
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Atlanta Falcons