2015 NFC South Preview: Can the Panthers Extend Their Streak?
The NFC South, since its inception in 2002, has long been the ficklest of NFL divisions. From 2002 to 2013, there had never been a divisional champion two seasons in a row. That all changed in 2014 though, when the Carolina Panthers surged to win their final four games and, with multiple strokes of luck, became the second team in NFL history to win their division with a losing record.
By most NFL analysts’ estimations, the NFC South shouldn’t have been as bad as it was last season. But Carolina’s defense was the only one in the division that finished as a top 20 unit according to our numbers, and even that was only because they really gelled in the final half of the season.
To look at where these teams may be headed, I'll take a look at the data on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball using numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), in order to get a baseline for where the teams were when we last saw them, and how their 2015 squad might improve upon or regress from that baseline. The basics of NEP: it calculates how an individual player, or team in this instance, performs above or below expectation based on a host of football variables. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.
With major shakeups and lineup re-toolings this offseason, the Saints, Falcons, and Buccaneers have their sights on making sure the Panthers two-year divisional reign comes to an abrupt end. Which, if any, of these teams has what it takes to bring the divisional title back home?
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ offensive situation couldn’t get much worse than what they offered in 2014. According to Tampa's Adjusted Offensive NEP, the Bucs graded out as the third worst overall offense on a per-play basis, on the backs of the 27th best offensive line according to ProFootballFocus.
The result was that the Bucs raced to a woeful 2-14 finish in Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach.
Soon after season's end, they set about hiring former Falcons' offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, as their offensive coordinator. You might remember that Koetter's offense beat the brakes off of the Falcons to the tune of 56-14 last season. Lovie Smith wanted that kind of offensive mind on his squad, and he got him.
The bright side for the Bucs is that this terrible season allowed them to land Florida State quarterback, Jameis Winston, with the first pick in the draft. Winston’s upside is clear; many, including our own Joe Juan, have favorably compared Winston to Ben Roethlisberger based on similar physical attributes and collegiate performance.
Winston will no doubt find his NFL transition a bit easier with the towering set of wideouts at his disposal in young Mike Evans and veteran Vincent Jackson, as Winston found great success in his freshman year utilizing the similar size of now-divisional rival Kelvin Benjamin.
Evans’s ceiling is sky high, and he figures to be top-10 receiver for many years to come. And Jackson, while nearing the twilight of his career, is still productive and will in all likelihood increase his touchdown production from his career nadir of two in 2014. The Bucs are also hopeful that their young, 6’5” tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins can emerge as a legitimate threat in the passing game.
Winston will also benefit heavily from the Bucs using their two second-round draft picks on offensive tackle Donovan Smith and center Ali Marpet to help shore up an egregiously porous line, which hopefully will not only give him more time to throw, but also open up better running lanes for backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims. The starting running back gig is tentatively Martin’s to lose, as Koetter has had positive things today about Martin’s offseason conditioning and performance at OTAs.
The Bucs have surrounded their new franchise quarterback with a stable of able offensive weapons. If Winston truly is the most pro-ready quarterback to come out of college since Andrew Luck as some have said, then brighter days lie ahead sooner rather than later for this recently pedestrian offense.
Though the Bucs were worse on offense last season, they still weren't that good on defense either. On a per play basis, the Bucs finished the season as the 25th best defense according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP per play metric. This disappointing defensive performance prompted the release of a number of ineffective veterans, including their primary acquisition from the 2014 free agency season, defensive end Michael Johnson, after a one-year stint with the team.
The defensive line has been thoroughly retooled and will feature former Bear and Cowboy Henry Melton at defensive tackle, with a hodgepodge of lesser known veteran including former Detroit Lion, George Johnson, who graded out as the ninth best 4-3 defensive end in terms of pass-rushing productivity per Pro Football Focus.
The Bucs also acquired former Houston Texan, D.J. Swearinger, off of waivers to replace the released hard-hitter and fine-getter Dashon Goldson. Swearinger’s been considered a disappointment in his short NFL career, largely as a result of on-field hot-headedness and a tendency to miss tackles (11 in 2014). But the physical tools are there, and the Bucs are hoping he can be coached up in Lovie's Cover 2 system.
Finally, the team also acquired the services of linebacker Bruce Carter, who figures to play middle linebacker in the season ahead. Carter had a productive season with the Cowboys in 2014, tallying five interceptions.
With much of the defense entering Lovie’s system for the first time, it stands to reason that there will be growing pains. As such numberFire predicts another season of NFC South cellar-dwelling for this Bucs team.
Projected Record: 6.7-9.3
Division Probability: 9.5%
Playoff Probability: 17.3%
3. Atlanta Falcons
For years, the Falcons offense has been a top-15 unit. In 2014, the Falcons finished the season as the eighth highest ranked offense in terms of NEP, and third on a per-play basis. It will be up to new offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, to carry on that tradition of offensive acumen, as Dirk Koetter moved on to the division-rival Bucs when the Falcons cleaned house after another disappointing season.
Despite the Falcons' offensive consistency, the team did infuse some youth on the offensive side of the ball to keep their high-powered offense chugging along.
Most notably, the Falcons cut ties with 32-year-old running back Steven Jackson and took advantage of the deep 2015 running back draft class to burn a third-round pick on Tevin Coleman, he of 4.39 40-yard dash speed. Some have knocked Coleman for his lack of patience, which is key to an effective running game in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. But if Shanahan can coach him up, Coleman has to tools to do real damage in the immediate-term.
The Falcons also replaced slot receiver Harry Douglas, who, over the past two seasons, had been called upon and produced admirably in Roddy White and/or Julio Jones’ place during various missed games. But, as our own Tyler Buecher covered back in May, the Falcons fourth-round draft pick, Justin Hardy, could be a good replacement for Douglas out of the slot in the long term.
With Matt Ryan at the helm, the Falcons can always be confident that they are in capable hands. That Ryan has been as consistent as he has is sort of amazing. For the past two seasons, Ryan played behind an offensive line that has given up the most and third-most pressure situations (sacks, hits, and hurries allowed), in the league in 2013 and 2014 according to ProFootballFocus.
Yet Ryan has thrown for at least 25-plus touchdowns in each of the last five seasons, and the offensive line is entering 2015 healthy. And as our own Joe Juan covered back in April, there’s a good chance Julio Jones could be in store for his best season yet.
Coupling Ryan with Jones’s magnificence and the still-productive Roddy White will ensure that the Falcons' offense will remain a potent force in the NFC South.
It’s hard to get worse than the New Orleans Saints were at defense in 2014. The Falcons just missed this dubious distinction, finishing 31st in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP in terms of volume and per-play efforts.
So it’s no wonder that the Falcons pursued Dan Quinn, former Seahawks defensive coordinator and guru, to fill their head coaching duties once they let Mike Smith go. Quinn’s hiring also led to what scouts have dubbed a successful draft haul on the defensive side of the ball.
With the number eight pick, the Falcons landed Clemson’s pass-rusher extraordinaire Vic Beasley. Beasley is slotted to play the outside linebacker role giving him prime opportunity to begin racking up sacks and preventing big runs to the edge in his rookie season.
Next, the Falcons also landed cornerback, Jalen Collins, who Mike Mayock compared to Antonio Cromartie. Pairing Collins with the underappreciated Desmond Trufant should improve on a horrendous, 30th-ranked secondary.
The Falcons also brought in Brooks Reed and Justin Durant via free agency to pair with tackle machine Paul Worrilow to help improve their linebacker corps, and stuff more runs at about four and five yards instead of being taken to the house on a regular basis.
Though their defensive prowess left them better than exactly one other defensive unit in the league in 2014, the Falcons defense seems to be pointing in the right direction, particularly with Quinn at the helm. However, if they are to win the division, it will be on the backs of their electric offense.
Projected Record: 8.1-7.9
Division Probability: 27.0%
Playoff Probability: 42.0%
2. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers offense, for the first two-thirds of the 2014 season, was pretty abysmal. A number of factors contributed to this, including Cam Newton emerging from offseason ankle surgery, a woefully inadequate offensive line, and a running back corps that just couldn’t stay healthy. As such, the Panthers ranked 20th in the league last season in total Offensive NEP, and slightly worse (21st) on a per-play basis.
Still, with a mixture of luck (bad divisional rivals, and a late-season surge), all of the aforementioned issues improved substantially, and the Panthers made it into the playoffs despite their losing record. And they even came away with what was Cam Newton's first playoff win.
Things seem to be looking better for the Panthers this offseason, but questions still remain. Newton is finally healthy after his ankle surgery, broken ribs suffered in the 2014 preseason, and a late-season car crash that put him out for one game, that, thankfully for the Panther fans, came against Tampa Bay.
General Manager Dave Gettleman’s insistence on using draft capital for selecting the best player available meant the Panthers didn’t select a left tackle once again in the 2015 draft. This was a major vulnerability for the Panthers last season. To fill this void, the Panthers signed Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame to protect Cam’s, you know, blind side. Oher graded out very poorly for his one season as a Tennessee Titan, but the Panthers are hoping that with a nagging toe injury in the past, and with Oher reuniting with his old offensive line coach from his days in Baltimore, he can resurrect some of his early career magic.
To compensate for one of Cam’s deficiencies in his tendency to overthrow his targets from time to time, the Panthers moved up in the second round to draft 6’4” Devin Funchess. Funchess, out of Michigan University, had experience playing tight end and wideout in his college career, but figures to line up opposite of Kelvin Benjamin, whose put together one of the best rookie seasons among an incredibly deep rookie wide receiver class in 2014. Coupling the 6’5” Benjamin with Funchess and 6’5” tight end Greg Olsen should provide Cam with the kind of catch radii he needs to keep the chains moving.
Finally, the Panthers got some real production out of Jonathan Stewart in the last half of the season in 2014. Stewart had spent the better part of the last three seasons battling various injuries, and he finally enters the season healthy. The team parted ways with Panthers legend Deangelo Williams, but also brought in fifth-round pick out of Auburn, Cameron Artis-Payne, to backup Stewart. Artis-Payne has been praised for his ability between the tackles, but has been described as perhaps too patient on his reads, so he likely won’t be electric for the Panthers should Stewart go down.
The Panthers defense of 2013 was straight nasty. The Panthers defense of 2014 was straight awful. Until the latter half of the season when the whole team started to gel, that is.
The reason for the Panthers defensive decline in the first half of 2014 was related to a number of factors, including a huge loss of Greg Hardy due to domestic violence charges and a patchwork secondary of veterans that couldn’t hold their own. As such, the Panthers finished off the season as the 17th ranked defense in terms of total Defensive NEP, and Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
This year, the Panthers figure to lean more heavily on their youth in the secondary. Cornerback Josh Norman played up to his potential in the latter half of the season, and fifth-round picks in safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere each made big plays earning them starting gigs for 2015. The Panthers made real strides with these three last season and their emergence in the latter half of the season allowed the team to finish 12th in the league in adjusted defensive pass NEP per pass. The Panthers secondary is likely going underrated headed into the 2015 season.
The Panthers also beefed up their linebacker corps, adding Shaq Thompson, who figures to replace Thomas Davis when he retires in a few years. Until then Thompson will likely play primarily as the outside linebacker opposite Davis, while mixing in a bit of his hybrid capabilities as a strong safety. The Panthers will need Thompson's athleticism to help stop runners getting too far past the line of scrimmage, as the Panthers finished 20th in the league in 2014 in adjusted defensive NEP per rush.
Finally, the Panthers hope that Kony Ealy can emerge as a replacement for Greg Hardy at defensive end. Ealy flashed at the end of last season recording four sacks in the final four games, but is currently competing with oft-suspended Frank Alexander to fill the role opposite veteran defensive end, Charles Johnson.
The Panthers are likely to benefit from more consistency from their defensive unit this season. They’ll need it to hold off the high-powered offenses of the Saints and Falcons.
Projected Record: 8.1-7.9
Division Probability: 28.0%
Playoff Probability: 42.7%
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints had an incredibly busy offseason restructuring their offense to provide more balance between the run and the pass, which head coach Sean Payton says is the strategy they strayed from that brought them a Super Bowl title in 2009. The Saints helped jumpstart a wild NFL free agency offseason with an early March trade of perennial touchdown machine Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks in exchange for All-Pro center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick.
They also let go of pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas for a younger, more explosive -- and equally capable pass-catcher -- in C.J. Spiller, who figures to occupy the former Darren Sproles role. Finally, the team also traded away the most efficient wideout over the past two seasons in Kenny Stills in efforts to help beef up their defensive unit.
The big question for the Saints offense is whether Drew Brees can maintain his elite production with a rather depleted arsenal of weapons. Brees managed to help the Saints compile the seventh highest Passing NEP in the league last season, and while he still put up top 10 numbers in terms of per drop back efficiency (0.17 NEP per pass), last season was his third lowest per-pass average since coming to New Orleans.
The return of Brandin Cooks should help, and third-year pro Nick Toon should get some chances to make some noise with Stills gone. And, of course, the ever-reliable Marques Colston still remains as a familiar face for Brees to connect with.
There were unsubstantiated rumors swirling around this offseason about Brees being on the trade block due to the massive salary cap hit the Saints will take the next two seasons under his deal. And the Saints even brought in rookie quarterback Garrett Grayson to be Brees’ understudy, so it appears that the Saints have at least begun to prepare for the future.
But for now, the Saints are hoping that Brees, as he has since he arrived in New Orleans in 2006, will continue to keep the Saints in contention by continuing to elevate the play of those around him.
Using Adjusted Defensive NEP as our guide, New Orleans brought the worst defense to the field in the entire league in 2014, both in terms of volume and per-play defensive production. As such, it'd be an understatement to say that Rob Ryan’s job as defensive coordinator resides in a seat as hot as the surface of the sun.
The Saints didn’t stand pat, however, and added numerous pieces to help make Ryan’s job a bit easier.
Ranking 31st in overall pass defense last season, the Saints added two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback, Brandon Browner, into their mix. Browner, coupled with Keenan Lewis, should serve as a formidable duo on the outside. The return of Jairus Byrd, who went down after a disappointing four games last season, should help shore up the Saints secondary as well.
In the Kenny Stills trade, the Saints brought in veteran Dannell Ellerbe, whose best days were likely left behind in Baltimore after a really disappointing season with Miami. But the team also used considerable draft capital to improve their linebacking corps, bringing in first-round pick Stephone Anthony to start at inside linebacker and Hau’oli Kikaha to play outside linebacker.
In Anthony, the Saints hope his size and athleticism will lead to immediate contributions in run stopping and in the short passing game. Stopping the run is critical to New Orleans finding success; like the passing game, they ranked 31st in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per rush.
Kikaha figures to get more playing time than the Saints had planned for early, as last week due to the contentious release of Junior Galette, whose off-the-field issues became too much of a headache for the team. Galette’s pass rush skills will be sorely missed, and how fast Kikaha can get up to speed to fill some of that void is a big question mark.
With a likely improved secondary the Saints may be able to better absorb the loss of Galette’s pass-rushing abilities, but this will require a return to 2013 form for newly resigned defensive end Cameron Jordan, whose sack total dipped from 12.5 to 7.5 from 2013 to 2014.
If the Saints can manage to piece together a middle-of the road defense with their new additions, then Brees’s talent may be able to take them to the top of the NFC South mountaintop once again.
Projected Record: 8.5-7.5
Division Probability: 35.5%
Playoff Probability: 50.3%
The Battle for the NFC South
With a tenuous two-year grasp on the division title, the Panthers will need their defensive unit to return to the 2013-version, and Superman Cam to be fully healthy to take full advantage of the towering weapons at his disposal.
The Falcons have significantly upgraded their defensive unit so that their offense doesn’t need to score 30-plus points per game to get a win; something that they are still capable of doing. The Saints have re-orchestrated their offense to reflect more of a balanced approach while adding youth and experience on the defensive side of the ball, which they are confident can return them to Super Bowl form. And the Bucs have upgraded their offensive line and added the most sought after quarterback in the draft since Andrew Luck.
This division figures to be an exciting race to the finish line in 2015, but less in the race-to-the-bottom way it existed as in 2014. As such, expect close, heated matchups, particularly as the regular season draws to a close, because the NFC South is up for grabs.