The NFC South's resident zombie, 45-year Tom Brady, has , opening the door for a new division champion after his Buccaneers won the last two NFC South crowns. Even though Tampa Bay won the division with an 8-9 record, that doesn't mean the race to do so wasn't competitive. In fact, the 2022 NFC South race was the tightest of any of the NFL's eight divisions as the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Atlanta Falcons all finished with identical 7-10 records in a three-way tie for second place.
Given the question marks all four teams in the division are facing -- including the Buccaneers (who will be the starting quarterback and what about the rushing offense?), the Panthers (how will Bryce Young fare in Year 1?), the Saints (will Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara be healthy/available and how will Derek Carr's transition to New Orleans go?), and the Falcons (how will Desmond Ridder fare as a starting quarterback, can a smash mouth offense win in 2023, and how will their defensive overhaul take in Year 1) -- here's a look at how each of the four squads could come away with the division title in the upcoming season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Going from Tom Brady, even the washed-up version who averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt (the second-lowest of his career as a starting quarterback and lowest since 2003), to Baker Mayfield, who has 26 passing touchdowns and 26 turnovers in his last 24 starts since 2021, or Kyle Trask, their 2021 second-round pick who has thrown nine career passes, is a steep step down.
Offensively, the good news is Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are still around to catch passes. The bad news is they have to figure out how to improve upon the NFL's worst rushing offense (76.9 rushing yards per game) with a shaky quarterback situation. If Mayfield or Trask find their groove throwing to Evans and Godwin, that could open things up on the ground, providing a decent enough offense to win the division once again.
Defensively, they're much more sound across the board with mainstays like defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebacker Devin White, linebacker Lavonte David, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, cornerback Jamel Dean, cornerback Carlton Davis, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. back in the fold. Barrett's health along with what first-round pick defensive lineman can provide as a rookie will be the X-factor for this defense. Tampa Bay was a true contender in 2020 and 2021 because of Brady and their ferocious pass rush. Their quarterback pressure rate was 37% in those two seasons, the third-highest in the NFL. That figure dropped to 31.3% in 2022 (24th in the NFL) because Barrett's season ended after Week 8 when he tore his Achilles. His 174 quarterback pressures since 2020 still rank as the eighth-most in the NFL in that span despite missing half a season.
If the Buccaneers can get average quarterback play and health on defense, they could claw their way back to their third NFC South championship in as many years.
The Panthers finally halted their veteran stop-gap carousel at the quarterback position in 2023 by trading up to select 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young first overall. They did a nice job surrounding him with decent offensive talent this offseason with the signings of receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark, tight end Hayden Hurst, and Pro Bowl running back Miles Sanders. The second round draft selection of Ole Miss wideout Jonathan Mingo was a nice grab as he was one of the more athletically gifted receivers in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Defensively, it's much of the same plus the signing of strong safety Vonn Bell, but there's plenty of room for improvement given some of the young pieces they have. Twenty-five-year-old defensive end Brian Burns has 30.5 sacks across the last three seasons, the ninth-most in the NFL and only half a sack behind Aaron Donald for the eighth-most (31.0). Third-year cornerback Jaycee Horn could be on the cusp of a breakout if he stays healthy, something he has struggled to do (16 games played in two seasons). New head coach Frank Reich's Carolina squad could be a team on the rise in a couple years, but in the NFC South, they could contend for the top spot as early as 2023.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints averaged 19.4 points per game in 2022, ranking 22nd in the NFL. That's unfathomable for their franchise considering they averaged 28.1 points per game across the 15 seasons in which Drew Brees lined up as their starting quarterback. Post Brees, since 2021, they have used five different starting quarterbacks (Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, and Ian Book), tied for the most in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, and Washington Commanders.
Naturally, New Orleans had enough and landed this offseason's top free-agent passer in former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, signing him to a four-year, $150 million deal. Carr didn't mesh with Las Vegas new head coach Josh McDaniels in 2022, posting the second-lowest completion percentage (60.8%) and passer rating (86.3) of his career while tossing a career-high 14 interceptions. However, he leaves the Silver and Black as their all-time leader in passing yards (35,222) and passing touchdowns (217) after nine seasons.
Carr could be just what the Saints need to get back to the top of the NFC South. Their scoring defense was already top-10 a year ago (20.3 points per game allowed, ninth in the entire league), which allowed them to play in 11 one-score games since their offense averaged 0.9 fewer points per game. The Saints went 5-6 in those games in 2022, but those moments are Carr's specialty. His 33 game-winning drives and 28 fourth-quarter comebacks are the most by a quarterback through their first nine seasons since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.
His ability to continue his late-game magic could hinge on the availability of the Saints' two most-established playmakers, five-time Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara and three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas. Kamara's status for the 2023 season is up in the air after he to conspiracy to commit battery and substantial bodily harm charges in March in Nevada because of an altercation in Las Vegas during the 2022 Pro Bowl weekend. His trial is set for July 31. If found guilty, Kamara faces a suspension in 2023 for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy. Should Kamara miss extended time, free-agent signee Jamaal Williams, who led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns in 2022 with the Detroit Lions, and third-round rookie out of TCU, college football's national runner-up, would stand to become Carr's backfield mates.
Thomas' status comes down strictly to his health situation. He has only suited up for 10 games since the 2020 season because of multiple injury issues. The most recent one was regarding a toe malady that caused him to miss 14 games. However, he said Tuesday that he'll be "Chris Olave, the 11th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft who totaled over 1,000 yards (1,042) in 15 games as a rookie, then the Saints should have the offensive firepower to contend for the NFC South title.." The last fully healthy season the 30-year-old Thomas had was back in 2019 when he set the NFL single-season catches record with 149 while also leading the league with 1,725 receiving yards. If Carr can get a Thomas that is within striking distance of that player alongside
Arthur Smith put his stamp on the Falcons' roster entering Year 3 as their head coach, molding the offense in the image of those Titans teams he called offensive plays for in 2019 and 2020. Those offensives were led by running back Derrick Henry, who made the rest of the league look like children, while quarterback Ryan Tannehill carved up the middle of the field off of play-action passes to big-boded targets like wide receiver A.J. Brown, wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith.
Smith went out and acquired his new Henry with the eighth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft by selecting Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson, making him the highest-drafted player at his position since the New York Giants took Saquon Barkley second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Robinson is a special talent, becoming the first player since at least 2006 with over 100 missed tackles forced (104) in a college football season. At the tight end spot, there's 2020 fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts, who became the second tight end in league history with over 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie, and Smith's old friend,the soon-to-be 28-year-old Jonnu Smith, whom the Falcons acquired for a seventh-round pick this offseason. Their big-bodied receiver, Drake London (the eighth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft), also serves a massive target for second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder at 6-4, 213 pounds.
The Falcons ran the ball 55.3% of the time in 2022, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind only the Chicago Bears (56.2%), and they averaged 159.9 rushing yards per game, the third-most in the league behind the Bears (177.3) and the Baltimore Ravens (160.0). That number could easily climb with the incentive to get the most out of a top-10 pick running back like Robinson as they ease Ridder into their starting quarterback spot full-time in Year 2. The 2022 third-round pick threw two touchdowns and no interceptions after starting the final four games of last season with both touchdowns coming in their 30-17 Week 18 victory against the Buccaneers.
After ranking 23rd in scoring defense in 2022, defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired, so Smith hired Saints co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen over to the over side of the NFC South's most petty rivalry to run the Atlanta defense. The front office completely revamped that side of the ball adding six of its 11 starters via free agency or trades: soon-to-be 37-year-old defensive lineman Calais Campbell (signed a one-year, $7 million contract), 30-year-old defensive lineman David Onyemata (signed a three-year, $35 million deal), 30-year-old outside linebacker Bud Dupree (signed a one-year, $3 million deal), 27-year-old linebacker Kade Elliss (signed a three-year, $21.5 million contract), 26-year-old safety Jessie Bates III (signed to a four-year, $64 million deal), and 24-year-old cornerback Jeff Okudah (acquired in a trade with the Detroit Lions in exchange for a 2023 fifth-round pick).
If Nielsen can create a more Saints-like vibe defensively, better health from Pitts and the two-headed backfield duo of Robinson and second-year rusher Tyler Allgeier, who ran for 1,035 yards after being selected in the fifth-round in 2022, the Falcons could be division contenders. Atlanta played in an NFL-high 13 one-score games last season, losing eight of them. A more sound defense and more explosive offensive could flip that record around, thus propelling the Falcons to a division crown.