We’re on the cusp of the 2021 NFL Season. Before we get there, it’s time to prepare by looking at each of these divisions and the prospects for the season. First up is the NFC South, home to the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The NFC South has four interesting teams, one that stayed intact and three that went through major transformations. It will certainly be a different landscape as these four teams compete for a playoff run in 2021.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 Record: 11-5
Key Additions: Gio Bernard, RB, Kyle Trask, QB, Joe Tryon, LB
Key Departures: LeSean McCoy, RB
Key Question: Can the Buccaneers Do it Again?
The Buccaneers put together something of a super team last off-season, but it took a while for the team to gel. At one point, the Buccaneers were 7-5 and on the cusp of missing the playoffs. Instead, they rattled off four straight to finish as the No. 5 seed. That carried into the playoffs, where the Buccaneers dispatched Washington, the New Orleans Saints, and Green Bay Packers in consecutive weeks before beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. This off-season, the Buccaneers brought everyone back.
The team is loaded on offense, led by veteran Tom Brady. The backfield includes Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, and Bernard, the team’s big free-agent signing. Bernard comes over from the Bengals and is a pass-catching specialist. At receiver, the Buccaneers return Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and the team should be in good shape to be a contender in the NFC again.
New Orleans Saints
2020 Record: 12-4
Key Additions: Nick Vannett, TE, Brett Maher, K
Key Departures: Drew Brees, QB, Jared Cook, TE, Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Janoris Jenkins, CB
Key Question: What will life be like after Drew Brees?
The Saints wrapped up 2020 by winning the NFC South for the fourth straight season. But, yet again, the team couldn’t make it to the ultimate game in the post-season, falling at home in the Divisional Round to the Buccaneers. It proved to be the final go for Brees, who spent 15 years as starting quarterback for the Saints, throwing for 68,010 yards and 491 touchdowns. Brees will someday be in the Hall of Fame, but the 2021 challenge is how the team moves on without him. The pre-season featured a competition between former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston and Swiss Army Knife offensive weapon Taysom Hill. Winston was named the starter, but it stands to reason Hill will play a role. When last Winston started—in 2019—he threw for more than 5,000 yards and more than 30 touchdowns. Those are outstanding numbers, but it was his 30 interceptions that played a role in the Buccaneers moving on. Now a year removed, it remains to be seen if Winston has cleaned up his struggles with turnovers.
The Saints have other questions on offense, too. Veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders (Buffalo) and veteran tight end Jared Cook (Los Angeles Chargers) moved on in free agency. Their loss was magnified when star Michael Thomas had surgery in June, leaving him out for the season’s first few months. That leaves Winston with an inexperienced group of receivers led by fourth-year man Tre’Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway, along with second-year tight end Adam Trautman. The Saints still have all-world running back Alvin Kamara, the No. 1 running back in fantasy in 2020, who will likely be relied upon heavily in 2021.
2020 Record: 5-11
Key Additions: Sam Darnold, QB, Terrace Marshall, Jr., WR, David Moore, WR, Jaycee Horn, CB, Tommy Tremble, TE, A.J. Bouye, CB, Dan Arnold, TE
Key Departures: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Mike Davis, RB, Curtis Samuel, WR
Key Question: Is Sam Darnold the answer for Carolina?
In his first year as Head Coach, Matt Rhule didn’t get the season he’d hoped for as the team swooned to a 5-11 finish. Star running back Christian McCaffrey appeared in just three games due to injury, and the key free-agent signing of Teddy Bridgewater didn’t pan out. This off-season, Rhule continued to re-make the offense. Receiver Curtis Samuel left for Washington and Mike Davis, RB12 in 2020, filling in for McCaffrey, went to the division rival Falcons. But Rhule made a deal with the Jets to bring in former No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. Later, the team shipped Bridgewater off to the Broncos, securing Darnold’s spot at the team’s present and possibly it’s future. Darnold is going into his fourth season, with the Panthers already picking up his fifth-year option. Darnold is 13-25 in 28 career starts with the Jets, but the team’s hope is better coaching with Rhule, and Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady will be the tonic to help him realize his potential.
The Panthers also continued to build through the draft, adding top corner Jaycee Horn with a First-Round pick and former LSU receiver Terrace Marshall, Jr., in the Second Round. With Brady and Joe Burrow in 2019, Marshall caught 46 passes for 671 yards and 13 TDs despite being in a lineup with Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. He’s expected to help fill the void left by Samuel, as the Panthers return receivers, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, along with new tight end Dan Arnold, who came over from Arizona. The hope is the Panthers, and Darnold, take a step forward in 2021.
2020 Record: 4-12
Key Additions: Mike Davis, RB, Kyle Pitts, TE, Cordarelle Patterson, RB, Josh Rosen, QB, Ritchie Grant, S, Jalen Mayfield, OT
Key Departures: Julio Jones, WR, Todd Gurley, RB, Keanu Neal, S, Alex Mack, C
Key Question: Can the Falcons compete in 2021?
The 2020 Falcons got off to a rough start, going 0-5 and costing Head Coach Dan Quinn his job. Raheem Morris got the interim duties, and the team finished 4-7 the rest of the way, ending up in the last place in the NFC South. Enter Arthur Smith, the former Offensive Coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, to right the ship. But it was more subtractions for the Falcons this off-season, as cap issues and the perils of starting over led the team to send Julio Jones to the Titans and see several veterans rotate off the roster. The team did add a few weapons, including running back Mike Davis. Davis rushed for a career-high 642 yards and caught 59 passes for 373 yards with the Panthers in 2020. Now, he gets a chance to carry the load on his own. The team also added premier tight end Kyle Pitts, in the draft. Pitts, who caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 TDs in eight games for Florida in 2020, figures to be a big-time weapon opposite star receiver Calvin Ridley.
The 2021 Falcons are a work in progress. With Pitts and Ridley, the offense has a couple of budding stars for veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. But the defense is still in the midst of an overhaul, as is the rest of the team. It will likely take more than one off-season to untangle the Falcons’ messy cap situation and re-load the roster for Smith.
NFC South Prediction
So, what happens in the division this season? The Buccaneers return everyone and even added to the group, making them favorites to return to the Super Bowl. The rest of the division has more questions than answers. I think that’s how it plays out on the field, too, with the Saints and Panthers hovering around .500 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt to the end of the season. Ultimately, I think only the Buccaneers make the NFC playoff field.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 13-4
New Orleans Saints: 9-8
Carolina Panthers: 9-8
Atlanta Falcons: 5-12
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton network.