The Bucs are not only the best team in the NFC South they are once again SB contenders and have to be considered the favorite after winning the championship. The Bucs found a way to bring back every player who hit free agency as the players all wanted a chance to do it again. The offense led by Tom Brady at the age of 44 is once again loaded with one of deepest WR cores starting with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown. The TE position was already deep with Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, but the return of a healthy O.J. Howard could make them even better. The offensive line should be a year better, paving the way for Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette again.
X-Factor – WR Antonio Brown – Brown proved he still had something left in the tank, despite being away from the game for a while. With the ability to go through a full camp this year, he could be even better.
The defense is still led by a strong front 7 of DTs Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, DE William Gholston, pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, LBs Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barrett which is the strength of the team. This unit can rush the passer and stop the run at a top level as shown throughout the playoffs last season. The young CBs Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting proved they can step up and make big plays, along with star 2nd year S Antoine Winfield Jr. who proved to be a young physical defender like his father and S Jordan Whitehead who also played well.
X-Factor – CB Carlton Davis – Coming off a big season and gaining valuable playoff experience, Davis is expected to be one of the top CBs in football, if he can take the next step in his play. A shutdown CB, behind that front 7 would be unstoppable.
The Saints have a big strength in their offensive line which may be one of the best in the league. With the retirement of Drew Brees, the team should rely on the run game of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. The QB battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill should be won by Winston who has proven that he can play the position but needed to cut down on turnovers and Taysom can continue to play multiple positions. The biggest concern is the absence of WR Michael Thomas which leaves the WR core very young and inexperienced with the losses of WR Emmanuel Sanders and TE Jared Cook via free agency.
X-Factor – WR Michael Thomas – If Thomas is out longer than expected or isn’t himself when he returns, the QB play could be severely affected, but the hope is that he will return soon, and he has proven to be a top 5 WR when healthy.
The Saints defense should continue to be a solid unit led by their pass defense with CB Marshon Lattimore and S Malcolm Jenkins despite the loss of CB Janoris Jenkins, as young players have proven they can step up. The defensive line is still led by star DE Cameron Jordan and the hope is that pass rusher Marcus Davenport can stay healthy and take the next step to form a solid duo. MLB Demario Davis continues to be disruptive in the middle and OLB Kwon Alexander can be just as physical if he can stay healthy. Although they will miss pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, they have young LB Zack Baun who plays with good speed and instincts.
X-Factor – DE/LB Marcus Davenport – Davenport was a raw pass rusher who the Saints traded up for due to his size, speed, an athleticism, but while he has shown flashes, in year 4 it is time for him to take advantage of the double teams Cam Jordan takes on.
The Panthers offense will determine how far this team can go with the return of a healthy Christian McCaffrey who was considered a top 3 RB and dual threat before injury. The team is also transitioning to QB Sam Darnold who must prove that he can play better with a change of scenery and turn the ball over less. Darnold should be happy with better weapons and should regain his chemistry with WR Robbie Anderson and learn to grow with WR D.J. Moore who has been a top talent since entering the league. The offensive line is the biggest concern going through a lot of changes with the only reliable piece as RT Taylor Morton, so that will determine a lot.
X-Factor – RB Christian McCaffrey – McCaffrey could be a big difference maker on this team if he is truly 100% after his injury, but he will need his offensive line to produce. The team is young at RB and could be in trouble if he goes down again.
The Panthers defense should be athletic and active again led by a strong D-line with DE Brian Burns and DT Derrick Brown, who should be even better in his 2nd year. The LB core continues to be led by OLB Shaq Thompson and should be even better with the additions of Denzel Perryman from the Chargers and Haason Reddick who is coming off a double-digit sack season with the Cardinals. The secondary is led by 2nd year player Jeremy Chinn who was a nightmare at Safety playing with a physical style that made him a strong 1B candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year behind the more popular Chase Young. The rest of the secondary is a work in progress, so the addition of 1st round pick CB Jaycee Horn is welcome.
X-Factor – CB Jaycee Horn – Horn will step into the #1 CB spot from day 1 and was considered to some as the most NFL ready CB in the draft, he has the size, toughness, and athleticism to play the position along with the pedigree as the son of former NFL WR Joe Horn.
The Falcons offense should continue to be good with Matt Ryan returning at QB, but the offensive line will be something to watch as usual with little depth and above average play which could set things back unless the young players step up. The team still has a lot of weapons despite the loss of Julio Jones, but all eyes are on new 1st round TE Kyle Pitts who many have as the #1 player in the draft; he was the 3rd best on my board behind Trevor Lawrence and Ja’Marr Chase. The running game should be improved with the addition of RB Mike Davis from the Panthers coming off a good season as a dual threat filling in as the starter and the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson who has always been explosive.
X-Factor – TE Kyle Pitts – The addition of Pitts made Julio Jones’ contract expendable, so there will be a lot of targets available to for him, but he is considered the new age TE and should be in the running for rookie of the year, as a lot is expected.
The Falcons defense is the reason why they will struggle again as they just need to add more talent on that side of the ball. The defensive line could be something to lean on with Marlon Davidson and Grady Jarrett. MLB Deion Jones should continue to be a sideline-to-sideline tackler and CB A.J. Terrell should be a year better after being thrown into the #1 spot as a rookie with mixed results. The Falcons defense is very young so some players will need to step up and adding some veterans can’t be ruled out; DC Dean Pees will have his hands full.
X-Factor – DE/DT- Marlon Davidson – I was big on Davidson being an impact player as a rookie, but he had issues with injuries and other setbacks. He has good size and is very active with the ability to stop the run and the pass so he will be a name to look out for.