Insiders

Six Things About The NFC South

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The NFC South is a story of have’s and have nots. The have’s include the Carolina Panthers who have already clinched the division with a 12-0 record.

While the teams currently seem headed in opposite directions, both the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already improved after having abysmal 2014 seasons. Each team has holes to fill and strides to take before they’re ready to compete with the upper echelon of the division and conference, but both is in a better position than it was a season ago.

Right now the biggest have not is a team that was atop the division in recent years in the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is aging, and the defense is terrible. While the 2015 draft brought in young talent like Andrus Peat and Stephone Anthony, the Saints roster is in need of an overhaul as much as any in the division.

Riverboat Ron is the coach of the year:

The Carolina Panthers are off to a 12-0 start, and they haven’t lost a regular season game since November 30th 2014. The Panthers have won 16 consecutive regular season game and they’ve done it in a variety of different ways.

Carolina has been without their best wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin all season, and missed star linebacker Luke Kuechly for four games earlier in the year, but the team has overcome every adversity to remain undefeated.

While there’s much talk about the Panthers’ defense and Cam Newton’s lack of offensive weapons, the Panthers are tied for second in the NFL in scoring, averaging just over 31 points per game.

The Panthers have won by large margins, and by small margins, and they came back from way behind against the Seattle Seahawks in Week-5. The Panthers have won high scoring games, and low scoring games, and they’re on their way to being the NFC’s No.1 seed just one season after winning the division with a 7-9 record.

When you consider how consistent the Panthers have been since their last regular season loss over a year ago, there’s no question that Ron Rivera should be considered the heavy favorite for NFL Coach of the Year.

Cam Newton is playing on a new level:

There’s no question that Cam Newton is an MVP candidate as the Panthers remain undefeated, and he continues to hand out footballs to kids in the crowd in Carolina.

Despite being without his best offensive weapon Kelvin Benjamin, Newton is having the best year of his career, and it’s more impressive than people may realize.

There’s no question that the defense which boasts names like Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Josh Norman is a huge part of the reason the Panthers have remained unbeaten, but that is just part of the equation.

Newton missed two games in 2014, and ended the year with a career low 18 passing touchdowns, one fewer than he had in 2012. Newton had 21 passing touchdowns as a rookie in 2011, and a career high 24 in 2013. That is, a career high until this season.

With four games left on the 2015 docket, Newton has already set a new career high with 25 passing touchdowns, meaning he will likely blow his previous record of 24 out of the water by season’s end.  He simply does anything and everything the team needs him to do to win football games.

Jameis Winston is the unquestioned leader in Tampa Bay:  

It sounds unlikely, maybe even contrived, for the 21-year old rookie quarterback to be the leader of a football team with veterans like Logan Mankins and Gerald McCoy.

It didn’t happen on the 3rd-and-19 run where Jameis Winston broke tackles and carried tacklers for 20 yards against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but that play was a perfect example of the kind of drive and determination that has allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ rookie quarterback to become his team’s unquestioned leader.

Right tackle Demar Dotson made his first start since returning from injury Sunday, and he credited Winston for helping him get through the game.

“Even when we’re tired and I got my hands on my knees – I haven’t played the game in so long, I didn’t think I was going to make it – but when I look at that guy there, he’s motivating me,” Dotson said about Winston.

“The quarterback is supposed to be a leader,” Dotson said. He’s a young guy but he leads. And he don’t lead by his mouth, because I don’t follow people that talk.  I follow people that are willing to lead by example. When you see some of the stuff he does, you say to yourself, OK I’ll follow that guy. He can tell me anything, and I’ll listen to it, because he backs it up for himself.”

To a man, anyone you ask inside of the Bucs locker room is blown away by Winston’s drive and leadership. It hasn’t been forced, but he’s grown into it, and his teammates have welcomed the energy and attitude he’s brought to an organization that has lacked both for a long time.

The Buccaneers are far from a finished product, but the team believes they can hang with anyone in football.  While that may not yet be the case, the belief that’s been instilled in this team by its rookie quarterback is very, very rare.

It looks like the Buccaneers nailed the 2015 NFL Draft:

While the Bucs draft inevitably starts with the 1st-overall pick in the draft Jameis Winston, it certainly doesn’t end there.

While some would argue it’s hard to call the draft an overwhelming success when sixth-round pick Kaelin Clay and seventh-round pick Joey Iosefa failed to make the team, and fifth-round pick, receiver Kenny Bell landed on IR before the season began, but the success of Tampa Bay’s first four picks may make that statement untrue.

Any draft that nets a team a franchise quarterback has to be considered a success, so if Winston continues to progress in that direction, the Bucs would consider everything else icing on the cake. That said, the icing is looking pretty good so far too.

To land a franchise quarterback, as well as a starting level left tackle, right guard and middle linebacker would be a major success, and early returns suggest the Bucs may have done just that.

Donovan Smith hasn’t been perfect, and he’s had his ups and downs, but when you look at some of the defensive ends the second-round pick tasked with protecting Winston’s blindside has held without a sack, it’s easy to see why the Bucs are high on Smith. Like Smith, Ali Marpet has been far from perfect, but the team’s other second-round selection graded out among the best run blocking guards in football at times this season. For a young man making the leap from Division-3, Marpet has made a very quick adjustment.

Then there’s the team’s fourth-round selection Kwon Alexander, whose presence and play on the defensive side of the ball has been almost as transformative as Winston’s on the offense. If not for the four-game suspension that will effectively end Alexander’s regular season, Alexander would have been in the discussion for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Matt Ryan is going backwards:

The Atlanta Falcons are better than they were a year ago, except there’s one major issue. Their quarterback isn’t.

Matt Ryan hasn’t thrown for fewer than 26 touchdowns since his second season in the league. Ryan had 16 his rookie season, 22 a season later, and at least 26 touchdowns every year since. If Ryan has two touchdown passes in each of the Falcons final four games, he’ll finish with 25 touchdowns, which would still be his lowest output since 2009.

The dip in Ryan’s touchdown numbers isn’t the only red flag, as the veteran quarterback is throwing more interceptions as well. Ryan had just 11 interceptions as a rookie, and only nine picks his third season in the league. Ryan had a career high 17 interceptions in 2013, but has never had more than 14 in any of his seven other NFL seasons. Ryan has already picked up 13 interceptions this season, and if he continues on his pick-per-game average, he’s projected to throw 17 interceptions again this season.

Worse yet, in recent weeks Ryan’s picks have come at the most inopportune of times, or with the Falcons in the red zone. Throwing interceptions is always bad, but throwing picks in the red zone, and in key situations is much worse.

The Falcons season is headed towards the dump, and Ryan has had his hands all over recent Falcons’ failures. He’s still a good quarterback, and it’s not very likely the Falcons will be looking at quarterbacks this offseason, but it has become obvious as the season has progressed that Ryan isn’t performing at his best, and the Falcons need to find a way to get him back on track.

2015 is almost lost, but if Atlanta wants 2016 to go better than the last couple of seasons have, they need  their franchise quarterback to start playing like one again.

Drew Brees isn’t finished, but it still might be too late:

Drew Brees having more success against the Panthers than anyone else has been able to this season is just the latest example that the 36-year old, 15-year veteran isn’t finished as a quarterback.

However, while Brees may have more left in the tank, it may be time for him and the team he’s meant so much to, to part ways. The future Hall of Fame quarterback may not be done, but the Saints are rebuilding, and it’s unlikely that the team could be in a position to win, while Brees is still in a position to lead them to a big win.

While Brees is still slinging the rock around, it’s clear that he’s no longer the quarterback that led New Orleans to its first Super Bowl championship and helped lead a city out of despair. There are few quarterbacks, if any, who have meant to a city what Brees means to New Orleans, and that’s what makes the decision so difficult.

The decision for the Saints has to be about what’s best for the future of the organization. The Saints have to ask themselves if trading the long-time face of their franchise to a quarterback starved team that feels they’re on the brink and moving on is better for the long term success of the team, than holding onto Brees for nostalgia, or a few more wins in the immediate future.

For Brees, the desire to finish his career in the city he’s become such a big part of has to be important, but it’s hard to imagine the quarterback not wanting another opportunity to win.

For teams like the St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans or New York Jets, Brees could represent a small window of opportunity. For teams that feel they’re a quarterback away, he could represent the difference between another ho-hum year and the chance to compete for a championship.

For the Saints, Brees just represents holding onto the past while building for the future, and that might not be the best thing for him or New Orleans.


About Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.