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NFC South Breakdown
Editor’s Note: Gary Bart joins the VegasInsider.com pro football handicapping roster this season. Don’t miss out on his selections on VI. Click to win!

The NFC South finished in an unusual way last season. The Carolina Panthers overcame a sluggish start to win the division with a 7-8-1 record. The Panthers became only the second team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record after playing a 16 game schedule.

The division also saw the preseason favorite New Orleans Saints miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, the third place 6-10 Atlanta Falcons fire their head coach and the last place 2-14 Buccaneers qualify for the first overall pick in this year’s draft.

History

Odds to win NFC East - per Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook
New Orleans Saints 2/1
Carolina Panthers 2/1
Atlanta Falcons 2/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 15/2

NFC East Win Totals - per Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook
New Orleans Saints - 9 (Over +120, Under -140)
Carolina Panthers - 8.5 (Over +105, Under -125)
Atlanta Falcons - 8 (Over -130, Under +110)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 6 (Over -110, Under -110)

Odds Subject to Change – Updated 8.10.15

Listed below are my notes on all four teams and predicted order of finish.

1) Carolina Panthers

Carolina’s 2014 season can be looked at in a positive and negative way. They finished with a losing record, but were able to make the playoffs by winning their last four games of the regular season and won their first round playoff matchup against Arizona before showing some fight in a loss to Seattle in the Divisional round.

The Panthers defense impressed down the stretch. They allowed 10.75 points per game during their season ending four game winning streak and 12.17 PPG over their last six regular season games.

Carolina were above average on offense last season, led by four-year quarterback Cam Newton who has become a positive force with the Panthers. Newton’s 20th ranked quarterback rating does not tell the whole story. He was a big part of Carolina’s 7th ranked rushing offense, running for 539 yards and a 5.2 rushing average in 14 games.

The Panthers had five picks in this year’s draft. They used one of those selections to draft Michigan receiver Devin Funchess in the second round. Some experts had Funchess ranked as a possible first round pick, but his 4.7 second time in the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine seemed to be the reason why he fell to the Panthers in the second round. They used their first pick to select versatile linebacker/safety Shaq Thompson to shore up their defense and acquired free agent veterans Ted Ginn, Michael Oher and Alan Ball to fill key positions.

Despite having the 16th ranked offense in 2014 the Panthers scored over 30 points in nine different games. With the addition of Thompson to what I think should be a dominant defense, combined with the 6th easiest schedule in the league, Carolina should win this division for the second consecutive year.

2) New Orleans

New Orleans are coming off a disappointing 7-9 season. It was an unusual season for the Saints from an offensive and defensive perspective. They lead the league in total offense (411 YPG) and finished 31st on defense.

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General Manager Mickey Loomis tried to address the team’s defensive issues by spending six of their nine draft choices on defensive players. The Saints made one of the biggest off-season trades when they acquired Seattle’s two-time Pro Bowl centre Max Unger and a first-round pick for star tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth round selection. They signed free agent 2013 Pro Bowl running back C. J. Spiller who played with the Bills for the past five seasons and former Patriots free agent cornerback Brandon Browner to help improve the defense.

The Saints used Seattle’s first round pick to select Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony and picked Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round. Although New Orleans are currently set at quarterback I think Grayson was one of the steals in this year’s draft. He threw for 4,006 yards with 32 touchdown passes against only seven interceptions in his senior year. With Drew Brees still a few years away from retirement the Saints can afford to be patient with their young quarterback.

It appears the Saints have decided to run a more balanced offense to take the pressure off their defense and Brees. The additions of Unger, Spiller and first round pick offensive tackle Andrus Peat should help them achieve this goal. If the offense can run the ball and if the defense improves the Saints should be in the mix for a playoff spot.

3) Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons had a 13-3 record in 2012 under head coach Mike Smith. The NFL is tough on coaches and after two consecutive losing seasons the Falcons replaced Smith with Seattle assistant coach Dan Quinn.

Quinn is walking into a pretty good situation. The Falcons have the league’s easiest schedule and general manager Thomas Dimitroff is coming off an excellent draft. Their first three selections are projected starters and could become impact players.

The Falcons moved quickly in the draft to upgrade their 32nd ranked defense by selecting Clemson star Vic Beasley at number eight overall. Beasley is an outstanding pass rusher and has a chance to become a Pro-Bowl player. Atlanta took cornerback Jalen Collins who dropped to the second round because of concerns surrounding a foot injury and three failed drug tests. Dimitroff was lucky to acquire Indiana running back Tevin Coleman in the third round. Colman was the second leading NCAA rusher in 2014 with 2,036 yards and I expect him to be the starting running back for the Falcons. Atlanta re-signed a number of free agents from last year’s team and added a few fringe free agents from other teams.

The Falcons are coming off a 6-10 season and I was not in agreement with the firing of Smith. Although he was 0-4 in playoff appearances, his 56-24 record during his first five seasons in Atlanta should have earned him another season as head coach.

Atlanta should be able to move the ball on a consistent basis. It will be interesting to see if they can stop anyone. They open at home against Philadelphia and then play back-to-back road games against the Giants and Dallas. If they can avoid being swept in their first three games they should contend for a playoff spot.

4) Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay finished last overall (2-14) in the NFL last season under first-year head coach Lovie Smith, which put them in position to draft the first overall pick in this year’s draft. There were early discussions about which quarterback the Buccaneers would select but that conversation ended when they drafted Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston first.

After selecting Winston the Buccaneers used both of their second round picks to protect him. The club went with Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith with their first pick of the second round and drafted Hobart & William Smith center Ali Marpet with the 61st overall selection. Tampa drafted two small targets for Winston in the fifth and sixth rounds to compliment veteran receiver Vincent Jackson and second-year stud Mike Evans. This team did not make a splash in free agency. They picked up a few players that may fill some of their needs. The Buccaneers will have to depend on their 2015 draft choices if they hope to improve on last year’s record.

Winston is not a slam dunk franchise impact player. His biggest problem is similar to his predecessor at Florida State E. J. Manuel. Both quarterbacks have accuracy issues with their mid-range throws. In addition to his accuracy problem Winston is trying to change his long throwing motion. This will be very difficult to accomplish and should have been taken into consideration by the Buccaneers scouting staff before making Winston the number one overall pick.

The Buccaneers did not make enough upgrades to compete for a playoff spot. I think they made a big mistake drafting Winston with the first overall pick. He was a risky selection because of his lack of accuracy, elongated throwing motion and off-field issues. I will be surprised if he becomes a frontline NFL quarterback and I expect him to struggle in his rookie season.

  
HEADLINES
· BetOnline.ag: Future Bets - NFC North
· BetDSI: Handicapping L.A. Rams (9)
· BetDSI: NFC South Odds Outlook
· BetOnline.ag: Future Bets - AFC East
· BetDSI: NFC North Odds Outlook
· Nelson: NFC Schedule Analysis
· Nelson: AFC Schedule Analysis
· BetOnline.ag: Another Patriot Pinched
· BetOnline.ag: Future Bets - NFC South
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