2023 NFC South Preview: Futures Picks for Saints, Falcons, Panthers, More
Pictured: Bijan Robinson. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Reasons for optimism: Defensive end Cam Jordan made his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl at age 33 and has notched at least 7.5 sacks for 11 seasons and counting. Linebacker Demario Davis made his fourth straight All-Pro team at age 33. Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye are one of the top safety duos in the league. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore didn't allow a touchdown in coverage last season after allowing the second-most in 2020 and '21 with seven in each campaign.
Offensively, Chris Olave wasted no time justifying his No. 11 overall selection in last year's draft, establishing himself as one of the best wide receivers in the league with 1,042 yards in 15 games as a rookie. Last year's other first-round pick, left tackle Trevor Penning, is healthy after missing 11 games as a rookie. Ryan Ramczyk graded out 14th of 77 qualified tackles at Pro Football Focus (PFF) and gives the Saints one of the better tackle duos in the NFL. Defenses still haven't figured out Taysom Hill, who rushed for seven touchdowns, caught two, and threw for two more. Michael Thomas hasn't been ruled out for the season yet.
But the best thing the Saints have going for them may be their schedule. The only projected division winners the Saints will face are the Jaguars and Lions, and both of those matchups come at home.
Causes for concern: Derek Carr got benched for Jarrett Stidham last season and is no lock to be an upgrade on Andy Dalton. Pete Carmichael Jr. will be the fifth offensive coordinator Carr has had in the NFL, and the four worst seasons of Carr's career in terms of passer rating, completion rate, yards per attempt and passing yards per game have all come in the four other seasons in which he had a new OC. Dalton’s efficiency metrics from last year (95.2 passer rating, 66.7% completion rate, 7.6 YPA) easily exceed Carr’s career highs in the four seasons in which he had a new OC (91.1 rating, 62.7% completion rate, 7.0 YPA). Carr went 22-40 (35.4%) as a starter in his four seasons with a new OC compared to 41-39 (51.3%) in all other seasons. Per PFF, Carr's adjusted completion percentage (which counts drops as completions and removes throwaways, spikes, bats, etc.) has declined for three straight seasons, and his 70.8% mark last season was his lowest since his rookie year in 2014 and ranked 35th of 41 qualified passers (Dalton was 12th at 76.8%).
All three of the Saints' starting interior linemen — LG Andrus Peat (11th percentile), C Erik McCoy (36th percentile), RG Cesar Ruiz (23rd percentile) — graded out in the bottom 40% of players at their respective positions last season. This is an underrated concern, as Carr's struggles last season came as the Raiders fielded good tackles but one of the worst interior lines in the NFL.
Thomas is now 30 and has played 10 games in the past three years. Alvin Kamara is now 28 and is coming off his two worst seasons. Hill's days of outlier production are likely numbered as he enters his age-33 season.
Three of the Saints' best defensive players — Jordan (34), Davis (34), and Mathieu (31) — are on the wrong side of 30. Lattimore missed 10 games last season and recently tweaked his knee at camp. The next three cornerbacks on the depth chart are Alontae Taylor, Bradley Roby, and Paulson Adebo, who ranked 103rd, 114th, and 108th, respectively, among 118 qualified corners at PFF last season.
The Saints lost two of their better defensive players (DE David Onyemata, LB Kaden Elliss) and one of their top defensive coaches (Ryan Nielson) to the division-rival Falcons.
Dennis Allen is 15-38 (28.3%) straight-up all-time as a head coach.
Outlook: For the Saints to meet or exceed expectations, they'll need Allen to lead his team to more than seven wins, which he has never done. And barring an unforeseen Jameis Winston resurrection, they'll need Carr to play well in his first year in a new scheme, which he has never done. They're also relying on several aging players to stay healthy and continue to play at a high level. This is a team that had 8.1 Pythagorean wins and seven actual wins despite playing in one of the worst divisions in football last season and is of roughly the same quality this season. For every player likely to provide more than last season, such as Thomas, Penning, and Lattimore, there's an aging player that is just as unlikely to maintain the same level of health and durability they enjoyed last season, such as Jordan, Davis, Mathieu, and Hill.
Since the NFL switched to the current divisional format in 2002, there have been 49 teams listed as the sole favorite to win their division at plus-money odds like the Saints this year. Only 15 of those teams, or 30.6%, went on to win the division. The average implied odds for those 49 teams were 40.4%, meaning teams like the Saints tend to fall well short of expectations.
Future: Saints To Miss Playoffs (+126, FanDuel)
I rate the Saints as the second-best team in the NFC South (behind the Falcons), and I rate the NFC South as the worst division in the NFC, and thus the least likely division to send multiple teams to the playoffs. Assuming the Eagles, Lions, and 49ers also win their divisions and the Cowboys get one of the Wild Card spots, I think the odds are at least 50/50 that the Saints get beat out by two of the Seahawks, Giants, Bears, Vikings, or Packers.
What is QuickSlip?
QuickSlip is an Action Network feature that allows users to automatically pre-load their bet slip at FanDuel Sportsbook.
Reasons for optimism: The offense was 13th in DVOA in 2022 — best in the division — despite starting Marcus Mariota for 13 games and a rookie in Desmond Ridder for the other four games, and in a split of seven missed games from Kyle Pitts. Head coach Arthur Smith has done his best to build a quarterback-proof offense, but a combination of a more experienced Ridder and Taylor Heinicke does represent a modest upgrade (so long as Heinicke doesn't start throwing no-look passes from his backside).
A much larger upgrade comes in the form of No. 8 overall pick Bijan Robinson, a generational talent at running back for an offense that led the NFL in rushing attempts (559) and ranked third in rushing DVOA. Robinson gives the Falcons a player with top-eight draft pedigree at RB, WR (Drake London, No. 8 overall in 2022), and TE (Pitts, No. 4 overall in 2021).
The skill-position talent doesn't stop there. Tyler Allgeier set the Falcons rookie rushing record with 1,035 yards, and per PFF, his 3.58 yards after contact per carry ranked seventh of 60 qualified RBs — just 0.02 behind Derrick Henry. Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 31.6 yards per kickoff return and set the all-time NFL record with his ninth kickoff return TD.
GM Terry Fontenot also made a couple of nice under-the-radar additions. Former Raider Mack Hollins shores up the WR2 spot. He graded out as a 96th-percentile run blocker, is coming off a career-best 57/690/4 receiving line, and can be a core-four special-teamer if needed. Former Patriot Jonnu Smith had his two best seasons under Smith with the Titans in 2019-20 and gives the Falcons a second receiving threat at TE, providing Atlanta more formational versatility in terms of its 2TE packages.
The offensive line is one of the better units in the league and returns four starters, all of whom earned strong marks from PFF a season ago: LT Jake Matthews (77.2, 14th of 81 tackles), C Drew Dalman (65.9, 14th of 36 centers), RG Chris Lindstrom (95.0, first of 77 guards), and RT Kaleb McGary (86.6, fourth of 81).
After finishing 30th in DVOA in 2022, the Falcons could be the NFL's most improved defense in 2023. Calais Campbell was a massive get to pair with Grady Jarrett up front, giving Atlanta two of the NFL's elite defensive linemen. Jessie Bates III gives the Falcons one of the NFL's best safeties to pair with A.J. Terrell, one of the league's best corners. Adding DT David Onyemata and LB Kaden Elliss from the Saints adds two quality players while simultaneously weakening a division rival. Ditto for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who is renowned for his work as the Saints defensive line coach over the past six seasons. That combination of additions should lead to a big jump in every single facet of the defense, from pass rush to coverage to run defense to scheme.
The Falcons also return most of the key contributors to a special-teams unit that was fifth in DVOA last season.
Causes for concern: Terrell and Dee Alford give Atlanta a strong No. 1 corner and nickel back, respectively, but the No. 2 corner spot is a liability. Jeffrey Okudah, Tre Flowers, and Mike Hughes are all better at run defense than pass coverage but lack a time machine to take them back to 1923, while Clark Phillips III is a fourth-round rookie.
KhaDarel Hodge or Scotty Miller is going to be the WR3.
Bud Dupree rushes the passer like he smoked too much of his namesake.
Outlook: The Falcons figure to have the best offense in the division, a much-improved defense, and an elite special teams unit. They also have the easiest schedule. And unlike most other divisional longshot bets, the Falcons might not even need a lucky break — there's a decent chance they legitimately are the best team in their division.
Future: Bijan Robinson To Lead NFL in Rushing (+1100, DraftKings)
In 53 seasons since the merger, six rookies have led the NFL in rushing: Earl Campbell (1978), George Rogers (1981), Eric Dickerson (1983), Edgerrin James (1999), Ezekiel Elliott (2016), Kareem Hunt (2017). Six into 53 is 11.1%, but I think Robinson's true odds are even higher because he is a better RB prospect than the majority of backs on that list, and because he was drafted by the team that led the NFL in rushing attempts the season prior.
Bet to: +900
Reasons for optimism: It took sending a haul to Chicago, but the Panthers have their franchise quarterback after moving up to No. 1 overall to select Bryce Young, who threw for 6,902 yards with 68 TDs and 9 interceptions in his final two years at Alabama.
Defensively, Carolina has a formidable tandem of edge rushers after signing Justin Houston to line up opposite Brian Burns, who is coming off a career-high 12.5 sacks. Those two will flank fourth-year DT Derrick Brown, who finally lived up to his No. 7 overall draft pedigree last year, earning the PFF’s seventh-best grade among 127 qualified interior linemen.
Speaking of Year 2 improvement, CB Jaycee Horn also broke out in a big way last year in his sophomore campaign. According to PFF, Horn allowed a 52.6 passer rating and 0 TDs while intercepting 3 passes on 47 targets across 452 snaps in coverage.
Causes for concern: I’m of the belief that the Young pick has distracted us from a series of highly questionable organizational decisions, resulting in the Panthers being one of the most overrated teams in the market heading into 2023.
I thought general manager Scott Fitterer made a curious move by opting to move on from interim coach Steve Wilkes – whom the players clearly loved and played harder for – in favor of a hire as uninspiring as Frank Reich. It has become evident that Reich owes part of his success to a staff of assistants that featured the likes of Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon, and Matt Eberflus, as Reich’s ability to maximize talent and put his team in position to succeed seemingly evaporated overnight as they moved on to better jobs. The late-season meltdown that saw the Colts squander a playoff berth in 2021 came in Reich’s first year without Sirianni and Gannon, and his midseason dismissal last season came in his first year without Eberflus.
Judging by his recent affinity for players such as Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan, it’s clear Reich struggles to evaluate talent and project future performance in situations that require more nuance than simply looking at a player’s past track record. This would be a non-issue with a good GM, but many of the moves Fitterer has made since hiring Reich suffer from similar issues, and it's going to cost the Panthers on the field.
It's fitting that Fitterer's best move — trading up for Young — is sullied by him getting fleeced for D.J. Moore in the deal. I'm all for being aggressive in pursuit of a franchise QB, but a good GM is also aggressive in ensuring they get a deal done in literally any other way that doesn't involve trading the player who is supposed to be your future franchise QB's top target for years to come. The Bears had leverage, but not that much leverage; I'd be surprised if the Bears had even one other offer that included a WR of comparable talent to Moore.
It was all downhill from there. To replace Moore, Fitterer doled out $14 million guaranteed to find out just how cooked a 33-year-old Adam Thielen is. He spent another $13 million on 30-year-old TE Hayden Hurst, who has never posted more than 571 receiving yards in a season and is coming off career-worst marks in yards per reception (8.0), yards per target (6.1), and TD reception rate (3.8%) despite being a starter in a Joe Burrow-quarterbacked offense. He spent $5 million guaranteed on D.J. Chark, a player with more career missed games (28) than TDs (18). And he gave $13 million guaranteed to Miles Sanders — the richest RB contract of 2023 — despite watching the run game suffer zero drop-off last season in going from Christian McCaffrey to D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard, who were barely making above the league minimum. And even tough Sanders is a much better runner (5.0 career YPC) than receiver (5.5 career YPT, 10.1% career drop rate, per PFF), Reich wants to utilize Sanders more in the passing game.
So to recap: The Panthers spent $13 million guaranteed at RB, yet still have the second-worst backfield in the division. They traded Moore and spent $19 million guaranteed (and a second-round pick) on WRs, yet still have the worst WR corps in the division. And they spent $13 million guaranteed at TE and still have the second-worst TE group in the division.
Meanwhile, 2022 No. 6 overall pick Ikem Ekwonu graded out in the 41st percentile as a pass blocker last season and has seemingly regressed. Austin Corbett, their top interior lineman, won't be ready for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in January. The offensive line has generally been a disaster in the preseason, which is the last thing the franchise needs after staking its future on a 5-foot-10, 205-pound QB.
Defensively, Ejiro Evero was a nice hire at defensive coordinator, but with him comes a scheme change and a shift from a base 4-3 to a base 3-4, so the defense could take some time to jell.
Outlook: I love the quarterback … and not much else. I don't have faith in Reich or the coaching staff to get the most out of this team. I don't think Fitterer put enough around Young from a pass-protection or pass-catching standpoint. I don't think the roster has enough depth to withstand inevitable injury regression after enjoying the ninth-best injury luck in 2022. I see the Panthers losing more games they're supposed to win than vice versa.
Future: Under 7.5 wins (-102, FanDuel)
Since 2002, there have been 31 instances of a team drafting a quarterback in the top 10 who then went on to start at least eight games as a rookie, and those teams combined to go 11-16-4 (40.7%) toward their win-total over. Over the past 10 years, they’ve been even worse, going just 4-11-2 (26.7%). The fact of the matter is that good quarterbacks are typically drafted to bad teams, and I don’t think a weak NFC South is enough to offset a subpar roster and questionable coaching decisions.
There also could be some hidden value with this under, as Reich-coached teams are notorious for spotting their opponent a 1-0 start. Per Action Labs, Reich is 0-4-1 SU in Week 1 with a -7.2 point differential.
Reasons for optimism: The defense has ranked 13th or better in DVOA in each of the past four seasons and should again be the strength of the team. Cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis and safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Ryan Neal comprise one of the best secondaries in the league. The front seven has been depleted since its Super Bowl heyday but still features studs in Vita Vea, Shaquil Barrett, and LaVonte David.
Mike Evans has posted at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of nine NFL seasons. Chris Godwin caught 104 balls last season and is another year removed from the ACL injury he suffered in December of 2021.
Causes for concern: The offensive line has three players switching positions: Tristan Wirfs is going from right tackle to left tackle, Luke Goedeke is going from left guard back to his natural position of right tackle, and rookie Cody Mauch is going from left tackle to right guard. Wirfs has been an elite right tackle but has admittedly struggled mentally with the move to the left side, and the Bucs can ill afford any drop-off from him. Goedeke was one of the worst linemen in the league last year and has been uneven in the preseason, as has Mauch. The line likely won't be good, especially not right away.
Tom Brady masked deficiencies on the offensive line by getting rid of the ball in 2.29 seconds on average last season, quickest in the league according to PFF. Mayfield's average time to throw was 2.86 seconds last season and is 2.81 for his career, which is going to be an issue. He has always struggled in the face of pressure. Former Seahawks quarterback coach Dave Canales was hired as the offensive coordinator based on his work with Geno Smith behind a shaky O-line, but he had been with Pete Carroll since the beginning of his time in Seattle in 2010 and can’t be expected to replicate those efforts in Year 1 with a new team.
Rachaad White showed no ability to make something out of nothing with the O-line struggling, forcing only 14 missed tackles on 129 carries and ranking 58th of 60 qualified running backs in yards after contact per carry (2.33).
Depth at the skill positions is an issue, especially at wide receiver behind Evans and Godwin. With Russell Gage going down with a torn patellar tendon, 2023 sixth-round pick Trey Palmer is the only other receiver besides Evans and Godwin that didn't go undrafted,
Outlook: The Bucs defense is good enough to keep them in most games, but the offense could be bad enough that they won't win many. A new quarterback, new scheme, shaky offensive line, and a lack of depth is a lot to overcome on offense, but I suppose the presence of Canales provides a glimmer of hope, as most people would have said similar things about the Seahawks offense heading into last season. Ultimately, their first-place schedule puts them at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the division, as they have to host Philadelphia and travel to Buffalo and San Francisco. The ceiling is probably 8-9 wins with a floor of 3-4 wins.
Future: Buccaneers Team Total Points Under 342.5 (-110, DraftKings)
The Buccaneers scored 313 points with Tom Brady last season. Baker Mayfield is no Tom Brady. Mayfield's teams averaged 18.5 points per game in his 10 starts last season, which projects to 314.5 over 17 games. The math isn't math-ing.
Bet to: Under 328.5