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As training camps begin around the NFL, the 2022 season starts to shift into focus. In the NFC South, there is a runaway favorite to win the division in the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers, but every team is dealing with some serious turnover.
The Bucs and Saints have new head coaches, with Todd Bowles and Dennis Allen each being promoted internally after Bruce Arians and Sean Payton stepped down. The Falcons and Panthers don’t have new head coaches (at least not yet), but both have quarterback questions and, just generally, face uncertainty in the immediate as they try to figure out the long-term direction of their franchises. Here, we’re going to take a look at the biggest question facing each team in the NFC South and how that will determine how successful each team is this season — with the understanding that they aren’t all chasing the same goals.
Atlanta Falcons: Is Desmond Ridder “the guy”?
The Falcons are going to start the season with Marcus Mariota under center after trading Matt Ryan to the Colts, but for a team that won’t be favored in more than one or two games this season, Atlanta’s firmly in the “planning for the future” category of NFL teams. As such, at some point they are going to put third-round draft pick Desmond Ridder out there to figure out if he’s even a possible future starter, or if their focus next offseason is going to be on bringing in someone else to be the franchise QB. The Falcons have plenty of things to figure out with their roster going forward and this season will be more about evaluation than anything else, but it’s hard to go anywhere in the league if you don’t have the QB situation figured out, and when you take one in the third round you have at least a lingering hope he might develop into “the guy.” Atlanta will want to see if that’s the case at some point this year.
Carolina Panthers: Do they finally have a QB to build around?
The Panthers have been in the wilderness for a few years with their quarterback situation. Last year they traded three picks (a sixth rounder, second rounder, and fourth rounder) for Sam Darnold, which didn’t pan out as they hoped, and so this offseason they shipped a fifth rounder to Cleveland for another former first round pick, Baker Mayfield. As mentioned above, you don’t go very far as a franchise without a franchise QB, and they’ve now invested four draft picks in two reclamation projects, hoping one of them will work out. They have, by far, the most interesting quarterback battle and one would anticipate based on how the two have played when healthy in their careers that Mayfield is the favorite to win the job. Still, he’s trying to prove himself as a guy you want running your team, with some incredible highs but painful lows throughout his career as a starter. If he can find that consistent level, maybe Carolina got a steal (after an overpay on Darnold), but if he doesn’t pan out they’ll have to go back to the drawing board on a lot of things — with Matt Rhule entering this season on the hot seat as well.
New Orleans Saints: What does the offense look like without Sean Payton calling plays?
The Saints are the team I can see the widest variance of potential outcomes this season. They have a truly elite defense returning (which is why Dennis Allen got promoted from DC to head coach), but have plenty of questions on offense. Jameis Winston is back under center and looked pretty good last year before his season-ending injury. Michael Thomas is also set to be back, alongside a star rookie receiver in Chris Olave out of Ohio State to give Jameis some real weapons on the outside. Alvin Kamara is facing battery charges in Las Vegas and it’s unclear if he’ll miss any time stemming from that, but if he’s available, you can see the potential in New Orleans. However, Sean Payton was always in control of his offense and although longtime OC Pete Carmichael is staying around to provide some continuity, he’s never been the one calling the plays. There’s a chance this offense could be good if the line holds up and Winston returns to the form he showed early last year, but there’s a lot of moving parts and uncertainty about how exactly all of it will look. If anyone’s going to threaten the Bucs’ superiority in the division, it’ll require a leap forward from this offense to help out what was a top-5 defense last year in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How does the OL hold up without Ryan Jensen?
The Bucs are the heavy favorites in the division for good reason now that Tom Brady is back, and even with Bruce Arians leaving, you have to believe that Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich (and Brady) will keep things humming along. However, while I have fewer concerns about the Bucs offense transitioning away from an influential head coach than the Saints, the training camp injury to center Ryan Jensen is a real worry. Jensen was beloved by Brady and Tampa is now having to almost completely rework the interior of its offensive line from last year (as last year’s starting guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa are both gone). They still have a stud at left tackle in Tristan Wirfs, but Brady isn’t the most fleet of foot anymore and likes to stride forward in the pocket, meaning any uncertainty from guard to guard provides some reason to be uneasy. It might not be catastrophic in the regular season, as Brady’s as good as there is at getting rid of the ball quickly and matriculating the ball down the field on short passes, but in the postseason the best defenses will sit on that and dare the Bucs to push the ball down the field, which is harder to do if you can’t protect as well up the middle.