2016 Finish: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina
Overall Notes: This is the hardest division to call, even more so than the AFC West. All 4 teams have very good to great QBs. All have some great weapons. It is, however, also the oldest division and therefore the most susceptible to injuries. I really wanted to love this division, but it’s just not as good as it might appear once I started looking at the numbers.
2016 Record: 11-5 (Pythagorean Wins: 10.9)
2016 Division Rank: 1st
2016 Injury Rank: 6th
2017 Age Rank: 24th
2016 DVOA Overall 3rd (O/D/ST): (1st / 26th / 7th)
This was the best offense in the NFL last year. Even with some regression to the mean and perhaps some age-related dropoff, this offense will be fantastic. Matt Ryan is underrated because he’s not a “Super-Bowl-Winning-QB,” which is crap. He was fantastic last year.
The defense was problematic, though. However, I think between the addition of Dontari Poe and Takk McKinley this line will be significantly better. I don’t think the defense will be great, but they will pile up sacks. Say end up in the 20th in the NFL range.
I don’t think the Falcons will repeat, though. They’re older. They got lucky on injuries last year. I think they’ll be a tough team, but only 10-6, meaning the win this division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 Record: 9-7 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.6)
2016 Division Rank: 2nd
2016 Injury Rank: 18th
2017 Age Rank: 21st
2016 DVOA Overall 22nd (O/D/ST): (19th / 13th / 20th)
When I started writing this column I anticipated thinking the Bucs would take a huge step forward. After all, I really liked the Bucs draft this year. O.J. Howard will be fantastic, though maybe not this year as it’s hard for a TE to come in right away.
The rest of their offense has a chance to be powerful. Jameis Winston is getting better, but he has to make better choices. He has one of the best WRs in Mike Evans, and another really good one in DeSean Jackson. I think their offensive line is good enough. This offense should be better, though probably average.
I think their defense will be better too, though that’s more because of the development of Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves.
But as I look at the numbers, I have come away unconvinced. Their team will be better, I think, but it wasn’t as good as their record showed last year. I can see them getting back to 9-7, although they’ll have earned it this time.
New Orleans Saints
2016 Record: 7-9 (Pythagorean Wins: 8.3)
2016 Division Rank: 3rd
2016 Injury Rank: 21st
2017 Age Rank: 28th
2016 DVOA Overall 21st (O/D/ST): (6th / 31st / 27th)
This is one of the oldest teams in the NFL, but that may not be a good guideline. They are pretty top heavy, with Drew Brees at 38, John Kuhn at 34, Zach Strief at 33, and finally Adrian Peterson and Ted Ginn at 32.
If Brees isn’t Brees, then this team won’t go anywhere, but that’s true of every team with a great starting QB. The rest are replaceable, including Peterson. Frankly, I think Alvin Kamara is the best RB on the roster at this point in time. Peterson will have a couple of good games, especially this week against the Vikings, but he’s mostly done. Fortunately, Kamara is better than most realize.
The receivers are pretty good, especially Michael Thomas. And I think Coby Fleener will do much better this year. They’re supported by a very good line. The offense may step back a little bit, but will still be one of the top 10 in the NFL.
The defense will be problematic. They could dramatically improve and still be bad. Marcus Lattimore will probably be a major improvement at CB, but that position often takes time to adapt.
I can see them going 9-7, though. That’s only a win more than their Pythagorean from last year. I think 8-8 is more likely.
2016 Record: 6-10 (Pythagorean Wins: 7.1)
2016 Division Rank: 4th
2016 Injury Rank: 9th
2017 Age Rank: 31st
2016 DVOA Overall 24th (O/D/ST): (25th / 10th / 25th)
I really like what this offense could be. The offensive line is pretty good. Greg Olsen is a great TE. There are several productive WRs and RBs, including Christian McCaffrey.
But Cam Newton is a big question mark. He was bad last year, having his worst year as both a thrower and runner. *If* he’s fully healthy, he can do amazing things. He’s been dinged up this training camp, and while he says he’s healthy, what else would he say?
If he can make the offense good, then this team has the defense to close down teams. Luke Kuechly will be in the Hall of Fame.
However, overall, I do not see this team doing terribly well. Clearly, I have my doubts about Newton. The team is one of the oldest in the NFL, and I expect them to lose a lot of games to injury. They weren’t great last year. If Newton is healthy, this team might be 10-6 or luck into 11-5, but I don’t expect it. I think more like 7-9.