Reason to be cheerful: core parts of effective offence returning
Despite much of the criticism thrown at former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the pass offence performed at a high-level last season. The Falcons ranked 4th in the league in pass yards per game, whilst QB Matt Ryan produced just under 5,000 passing yards, a 69% completion rate and a 108.1 passer rating.
His primary targets in the passing game put up some superb numbers: Julio Jones (1,677 yds, 8 TDs); Mohamed Sanu (838 yds); and rookie Calvin Ridley (821 yds; 10 TDs). If the defence hadn’t been decimated by injuries, the Falcons could have been a real threat in the postseason.
Of course, the team was hampered by the fact they were without primary running back Devonta Freeman for much of the season. His backup, Tevin Coleman, seems likely to move on this offseason, perhaps seeing Ito Smith taking his snaps as Freeman’s backup.
Reason to be fearful: does the defence need a reload?
As mentioned, the defence was hindered by injuries last season, losing two playmakers in linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal and ranking 5th worst in the league in yards allowed per game. Head coach Dan Quinn got the job due to proving his defensive chops in Seattle and is the de-facto defensive coordinator. He may want to look at a decline in production though at both pass rush and cornerback.
Vic Beasley Jr racked up 15.5 sacks in 2016 but managed only 5 in 9 starts last season. He hasn’t approached the level he managed in that tremendous season and the team will need to make a decision on his 5th year option this season.
The Falcons need to get more game changing plays out of the cornerback position. Whilst safety Damontae Kazee stepped up in Neal’s absence, recording 7 INTs in his second season, the team already released cornerback Robert Alford, whilst starting corner Desmond Trufant has the second highest cap hit on the roster for 2019 whose NFL career high for interceptions is 3 back in 2014.
McCaffrey was the Panthers offence in 2018. He led the team in rushing (1,098 yds) and receiving (867 yds) with 13 total TDs. He was also efficient and not just a high-volume player, as I first thought, averaging 5 yards per rushing attempt. Without Run CMC it doesn’t bear thinking what the fans would have had to sit through at Bank of America Stadium.
On defence, rookie Donte Jackson picked off 4 INTs at cornerback as well as adding 74 combined tackles, 9 passes defended, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble. Adding high impact young players like Jackson to franchise cornerstones like Luke Kuechly can help return the Panthers defence to relevance.
Reason to be fearful: can the team replaced and improve on offence?
For the second offseason running Carolina is likely to lose one of its starting offensive linemen to free agency. Last season it was guard Andrew Norwell and this year it’s right tackle Daryl Williams. Add to that the retirement of long time center Ryan Kalil, and it threatens the consistency on the line. They might also be looking to replace Ryan’s brother, left tackle Matt, who earned a low 63.1 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017 and missed last season, despite being given a high value contract a couple of years back.
At wide receiver, Devin Funchess isn’t expected to be re-signed, leading to the loss of another of the two-man mountains the team previously had at wideout, after trading away Kelvin Benjamin in 2017. Rookie D.J. Moore had 788 receiving yards at 14.3 yards per reception but needs to more consistently dominate games in order to enable the team to develop on offense.
Cam Newton has previously been most successful when throwing to big bodied pass catchers with a wide catch radius, though it seems offensive coordinator Norv Turner is trying to diversify Cam’s game.
New Orleans Saints
Reason to be cheerful: still an elite roster
On paper, New Orleans should be Super Bowl contenders again. The statistics from last season’s key players on offence and defence are impressive.
Drew Brees had a superb completion percentage of 74.4% and a touchdown to interception ratio of 32:5. Running back Alvin Kamara had 883 rushing yards and 709 receiving yards, proving to be a versatile weapon out of the backfield for a second straight season, whilst wide receiver Michael Thomas had 1,405 receiving yards despite opposing teams knowing he was the focal point in the passing game. The Saints will also return all major starters on an offensive line that ranked 2nd in the league last year.
On defence, free agent addition Demario Davis had an excellent season with 110 combined tackles, 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles and defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins totalled 12 and 8 sacks respectively. In addition to that, rookie Marcus Davenport managed 4.5 sacks as a rookie, indicating he could take on a bigger role next year.
Reason to be fearful: is the secondary the 2017 or early 2018 unit?
Whilst the Saints only ranked 15th in the league in passing yards allowed per game in 2017, the secondary fell all the way to 29th this season. That can’t be attributed to a lack of pressure up front, as discussed previously. In fact, New Orleans ranked 2nd in rush yards allowed per game, illustrating an issue in the defensive backfield.
The performances of individual players also declined, though as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell often discusses, interceptions are an incredibly volatile football metric.
In 2017, Marshon Lattimore snagged 5 interceptions in his rookie year to go with 4 by safety Marcus Williams. This year, both players managed only 2 apiece, but the whole secondary allowed an opposing passer rating of 100.3, good for 27th in the league. If defensive coordinator Dennis Allen can get a 2017 level of production out of his corners and safeties, whilst maintaining the 2018 standards of the front seven, the Saints could be even more dangerous this coming season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Reason to be cheerful: Bruce Arians
The key for Tampa, and the main reason for the hire of noted ‘quarterback whisperer’ Arians, is to turn Jameis Winston into the NFL QB they envisaged when they drafted him first overall in 2015. The fact B.A. has taken the job should reassure Bucs fans that he sees the potential in Winston to be a quarterback who can lead this team out of the NFC South basement.
The Kangol capped coach will have plenty of weapons at wide receiver to help Winston make the jump, including number one receiver Mike Evans, who had over 1,500 receiving yards in 2018 at an excellent 17.7 yards per reception. His fellow pass catcher, receiver Chris Godwin had over 800 receiving yards, despite competition for targets from slot receiver Adam Humphries, deep threat Desean Jackson and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The Buccaneers are used to operating in an offence that pushes it downfield on offense, which is what Arians will seek to continue, whilst improving on Winston’s efficiency.
Reason to be fearful: how will the secondary hold up in Todd Bowles’ blitz heavy scheme?
Todd Bowles loves to blitz. His defence consistently brings multiple rushers on all downs, but will this approach work with the poorly performing secondary in Florida? Tampa Bay gave up the league’s worst passer rating to opposing QBs last season (110.9) and managed only 9 INTs, despite heavy investment in their defensive line a year ago. GM Jason Licht signed defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul (12.5 sacks) and Carl Nassib (6.5 sacks) in free agency, as well as lineman Beau Allen.
Evidently, trying to bring more pressure up front didn’t help and it’s likely Licht may have to invest in the cornerback position especially this summer. That’s an even more pressing need given the fact Bowles’ unit is in the same division as QBs Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.