Three questions each NFC South team must answer for 2021 NFL season: Who is the quarterback in New Orleans?
All throughout this week, the crew here at CBSSports.com is working its way through burning questions to preview each division. Already this week, Tyler Sullivan covered the AFC East, Patrik Walker looked into the NFC East, Bryan DeArdo took a peek at the AFC North, Cody Benjamin covered the NFC North, and Jeff Kerr dove in to the AFC South.
In the space below, we’ll take a look at the NFC South, beginning with the defending champions in Tampa.
- Can they get the same health luck they did last season?
- Can they maintain last season’s post-bye offense throughout the year?
- Can they stave off age-related regression (again)?
On the way to their Super Bowl victory, the Bucs were arguably the healthiest team in the NFL last season. According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers finished last season with the fewest Adjusted Games Lost, a measurement of how often each NFL team had its starters out of the game. The Bucs also finished with the second-fewest Adjusted Games Lost in 2019. If they get merely average instead of very good health luck, that could cause some problems.
Following their late-season bye, the Bucs scored at least 26 points in every game the rest of the way, including 30 or more in all four playoff games. Earlier in the year, they struggled a bit against top defenses. Some of the lack of early-season explosion could be attributed to a lack of practice time and chemistry between Tom Brady and his receivers, obviously. But it’s notable that they did not face much in the way of top defensive talent over the latter part of the year. We shouldn’t expect a significant regression or anything along those lines, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Brady (44), Steve McLendon (35), Ndamukong Suh (34), Antonio Brown (33), Rob Gronkowski (32), Jason Pierre-Paul (32), and Lavonte David (31) are all candidates for age-related regression. That doesn’t mean they’ll be bad; just that it’s possible they’re not as good as they were last year. Luckily, the Bucs brought back every single starter from last year’s team and fortified their oldest positions with reinforcements in the draft. They should be able to ease the workloads for their oldest players.
- Who the heck is the quarterback of this team?
- What does the new offense look like?
- Who will help Cameron Jordan rush the passer and Marshon Lattimore cover downfield?
It’s worth repeating again that we do not know who will be under center for the Saints this year. Will it be Jameis Winston, who has the second-highest interception rate of any quarterback since 2000? Or will it be Taysom Hill, who is only vaguely a quarterback, has more rushing attempts than passing attempts during his career, and fumbled 10 (TEN!) times last year? Either way, it will represent a dramatic change from the Drew Brees era, during which the Saints were routinely one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL.
Without Brees delivering the ball with pinpoint precision, how is this team going to actually move the ball downfield? Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas made their reputations working with Brees on swing passes and slants, respectively, and it’s tough to count on Winston or Hill firing the ball to them with the same degree of accuracy. The Saints could lean into a run-based offense due to the strength of their line, plus Kamara and Latavius Murray, but that’s much more viable with Hill under center than with Winston.
Trey Hendrickson is in Cincinnati. Janoris Jenkins is in Tennessee. Sheldon Rankins is in New York. The Saints need players like Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, Paulson Adebo, and even CJ Gardner-Johnson to step up and account for those absences. That’s a lot to put on their shoulders, but with a thinned-out roster the Saints have to count on players for larger roles than they’re used to.
- What will Arthur Smith’s offense look like?
- Is Matt Ryan going to age gracefully?
- Can Dean Pees get this defense to perform at an above-average level?
Given what we saw in Tennessee, we can at least guess at what Smith’s Atlanta offense will look like from a schematic standpoint. It’ll be fairly heavy on zone runs, play-action passes, and targeted shots down the field. The questions are how he’ll shift his run-pass balance with Mike Davis in the backfield rather than Derrick Henry, and how an offense with Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts will differ from one with A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. Will they use the same volume of two-tight end sets (with Hayden Hurst)? How often will Pitts split out wide? Which of the other receivers will see the field, and how often? And will Smith feel the need to max-protect as often on downfield throws as he did with the Titans?
Ryan took another minor step backward last season, and is now five years removed from his 2016 MVP season. He’s averaged just 7.3 yards per attempt in each of the last two seasons, his lowest mark since 2010. He’s not the type of mobile quarterback that can make plays outside of structure, so he needs to be really efficient from the pocket to make up for it. Smith was able to scheme Ryan Tannehill into success for two years using a similar system to the one Kyle Shanahan utilized during Ryan’s MVP campaign, but again, that was a while ago.
Dan Quinn was a defensive coach, but his defenses were not all that great. In fact, it took a switch to Raheem Morris to get the defense playing better last season. Pees is a longtime defensive stalwart who did good work in Tennessee, and the Titans’ defense fell off after his brief retirement. The Falcons don’t have a ton of defensive talent, but perhaps Pees can get more out of them than we’re used to seeing.
Darnold was put in position to fail during his three years in New York, and he failed. Was that his fault, or the fault of the Jets? He was working behind a porous offensive line, with subpar weapons, and in an offense whose plays were called by Adam Gase. The Panthers offensive line isn’t great, but it’s better than what Darnold had in New York. He’s got not just Robby Anderson, but also D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, and Terrace Marshall Jr. in Carolina. And he’s got Joe Brady calling plays, after he had such great success with Joe Burrow and even Teddy Bridgewater. We’re going to find out a lot about Darnold, very quickly.
McCaffrey was limited to only three games last season, and he left two of those games early due to injury. He should be over the high ankle sprain that caused him to miss Weeks 3 through 8 as well as the shoulder injury that ended his year. He’s still firmly in his physical prime (this will be his age-25 season), but the track record of players with 400-touch seasons (like McCaffrey had in 2019) isn’t all that great through the rest of their careers. His skill set is important to making this type of offense work, though, so the Panthers need him to break the trend.
Carolina’s defense finished in the bottom half of the league last season. They used all seven of their 2020 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball so there should be some internal improvement baked in this year due to players like Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Jeremy Chinn taking steps forward, but the Panthers are also counting on rookies like Jaycee Horn, free-agent signings like Haason Reddick, Morgan Fox, and Denzel Perryman, and improvement from incumbent starters like Brian Burns and Donte Jackson.