My series previewing the top 2020-21 college football prospects concludes today with a look at the most paramount position in world sports: quarterback.
The NFC South was a closely fought division in 2017, with three teams going to the play-offs. What can these four teams offer this time around?
The Panthers surprised us last season with how good they were. They will improve on that again to be a force in the NFL.
Quarterback Cam Newton is arguably one of the best running quarterbacks in the game, but he needs to work on his passing ability. He often throws high and wide of the target.
This side has made the play-offs four times in five seasons but cannot seem to get past division rival New Orleans, who beat them on three occasions last year.
On offence they have lost some talented players in Ted Ginn Jr, Andrew Norwell and Johnathan Stewart. They still have the players to make a difference this year. Greg Olsen will return at tight end after a foot injury ended his latest campaign. Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith will play as receivers, and expect Christian McCaffrey to get a lot more touches at running back.
Luke Keuchly will again take his place in the great defensive front seven comprising Julius Peppers, Dontari Poe and Shaq Thompson. The problems will lie within the secondary on defence. Starting safety Mike Adams is 37, cornerback James Bradberry struggles with the big plays and rookie cornerback Donte Jackson isn’t experienced at the big time.
If team gets past the first line, they could go all the way.
Crucial player: Cam Newton
He needs to bring more to his game. If he can improve his accuracy, he could take this team all the way. Maybe.
Keep an eye on: Greg Olsen
How will his foot hold up in 2018? Can he get back to his best?
Predicted finish: 13-3
Division champions. This side has the potential to make the NFC championship game if they can find their groove.
The Falcons made it to the divisional round last season and the Super Bowl the season before. They have one of the easiest schedules this season and will want to capitalise on that to push for another play-off berth.
Last season under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian they managed 364.8 yards per game, enough for eighth overall, but they failed to convert those yards into points, scoring only 22.1 per game, which ranked them 15th. They will need to work on turning that possession into points on 2018.
Quarterback Matt Ryan got the contract extension he was looking for and will remain in Atlanta until the end of the 2023 season. This should help to improve him as a player, knowing he has a secure future. Expect a big season from the 2016 most valuable player.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should continue to scare defences across the country, as will wide receivers Mohammed Sanu and Julio Jones. Throw into the mix rookie Calvin Ridley from Alabama and the Falcons have a potent offence. Tight end Austin Hooper is solid but struggles to be a threat in the red zone.
On the defensive side of the ball the Falcons have lost Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn. They have been left with a relatively young defensive line that will take time to come good. Don’t expect miracles from day one.
Crucial player: Matty Ryan
By his standards he had a down year in 2017. Now that he’s got the extension he wanted, he will again be a force in the NFL.
Keep an eye on: Julio Jones
I am expecting a down year from Julio. I’m happy to be proven wrong.
Predicted finish: 9-7
Not enough to make the play-offs this year. The defence will struggle when they are put under pressure.
The Saints have 21 starters returning from last season’s team who won their last eight games to take the top spot in the NFC South. They are a smart and confident side who will want to make amends from the play-off loss to the Vikings.
Quarterback Drew Brees isn’t showing signs of slowing down at the age of 39 and will command respect from every defence he faces.
They will be without Mark Ingram for the opening four games while he sits out for a performance-enhancing drugs suspension. Alvin Kamara and Johnathan Williams will fill that void nicely while he is away.
Michael Thomas has been sensational in his first two seasons, racking up an NFL record 196 catches. He will remain on the right edge. Former Panther Ted Ginn Junior will keep his spot on the left edge.
The Saints spent the last two seasons rebuilding the defence through free agency and drafts. The results are starting to show. This will make them one of the hardest teams in the league this campaign.
Crucial player: Michael Thomas
Is there anything this guy cannot do?
Keep an eye on: The whole defensive line
They are growing and will be a massive force in years to come.
Predicted finish: 8-8
There is no room for error in this tough division. I can’t see them being above 0.500.
The less said about the Bucs the better. They made huge statements last season about making the play-offs; instead they were the only team in their division not to make it. Their play-off drought is now more than ten years long and I can’t see that changing for a while.
Quarterback Jameis Winston will miss the opening three games for allegedly groping a female Uber driver. They will turn to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who, in my opinion, is a better option.
Mike Evans comes off his fourth straight year of 1000 yards or more and has put pen to paper on a new five-year contract that should see him constantly disappointed by the team around him.
They were last in the NFL for almost every defensive stat last season, and that won’t change this year despite the addition of Jason Pierre Paul.
Crucial player: Jameis Winston
Don’t be surprised if they turn to Fitzpatrick if Winston cannot cut the mustard when he returns to football.
Keep an eye on: DeSean Jackson
He had a quiet year for the Bucs last time out and will need to improve on that if they are to win any games.
Predicted finish 2-14