Carolina surprised many league observers by both dominating the regular season and making the Super Bowl last season. This year the Panthers offense could be even better thanks to the return of 2014 first round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin and Devin Funchess give Cam Newton two huge targets at receiver with Greg Olsen remaining on of the elite tight ends in football. Jonathan Stewart is an effective running back but the strength of the Carolina offense is Newton’s ability to pick up large chunks of yardage on the ground. Tedd Ginn is most effective as a deep threat that will keep a safety occupied and force single coverage on Olsen, Funchess, or Benjamin. The biggest concern in Carolina is the loss of Josh Norman following a breakout year at cornerback. The team drafted well to replace him but Norman’s strengths as a corner are more related to experience and confidence then athleticism. He’ll be misses. The defensive front seven will be even better this year, if that’s possible. Carolina probably won’t win 15 games again but they should have little problem in their division and have favorable AFC and NFC West matchups on their schedule. They should have no problems going 13-3.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are my pick for NFC sleeper this season and I think they’ll compete for a playoff spot. Doug Martin saw a career resurgence in 2015, Charles Simms is a serviceable starter if need be, and Mike Evans gives the team an excellent weapon in the receiving game. Jameis Winston has picked up the nuances of the NFL game well thus far and Tampa Bay made the surprising move to promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to Head Coach, at the expense of Lovie Smith. Vernon Hargreaves is a player to watch on the Bucs defense. He has a chance to be a shutdown cornerback from day one which will allow Tampa some flexibility in their schemes to overcome their roster shortcomings. Kwon Alexander looks like he could rise to be among the game’s best linebackers if he maintains his focus. I think Tampa Bay will slide into the playoffs at 9-7.
The Falcons had a disappointing season last year and got some disappointing news when rookie safety Keanu Neal, the team’s first round selection, was lost for the first month. Offensively Julio Jones will continue to run the show and the team hopes that Mohamed Sanu is an upgrade over Roddy White’s last few seasons. Devontae Freeman will need to replicate his numbers from last season in order for this team to be effective, and to keep Tevin Coleman off the field. Vic Beasley is the player to watch on the Falcons defense. Already taken under the wing of veteran Dwight Freeney the team is hoping that Beasley has a huge year, something they will need if they are to be better than average. There are still too many questions around this team for my liking. I predict they will finish 6-10.
New Orleans Saints
As long as the Saints have Drew Brees they have a chance to outscore their opponents. Brees’ numbers will continue to be gaudy in 2016 but it’s seems unlikely that he will be able to consistently rescue the team as he has in years past. The offensive line situation in New Orleans is not good, Mark Ingram is not likely to play in 16 games, and the defense won’t be able to stop anyone. The team signed Coby Fleener to replicate the success Brees had in throwing to Ben Watson last year and drafted Michael Thomas to fill the role Marques Colston held for so long. The offense will still score but will it be enough? Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins were the two major additions for the Saints defense this year and should give the team a solid defensive line. Unfortunately Rankins was placed on IR and may not play this season.Their defensive backs are less than stellar and their linebackers figure to be busy. James Laurinaitis was a nice signing but he’s a two down linebacker. The Saints are in a tough space with their cap situation. I expect them to win more games than their roster would indicate, due to Brees, but it’ll be hard for them to ever get better with 20% of their salary cap space going to a single player. 5-11 is my prediction.