NFC South Divisional Preview

by Eric Eager|July 31, 2023

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The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through SumerSports.com over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

The NFC South is projected to have the fourth fewest wins of any division in football even though the division plays one of the easier schedules in the entire league. The Falcons and the Saints both have schedules where the average game is one or more points easier than that of a club playing an average team each week. Carolina has the fifth easiest schedule of anyone in football. The division had zero teams with a winning record last year, but that could shift simply by a change in schedule difficulty in 2023.

The Saints, after two years of trying to replace Drew Brees, gave Derek Carr a big contract this offseason in hopes that he can regain his peak form. The Panthers moved heaven and earth to get to the first overall pick and selected Bryce Young. The Falcons stayed put at quarterback with second-year man Desmond Ridder.

The most jarring part of previewing the NFC South for 2023 is the fall of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most Bucs fans who saw their team fail to win a division title from 2008 to 2020 will probably exchange being down again for a few more years for the ups of the Tom Brady era (three playoff berths, two division titles, and one Super Bowl championship), though.

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

 

New Orleans Saints

2022 Record: 7-10

After Drew Brees and Sean Payton engineered one of the most productive stretches of quarterback play in NFL history, the Saints were forced to play without both of them for the first time in more than a decade in 2022.

The results were forgettable.

New Orleans was 22nd in the NFL in EPA per offensive play last season with Taysom Hill earning the third-most yards from scrimmage behind Alvin Kamara and Chris Olave. To improve in 2023, they will need Carr to play to the upper parts of his distribution, Michael Thomas to emerge from almost three years of inactivity, and Rashid Shaheed to build off a good showing in a low sample size 2022 season.

Carr was not productive in 2022, generating the lowest net adjusted yards per pass attempt (6.01) since his rookie season. He loses Davante Adams but gains Olave, who was one of the most productive wide receivers in the league in 2022, averaging 2.42 yards per route run (Adams’ career mark is 2.04).

On the defensive side of the ball, the Saints have been very good for a long time under Dennis Allen despite constantly losing talent and depth. They were especially good in the second half of the 2022 season where they were fourth in the NFL in EPA allowed per play from weeks 10-18 (they were 10th overall in EPA per play allowed).

Demario Davis, now 34 years old, earned his fourth consecutive All-Pro berth in 2022 with 18 pressures, 43 stops, four pass breakups, and an interception. He tallied 6.5 sacks in 2022, which was a career high, and he was involved in nine total sacks. His versatility has proven extremely valuable for the Saints.

A reasonable worry for Saints fans is that many of their best defensive players are on the wrong side of 30 including Davis (34), Cam Jordan (34), and Tyrann Mathieu (31), while Marcus Maye (29) and Marshon Lattimore (27) are older for defensive backs. Injuries could be the perturbation that prevents this team from having the backstop necessary to support an offense that is led by Carr. This makes it hard to buy New Orleans at market prices in 2023 as they are currently the favorites to win the division and have a winning record.

Atlanta Falcons

2022 Record: 7-10

2023 marks year three for the Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot regime in Atlanta. After starting Matt Ryan in 2021 and Marcus Mariota in 2022, the Falcons are planning to open the 2023 season with Desmond Ridder, the second quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, as their signal caller.

Ridder did not show much in his first four starts as he was in the bottom half of the league in EPA per drop back and averaged just 6.2 yards per pass attempt and 5.77 net adjusted yards per pass attempt. He has a tall task in 2023 to get the ball to Drake London and Kyle Pitts as both players hope to be more productive than last year (just 866 yards for London and 356 for Pitts).

London and Pitts were also not as efficient with their opportunities as their peers (London 7.4 yards per target, Pitts 6.0). Smith’s offense has supported other worldly efficiencies for players like A.J. Brown in the past, and it is up to Ridder to fulfill that promise for the Falcons 2021 and 2022 top picks.

2023’s top pick for the Falcons, Bijan Robinson, who I talked about here in an ESPN article, was chosen with the eighth pick. He joins a backfield that includes 2022 draft pick Tyler Algeier, who rushed for 1035 yards on 4.9 yards per carry in just seven starts.

Even sans NFL experience for Robinson, the Falcons one-two punch in the backfield is already one of the league’s best. They operate behind an offensive line that blossomed in 2022, including an All-Pro selection for SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff’s 2019 first-round pick Chris Lindstrom. Questions about Ridder might be partially answered by a running game and a lighter opposing schedule that will ease a lot of tension for Atlanta’s offensive leader in 2023.

Defensively, the Falcons have been 29th and 28th in EPA per play allowed in the first two years under their current regime and have not finished in the top half of the league in that metric since 2012. Pass rush has been a big problem for most of this time, which we talked about on the SumerSports Show with Eric Eager and Thomas Dimitroff.

The Falcons threw bodies at the problem this offseason signing David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Bud Dupree. They did the same thing in the secondary, acquiring former third-overall pick Jeff Okudah from the Detroit Lions while picking up 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes. They team with A.J. Terrell, another 2020 first-round pick who is the living embodiment of the instability of cornerback stats.

For the first time in a while, though, the Falcons will have a top-flight defensive player in 2023 after acquiring former Bengal Jessie Bates. Bates, who intercepted four passes in 2022 (each previous season of his career included exactly three interceptions, including playoffs), should be able to cover up some of the issues presented by a linebacker corps that is unestablished.

As far as the market is concerned, there are a lot of sharp groups on the Falcons, which has driven up their price in the win total, divisional, and playoff markets. Our simulation largely agrees with this market sentiment that has dried up some of the opportunities to profit off the birds in 2023.

Carolina Panthers

2022 Record: 7-10

Since reaching the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, the Panthers have reached the NFL postseason just once. Ron Rivera gave way to Matt Rhule, and Steve Wilks gave way to Frank Reich, the first quarterback to ever take a snap for the franchise.

Reich dealt with some bad quarterback luck in Indianapolis but had the Colts in playoff contention most seasons. He was also one of the best coaches in the NFL in terms of in-game decision making. He even brought George Li, his analytics coordinator in Indianapolis, with him.

Now, Frank Reich is faced with the challenge of a young quarterback. The Panthers moved hundreds of millions in assets, including wide receiver D.J. Moore, to Chicago for the right to take Bryce Young. Young, the former Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, threw for 79 touchdown passes the last two seasons.

Young was considered by many to have the highest median projection of any player at the position with a relatively high ceiling. Concerns about his size – he is going to be one of the smallest starting quarterbacks in league history – mean his floor is lower than a player like C.J. Stroud.

The Panthers acquired some help for Young this offseason including running back Miles Sanders, tight end Hayden Hurst, and wide receivers Adam Thielen and D.J. Chark. If the offensive line can hold up, this could be a good enough offense to win the NFC South.

Defensively, the Panthers scored big with the acquisition of defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who guided the Broncos’ ninth-best defense in terms of EPA per play a year ago. He leads a defense that has some legit star power in Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Frankie Luvu, and Jaycee Horn. In a division where the quarterbacks are Desmond Ridder, Baker Mayfield, and Derek Carr, the defense could carry the team while Bryce Young develops. This makes them a very attractive team in the betting markets at their current prices.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2022 Record: 8-9

Unfortunately, the party is over.

Tom Brady has retired, this time for real, and with that a new chapter of Tampa Bay football has commenced. Saddled with over $75 million in dead money and a bridge quarterback in Baker Mayfield, they were able to retain players like Jamel Dean and Lavonte David at modest prices. They also have not traded Mike Evans or Devin White as of right now. Their market win total is a modest 6.5 wins, which is a product of their roster difficulties as well as the fact that they have the hardest schedule in the division.

Mayfield, who has had his moments in the NFL, was one of the worst players at his position in 2022. Between Carolina and Los Angeles, the former first-overall pick had the league’s worst completion percentage over expected and averaged just 6.0 yards per pass attempt.

The Bucs still have some solid options for him to throw to in Evans and Chris Godwin, but in the case of the former, Mayfield will need to be willing to throw to him when he is covered. The offensive line loses Donovan Smith at one tackle spot and will be depending on rookie second-rounder Cody Mauch to start at an interior spot. The Bucs offense was a difficult watch down the stretch in 2022 and could be much worse in 2023.

On defense, the Bucs still have legitimate playmakers in White and David along with Shaq Barrett, Antoine Winfield Jr., Vita Vea, and Carlton Davis. They were 11th a season ago in EPA allowed after finishing in the top six in that metric each season from 2019 to 2021. With Barrett getting older each season, the club needs recent high draft picks Logan Hall (17 pressures, 2.5 sacks in 2022) and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (81 pressures, 8.0 sacks in 2021 and 2022), along with 2023 first-rounder Calijah Kancey, to produce legitimate heat up front so that the playmakers on the second and third level can change the complexion of games.

Marketwise, it is tough to pin down this Tampa Bay team. Baker Mayfield once took a roster that earned a 1-31 record in the two years before he arrived to near .500 in games where he played. Much of that was during the 2018 and 2020 seasons where he played respectable football. He will need to reach above those heights in 2023 for the Bucs to be competitive.

Next up, AFC East.

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