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NFC South preview: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom Brady

The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!

The action begins on Thursday, September 10 when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans, live on Sky Sports.

Before then, it's time to assess 2020's contenders.

We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the NFC South...

New Orleans Saints

Alvin Kamara is a game-changer for the New Orleans offense
Image: Alvin Kamara is a game-changer for the New Orleans offense

Head coach: Sean Payton

Key man: In 2017, Alvin Kamara was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year after an outstanding season in which he topped 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns. In 2018, he even improved on those numbers.

However, battling knee and ankle injuries last season, he didn't offer quite the same spark - starting only nine games and scoring just six times. In the Saints' playoff defeat to Minnesota, Kamara managed just 21 rushing yards on seven attempts and 34 receiving yards on eight catches? Where was the explosiveness?

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Back feeling 100 per cent, Kamara will be a game-changer for an already exceptional offense.

Must-watch NFL rookies in 2020
Must-watch NFL rookies in 2020

From a loaded wide receiver class to new quarterback bodyguards, we pick out some of the NFL rookies to watch out for in 2020.

Major additions: As ever, the Saints will have outside options with Drew Brees slinging the ball, and their newest addition, veteran Emmanuel Sanders, should step in and produce immediately. Sanders managed to top 500 yards after a mid-season trade from Denver to San Francisco last season, so should excel with a full offseason in New Orleans.

Rookie offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz has been rotating between center and right guard with last year's second-round pick Eric McCoy, but is assured to start right away in front of 41-year-old Brees. On defense, Malcolm Jenkins - making his return after six seasons in Philadelphia - brings leadership, experience and great communication. He will elevate this group.

Last season: As has been the norm with Payton and Brees at the helm, the Saints had a fantastic offense (28.6 points per game - third in the NFL), riding it on the way to a 13-3 regular-season finish.

Drew Brees and the Saints have not slowed down on offense in recent seasons
Image: Drew Brees and the Saints have not slowed down on offense in recent seasons

Despite Brees missing five games through injury, Teddy Bridgewater stepped in and managed a 5-0 record. The Saints were the best in the league at protecting the ball - only eight turnovers - and boasted the best receiver in the league as Michael Thomas was named Offensive Player of the Year.

But after all of that success, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Kyle Rudolph's overtime touchdown. Can they bounce back?

Prospects: ... Yes, yes they can bounce back. This team is absolutely loaded on offense and has enough defensive playmakers and talent to shut down opponents. They should be considered as NFC favourites.

Prediction: 1st (12-4)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Head coach: Bruce Arians

Key man: No surprise or misdirection here. It's Tom Brady. Six-time Super Bowl champion and 14-time Pro Bowler Tom Brady.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have been reunited
Image: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have been reunited

With his move from New England after 20 outstanding seasons, Brady immediately makes the Bucs contenders. His presence alone will lift the confidence and belief of the entire organisation. The question is: can he still produce at his best or, at 43 years old, will age finally catch up to him?

Major additions: Brady brings his best buddy from New England, Rob Gronkowski, after the future Hall of Fame tight end was tempted out of retirement. If he is anywhere near his best, he will already be a top-five TE in the league.

Rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs - picked 13th overall - will be trusted at right tackle to protect Brady from day one, while LeSean McCoy could surprise a few people with his impact considering the current state of the backfield.

'Brady is trying to turn me into a living legend'
'Brady is trying to turn me into a living legend'

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' wide receiver Mike Evans says star quarterback Tom Brady is trying to turn him into a "living legend".

Last season: Based on offensive counting stats, last year's team was outstanding. They had the most passing yards per game in the entire league (302.8), were third in total yards (397.9) and fourth in points (28.6 - actually the same as the Saints).

Yet they finished with a 7-9 record. Why?

We can't place blame on one player completely, but Jameis Winston's 30 interceptions were a large part of it, as the Bucs gave the ball away a league-leading 41 times. Plus although they had the best defense against the run, they were picked apart through the air.

Tristan Wirfs will be protecting Tom Brady this season
Image: Tristan Wirfs will be protecting Brady this season

Prospects: Improvement is expected. While Brady won't offer the same deep passing volume - or even success - of Winston, he will be more efficient with the ball. Fewer turnovers and more possession football should keep the offense on the field, and the defense has plenty of room to improve in year two under Todd Bowles. This could be a playoff team.

Prediction: 2nd (10-6)

Atlanta Falcons

Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons looks on prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Tampa, Florida.
Image: Dan Quinn is in the hot seat in Atlanta

Head coach: Dan Quinn

Key man: For six straight seasons, Julio Jones has had averaged 103 catches and over 1,500 yards. He is simply unstoppable. While he will always receive stick for not reaching the end zone more - he hasn't scored more eight TDs in a season since 2012 - he certainly does enough to make up for it.

He continues to impress entering his age-31 season and will need to be at his best for the Falcons to make a run.

Major additions: Todd Gurley is the big-name addition, while Hayden Hurst could be the most influential on this attack.

Simms: Falcons sleeping under the radar
Simms: Falcons sleeping under the radar

Chris Simms has identified the Atlanta Falcons as a surprise playoff candidate as they look to build on their strong finish to the 2019 campaign.

Gurley, who appeared to deteriorate quite considerably last season in Los Angeles, has high potential if healthy. At only 26, he's a three-time Pro Bowler who has the talent to take over. However, marred by injuries, he may simply have lost his step.

Hurst, however, has big shoes to fill as Matt Ryan targeted Austin Hooper 97 times last season (for 75 catches, 787 yards and six TDs) before he left for Cleveland this offseason. Baltimore's first-round pick in 2018, Hurst has potential - but we haven't seen it yet.

Rookie corner A.J. Terrell also starts immediately and will no doubt be picked on by Brees, Brady and all of Atlanta's opposing quarterbacks this season.

Julio Jones had 99 catches for 1,394 yards and six touchdowns last year
Image: Julio Jones had 99 catches for 1,394 yards and six touchdowns last year

Last season: Like the Bucs, Atlanta finished with a 7-9 record, and similarly, they had a high-powered offense but not much past that. They were able to move the ball down the field well (top five in yards per game with 379.7) but only scored the 13th-most points.

Ultimately, an extremely slow start cost them the season. They began 1-7, so even an impressive 6-2 record over the second half of the year was not able to claw them back into playoff contention.

Prospects: After two straight 7-9 seasons, has enough changed for the Falcons to be in with a chance? Looking over the roster and 2020 schedule, this appears to be a team that is too good enough to tank, but not quite up there with the big guns. There is a lot of pressure on head coach Dan Quinn, who might be out without a postseason visit.

Prediction: 3rd (7-9)

Carolina Panthers

New Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule says he will support his players who opt to 'take a knee'
Image: Matt Rhule comes in to Carolina from Baylor University

Head coach: Matt Rhule

Key man: It has got to be do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey, who was in the MVP conversation before inevitably the quarterbacks - specifically Lamar Jackson - took over.

McCaffrey exploded last season, becoming just the third player ever to gain 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Once again, he is likely to be heavily featured and carry the offense this season.

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Image: Christian McCaffrey was unstoppable last season

Major additions: The biggest acquisition was that of former Saint Teddy Bridgewater as the new starting quarterback in Carolina after Cam Newton’s departure. After suffering a potentially career-ending injury in 2016, Bridgewater bounced back and impressed in New Orleans last season.

Russell Okung is the new starter at left tackle and Robby Anderson arrives from Jets to provide a deep threat, but arguably the most important get for the Panthers was new offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Also previously with the Saints, Brady most recently helped LSU to a record-setting offensive season and a National Championship. Now this attack is his to build.

Teddy Bridgewater
Image: Teddy Bridgewater last started the season for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015

Last season: After Newton’s Week Two injury, it all went downhill for the eventual 5-11 Panthers. Rookie backup Kyle Allen started impressively, winning his first four starts, but Carolina lost nine of their last 10 resulting in head coach Ron Rivera’s firing and Newton’s release. The Matt Rhule rebuild is on.


In the short-term, the prospects do not look great. Rhule is a rookie head coach. Bridgewater hasn’t been a starter since 2015. After allowing the second most points per game last season (29.4), the defense lost its leader and best player, Luke Kuechly, to retirement. That will be hard to overcome.

They have some talented players so the future might be bright, but don’t expect an immediate turnaround.

Prediction: 4th (4-12)

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