In what most would say is a very competitively balanced division, it’s a struggle for me to project a deep playoff run for any one of these teams in 2023. No team posted a winning record in 2022. Accomplishing that this year probably makes any one of them a lock for the playoffs. The issues that would be keeping me awake at night are all over the board but they are more long term, and less about band-aids for 2023.
I say this often: Team building is more philosophical than just picking players, and the pace each team uses to re-tool is based on cap space and the level of aggressiveness/confidence carried by their team decision-makers. For this division, each team’s front office has been in place long enough for us to identify some patterns. Let’s see where that leaves us.
Here is how I see each team, listed in predicted order of finish based on where each stands today. My prior analysis: AFC South, NFC North, AFC North, NFC East and AFC East.
The most complete team in the division, for my money, is the Saints. They are always aggressive, they have always been ahead of most in mapping out deals to acquire players, and therefore the expectations are always high with this team. I love the fact that they will roll the dice, be in the middle of every deal and are not afraid to have convictions for their evaluations. Sure, they kick the can down the road year after year with their salary cap, but they compete for a division championship every year as well.
The deal-making acumen they used to acquire quarterback Derek Carr was a prime example of how they play chess when many others are playing checkers. Forget whether Carr is good enough. We will cover that in a minute. The Saints played the rules, the situation, the timing, and oh yeah, the Raiders, all to their advantage. They scheduled a visit with permission from the Raiders, kicking the tires as if they were interested in a trade. They checked all the pre-trade boxes including medical, personality and fit, etc. And they used Carr’s no-trade clause to their advantage by knowing that it would force the Raiders to have to release him.
Introducing ‘The Playcallers’: Competition, evolution inside NFL’s youngest coaching tree
Why would he agree to a trade that would force his future employer to give up anything and weaken his new team? All he had to do was hold tight, and he could walk out the door (because of a triggering point in his contract that made it impossible for the Raiders to keep him). Once that happened, in real life, he signed with the Saints as a free agent, and the Raiders got zilch. I thought the Saints played their hand perfectly.
Carr’s history as a QB is up for some debate, but I think he gives the Saints a chance at their best QB play since Drew Brees retired. It also reflects their win-now philosophy instead of developing a young and inexperienced option. I think Carr also gives the Saints the highest level of achievement paired with NFL acumen at QB within this division for 2023. I’m not saying he’s the best option for the next six or seven years, but I would surely sign up to take him for the next three or four based on where the rest of this roster, coaching staff and front office are on the urgency meter to win now.
I worry less about this team because it has skins on the wall when it comes to roster construction that only Tampa Bay can match within their own division. The Saints’ main goal since the departure of head coach Sean Payton was to minimize change (hired Dennis Allen from within their staff) and continue to strategically add a player or two via free agency but mainly improve the quality of the roster through the draft, which they have done.
They spent money this offseason on 27-year-old defensive lineman Khalen Saunders from the Chiefs and in the first round drafted Clemson’s Bryan Bresee, who I thought was one of the most versatile defensive linemen in this year’s class.
Chris Olave will go as far as new Saints QB Derek Carr can take him
I trust this defense the most of any unit in the NFC South. They are unique in that they play a lot of man coverage (fourth-most in the NFL, per TruMedia), they pressure the opponent passer (fifth in the league in 2022 with 48 sacks) but they do it without blitzing. You have to have a really good front to get away with this, and the Saints have prioritized building that.
My biggest worry for this team is with the perimeter weapons on offense. Chris Olave is the Saints’ most complete receiver, and he’s a good player. But Michael Thomas is not the Michael Thomas of pre-pandemic times. The company line has been that he’s back and ready to roll. I didn’t see that last year, and I’m not sure I will this year. I also can’t buy James Washington (broken foot in 2022) and Bryan Edwards (three catches in ’22) being the answers. Somehow the Saints have to come up with better options to give Carr a chance.
Running back Alvin Kamara settling his case and now just waiting for the NFL response is a good thing. Of course, I might lose some sleep while waiting for that ruling to come down. Any time missed will be supplemented by the signing of former Packers and Lions RB Jamaal Williams. I think the ball will always come out quickly in a Pete Carmichael offense, and Carr will make sure of this. Carr will face less pass-rush pressure here than in any of his Raider days. But the Saints just have to find a way to score without driving the ball for 10 plays to do so. A lack of speed and perimeter playmaking is a recurring nightmare if I’m a Saints decision-maker, but I do think they are the class of this division in 2023.
The line of delineation for the next three teams within this division is gray, at best. But I feel like the Bucs, without Tom Brady, have fallen off the face of the earth. Has there ever been a team go from winning a Super Bowl two short years ago to fighting for relevance within its own division this fast? OK, let’s leave the Rams out of this.
Let’s start with the reality that Tampa was somewhat limited by salary cap issues they knew would come due (such as $35 million in the wake of Tom Brady’s retirement). Releasing running Leonard Fournette ($5 million) and several others totaling $75 million in dead money … yikes. Nothing like biting the bullet for 2023.
One breakout candidate for all 32 NFL teams, led by Kadarius Toney and Kayvon Thibodeaux
If I thought the Saints defense was the most trusted unit in the division, well, the Bucs defense is the second-easiest to trust. This defense will have to sustain them. Overall they ranked in the top half of the league in most relevant defensive categories last season and were top 10 in sacks and getting off the field on third downs.
I like GM Jason Licht’s philosophy of drafting BIG with his top three picks this year — two front seven players on defense and an offensive tackle. Add free-agent acquisition Greg Gaines from the Rams at defensive tackle, and this group has gotten a nice makeover on a limited budget.
Also, it’s Year 2 under head coach Todd Bowles, and roles should be defined more clearly after the awkward departure of Bruce Arians last offseason.
On offense, I struggle with which Baker Mayfield, on his fourth team after rising from walk-on to being the first pick in the 2018 draft, they will get. I have less faith in Kyle Trask, his presumed backup, than most. Their inexperience at running back and lack of depth among perimeter options leave me with more questions than answers for this offense, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt as the division winner from 2022, even if it was with an 8-9 record.
At least they have that Super Bowl trophy to shine up if all else fails.
The headliner here is obviously the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, QB Bryce Young. His size, athletic ability and skill set have all been discussed ad nauseam. I get it, he’s tiny, but the Panthers picked him, he is their guy for the foreseeable future, so my worry is not him. At this point the concern is, based on those characteristics, how do we build around him?
Let me first say, this is not a giant deal, but it is a factor to be aware of. When the New Orleans Saints were in their heyday with Brees at the helm, his size and vision made them very aware of the type of offensive line they had to construct in front of him. I’ll be very curious if this topic has or will come up with the Panthers.
Young measured almost three inches shorter than Brees, but with Brees and the Saints, the interior positions of center and guard and the skill set of these players had to be different from the norm. I remember having this discussion with Saints brass. Brees’ interior blockers had to be really stout, couldn’t get knocked back and ideally couldn’t be guys who stand more than 6-foot-4. Vision for a shorter QB is exacerbated vs. push/pressure from the middle of a formation.
Bradley Bozeman, signed by Carolina from Baltimore, fits at 6-1 1/2, as do the two presumed starters at either offensive guard spot. Brady Christensen, a 6-6 offensive tackle at BYU before being a third-round pick in 2021, and 6-4 5/8-inch Austin Corbett, signed from the Rams, may be somewhat problematic just based on height, pad level and the challenge to not get knocked into the QB’s lap. Just something to keep an eye on.
Panthers roster review: One thought on Bryce Young, DJ Chark and all 43 players on offense
Head coach Frank Reich has a reputation for being a QB guru. This rep had to take a bit of a hit with the recent failed experiences in Indy under his offensive direction. The Colts had one of the best offensive lines in the league, maybe the best running back and adequate wide receivers, but the choices they made at QB were questionable. Why is that relevant? Reich is going to have lesser at all these spots in Carolina until Young is ready for prime time.
The Panthers defense has some individual parts that are really good, but as a group they have to be better. In 2022 they were 20th in scoring defense, 23rd in getting off the field on third downs, and they forced only 17 turnovers. A healthy Jaycee Horn should allow them to be more aggressive up front, but I just worry this group doesn’t have enough difference-makers at this point. Trust me, I know how hard they are to find, but pressuring the QB (25th with 35 sacks in 2022) through some more aggressive man coverage (they were 25th most frequent team playing man in ’22) would help.
I worry, and I’m sure Carolina decision-makers do too, that all these moving parts coming together might take some time, which is fine. Let’s just pump the breaks on Young being the savior for 2023.
The Falcons enter Year 3 of their current régime of team building and decision-making. Having been in cap jail for the first two years from previous leadership decisions, it’s been hard to hold them accountable for results in 2021 and 2022. This season should be different. They have been playing with what was the equivalent of one hand tied behind their back until now. It’s not like they are flush with cap space, $9.9M for the rest of this year according to Over The Cap and $37 million available for 2024, but at least they can get in the game.
Here is where their team-building philosophy gets a bit blurry for me. They have drafted a tight end, a possession wide receiver and a running back in the first rounds so far. They re-signed their own guard, Chris Lindstrom (approximately $20 million a year). They paid big money ($15 million a year) for a safety, Jessie Bates, from the Bengals. That is a substantial investment in what I’d consider meat and potatoes players. Good players, don’t get me wrong, but difference makers, eh.
Thus, my worry is this: Do they have enough bells and whistles at premium positions and game-changing spots? When picking high in the first round in any draft, some teams’ goals are either big guys (tackles or defensive linemen) or fast guys who force teams to either defend you differently (perimeter speed) or allow you to get the passer on defense. Grinding out touchdowns with RPOs and play-action passes only has so much shelf life.
Can Desmond Ridder overcome his draft pedigree? The Falcons are raving about him
Bijan Robinson is a weapon, so I’ll give them that one. I think he makes you better, especially in this offense. But I need to see more than tight ends being the focal point of a team’s passing game.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder is a work in progress at best for me. I saw in his four games last year the same things I saw in college at Cincinnati: an inconsistent processor of defenses and a lack of accuracy from the pocket. I’m going to leave this one alone and see how his development goes.
And we haven’t even spoken about the defense yet. A new defensive coordinator and scheme can help temporarily, but this team was 31st in getting off the field on third downs (only the Bears were worse), 31st in sacks at 21 and gave up almost 23 points per game (23rd). Those all are points to improve on.
I’m not sure the Falcons have enough good players yet on either side of the ball. We all need to tell ourselves this is Year 1 of a retool for this front office and staff and to have some patience. Playing in the NFC South helps their cause.
(Top illustration: Ray Orr / The Athletic;
photos: Chris Unger, Alex Slitz, Michael Owens and Cliff Welch / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.