Carolina Panthers (Projected Record: 11-5)
Key Additions: Vernon Butler (1st-Round Pick, 30th Overall), Kelvin Benjamin (2015 Injury)
Key Losses: Josh Norman (Redskins), Jared Allen (Retirement), Charles Tillman (Retirement)
The 2015 Carolina Panthers finished the regular season 15-1, but lost the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos 24-10. The Broncos defense dominated the game, and really exposed a flawed passing attack that was largely successful all season due to an effective ground game lead by Jonathan Stewart. The offense is led by reigning AP Coach of the Year Ron Rivera, and AP NFL MVP Cam Newton. With the return of Kelvin Benjamin, look for Greg Olson to have another dominant year at the tight end position. The 2016 Panthers move forward with some key losses on defense, but still possess an offense capable of carrying them back to the Super Bowl.
Carolina rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent and sign with the Redskins. Charles Tillman retired after a rough injury, and Jared Allen rode off into the sunset – literally. Still, the Panthers should have an outstanding defense led by their pass rush. In addition to first-round selection Vernon Butler, the pass rush will be headed by Charles Johnson, Kawaan Short, Star Lotulelei, Kony Ealy, and Mario Addison. The outstanding pressure created by this group often lead to great pass defense by the secondary. Despite the loss of Norman and Tillman, the secondary still retains Kurt Coleman, Bene Benwikere, and Tre Boston. They also drafted 6′-1″ Daryl Worley out of West Virginia University. The Panthers should be stout against the run with Thomas Davis, A.J. Klein, Luke Kuechly, and Shaq Thompson returning.
Now, 11-5 might seem like I’m underestimating a team that went 15-1 last year. But guys, the Panthers play tough road games against Denver, Oakland, and Seattle. While I have the Panthers defeating the Broncos in their season opener, I think the Panthers will split with the Buccaneers, run into trouble against the Cardinals, and take losses against the much improved Raiders, Chiefs, and Seahawks. This team can definitely prove me wrong and reach at least 13 wins, but I just don’t see it happening in consecutive seasons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Projected Record: 8-8)
Key Additions: Vernon Hargreaves (1st-Round Pick, 11th Overall), Noah Spence (2nd-Round Pick, 39th Overall), Roberto Aguayo (2nd-Round Pick, 59th Overall), J.R. Sweezy (Seahawks), Daryl Smith (Ravens), Robert Ayers (Giants), Brent Grimes (Dolphins)
Key Losses: Logan Mankins (Retirement), Bruce Carter (Jets)
The Buccaneers finished 2015 in the basement of the NFC South at 6-10, but with a revamped roster built through free agency and the draft I’m confident that Tampa Bay can reach .500 this year – maybe better. Jameis Winston looks to build off a successful rookie campaign that earned him 2016 Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year. Jameis completed just 58.3% of his passes last season, but still threw for over 4,000 yards. The key for the offense, which brings back Doug Martin, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Mike Evans, and Vincent Jackson, will be improving on their third down conversion rate (just 41.5% in 2015).
The defense has perennial pro-bowlers in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, but overall Tampa still has some work to do to keep opponents from racking up points. Despite the additions of Brent Grimes, Daryl Smith, Noah Spence, Vernon Hargreaves, and Robert Ayers on defense, the Buccaneers are still a year or two away from truly competing in the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints (Projected Record: 5-11)
Key Additions: Sheldon Rankins (1st-Round Pick, 12th Overall), Michael Thomas (2nd-Round Pick, 47th Overall), Vonn Bell (2nd-Round Pick, 61st Overall), Colby Fleener (Colts), Hakeem Nicks (Giants), James Laurinaitis (Rams), John Kuhn (Packers), Paul Kruger (Browns), Jahri Evans (Seahawks)
Key Losses: Ben Watson (Ravens), Marques Colston (Free Agent), Brandon Browner (Seahawks), Khiry Robinson (Free Agent)
The direction of this Saints team is sort of puzzling to me. I truly believe Drew Brees is at the end of his career, and it’s time for New Orleans to come to terms with that truth. They continue to build around the 37-year old quarterback, adding pieces like tight end Colby Fleener in free agency, and wideout Michael Thomas through the draft. Like last season, the Saints will put up plenty of gaudy offensive statistics with beast Mark Ingram leading the rushing attack, and sophomore standout Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead as primary targets down the field.
Despite retaining Delvin Breaux (one of my favorite NFL success stories), and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd on defense, adding Vonn Bell in the draft reveals their lack of confidence in the prowess of their secondary. To make matters worse, I don’t believe the Saints can generate a strong enough pass rush to prevent other teams from outscoring them. They lack an effective complement to Cameron Jordan, who had 10 sacks in 2015. Despite signing James Laurinaitis I still see the defense being eaten alive as the other teams in the division have strong passing attacks. Giving the Saints five wins in 2016 might be too much, but hopefully the youth added to the roster can give a boost to the veterans whose careers seem to be coming to an end.
Atlanta Falcons (Projected Record: 8-8)
Key Additions: Keanu Neal (1st-Round Pick, 17th Overall), Deion Jones (2nd-Round Pick, 52nd Overall), Alex Mack (Browns), Mohamed Sanu (Bengals), Matt Schaub (Ravens), Dashon Goldson (Free Agent)
Key Losses: Roddy White (Free Agent)
We’re still waiting for the Atlanta Falcons to put it all together. In a pass heavy league, Matt Ryan has an opportunity to be a premier quarterback in the NFL with weapons like Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Devonta Freeman at his disposal. Sophomores Freeman and Tevin Coleman will lead the rushing attack behind an offensive line improved by the addition of Alex Mack.
For the second year in a row the Falcons addressed their weary defense through the draft by selecting safety Keanu Neal (Florida) in the first round, and linebacker Deion Jones (LSU) in the second round. Atlanta is hoping these selections contribute more than 2015 1st-rounder Vic Beasley, who amassed just four sacks (yes, that led the team) and 26 total tackles in 16 games his rookie year. Desmond Trufant – a cornerback beloved in Atlanta – will look to lead a secondary that was actually decent in 2015.
The key for the Falcons in 2016 will be protecting Matt Ryan. The Falcons allowed 32 sacks last year, often forcing them into difficult conversion opportunities. If they can rush the quarterback, and protect their own, the Falcons may very well improve upon their 2015 record of 8-8.