1. New Orleans Saints Projected Record: 12-4
The New Orleans Saints devastating playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings last season shrouded just how talented that Saints team truly was. Running back Alvin Kamara’s production on a per touch basis was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and with the suspension of Mark Ingram for the first four games Kamara should see an heavy workload from the jump. Pair him with wide receiver Michael Thomas, and you have the most electric receiver/back combo in the NFC. All of these weapons at the disposal of quarterback Drew Brees sets the offense up for another stellar season. Last year’s incredible draft, which included rookie starters Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, has extended Brees career and transformed the Saints into Super Bowl contenders. Lattimore headlines a defense that took impressive strides last season and should continue to improve. Cameron Jordan forced his name into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with a breakout season from the defensive end position. Jordan, setting career highs in sacks (13.5) and tackles (48), anchored a defensive line that produced the seventh most sacks in the league. Linebacker Manti Te’o had a nice bounce back season as New Orleans starting mike linebacker. In the secondary, safety Marcus Williams had a breakout campaign alongside the newly departed Kenny Vaccaro. Overall the Saints are one of the leagues best teams and should seriously contend for another Super Bowl appearance.
2. Carolina Panthers Projected Record: 9-7
All signs point to an absolutely monster season from Quarterback Cam Newton, with a new plethora of weapons that doesn’t include Kelvin Benjamin. The loss of guard Andrew Norwell will hurt, but Newton is mobile enough to survive behind what is now just an average line. Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore is instantly the team’s most talented receiver, but will still likely be the team’s third option through the air behind tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffery. McCaffery, with his proficiency in both running and catching the ball, established himself last season as one of the league’s most versatile weapons and should see increased production in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s running back heavy scheme. On the defensive side of the ball, Luke Kuechly played 15 games last season for the first time in three years, and earned his first All-Pro nod since 2015. He and Thomas Davis remain one of the league’s strongest linebacker duos, and anchor a defense that was the third stingiest against the run last season. Much of that also has to do with one of the league’s best defensive lines, who added defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a group that already included lineman Kawann Short and Julius Pepper. The secondary remains the team’s biggest hurdle to Super Bowl contention, but rookie cornerback Donte Jackson could help elevate a unit that currently slots James Bradberry as it’s number one corner. In total, the Panthers have some serious flaws that will likely hold them back from their full potential. All it takes though is one or two breakout campaigns for this team to find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
3. Atlanta Falcons Projected Record: 9-7
The Atlanta Falcons remain one of the leagues most prolific offenses, with an impressive group of weapons surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan certainly has his flaws, and he looked shockingly average without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but he still possess the talent to lead this talented Falcons team to the playoffs. Wide receivers Julio Jones, rookie Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu form an enticing trio that should give secondaries fits while Atlanta’s running back combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman remains one of the league’s most electric. Combine all that with an above average line, and it’s hard to see this Falcons offense not finishing as a top ten unit. Defensively the Falcons took sizable strides as the unit transitioned from liability to league average. Deion Jones asserted himself as one of the league’s premiere linebacker talents, and with another healthy season could lead the league in tackles. The season ending injury to safety Keanu Neal is painful, but Atlanta’s secondary is well equipped to handle his absence. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant is one of the best in the business, and Robert Alford is certainly an above average talent. On the defensive line, pass rusher Vic Beasley Jr. looks to return to his 2016 form when he lead the league with 15.5 sacks. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley produced as a rookie, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett took a huge step forward in both run defense and rushing the passer. All in all the Falcons still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFC, and will advance as far as Matt Ryan can take them.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Projected Record: 2-14
Nothing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offseason has inspired confidence in the team for this upcoming season. Whether it was their starting quarterback getting suspended for the first three games, or their rookie running back absolutely crapping the bed in the preseason, the Buccaneers season seems over before it has even begun. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will lead the team for the first three games and possibly more depending on performance, but is straddled with one of the league’s worst group of skill position players. The fact that second round pick Ronald Jones was unable to beat out Peyton Barber for the team’s starting running back job is disappointing to put it lightly, and a disastrous start to a career many expected to blossom from week one. The Bucs receiving corps hovers around league average, with neither Mike Evans nor Desean Jackson playing at the levels they once occupied. Tampa Bay’s tight end combo of Cameron Brate and OJ Howard is probably the most intriguing unit on the offense, as Howard should assert himself as one of the league’s next great tight ends. On the other side of the ball, the defense still possesses a handful of difference makers at each level. On the defensive line, Gerald McCoy remains as one of the league’s most productive players. Teamed up with outstanding weak side linebacker Lavonte David, the Buccaneers boast an above average front seven. In the secondary, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves should improve after an up and down sophomore season. All said and done, Tampa Bay will be lucky to escape this season with more than four wins, and should be looking for their quarterback of the future come next April.