The NFC South was arguably the toughest division in the NFL in 2017 as three teams posted double-digit wins and made the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints benefitted from one of the best home-field advantages in the league to capture the division title.
However, after beating the rival Carolina Panthers for a third time in their NFC Wild Card Game, New Orleans couldn’t overcome Minnesota, who, like the Saints and Eagles were an NFL-best 7-1 at home during the regular season. Defending NFC champion Atlanta snuck into the playoffs at 10-6, and knocked off the upstart Los Angeles Rams on the road in their wild-card matchup, but also succumbed to hostile road conditions and lost in Philadelphia in the Divisional Round.
Looking ahead, New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta all have Super Bowl aspirations, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the potential to move up the division standings. All four have begun tweaking their rosters, and with free agency in full swing, attention now turns to the 2018 NFL Draft. The Bucs will be the first NFC South team on the clock at No. 7 overall.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 3rd in NFC South, lost to Philadelphia in Divisional Round)
2017 snapshot: Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Falcons jumped out to a 6-2 start and appeared destined to make another deep run. However, four losses over the next five games tempered expectations. Atlanta finished the regular season strong, and posted a 10-6 record to nab one of the wild-card spots thanks more to its top-10 scoring defense (19.7 ppg) than the play of defending MVP Matt Ryan. The Falcons upset the Rams on the road in the Wild-Card Round, but fell to the eventual Super Bowl champs in Philadelphia.
Biggest needs: There are few glaring holes, but the Flacons could use some help at defensive tackle, guard, safety and outside linebacker. There also is a loud voice in the fan base to give Matt Ryan another offensive weapon. Dontari Poe (Carolina) and Adrian Clayborn (New England) left in free agency, meaning interior defensive line is the biggest area of concern at this point of the offseason, and especially since the team signed former 49ers guard Brandon Fusco to a three-year deal. The addition of Justin Bethel also eases some concerns in the secondary.
First-round pick: No. 26 overall
Potential picks: With holes to fill on both the offensive and defensive lines, it’s likely the Falcons opt for the best available lineman at No. 26. Atlanta would be stoked if a player like Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne fell to them, though Taven Bryan of Florida would be a solid Plan B. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst could be an intriguing pick if he’s available, and though he has the elite talent of a high first-round pick, there are medical concerns that will likely push him down draft boards. Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn is a popular pick in mock drafts, though Scouting Combine star Mike Gesicki, the former Penn State tight end, or speedy LSU wideout D.J. Chark would excite fans more.
Carolina Panthers (11-5, 2nd in NFC South, lost to New Orleans in Wild-Card Round)
2017 snapshot: The Panthers rebounded from a disappointing 2016 campaign to finish 11-5 and made it back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the team exited quickly following a 31-26 loss at New Orleans. Improvement on defense was key to the regular season turnaround as the unit shaved its scoring average from 25.1 points per game to 20.4, moving from 25th to 11th in the NFL. The Panthers ranked third in rushing defense (88.1 ypg) and fourth in rushing offense (131.4), but the Saints torched the Carolina secondary for 369 yards through the air in the playoff loss.
Biggest needs: There are several areas on the Panthers’ roster that could use an upgrade. Carolina would love to add a playmaker at cornerback, and the loss of guard Andrew Norwell (signed with Jacksonville) must be addressed as well. The team also could look to add depth (and youth) at tight end and defensive end. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner will have a new weapon in wide receiver Torrey Smith, but the Panthers moved on from running back Jonathan Stewart.
First-round pick: No. 24 overall
Potential picks: Cornerback appears to be the biggest area of need, so if a player like Iowa’s Josh Jackson, who led the nation with eight interceptions in and returned two for touchdowns in 2017, is available, Carolina should pounce. Colorado corner Isaiah also could be a fit. Should the Panthers opt for a guard, UTEP mauler Will Hernandez would be a boon if he’s still on the board, and should the team look for an edge rusher to groom behind veteran Julian Peppers, Sam Hubbard (Ohio State), Arden Key (LSU) or Josh Sweat (Florida State) could be the answer.
New Orleans Saints (11-5, 1st in NFC South, lost to Minnesota in Divisional Round)
2017 snapshot: Like the Panthers, the New Orleans Saints used an upgraded defense to improve from a losing record in 2016 to an 11-5 mark and playoff appearance last season. While maintaining one of the NFL’s top offenses, New Orleans improved from a No. 27 ranking in total defense and No. 31 scoring defense in 2016 to No. 17 and No. 10, respectively, last season. Nevertheless, after beating Carolina in the Wild-Card Round, the Saints were painfully close to a spot in the NFC Championship Game, but couldn’t hold on to a 24-23 lead on the road at Minnesota, and fell victim to a 61-yard touchdown on the final play of the game.
Biggest needs: Head coach Sean Payton has voiced his preference for the Saints to add a talented edge rusher in addition to playmakers at receiver and tight end. New Orleans was in the mix to land free agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, though despite missing out, interior defensive line isn’t a major need for the squad at this point. Record-setting quarterback Drew Brees will be back for the 2018 campaign, but it’s also time to think about a succession plan.
First-round pick: No. 27 overall
Potential picks: With an edge rusher seemingly atop top Payton’s wish list, the Saints are likely to have a similar set of defensive end targets to those Carolina might be considering three picks earlier. Should a player like Boston College standout Harold Landry make it that far, New Orleans might bite. Top options at tight end include Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State or South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst. Should Payton opt for a game-breaker, LSU product D.J. Chark could fit the bill. Also, Payton recently praised 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, and there probably wouldn’t be a better situation for the dynamic signal-caller to find himself in than to apprentice under Brees.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11, 4th in NFC South)
2017 snapshot: The Bucs were the only NFC South team to miss out on the playoffs in 2017, and as a result, head coach Dirk Koetter narrowly avoided the axe. Step 1 towards closing the gap in the division standings (and cooling down Koetter’s hot seat) will be improving a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in yards allowed (378.1 per game) and passing yards allowed (260.6 per game). Tampa Bay ranked seventh in takeaways, but still allowed opponents to score on 38.9 percent of offensive possessions last season, which was the fifth-worst mark in the league.
Biggest needs: Tampa Bay made a move to improve its pass rush by trading for veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, which means cornerback is now the biggest need on the roster, with safety a close second. The Bucs also could use an upgrade at running back, though plenty of talent should be available in the later rounds.
First-round pick: No. 7 overall
Potential picks: As the only NFC South team picking in the first half of the first round, the Bucs have more options available than their division rivals. Tampa Bay might even be able to capitalize on a quarterback-needy team and pursue a trade to move down in the first round while still ending up with one of the top corners available. Consider that the top cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft didn’t come off the board until pick No. 11. In such a case, the Bucs could nab Ohio State’s Denzel Ward or Jaire Alexander from Louisville. Of course, the general consensus is that Tampa Bay would jump at the chance to draft a multi-dimensional defensive back like Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick or Florida State’s Derwin James should either last through the top six picks. In the unlikely event Saquon Barkley fell to No. 7, the front office would have a very difficult choice because Barkley would give Jameis Winston a dynamic and versatile offensive weapon for the foreseeable future.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.