Skip to main content

NFC South: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

NFC South: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

NFC South: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

As we ran through earlier when looking at the biggest strengths of the division, the NFC South thrives on its passing offense. With so many of the NFL's high-scoring offenses, the flip side is that every team has some significant deficiency on defense.

Not all weaknesses are built the same, of course. The Panthers have big concerns across their defense but especially on the defensive line. The Saints look pretty set but could potentially have a problem at linebacker.

Regardless, it's worth keeping an eye on these spots for all four NFC South teams. Each made at least one move to address the position over the offseason, but whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

Atlanta's pass rush

Only the Dolphins had fewer sacks than the Falcons (28) last season, and to make matters worse, Atlanta lost two of its three top sack artists. Former first-round Vic Beasley Jr. (8.0) and Adrian Clayborn (4.0) left in free agency, and Grady Jarrett (7.5) and Takkarist McKinley (3.5) are the only returning players with more than two sacks in 2020.

The Falcons did sign Dante Fowler Jr., another pass rusher from the 2015 draft who has not lived up to his potential, but his production is far from guaranteed. Fowler registered 11.5 sacks in his first full season with the Rams, which was nearly as much as he racked up in his first three seasons combined (16.0).

The good news is that if Fowler does play like he did in 2019 — or someone like McKinley breaks out — that would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the unit. The secondary should be improved with a healthy (knock on wood) Keanu Neal and the arrival of cornerback A.J. Terrell, the 16th overall pick of this year's draft. The less time opposing quarterbacks have the ball in their hands, the better a unit that is ostensibly Dan Quinn's strength will fare.

Carolina's defensive line

The Panthers' pass rush was one of the team's few strengths in 2019, but almost all of that production is gone. Despite finishing second in the league with 53 sacks, Brian Burns (7.5) and Shaq Thompson (3) are the only returning players with multiple sacks last season.

The rebuild under first-year head coach Matt Rhule meant saying goodbye to Mario Addison (9.5), Bruce Irvin (8.5), Vernon Butler (6.0), Eric Reid (4.0), and Dontari Poe (2.0), while Christian Miller opted out of the season. Rhule, an offensive coach by nature, was known for building excellent defensive lines at Baylor, but he'll have a massive project ahead of him to improve this unit.

Carolina does have a number of blue-chip players to build around in Derrick Brown and Yetur-Gross Matos, but expecting big things immediately out of any rookie is a major ask. This unit finished 29th in rush defense (and last in yards per attempt) last season, and with far more youth and the absence of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the D-line is likely to be a major problem area.

New Orleans' linebackers

The Saints have almost no major weaknesses, but the linebacker position could conceivably become a concerning area. (To be fair, Drew Brees' age could finally catch up to him, but that seems harder to conceive as he keeps chugging along.)

All-Pro inside linebacker Demario Davis is a great place to start, but the rest of the unit lacks depth. There are also concerns about Kiko Alonso and Alex Anzalone's health after the former suffered his third career torn ACL and the latter missed 14 games in 2019 due to shoulder surgery. Keep an eye on rookie Zack Baun out of Wisconsin if he gets pressed into action.

Strengthening this group could be key, as the Saints have plenty of pass-catching running backs on the schedule this season. All three division rivals love checking down to their running backs, and they'll also have to face Austin Ekeler, Miles Sanders, and Aaron Jones.

Tampa Bay's secondary

The Buccaneers got absolutely picked apart through the air in 2019. They finished 30th in passing yards allowed per game (270.1) in large part because they got burned on big plays — they gave up 57 passes of 20-plus yards (ninth in the NFL) and 14 completions that covered 40 or more yards (14th).

Of course, much of that yardage came because the Bucs found themselves in plenty of shootouts, but they'll need to take a step forward in that category if they want to compete. They're probably going to get in as many high-scoring games this season with a more conservative but far more accurate Tom Brady.

Tampa Bay has plenty of length in the secondary, as Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean defended more passes than any other duo in the league. But they need to translate that into more turnovers and fewer big plays. Adding rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. could help in that department, and it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Todd Bowles uses him in this blitz-happy defense.