The New Orleans Saints are solid favorites to win a record fourth straight NFC South title, but this should be one of the more competitive races in years.
With so much talent in the division — only the Carolina Panthers are out of contention — it will only take a few players to break out or have a down year to swing the balance of power. Could a young player break out or veteran finally show his age?
These are the wild card players we're focusing on. Keep on an eye on them throughout the season, and they may be the reason each team does or doesn't make the playoffs.
Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom, OL, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons' biggest strength heading into the season is their offensive consistency, but these two 2019 first-rounders can be considered relatively new cogs. The hope is that with another year of experience, they'll be able to fulfill their potential and make this offensive line a premier unit.
McGary and Lindstrom were thrown into the fire last season and started every game they played, although the latter was sidelined for 11 games due to a broken foot. Lindstrom's development, after posting an Approximate Value of just 2, is worth monitoring, but McGarry (9 AV) already tied fellow offensive tackle Jake Matthews as the most productive lineman on the team — and tied for 17th in football — after one season.
Atlanta could use a boost along the offensive line as well after only four teams gave up more than their 50 sacks last season, eight more than in 2018 and more than twice as many as in '17. Their 6.6 percent adjusted sack rate was better (13th) but still a step down from where the unit was when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl. These two second-year players have the potential to lift the O-line — or leave it stuck in neutral.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Carolina Panthers
Jettisoning franchise icon Cam Newton must've meant that the Panthers saw something they liked in Bridgewater. At least, they're paying him as if they do. Carolina signed him to a three-year, $63 million deal with $33 million guaranteed, the overwhelming majority of that coming in the first two years. And Bridgewater absolutely has the potential to exceed that deal.
It's easy to forget, but it's not that long ago that Bridgewater was one of the great young quarterbacks in the league. A first-round pick in 2014, Bridgewater made the Pro Bowl at 23 in his second season. Of course, a torn ACL derailed his career, limiting him to five games over the next two years with the Vikings and later a backup role in New Orleans. The Saints didn't ask him to do too much, but he avoided mistakes (9:2 TD-to-INT ratio), completed a career-high 67.9 percent of his passes, and won all five games he started.
What Bridgewater's future holds in Carolina is a major mystery. The Panthers brought him in partly because of his relationship with new offensive coordinator Joe Brady. And he'll have plenty of weapons to prove he can be a good starting quarterback again between Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson, and potential breakout tight end Ian Thomas. The good news for the team is that if he doesn't play up to his contract, they may be able to draft a successor at quarterback in 2021.
Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
Following the drama surrounding Kamara's contract and future in New Orleans will give you whiplash. But assuming he makes it onto the field in black and gold in Week 1, there are some questions about the three-time Pro Bowler's productivity.
While playing alongside Mark Ingram II during his first two seasons, few running backs were as productive as Kamara. He led the league with 6.1 yards per carry in his rookie year and averaged 1,573 yards from scrimmage over the two years. But in his only season as the bell-cow back, he took a step back rushing (4.7 ypc) and receiving (533 yards, 6.6 ypr). Some of that had to do with a knee injury he dealt with since Week 6, but that could be a lingering concern.
There's little doubt that Kamara is one of the leauge's best backs when healthy. But the difference between a Super Bowl Saints team and a team that makes an early exit could be how effective Kamara is. The Saints have a luxury in quality backup Lavatius Murray, but he can't totally replace what Kamara brings to the table.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Few players embody "wild card" as much as Gronk. The CBD-hawking, Monster Energy drink sponsor has the potential to be an All-Pro addition or not make it through the entire season.
Gronkowski has years of experience as Tom Brady's security blanket, so it shouldn't take him long to get on the same page with his quarterback, but it's worth remember what form we last saw him in. Before he appeared on "The Masked Singer," he was hobbled in the Super Bowl and only totaled 2,306 yards and 14 touchdowns over his last three seasons. Health is a major concern, and Tampa Bay may opt to take a page out of the NBA and use load management to make sure he's ready for the playoffs.
The good news for the Buccaneers is they don't really need him to succeed. They have plenty of other high-caliber (and big) weapons between Mike Evans, Chris Godwin at receiver, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end, and a backfield that features Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy, and rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn. But it's easy to see Gronkowski swing a few games this season.
(Top photo courtesy of panthers.com)