The NFC South has long been one of the NFL's more interesting divisions because of the star power than has stuck around year over year.
The Saints always have Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan. The Falcons' combination of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones has been almost unimpeachable. The Panthers had Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly until their surprising departures. And the Buccaneers, well, they haven't been too competitive until recently.
But the thing that separates each of these teams between seasons — and the thing that makes sports so fun — is the breakout star. From recent draft picks waiting to break out to recent acquisitions getting the right opportunity, these are the players you soon may see representing the NFC South at the Pro Bowl.
Atlanta Falcons: Hayden Hurst, TE
At first glance, Hurst looks like one of the worst busts in recent years. He was a 2018 first-round pick — actually selected seven picks ahead of Lamar Jackson — but was immediately surpassed by third-rounder Mark Andrews on Baltimore's tight end depth chart. He never found his place with the Ravens, totaling 43 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons. And making matters worse, he's already 27 because he spent two years out of high school playing Minor League Baseball.
But you can tell how highly the Falcons think of the 6-foot-4 target because of what they gave up to get him. Despite only having three years of team control left, the Falcons traded a second-round pick and were happy to let incumbent tight end Austin Hooper sign with the Browns in free agency. Hurst has little competition and should immediately get Hooper's workload, which he parlayed into a pair of Pro Bowl seasons: 146 receptions for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018-19 combined.
Carolina Panthers: Ian Thomas, TE
Thomas is another athletic tight end who should benefit from a change of scenery, although this change involves the departure of Greg Olsen to Seattle. After Thomas' promising rookie season filling in for an injured Olsen, the Panthers stuck to 11 personnel (one running back and tight end) on 67.3 percent of their plays, which limited him to just 30 targets all season. Now that he's the clear-cut starter, a breakout season is on the horizon.
There will be plenty of competition for targets between Christian McCaffrey, young and improving DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, and free-agent addition Robby Anderson, but Thomas can carve out a role for himself as a red-zone target and safety valve. He's got the size (6-4) and the athleticism; among tight ends at the 2018 Scouting Combine, he had the fifth-best 40-yard dash time (4.74), the third-best vertical (36.0), and the second-best shuttle time (4.20).
New Orleans Saints: Zack Baun, LB
The lone rookie on our list, Baun looks like a star in the making. Wisconsin fans can tell you as much after he racked up 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss in his fourth year in Madison. Baun was the 49th-ranked prospect on Athlon's draft board, and you can tell Saints thought he was a steal when they traded a future third-round pick to move up from pick No. 88 to 74 to grab him.
The Saints often play in a nickel base, so it may be hard for him to see the field at first, but the Saints' linebacker depth is a bit soft after All-Pro Demario Davis. Kiko Alonso is coming off his third career torn ACL, and Alex Anzalone missed 14 games last year after undergoing shoulder surgery. Alonso is already starting the season on the PUP list, and if Anzalone looks rusty early, a starting job could be Baun's for the taking.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jamel Dean, CB
Is Dean too good already to be considered a breakout star? Well, he hasn't made a Pro Bowl yet, so we'll count it. Dean may be overshadowed in his secondary by fellow 2019 draft classmate Sean Murphy-Bunting, who led the Bucs with three interceptions, and Carlton Davis, who finished second in the league in passes defended, Dean wasn't far behind. In fact, he was tied for fourth in that category with 17.
Dean didn't produce gaudy numbers, with just two interceptions, one forced fumble, and 21 tackles, but more are coming. He showed great improvement down the stretch after getting burned early and held opponents to a 50.0 percent completion rate (13th out of 263 qualified defensive backs and linebackers) and 72.4 passer rating (41st). With great size (6-1), speed (4.30), and pedigree (2018 third-round pick out of Auburn), he has the tools to succeed in coordinator Todd Bowles' aggressive defense.