Preview and betting tips for the NFC South
Prospects of a 2020-2021 NFL season being played appeared rather uncertain earlier this year due to an unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as of this writing (5/30), NFL executives are cautiously optimistic the season is set to begin as originally scheduled in September. There will be strict safety guidelines in place which may include such things as no fans in attendance. On a more uplifting note, I will be discussing the NFC South Division throughout the body of this article. Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put an end to the New Orleans Saints run of 3 straight division championships? Can either the Atlanta Falcons or Carolina Panthers make a highly improbable run to a division crown? Those answers and much more are included in this NFL betting preview.
Below are the NFC South futures odds compliments of 5Dimes.
|Team||Odds on June 1||Current Odds|
|New Orleans Saints||+105||-105|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||+155||+165|
Atlanta Falcons (+650)
The Atlanta Falcons got off to a terrible 3-9 start last season. At that point it looked like head coach Dan Quinn's days were numbered as Atlanta's head coach. However, Falcons players did not quit on Quinn and went on a season ending four game win streak to finish up at 7-9. Much to the chagrin of their fanbase, it was enough to bring back Quinn for another season. He will certainly be entrenched on the proverbial hot seat. Since reaching the 2017 Super Bowl, Atlanta has gone just 25-25, which includes 14-18 during the past two seasons.
Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan returns for his 13th NFL season all of which have been with the Falcons organization. Despite the Falcons coming off back to back losing years, it has been of little if any fault of their starting quarterback. During that span, Ryan has completed 67.8% of his pass attempts for 9390 yards while throwing for 61 touchdowns. Atlanta averaged an impressive 294.6 yards passing per game last year and that was good for 3rd in the NFL.
Atlanta possesses a dynamic wide receiver tandem of Alabama alums in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Jones will be entering his 10th NFL season and has shown no signs of slowing down. Last year Jones had 99 pass receptions for 1394 yards. Even though Calvin Ridley missed three games during the 2019-2020 campaign, he still managed to haul in 63 passes for 866 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Falcons signed former Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. The soon to be 25-year-old has been a huge disappointment since entering the league as a 1st round draft choice of Minnesota. In his first four NFL seasons Treadwell has accumulated only 65 catches for 701 yards and 2 touchdowns. Atlanta is hoping a change of scenery will do the vastly underachieving Treadwell a world of good.
The most intriguing offseason pickup for Atlanta was former Rams star running back Todd Gurley. The biggest question mark surrounding the 3-time 1000-yard rusher is his health. It has been widely publicized that Gurley has an arthritic knee which limited him to a career low 223 carries last season. The Rams opted to release Gurley rather than signing him to a new contract, which raised many red flags. After all, Gurley accounted for a massive 7494 total yards from scrimmage and 70 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons that all came with the Rams organization. Gurley will attempt to ignite a Falcons running game which was anemic last season.
If Atlanta contemplates any realistic chance of contending for even an NFC wildcard spot, let alone an NFC South Division title, they desperately need improved offensive line play. There were only four teams that allowed more sacks than the Falcons did a season ago. Additionally, they ranked 30th in rushing offense at a paltry 85.1 yards per game. The Falcons currently have 2019 first round draft choices Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary listed as starters on their right side of their offensive line. Atlanta is optimistic those two players will make a significant jump in year two. If that fails to transpire, it is highly likely the Falcons will be heading toward a 3rd consecutive losing year.
One thing that was consistently lacking last season for the Falcons was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. As a matter of fact, Atlanta's defense was only able to amass 28 sacks last season and only Miami was worse at getting to the passer. They did sign former Rams and Jaguars linebacker/defensive end Dante Fowler with hopes of getting better in that area. Fowler is coming off a year in which he had a career best 11.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in a Rams uniform.
The Falcons secondary has a ton of potential, but they are extremely young. At this present time, their average age is 24. They should have a future star in 2020 first round pick cornerback A.J. Terrell out of Clemson. They also own a formidable safety duo of Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. If the front seven can get any type of pass rush this can turn into a special group of defensive backs. Unfortunately, that is a big if.
Carolina Panthers (+2200)
After going 5-7 in their first 12 games last season, Carolina fired head coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers then preceded to go winless over their final 4 games and ended up with a dismal 5-11 record. During Rivera's 9-year tenure, Carolina won four NFC South titles and advanced to the 2016 Super Bowl, where they were defeated by Denver. On the negative side of things, Carolina saw six of Rivera's 9 seasons as Carolina's head coach result in losing records.
Once the season ended, Matt Ruhle was hired as the 5th head coach in franchise history. The 45-year-old will be partaking on his first NFL head coaching job. Ruhle was head coach at Baylor last season and led the Bears to an outstanding 12-2 record. Baylor barely missed reaching college football’s 4-team national championship playoffs after losing in overtime to Oklahoma during the Big 12 Championship game. Ruhle also spent four years as Temple's head coach. The Owls appeared in two American Athletic Championship games and won the school’s first conference championship since 1967 under Ruhle. He also spent 2012 as the New York Giants offensive line coach under Tom Coughlin.
Carolina will be going through a significant transformation on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will they be adapting to a whole new scheme and playbook, it comes in an off-season which has been derailed by COVID-19, thus eliminating all mini-camps from taking place.
The Panthers signed UFA Teddy Bridgewater to be their new starting quarterback. Bridgewater has 34 NFL starts under his belt, but he has never had a season exceeding 14 touchdown passes since being drafted #1 by Minnesota in 2014. The former University of Louisville product went 5-0 with New Orleans as a starter last year while filling in admirably for Drew Brees. Bridgewater sustained a gruesome knee injury during Minnesota's 2016 training camp. Since that time, he has made just six starts while appearing in only 15 games. This signing is certainly a risky one and only time will tell if Bridgewater can remain healthy for an entire 16-games schedule.
Notwithstanding of playing behind a suspect at best offensive line, Carolina star running back Christian McCaffery turned in a spectacular 2019-2020 season. McCaffery accounted for an enormous 2392 total yards from scrimmage and scored 19 touchdowns. Through his first three NFL seasons McCaffery has amassed 951 offensive touches. Yet, the former Stanford star has played in all 48 Carolina games over that time. McCaffery has proven to be a superbly conditioned athlete which parallels his extraordinary degree of durability. He was rewarded with a huge $64M contract extension in in April and deservedly so.
With all things considered, wide receiver D.J. Moore put together a remarkable 2019-2020 season by piling up 87 receptions for 1175 yards and 4 touchdowns. Carolina must replace a couple of last year's reliable pass caters in wideout Curtis Samuel and tight end Greg Olsen who are no longer with the team.
Panthers management did their best to address their wide receiver depth by signing three unrestricted free agents in Robby Anderson (Jets), Seth Roberts (Baltimore), and Pharoh Copper (Cardinals). Although Cooper had a career best 25 pass receptions for Arizona last season, his biggest asset is returning kicks. Anderson has big play ability which is evidenced by his 14.8 yards per catch average during his first 4 NFL seasons. The former New York Jet has 207 career receptions and 20 touchdown catches. The 29-year old Roberts has averaged 35.8 catches, 419.4 receiver yards, and 3 touchdowns per season over his 5-year NFL career.
The loss of Greg Olsen leaves a huge void. Olsen who was a prolific pass catching and run blocking tight end during his illustrious 13-year career with the Panthers organization. None of Carolina's tight ends on their current roster are a proven commodity.
The Panthers offensive line was porous in pass protection last season. Carolina allowed a league high 58 sacks. That is an area they need to be much better, and especially in light of Teddy Bridgewater's previous serious knee injury. On a positive note, they did trade for veteran offensive tackle Russell Okung who will provide an immediate upgrade.
Carolina must also do a much better job when it comes to ball security. They turned the rock over 35 times last season and only Tampa Bay gave it away more.
Carolina emphasized improving defensively during the 2020 NFL draft by choosing seven players on that side of the ball. The Panthers permitted their opponents to score 29.4 points per game last season which was 31st out of 32 NFL teams in that category. They were also a terrible 29th in rushing defense while giving up a lofty 143.5 yards per game on the ground.
One thing Carolina's defense did very well last season was rushing the passer. Carolina sacked opposition quarterbacks 53 times which ranked #2 in the NFL. Sadly enough, they lost two of their top pass rushers in free agency during this off-season. Mario Addison and Vernon Butler both signed with Buffalo and they combined for 15.5 sacks. Addison will be especially missed after racking up up 39 sacks over the past 4 seasons.
New Orleans Saints (-105)
The Saints are coming off back to back 13-3 seasons and will be seeking their 4th consecutive NFC South Division crown. What has been particularly impressive during the past two seasons is they have gone 14-2 in away games. Furthermore, after losing last year's road opener against the Rams, New Orleans went a perfect 7-0 straight up and against the spread in their final seven away contests. Talk about money making road warriors! New Orleans has been the epitome of that previous description.
The Saints offense will once again be potent barring something unforeseen. It all starts with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. The 41-year-old signal caller will be entering his 20th NFL season, the last 14 of which have come with New Orleans. Even with missing five games due to injury last season, Brees still was able to throw for 2979 yards and 27 touchdowns while be intercepted only 4 times. It also broke a string of 15 consecutive seasons in which Brees started 15 regular season games or more. During the past four years Brees has completed 72.3% of his 2076 pass attempts. The ageless wonder has shown no signs of his passing skills eroding.
The Saints backfield will be in good hands with a complimentary duo of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. They combined for 2184 totals yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns last season.
New Orleans is fortunate to have one of the NFL's best wide receivers in Michael Thomas. He is coming off a prolific season in which he had 149 receptions for 1725 yards and 9 touchdowns. Through his four NFL seasons, all Thomas has combined to do is collect 470 catches for 5512 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
Thomas will be joined by veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was an off-season free agent acquisition. This will be Sanders third team in the last two seasons. He was traded from Denver to San Francisco last season and was a big contributor to the 49ers Super Bowl run. Between his two teams last season Sanders had 66 catches for 869 yards and 5 touchdowns.
I do have concerns regarding the Saints depth at wide receiver. But then again, Drew Brees has helped many unproven receivers gain prominence over his renowned career. The most likely candidate this year might be 3rd year player Tre'Quan Smith, who has averaged 14.4 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns during his first two NFL seasons.
The Saints have a reliable and productive tight end in 33-year-old Jared Cook. Cook had 43 catches in 14 games last season while averaging an impressive 16.4 yards perception and scored 9 touchdowns. A player to keep an eye on is 3rd round draft pick Adam Trautman out of Dayton. The 23-year-old 6’5 and 255-pound tight end has run a 4.78 forty-yard dash. In 10 games for Dayton last season Trautman had 70 catches for 916 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
The Saints offensive line did a terrific job in pass protection last season. They allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked only 25 times which was 3rd fewest in the NFL. They also paved the way for their top 2 running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray to rush for a cumulative 1416 yards.
It is well worth mentioning the Saints version of an offensive Swiss army knife Taysom Hill. The former BYU quarterback had 156 yards rushing, 234 yards receiving, and scored 7 touchdowns last season. Hill has also attempted 13 passes and threw for 119 yards over his first 3 NFL seasons. Hill is currently listed as the Saints #2 quarterback behind Brees.
The Saints offense grabbed most of the attention last season and rightfully so. Nevertheless, the New Orleans defense more than held their own. They ranked 11th in total yards allowed per game and were 3rd in sacks with 51. If they can hold serve with those types of statistics this season, it should result in another successful year for the New Orleans Saints.
Will Lutz is the Saints incumbent placekicker and he is unequivocally a good one at that. During his first four NFL seasons, which have all been with New Orleans, Lutz has gone an excellent 119-136 (87.5%) on field goals and 196-202 (97%) with his extra point attempts. Additionally, last season Lutz saw 74 of his 94 kickoffs (78.7%) result in touchbacks.
Punter Thomas Morstead has spent his entire 11-year NFL career with the Saints organization. Morstead has an outstanding career average of 46.9 yards per punt. Last season alone, 48.1% of Morstead’s 60 punts were downed inside the 20-yard-line, and only 1 of those resulted in a touchback. He also had a mere one punt blocked in 630 career attempts.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+165)
There are indubitably high expectations for Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans for this upcoming 2020-2021 season. The offseason free agent signings of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, in addition to tight end Rob Gronkowski, has sparked a plethora of excitement for a franchise and fan base starving for relevance. Tampa Bay finished 7-9 a season ago and finished tied with Atlanta for second place in the NFC South Division standings.
You can make a strong case for last year's Tampa Bay team being better than their final record may have indicated. Offensively the Bucs were #3 in total yards (397.9 YPG), #1 in passing yards (302.8 YPG), and #4 in scoring (28.0 PPG). Tampa Bay's defense also forced 28 turnovers which was good for 5th best in the NFL.
So how did the Bucs end up with a losing record? I am glad you asked. The Bucs committed a league high 41 turnovers. The next closest team in that specific category was Carolina, who turned it over 35 times. Last year's Bucs starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, threw for 33 touchdowns and accumulated 5109 yards passing. On most occasions that would be considered as a terrific season for an NFL quarterback. Nonetheless, Winston was also intercepted 30 times and seven of those picks were returned for touchdowns! It is difficult enough to win games in the NFL when minimizing mistakes, let alone having the abundant number of giveaways that Tampa Bay excruciatingly suffered last season.
Besides the additions of Brady and Gronkowski, Tampa Bay already had a solid offensive foundation in place. That possess a dynamic duo of wide receivers in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Godwin is coming off a gigantic season which saw him reel in 86 passes for 1333 yards and 9 touchdowns. Despite missing 3 games, Mike Evans had 67 receptions for 1157 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Behind Gronkowski on the tight end depth chart is a pair of viable options in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Last season those two combined to catch 70 balls for 770 yards and 5 touchdowns. That being said, it becomes crystal clear to envision why signing with Tampa Bay was so appealing for Tom Brady.
One area that needs to improve is the Bucs offensive line play. Tampa Bay's running game was below par last season which ranked 24th statistically in that category at just 95.1 yards per game. Moreover, the Bucs pass protection was inadequate as evidenced by allowing their quarterbacks to be sacked 47 times.
I really like the Bucs projected starting defensive line and linebackers. Tampa Bay was tied for 7th in sacks with 47. On a concerning note, they were 30th in passing yards allowed at 270.1 yards per game. Only Detroit and Arizona surrendered more passing yards last year than Tampa Bay did. The secondary remains a huge question mark heading into this year. Although, I liked their 2nd round pick of safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in the 2020 NFL Draft. He has the potential of being a very good one.
This shapes up to be a two-horse race between Tampa Bay and New Orleans for division supremacy. There is a reason why I previously brought up the New Orleans kicking game. The Saints are head and shoulders better in that phase of their game compared to their division rivals. It also was enough for me to give them a slight overall edge over Tampa Bay. Hence influencing me to make an early wager on New Orleans to win the NFC South Division.
Pick: New Orleans +105
Ross Benjamin is a top sports analyst and one of the sports industry's most respected handicappers. Follow him on Twitter: @RossBenjamin1 or visit his website at RBWins.com