NFL Divsion Previews: NFC South

Hello and welcome to the second installment of my NFL division previews. I tackled the NFC North in my first iteration. Below is my breakdown of the toughest division in football, the NFC South
Note: In parenthesis next to each team will be their season win total with the over/under juice

NFC North:

New Orleans Saints (9.5 Over -140)

Despite severely out playing the Minnesota Vikings in the second half of last year’s divisional playoff round, New Orleans went home early off a miracle last second touchdown catch by Stefon Diggs. However, I see no reason to think the Saints wont be there again this year. Alvin Kamara was the come out of no where breakout last season, and along with Mark Ingram formed the greatest 1-2 punch at RB in the history of the NFL, becoming the first duo ever to have at least 1500 scrimmage yards each.

As great as Ingram and Kamara were, the offensive line was just as good. They finished last year rated #9 by Pro Football Focus, and enter this year ranked 6th. If oft injured Terron Armstead can stay healthy the offense should enjoy another stellar season.

The defense also took a major step forward last year, thanks in large part to rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams. They will play behind a front 7 anchored by Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins, who’s improved play last year helped propel the Saints revitalized defense. The return of 2nd year linebacker Alex Anzalone and the signing of free agent line-backer Demario Davis should help bolster a run defense that was 27th in yards per attempts in 2017.

Warren Sharp has New Orleans with the 6th toughest schedule in the league, including the toughest in the second half of the season. If they don’t take care of business in the early part of the season they could be in some trouble. The difficult schedule is worrisome, but the continuity of Sean Payton and Drew Brees backed by a good defense and great offensive line makes them the favorite in the NFC South.

Wins Prediction: 12-4, 1st NFC South

Fantasy Note: Drew Brees had his lowest touchdown rate in 7 seasons last year dipping down from 5.8% to 4.3%. I think there is some regression coming his way, which bodes well for Michael Thomas, Cameron Meredith, Ted Ginn and rookie Tre’quan Smith. I would save Ginn and Smith for Best Ball formats and DFS only, but this is a pass game that should see some progression in the touchdown department.

Atlanta Falcons (9 Over -160)

The Atlanta Falcons were in great position to knock off the (now) Super Bowl Champion Eagles in last year’s divisional round, yet some terrible play calling and game management towards the end caused them to falter. However, I expect them to be there come January yet again this season. Matt Ryan enters his second year with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the same year (second that is) Ryan had an MVP season with Kyle Shanahan. I’m not calling Sarkisian Shanahan, but I do expect the Falcons to fix their scoring woes from last year. Consider that Ryan’s completion percentage and yards per attempt were in line with his career norms, and the Falcons were top 5 in yards per play, yet his TD percentage was a full percent lower than his career average. That’s a long way of saying the Falcons should score more points this year.
Helping in that regard is an offensive line that enters the season ranked #3 by PFF. Aaron Donald abused the interior in their win at Los Angeles in the Wild Card round last year (granted he IS Aaron Donald), which prompted Atlanta to sign guard Brandon Fusco from San Francisco (say that five times fast.) Getting torched by Aaron Donald is nothing to be ashamed of, and I expect them to have another stellar season.

The defense, anchored by safety Keanau Neal, corner back Desmond Trufant and linebacker Deion Jones, made a vast improvement last year. Six points of improvement in fact, as the unit allowed just 19 ppg this past season. Vic Beasley battled a hamstring injury amidst a move to linebacker which could be the reason his sack total plummeted to 5 from 15.5. The interior of the defense projects to be a weak point, as it was not addressed until the 3rd round of the draft.

The thing that impresses me the most about Atlanta’s stop unit is it’s speed. I am not comparing them to Quinn’s Super Bowl unit in Seattle, but you can see some similarities. They’re just fast. The run defense could be a weakness, but in today’s NFL I’d venture to say that is not as big of a deal as it used to be. I love the unit and expect them to continue their improved play.

Warren sharp has them right near the middle (18th) in terms of strength of schedule, including what projects to be the second easiest schedule in the NFC. They were 6-5 in one score games last year which is about average. One of the factors I like most about Atlanta is the continuity. Dan Quinn is entering his 4th year as head coach, the offensive line has near 100% turn over from last year’s group, and Sarkisian enters his second year with Matt Ryan. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are perpetually under-appreciated again this year, but this is a team that could very well win the South if New Orleans stumbles out of the gate.

Wins Prediction: 10-6, 2nd NFC South

Fantasy Note: I touched above on “(player-popup #matt-ryan)Matt Ryan”:/players/matt-ryan-11614’s touchdown rate last year being a full percent lower than his career average despite his other measurable factors being the same. If Ryan “regresses” like I expect him to, Julio Jones will be the primary factor. He finished with just three scores last year, despite finishing top ten in red zone targets.

Carolina Panthers (9 Under -205)

Coming off a heart-breaking loss to the Saints in last year’s Wildcard round, the Panthers enter the season having made the playoffs two out of the past three years. If you want to know what kind of QB Cam Newton is, just watch last season’s playoff loss to New Orleans. No one possess more upside at the position than the Carolina signal caller, and yet he remains unpolished, signified by a career completion percentage of 58.5%.

The offensive line enters the season ranked #21 by PFF. That was, however, with a healthy Daryl Williams projected to start. A 4th round rookie in 2015, Williams really came on for the Panthers in 2017, Giving Cam Newton solid tackle play for the first time in several seasons. However, Williams tore his MCL in practice, and while he avoided the Injured Reserve, there is still no time table for his return. Combine that with the loss of their best offensive lineman Andrew Norwell to Jacksonville, center Ryan Kalil potentially not being ready for the start of the season and the ineptness of tackle Matt Kalil and you have a front riddled with questions that currently have no answers. That does not bode well when you’re bringing in a brand-new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner.

The defense enters the season with a few question marks of their own. Ever since the surprising departure of Josh Norman, not much has been done to shore up the secondary. None of their corners really stand out, while the back-end tandem of Mike Adams and Da’Norris Searcy is nothing to write home about. Fortunately, the Panther defense is anchored by All Pro Luke Kuechly. Just in the 2015/2016 seasons alone, the Carolina defense has given up 3 more points per game when he doesn’t play. Consider that only quarter backs move a Vegas spread any more than a point, and you see the value Luke brings. In front of him is the tandem of Kawan Short and newly signed Donatari Poe. I expect them to be solid against the run, however the pass rush is a bit suspect, with the prime contributors being 100-year-old Julius Peppers, 4th round rookie Marquis Haynes and Mario Addison. Addison and Peppers each notched 11 sacks last year, but you have-to figure Peppers begins to regress at some point, while Haynes is an unknown commodity.

Warren Sharp has Carolina right near average with the 18th toughest rated strength of schedule, including the NFL’s easiest slate from weeks 3-14. Carolina was an insane 8-1 in one score games last season. Cam Newton has as much upside as anyone in this league, but his team will have to overcome a slew of injuries to the o-line as well as shoddy secondary play if they want to compete in the stacked NFC. I don’t see it happening.

Wins Prediction: 8-8, 3rd NFC South

Fantasy Note: I like McCaffery as a player, but the back end of round 1 may be too steep a price for him considering the state of the offensive line. He will have spike weeks for sure, the price just turns me off of him. As for Cam Newton I plan on handling him the same way I try (keyword try) to handle any other volatile player: Fade them in tournaments when they are projected to be popular, and be overweight when they will be low owned.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6.5 Under -160)

After being the offseason darling for some folks last year, the Bucs massively disappointed their backers, finishing 5-11, in the cellar of the NFC South. Jamies Winston was banged up a bit, and the team just never seemed to click, though to be honest there wasn’t that much of a drop off when Ryan Fitzpatrick stepped in. Winston definitely has the talent to be one of the top signal callers in the league, but is he focused enough? points out how the Tampa Bay party environment has ruined plenty of young players’ careers, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was one of the reasons for Winston’s inconsistent play. The young QB will miss the first three games of the season after an incident with an Uber driver, so things are already trending downward for him.

Tampa Bay enters the season with PFF’s #22 ranked offensive line. They signed center Ryan Jensen allowing Ali Marpet to move back to guard which should help to shore up the entire interior, but the weakness remains at left tackle in Donavan Smith. According to PFF, last season was the first in which he did not allow more than 50 pressures, yet he still graded out as below average.

There is some hope, however, on the defensive side of the ball. The Buccaneers drafted massive Washington DT Vita Vea in the first round, which should provide ample support for the run game when paired with all pro Gerald McCoy. After finishing last in the NFL in sacks, the Bucs went out and signed free agents Jason Pierre Paul and Vinny Curry. Curry only had 3 sacks last year but registered 41 QB hurries (the league leader was Cowboys lineman Demarcus Lawerence with 55 according to Sports Info Solutions.) Jason Pierre Paul wasn’t his usual dominant self in 2017, but still registered 8 sacks. They will have to provide a spark to compensate for the lacking secondary behind them. Aside from two 2nd round corner backs they didn’t do much to improve the group in the off season and are coming into the season with 35-year-old Brent Grimes slated as their #1 CB, Vernon Hargreaves slated to play in the slot, and one of the aforementioned rookies (M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis) fighting for the job opposite Grimes. Fortunately the linebacking corps is solid, with three time All-Pro Lavonte David leading the way.

Their schedule isn’t making matters any better. Warren Sharp gives them the second toughest schedule in the NFL, which makes sense considering they play in the NFC South. Warren also notes they play one of the toughest pass defense schedules, which doesn’t bode well for their chances to come back in the many games they’re expected to be trailing in.

Wins Prediction: 4-12, 4th place NFC South

Fantasy Note: I’ve targeted O.J. Howard in Best Balls as a boom bust player that could propel you to some winning weeks. Other than Howard I don’t like much from this team. Chris Godwin needs to be mentioned, but Desean Jackson could continue to eat into his playing time, while the Bucs also have Mike Evans, Payton Barber, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate to get the ball to. Peyton Barber is a solid bargain in season long, but not really exciting. Evans is a bargain too, but I don’t blame you if you choose to avoid this offense all together. I do like stacking their week 1 game with New Orleans. New Orleans defense should be pretty popular, and if Brees and co are to reach their ceilings the Bucs will have to make the game competitive. Figure out how they will do that and you could have a sweat come week 1.

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