With free agency in progress and the 2022 NFL Draft approaching, franchises all have a level of excitement. Some are looking to contend this season, while others just want to move in the right direction. The league is unique in that every team has a chance to win the Super Bowl each season. The NFL can be volatile, and the smallest of breaks could launch a championship run, as exemplified by the Cincinnati Bengals last year. It may be unlikely to happen again, but football is unpredictable for a reason. There is a path for all 32 teams to win Super Bowl LVII. Today, that path is for teams in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Tom Brady back in the fold, the Buccaneers will once again be one of the top contenders for the Super Bowl. Brady played at an MVP level in 2021, leading the NFL in both passing yards and passing touchdowns. In his career with the Buccaneers, Brady has a staggering 102.1 passer rating, a higher mark than what he had from 2007 to 2019 with the New England Patriots. Alongside Brady, the Buccaneers retained most of their pieces on the offense. While Alex Cappa left, the Bucs made a savvy trade for Shaq Mason, one of Brady’s teammates in New England. The Buccaneers will continue to be one of the top offenses in the NFL.
The defense is aging, but the cornerstone pieces are still in place. Shaquil Barrett and Vita Vea fortify the front seven with the roaming duo of Lavonte David and Devin White wreaking havoc over the middle of the field. Losing Jordan Whitehead will hurt, but the Buccaneers have more than enough talent in the secondary to withstand the blow. If necessary, they could even use the No. 27 pick on a defensive back.
With Brady, the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl window is wide open. The Buccaneers do have to contend with having a new head coach in Todd Bowles, but he is not a rookie head coach, so the learning curve is not as steep. Unlike other first-year head coaches (for their current team), Bowles will have one of the best rosters in the NFL at his disposal. The Buccaneers should roll into the playoffs for the third year in a row, potentially owning the top seed in the conference. Brady has shown countless times that giving him home-field advantage is a death sentence for opponents.
New Orleans Saints
Without Jameis Winston, the Saints would be facing an uphill climb, but Winston will bring enough upside to put the Saints in fringe Super Bowl contention. Michael Thomas’ return will be a welcome addition to the team, and Alvin Kamara remains as one of the best running backs in the NFL. The Saints lost Terron Armstead in free agency, but they have a pair of first-round picks that could be used on repairing the offensive line. In a perfect world, the Saints could grab a No. 2 receiver to Thomas and a replacement for Armstead at left tackle in the first round.
The defense is loaded with talent, and they had an excellent 2021 season despite dealing with a slew of injuries. Demario Davis and Cameron Jordan are still among the best at their positions. Marcus Williams is now a Baltimore Raven, but the Saints brought in Marcus Maye. They could also be in the market for Tyrann Mathieu to fortify the secondary. Either way, Marshon Lattimore is an exceptional cornerback, and the Saints will not have a bad defense in 2021.
Like the Buccaneers, the Saints will have a new head coach but not a rookie. Dennis Allen had a 8-28 tenure with the then-Oakland Raiders, but he has been a rock-solid defensive coordinator in the last few seasons for the Saints. Losing Sean Payton will hurt the offense, but the rest of the coaching staff is in place from 2021. The Saints should have a good offense and a top-10 defense bolstered by a strong special teams unit. If the Saints avoid the injury bug, they will be a dangerous out in the playoffs.
Marcus Mariota has spent the last 2.5 seasons as a backup quarterback, so there are concerns. However, he was far from a disaster during his tenure with the Tennessee Titans. He is now reunited with his former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, so there is little in the way of a learning curve. Mariota brings mobility that Matt Ryan never did, so expect the Falcons’ rushing attack to be slightly more productive even if Mariota is only used sparingly. The Falcons desperately need wide receivers, but they have several early-round picks to replenish the room. Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson are solid options, and the Falcons have a better offensive line than they are given credit for.
The Falcons’ defense stinks. They have the pass-rush equivalent of using seven defenders rather than 11. However, they likely will creep back to average and crack 20 sacks in 2022. AJ Terrell is a superstar cornerback, and the Falcons have a handful of exciting young options in the safety room with Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins. If the Falcons are moderately better than 30th on third down, they will have a much-improved defense.
The Falcons have three picks in the first two rounds. They could nab an edge and a pair of wide receivers that could be a quick fix and help the Falcons’ Super Bowl odds. The draft board could fall in a certain manner and result in Kayvon Thibodeaux landing in the Falcons’ lap at No. 8. In the second round, the Falcons could double up on wide receivers such as Skyy Moore, Christian Watson, or Justyn Ross. Adding even two of the four aforementioned players would give the Falcons significant youth to work with in 2022 and beyond.
The Panthers started 3-0, and they were 5-5 through 10 games, so they were halfway decent for about half of the season. The defense held up ridiculously well, finishing second in yards allowed, fourth in first downs allowed, and sixth in passing yards allowed per play. However, the offense was such a disaster that the Panthers could not sustain their strong scoring defense. After getting to 5-5, the Panthers did not score more than 21 points in any game the rest of the way.
The Panthers desperately need an upgrade at the quarterback position. Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, and P.J. Walker are utter disasters, and the team’s collective 68.5 passer rating was legendarily poor. Even Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo would be a gargantuan improvement over the Three Stooges currently employed by the Panthers. If the Panthers have a real quarterback, they could take advantage of a solid supporting cast. D.J. Moore is a stud, and Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in the NFL.
When healthy, the defense is solid. They might not be as good as their No. 2 ranking in total defense, but they are better than a bottom-10 unit. Jaycee Horn is returning from injury, so the Panthers essentially have two first-round prospects entering their team in 2022. Jeremy Chinn and Brian Burns are excellent players, and the rest of the Panthers fit well together. If the offense has a pulse, there will be less pressure on the defense, and the Panthers will win more than five games. With the right quarterback, the Panthers could open the Super Bowl window.
Follow Ryan Potts on Twitter @MrSplashMan19
Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images