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NFC South projected starters: Falcons' offense loaded; Panthers any better at QB?

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the NFC South breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
QB Matt Ryan DE Dante Fowler Jr.
RB Mike Davis DT Grady Jarrett
WR Julio Jones DE Steven Means
WR Calvin Ridley LB Deion Jones
TE Kyle Pitts LB Foye Oluokun
TE Hayden Hurst OLB Barkevious Mingo
LT Jake Matthews CB A.J. Terrell
LG Jalen Mayfield CB Kendall Sheffield
C Matt Hennessy CB Fabian Moreau
RG Chris Lindstrom S Duron Harmon
RT Kaleb McGary S Richie Grant
  • Mike Davis was one of the big winners of the 2021 NFL Draft, with Atlanta opting not to select a running back. The new Falcons front office correctly evaluated Davis as an upgrade over Todd Gurley, who was taken 116 picks ahead of Davis in the 2015 NFL Draft and is now a free agent after posting career-worst production (842 scrimmage yards) in his single season in Atlanta. Davis, who signed in March after logging 1,015 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns in Carolina while helping to fill in for Christian McCaffrey, doesn't have much competition for snaps and is joining a runner-friendly scheme coached by Arthur Smith.
  • Davis' chances for success are especially high because the Falcons have a promising offensive line and a lot of vertical weapons to distract defenses. Opponents will beg the Falcons to run.
  • Seriously, how will defenses line up to stop Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts at the same time? They can all toast single coverage, and they're bound to see plenty of mismatches. Ridley's development into a top-15 wide receiver already happened.
  • The note above is why I'm begging the Falcons not to trade Julio. This offense could blast off to the moon. The Falcons, of all organizations, should understand that this is an entertainment business. Teams can make an impact (Vick! Deion!) without necessarily winning a title. No one is sitting in the stands to watch salary-cap space line up next to Pitts. What better way to lure ambivalent, broken fans back to the building after three straight losing seasons than to put up 35 points every week?
  • Even the supporting cast here can do damage. Hayden Hurst is annually underrated and is now the best TE2 this side of Foxborough. Russell Gage was a terrific slot player last year.
  • Part of my confidence here stems from the impact Smith will have on the offensive line in his first year at the helm. There is a great pedigree there, with three former first-round picks (Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary) in the unit, and the heavy play-action game should make the group look better than it did a year ago.
  • Dante Fowler took a pay cut to stick around through 2021 because he knew the free-agent market would be unkind to him after a rough 2020 season (three sacks in 14 games). Beyond Fowler, the Falcons' edge-rush crew is as thin as any in the league.
  • The Falcons' defense looks to be a year away from a year away. Off-ball linebacker (Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun) is the only position group of strength, and it remains to be seen how some of ex-coach Dan Quinn's speedy parts fit into a scheme run by unretired defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
  • At least the Falcons have a premier player to build around in defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Don't be shocked if 2020 first-rounder A.J. Terrell is another cornerstone. In a league where it is increasingly difficult for cornerbacks to make an impact early in their careers, Terrell has a chance to be the best coverage player from his draft class.
  • There are five Falcons defenders that look locked into starting jobs. The rest of the group is mostly guesswork. A shaky secondary and the lack of a pass rush is a recipe for a lot of high-scoring games. Pees is a legend, and coaching this defense up to average level would be some of his finest work.
  • Still, the NFL is an offense-first league, and Atlanta should have top-five aspirations. The personnel is comparable to what Smith was working with as Titans offensive coordinator -- the Falcons just can't blow it by dealing Jones.
Table inside Article
QB Sam Darnold DE Brian Burns
RB Christian McCaffrey DT Derrick Brown
WR Robby Anderson DT DaQuan Jones
WR D.J. Moore DE Yetur Gross-Matos
WR Terrace Marshall OLB Haason Reddick
TE Dan Arnold LB Shaq Thompson
LT Trent Scott CB Donte Jackson
LG Pat Elflein CB Jaycee Horn
C Matt Paradis CB A.J. Bouye
RG John Miller S Jeremy Chinn
RT Taylor Moton S Juston Burris
  • I love what Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady brought schematically in their first year on the job last season. The bigger concern here is personnel. There's an argument that the offensive roster is no better -- or, possibly, worse -- than it was in 2020.
  • That evaluation includes quarterback. Apparently, the Panthers found some bright sides in the ugly start to Sam Darnold's career. It's virtually unprecedented for a quarterback who has struggled as much as Darnold did in his first three NFL seasons to bounce back and become a difference maker. The hope should be that Darnold provides league-average play between the 20s, comparable to what Teddy Bridgewater did as Carolina's QB last year, with fewer red-zone and late-game misfires than Bridgewater.
  • To put it another way: Even after the Panthers' attempts to bolster the position this offseason, trading for Darnold and shipping Bridgewater out of town, it's more than likely that they'll want to add to the quarterback depth chart again next offseason. For now, there is no escape plan, with P.J. Walker and Will Grier lined up behind Darnold.
  • Darnold will have Christian McCaffrey by his side, which is a huge advantage. But will the pair be working with an inferior offensive line?
  • The Panthers are trying out third-round pick Brady Christensen at a number of positions along the offensive line. In a perfect world, he'll win the left tackle job over Trent Scott, Greg Little and Cam Erving. If not, I'd expect Christensen to settle at one of the guard spots. Right tackle Taylor Moton, who signed his franchise tag, is the only sure thing on the line.
  • The departure of Curtis Samuel -- who ranked second on the team in catches and third in receiving yards last season -- via free agency makes the Panthers' wideout crew a little thinner. Rookie Terrace Marshall will have every opportunity to play big snaps immediately as an outside vertical threat.
  • The tight end competition is worth watching. Free-agent import Dan Arnold has wideout skills, holdover Ian Thomas has unlocked tools and third-round pick Tommy Tremble is intriguing for his name and game.
  • The defensive line could be this team's strength for years to come. 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos looked like a keeper in his rookie season. 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns is close to being a premier pass rusher, if he isn't already, and DaQuan Jones was an underrated veteran signing who will provide quality snaps.
  • It's hard for more than two linebackers to get starter snaps. Former Charger Denzel Perryman is likely to be the starter at middle linebacker, but I'd expect Shaq Thompson and newly signed pass rusher Haason Reddick to play more.
  • Jeremy Chinn was one of the league's best defensive rookies last year while mostly playing linebacker. It appears he'll line up more at safety this season, but I'm not sure it matters what you call him. Chinn is exactly the type of position-less player who can change a defense. Unlike some other recent 'tweeners, Chinn was able to handle a variety of roles from the jump.
  • I mentioned the Panthers' personnel not looking any better on offense. They have, however, impressively transformed their defense. Expectations for the group should be upgraded after Carolina finished 24th in DVOA last year.
Table inside Article
QB Jameis Winston DE Cameron Jordan
RB Alvin Kamara DT David Onyemata
WR Michael Thomas NT Shy Tuttle
WR Tre'Quan Smith DE Marcus Davenport
WR Marquez Callaway LB Demario Davis
TE Adam Trautman LB Pete Werner
LT Terron Armstead CB Marshon Lattimore
LG Andrus Peat CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
C Erik McCoy CB Paulson Adebo
RG Cesar Ruiz S Marcus Williams
RT Ryan Ramczyk S Malcolm Jenkins
  • Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are set to carry an even bigger burden with Drew Brees out of the building.
  • Most NFL offenses are trending toward depth, with four to five quality pass-catchers on hand. The Saints, meanwhile, are essentially counting on Thomas and Kamara to be good for at least 200 receptions combined -- otherwise, the whole operation falls apart. (That said, this approach worked fine from 2017 to '19.)
  • The Saints all but ignored wideout and tight end in the draft and free agency. They are counting on Sean Payton's tried and true method of coaching up a rotating cast of role players to provide random spikes in production for a week or two at a time.
  • Wideout Tre'Quan Smith is a legitimate red-zone weapon. Marquez Callaway looked like a keeper as an undrafted rookie last season, but I've been fooled before into thinking the Saints could again get Marques Colston-like play from some bottom-of-the-roster player. There is only one Marques Colston.
  • The tight end position is all new after the team cut Jared Cook and Josh Hill, the latter of whom eventually retired. Second-year pro Adam Trautman and former Seahawk Nick Vannett are up now. Hoping for them to be average is a projection.
  • The above five nuggets are a long way of saying Jameis Winston is unlikely to throw for 5,000 yards like he did in Tampa two years ago. The Saints were already one of the slowest-paced teams in football, and I don't anticipate that changing.
  • If it seems like I'm discounting Taysom Hill's chances of winning the outright starting quarterback job, that's because I am. Hill makes more sense as a changeup and red-zone option, like he was behind Brees. If nothing else, Winston's arm strength and aggressiveness should open up the play-calling for Payton after the last few years of quarterbacking from late-stage Brees, Taysom and Teddy Bridgewater.
  • Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk could be the league's best tackle combination if healthy. They should make the rest of the line look good, even if last year's first-round pick, Cesar Ruiz, proves to be a rare misfire for the Saints. It's possible New Orleans could play Ruiz at center and move Erik McCoy to guard, but why potentially hurt two positions for the sake of Ruiz?
  • The Saints' salary-cap trimmings appears to have impacted the defense more than the offense. They are a little thinner than a year ago at nearly every position except safety.
  • Shy Tuttle, who has always seemed worthy of more snaps, projects as the starting nose tackle.
  • Cameron Jordan is someone to watch. The 31-year-old has played the most snaps of any edge rusher in the NFL since 2014 and finally started to show slippage last season as a pass rusher. Jordan could potentially provide more juice if the Saints played him less, which would require rookie first-round pick Payton Turner to step up and Marcus Davenport to stay healthy.
  • The Saints' diminished depth shows up at linebacker and cornerback especially. Rookies Pete Werner and Paulson Adebo have paths to start despite being taken 60th and 76th overall, respectively, because the veteran alternatives aren't inspiring.
  • Ramczyk and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are both set to play on fifth-year options, and it will be hard to retain both beyond this season. Ramczyk figures to become one of the highest-paid tackles in football, and Lattimore could max out his money with a return to his Defensive Rookie of the Year form.
Table inside Article
QB Tom Brady DE Ndamukong Suh
RB Leonard Fournette DT Vita Vea
WR Mike Evans OLB Shaq Barrett
WR Chris Godwin LB Devin White
WR Antonio Brown LB Lavonte David
TE Rob Gronkowski OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
LT Donovan Smith CB Carlton Davis
LG Ali Marpet CB Jamel Dean
C Ryan Jensen CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
RG Alex Cappa S Antoine Winfield Jr.
RT Tristan Wirfs S Jordan Whitehead
  • Yes, all 22 starters are back from the team that won it all in 2020, so this exercise was rather easy. No, that's never happened for a Super Bowl champion before in the salary cap era. I can't remember it happening with any team in all the years I've written this series.
  • The biggest offseason competitions will be at positions where a rotation is expected. Leonard Fournette dominated running back snaps in the playoffs, so I give him an edge over Ronald Jones. Gio Bernard should also get some run as a third-down option.
  • The Bucs are similarly deep at receiver and tight end. Rob Gronkowski was third among all NFL tight ends in snaps last season (including the playoffs). It's possible that former first-round pick O.J. Howard, returning from injury, plays more than him. Cameron Brate is an overqualified TE3.
  • The receiver position is even deeper. Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson proved worthy of bigger roles last season, but they could get boxed out for snaps if Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown all stay healthy.
  • Injury luck was a factor in Tampa's success, especially on the offensive line. The Bucs finished first in adjusted games lost per Football Outsiders -- the metric measures how many games were missed by starting players. (That is, the Bucs were least impacted by injuries.) A few injuries up front offensively would probably be the most threatening obstacle in terms of slowing this team. The secondary is another group vulnerable to depth issues.
  • It's been nearly impossible to run on the Bucs the last two years, and that doesn't figure to change. Beyond the beefy men listed above, reserves Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon make sure Todd Bowles' group is always big and beautiful. The Bucs were able to essentially save Ndamukong Suh's body for the playoffs, and it looks like they can take the same approach again.
  • A year ago at this time, the biggest question about the Bucs' defense was whether the young secondary could build off its strong end to 2019. The answer was a resounding yes, and I'm a believer that Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Antoine Winfield Jr. are all legit talents rather than scheme creations.
  • The 2021 Bucs will be a great test of how much continuity matters and how a championship impacts a roster. There's no logical reason this team shouldn't win 12 games -- but the NFL season isn't always about logic.

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