2016 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC South’s offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2016 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense

Quarterback

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

At the division’s deepest position, Cam Newton gives the Panthers the edge. Although his career isn’t as decorated as New Orleans Saints signal-caller Drew Brees, Newton has been the driving force behind Carolina’s divisional three-peat. After setting career highs in touchdowns (35), passer rating (99.4) and quarterback rating (66.09) in 2015, the reigning MVP has established himself as one of the league’s best players. His passing ability combined with his supreme athleticism makes it difficult for defenders to counter him. Going for the unheralded fourth-consecutive NFC South crown, the former number one overall pick is only improving.

Despite his continued brilliance statistically, Drew Brees hasn’t led the Saints to the postseason in two straight seasons. Granted, much of that has to do with an underperforming defense, team success falls on the quarterback more often than not. Because of this reality, he is forced to play mistake-free football from week to week. If Brees can get adequate defensive assistance, he can potentially reclaim his spot as the division’s top player.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has enjoyed a steady NFL career, but his resume hasn’t translated into top-tier status. Despite two number-one playoff seeds and an NFC Championship appearance, the Falcons haven’t made the postseason since 2012. Alike Brees’ situation, Ryan hasn’t had a formidable defense as of late, but that doesn’t completely excuse him from his declined numbers from a year ago, especially with Pro Bowlers Julio Jonesand Devonta Freeman on the roster. If Ryan can return to his three-time Pro Bowl form, the Falcons will be in much better shape division wise.

Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston had a respectable rookie campaign, passing for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions. He definitely benefited from the presence of wideout Mike Evans, and with Vincent Jackson returning healthy for 2016, he’ll have two big targets at his disposal. Winston is the NFC South’s lowest-ranked signal-caller due to his lack of experience and expertise, but he definitely has an auspicious future ahead of him.

Running Back

The Best: New Orleans Saints

The Rest: Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons

Since each starting running back in the South earned Pro Bowl selections in the last two seasons, organizing this position was interesting. Because of their overall backfield, the Saints eked out on top. Although Mark Ingram’s 2015 numbers dipped from his 2014 Pro Bowl run, he still managed to rush for 769 yards and six scores. A healthy C.J. Spiller gives New Orleans another dynamic asset in both the run and pass game. Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet are capable runners while Marcus Murphy is productive on Special Teams.

Jonathan Stewart’s 989 yards and six touchdowns on 242 attempts in 2015 were the most he accumulated in those categories since 2009. Admirably fulfilling the backup role behind DeAngelo Williams early in his career, he’s remained a steady producer in the Carolina offense. Fullback Mike Tolbert has become one of the best at his position in recent years. When these two guys are on the sideline, Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne are talented rushers who can enter the game and contribute.

Plagued by injuries in 2013 and 2014, Doug Martin returned to his 2012 rookie form by reaching career highs in rushing yards (1,454) and rushing touchdowns (11). His regained health was–and will continue to be–critical in the development of Jameis Winston. Second-string rusher Charles Sims was pretty serviceable as well, tallying 529 yards on 107 carriers. Both averaging 4.9 yards per attempt a year ago, Tampa will always have its run game to fall back on.

Halfway through last season, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman was Last Word On Sports’ prime candidate for Offensive Player of the Year. His versatility between rushing (1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns) and receiving (73 catches for 578 yards and three scores) was integral in the Falcons offensive success for much of the season. Tevin Coleman provided another 392 yards on the ground. Although fullback Patrick DiMarco didn’t get the rushing touches, posting 13 receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns is a lot for a guy at his position.

Wide Receiver

The Best: New Orleans Saints

The Rest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons

Although the Saints don’t have a superstar at this position, they boast the most depth. The best of the bunch is third-year man Brandin Cooks, who posted 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns on 84 receptions in 2015. With his quickness, shiftiness and route-running ability, Cooks has the potential to become a 100-catch receiver. After spending his short NFL career on practice squads, Willie Snead surprised the Saints with 69 grabs for 984 yards and three scores last year. Brandon Coleman shows flashes of productivity, and rookie Michael Thomas already looks the part as an NFL wideout. With Drew Brees still under center, offense will continue to carry this franchise.

Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson give Tampa Bay this best perimeter duo in the division. Despite health setbacks, Jackson can still perform at a high level. Even though his touchdown amount dropped in his second season, Evans achieved career highs in both receptions (74) and receiving yards (1,206). With both players being 6’5’’, they are difficult covers for any defensive back. When both are injury-free, Doug Martin won’t have a loaded box, and Jameis Winston will have an easier time moving the football.

A perennial weakness since the departure of Steve Smith, the Panthers receiving corps will gain a tremendous boost with Kelvin Benjamin’s return. Cam Newton did pass for nearly 4,000 yards, but 1,104 came from Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. The second-highest pass-catcher was Ted Ginn, with only 44 grabs for 739 yards. Alike Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery can make occasional contributions, but he isn’t that big-time perimeter threat either. If Devin Funchess can make a huge leap forward in year two, Benjamin and Olsen won’t be asked to carry a heavy receiving load.

The Atlanta Falcons once featured one of the league’s vaunted wideout duos in Julio Jones and Roddy White. After advancing in age and fading out of the offense, White, the franchise’s greatest wide receiver, is no longer on the roster. Now debatably the game’s best on the outside, Jones will go out and perform week after week. The depth behind him, however, is rather questionable. The team did sign Mohamed Sanu in free agency, but this offense will need more from Justin Hardy and Nick WIlliams, who caught 21 and 17 catches, respectively, a year ago.

Tight End

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons

Greg Olsen is still the undisputed best tight end in the division. Surpassing 1,000 yards the last two seasons and tallying at least 70 receptions and six touchdowns three consecutive seasons, no starter at his position has done more for his team than Olsen. His production could potentially diminish with the rebound of Kelvin Benjamin and the emergence of Devin Funchess, but he will always come through when the Panthers need him.

He’s no Jimmy Graham, but Coby Fleener /b> is a capable replacement. After splitting reps with Dwayne Allen for the Indianapolis Colts since 2012, Fleener will be the main target for Drew Brees over the middle. Averaging 52 catches a year since 2013, it’s safe to say he can assist any offense. The question will be if he can bare a Graham-type burden for New Orleans in 2016 and beyond.

The number three tight end spot is a toss-up between Tampa Bay’s Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Jacob Tamme, but the Bucs pass-catcher gets the nod. Notwithstanding his injury issues so early in his career, the 23-year-old has tremendous upside as a professional player. With a depth chart promotion and the help of even more talented perimeter players, Sefarian-Jenkins can be a much-improved Buccaneer.

Although Jacob Tamme easily had better numbers than his Tampa Bay contemporary, his output may decline in 2016 with the addition of Mohamed Sanu to the passing game. Of course, he also has to compete with running back Devonta Freeman, who, as previously mentioned, reeled in 73 receptions last season.

Offensive Line

The Best: Atlanta Falcons

The Rest: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With an average grade of 80.9 by analytics site Pro Football Focus, the Falcons have the NFC South’s top offensive line. Four of the five lineman (Jake Matthews<, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack and Chris Chester) each had personal grades of at least 78. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder’s grade of 87.1 contributed to his spot of Last Word On Sports’ NFC South All-Division team.

Another glaring question mark for the team in recent seasons, the Panthers interior offensive bunch silently performed at an almost-elite level. Left guard Andrew Norwell (84.9), center Ryan Kalil (82.8) and Trai Turner (88.1) swept the division’s All-Division squad at those positions. Had Carolina gotten at least average play from its tackles–Michael Oher and Mike Remmers–their Super Bowl-winning chances against the Denver Broncos would’ve been much higher.

Once having arguably the NFL’s best offensive line, the New Orleans Saints front five is far from its peak form of 2009-2012. From departures of key cogs to the regression of health to the increasing of age, this unit has now become a huge concern for the franchise. The only bright spot is left tackle Terron Armstead, who graded out as a 90.8 in 2015. A quietly-budding star, he and veteran right tackle Zach Strief (81.5) will have to continue to produce highly in order to compensate for a lackluster interior.

Having an average grade of only 58.9, Tampa Bay clearly has the NFC South’s worst line. The two best guys in this core are right guard Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson, who finished with a 75.5 and an 80, respectively.

Check out the defense and special teams.