ATLANTA (CBS46) -- As the Atlanta Falcons turn their attention to the Seattle Seahawks, the team faces big hurdles trying to capture the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the pesky New Orleans Saints.
The race for the NFC South will, barring any major injury, undoubtedly go through Tampa this season. The Bucs signed future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to a two-year contract in the offseason. But adding Brady has been just part of the offensive overhaul the team put together this offseason.
At running back, the Bucs added a workhorse running back in Leonard Fournette at the end of last week after he was surprisingly released by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s a threat for 1,000 rushing yards every season and will benefit greatly from Brady’s ability to control the defense through the passing game. Fournette will also have veteran LeSean McCoy and Ronald Jones II to help give him a rest when needed.
Moving to the tight end position, the Bucs will roll out Rob Gronkowski, one of Brady’s favorite targets after he took a year off from football. If healthy, Gronk can form a powerful duo with rising star O.J. Howard at the tight end position giving Brady two, tough tight ends at his disposal. And the hits keep coming when you move outside to the wide receiver position.
Veteran Mike Evans is a huge target on the outside who has made quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston look like stars at times. Giving him the best quarterback in NFL history is a recipe for danger for opposing cornerbacks. The Bucs will also roll out Chris Godwin on the outside, who has developed into a solid number two option on the outside.
One thing to remember about the receivers and tight ends mentioned, except for Godwin, they are all over 6’5” tall. The Bucs may be able to exploit the size difference on the outside where fast, but typically shorter corners are the norm.
If there is one question mark on the Bucs’ offense, it’s on the offensive line. The Bucs will start Donovan Smith and rookie Tristan Wirfs at tackle. Smith has been solid, but not spectacular while Wirfs plays in his first game this week. Brady will help the offensive line with his quick release, but the Bucs’ line will have to keep him upright as defenses that have put pressure on Brady have been able to win against him, see the New York Giants’ two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots.
While the Bucs have gone all in on the offensive side, the New Orleans Saints have a balanced roster as they try to squeeze out another Super Bowl run out of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints’ defense includes three cornerbacks who have started at one point in their NFL career in Janoris Jenkins, Marshon Lattimore, and P.J. Williams. They back up one of the strongest positions on the Saints’ defense along the defensive line. The Saints have All-Pro Cameron Jordan and developing star Marcus Davenport on the outside along with Malcolm Brown, Sheldon Rankins, and David Onymata on the inside of the line.
The Saints’ starting tackles of Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are arguably the best in the NFC South and help keep Drew Brees safe from the pass rush. The Saints’ interior line is a little shakier but has done a good job of keeping Brees upright and opening holes for star running back Alvin Kamara.
Beside Kamara, the Saints also have a superstar receiver in Michael Thomas, who led the league in receptions last season. Still, the Rams could use another receiver to step up to give Thomas some help. Plus, the team still relies on aging Jared Cook at tight end, but if he keeps producing; he’ll stay in the starting lineup. The Saints also have a useful weapon in jack-of-all trades quarterback Taysom Hill. Other teams have tried to reproduce what New Orleans has in the quarterback/running back/receiver, but none have had the success New Orleans has thus far with Hill.
Which brings us to the Falcons, hoping to replicate the second half of the 2019 season for the entire 2020 season. The Falcons have the most talented wide receiver corps in the NFC with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, along with a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Ryan. But they have questions on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Plus, a big mystery at running back with Todd Gurley hoping to recapture his best days in Los Angeles after his production fell off last season and he was released.
The Falcons’ defense has incredible potential at the safety position, if Keanu Neal can spend more time on the field than on injured reserve this season. The team will need all that potential as they trot out a rookie cornerback in A.J. Terrell and developing Isaiah Oliver to face Brady, Brees, and Teddy Bridgewater.
What could really help those defensive backs out would be a solid pass rush. The Falcons have struggled with getting a pass rush past superstar defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. At defensive end, the unit is full of reported potential as Dante Fowler, Jr., Charles Harris, and Takkarist McKinley.
Fowler rejuvenated his career in Los Angeles with 11.5 sacks last season. He also played beside the best defensive tackle in football in Aaron Donald, but Jarrett is no slouch either. Harris was a first-round pick out of Missouri but could never replicate his solid college numbers in Miami. He’s posted 3.5 sacks for his career. McKinley had 18 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, but Atlanta needs a lot more than that to take the next step against Brady and Brees.
The interior defensive line presents an opportunity for the Falcons with Jarrett likely teaming with rookie Marlon Davidson. The 6’3”, 303-pound Davidson had 90 solo tackles from the defensive tackle position along with 17 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss as an Auburn Tiger. Last season alone he registered 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He also can kick outside in certain formations giving the Falcons a larger defensive line.
While the Bucs are the heavy favorites with Brady and company, the Saints and Falcons will make a lot of noise this season as both vie for a playoff spot.