NFC South 2020 preview: One homegrown player still on a rookie contract who could be key for each team

The NFC South is poised to be as competitive as it’s been in quite some time in 2020. Drew Brees decided to kick retirement down the road at least one more year, continuing to make the New Orleans Saints a powerhouse in the conference and the Falcons are trying to recapture their magic from that 6-2 finish to end 2019, Meanwhile, both the Panthers and Bucs made waves in free agency. Carolina retooled with new head coach Matt Rhule and signed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, while Tampa Bay has leaped into Super Bowl conversations after signing Tom Brady in free agency. 

William Hill Sports Book currently has the Saints (+100) as the slight favorite over the Buccaneers (+140) to win the NFC South this season, while the Falcons (+600) and Panthers (+1400) are a distant third and fourth. For any of these teams to either live up to expectations or defy the odds and vault up to win the division, they’ll need to rely on young talent to help their veteran quarterbacks. 

For the purposes of our discussion here today, we’ll be highlighting a key homegrown talent for each club in the NFC South that is still on his rookie deal and is in position to be a major bargain for his team in 2020 with his elite play. 

And away we go. 

Panthers: Brian Burns, DE

Drafted: 2019 (Round 1, No. 16 overall), Florida State
Final year of rookie deal: 2023 (includes fifth-year option) 

While a lot of attention in Carolina is paid to Christian McCaffrey and the versatile play he brings to the Panthers backfield on a weekly basis, defensive end Brian Burns did put on an impressive showing during his rookie season in 2019.

In 16 games played (five starts), the first-rounder out of Florida State was third on the team in sacks (7.5) and his 16 quarterback hits were tied for the team lead. Specifically, Burns came out of the gate hot, totaling 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks through the first six games of the year. He hit a bit of a rookie wall midway through the season, but ultimately rounded off the year strong as Pro Football Focus gave him the third-highest pass-rushing grade by a rookie EDGE rusher, only looking up at Nick Bosa and Josh Allen. 

The Panthers hit the reset button this offseason and have shuffled a number of things around on defense, which likely will thrust Burns into a week-to-week starting spot in 2020. For Carolina, who will be particularly young on the defensive side of the ball, it will need Burns to be more consistent with his play in Year 2 to help the front seven be competitive and get after the quarterback. 

Buccaneers: Devin White, ILB

Drafted: 2019 (Round 1, No. 5 overall), LSU
Final year of rookie deal: 2023 (includes fifth-year option) 

Tampa Bay has enjoyed the glow-up of all glow-ups this offseason with that addition of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to make its offense a pretty lethal unit. But, for the Bucs to truly live up to the Super Bowl hype, they’ll need to continue to have strong play on the defensive side of the ball, where they ranked No. 5 in the league in defensive DVOA last year. That’s where second-year linebacker Devin White comes in. 

During his rookie season, White showed flashes of being worthy of the No. 5 overall pick at the 2019 draft. In 13 games played (all starts), he was second on the team in tackles (91) and totaled 2.5 sacks. White also forced three fumbles and recovered four, taking two to the house for touchdowns. As he steps into Year 2 on a loaded team that saw a lot of pieces along the front-seven return, White will need to continue to elevate his play for the Bucs to have a chance at dethroning the Saints in the division and going deep into the playoffs. If he’s able to take that next step, Tampa is getting a bargain, paying him just $675,000 in base salary and even his $6.75 million cap hit isn’t anything too steep. 

Falcons: Calvin Ridley, WR 

Drafted: 2018 (Round 1, No. 26 overall), Alabama
Final year of rookie deal: 2022 (includes fifth-year option) 

Ridley’s numbers in 2019 didn’t take a massive leap from his rookie campaign in 2018 but that was because the receiver suffered an abdominal injury in Week 14 and was ruled out for the rest of the season. Had he played the rest of the way, Ridley would have been looking at a noticeable jump in stats. Still, he was much more efficient in his second year in the league. His yards per reception were up by nearly an entire yard, his 66.6 receiving yards per game were up from 51.3 yards per game in 2018. His touchdown totals dipped from 10 in his rookie year to seven last season, but touchdowns are a rather fluky stat to focus on here. 

As Ridley heads into Year 3, he’s looked at as a legit breakout candidate. After all, the Falcons did lose tight end Austin Hooper in free agency this offseason, leaving 97 targets on the table. It’s possible that fellow tight end Hayden Hurst, who was acquired from the Ravens, takes a chunk of those, but Ridley will also be a player who is set to receive some more looks from Matt Ryan, setting the stage for a massive uptick in production. 

For the Falcons to contend (or simply be a tough out) in the division this season, they’ll need to put up points in bunches. Julio Jones will naturally be the focal point of any opposing secondary Atlanta faces in 2020, which will leave Ridley free to take advantage of softer coverage. If he’s able to do that, he’ll be in for a special season and set to make the Falcons a pretty tough out. 

Saints: Alvin Kamara, RB

Drafted: 2017 (Round 3, No. 67 overall), Tennessee
Final year of rookie deal: 2020

With no extension currently agreed upon, I was able to sneak Alvin Kamara on this list (FWIW: Marcus Davenport is the honorable mention here). Since selecting him in the third round back in 2017, New Orleans has enjoyed a massive bargain with Kamara in its backfield. He’s been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the league and averages nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage each year. For all that, the Saints are paying him around $3.8 million in total on his four-year rookie deal. 

Kamara is perfectly suited for Sean Payton’s offense, being able to do damage as a pure runner and a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He also seemingly has great chemistry with Drew Brees and has proven to be a reliable safety valve for him in the passing game. Kamara dealt with some injuries last year and saw a little dip in his production, specifically as a receiver, but was still able to total over 1,300 yards from scrimmage. For the Saints to keep up with the Buccaneers in the NFC South this season, Kamara will need to return to vintage form, adding another layer to this high-powered offense. 

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