NFC South prediction: Tom Brady gives the Buccaneers a shot to unseat the frontrunner Saints with Drew Brees

One player coming to Tampa Bay — that’s what it took to shake up the landscape of the NFC South and quite frankly, the entire NFL. 

On Tuesday morning, Patriots icon and arguably the greatest quarterback in league history, Tom Brady, decided to depart New England for the first time in his career. By Tuesday evening, Brady agreed to join Bruce Arians, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, and a top-five defense in Tampa Bay. With that, Tom Brady is a Buccaneer, which is just about the weirdest thing I’ve ever had to type during my five-plus years as an NFL writer — and I’ve written about a lot of weird stuff

The Buccaneers adding Brady wasn’t even the only major quarterback shakeup the NFC South saw on Tuesday. Before Brady joined the Buccaneers, Teddy Bridgewater agreed to become the new starting quarterback of the Panthers, which all but ended the Cam Newton era in Carolina. The Panthers will seek a trade partner for their longtime quarterback, but it sure sounds like they’ll release him if no suitable offers for an oft-injured quarterback emerge. It’s the end of an era that included three division crowns, four playoff berths, and one Super Bowl run.

While the Buccaneers and Panthers changed directions at quarterback, two constants in the division remain: Matt Ryan is still with the Falcons. And after agreeing to a new two-year deal, Drew Brees is back with the Saints, as expected all along.

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With all that in mind, it’s time to take stock of the new-look NFC South by making way-too-early predictions for how the division will play out during the upcoming season (assuming there is, in fact, a season). Things will surely change between now and September. The Buccaneers might not be done adding talent — the same goes for the Saints. Both teams are operating with all-time great quarterbacks over the age of 40, so it makes complete and total sense for them to go all-in right now. 

To no one’s surprise, those two teams are ranked atop this list.

4. Carolina Panthers 

But first, let’s begin in Carolina. Bridgewater is in. Newton is out. But it might not matter. The team around the quarterback just isn’t very good.

The Panthers appear to be the worst team in the division. They’re coming off a five-win season that saw them get outscored by 130 points along the way. Only the Dolphins finished below them in DVOA. They made a nonsensical trade with the Chargers, giving away 26-year-old guard Trai Turner for 31-year-old offensive tackle Russell Okung, who doesn’t have a long-term future with a team in rebuilding mode. On Wednesday, they moved on from safety Eric Reid. Earlier this offseason, they lost their best defensive player, inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, to a surprise retirement.

Bridgewater was a nice signing. He’s a 27-year-old, former first-round pick who has the potential to morph into their long-term solution at the position at a relatively cheap cost. At the very least, he’ll be a bridge to whichever quarterback comes next. But Bridgewater is joining a bad football team after spending the past couple years on a stacked Saints team. While Bridgewater has demonstrated the ability to be a good quarterback in the right situation, he hasn’t been asked to elevate a terrible team to a playoff-caliber team. He might struggle to do so in Carolina — and no one should blame him if that’s what happens. This team needs to improve in a lot of areas. Bridgewater alone can’t be expected to be the solution.

As of mid-March, the Panthers are the worst team in the NFC South. And it should remain that way. They’re only just now beginning a reset.

3. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are hoping the second half of the 2019 season is indicative of what’s to come in 2020. After starting 1-7, the Falcons ripped off six wins in the second half of the season, buying Dan Quinn at least one more chance in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the division around them has only gotten stronger in recent days and the Falcons haven’t made enough upgrades.

They lost tight end Austin Hooper, who was good for 658 yards and four touchdowns per season since 2017. While they did manage to replace Hooper by engineering a trade with the Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst, they were forced to give up a second-round pick for a tight end who has accumulated only 512 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons. There’s no doubt that Hurst, a former first-round pick, has potential to develop into something more, but until he proves he’s more than just potential, he represents a downgrade from Hooper. 

The Falcons also lost pass rusher Vic Beasley to the Titans and failed to land Robert Quinn, who chose to sign with the Bears instead, per ESPN’s Ed Werder, but they did at least go out and get Dante Fowler on Wednesday, which will offset the loss of Beasley. 

Finally, the Falcons also parted ways with cornerback Desmond Trufant and running back Devonta Freeman, and they haven’t signed anyone of note to replace them. There’s still time to upgrade their roster, but as of March 18, the Falcons have gotten worse while the division around them has gotten stronger. 

Still, the Falcons slot in above the Panthers because they still have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Their offense still has a shot to be pretty good in 2020. The key will be the defense, which made the leap from 31st to 20th by DVOA last season. A similar-sized leap during the upcoming season could have the Falcons fighting for a playoff spot. But that will be difficult to do barring an influx of talent late in free agency or during the draft.

The Falcons should still be competitive. Ryan and Jones pretty much gives them a shot in most games. If the Buccaneers hadn’t added Tom Brady, they might’ve had a chance to be the second-best team in the division.

But the Buccaneers did add Tom Brady.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Brady’s arrival makes the Buccaneers the team best poised to chase down the Saints in the NFC South — a division that’s belonged to New Orleans for three straight seasons. The Buccaneers haven’t captured the division crown since 2007, when Jon Gruden was still their coach, Jeff Garcia was their quarterback, and Brady was leading the Patriots to a 16-0 record. But Brady gives them a chance.

It might’ve been a mistake for Brady to leave New England, but at least he picked a great alternative. Bruce Arians isn’t Bill Belichick, but he’s one of the league’s better coaches with a specialization in quarterbacks and offenses. Brady is going from having Julian Edelman and a bunch of nobodies to having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin (who combined for 2,490 yards and 17 touchdowns last year) at receiver and O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end. 

The only concerns offensively are the offensive line, which ranked 22nd in pass protection (per Football Outsiders) and 17th in pass block win rate (per ESPN), and Arians’ offense, which often requires quarterbacks to drop deep and throw long. But it’s not like Brady isn’t used to a bad offensive line — the Patriots ranked 18th in pass block win last year and Brady still managed to play like an average quarterback on a team lacking weapons. The Buccaneers’ offensive line might not be great, but at least Brady won’t lack firepower around him. And Arians isn’t an idiot. He knows he’s working with a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback. He’s likely to make necessary modifications to his offense. 

This part flies under the radar, but it’s one of the biggest reasons why I think the Buccaneers are a playoff-caliber team and will present a challenge to the Saints with Brady: Their defense already made the leap from 32nd to fifth in DVOA in just one season under Todd Bowles. This was a good defense. Don’t pay attention to how many points they gave up (28.1, the fourth-most in football). This was a team hamstrung with a quarterback in Jameis Winston who threw 30 interceptions, seven of which were pick-sixes. 

Despite all of those turnovers, the Buccaneers won seven games and emerged with a positive point differential (plus-nine). Add Brady — a quarterback who hasn’t thrown 30 interceptions over the past four season combined — to that team and they should improve by a few wins. 

That’s why the Buccaneers are playoff caliber. But they’re still trailing the reigning division champs.

1. New Orleans Saints

By re-signing Brees, the Saints remain the division’s best team. Brady makes the Buccaneers substantially better, but there’s still a six-win gap between the 7-9 Buccaneers and the 13-3 Saints. That might be too big of a gap for Brady to bridge.

The Saints still have the best quarterback in the division (Brady is better historically, but Brees is better right now). Michael Thomas is still the best receiver in the division (maybe the entire NFL, too). Jared Cook is more productive than both of the Buccaneers’ tight ends. The offensive line remains intact. And the 11th-ranked defense by DVOA just added safety Malcolm Jenkins on Wednesday. Arians is a great coach, but the Saints have Sean Payton.

There’s no doubt that the Saints now have serious competition in Brady’s Buccaneers. But there’s no reason to think the Saints are suddenly the second-best team in the division. They’ve won the division the past three years for a reason. They’ve won 13 games in each of the past two seasons. They haven’t lost any serious pieces. 

Barring another injury to Brees, the Saints remain the frontrunner. It just might be a little more challenging to defend their crown this year. If one team does overtake them, it should be the Buccaneers. But until that day comes, keep your faith in the Saints.

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