NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Record (10-6)

Key Offseason Additions: TE Logan Paulsen, G Brandon Fusco, DT Terrell McClain

Key Offseason Losses: WR Taylor Gabriel, WR Andre Roberts, TE Levine Toilolo, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw, NT Dontari Poe, NT Ahtyba Rubin, OLB Kemal Ishmael

Despite going 10-6, the Falcons' 2017 season was a big letdown after being one quarter away from winning the Super Bowl in 2016. Expectations were huge heading into 2017, but the offense just wasn’t the same after offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for the head coaching job in San Francisco. Steve Sarkisian replaced Shanahan and wasn’t nearly as effective — Atlanta’s points per game went from 34.1 in 2016 to 21.6 in 2017.

Matt Ryan’s numbers regressed after an MVP season in 2016. Ryan’s yards and touchdowns both decreased while his interceptions increased. The good news for Ryan is that he gets most of his weapons back in 2018 and if everyone is more comfortable with Sarkisian’s system in his second year, Atlanta could be back to their 2016 form.

Atlanta also added some talent at receiver to pair with Julio Jones — Calvin Ridley was selected 26th-overall in the 2018 draft and those two, along with Mohamed Sanu, should make for a great receiving corps. Both running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, are back and should be productive again in 2018 with an offensive line that returns all five starters. 

While the offense regressed in 2017, the Atlanta defense improved its play, giving up just 19.1 points per game — down from 25.3 in 2016.

Atlanta played three rookies during its Super Bowl run, and they were big reasons for the improvements on defense in 2017. Safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell played key roles on that 2016 team. All three took huge steps forward in 2017 and should be even better in their third years. 

Vic Beasley had a great 2016, collecting 15.5 sacks while playing defensive end. In 2017, Beasley moved to linebacker and his sack total decreased to just five. He will be moving back to defensive end in 2018 and will once again be leading the defensive front.

Carolina Panthers: 2017 Record (11-5)

Key Offseason Additions: RB C.J. Anderson, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jarius Wright, T Jeremiah Sirles, NT Dontari Poe, CB Ross Cockrell, S Da'Norris Searcy

Key Offseason Losses: QB Derek Anderson, RB Jonathan Stewart, WR Brenton Bersin, WR Charles Johnson, WR Russell Shepard, TE Ed Dickson, G Andrew Norwell, DE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, CB Daryl Worley, CB Zack Sanchez, S Kurt Coleman, S Jairus Byrd

Cam Newton struggled throwing the ball in 2017, completing less than 60 percent of his passes for the fourth straight season, and threw the most interceptions since his rookie year. Despite his accuracy issues, Newton is still an elite quarterback because of his mobility and play-making abilities.To keep Newton healthy, Carolina had him run the ball less in 2016 (90 rushes) when they went 6-8 in Newton’s 14 games. That number increased to a career high of 139 in 2017, so look for Newton to run a lot again in 2018.

Newton asked for better weapons this offseason, so the team signed veteran wide receiver Torrey Smith and drafted wide receiver D.J. Moore in the first round. The other wide outs on the team are Devin Funchess, who caught 63 passes for 840 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, and 2017 second rounder Curtis Samuel. Veteran tight end Greg Olsen will once again be one of Newton’s main targets and is hoping for a bounce back year after an injury plagued 2017.

2016 eighth-overall pick Christian McCaffrey may get a bigger workload this season after splitting time with Jonathan Stewart in 2017. McCaffrey was very effective in his rookie season, mostly catching the ball out of the backfield. McCaffery caught 80 passes for 651 yards but will need to improve on his 3.7 yards per carry if he wants to be an every-down back. Veteran back C.J. Anderson was brought in as insurance.

The Carolina defense still hasn’t found a replacement for cornerback Josh Norman, who left after the 2015 season, and the entire secondary has struggled ever since. James Bradberry has been inconsistent in his two seasons. Carolina signed Ross Cockrell to play on the opposite side of Bradberry but will miss the season after fracturing his tibia in training camp. 

The Panther’s front seven is much stronger than the secondary. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will be the leaders there, while nose tackle Dontari Poe and Kawann Short, who registered 7.5 sacks at defensive tackle, will head the defensive line.

New Orleans Saints: 2017 Record (11-5)

Key Offseason Additions: QB Tom Savage, WR Cameron Meredith, TE Ben Watson, G Jermon Bushrod, DT Jay Bromley, ILB Demario Davis, CB Patrick Robinson, S Kurt Coleman

Key Offseason Losses: FB Zach Line, TE Coby Fleener, OT Zach Strief, G Andrew Tiller, G Senio Kelemete, DT Nick Fairley, ILB Gerald Hodges, CB Delvin Breaux, S Kenny Vaccaro, S Rafael Bush

Drew Brees’ numbers were slightly down last season, but that could be contributed to a better running game in 2017. The Saints may have the best running back duo in the NFL in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Despite not playing every down, Ingram was able to rush for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards, while Kamara rushed for 728 yards on only 120 carries. Both are effective in the passing game as well, especially Kamara. He caught 81 passes for over 800 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie season, while Ingram caught 58 balls for 416 yards. Ingram will serve a four game suspension to begin the season, so Kamara will get a larger workload to begin the year.

Ingram and Kamara should be able to repeat their 2017 seasons thanks to an offensive line that returns tackles Terron Armstead and 2017 first-round pick, Ryan Ramczyk. 

At receiver, the Saints will have Michael Thomas, who has 196 receptions for 2,382 yards in his two seasons, and Cameron Meredith. Meredith looked poised for a big 2017 season until tearing his ACL in the preseason. He is said to be 100 percent to begin the year.

The New Orleans defense was its biggest weakness until the 2017 season. Huge improvements were made, specifically in the secondary. 2017 first-round pick Marshon Lattimore emerged as one of the best defensive backs in the league in his rookie season. Lattimore picked off five passes and went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Another second-year player, safety Marcus Williams, had a solid rookie year and was a big reason for the improved secondary.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Record (5-11)

Key Offseason Additions: C Ryan Jensen, DE Vinny Curry, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DT Beau Allen, K Chandler Catanzaro

Key Offseason Losses: RB Doug Martin, RB Charles Sims, DE Robert Ayers, DT Chris Baker, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Robert McClain

Quarterback Jameis Winston took a big step back in 2017 as both his yards and touchdowns decreased. Winston hasn’t been fully focused at times. If he wants to bounce back, that will have to improve, which will have to wait until week four because he will serve a three game suspension.

Winston wasn’t the only Buccaneer to regress last season — Mike Evans didn’t have his typical season. The wide receiver’s reception total went from 96 in 2016 to just 71 in •2017. Evans also caught just five touchdowns in 2017 after catching 12 the previous year.  

A couple of younger players who have a chance to break out for the Bucs’ offense in 2018 is 2017 first and third-round picks O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. Howard showed flashes of his potential last year, catching six touchdowns, including two in the final two games.

Tampa Bay used its second-round pick in this year’s draft on running back Ronald Jones. He is competing with Peyton Barber for the starting job but should eventually be the man at some point in 2018.

The Tampa Bay defense got several upgrades on the defensive line that finished last in the NFL in sacks. Defensive ends Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul were both signed in free agency and will join former All-Pro defensive tackle and first-round pick Vita Vea.

AFC South

Houston Texans: 2017 Record •(4-12)

Key Offseason Additions: QB Joe Webb, OT Seantrel Henderson, G Zach Fulton, G Senio Kelemete, CB Aaron Colvin, S Tyrann Mathieu, S Johnson Bademosi

Key Offseason Losses: QB Tom Savage, OT Chris Clark, OT Derek Newton, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, ILB Brian Cushing, CB Marcus Williams, S Marcus Gilchrist, S Eddie Pleasant

Deshaun Watson got off to a fast start his rookie year, throwing 19 touchdown passes in his first six games. Houston was 3-3 in those games, but that would be all Watson would play as he tore his ACL in practice following week six and would miss the rest of the season. Houston would go on to win just one more game the rest of the season with Tom Savage and •T.J. Yates at quarterback. The good news is that Watson is back and will be ready to start in week one against New England.

Watson created a great rapport with wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller through the first six weeks. In the six games Watson played, Hopkins caught seven touchdowns for 606 yards. He would still go on to have a huge season, catching 13 touchdowns for 1,378 yards and was named First-Team All Pro, but who knows what his numbers would have looked like with Watson at quarterback for a full 16 games. Fuller, meanwhile, played just four games with Watson and in those four games, the deep threat caught seven touchdowns and averaged 23.3 yards per reception. Fuller wasn’t the same after Watson went down. He would go on to catch just 14 passes and zero touchdowns in six games before getting hurt in week 11 and missing the rest of the year.

J.J. Watt is another big-name that got injured and missed most of the season. The four-time All-Pro defensive end went down with a knee injury in week five and wouldn’t play again in 2017. Watt says he’s 100 percent healthy for the first time in awhile, which is great news for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. 

Linebacker Whitney Mercilus also got injured in that week five game and missed the rest of the year. Mercilus recorded 19.5 sacks in 2015-2016 and will be back and healthy in 2018. That should form one of the best pass-rushes in the league with Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, who finally emerged as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL in 2017.

Houston made a couple of upgrades to the secondary, which struggled in 2017. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin were both signed in the offseason and should improve the secondary, especially with Watt and Mercilus back putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Indianapolis Colts: 2017 Record (4-12)

Key Offseason Additions: WR Ryan Grant, OT Austin Howard, G Matt Slauson, DE Denico Autry, OLB Najee Goode, CB Kenneth Acker

Key Offseason Losses: RB Frank Gore, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Kamar Aiken, NT Johnathan Hankins, DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo, ILB Jon Bostic, CB Rashaan Melvin, S Darius Butler

One of the biggest question marks in the league heading into this season is whether quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy or not. This was also the question going into last season and Luck would end up missing the entire year. But, unlike last year at this time, Luck is playing in the preseason and looks like he’ll be ready to go in week one.

The Colts struggled to protect Luck in prior seasons — 156 sacks in five seasons — so the team upgraded the offensive line. Indianapolis used the sixth-overall pick on guard Quenton Nelson, who many regarded as one of the top guard prospects in years, and tackle Austin Howard, who will start on the opposite side of one of the better left tackles in football, Anthony Castonzo. 

Besides T.Y. Hilton, Luck’s supporting cast is pretty pedestrian. Former first-round pick Eric Ebron comes over after four disappointing years in Detroit. Ebron is a great athlete for a tight end, so a change of scenery could be the best for him. Luck’s other targets will be free agent signee Ryan Grant and tight end Jack Doyle.

Running back is the big question mark on offense. Second year back Marlon Mack figures to be the starter to begin the year after averaging 3.8 yards a carry behind a bad offensive line. Indianapolis picked up two running backs in the draft in fourth and fifth rounders Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, who both will be in the mix.

The Colts defense was bad last year and looks like it will be bad once again in 2018, especially the pass defense. The team lost its one competent defensive back in Rashaan Melvin, who left for Oakland, and will have all unproven players at the position in 2018. 

One positive for the Colts defense last season was the play of rookie safety Malik Hooker. The bad news is he tore his ACL and MCL in October and missed the last nine games, but he should be ready for week one in 2018.

It doesn’t help your pass defense when the defensive front can’t get much pressure on the quarterback, and that could be the issue for the Colts this year. Its best pass rusher, Jabaal Sheard, recorded just 5.5 sacks in 2017. The other starter at defensive end is a question right now, with Kemoko Turay, former Ohio University player Tarell Basham and Denico Autry all in the mix.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 Record (10-6)

Key Offseason Additions: QB Cody Kessler, WR Donte Moncrief, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE Niles Paul, G Andrew Norwell, CB D.J. Hayden, S Cody Davis, S Don Carey

Key Offseason Losses: QB Chad Henne, RB Chris Ivory, WR Allen Robinson, WR Allen Hurns, TE Marcedes Lewis, G Patrick Omameh, LB Paul Posluszny, CB Aaron Colvin, P Brad Nortman

Jacksonville was able to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007 behind one of the best defenses in the league as well as a strong rushing attack. 

Blake Bortles had a career high completion percentage (60.2) in 2017 but still struggled against a rather weak schedule. The good news is he looked better in the playoffs, besides the Buffalo game, and almost led the Jaguars past Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

Leonard Fournette got off to a great start in his rookie campaign before fading down the stretch a little bit but would finish the season with 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. Fournette could be even better this year with an improved offensive line. Jacksonville signed guard Andrew Norwell to a long-term deal to join center Brandon Linder, right tackle Jermey Parnell and left tackle Cam Robinson, who should improve in his second year.

Jacksonville lost receivers Allen Robinson this offseason but survived last season without him after his injury in week one. The team will again have to survive the season without an injured receiver, as Marqise Lee will miss the season after suffering a knee injury in the team’s third preseason game. They will now rely on second-year wideouts Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, who both had productive rookie seasons, and newly signed Donte Moncrief.

The defense will once again carry this Jaguars team because of one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts. Defensive end Calais Campbell was dominant in his first year in Jacksonville — 14.5 sacks — and he is joined by other great players in Malik Jackson (8 sacks in 2017), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who is a great run-stopper, and 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan.

The Jaguars employ a good linebacker group as well. Yannick Ngakoue had a great sophomore campaign, collecting 12 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl. He’s joined by Dante Fowler, who had eight sacks in 2017.

The defensive front takes a lot of pressure off the secondary, which was one of the best in the league last year. It all starts with Jalen Ramsey, who has become one of the best defensive backs in football. Teams often avoid throwing his way but he has a another very good corner on the other side of him in A.J. Bouye and two solid safeties: Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church.

Tennessee Titans: 2017 Record (9-7)

Key Offseason Additions: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Dion Lewis, WR Michael Campanaro, OT Kevin Pamphile, DT Bennie Logan, ILB Will Compton, CB Malcolm Butler.

Key Offseason Losses: RB DeMarco Murray, WR Eric Decker, C Brian Schwenke, DT Karl Klug, DT Sylvester Williams, ILB Avery Williamson, CB Brice McCain, S Da'Norris Searcy.

After a decent 2016 season, Marcus Mariota took a big step backward in 2017. Mariota threw more interceptions than touchdowns but looks to rebound in 2018 with a new coaching staff that should use Mariota’s strengths more often. Mariota is better when he’s able to run and the new staff has implied that the team will use more RPOs, which will give Mariota the option to run or pass.

Tennessee signed dynamic running back Dion Lewis this offseason and he should be a nice complement to Derrick Henry and will give Mariota another weapon out of the backfield. 

2016 fifth-overall pick Corey Davis had his best game in the team’s final playoff game, catching two touchdowns. The team is hoping that performance carries into the 2018 season. Davis played with a shoulder injury all of last season and had a disappointing regular season but will be a big part of the Tennessee offense in 2018. Mariota’s other main targets will be Rishard Matthews, who has been solid in his two seasons in Tennessee with 1,740 yards and 13 touchdowns, and tight end Delanie Walker, who has been one of the most reliable tight ends in football the past four seasons.

Tennessee made a splash in free agency this offseason, signing cornerback Malcolm Butler, and he will join an already good group of corners in Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard.

@CWickham2

cw687616@ohio.edu 

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