Who’s the best team in the NFC South?

Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons

2011 New Orleans Saints New Orleans Saints 30 - Carolina Panthers 27 (W) Saints Record Now 4-1 All Images Copyright Michael C. Hebert

(Drew Brees photo courtesy of New Orleans Saints)
(Matt Ryan photo courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)

Talk of Fame Network

The Carolina Panthers won the 2015 NFC championship and enter the 2016 season as the team to beat in the NFC South.

And why not? The Panthers have won the division each of the last three years. Only AFC powers Denver and New England have longer streaks of divisional dominance.

But this is a pretty salty division. The Buccaneers and Saints have both done something since 2000 that the Panthers have not — win a Super Bowl — and the Falcons have twice been the NFC’s top seed since 2010. The Falcons also were the only team to defeat Carolina in 2015 on the way to its franchise-best 15-1 finish.

So who will be the best team in the NFC South this season? Here are your candidates:

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons had a young franchise quarterback in place in 2012 in Matt Ryan and looked every bit a Super Bowl contender when they hosted the NFC title game. But Ryan hasn’t played like a franchise quarterback since, and the Falcons have not played like a Super Bowl contender. His touchdowns have gone down from the 2012 season, and his interceptions have gone up. The Falcons themselves have plodded along with an 18-22 record over those last three years without any playoff finishes. So the Falcons have done some retooling, adding center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in free agency for the offense and using three of their first four draft picks on defense – safety Keanu Neal in the first and linebackers Deion Jones in the second and De’Vondre Campbell in the third.

Carolina Panthers: Quarterback play and defense won the Panthers that NFC championship last fall. Cam Newton was the NFL MVP, and the defense led the league in takeaways and the conference in sacks. But  a key element of that defensive success, Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, left in free agency for the Washington Redskins. And Jared Allen, a late season addition to the pass rush, has retired. So the Panthers have had to do some re-stocking on defense. They selected tackle Vernon Butler in the first round and then grabbed cornerbacks with three of their next four selections – James Bradberry in the second, Daryl Worley in the third and Zack Sanchez in the fifth. The offense gets a boost with the return of Newton’s best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the 2016 season with a training camp knee injury.

New Orleans Saints: With a healthy Drew Brees, the Saints have the best offense in the division. They have become younger and faster in 2016. New Orleans said good-bye to Marques Colston, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, and hope to replace him with speedy Michael Thomas, a second-round draft pick out of Ohio State. They also pilfered deluxe pass-catching tight end Coby Fleener from the Colts in free agency. But the real offseason work needed to be done on defense, where the Saints ranked 31st across the board a year ago – rush, pass and total defense. They also allowed a league-high 476 points. Like everyone else in the division, the Saints drafted heavily on defense, spending three of their first four picks there: Pass rushers Sheldon Rankins in the first round and David Onyemata in the fourth and safety Vonn Bell in the third and.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Having locked their franchise quarterback in place a year ago with the selection of Jameis Winston with the first overall pick, the Bucs went to work this offseason upgrading their Top 10 defense. Defense won Tampa Bay its only Super Bowl, and GM Jason Licht hopes to make it dominant once again. The Bucs used three of their first four draft picks on defense, selecting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the first round, pass rusher Noah Spence in the second and cornerback Ryan Smith in the fourth. They also drafted kicker Robert Aguayo in the third round to fix a bumbling special teams unit that missed 11 field-goal tries a year ago. The offense is emerging with Winston, NFL rushing runner-up Doug Martin and explosive Mike Evans on the flank.

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 13: Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 13, 2015, in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers lost 24-17. (photo by Mike Carlson/Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

(Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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