OddsCritic evaluates the NFC South ahead of the new season, with Tom Brady expected to drive Tampa Bay far once again.
Of all the offseason NFL betting puzzles to solve in the National Football League, the NFC South might just be the easiest.
Three teams go into 2021 with huge question marks about their future, while one has very few. And it just happens to be the reigning Super Bowl champion.
What the ageless Tom Brady achieved in 2020 almost defies belief. Now 43, he moved to a new team - one with a penchant for losing - and turned it into the best in football. Oh, and he did so despite a COVID-ravaged offseason.
Brady will turn 44 before the 2021 season starts, and while that is a ludicrous age for anybody to be playing in the NFL (outside of kickers maybe), everything TB12 does is ludicrous.
There are no signs yet that his physical tools are significantly on the wane, and with a full offseason behind him the smart money is on him and the Tampa offense being even better in 2021.
Set that scenario against the backdrop of New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta, all of whom are either in rebuild mode or who have question marks at QB.
It may not qualify as the sexiest or most innovative argument ever, but it’s difficult to see past another Brady march deep into the post-season after claiming the NFC South title.
The New Orleans Saints claimed another NFC South title in 2020, but it felt like the last stand for this Saints team rather than just the latest achievement in a dominant era.
Quarterback Drew Brees led the Saints to another division win, but while the elite football brain was enough to still win a lot of games, it was clear he was not the passer of old. He decided to retire at the end of the season.
Meanwhile in Tampa Bay the arrival of Brady would pay off for the Glazer family with the most handsome of returns - a second Lombardi trophy for the often downtrodden franchise.
It took Brady (see above and that ravaged offseason) and his new team a little while to get going - they started 7-5. But then they went on an eight-game tear which ended with a comprehensive defeat of favoured Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.
There is simply nobody better in the post-season than Brady - no longer can anybody question whether he or Bill Belichick was the biggest reason for all those Super Bowl wins in New England.
Brady, backed up by an excellent defense, led the Bucs to playoff road wins in Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. Followed by that Super Bowl success against the Chiefs.
Those last three victories came against Brees, NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the most talented QB in the league in Patrick Mahomes. That mix of Brady and stout D was the ideal recipe.
While Brees and the Saints were again good in 2020, the writing was on the wall that the future Hall of Fame quarterback would not be around much longer.
In Carolina it was year one of the Matt Rhule era, and while there were promising signs that he is building a roster in the right way, there remains no clear future at quarterback.
Atlanta meanwhile, just three years out from that Super Bowl near miss vs the Pats, finished last despite having Matt Ryan still throwing to Julio Jones et al. But this is not the team of 2018 and a rebuild should soon be under way.
Tampa goes into 2021 as a heavy favourite to win the division in Brady’s second year, and right now it’s impossible to come up with an argument to discredit those odds.
In hindsight it seems unfathomable that there were not more teams in the Tom Brady sweepstakes when it became clear in early 2020 that he was leaving New England.
The benefactor from that apparent lack of interest was Tampa Bay, allowing a moribund franchise to inject a championship mentality via the sport’s biggest winner ever.
The cost of Brady’s contract ($50million over two years) also happens to be laughably low, allowing Tampa to surround #12 with a stellar supporting cast.
Everybody is back for 2021, and Brady should have an even better connection with his talented receiving corps.
Mike Evans is a beast while Chris Godwin still has to unleash his full potential. When the troubled Antonio Brown is your WR3, you are pretty deep at the position. Brady’s TE and BFF Rob Gronkowski is still around too - if a little long in the tooth now.
It isn’t just the offense which looks in great shape either - the Bucs will return all 22 starters from that win over Kansas City in February. The first team in the NFL’s salary-cap era to do so.
Tampa Bay was sixth in the league in total defense in 2020, and targeting even better returns in 2020. Tackle Ndamukong Suh set the tone after re-signing, with words which might terrify opponents.
“I think as a collective unit we can get a lot better. We didn’t finish as the number one defense, that needs to be our particular goal in totality.”
As well as retaining its Super Bowl roster, Tampa Bay added further defensive talent through the draft by spending its first pick on Washington linebacker Joe Tryon.
Third-round OT Robert Hainsey out of Notre Dame adds offensive line depth while North Texas WR Jaelon Darden gives Brady another potential weapon.
The house is again built for another Super Bowl run - the only question is whether anybody is good enough to blow it down.
Summary: Okay, Brady will be 44 by opening night, but this still counts as our division banker for 2021. That Super Bowl roster plus a full offseason for Brady = deal us in.
The over-under for Bucs wins in 2021 is 11.5, and we’re not put off at all by that. We expect another strong showing and a run deep into the post-season.
While it’s just a little off-topic here, we’ve seen some crazy (in our opinion) odds for Brady to be league MVP in 2021. They don’t sync at all with Tampa’s Super Bowl price, and are absolutely worth consideration.
It is Year 1 AD in New Orleans = After Drew.
Fifteen seasons of unprecedented success in N.O came in no small part via the right arm of Brees. He was a key figure in dragging the city back from the disaster of Katrina to the glory of that Super Bowl XLIV success.
Brees made the Pro Bowl 12 times during his time in New Orleans, and broke just about every passing record in the book.
His savvy and football brain were still off the charts in 2021, but his physical tools were not. He could no longer make some of the throws he could five years ago, and it was time to hang up his cleats.
Replacing an icon is never easy, and when you don’t appear to have a clear plan it’s even harder. We are not questioning the football genius of head coach Sean Payton, but we’d like a better script than the one currently evolving.
The Saints have two signal callers tabbed for duty in 2021 - former number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston and the multi-talented Taysom Hill.
Winston - as that draft status hints - has always had the tools to be a franchise QB. He can wing it and put up big numbers. The problem is that so far that includes turnovers.
Jameis threw 30 (THIRTY) interceptions in 2019, putting a final exclamation point on his disappointing spell in Tampa. Will that always be an issue for him? Or can Payton, to an extent at least, fix it?
The other option is Taysom Hill, the ‘gadget player’ who has seen time playing special teams as well as tight end, H back and QB during his time with the Saints. He was 3-1 as a starter when Brees went down injured in 2020, but is he really a full-time quarterback in the NFL?
We await the training-camp battle to see if one of these men emerges as the clear starter in New Orleans, or if Payton decides to go with a mix of the two. We are not great believers in any of those three strategies, but going with Jameis with a little Tayson now and again may work best.
On a more positive note, the Saints have an excellent running back combo in Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray - they might be the league’s best backfield pairing. It helps too running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
The story at receiver isn’t as strong as it has been in previous years though, with the depth behind Michael Thomas looking a little too thin for our liking.
On the defensive side of the ball the Saints retain some elite talent. Cam Jordan is a beast up front and while the team lost Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks in 2020) to free agency, there is cavalry arriving.
The team will hope Carl Granderson and Marcus Davenport have breakout years, while Houston DE Payton Turner was taken in the first round of the 2021 Draft.
Perhaps one of the biggest question marks facing the Saints (outside of QB) is who is the starter at corner opposite Marshon Lattimore.
Summary: We do not expect the Saints to be bad in 2021, but that’s not the question we are asking ourselves. It’s ‘can you beat the Bucs?’ and ‘can you contend for a Super Bowl?’.
New Orleans still has a highly talented roster, but the big question mark at the QB position should leave anybody uneasy about just how big the dropoff from Brees will be.
Even league-average QB play should mean a winning season for the Saints, but can they get even that from Tay-meis? For that reason, right now, we’re out.
When Atlanta traded future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones in the offseason, it was like a changing of the guard. With the team in salary-cap hell, it was a move which had to be made.
Offloading Julio and his salary to Tennessee at least allowed the Falcons to get under the cap and pay their draft picks. While we are not saying Julio is done, it also recoups some value for a player who was clearly showing signs of physical decline.
Atlanta is in a strange position right now - clearly not the team which came so close to Super Bowl glory in 2017, but likely not as bad as that miserable 4-12 season in 2020 suggested.
New head coach Arthur Smith still has a franchise QB in Matt Ryan, and was able to claim a generational talent in Florida TE Kyle Pitts in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Smith of course was the man who helped resurrect the NFL career of QB Ryan Tannehill, though that was helped by handing the ball off a lot to a certain Derrick Henry. Former Panther Mike Davis is likely to try to emulate that role in 2021.
Despite the departure of Julio, Atlanta still has elite options at WR with Calvin Ridley leading the way. Though he is now 36, there are reasons to believe Ryan can still be really good - the team clearly does after passing on QBs like Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the draft.
The big issue on defense for the Falcons in 2020 was the secondary - a league-worst unit which allowed more than 293 passing yards per game. Truly awful stuff.
Atlanta looked to remedy that dire production by spending a premium draft pick (Round 2) on UCF safety Richie Grant. Much will rest on his shoulders as the Falcons look to plug some of the gaps in 2021.
Summary: Atlanta feels like a team which probably should be in full rebuild mode, but has just enough reason not to be.
Despite the Julio trade, Smith has enough weapons at his disposal to put together a powerful offense in 2021, and if that happens the defense just needs to be better for Atlanta to at least be competitive.
While the Falcons did lose 12 games in 2020, it wasn’t blown out often. There’s every reason to believe they could be pushing .500 this year - but don’t expect them to contend for the division.
When relatively new Carolina owner David Tapper handed former Baylor HC Matt Rhule a seven-year contract to take over the reins of his team in early 2020, he was sending a message:
Of course how long that mantra lasts will depend largely on results, but for now things appear to have started well for Rhule. He picked up a roster which still had echoes of that Super Bowl run in 2015, and was in drastic need of overhaul.
The biggest question mark now that Cam Newton is no longer there is at quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater - subsequently shipped out to Denver in the offseason - was not the answer Rhule was looking for. So the team turned to former Jets signal caller Sam Darnold.
The Jets saw Darnold as the future of their franchise when they spent the third overall pick to select him back in 2018. Despite the occasional flash though, his time in the Big Apple was underwhelming and Carolina picked him in the offseason for second and fourth-round draft picks in 2022 and a sixth in 2021.
That price was not exactly cheap for a player who is on the verge of being a bust right now, but neither was it steep if you believe he wasn’t the whole problem.
Many experts blame then Jets HC Adam Gase for Darnold’s failure to reproduce his college potential in the pros. Now we get to find out if that was the case.
For the Panthers, Darnold is a relatively cost-effective reclamation project. If Sam is not the guy, then it will move on again. There was talk of a blockbusting trade for Houston’s Deshaun Watson before his much-publicised off-the-field issues surfaced.
If star running back Christian McCaffrey (just three games played in 2020) can stay healthy then that will take some of the pressure off Darnold. Run CMC is one of the league’s very best when at 100 percent.
In recent years the Panthers have struggled to put together a reliable group of receiving options (outside of former TE standout Greg Olsen). Now though, they appear to have weapons which will force other defenses to plan accordingly.
D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson (another former Jet) are stellar as the starters outside, while second-round draft pick Terrace Marshall Jr from LSU adds another potentially explosive WR option.
Carolina needs more help up front to open up running lanes and protect Darnold, and perhaps surprisingly it passed on Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater in Round 1 of the draft. The team did later take BYU tackle Brady Christensen in Round 3.
The Panthers used their first draft pick to take South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, the first CB selected. If he comes as advertised, Donte Jackson stays healthy and the signing of A.J. Bouye pays off, Carolina will be significantly improved in the secondary.
Further improvement on the back end could come courtesy of Jeremy Chinn, who is expected to spend more time at safety after a stellar rookie year when he was listed at linebacker.
Up front Rhule and his coaching staff already have some great defensive pieces to work with - the free-agent signing of former Cardinal Hassan Reddick (12.5 sacks in 2020) will see him paired with 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns at DE. Burns produced 9 sacks in 2020.
2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown meanwhile can really generate pressure up the middle, and his presence along with Reddick and Burns could see Carolina make a real leap up the sack rankings in 2021.
Summary: We really like what Rhule and his crew have done in the 18 months since hitting town in Charlotte. There is talent on both sides of the ball - enough to make you believe a winning record is not too far down the road.
The big question mark in 2021 though will surround Darnold. Can OC Joe Brady rebuild his confidence enough to maximise those weapons he has at his disposal? Time will tell.
By the time December rolls around we should know if the excuses for Darnold’s miserable New York spell were justified. Or if he’s a bust. As he goes, the Panthers will go.
Odds correct at 1550 BST (15/07/21)
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