NFC South: Taking stock of the competiton

Conventional wisdom says that it's unwise to judge a draft class until you're three years removed from the selection; but when we get to the compacted nature of a single season it becomes safe to render judgement on teams after three weeks. By now we have an idea about what the teams in the NFL look like, and today we're looking around the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons (3-0)

Projected record 14-2

It pains me to say, but this is probably the most talented Atlanta Falcons team of all time– and that includes their 1998 team who lost in the Superbowl to the Denver Broncos. The reason for this is fairly simple: Their two biggest questions have become strengths.

In a bizarre way the Falcons were a curious analog for the Carolina Panthers this off-season. Their biggest issues were on each side of the line, as the concern was whether the offensive line could protect Matt Ryan, and whether the defensive line could generate a pass rush. On the former, Matt Ryan has been protected well, and when that happens he's surgical: 77-for-107 (72%), 793 yards, 8 TD, 1 INT, and a QB rating of 114.0 on the year.

Meanwhile the defensive line didn't get more talented, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has drawn up varied defenses that are incredibly difficult to deal with. The box score of yesterday's Falcons-Chargers game may only show one sack, but Philip Rivers was constantly under duress. The Falcons are the class of the division, and one of the best teams in the NFL.

More after the jump

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2)

Projected record 10-6

The Buccaneers are far better than their record shows, after having a first three weeks that are almost unmatched in difficulty. The Bucs beat the Panthers, then traveled to New York to face the Giants, then traveled to Dallas to face the Cowboys. In each of their three games they won, or lost by less than 10 points, and look like a consistently difficult team to deal with.

They're a bizarre team because they don't have any single weakness, but they also don't have any overwhelming strength. The Bucs' interior offensive line is good, their secondary is playing well, and they have a nice pair of RBs– but there's nothing that leaps out and defines the Buccaneers as the class of the NFL in any single area. This makes them tough to scheme for, and Greg Schiano has his young squad believing. With a few more drafts, and more maturation the Buccaneers are poised to take over the NFC South when the older teams (Atlanta and New Orleans) start to break down. It will be up to the Panthers to decide whether they're going to stay in step.

Carolina Panthers (1-2)

Projected record 9-7

Ron Rivera's team are the underachievers of the division. They are an organization who weren't only pegged by fans to take a jump, but by analysts too. On paper the Carolina Panthers should be leaping ahead, but on the field they've been left behind. It's the intangibles that are breaking down for this team. Far from a perfect roster, they still have elite talent at several positions, but immaturity at the QB position, coupled with a defense and offensive line being let down by normal stalwarts, has rendered this team a paper tiger.

The one win on their slate came against the New Orleans Saints, who we now know are in complete disarray. It was a feel good win, but in hindsight meant absolutely nothing.

New Orleans Saints (0-3)

Projected record 6-10

The epitome of failed expectations. It was clear the Saints would struggle without Sean Payton, but nobody thought they would look this out of sorts. There are literally no answers why the scheme they've been running since Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans would all of a sudden break down without their head coach. Like the Carolina Panthers they're immensely talented on paper, but on Sundays they look atrocious.

The Kansas City Chiefs are as anemic an offense as there is in the NFL, and yet they made the Saints' defense look silly. Jamaal Charles ran for over 200 yards, and a team who would normally step on the Chiefs' neck, let them back in and ultimately beat them. This is a mulligan for the Saints, and they'll end up with a good draft pick for it, just as Payton is set to return.

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