We have reached the halfway point in the Crystal Ballin 2022 series! This week we will be looking at the NFC South.
Tampa Bay is a drama house with everything that happened this offseason with Tom Brady's retirement, Bruce Arians moving into the front office to give Todd Bowles the head coaching job, to the questions surrounding Chris Godwin's ACL recovery. Will it all be enough to put the Bucs' almost certain playoff berth in jeopardy? All these stories come from just one team! There are still three others in the division.
That being said, I will now be taking out my crystal ball and informing you all precisely how this upcoming season will play out.
If you guys enjoy this series, please let me know! I'd love to see any sort of feedback - be it questions, critique or suggestions! Thanks for reading and have an awesome day!
Note: All win totals are current as of the time of this writing via DraftKings Sportsbook
4. Atlanta Falcons
After dealing long time starter Matt Ryan to the Colts, the team signed former Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota to a two year deal worth under $19 million. This is the prototypical sign of a short term bridge at the position, especially with the selection of Desmond Ridder out of Cincinnati in the third round. He will likely see some playing time this season if/when Mariota struggles.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a solid veteran option as a pass catching running back and Tyler Allgeier could see some time as a rookie. Not the worst backfield in the league, but not much for the offense to truly rely on.
With Calvin Ridley's suspension, the Falcons don't have much at receiver. 8th overall pick Drake London should assume the number one receiver spot, with former Raider Bryan Edwards lines up on the other side. All Atlanta really has are those two and superstar tight end Kyle Pitts. An intriguing offense to be sure, but not a threat to take the NFL by storm in 2022.
I won't even dive into this defense. A.J. Terrell has developed into a top tier cornerback, but there isn't anything else on this side of the ball worth mentioning. Sorry Falcon fans.
2021 Record: 7-10
Atlanta didn't play horribly last season, as we saw the rejuvenation of Cordarrelle Patterson. Unfortunately they ended up falling down the stretch, losing four of their final six games.
2022 Key Performer: TE Kyle Pitts
Kyle Pitts is the next elite tight end. While he only hauled in a single touchdown last year, he proved to be an extremely dangerous weapon for whoever plays quarterback for the team. Pitts caught 68 passes for 1,026 yards as Matt Ryan's best receiver in 2021.
I believe every one of his stats will be even better this year.
125 Targets 90 Receptions 1,260 yards 8 TDs
2022 Over/Under: 5
Atlanta reaching this 5 win over/under is their best case scenario. If I were to place a bet, it'd be on the under and it wouldn't surprise me if the Falcons were in the race for the number one overall pick in the 2023 draft. Let's just hope Ridder can get some playing time this year.
Crystal Ball Says: 5-12
3. Carolina Panthers
One of the teams most desperate for a quarterback this offseason were the Carolina Panthers. They have some incredible offensive talent (Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore) and have acquired an upgrade under center in Baker Mayfield. Behind him they have Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker and 3rd round rookie Matt Corral.
Corral is my favorite quarterback to come out of this rookie class, so I'd love to see him get a shot at the starting job at some point (whether it's with the Panthers or elsewhere). Darnold has shown the occasional flash but not enough to fully hitch your wagon to the 25 year old.
There is solid depth at the position, but we'll have to see just how big of an upgrade Mayfield is over the others.
Between running backs Christian McCaffrey and D'Onta Foreman, wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall, and tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble, Baker will have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
This defense is a young and hungry group as well. Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Shaq Thompson lead this front seven. While not an elite group, these guys have shown the ability to get after the quarterback and make plenty of plays in the open field.
This is a deep and talented secondary as well. They are loaded with cornerbacks C.J. Henderson, Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn and Rashaan Melvin to go with Jeremy Chinn and Xavier Woods at safety.
This defense has plenty of potential. If they had a quality quarterback, Carolina could be a sleeper team.
2021 Record: 5-12
Last year the Panthers were a mess. McCaffrey went down to injury, Sam Darnold shone early but faded quickly and the defense was up and down.
2022 Key Performer: RB Christan McCaffrey
Run CMC is the heart and soul of this team. It shows through the amount of offensive touches he sees from week to week... and year to year. As long as he can stay healthy, I don't expect this to change.
With new starter Baker Mayfield a much bigger threat to opposing defenses, we should see even more productivity from CMC.
224 rushes 941 yards 7 TDs
134 Targets 98 Receptions 784 yards 5 TDs
2022 Over/Under: 6
I'm not a huge Baker Mayfield fan, but he's a major improvement over Darnold. If he can remain focused on the team and play on the field, this team has the potential for a late season wildcard push... or at least get themselves in the hunt.
Crystal Ball Says: 7-10
2. New Orleans Saints
There are a few teams who have a mysterious aura about them, and the Saints are one of those teams. Considering the lack of high quality depth of teams in the NFC, New Orleans could finish anywhere from bottom of the NFC standings to making the playoffs.
With Dennis Allen taking over for Sean Payton, Jameis Winston enters his third consecutive season with the Saints. He is a good quarterback although not great. I do not believe he will be the weak link of this team.
With star running back Alvin Kamara likely to serve a suspension due to the Pro Bowl weekend incident back in February, the ground game workload will probably wind up in the hands of veteran Mark Ingram and Tony Jones Jr. until Kamara's return. The offense will struggle without the stud running back for sure, but I think they can make due with the other two options for a little while.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas is a major question mark. While he isn't fully recovered from his ankle injury, he has been seen running routes. Obviously this is good news, but time will tell when he will be fully active. Until we know for sure, New Orleans will be relying on some new additions to take over the top two receiver roles. Former Brown Jarvis Landry and rookie first round pick Chris Olave should run this group as the top guys for now. I fully expect Olave to have great production - even when Thomas returns. Tre'Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway provide solid depth behind the trio, with Adam Trautman and Taysom Hill at tight end.
The front seven of this defense is a great veteran unit. The duo of Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport (when healthy) is a formidable, experienced tandem. With good depth behind them, good production should be expected. Veteran Demario Davis and Pete Werner fill the linebacker spots, as young players such as Zack Baun and Andrew Dowell provide depth and play on special teams.
The secondary is where things get real exciting. Obviously Marshon Lattimore is one of the league's best corners. He is surrounded by talent, however with 23 year old Paulson Adebo, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and veterans Bradley Roby and P.J. Williams. This is yet another deep cornerback group.
Although the loss of Marcus Williams to Baltimore hurt, the Saints turned that deficit into a net positive with the additions of free agents Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. These two should pair to form one of the best safety tandems in the league for the 2022 season, as both are incredibly talented playmakers.
2021 Record: 9-8
The Saints barely missed out on the playoffs last season as the 9-8 8th seed. With the drama surrounding Michael Thomas, the team was very much a wild card all season - ironically, a title they hoped to achieve. They were far from a bad team, but would likely have been one and done even if they made it to the postseason.
2022 Key Performer: WR Chris Olave
It's a bit of a gamble to project a rookie as the key performer on a team - especially one without a true identity. I do believe Michael Thomas will miss some of the start of the season, and even if he doesn't I don't think he will be 100% out of the gate. Olave is a smooth route runner and speedy deep threat rolled into a 6'1" 188 pound package. Jarvis Landry is a decent third option at this point of his career, but Olave thrive connect with Jameis Winston early and often - especially considering the questions surrounding Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
115 Targets 82 Receptions 1,082 Yards 5 TDs
2022 Over/Under: 8
Based on their up and down performance last season, I'd say 8 wins is a fair line. Considering Kamara and Thomas being relative unknowns at this time in addition to a new head coach, the smart money would probably be on the under. However I believe the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye on defense plus the projected breakout of Chris Olave will keep the Saints from falling too fair, and they reach the line in the end.
Crystal Ball Says: 8-9
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady was "retired" for 40 days before returning to the team. His announcement of coming back made Tampa Bay automatic Super Bowl contenders. One would naturally assume a 45 year old quarterback would be slowing down at this point, but it's been the opposite for Brady. He has been on a tear since joining the Buccaneers in 2020, throwing for a combined 83 touchdowns to 24 interceptions with a 66.7% completion rate and averaged nearly 5,000 yards per season. I fully expect another season or two of similar elite numbers for TB12 before he calls it a career for good.
Leonard Fournette has returned to the team as well. Despite the rumblings of a weight gain this offseason, I think he'll be fine in 2022. We are still in the offseason and there is time before the season starts to get right. Pass catcher Gio Bernard re-signed with the squad and Ke'Shawn Vaughn is still there as well. However the name to keep an eye on is third round rookie Rachaad White. If Fournette really isn't himself, I'd expect White to get some of the workload and impress everyone in doing so.
Chris Godwin tore his ACL in a week 15 game last season and has undergone successful surgery to repair it. His timetable to return to full health isn't known quite yet, but he is expected to be be there for the start of training camp. Mike Evans is a monster as the number one guy and the team signed former Falcon Russell Gage in free agency. I think Gage will definitely play a big role for this team, but Evans should see some huge stats this year (hint-hint for fantasy players). The Bucs recently added Julio Jones, who could provide an added threat deep, if he can stay healthy. Behind those guys, Tampa still has the speedy pair of Scotty Miller and Breshad Perriman plus Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson and Jaelon Darden on the roster.
With Rob Gronkowski's retirement, some are saying rookie fourth round pick Cade Otton could be the main beneficiary. While this could very well be true, I think we're more likely to see a split in reps between Otton and veteran Cameron Brate this year. Kyle Rudolph could see plenty of action as well.
Logan Hall joins this defense as a second round draft pick. His aggression and tenacity should fit right in alongside Vita Vea, William Gholston and recent signing Akiem Hicks. This intimidating front seven also includes pass rushers Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon in addition to linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. It's hard for any team to compete with this kind of talent, and running on this unit will not be easy.
The secondary is a lot less scary, however as it's the weak spot of the defense. Cornerback Carlton Davis was re-signed as he is undoubtedly the best corner on the roster. Other than the solid Davis, everyone else is pretty average. Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Ross Cockrell and fifth round pick Zyon McCollom are the other names, and none of them are anything special. Antoine Winfield Jr. and veteran addition Logan Ryan could be a good duo, with ball-hawk Mike Edwards and former Cowboy Keanu Neal providing good depth behind them.
2021 Record: 13-4
Obviously last season ended in disappointment, as they lost in the Divisional Round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams, 30-27 after Brady nearly led Tampa to a comeback from a 27-3 halftime deficit. The Bucs held themselves together for the most part in 2021 and hope to finish the job this year.
2022 Key Performer: WR Mike Evans
I mentioned a potential huge Mike Evans fantasy season, and I think it will happen thanks to that Godwin ACL injury. With Godwin still unknown and Gronk being done, two of Brady's favorite targets could potentially not be featured as much (at least early on, in the case of Godwin). Evans already received 100+ targets in each of his two years playing with Tom Brady, and that target number should increase even more this year.
139 Targets 92 Receptions 1,353 Yards 16 TDs
2022 Over/Under: 11.5
The Bucs have the 7th easiest strength of schedule for 2022 but plenty of the teams Tampa faces should be improved and put up quite a challenge. I have the Bucs finishing at 11-6 and an NFC South title. Whether this team gets any farther than they did in 2021, however remains to be seen.
Crystal Ball Says: 11-6