2015 NFL Season Primer: NFC South

Dan Kitchen, Contributor

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As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons

Surprise Player: Adrian Clayborn, DE

Adrian Clayborn was a 50% player in Tampa Bay. Two of his seasons, he started every game and played at an adequate to above average level. The other two, he played in a combined four games. Atlanta is taking a gamble signing him to (hopefully) start over incumbent Tyson Jackson, but if Clayborn can stay healthy and play at the level he did in his previous healthy seasons, he can prove to be a great value signing for Atlanta, and possibly record a breakout season.

Bust: The entire offensive line

If I’m Matt Ryan, I’m going into this season worried about my health, because this offensive line could be in some serious trouble. Atlanta is looking to start players such as Jake Matthews, a first-rounder going through some growing pains, Joe Hawley (played in just four games last season), Mike Person (has never started a game in the NFL), Peter Konz (a complete disappointment since being drafted in the second round), and Chris Chester (part of the line that turned Robert Griffin III into a crash-test dummy in Washington). With the number of young players who will be getting starting experience on the line, there is a reason to hold out some hope, but there is even more reason to be worried.

Best Rookie: Vic Beasley, DE

This could be the most exciting teams to watch this season in terms of rookie performance – the Falcons have a top ten pick in Beasley starting at defensive end, a highly-rated second-round corner in Jalen Collins, and a great value pick in Tevin Coleman at running back. Coleman could be a workhorse back, but I have a hunch he ends up splitting too much time with Devonta Freeman to outperform fellow rookie Vic Beasley, who is already making an impact on a revamped defense. With the way Beasley has been, and is projected to, play this season, he should be considered a serious candidate for top defensive rookie honors.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Offensive Line, Linebacker, Tight End

 

Carolina Panthers

Surprise Player: Jonathan Stewart, RB

I have to throw in a mention of Corey Brown, who I would have selected if he was a lock to be one of the starters, because he could become a talented fill-in for Kelvin Benjamin if given the chance. I’m not too disappointed in the man I did pick for this spot though, because Jonathan Stewart is poised for a breakout year. After breaking a thousand yards his second season, Stewart has been the victim of limited touches because of injuries and a timeshare with DeAngelo Williams. But with Williams now in Pittsburgh, Stewart has a chance to be a workhorse back in Carolina, a role he has a good chance of excelling in.

Bust: Tre Boston, S

This is only Boston’s second season, so he has plenty of room to grow and develop into a starter. However, it won’t be this season, in this secondary. Bene’ Benwikere and Josh Norman have potential as a starting corner tandem, Benwikere in particular, and Charles Tillman is just the type of veteran presence that can help them develop as players. But there is still too much work to be done by Benwikere, Norman, and Boston to excel as a group all sixteen games this season. With development though, Boston could be one of the few busts from this series that could go on to appear again in a future “Surprise Player” section.

Update: Boston is no longer listed as the starter at safety for Carolina.

Best Rookie: Devin Funchess, WR

Before Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending injury, Funchess was looking at a rookie season that would be equal parts experience and slow growth. Now, Funchess is part of the committee of receivers expected to pick up the slack. After examining the depth chart, it looks like at least one of the starting spots is his to lose. Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Jarrett Boykin have all had their moments thus far in their careers (some longer than others), but Funchess presents the combination of talent and upside that can’t be ignored by the Carolina staff, and he should be given the first chance to fill Benjamin’s spot on offense.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Offensive Line, Defensive Back, Running Back

 

New Orleans Saints

Surprise Player: Benjamin Watson and/or Josh Hill, TE

Trading Jimmy Graham was a tremendous blow to the Saints’ offense, there’s no way to understate that. Losing an average of 88 receptions, 1,100 yards, and 11 touchdowns a season over the last four years will deal a blow to any offense, but with it comes a silver lining: New Orleans has two men ready to fill the void. One is Benjamin Watson, a veteran who posted his best numbers five seasons ago, the only one where he got to start every game. The other is Josh Hill, a third-year player who caught five touchdowns (on only 14 receptions) last year, despite starting just three games. Combined, the two should do a serviceable job allowing the Saints’ offense to operate at its normal level, and Drew Brees will have a chance to create some new magic with a potential long-term replacement in Hill.

Bust: Mark Ingram, RB

Mark Ingram  may have posted a career-best season by 300 yards and four touchdowns last year, but he has still only played in every game once out of four seasons, and has yet to earn the starting job for more than nine in one year (also last year). The team also signed electrifying back C.J. Spiller, who will certainly need his touches and time in the backfield. Ingram may be riding high after last season, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t facing a scenario where he could slide back into an underachieving role again this year.

Best Rookie: Stephone Anthony, LB

New Orleans made an investment in their defense this offseason, drafting linebackers with their second and third picks in this year’s draft. Both have legitimate chances at being the better player their rookie year, but Anthony wins the contest here. He has a smoother transition to his role in the defense than Kikaha does, and after moving on from Curtis Lofton this offseason, the Saints will need a new inside linebacker to step up. The team just traded for Dannell Ellerbe from Miami, and with Anthony’s development, David Hawthorne is free to slide into the spot as the other outside linebacker, letting Kikaha take a season to learn and develop.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Defensive Tackle, Quarterback, Guard

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Surprise Player: One (or maybe both) of their starting defensive ends

Tampa Bay enters the year with two unproven players listed as the starting defensive ends. Jacquies Smith (seven starts last year) and George Johnson (no starts in five seasons) both may lack the ideal experience that Tampa Bay would like to have in their starters, but both also showed promise last season. Smith, in particular, took advantage of his first chance on an active NFL roster (he played on various practice squads previously), notching six and a half sacks, just beating Johnson’s six. If Smith can continue to develop, and Johnson makes even more waves with his first chance to start, what was once an issue for next offseason will become a position of strength for Tampa Bay.

Bust: One of the question marks starting on defense

Alright, I’m cheating a bit here. But Tampa Bay has several players poised to start this season on defense who have limited experience. Out of all of them, I didn’t find a clear-cut example of someone will perform poorly in their role, but with the number of players fitting the profile, odds state that at least one will perform poorly. (On the positive side of things, one is also likely to perform very, very well.) Candidates include both players listed as surprise players above, Danny Lansanah (the current starter at outside linebacker), and Brad McDougald (safety).

Best Rookie: Donovan Smith, OT

No, this is not an error; I am actually picking Smith to outperform the top overall pick and face of the franchise Jameis Winston. Why? Because I think Winston will have his share of growing pains to go through, while Smith is already showing he is ready to protect Winston’s blind side. It’s rare a quarterback comes into the league and immediately plays like a seasoned veteran, without experiencing some trouble adjusting. Winston will almost certainly earn more votes for top rookie honors at the end of the season, and many Tampa Bay fans probably won’t even know who their starting left tackle is by the last game. But in terms of playing their position the best and being the most productive rookie on the roster, Smith could very well outplay the man he will be protecting.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Outside Linebacker, Defensive Line, Safety

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