2024 NFC South race: Can new-look Falcons dethrone Buccaneers or will either Saints or Panthers surprise?


Year in and year out, the NFC South appears to be more up for grabs than any other division even though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took home the division crown in each of the last three years. 

The 2022 Tampa Bay squad, while gasping for air by the time Week 18 came around, took home the title with an 8-9 record, and the rest of the division — the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers — all veered into 7-10 records. Last season’s division race was even more neck and neck since the Buccaneers and Saints ended the year with matching 9-8 records with the Falcons close behind at 7-10. The Buccaneers emerged atop the heap once again thanks to a higher win percentage in common games acting as the tiebreaker between the two. Carolina was the worst team in football after going 2-15 in 2023, thus becoming the first team since the 1979 49ers to trade their own first-round pick that ended up as the following year’s top pick. 

Entering 2024, it’s remotely possible any of the division’s four teams, including the Panthers after an active offseason, could challenge for the NFC South crown. Here is a path for each to take home the division title.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Last season was quarterback Baker Mayfield’s final shot to show he could be an NFL starter. The top pick from the 2018 NFL Draft signed a prove-it deal (one year, $4 million contract) last offseason after joining his fourth squad since the 2021 season: the Cleveland Browns (2021), the Carolina Panthers (2022), the Los Angeles Rams (2022) and the Buccaneers (2023 to present). Mayfield is the only quarterback in NFL history to start for four different teams in the span of two calendar years.

After beating out 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask, Mayfield had the best year of his six-season NFL career with career-best numbers in completion percentage (64.3%), passing yards (4,044) and passing touchdowns (28). Mayfield played like a top 10 quarterback ranking ninth in passing yards and seventh in passing touchdowns. He stunningly threw one more touchdown in the regular season than Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes (27 regular-season touchdowns in 2023). This play earned him a three-year, $100 million extension with $40 million guaranteed. Running back Rachaad White also had a career year with his 1,539 yards from scrimmage ranking as the fourth-most in the NFL among running backs in 2023. 

Baker Mayfield 2023 Season

CAREER RANK

Comp Pct

64.3%

Best

Pass Yards

4,044*

Best

Pass TD

28*

Best

* Ranked top 10 in NFL 

Wide receiver Mike Evans was one of the primary beneficiaries of Mayfield’s play last season, co-leading the league, along with Tyreek Hill, in receiving touchdowns (13) thus earning 2023 Second Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl placement while his streak of 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin his career ran to 10. His steady, Pro Bowl performance translated to a two-year, $41 million extension with $29 million guaranteed. 

The one big new wrinkle to the Buccaneers offense in 2023 is that Dave Canales, their offensive coordinator last season, took the Panthers coaching job this offseason. So, coach Todd Bowles hired Liam Coen, who was Kentucky’s OC a year ago after being the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in 2022. He and Mayfield have a relationship from their five games spent together with the Rams that year. 

Defensively, the Buccaneers were top 10 in scoring, allowing 19.1 points per game — the seventh-fewest in the NFL. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. led the way, becoming the only player in the last 25 seasons with 100 or more tackles (122), five or more forced fumbles (six), five or more sacks (six) and 10 or more passes defended (12) in a single season. He earned a four-year, $81.4 million contract for his efforts, making him the highest paid at his position in terms of both total contract value and average per year ($21.025 million). 

The formula for Tampa Bay is to play with the same sound defensive production while Coen can hopefully coax similar results out of Mayfield. Doing both of those things should be enough for a fourth consecutive Buccaneers division title.

Atlanta Falcons

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The Atlanta Falcons appeared to go all in on quarterback Kirk Cousins, at age 36, returning to playing like a top 10 quarterback, which he did the first eight weeks of the 2023 season, before he tore his Achilles. Signing him to a four-year, $180 million contract with $100 million guaranteed in free agency this past March indicated as much. 

Kirk Cousins Weeks 1-8 in 2023

Comp Pct

70%

5th

Pass Yards

2,331

2nd

Pass TD

18

T-1st

*Tore Achilles in Week 8

However, there are only four notable examples of quarterbacks tearing their Achilles later in their careers and then returning to play, according to CBS Sports Research. Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino, when he was 32, was the only one of the four to come back and throw 10 or more touchdowns than he did interceptions the rest of his career. 

Notable QBs after tearing Achilles

  • 1993 Dan Marino at age 32 … 86 more starts (122 TD, 84 INT, 2 Pro Bowls)
  • 1999 Vinny Testaverde at age 36 … 68 more starts (70 TD, 76 INT)
  • 2000 Jim Miller at age 29 … 21 more starts (26 TD, 19 INT)
  • 2002 Trent Dilfer at age 30 … 19 more starts (20 TD, 28 INT)

The good news for Cousins is the Falcons offensive line led by three former first-round picks — left tackle Jake Matthews, right tackle Kaleb McGary and two-time Pro Bowler Chris Lindstrom at right guard — ranked as the third-best pass-blocking unit in the NFL last season, earning a Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade of 74.2. 

Tailoring the offense to center around 2023 eighth overall pick running back Bijan Robinson, whose 1,463 scrimmage yards as a rookie were the most among rookies in Falcons history and the second-most among rookies in the NFL during 2023 behind Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, should take some weight off of Cousins. Robinson did say he is preparing to be utilized like San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, the 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, in 2024. That makes sense because new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson has been an assistant on Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams staff for the last five seasons, a group that knew how to get their stars the football whether that was running back Todd Gurley, wide receiver Cooper Kupp or Nacua last season. Both wide receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts, each of whom were top 10 draft picks, should also be schemed to get more targets.

As long as Cousins can stay healthy, allowing 2024 eighth overall pick quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to develop on the bench, the Falcons could certainly contend for an NFC South title in the upcoming season. 

New Orleans Saints

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The start of the Derek Carr era for the New Orleans Saints was lackluster. However, Carr did heat up at the end of the season, providing some hope that he can stabilize their offense in 2024. It is worth noting improvement down the stretch can certainly be attributed to some of the teams New Orleans faced.

Derek Carr 2023 Season 

FIRST 12 GAMES FINAL 5 GAMES

W-L

5-7

4-1

Comp Pct

66.2%

74%

TD-INT

11-6

14-2

Passer Rating 89.4 118.9

Week 14 provided a showdown versus the worst team in the NFL last season, the Carolina Panthers (28-6 win). Week 15 was a similar story, but it was a home game. An easy victory against the New York Giants (24-6 win) was the result. 

After back-to-back games against challenging competition — at the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16 (a 30-22 Saints loss) and at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a 23-13 Saints win) — New Orleans had the blessing of being able to pummel an Atlanta Falcons team ready to roll over and go on vacation in Week 18 as the Saints smoked their NFC South rival (48-17) in Arthur Smith’s final game as Atlanta’s coach. 

The pass rush is also worth monitoring. Yes, head coach Dennis Allen’s unit performed at a top 10 level in crucial situations overall, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down conversion rate allowed (34.5%) and takeaways (29), as well as in points allowed overall (19.2 PPG allowed, eighth-fewest in the NFL). 

The Saints’ 34 sacks were tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and their 72 quarterback hits were ranked as the third-fewest in the league. New Orleans’ quarterback pressure rate of 33.3% ranked 11th last season was a little better, but they didn’t get home to the opposing quarterback frequently as already mentioned. It’s concerning that eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, a 2010s All-Decade Team member, totaled only two sacks last season — the second fewest of his career ahead of only his rookie year total of one in 2011. At age 35 in 2024, it’s clear the Saints can’t rely on Jordan to lead their pass rush any longer.

New Orleans signed Chase Young, the second overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, to a one-year, $13 million contract, drafted Northern Iowa defensive tackle Khristian Boyd in the sixth round (199th overall) and signed inside linebacker Willie Gay Jr. to a one-year, $3 million deal. They’re also relying on 2024 second-round cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, an All-American from Alabama, to boost their secondary.

If Carr can replicate his late-season play throughout 2024, and the Saints’ pass rush can become more of a threat, New Orleans can challenge for the NFC South title. 

Carolina Panthers

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Bryce Young, the 2023 NFL Draft’s first overall pick, couldn’t have had a much worse rookie season with the Carolina Panthers. 

His 5.5 passing yards per attempt and 73.7 passer rating were both dead last in the entire league last season, making him just the second first overall draft pick rookie to be the worst in both since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger along with Troy Aikman back in 1989. His 5.5 yards per pass attempt are the fourth-fewest in a single season in NFL history, among quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts. Tough start indeed. 

Fewest pass yards/attempt in a season all time (min. 500 attempts)

SEASON QB/TEAM YARDS/ATTEMPT

2003

Joey Harrington/Lions

5.2

2001

Chris Weinke/Panthers

5.4

2014

Derek Carr/Raiders

5.5

2023

Bryce Young/Panthers

5.5

Not all of Young’s struggles in 2023 were solely on him. The Panthers offense allowed the fourth-highest quarterback pressure rate in the NFL last season (42.1%), which led to him taking a Panthers single-season record 62 sacks. His pass-catchers didn’t help him out much, either since Carolina registered the league’s fifth-lowest expected points added per target, a statistic partially indicating his receivers weren’t all that open even when Young was able to deliver the football their way.

Thus, the Panthers were on a mission to upgrade the offensive environment surrounding Young over the last few months. They were big spenders in free agency when it came to the offensive line, inking longtime Seattle Seahawks starting guard Damien Lewis to a four-year, $53 million contract as well as signing former Miami Dolphins guard Robert Hunt to a five-year, $100 million deal with $63 million guaranteed. 

General manager Dan Morgan additionally traded away cornerback Donte Jackson and a sixth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers to bring back wide receiver Diontae Johnson and a seventh-round pick to add another steady veteran presence for Young to throw to. Morgan then proceeded to utilize three of Carolina’s first four picks in the 2024 NFL Draft on offensive playmakers: South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette (32nd overall), Texas running back Jonathon Brooks (46th overall) and Texas tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders (101st overall). 

Those resources that were given to the offense, plus hiring Dave Canales could position Young and Carolina to take a massive step forward in 2024 and threaten for the division title. 





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