Skip to main content

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Point-Counterpoint: If Not the Bucs, Then Who in the NFC South?

The Buccaneers will be defending two consecutive division titles in 2023…Who's the biggest challenge to that third straight crown? Brianna Dix and Scott Smith make their picks

bucs falcons

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the last two NFC South division titles and are obviously going to make it three in a row. We all agree on that, right? Right. Good. Glad we had that talk.

Okay, so consider what follows to be a hypothetical debate about an alternate-universe reality (all the rage these days) in which, for some incomprehensible reason or reasons, the Buccaneers do not win the NFC South in 2023. In this depressing reality, but with the current rosters of the other three teams in the division the same as they are now, who would be the favorite to finish in first?

That's our discussion today as we continue our annual series of Point-Counterpoint posts during the week of the Fourth of July holiday, and it basically serves as a review of what's going on around the rest of the NFC South. Every other team in the division finished 7-10 last season, so there are no slam-dunk candidates to rise up in 2023. But there are reasons (unfortunately) for the fan bases of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints to have optimism, and we will examine them below.

Brianna and I have five Bucs-related topics we will be debating this week. Here's the whole schedule:

Monday, July 3: Which Buccaneer player will make the biggest leap in his performance in 2023?

Tuesday, July 4: If Tampa Bay, hypothetically, doesn't win its third straight NFC South title, which team will?

Wednesday, July 5: Which Buccaneer player do you predict will win a significant individual award this season?

Thursday, July 6: What is one statistic you hope to see regarding the Buccaneers by the end of the 2023 season?

Friday, July 7: What one player would you like to steal from another NFC South roster to add to the Bucs' roster?

Which NFC South team seemed to be on the rise at the end of last season? Which one made the best offseason moves? Which one is most likely to have a shot at taking the division crown away from the Buccaneers? We've got a couple answers.

We won't be duplicating choices this week, so the order that Brianna and I get to attack this question in matters. My colleague went first on Monday, so this time I get the pole position. (This seems way more significant when there are only three possible answers!)

Scott Smith: Atlanta Falcons

A lot of things have to go right for the Falcons to be the class of the NFC South, but I think you could say that about all four teams this year. In Atlanta's case, they need their strategy of reloading the defense with a large group of veteran free agents to pay off. They need second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder to at least be a capable steward of the offense. And they need their running game to continue to be one of the league's best, since they are almost certainly going to continue to lean on it more than virtually any other team in the NFL.

That last one I'm least worried about…or, I should say, I'd be least worried about if I was rooting for the Falcons to succeed, which I most definitely am not. Atlanta already had the third-best rushing attack in the league last year and a 1,000-yard rusher in rookie Tyler Allgeier, and then they used the eighth-overall pick this spring on Texas running back Bijan Robinson. All Robinson is is the most well-regarded running back prospect to hit the league since Saquon Barkley. The Falcons still have Cordarrelle Patterson, too! Head Coach Arthur Smith ran the ball on 55.3% of his team's plays last season; only Chicago had a higher run rate and that was because their quarterback ran the ball nearly 11 times per game.

Robinson's presence should also help with that middle issue, Ridder's shepherding of the offense. If the Falcons can run the ball very well and at any point in the game, with the team up or down, that will make things a lot easier for Ridder. Robinson will also help Ridder keep his head above water in the passing game, as he is an excellent pass-catcher, and even a potential weapon in the slot. And Ridder, a third-round pick out of Cincinnati, did show some promise last year after he took over for Marcus Mariota. He went 2-2 in his four starts and compiled a passer rating of 86.4. Yes, he only threw for 177 yards a game and just two touchdown passes, but again that's a reflection of Smith's approach on offense. And, impressively, he didn't throw an interception in 115 passes.

Also, for this type of offense to work and for a young passer to have a chance to find steady improvement, the offensive line needs to be at least good, and hopefully very good. This offseason, the Falcons wisely got new long-term deals done with standout guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary, who is coming off his best season. With Jake Matthews holding down left tackle, this should be a good to very good front line. And Robinson isn't the only potential star on this offense; fellow top-10 picks Drake London and Kyle Pitts have the potential for big seasons, as well.

What seems like more of an unknown that could go either way is the defensive makeover in free agency. The Falcons could have as many as seven new starters on defense in 2023, all imported through free agency or trades. Change was to be expected after the Falcons finished 27th in total defense last year, including 23rd against the run and 25th against the pass (29th against the pass on a per-play basis). And, as has been a persistent problem for years, the Falcons had the league's least effective pass rush (3.74% sacks-per-pass-play rate).

And there's a reason to like pretty much all of the team's defensive additions, to varying degrees. They include defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle David Onyemata, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, linebacker Kaden Elliss, safety Jessie Bates and cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes. Bonus points for taking Onyemata and Elliss away from the Saints, since we are talking about who's going to win the division.

That said, we've seen this sort of mass free agency influx with teams in the past, and they don't always work out. Think about the disastrous Eagles "Dream Team" in 2011. That's an extreme example, but it underscores the peril of relying too heavily on free agents when building a team. That said, the outcome will more likely be something in the middle – some of these additions will work out better than others, and if enough of them hit Atlanta could find itself closer to the middle of the defensive rankings. If anything, if the pass rush has more teeth that would make a big difference.

Put it all together and the Falcons could actually be pretty good in 2023. Unfortunately.

Brianna Dix: New Orleans Saints

I completely agree with Scott on the notion that the Atlanta Falcons are immensely talented on paper with Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts, Cordarrelle Patterson, Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree. However, like many teams this year entering the 2023 slate, the Falcons have uncertainty at quarterback with Desmond Ridder. Time will tell if he can be the franchise's future. The NFC South will be up for grabs come fall and for the purposes of this hypothetical scenario with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the equation, I believe the New Orleans Saints will take home the division title (ducks head while typing). They are the consensus frontrunner to come out on top in 2023.

First off, the Saints' schedule is favorable for the club to begin the 2023 season. New Orleans will start the year with the Titans, Panthers, Packers and Buccaneers in the first month. The team will face several inexperienced quarterbacks including Bryce Young in Week Two and Jordan Love in Week Three – presuming they start under center. Vested veteran Derek Carr will take the reins at quarterback in NOLA, an upgrade over an aging Andy Dalton and the inconsistency of Jameis Winston. The Saints are hopeful that Carr can rejuvenate the offense and elevate his play from the 2022 season.

The Saints saw significant turnover during free agency along the front seven including Marcus Davenport, Kaden Elliss, David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle signing elsewhere. The team added Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd as new faces along a defensive front boasting Cam Jordan and Demario Davis. In addition to Carr, the Saints bolstered their supporting cast with Jarvis Landry, Foster Moreau and Jamaal Williams and were able to work out a contract restructure with Michael Thomas. Additionally, they managed to retain key fixtures Juwan Johnson and Tanoh Kpassagnon.

Given the turnover on defense, the Saints addressed the defensive line with two top-40 picks. New Orleans selected interior defender Bryan Bresee (29th overall) and edge Isaiah Foskey (40th overall) to fortify their defense in 2023. Bresee dominated in Clemson's front as a true freshman but had his previous two seasons derailed by injuries. He is an explosive force with the ability to take on double teams, maintain his run fits and push the pocket with a quick get-off. Foskey has more sacks on his resumé than any player in Notre Dame history and is an imposing speed rusher with high-end athleticism. With development in the pros, both the aforementioned names will continue to ascend for the Saints.

The Saints and Buccaneers are the only rosters not technically under the "rebuild" category in the division with a wide-open path to the playoffs. New Orleans snagged one of the best options on the market at quarterback and if Carr catapults himself forward in 2023, the Saints have a chance to contend in the South. Carr has reunited with head coach Dennis Allen, who was the Raiders' head coach when Carr was drafted in 2014. If Carr rallies the offense and New Orleans' defense can replicate its 2022 production (ranked fifth overall), the Saints can usurp their 7-10 record from the 2022 season, unfortunately.

Latest Headlines