The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, NFC South: All Eyes on Tompa Bay & Brees’ Last Stand

Illustration for article titled The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, NFC South: All Eyes on Tompa Bay  Brees’ Last Stand
Graphic: Eric Barrow

Outside of Tom Brady stunning the sports world by joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South will be a key watch for plenty of other reasons.

The New Orleans Saints and Bucs are two of the top teams on paper in the NFC. They will be vying for the playoff bye heading into the postseason in January. The Atlanta Falcons could also make some noise too, with the addition of Todd Gurley on offense.

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New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees
Drew Brees
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: Head coach Sean Peyton tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Saints owner Gayle Benson announced she tested positive for COVID-19 in August. Drew Brees also donated another $5 million in July through the Brees Dream Foundation to support health care throughout underserved communities in Louisiana. Tight ends Jason Vander Laan and Cole Wick decided to opt out.

Outside the lines: Brees gave a very jarring interview shortly after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in June. Brees was asked if he would support players who chose to protest this season. He replied: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” Brees displayed a complete lack of understanding behind the protest, and the advice that Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to kneel in 2016, sought from active service members before settling on the kneeling protest during the anthem. A week later, Brees apologized for his comments.

Oh, he’s here now?: Emmanuel Sanders joins the Saints this season after spending most of his career in Denver, and then last season with the 49ers. Safety Malcolm Jenkins returns to the team after six years with the Eagles. Jameis Winston came over from the Bucs after the Brady signing.

Where’d he go? Teddy Bridgewater, who started four games for the Saints while Brees recovered from a right-thumb injury, signed a three-year, $63 million deal with the Panthers in March. Cornerback Eli Apple also left for Carolina, safety Vonn Bell signed with the Bengals and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. is now a Bear.

Will there be fans in the stands? Until further notice, no.

What To Expect: The Saints offense is one of the most high-powered in the league, instantly propelling them into the Super Bowl contender pool. Even with the loss of Brees for five games last season, the offense still flowed. Last season, they turned the ball over only eight times, a historic league-low. And Michael Thomas had a remarkable season last year, winning the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award. This is likely Brees’ last chance for one more Lombardi Trophy before he hangs them up.

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Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

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Teddy Bridgewater
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: In March, David Tepper, the Panthers owner, donated $2.56 million to COVID response in the Charlotte area. LB Jordan Mack and DE Christian Miller opted out.

Outside the lines: After Ken Gill, CEO of CPI Security, replied to an email chain from a nonprofit group called Queen City Unity — asking for action in response to the killings of Black people by police: “Please spend your time in a more productive way. A better use of time would be to focus on the Black-on-Black crime and senseless killing of our young men by other young men. Have a great day, Ken Gill.” The Panthers instantly cut ties with the company. CPI was a major sponsor for the team for several years, including commercials featuring star running back Christian McCaffrey and former linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers’ Player Impact Committee was formed this summer to focus on two areas of community engagement: voter registration and improving police-community relations.

“I really want the people to know that we as athletes, we as Panthers, as professional athletes, that we are with you,” Andre Smith, linebacker and one of the players on the committee, told The Charlotte Observer. “I think a lot of celebrities as we’ve seen, some celebrities get their money and maybe forget a little bit. And, you know, lose an understanding of the fight that we’re fighting, but I want them to know that as a professional athlete me, Andre Smith, I completely understand the situation, I’m aware, and that I’m right there along with you, fighting the good fight, and that I’m not afraid to use my voice or my platform to speak out.”

Oh, he’s here now? Matt Rhule controversially steps into his first head coaching role with the Panthers after two successful seasons at Baylor. Rhule’s only stint in the NFL was as an offensive line coach for the Giants in 2012. The Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater, who was backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans, this offseason to run the offense. Left tackle Russell Okung joins the team from the L.A. Chargers and right guard John Miller from the Bengals to shore up the line.

Where’d he go? After nine seasons as Mr. Panther, Cam Newton was cut by the team in March. He sighed a 1-year, $1.05 million deal with New England in July. Five-time All-Pro Linebacker Luke Kuechly retired this offseason. Kicker Graham Gano is now on the Giants.

Will there be fans in the stands? Until further notice, no.

What To Expect: With Rhule in his first season, we can expect some road bumps early on. Bridgewater can use several tools in advancing the ball upfield like wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and McCaffrey. On defense, the Panthers are a toss-up. Their defense lost all but one defensive lineman from last season. And with Eric Reid and James Bradley not returning to the secondary, the team has significant shoes to fill.

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Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

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Julio Jones (l.) and Matt Ryan
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: In April, Falcons owner Arthur Blank created a $1 million dollar relief fund for all Mercedes-Benz Stadium employees.

Outside the lines: In June, QB Matt Ryan donated $500,000 to a GoFundme set up to better the lives of people within the Black community. He set a goal of $2 million. Currently, the account has over $1.3 million in donations. “Last week, I made a commitment to listening and learning, and one of the messages that hit home for me was the difference between reacting to a situation and responding to a situation,” Ryan said in a statement. “For far too long, I have reacted to social injustice with empathy and silent support but failed to follow through with active support. I feel the time has come to RESPOND. For ALL of us to respond.”

Oh, he’s here now?: Veteran back Todd Gurley joins the Falcons after four seasons with the Rams. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard arrives from the Bengals and tight end Hayden Hurst from the Ravens.

Where’d he go? Running back Devonta Freeman was the most notable loss for the Falcs this offseason, but he has yet to sign with another team. Cornerback Desmond Trufant left for the Lions.

Fans in the stands? Fans will not be present for the first two games, and the situation will be reassessed thereafter.

What To Expect: Gurley adds a lot to an already multi-dimensional offense. Ryan has a reliable option on the ground when trying to gain momentum throughout a ball game. And we can’t forget offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s desire to run the ball despite the offensive line’s inexperience. Gurley could provide them exactly what they have been missing — a strong back that can break through tackles and get them the yardage they need. But how much can he do on those ailing knees? Blank wants to see improvements this season, and the group of personnel they have put together can deliver just that.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Photo: Getty

COVID Response: The Bucs had a COVID-19 scare in June when one assistant coach who didn’t know he was asymptomatic interacted with two other assistants putting them into a 14-day quarantine. They were able to isolate all three parties from other members of the team before things got out of control. OT Brad Seaton opted out.

Outside the lines: While the Bucs haven’t individually spearheaded a public initiative to fight racial injustice this summer, the organization has shown an effort to fight systemic racism in the past. They started the “We Are the Change” initiatives started by players in 2018, which funnel funding into disenfranchised communities. The team matched all donations.

Oh, he’s here now?: Hmm, let’s see… did the Bucs make any moves of note? Oh yeah! They signed Tom freakin’ Brady, after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl rings in New England. Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to play with Brady, and they added Leonard Fournette to the backfield. So. Yeah.

Where’d he go? After spending five seasons in Tampa Jameis Winston was not re-signed. The former No. 1 overall pick is now the third-string quarterback in New Orleans behind Drew Brees and Taysom Hill. Running back Peyton Barber signed with Washington.

Will there be fans in the stands? For at least the first two weeks of the season, the Buccaneers will not allow fans into Raymond James Stadium.

What To Expect: This is clearly THE bandwagon to be on this season.. Brady, Fournette and Gronkowski, along with receiver Mike Evans, could be enough to have the Bucs become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. The Buccaneers’ defense was ranked No. 1 in total defense last season, with its front seven returning this year. NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul should continue to terrorize quarterbacks. The Bucs finally have a star-studded offense to join their top-notch defense. Now we get to see how Bruce Arians pieces it all together.

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Elsewhere

Elsewhere

Check out the rest of our NFL previews for this strangest of seasons:

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