NFC South Over/Unders: How High Can the Atlanta Falcons Fly?
NFL Offseason - Bryan: Hello, and welcome back to another season here at Football Outsiders—the 20th year we have been covering the league! What started as one man's frustration with columnists and coaches saying that teams should run the ball more has blossomed into a mighty pool of writers and analysts … frustrated with columnists and coaches saying that teams should run the ball more. Plus ça change.
Not that everything's the same, mind you! We're shuffling things around a bit and adding a new coat of paint as we prep for Year 20, freshening things up as we move forward. And one of those changes is a different person attempting to beat me as we go through the league's over/unders. Everyone say hi to Cale Clinton, known on this site for contributing to Week in Quotes, Any Given Sunday, and other features. I'm gonna go easy on him, which will be my excuse for my terrible, terrible predictions come January.
Cale: Happy to have the opportunity to give it my all. It can't be that hard, right?
Bryan: To make matters a little easier on us, we're starting off with the NFC South, a division fairly clearly delineated into two good teams and two bad teams, though the degree to which each team is which remains debatable. I find it also includes two teams who know what they're doing and two teams stumbling around a bit, but we'll get into that as we go forward.
It's really inconsiderate of Vegas to set all these win-loss lines so close to what actually might happen. If they just set them all at either 0 or 17 wins, we'd be doing much better. It's an oversight in the process, I think.
Atlanta Falcons (5)
Cale: That takes us perfectly into our first team. The Atlanta Falcons finished just shy of their 2021 O/U of 7.5. The only problem? That 7-10 Falcons team also finished as the worst seven-win team in DVOA history, beating out the 1996 Arizona Cardinals with a total DVOA of -29.4%. So close, yet so, so far.
Bryan: I give some credit to the Falcons staff for realizing that they weren't as good as their record indicated, moving on from the Matt Ryan extension that was just becoming more onerous as the years went by. I'd love to know if the strategy was intentional, as it only happened after they started poking around at Deshaun Watson's availability, but I do think it's the right move in the long run.
Of course, the downside to that is the Falcons are playing this season with $63.2 million in dead money, the most in NFL history. They're basically playing with one arm tied behind their back from a financial perspective. Or, to quote Douglas Adams, they're spending the year dead for tax reasons.
Cale: I suppose it's almost better eating it all at once as opposed to hamstringing yourself for the foreseeable future. I am at least somewhat surprised with the talent they have managed to amass (outside the quarterback position). Cordarrelle Patterson had a career resurgence, going from a fine wideout to the best receiving back in the league, and elected to return to Atlanta in the offseason. He now joins rookie receiver Drake London and former unicorn Kyle Pitts, along with offseason additions in Auden Tate, Bryan Edwards, and Anthony Firkser. Not world-beaters by a long shot, but it's definitely better than the players Ryan was throwing to before he asked out.
Bryan: And, if they can convince their opponents to play them in basketball rather than football, they have the best receiving corps in the game. A land of giants lumbering out there; Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder will have a ton of plays this season which are "throw it up there and hope your big guy can out-jump their little guys."
I really like the cornerback group they have. AJ Terrell is a superstar, and Casey Hayward and Isaiah Oliver are a very solid two-three behind him. If you put that cornerback group on a contending team, you'd say wow, that is definitely … adequate to our needs. That is an acceptable group of players for a team intending to actually win football games.
Cale: A contending team the Falcons are not. You already mentioned Mariota, who had a fine (?) season serving as Derek Carr's backup in Las Vegas. But the last time he started a season was much less pretty. Mariota posted just one season in Tennessee with a positive passing DVOA, with numbers trending down from a ninth-best 11.1% finish in 2018. Mariota is poised to win the job, slated to start his first game since being usurped by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee.
The guys who are protecting him aren't great. Kaleb McGary has 84 blown pass blocks over the last three years, most over that span. Jalen Mayfield is last in snaps per blown block among all lineman (min. 500 snaps). Matt Hennessy's blown blocks doubled year-over-year from 2020, leading all centers in the category in 2021. Welcome back to a starting gig, Marcus. Hope you like running for your life!
Bryan: The front seven isn't much better. They recorded 1.1 sacks per game last season, fifth-worst since 1970. It's no surprise they used three of the first 100 picks in the draft on pass-rushers and brought in a passel of players in free agency. It looks like they'll have just four returning starters on defense, which makes sense if you watched literally any of their defense a year ago.
I think the underlying thing here is that there is potential up and down the roster, but not a lot in the way of actual proven talent. You can picture everything going well and young players developing and Year 2 going great for Arthur Smith, but that takes a lot of projection. Not everything will work out!
Cale: Yeah, the floor feels low for this team. Bottom-five in the league low. There's a lot of proving for this team to do, and if the Falcons had their druthers, I'd imagine they'd like that to be a slow build so they can continue to cash in on some top-end draft picks.
Bryan: The best-case scenario for the Falcons this year is probably being the Good Bad Team—the team with a losing record that is, nevertheless, a pain to play. A slightly upmarket version of last year's Lions, which found ways to be competitive into the fourth quarter more often than not. I think that's a realistic goal, especially if Desmond Ridder is, as Derrik Klassen said earlier this offseason, the most pro-ready of this year's rookie quarterbacks. To pick a team to go 4-13 or worse requires me to think that they have no hope whatsoever. I don't think that describes the Falcons this year, so I'm going to go with the over. Not a super-high over, but I think enough will go right that they'll be respectable; or at least respectably bad.
Cale: Yeah, there's too much talent on this team for them to truly bottom out, in my opinion. The thing is, though, I don't think they'll have a choice. I really don't think their 12th-best projected average opponent of 0.6% DVOA will help matters. The make-up of their schedule is rough, too. Kicking the year off with Saints, at Rams, at Seahawks, Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and at Cincinnati could be as bad as a 1-6 start. The team's bye doesn't come until Week 14. Morale could fall quickly. We can cite potential all we want, but I think an under is absolutely on the table here.
Carolina Panthers (6.5)
Bryan: Matt Rhule, in one of his first press conferences in training camp, said that his job was "not to pick the starting quarterback." Counterpoint: yes, it is? It's his own design! It's his own remorse, too. Perhaps we can help him to decide, if only by showing any footage of Sam Darnold's career at literally any point. Baker Mayfield has been an underwhelming first-round quarterback. Darnold has the second-worst DVOA in history for anyone with 1,500 pass attempts. And still, Rhule said he's not making any decisions yet. Welcome to your life, Panthers fans; there's no turning back.
Cale: The amount of draft capital spent in trades and draft picks, all to end up with a quarterback room of Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and Matt Corral, should be a case study in how not to build a football team.
Bryan: And it's not like ending up with Mayfield was in anyone's best interests. It's not exactly a match made in heaven. It's a team and player left alone in the bar at closing time, watching all the other prospects make their way out the door one by one. The Panthers and Mayfield were the last ones left in the room, and both knew they just couldn't go back to their old flames for another year. This is not the recipe for an optimistic 2022.
Cale: And even if Mayfield wins the job (which, after all this drama, I hope he does just to see that Week 1 Browns-Panthers matchup), this isn't a great situation for him. What did Baker have going for him in Cleveland? One of the best offensive lines in the league, coupled with a fantastic stable of running backs. What does he have now? Ikem Ekwonu seems like a great prospect and Taylor Moton improved in 2021, but it's a far cry from the Great Wall of Cleveland that protected Mayfield his first few years. Christian McCaffrey is elite when he's on the field, but that rarely happens. Despite the Panthers running the ball at a sixth-highest 43% rate in the first half and fifth-highest 69% rate in power situations, they still managed to rank 21st in rushing DVOA in 2021.
That being said, even injured 2021 Mayfield can do a better job through the air than the Panthers did with the combined efforts of Darnold, Cam Newton, and P.J. Walker last year, with a -24.2% passing DVOA.
Bryan: Yeah, no matter what your opinion is on Mayfield, he's an upgrade over what the Panthers chose to trot out last season. It's just baffling that it took them until July to actually pull the trigger on the trade, rather than getting things done during the draft. Congratulations, you probably saved a few dollars on the contract. And in turn, your projected QB1 missed the entire offseason program.
It may not be coming across, but I really don't trust Rhule's ability to lead this team. He is the only coach in the NFL who has missed the playoffs in the last two seasons, and we have yet to see really anything from him that justifies his spot in the league. His teams come out lackluster, they underperform their talent levels, he makes baffling personnel and in-game decisions. I'm not sure he's the worst coach in the league; there are plenty of people we haven't seen enough of yet. But he is the coach with the hottest of hot seats by a large margin.
By that metric, the Mayfield move makes a ton of sense—it raises the floor for the team. And if McCaffrey is healthy, that's a huge boost for any quarterback. And they got DJ Moore locked up to a contract just before the receiver market exploded, so there's a good personnel move. But I just don't understand the Panthers' long-term plan at all; it feels like we're all just waiting for the next regime to come in at this point.
Cale: With all that being said, I … like the defensive side of the ball? At least some of the pieces involved. I'm a really big fan of Brian Burns, and he has really emerged as one of the best young edge rushers in the league over the last few seasons. Jeremy Chinn has been fantastic and versatile, and the team gets Jaycee Horn back from injury as well. Shaq Thompson matured a lot as a player in 2021, improving as a linebacker in coverage and better diagnosed plays as a linebacker than he did in 2020. Donte Jackson is also solid as well when not banged up. I don't know if they'll be able to pull it all together, but a lot of the pieces are there for me.
Bryan: Everything you're saying is true, but even on the defense, I can find holes. Replacing Haason Reddick is a tough task; Burns needs running mates. Can Yetur Gross-Matos fill those shoes? We saw Horn for three games and have to hope that projects for an entire year. Our projections have the defense regressing some from last year, although I think the youth does give room for optimism as players continue to develop. And it's good that there's optimism there on the defensive side of the ball, as I really can't find it anywhere else on the roster.
I think the Panthers will be a little bit better than the Falcons for 2022, and that's all that matters for over/unders. But Carolina has a full 1.5 games more of wriggle room for the under, which matters a lot. And in the end, I can't stand Rhule's indecision, married with his lack of vision. I'm going for the under here, and best of luck to the next Panthers head coach and quarterback, neither of whom are currently on the roster.
Cale: There's a small part of me that feels like the Panthers bungle their ways to seven wins, somehow doing enough to keep Rhule in the building, and they just extend this circus a little longer. But you're right, those 1.5 extra wins are a big jump to get through. They also get a late bye—Week 13—and they have to take on some stiff competition before they get there. I like some of the pieces in place, but I want no part of this Panthers team in 2022. Under for me as well.
New Orleans Saints (8)
Bryan: Our projections really, really love the Saints this season. That made writing their chapter in the Almanac a little dicey, because I'm not fully on board with them as currently constructed. We have them as the best defense in football, which I suppose isn't a massive stretch; they were third last year, after all. A top-20 offense seems reachable, but I have far less confidence in Jameis Winston and company than the Projection Computer seems to have. I think losing Sean Payton is going to be a bigger blow than the projections are accounting for.
Cale: Am I crazy for thinking the talent added—especially at receiver—could help to mitigate some of that loss? If you slide the minimum play count all the way down to 200, RBSDM.com has Winston finishing second in EPA/Play behind only MVP Aaron Freakin' Rodgers. And he did that while throwing to the likes of Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty (née Harris), and Tre'Quan Smith. Now Michael Thomas is slated to return, Chris Olave joins the fold, and Jarvis Landry comes in as a quality third piece.
I also think (read: hope) Alvin Kamara is primed for a bounce-back year. Even when posting a career-worst and league-worst -95 rushing DYAR, he still managed to finish with 102 receiving DYAR, 11th best among running backs. Hopefully, he has healed up after his hamstring and knee injuries that nagged all season, but just the pure workload put on Kamara as a rusher should be alleviated slightly by having Mark Ingram II in as the second back. Kamara does not have his success as a bellcow back, and he cleared his previous rushing attempts total by almost 50 despite playing in a career-low 13 games.
Bryan: You're not crazy, but the word "if" is doing a lot of work throughout the Saints offense. It's fantastic news that Thomas has gotten cleared for practice, but we basically haven't seen a healthy Thomas in two years; we have no idea if he's going to be anything close to the same player who was arguably the best receiver in football at the tail end of the Drew Brees era. Olave is a rookie, so we're talking potential more than anything in practice; I have concerns about him being bullied off the ball by physical corners. Our numbers have never loved Landry, though I will acknowledge that I like the potential of Olave as the deep guy, Thomas as the intermediate guy, and Landry as the short guy. Kamara is coming off of his worst season by a significant margin, and he struggled no matter who was under center. And he's got his own lingering legal issues to deal with, so who knows how much he'll actually see the field. The offensive line is going to miss Terron Armstead.
And then that brings us back around to Winston. Winston's 13.6% passing DVOA would have been the second-best result of his career if he had racked up enough attempts to qualify, and he was never as bad as his 30-interception season would have you believe. But just as Winston was unlucky to throw 30 interceptions in Tampa Bay, he was fortunate to be as effective as he was last season. It's not like he completely changed his style around and became a Brees-esque game manager; he actually set a career low in on-target passes, per SIS charting. His play-by-play charting doesn't back up the kind of improvement his DVOA results show, and I fear without Payton he'll take a step or two backwards.
Cale: Yeah, this is not the offensive line of old, taking big bets on Cesar Ruiz and Trevor Penning with the loss of Armstead. I think there's just a little voice inside me rooting for the W-eating, crutch-dancing quarterback, hoping the first six years of established history is all written away by a seven-game pre-injury sample size that's really boosted by that Week 1 anomaly against the Packers.
Bryan: I do want to be clear that my pessimism is based on our 10.0-win projection from the Almanac as opposed to a "the Saints are going to be bad this year" sense. And also with a "you have mortgaged the future to keep this team together?" standpoint, which doesn't matter at all for 2022. And that defense? While I might not subjectively put them No. 1, look at that secondary and tell me that it doesn't strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye, Marshon Lattimore, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and then Paulson Adebo is there as well. They have an argument for the best secondary in the league, and that's before you throw in the pass rushing of Cam Jordan or the underrated Demario Davis in the middle. It's still weird to think of the Saints as being a defense-led team, but that's the world we live in now.
Cale: It's crazy for a team to lose players such as Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams but arguably upgrade with Mathieu and Maye. This is a team that already boasted the third-most coverage sacks in the league, according to SIS. A front seven of Jordan and Davis, along with small progressions from Marcus Davenport and a flash from David Onyemata obscured by injury, makes this defense very formidable. League-best might be a stretch for our model, but anything below a top-10 finish is definitely disappointing.
I'm confident enough to take the over on New Orleans. I think they have an outside chance to take the NFC South, at the very least securing a wild-card berth. It's the NFC, so you could feasibly get there even just winning eight, but this team was able to secure a 9-8 record with Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, and Ian Book all getting rides on the quarterback carousel. This defense holding water and the offense getting a big boost in skill position players gives me enough to ignore the major blow of losing a leader like Payton.
Bryan: Yeah, this team has strong 10-7, wild-card, first-round loss to Dallas vibes to me. They were a wild-card team until the closing minutes of Week 18 last year; I don't see any real reason why they wouldn't be at least in the conversation once again this year. It's the easiest pick for me in the division, a clear over at eight wins. I could see it pushing, potentially, but barring utter catastrophe, it's next to impossible for me to see this team racking up double-digit losses for the first time since 2005.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11.5)
Bryan: 20 years ago, when Football Outsiders was born, the writers were talking about whether Tom Brady could lead his team to a second Super Bowl win. Man, 2003 was such a crazy time.
Cale: We were so close to this being the first year in FO history without writing up Brady. A quick 40-day break and a pump-faked retirement later, and here we are again. The Brady-led Bucs lead the NFC in our average win projection and sit just behind Buffalo in our odds to win the Super Bowl. Same as it ever was.
Bryan: The Buccaneers are the strongest division favorites in the league (-250 at DraftKings as we write this), as well as the team with the best odds to make the playoffs in some capacity (-650). There are questions, for sure—and more now that it looks like Ryan Jensen is going to miss serious time with a knee injury—but they are mostly "how will these problems affect them in January?" issues as opposed to "can something derail the season?" issues. Like, how long will it take Chris Godwin to get back to full form? Well, that matters less with the additions of Russell Gage and Julio Jones. How will the interior line hold up without Jensen, Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa? Well, Shaq Mason's probably an upgrade over Cappa, and there are solid options elsewhere with Aaron Stinnie and Luke Goedeke. I have no significant worries for the Buccaneers offensively, unless this is finally the year Brady turns into a pumpkin.
Cale: I have zero concerns with the offense. Brady has done a lot more with a lot less to work with. Having Ke'Shawn Vaughn as RB2 and Giovani Bernard as a pass-catching back are decent contingency plans if Leonard Fournette's pre-camp weight concerns actually become an issue. I am genuinely worried about the loss of Jensen, but getting Mason in the fold should prompt a league investigation for collusion, especially at the price they got him.
Where I do have concerns, however, is the defense. I think the loss of Jordan Whitehead is really being undersold. He was fantastic against the run among defensive backs and a really important player in this passing defense in 2021. They added Logan Ryan to fill the whole, but I don't think that will be enough to ignore Whitehead's loss. The defensive front also gets a lot less formidable without Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul. Sure, both players are getting up there in age, but that's 8.5 combined sacks and 33 combined hurries left to fill from 2021. Pierre-Paul also finished as one of the best edge rushers against the run in 2021, finished fourth in run stop rate and eighth in rushing yards per attempt allowed.
Bryan: At the same time, JPP's 22 pressures and 6.5% pressure rate were both career lows, and Suh's 70% run stop rate was his worst since arriving in Tampa Bay. I don't think the pair of first-round talents in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Logan Hall are going to match what the old lions did during the 2020 Super Bowl run, but I think there were enough cracks in Suh and Pierre-Paul for the newbies to have a solid chance of emulating their 2021 production. You're right in that the Bucs really don't have a one-to-one replacement for Whitehead, and I have questions about the secondary elsewhere; they were really challenged last season due to injury and didn't make much of an effort to actually improve there.
But ultimately, I think the goal for the Buccaneers defense is "don't be bad enough to derail things," and I think they'll clear that bar with flying colors.
Cale: Does it concern you at all just how tough that front end of the schedule is? First two weeks on the road against Dallas and New Orleans (who has always given Brady fits, granted with Payton at the helm), then hosting Green Bay and Kansas City. I have no doubt this team can make a big playoff run, but getting to 11.5 wins could be an uphill battle if they don't get off to a good start against a really tough open.
Bryan: "Concern" might be a stretch, but I could see the Bucs starting 0-2, or failing to hit .500 throughout September; it is a brutal stretch to start the season. But on the whole, the schedule isn't that tough, it's just front-loaded. Four games against Atlanta and Carolina should help significantly and pad that win total. I'll admit that 11.5 is a tough bar to clear, and I'm nowhere near as confident here as I was with New Orleans or Atlanta, but I'm still taking the over. I have been burned too badly by Brady in the past, and I'd rather be a year late predicting his demise at this point.
Cale: I think they clear the over by the skin of their teeth, cutting it as close as 12-5. I'm in the same place as you—I can't bet against Brady, the receiving corps is strong, and I don't think the defensive losses will hold this team back too much, but the losses are starting to add up for me. No Godwin early, potentially no Jensen for the year, a slower Fournette, along with everything we have already mentioned, it's really getting tight for me. If the NFC as a whole wasn't so soft, I'd probably hammer the under, and even then I might change my mind if you gave me a few more days to think about it.
Bryan: It's good to see we're sticking with tradition, matching our picks in three out of four teams. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Cale: It wouldn't be a preseason betting guide without me second-guessing my gut and following the wisdom of the crowd!