by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where we've saved the best for last. The two southern divisions may not feature the eventual Super Bowl winner, and they may not feature the crème de la crème of the NFL, but these promise to be the most competitive, most exciting, and most impactful division races in the NFL in 2018.
Andrew: "Impactful" is an interesting word, there. We're looking at two divisions that seem to always be wide open for one reason or another. In the case of the AFC South, that's usually because all four teams are near-equally bad in their own specific ways. In the case of the NFC South, it's usually because only the Panthers have anything that remotely resembles a professional-caliber defense, and that's usually compensated for by their mockery of an offensive line. My, how those trends have shifted in the past 12 months. Well, except the bit about the Panthers offensive line, which somehow might be even worse after the offseason shuffling.
Bryan: One of the big questions for 2018, then, is how much of the last 12 months is a permanent change, and how much of it was blips on the radar. And that's one of the things that makes the southern divisions so dang interesting. In most other divisions, you have some clear favorites and some people at the bottom, picking up the pieces. In the south, however, you could tell me that any single one of the eight teams would win their division, and I'd believe you. Sure, there are favorites and underdogs, but all eight teams are legitimate playoff contenders.
... OK, seven of the eight teams are legitimate playoff contenders, but still, that's pretty good, right?
All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.
Andrew: Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which division race is the most open of them all?
Bryan: I mean, it's the NFC South, but I see where you're going with this.
Andrew: I don't think all four teams in the NFC South have a realistic shot at winning the division, as their rosters stand in late August. I do think every team in this division has a realistic chance at winning it. Admittedly, that's because the NFC South has at least two teams better than any of the four squads in the AFC South, but I honestly think this is the most open division in the league as things stand right now.
Bryan: The vast amount of change plays into that a lot, as well. Two teams are making quarterback changes, with their hopes coming back from injury. There have been three new head coaches, albeit for only two teams. And even the "favorite," as it were, is a definite Plexiglass candidate. Exciting stuff. They only reason I'd slip the NFC South over the AFC South as most competitive is because I fear that come October, we'll see that a couple of these teams' changes have worked, while the others will fall flat, rather than all four being competitive commodities through the end of the year. But, hey, it's not October yet, so let's dig in and try to make sense of this wacky division.
HOUSTON TEXANS (8.5)
Last Over: 2016 (9-7, O'Brien/Osweiler)
Last Under: 2017 (4-12, O'Brien/Watson)
Andrew: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but everything for this team hinges on the quarterback. If Deshaun Watson is the savior he appeared to be during his brief rookie cameo last October, this team is probably the prohibitive favorite for the division. If he is still pretty good but not transcendent, they're in the hunt. If he falls back to Earth with a thud, they're probably looking to play spoiler while they attempt to rebuild the rest of the offense around him. We got a dazzling flash of potential last year, but one so brief that it's almost impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion from it for the future.
Bryan: Houston and San Francisco get grouped together a lot -- teams that could be great if their flash-in-the-pan quarterback ends up being an actual thing. Houston's clearly a rung better for me, though, because of the possibility of a defensive resurgence. After all, Watson's not the only injured superstar coming back in 2018, and the defensive guy actually has, you know, an extensive track record of being otherworldly.
Andrew: He also, however, has a much more extensive recent track record of being injured. J.J. Watt has played a total of eight games in the past two years, and played through a severe groin injury the previous December too.
Bryan: This is true. But if Watt (and, to a lesser but by no means insignificant extent, Whitney Mercilus) comes back at any significant percentage at what he is capable of, this could be a very good defense once again. Even if Watson and the offense are only average, that could be enough to be the third-best team in an admittedly weak AFC.
Andrew: That's the problem with any projection of this year's Texans. Two of their three best players, and three of probably their top five or six, are returning from major injuries. We don't have a clue what we'll get from their second-year quarterback, but we do know that his offensive line was a wreck last season and shows little sign of improvement this year. DeAndre Hopkins is a terrific receiver, but the rest of the corps ranges in quality from variable (Will Fuller) to subpar (Bruce Ellington, Sammie Coates). The secondary should be reasonably good, but if the stars of the front seven aren't healthy there isn't a whole lot of depth to make up for it. A nine-win season is realistic, but a six- or seven-win season would also be far from a shock. I think I'm going to play the percentages here: significantly reduced production from the quarterback; lingering injury effects on the defense; and the rough sledding of the NFC East hold the team in the region of 8-8 or 7-9. Put me down for the under on a team with too many unanswered questions.
Bryan: I'd rather have a team with unanswered questions than certain problems. Watson was a revelation last year, and I like the odds of the defense rebounding to what it has historically been, with a bit of better health and a bit of better luck. The offensive line is probably going to be real bad, I will grant you, and no, the skill position players don't overly thrill me. But there's enough potential here for me to be comfortable with the Over.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (6.5)
Last Over: 2016 (8-8, Pagano/Luck)
Last Under: 2017 (4-12, Pagano/Brissett)
Andrew: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but everything for this team hinges on the quarterback. If Andrew Luck is the same Andrew Luck he was 18 months or so ago -- when we last saw him -- the Colts are a wild-card contender at a minimum. If he's anything less ... this roster is not exactly poised to make up for it.
Bryan: Breaking news this week is that Luck is sidelined with what is being described as a "minor" foot injury, and he'll miss about a week of practice. Normally, this wouldn't be worthy of note; people get banged up all the time. When you consider that Luck was definitely, absolutely going to start Week 1 of last season per the Colts, though...
Andrew: This, at least, is a different coaching staff -- indeed, this is at least the second different head coach the Colts have announced since the last time Luck threw a regular-season pass.
Bryan: We were out during the Colts' head coaching kerfuffle this offseason, so let me put my thoughts here.
Andrew: You're too kind.
Bryan: I'm not even sure who I'm laughing at. The Colts, for getting spurned by McDaniels? McDaniels, for torpedoing any chances he'll get a head coaching job outside of New England ever again? Maybe just the social media staff who had all the "New Head Coach Josh McDaniels" posts and graphics and Tweets up for an embarrassingly long time as everything crashed and burned. Lesson to be learned here, kids -- nothing's confirmed until the ink's dry.
Andrew: That said, there is at least the possibility that the Colts fell into a superior head coach by falling out of favor with their preferred option. At the very least, Frank Reich ought to be an upgrade over Chuck Pagano. Also, unlike his Houston counterpart, Andrew Luck does have an extensive track record of franchise quarterback-level performance prior to his lengthy injury layoff. Assuming that Luck is the Luck of old, there's more of certainty to like about the Colts offense than there is in Houston.
The defense, on the other hand...
Bryan: At least the defense is projected to be almost entirely new, which can't be a negative. Change for change's sake isn't great, but when you were the last-ranked pass defense in the league a year ago, there's not a lot of other ways to go but "up."
Andrew: This is not unfamiliar territory for Colts fans. It feels like forever that they've been waiting to see whether the defense can do just enough, or whether it's another year of winning roughly half the games 45-42 and losing the other half 42-24.
Bryan: To be fair, while it has been over a decade since the Colts last had a good defense, it hasn't been that long since they were an above-average squad. There's plenty of signs for positive regression here, too -- as we mentioned in FOA 2018, the Colts had the third-worst third-down defense we've ever recorded, and that has to bounce back towards the mean, likely in a dramatic fashion. Getting off the field occasionally will help everybody.
Andrew: Well, teams don't really regress toward the mean dramatically, but I take your point.
Bryan: We're stats nerds. All regression is dramatic and exciting.
Andrew: Especially positive regression, just because it confuses people when you expect a team to regress and be better for it. I expect this year's Colts to regress. I expect this year's Colts to be better for it. Not by much, but the bar isn't especially high. If Luck is the Luck we remember, this team ought to finish over 6.5 wins.
Bryan: Yeah, I think a winning season might be too much to ask for; this is a team going through a bit of a rebuild. But 6.5 seems insultingly low; I suppose it's in large part fear of Luck's health. Assuming the duct tape and chicken wire holding his shoulder together lasts for a full season, I think the over should be a fairly easy hit.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (9)
Last Over: 2017 (10-6, Marrone/Bortles)
Last Under: 2016 (3-13, Bradley/Bortles)
Andrew: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but everything for this team hinges on the quarterback. If Blake Bortles can sustain last year's improvement in efficiency and interception rate, the Jaguars are probably the favorites for the division. In the very unlikely event that he improves further, they may be the favorites for the conference. In the more likely event that he regresses -- there we go again -- they're going to have to win a lot of games 10-3 to have a chance at making noise in the postseason. Alternatively, there's always Cody Kessler!
Bryan: So, I take it you're not buying into Blake Bortles, Average NFL Passer.
Andrew: Uh, no. I watched the Buffalo playoff game. And very many other games. In fact, if the second half of the New England playoff game is any indication, the Jaguars coaching staff isn't buying into that either. Blake Bortles remains the only quarterback I've seen give up an interception while trying to throw the ball into the ground on a failed screen. Bortles is probably not the worst starter in the league, but he probably is the worst starter in the division. I think it very likely that the Jaguars will be taking a long, hard look at quarterback options at the end of this season.
Bryan: It feels like last year, we got the best possible version of Bortles, being placed into the best situations and given the easiest tasks you can expect from a starting quarterback. It seems ... somewhat unlikely the road will be as smooth in 2018.
Andrew: I always struggle against the urge to regurgitate what I wrote for the book in these columns, but the Jaguars are very unlikely to be able to shield Bortles again the way they could in 2017. He's still the same quarterback as always; the circumstances just changed enough last year to make up for it. Any regression at all from a defense stacked with statistical outliers, and the Jaguars could be in real trouble.
Bryan: Statistical outliers like being exceptionally healthy, ending nearly a sixth of drives with a turnover, and having a nearly unsustainably high sack rate, all against a weak slate of offensive opponents?
Andrew: Well I might argue that all sack rates are effectively unsustainable, because from what I can tell adjusted sack rate is insanely variable from year to year, but yes. Statistical outliers like those. Plus, on offense they just lost their No. 1 receiver (Marqise Lee) for the year to injury, after their previous No. 1 (Allen Robinson) and No. 3 (Allen Hurns) receivers left in free agency. That's a lot of receiving talent drain in a short period of time. It's likely that at least two of their divisional opponents improved, whereas it's very difficult to see where the Jaguars could be any better this year than they were last.
Bryan: As for the receiving corps, I quite like both Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole, though I liked them a lot better with Marqise Lee alongside them. While I agree that I don't see a lot of ways in which Jacksonville is obviously better in 2018, I also don't see, at least from a personnel standpoint, a lot of ways in which they got worse. So, they're going to have to overcome mediocre quarterback play with outstanding defensive play? Worked for 'em last season!
Andrew: Sure, it worked for them last year ... to the tune of 10-6 with the best pass defense in the league, in a division with two 4-12 opponents, against a much easier projected slate of opposing offenses. That's not a lot of margin for the over on a nine-win line. Do I think the Jaguars are likely to collapse to another five-win season? Not unless they're an injury outlier in the opposite direction this year. Neither do I, however, anticipate another ten-win season. This basically comes down to whether I think 8-8 is more likely than 10-6. Much to my own disappointment, that's exactly what I think. Under.
Bryan: I agree -- I think the division is basically going to tear each other to pieces, and that's going to limit just how many wins any one team can get. I find it doubtful that everything will work as smoothly in 2018 as it did last year for the Jags, so I'll take the under, as well.
TENNESSEE TITANS (8)
Last Over: 2017 (9-7, Mularkey/Mariota)
Last Under: 2015 (3-13, Mularkey/Mariota)
Andrew: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but everything for this team ... wait, no, this is the one team in the division whose quarterback is not an especially huge question mark ahead of the new season. Instead, it's pretty much everything else about the Titans that's unclear, due to the oft-rumored but ultimately unexpected January coaching changes.
Bryan: Going from Exotic Smashmouth to the Kubiak/Shanahan/McVay system that Matt LaFleur is bringing in should be exciting times for Titans fans, as well as fans of offense and good, non-frustrating football in general.
Andrew: I'm both excited and apprehensive about the Titans this season. I've been a longtime fan of both the Kubiak-Shanahan offense and Marcus Mariota, so seeing them together probably excites me more than almost anybody else. I also, however, recognise that it took Matt Ryan a full year to grasp Kyle Shanahan's version of the offense. Jimmy Garoppolo seemed to take to it more quickly, but it's very difficult to tell where Mariota will settle between those two extremes. I'm also assuming that LaFleur adopts a reasonable facsimile of that McVay/Shanahan/Kubiak outside zone play-action-based scheme, as implied by pretty much everything he has said over the offseason.
Bryan: LaFleur has also never been a primary playcaller, so that's another uncertainty going forward. A lot of inexperience among the coaching staff, going right up to the top with new head coach Mike Vrabel, with a whopping one year of defensive coordinator experience under his belt before getting a head coaching gig. That's a pretty meteoric rise.
Andrew: A lot of inexperience among the players, too. Mariota's entering his fourth season, but that's already more experience than anybody in the receiving corps except Delanie Walker and the currently injured Rishard Matthews. Dion Lewis is the veteran back -- would you believe, he was picked in the 2011 draft? -- but even he barely has one full season's worth of carries (329) across those seven years as a professional. Derrick Henry has almost as many carries in just two seasons splitting time with DeMarco Murray. It's exceptionally tough to know what the Titans will be on offense, because we don't have a whole lot on which to base our evaluations of either the players or the coaches. I think I expect them to be better for the change, eventually, but I'm just not confident that it will happen this season.
Bryan: It's not that much easier to figure out the defense, to be honest. Sure, more of the players are the same, but the scheme should be quite different under Dean Pees. Again, change is probably a good thing here, considering that the Titans were actively bad in pass defense a year ago, but it makes it hard to really project them going forward, as well. Honestly, this much change is usually limited to franchises that have been struggling significantly, not one that made the playoffs a year ago. Full credit to the owners for realizing that the Mularkey era had a pretty fixed ceiling and taking proactive steps to try to become a good team rather than just an alright team, but it makes projecting 2018 really, really difficult.
Andrew: Again, a lot of this is a rehash of the Titans chapter from the book, but it's no less true now than it was then. The Titans should be better in the long term for running a modern offense, and Dean Pees had a much better run in Baltimore than most fans -- perhaps especially Ravens fans -- would realize. There is a lot of talent in this secondary, and I like the top three edge rushers -- though there are definitely question marks behind them, as evidenced by the trade for Kamalei Correia, a player for whom even Pees did not really find a consistent role in Baltimore. The defensive line is probably the second-best in the division, at least unless Watt is immediately back to the sort of form that demands an exclamation point on every mention of his name. There's a lot to sort-of-like about the Titans, but very little in which to be more than passably confident. Which makes an 8-8 line the most obvious yet, to me at least, utterly frustrating line of this entire series.
Bryan: Yeah, this is a situation where I hate whole-number lines. We're being asked if the Titans will be better or worse than average, when there's a very good chance they'll just be exactly average for a year as all these moving parts whir up to speed. I'm going to lean, ever so slightly, towards the over. The Titans' uncertainty comes with adapting to schemes on both offense and defense we know have been successful elsewhere, as opposed to players coming back from injury or repeating uncharacteristically good seasons. When it comes to uncertainty, that's the kind I prefer -- nothing is ever a lock, but it feels like the Titans are going to be good sooner or later. WIth the chances that one of the other three teams could slip back in a big way, I'll cringe and point towards the over for Tennessee.
Andrew: I see roughly six or seven games I think I would favor the Titans to win, versus three I would certainly expect them to lose. That's enough to very tentatively have me leaning also toward the over, though it ought to be very, very close. The pass defense should be better. The offensive scheme should be better. The opponents should also be better. This is very tight. Over.
Bryan: I said in the lede that the southern divisions might not feature the best-of-the-best, though the NFC South is going to at least put those claims to the test. The Saints were one of the top teams last year, and the Falcons and Panthers have each gone to the Super Bowl in the last three years.
The Buccaneers are here, too.
ATLANTA FALCONS (9)
Last Over: 2017 (10-6, Quinn/Ryan)
Last Under: 2015 (8-8, Quinn/Ryan)
Andrew: The last time I looked at the Falcons in any real depth was shortly after the draft, when we looked at the biggest remaining holes and undrafted free agents for each team. At the time, the only potential hole I could find on the Falcons was coaching. If anything, that has become even more evident over the course of the offseason: this roster is loaded. If these coaches can get this roster playing anywhere near its potential, the Falcons should be easily one of the best teams in the conference. Post-Kyle Shanahan, that has so far been a pretty huge "if."
Bryan: There are good reasons to expect the play calling, at least on offense, to improve in 2018. It's not that Steve Sarkisian was a bad playcaller, per se -- the Falcons were just about as good in 2017 as they were in 2016 in every place on the field and every game situation ... except for the important ones. They marched down the field into the red zone, and got jammed up. They did great on first downs, and not so great on third downs. They were great in the first quarter, and not in the fourth. Obviously, this is somewhat less than ideal, but it's certainly better than an offense struggling everywhere. I blame a significant portion of the offense's 2017 struggles on unfamiliarity. Last offseason, Sarkisian had a grand total of eight plays, including both training camp and preseason, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Devonta Freeman on the field at the same time. Possibly as a result, Sarkisian ended up running a decent, vanilla offense, opposed to one that actually played to the strengths of the specific players he had available.
Andrew: Even on defense, the Falcons have a bunch of young players with heaps of potential, but who have never quite been able to corral those into an effective whole. It seems like we've been waiting for the Falcons defense to mature together for two full seasons now. A defense with Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen ... such a defense ought to do better than 20th against run and pass. I still believe that they will, at least against the pass, but I've been expecting the same for a couple of years now. If it doesn't happen, as with the offense, I'm inclined to blame the coaching, because the roster has a wealth of talent.
Bryan: I'm higher on the offense figuring it out in 2018 than the defense. They have shown they can do it before, which helps, but they're also getting another year with Sarkisian -- more time to actually figure out how to merge his ideas with the players available. Replacing Taylor Gabriel -- a talented receiver, yes, but one with a fairly unique body type and usage requirements -- with Calvin Ridley ain't gonna hurt, either. As for the defense, they've been on the cusp of being a top-ten, top-five unit for years now, and they just ... can't ... get ... over the hump. Whole less than the sum of its parts.
Andrew: At the very least, the Falcons-Saints rivalry should continue to be a doozy. There have been some phenomenal games between these two in recent seasons. Atlanta is probably a beat behind in terms of the division, just because the Saints had such a good draft class last year, but I really think the Falcons are one of the best teams in the NFL. There is not a team in the league I would be confident would beat them next year. That doesn't mean I'm crazy -- teams lose games all the time -- but assuming reasonable injury luck, ten wins ought to be almost a requirement, not just a possibility, for this roster against this schedule. I'm probably crazy for this, but I strongly fancy the Falcons to go over in possibly the best divisional race in the sport.
Bryan: That's a bold stance! The Falcons have the second-toughest schedule in the league, by our metrics, and playing in the NFC South is going to cause some serious attrition. I feel 9-7 is just about the right call for the Falcons, making this line a very difficult one for me. I was leaning towards the over myself -- there's a lot of potential here -- but I think I'm going to take the under just to be contrary, because it's always good for us to maybe not agree on everything all the time. They're going to be a rung or two under the top teams in the league.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (9)
Last Over: 2017 (11-5, Rivera/Newton)
Last Under: 2016 (6-10, Rivera/Newton)
Bryan: The question for me and Carolina is how is the marriage between Cam Newton and Norv Turner going to work out? Turner has a very solid track record as an offensive coordinator, but he has never worked with a quarterback anything like Newton.
Andrew: Few offensive coordinators have.
Bryan: Much of Turner's track record was made quite some time ago, as well -- in an era where teams are turning more and more to young, innovative new offensive minds to run their teams, bringing in Turner doesn't exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, Turner has got some decent performances out of some very poor quarterbacks in his time in the league. The last time he had a really good quarterback was Philip Rivers in San Diego, when he churned out a bunch of top-ten and top-five offenses. So I'm probably a bit higher on the move than others might be.
Andrew: You would expect, given a player like Newton and an open choice of coordinator, most head coaches would look to a college coach for somebody who could get the best out of a run-and-gun quarterback. Norv Turner is not the name I readily associate with spread concepts, designed quarterback runs, and the option game. I do, however, associate him with the deep ball, and Newton is one of the best deep passers in the league.
Bryan: This year, Newton actually has a bunch of people to catch those deep passes, too. This might be the deepest collection of skill position players Newton has ever had to work with. Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess, and rookie D.J. Moore are a pretty good one-two-three punch out wide; three different receivers with their own strengths, rather than the Twin Towers approach the Panthers tried for so many years under Mike Shula. Then you have Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright, not to mention Christian McCaffrey. All of a sudden, that's not a bad selection of weapons.
Andrew: Color me unimpressed. Devin Funchess has never been the receiver his body type suggests he ought to be. Greg Olsen is a decent player, but he's 33 years old and lost half of last season to injury. Torrey Smith had a few good seasons when Joe Flacco was still the future of the Ravens franchise, but hasn't done much over the past couple of years in San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Bryan: I see what you're saying, sure, but compare it to all the other weapons Carolina has given Newton over the years. Or lack thereof, I suppose.
Andrew: Certainly true. Even so, the biggest question on the offense is yet again not the lack of star power in the receiver spots, but the lack of any power whatsoever at offensive tackle.
Bryan: Guard, too, is a disaster area with Andrew Norwell gone. The offensive line issues are going to work really well in an offense designed to go deep early and often. Turner's offenses ask their linemen to hold their blocks a little longer than average, and that does not appear to be this line's skill set.
Andrew: I'm not really sure what does appear to be this line's skill set. Matt Kalil is the Panthers' best tackle. That is suboptimal. Newton is a big man, but I hope the Panthers aren't planning to model his pocket game after Ben Roethlisberger. That seems a sure way to see more ... wait, Derek Anderson isn't here anymore … umm Garrett Gilbert? Are you sure? More Garrett Gilbert or Taylor Heinicke than anybody hopes to see this season.
Bryan: The defense at least looks good. At least, if you zoom in. The further you pull back, the more likely you are to see the defensive backfield, and agh! No no no, zoom back in to that front seven, filled with absolute studs, and ignore the massive question marks they have with their cornerbacks and safeties. Because when you're facing a schedule with Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Marvin Jones, Doug Baldwin, Michael Thomas, and Josh Gordon, what you really want are an aging Mike Adams, James Bradberry, and a random assortment of rookies in coverage.
Andrew: That has been the Panthers' modus operandi for years, though. Even Josh Norman was a fifth-round pick turned good, not a highly drafted stud. James Bradberry has quietly developed into a good cornerback, albeit not a shutdown guy. Star front seven, discount backfield has been the Ron Rivera way. The problem, as I see it, is that the defensive line has shallowed out considerably. Julius Peppers is almost a guaranteed starter. Julius Peppers is 38. Wes Horton, Bryan Cox, and Daeshon Hall should contribute, but it's hardly the heyday of Charles Johnson and Jared Allen.
Bryan: It sounds like we're both leaning towards the under, here. This isn't really the division to be dealing with a bunch of question marks going in, and of the four teams in the division, Carolina has the most question marks.
Andrew: The highest number of question marks, sure. I generally expect the Panthers to be solid, but I don't think solid will get you much in the 2018 NFC South. 8-8 and 7-9 both look more likely outcomes to me than 9-7, and the line's comfortably high enough to spare me any reservations about taking the under.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (9.5)
Last Over: 2017 (11-5, Payton/Brees)
Last Under: 2016 (7-9, Payton/Brees)
Bryan: Oh, so that's what it looks like when you give Drew Brees an actual NFL defense. I had forgotten!
Andrew: Brees continues his record of making the playoffs in New Orleans every time he has a defense rank higher than 24th in DVOA. Now, the huge question for me, is will they sustain it? We've seen time and again how teams that make a big leap on defense tend to regress a little the following year. 22nd was enough for Atlanta to make the playoffs last year. We have to expect the Saints to be better than that, regression or no regression, surely?
Bryan: The next time Brees gets two good defensive performances in back-to-back seasons will be the first, but it really feels like the Saints hit on a golden generation in last year's draft. I just worry that they're not getting better when compared to what the rest of the conference is doing -- they're sort of standing still while everyone else is loading up. They might have worse results just because other people are taking steps forward.
Andrew: I guess the question there is what would you have them do? The secondary is one of, if not the youngest in the league. They added an edge rusher in the first round of the draft -- though I wish they had added a different player, and I really wish they hadn't traded up -- and get Alex Okafor back from injury after he made a strong start last time out. The interior defensive line is solid enough, given that the position's importance has diminished recently absent a transcendentally great player like Aaron Donald or Ndamukong Suh. The linebackers remain naff, but pretty much every other position is set up well. The one other exception might be tight end, but Benjamin Watson should be alright there as a one-season rental.
Bryan: I will grant you that it's more perception than reality, but still. The Rams imported four Pro Bowl-quality players. The Vikings upgraded at quarterback. The Packers are getting Aaron Rodgers back. The Eagles are getting Carson Wentz back, as well as bringing in reinforcements on defense. These are the Saints' competition, and I don't think there's anything the Saints did that matches those upgrades. Trading up for a project at edge rusher in the draft was about the boldest move they made, and I'm not mega-thrilled with it.
All that being said, having a really good team is one thing; having a really good young team is even better. WIth the exceptions of Brees, Ted Ginn, and Max Unger, every significant contributor for the Saints last season was in their 20s. That bodes really well going forward, even if the drumbeat of Life After Brees gets louder with each passing offseason.
Andrew: That's a big part of why I wanted them to draft a quarterback this year. I can imagine no better situation for a young guy to step into. The young defense has the potential to be good for a couple of years at least, until people need to get paid. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are terrific players in their respective roles. The offensive line is consistently a top-five unit. Sean Payton is a creative, talented offensive coach. A rookie would love this. Drew Brees should love this. The Saints should, like the Falcons, be looking at ten wins as a minimum requirement. If not, it means either Brees fell apart or the defense fell to Earth with an almighty thud. Absent either of those, this should be one of the better teams in a loaded conference, and should certainly be looking at the over. Yes, even on a line of 9.5.
Bryan: If I'm going with the under for both Atlanta and Carolina, I'm not sure how I could logically go with anything but the over for New Orleans, barring your 2018 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I worry about Brees' arm, as the Saints go to more of a dink-and-dunk passing game. I worry about Kamara's ability to repeat his phenomenal rookie season as he gets more of a workload in 2018. I worry about the defense repeating its great season, because the Saints have never shown an ability to do that. But in the end, I think the Saints will be one of the top two or three teams in the conference.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6.5)
Last Over: 2016 (9-7, Koetter/Winston)
Last Under: 2017 (5-11, Koetter/Winston)
Andrew: Hey, you were right! The Buccaneers do play in this division, too. We should probably say something about them.
Bryan: We can say they're going to start 0-3, with Jameis Winston suspended and a Saints/Steelers/Eagles trifecta to open the year.
Andrew: Remember when we could have said "ah, but Nick Foles!" in response to that mention of Philadelphia? Those were simpler times.
I almost feel bad for the Buccaneers -- not so much their quarterback, who is rapidly becoming known more for bad decisions off the field than for bad decisions on it, but the fans and rest of the roster. In another division, say the AFC South, the Buccaneers would be considered a serious contender. Their receiving corps is so good, it's difficult to see how they'll keep all of their top SIX(!!!) playmakers involved in the offense. They added a ton of defensive line talent around Gerald McCoy, with perennial Pro Bowl snub Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander behind them. That front seven could be one of the best in the game, and I don't think there's another receiving corps anywhere in the league as good as Tampa Bay's, but that's it. There is nothing else, anywhere on the roster. Oh, there's potential in the defensive secondary, but it's a trio of rookies, a second-year safety, and Chris Conte, who will apparently be manning one safety spot for the Buccaneers until the inevitable heat death of the universe. The offensive line is Ali Marpet, recently converted back to the guard spot from which he was converted to center last summer, and a bunch of other big guys who have little else to recommend them. The special teams unit just scored their first return touchdown in a decade ... on a field goal return. In preseason. Way to blow your load before the real action starts, guys. In real games, they've been below average since roughly 1976.
Bryan: ...You've been waiting to get that off your chest for a while, haven't you?
Andrew: It's pretty much last year's Buccaneers with a better defensive line. A much, much better defensive line, sure, but they still need sooo much secondary help that throwing their first round pick at another defensive lineman instead of, say, Minkah Fitzpatrick seems almost reckless.
Bryan: Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. One of Tampa Bay's problems on defense last season was that they didn't do a single thing well. They ranged from below average to outright disastrous in pretty much any situation. Couldn't you make the argument that, by placing so many resources in one spot, they are attempting to find a something that they're good at? Something to build around? Maybe we're talking a multi-year rebuilding project, but if Vita Vea, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Vinny Curry mesh well with Gerald McCoy on the defensive line, maybe that's the identity they're looking for.
Andrew: There is an interesting conversation to be had around that philosophy, but the Buccaneers don't really fit that rebuilding mold. They did not pay DeSean Jackson to join a rebuilding roster. The only one of the big defensive line additions who won't be over 30 before the end of the season is Beau Allen. Their best cornerback is 35 years old. They need to make a big decision on their young quarterback, and they need to make it soon. This team needs a strong season, but they're in completely the wrong division for the relative strengths and weaknesses they possess.
Bryan: One of the interesting things about this line was that it opened in April at 6.5. Then the Winston suspension news came down and the line ... stayed at 6.5. That's really quite bizarre!
Andrew: The simple explanation for that is Ryan Fitzpatrick. The one position we haven't really discussed at which the Buccaneers do have strong depth is quarterback. Fitzpatrick's nobody's franchise quarterback, but he's consistently one of the best -- and oddly, one of the most-used -- backups in the game. Also, looking at the schedule that you already mentioned, I doubt having Jameis Winston available over Ryan Fitzpatrick would make an appreciable difference to the Buccaneers' record in September.
Bryan: Against that schedule, maybe not. Then again, if the defensive additions work out as Tampa Bay hopes and they can generate a pass rush, and if Winston were to take another step forward, I wouldn't have put wins over either Philly or Pittsburgh at home out of the question. The ceiling's not as high with Fitzpatrick, though he provides a comfortable floor.
To get to seven wins, Tampa Bay needs to upset somebody, and not having Winston for two home games really reduces the chance of that happening. I'm going with the under here.
Andrew: In the famous words of Don Meredith, "if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas." I'd like the Buccaneers to be successful. Specifically, I'd like to see DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin and Cameron Brate and some other players to be successful. In this division, I don't see how this roster can possibly have that success. Even with the bar as low as 6.5, I'm taking the under. Which probably means we'll be discussing a new coaching staff here this time next year.
Bryan: That means, after going through all 32 teams, we disagree on a grand total of ... seven. OK, there might be a small hive mind effect in operation at Scramble Headquarters.
Andrew: Clearly, we simply have priority access to Universal Football Truth.
Bryan: For the record -- and so we can mock each other in about four months -- here are where you and I differ.
Andrew: At least it's an odd number, so we shouldn't end up tied.
Bryan: Unless Baltimore or Atlanta pushes. I HATE whole-number lines.
That's it for the Over/Under roundup, but not for preseason Scramble! We'll have one more coming your way, looking at some of the awards and statistical leaders for 2018, as well as putting yet more official predictions into the books to point at and laugh come December. You won't want to miss it!
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