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NFC South preview 2016: Cam Newton’s time

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton against the

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton against the New England Patriots during the first half of a preseason in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2016. Photo Credit: AP / Bob Leverone

A look at the NFC South heading into the 2016 NFL season, with teams listed in predicted order of finish.


COACH: Ron Rivera

6th season (47-32-1, .594)

LAST SEASON: 15-1, 1st place

PLAYOFFS: beat Seattle Seahawks, 31-24; beat Arizona, 49-15 in Conference Championship; lost to Denver, 26-20 (OT) in Super Bowl X.

OUTLOOK: The defending NFC champions go into the season with just about the same team that went to the Super Bowl, with one notable exception. The Panthers opted to rescind the franchise tag from top-tier cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with Washington. Cam Newton comes off an MVP season, and he gets back former first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed last year with a knee injury. The defense remains sound, despite Norman’s loss, with Luke Kuechly leading the way. Star Lotulelei, Kony Ealy, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis are also excellent defensive players. The big question is whether Carolina can break the recent run of bad luck among Super Bowl losers. No team that lost the Super Bowl one year has gotten back to the big dance since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.


COACH: Dirk Koetter

1st season

LAST SEASON: 6-10, 4th place

OUTLOOK: Quarterback Jameis Winston should benefit from his rookie season, and he appears to have a much firmer grasp of the system under new head coach Dirk Koetter. Former first-round pick Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson head a solid group of receivers, and tailback Doug Martin is coming off a 1,402-yard season. The defense is anchored by reliable tackle Gerald McCoy, and the Bucs went heavy on free agency by bringing in defensive tackle Robert Ayers, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith. This is a team that looks ready to take the next step and perhaps jump into the playoff conversation.


COACH: Sean Payton

11th season (87-57, .604)

LAST SEASON: 7-9, 3rd place

OUTLOOK: Payton signed a long-term contract in the off-season, and Drew Brees isn’t going anywhere, so this team will once again revolve around its two biggest personalities. The question now is whether there’s enough of a supporting cast to get the Saints back into playoff contention. Brees remains one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, and look for 2014 first-round receiver Brandin Cooks to be a major focus of the passing game. Newly-signed Coby Fleener also will see plenty of passes, and Mark Ingram returns as the feature back. Defense remains the big question mark. Second-year pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha is out with a torn ACL, and the Saints signed Paul Kruger after his release from Cleveland. Safety Jairus Byrd is healthy, and he teams with Kenny Vaccaro.


COACH: Dan Quinn

2nd season (8-8, .500)

LAST SEASON: 8-8, 2nd place

OUTLOOK: Quinn got off to a terrific start last year, but the Falcons flopped after beginning 6-0. Matt Ryan remains one of the league’s more efficient quarterbacks, but he had only 21 touchdown passes last season, down from a career high of 32 in 2012. Julio Jones is still a major receiving threat, and he’s joined this year by Bengals free agent Mohamed Sanu. Devonta Freeman leads a non-descript running attack. Quinn wants his defense to more closely resemble the Seahawks teams he ran as defensive coordinator, but 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley was a disappointment with just four sacks last season.

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