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NFC South over/unders: How high can the Falcons fly?

Bryan: Hello, and welcome again to a different season right here at Football Outsiders—the twentieth 12 months we have now been overlaying the league! What began as one man’s frustration with columnists and coaches saying that teams should run the ball more has blossomed right into a mighty pool of writers and analysts … pissed off with columnists and coaches saying that teams should run the ball more. Plus ça change.

Not that all the things’s the similar, thoughts you! We’re shuffling issues round a bit and including a brand new coat of paint as we prep for Year 20, freshening issues up as we transfer ahead. One of these adjustments is a special particular person trying to beat me as we undergo the league’s over/unders. Everyone say hello to Cale Clinton, recognized on this website for contributing to Week in Quotes, Any Given Sunday and different options. I’m gonna go straightforward on him, which will likely be my excuse for my horrible, horrible predictions come January.

Cale: Happy to have the alternative to provide it my all. It can’t be that tough, proper?

Bryan: To make issues a little bit simpler on us, we’re beginning off with the NFC South, a division pretty clearly delineated into two good groups and two dangerous groups, although the diploma to which every group is which stays debatable. I discover it additionally consists of two groups that know what they’re doing and two groups stumbling round a bit, however we’ll get into that as we go ahead.

It’s actually thoughtless of Vegas to set all these win-loss traces so near what truly would possibly occur. If the oddsmakers simply set all of them at both 0 or 17 wins, we might be doing significantly better. It’s an oversight in the course of, I believe.

Atlanta Falcons (5)

Cale: That takes us completely into our first group. The Atlanta Falcons completed simply shy of their 2021 O/U of seven.5. The solely downside? That 7-10 Falcons group additionally completed as the worst seven-win group in DVOA historical past, beating out the 1996 Arizona Cardinals with a complete DVOA of -29.4%. So shut, but so, to this point.

Bryan: I give some credit score to the employees for realizing that the Falcons weren’t pretty much as good as their file indicated, shifting on from the Matt Ryan extension that was simply turning into extra onerous as the years glided by. I’d like to know if the technique was intentional, because it solely occurred after they began poking round at Deshaun Watson’s availability, however I do assume it is the proper transfer in the future.

Of course, the draw back to that’s the Falcons are enjoying this season with $63.2 million in lifeless cash, the most in NFL historical past. They’re mainly enjoying with one arm tied behind their backs from a monetary perspective. Or, to cite Douglas Adams, they’re spending the 12 months lifeless for tax causes.

Cale: I suppose it is nearly higher consuming it all of sudden versus hamstringing your self for the foreseeable future. I’m a minimum of considerably shocked with the expertise they’ve managed to amass (exterior the quarterback place). Cordarrelle Patterson had a profession resurgence, going from a superb wideout to the greatest receiving again in the league, and elected to return to Atlanta in the offseason. He now joins rookie receiver Drake London and former unicorn Kyle Pitts, together with offseason additions in Auden Tate, Bryan Edwards and Anthony Firkser. Not world-beaters by a protracted shot, however they’re positively higher than the gamers Ryan was throwing to earlier than he requested out.

Bryan: If they can persuade their opponents to play them in basketball somewhat than soccer, they’ve the greatest receiving corps in the sport, a land of giants lumbering on the market. Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder could have a ton of performs this season which are “throw it up there and hope your big guy can out-jump their little guys.”

I actually like the cornerback group they’ve. AJ Terrell is a famous person, and Casey Hayward and Isaiah Oliver are a really stable two-three behind him. If you set that cornerback group on a contending group, you’d say wow, that’s positively … ample to our wants. That is an appropriate group of gamers for a group intending to truly win soccer video games.

Cale: A contending group the Falcons are usually not. You already talked about Mariota, who had a superb (?) season serving as Derek Carr’s backup in Las Vegas, however the final time he began a season was a lot much less fairly. Mariota posted only one season in Tennessee with a optimistic passing DVOA, with numbers trending down from a ninth-best 11.1% end in 2018. Mariota is poised to win the job, slated to begin his first sport since being usurped by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee.

The guys who’re defending him aren’t nice. Kaleb McGary has 84 blown move blocks over the final three years, most over that span. Jalen Mayfield is final in snaps per blown block amongst all lineman (min. 500 snaps). Matt Hennessy’s blown blocks doubled year-over-year from 2020, main all facilities in the class in 2021. Welcome again to a beginning gig, Marcus. Hope you want working to your life!

Bryan: The entrance seven is not significantly better. They recorded 1.1 sacks per sport final season, fifth-worst since 1970. It’s no shock they used three of the first 100 picks in the draft on pass-rushers and introduced in a passel of gamers in free company. It appears to be like like they’re going to have simply 4 returning starters on protection, which is sensible in the event you watched actually any of their protection a 12 months in the past.

I believe the underlying factor right here is that there’s potential up and down the roster however not lots in the manner of precise confirmed expertise. You can image all the things going effectively and younger gamers growing and Year 2 going nice for Arthur Smith, however that takes numerous projection. Not all the things will work out!

Cale: Yeah, the flooring feels low for this group. Bottom-five in the league low. There’s numerous proving for this group to do, and if the Falcons had their druthers, I’d think about they’d like that to be a gradual construct in order that they can proceed to money in on some top-end draft picks.

Bryan: The best-case situation for the Falcons this 12 months might be being the good dangerous group—the group with a dropping file that’s, nonetheless, a ache to play. A barely upmarket model of final 12 months’s Lions, which discovered methods to be aggressive into the fourth quarter most of the time. I believe that is a sensible objective, particularly if Desmond Ridder is, as Derrik Klassen stated earlier this offseason, the most pro-ready of this year’s rookie quarterbacks. To choose a group to go 4-13 or worse requires me to assume that the Falcons don’t have any hope in anyway. I do not assume that describes the Falcons this 12 months, so I’m going to go along with the over. Not a super-high over, however I believe sufficient will go proper that they will be respectable or a minimum of respectably dangerous.

Cale: Yeah, there’s an excessive amount of expertise on this group for the Falcons to really backside out, for my part. The factor is, although, I do not assume they’re going to have a selection. I actually do not assume their Twelfth-best projected common opponent of 0.6% DVOA will assist issues. The make-up of their schedule is tough, too. Kicking the 12 months off with Saints, at Rams, at Seahawks, Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, San Francisco and at Cincinnati could possibly be as dangerous as a 1-6 begin. The group’s bye does not come till Week 14. Morale may fall shortly. We can cite potential all we would like, however I believe an underneath is completely on the desk right here.

Carolina Panthers (6.5)

Bryan: Matt Rhule, in one among his first press conferences in coaching camp, stated that his job was “not to pick the starting quarterback.” Counterpoint: Yes, it’s? It’s his personal design! It’s his personal regret, too. Perhaps we can assist him to resolve, if solely by exhibiting any footage of Sam Darnold’s profession at actually any level. Baker Mayfield has been an underwhelming first-round quarterback. Darnold has the second-worst DVOA in historical past for anybody with 1,500 move makes an attempt. And nonetheless, Rhule stated he is not making any choices but. Welcome to your life, Panthers followers; there is no turning again.

Cale: The quantity of draft capital spent in trades and draft picks, all to finish up with a quarterback room of Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Matt Corral, needs to be a case research in how to not construct a soccer group.

Bryan: And it isn’t like ending up with Mayfield was in anybody’s greatest pursuits. It’s not precisely a match made in heaven. It’s a group and participant left alone in the bar at closing time, watching all the different prospects make their manner out the door one after the other. The Panthers and Mayfield had been the final ones left in the room, and each knew they simply could not return to their outdated flames for an additional 12 months. This is just not the recipe for an optimistic 2022.

Cale: And even when Mayfield wins the job (which, in spite of everything this drama, I hope he does simply to see that Week 1 BrownsPanthers matchup), this is not an awesome state of affairs for him. What did Baker have going for him in Cleveland? One of the greatest offensive traces in the league, coupled with a unbelievable steady of working backs. What does he have now? Ikem Ekwonu looks like an awesome prospect and Taylor Moton improved in 2021, however it’s a far cry from the Great Wall of Cleveland that protected Mayfield his first few years. Christian McCaffrey is elite when he is on the subject, however that not often occurs. Despite the Panthers working the ball at a sixth-highest 43% price in the first half and fifth-highest 69% price in energy conditions, they nonetheless managed to rank twenty first in dashing DVOA in 2021.

That being stated, even injured 2021 Mayfield can do a greater job by the air than the Panthers did with the mixed efforts of Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker final 12 months, with a -24.2% passing DVOA.

Bryan: Yeah, it doesn’t matter what your opinion is on Mayfield, he is an improve over what the Panthers selected to trot out final season. It’s simply baffling that it took them till July to truly pull the set off on the commerce, somewhat than getting issues carried out throughout the draft. Congratulations, you in all probability saved a couple of {dollars} on the contract. And in flip, your projected QB1 missed the whole offseason program.

It might not be coming throughout, however I actually do not belief Rhule’s skill to steer this group. He is the solely coach in the NFL who has missed the playoffs in the final two seasons, and we have now but to see actually something from him that justifies his spot in the league. His groups come out lackluster, they underperform their expertise ranges, and he makes baffling personnel and in-game choices. I’m undecided he is the worst coach in the league; there are many individuals we’ve not seen sufficient of but. But he’s the coach with the hottest of scorching seats by a big margin.

By that metric, the Mayfield transfer makes a ton of sense—it raises the flooring for the group. And if McCaffrey is wholesome, that is an enormous increase for any quarterback. And they acquired DJ Moore locked as much as a contract simply earlier than the receiver market exploded, so there is a good personnel transfer. But I simply do not perceive the Panthers‘ long-term plan in any respect; it appears like we’re all simply ready for the subsequent regime to return in at this level.

Cale: With all that being stated, I … like the defensive facet of the ball? At least a few of the items concerned. I’m a very huge fan of Brian Burns, and he has actually emerged as one among the greatest younger edge rushers in the league over the previous couple of seasons. Jeremy Chinn has been unbelievable and versatile, and the group will get Jaycee Horn again from harm as effectively. Shaq Thompson matured lots as a participant in 2021, enhancing as a linebacker in protection and higher identified performs as a linebacker than he did in 2020. Donte Jackson can be stable as effectively when not banged up. I do not know if they’re going to be capable to pull all of it collectively, however numerous the items are there for me.

Bryan: Everything you are saying is true, however even on the protection, I can discover holes. Replacing Haason Reddick is a tricky job; Burns wants working mates. Can Yetur Gross-Matos fill these footwear? We noticed Horn for 3 video games and should hope that initiatives for a whole 12 months. Our projections have the protection regressing some from final 12 months, though I believe the youth does give room for optimism as gamers proceed to develop. And it is good that there is optimism there on the defensive facet of the ball, as I actually can’t discover it anyplace else on the roster.

I believe the Panthers will likely be a little bit bit higher than the Falcons for 2022, and that is all that issues for over/unders. But Carolina has a full 1.5 video games extra of wriggle room for the underneath, which issues lots. And in the finish, I can’t stand Rhule’s indecision, married along with his lack of imaginative and prescient. I’m going for the underneath right here, and better of luck to the subsequent Panthers head coach and quarterback, neither of whom are at the moment on the roster.

Cale: There’s a small a part of me that appears like the Panthers bungle their methods to seven wins, one way or the other doing sufficient to maintain Rhule in the constructing, and so they simply lengthen this circus a little bit longer. But you are proper, these 1.5 further wins are a giant bounce to get by. They additionally get a late bye—Week 13—and so they should tackle some stiff competitors earlier than they get there. I like a few of the items in place, however I would like no a part of this Panthers group in 2022. Under for me as effectively.

New Orleans Saints (8)

Bryan: Our projections actually, actually love the Saints this season. That made writing their chapter in the Almanac a little bit dicey, as a result of I’m not totally on board with them as at the moment constructed. We have them as the greatest protection in soccer, which I suppose is not an enormous stretch; they had been third last year, in spite of everything. A top-20 offense appears reachable, however I’ve far much less confidence in Jameis Winston and firm than the Projection Computer appears to have. I believe dropping Sean Payton goes to be an even bigger blow than the projections are accounting for.

Cale: Am I loopy for considering the expertise added—particularly at receiver—may assist to mitigate a few of that loss? If you slide the minimal play rely all the manner right down to 200, has Winston ending second in EPA/Play behind solely MVP Aaron Rodgers. And he did that whereas 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 is available in as a high quality third piece.

I additionally assume (learn: hope) Alvin Kamara is primed for a bounce-back 12 months. Even when posting a career-worst and league-worst -95 rushing DYAR, he nonetheless managed to complete with 102 receiving DYAR, eleventh greatest amongst working backs. Hopefully, he has healed up after his hamstring and knee accidents that nagged all season, however simply the pure workload placed on Kamara as a rusher needs to be alleviated barely by having Mark Ingram II in as the second again. Kamara doesn’t have his success as a bell-cow again, and he cleared his earlier dashing makes an attempt complete by nearly 50 regardless of enjoying in a career-low 13 video games.

Bryan: You’re not loopy, however the phrase “if” is doing numerous work all through the Saints offense. It’s unbelievable information that Thomas has gotten cleared for observe, however we mainly have not seen a wholesome Thomas in two years; we do not know if he’ll be something near the similar participant who was arguably the greatest receiver in soccer at the tail finish of the Drew Brees period. Olave is a rookie, so we’re speaking potential greater than something in observe; I’ve considerations about him being bullied off the ball by bodily corners. Our numbers have by no means liked Landry, although I’ll acknowledge that I like the potential of Olave as the deep man, Thomas as the intermediate man and Landry as the brief man. Kamara is coming off of his worst season by a big margin, and he struggled irrespective of who was underneath heart. And he is acquired his personal lingering authorized points to take care of, so who is aware of how a lot he’ll truly see the subject. The offensive line goes to overlook Terron Armstead.

And then that brings us again round to Winston. Winston’s 13.6% passing DVOA would have been the second-best results of his profession if he had racked up sufficient makes an attempt to qualify, and he was by no means as dangerous as his 30-interception season would have you ever consider. But simply as Winston was unfortunate to throw 30 interceptions in Tampa Bay, he was lucky to be as efficient as he was final season. It’s not like he fully modified his type round and have become a Brees-esque sport supervisor; he truly set a profession low in on-target passes, per SIS charting. His play-by-play charting does not again up the form of enchancment his DVOA outcomes present, and I concern with out Payton he’ll take a step or two backward.

Cale: Yeah, this isn’t the offensive line of outdated, taking huge bets on Cesar Ruiz and Trevor Penning with the lack of Terron Armstead. I believe there’s just a bit voice inside me rooting for the W-eating, crutch-dancing quarterback, hoping the first six years of established historical past is all written away by a seven-game pre-injury pattern measurement that is actually boosted by that Week 1 anomaly in opposition to the Packers.

Bryan: I do need to be clear that my pessimism relies on our 10.0-win projection from the Almanac versus a “the Saints are going to be bad this year” sense. And additionally with a “you have mortgaged the future to keep this team together?” standpoint, which does not matter in any respect for 2022. And that protection? While I may not subjectively put them No. 1, have a look at that secondary and inform me that it does not strike concern into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye, Marshon Lattimore, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, after which Paulson Adebo is there as effectively. They have an argument for the greatest secondary in the league, and that is earlier than you throw in the move dashing of Cam Jordan or the underrated Demario Davis in the center. It’s nonetheless bizarre to think about the Saints as being a defense-led group, however that is the world we reside in now.

Cale: It’s loopy for a group to lose gamers equivalent to Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams however arguably improve with Mathieu and Maye. This is a group that already boasted the third-most protection sacks in the league, in keeping with SIS. A entrance seven of Jordan and Davis, together with small progressions from Marcus Davenport and a flash from David Onyemata obscured by harm, makes this protection very formidable. League-best could be a stretch for our mannequin, however something beneath a top-10 end is unquestionably disappointing.

I’m assured sufficient to take the over on New Orleans. I believe the Saints have an out of doors likelihood to take the NFC South, at the very least securing a wild-card berth. It’s the NFC, so you would feasibly get there even simply successful eight, however this group was capable of safe a 9-8 file with Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book all getting rides on the quarterback carousel. This protection holding water and the offense getting a giant increase in talent place gamers give me sufficient to disregard the main blow of dropping a frontrunner like Payton.

Bryan: Yeah, this group has robust 10-7, wild-card, first-round loss to Dallas vibes to me. The Sains had been a wild-card group till the closing minutes of Week 18 final 12 months; I do not see any actual cause why they would not be a minimum of in the dialog as soon as once more this 12 months. It’s the best choose for me in the division, a transparent over at eight wins. I may see it pushing, doubtlessly, however barring utter disaster, it is subsequent to not possible for me to see this group racking up double-digit losses for the first time since 2005.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11.5)

Bryan: 20 years in the past, when Football Outsiders was born, the writers had been speaking about whether or not Tom Brady could lead on his group to a second Super Bowl win. Man, 2003 was such a loopy time.

Cale: We had been so near this being the first 12 months in FO historical past with out writing up Brady. A fast 40-day break and a pump-faked retirement later, and right here we’re once more. The Brady-led Bucs lead the NFC in our common win projection and sit simply behind Buffalo in our odds to win the Super Bowl. Same because it ever was.

Bryan: The Buccaneers are the strongest division favorites in the league (-250 at DraftKings as we write this), in addition to the group with the greatest odds to make the playoffs in some capability (-650). There are questions, for positive—and extra now that it appears to be like like Ryan Jensen goes to overlook critical time with a knee harm—however they’re principally “how will these problems affect them in January?” points versus “can something derail the season?” points. Like, how lengthy will it take Chris Godwin to get again to full type? Well, that issues much less with the additions of Russell Gage and Julio Jones. How will the inside line maintain up with out Jensen, Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa? Well, Shaq Mason’s in all probability an improve over Cappa, and there are stable choices elsewhere with Aaron Stinnie and Luke Goedeke. I’ve no vital worries for the Buccaneers offensively, until that is lastly the 12 months Brady turns right into a pumpkin.

Cale: I’ve zero considerations with the offense. Brady has carried out much more with lots much less to work with. Having Ke’Shawn Vaughn as RB2 and Giovani Bernard as a pass-catching again are first rate contingency plans if Leonard Fournette’s pre-camp weight considerations truly turn out to be a difficulty. I’m genuinely anxious about the lack of Jensen, however getting Mason in the fold ought to immediate a league investigation for collusion, particularly at the value they acquired him.

Where I do have considerations, nonetheless, is the protection. I believe the lack of Jordan Whitehead is basically being undersold. He was unbelievable in opposition to the run amongst defensive backs and a very essential participant on this passing protection in 2021. They added Logan Ryan to fill the complete, however I do not assume that will likely be sufficient to disregard Whitehead’s loss. The defensive entrance additionally will get lots much less formidable with out Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul. Sure, each gamers are getting up there in age, however that is 8.5 mixed sacks and 33 mixed hurries left to fill from 2021. Pierre-Paul additionally completed as one among the greatest edge rushers in opposition to the run in 2021, completed fourth in run cease price and eighth in dashing yards per try allowed.

Bryan: At the similar time, JPP’s 22 pressures and 6.5% stress price had been each profession lows, and Suh’s 70% run cease price was his worst since arriving in Tampa Bay. I do not assume the pair of first-round skills in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Logan Hall are going to match what the outdated lions did throughout the 2020 Super Bowl run, however I believe there have been sufficient cracks in Suh and Pierre-Paul for the newbies to have a stable likelihood of emulating their 2021 manufacturing. You’re proper in that the Bucs actually haven’t got a one-to-one alternative for Whitehead, and I’ve questions on the secondary elsewhere; they had been actually challenged final season as a consequence of harm and did not make a lot of an effort to truly enhance there.

But in the end, I believe the objective for the Buccaneers protection is “don’t be bad enough to derail things,” and I believe they’re going to clear that bar with flying colours.

Cale: Does it concern you in any respect simply how robust that entrance finish of the schedule is? First two weeks on the highway in opposition to Dallas and New Orleans (which has all the time given Brady suits, granted with Payton at the helm), then internet hosting Green Bay and Kansas City. I’ve little question this group can make a giant playoff run, however attending to 11.5 wins could possibly be an uphill battle if the Bucs do not get off to an excellent begin in opposition to a very robust open.

Bryan: “Concern” could be a stretch, however I may see the Bucs beginning 0-2 or failing to hit .500 all through September; it’s a brutal stretch to begin the season. But on the complete, the schedule is not that robust; it is simply front-loaded. Four video games in opposition to Atlanta and Carolina ought to assist considerably and pad that win complete. I’ll admit that 11.5 is a tricky bar to clear, and I’m nowhere close to as assured right here as I used to be with New Orleans or Atlanta, however I’m nonetheless taking the over. I’ve been burned too badly by Brady in the previous, and I’d somewhat be a 12 months late predicting his demise at this level.

Cale: I believe they clear the over by the pores and skin of their tooth, reducing it as shut as 12-5. I’m in the similar place as you—I can’t guess in opposition to Brady; the receiving corps is powerful, and I do not assume the defensive losses will maintain this group again an excessive amount of, however the losses are beginning to add up for me. No Godwin early, doubtlessly no Jensen for the 12 months, a slower Fournette, together with all the things we have now already talked about, it is actually getting tight for me. If the NFC as an entire wasn’t so tender, I’d in all probability hammer the underneath, and even then I’d change my thoughts in the event you gave me a couple of extra days to consider it.

Bryan: It’s good to see we’re sticking with custom, matching our picks in three out of 4 groups. The extra issues change, the extra issues keep the similar.

Cale: It would not be a preseason betting information with out me second-guessing my intestine and following the knowledge of the crowd!

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