Examining primary strengths: NFC South
We continue looking at primary strengths by division as the 2023 NFL season inches closer. Up next: the NFC South.
Panthers: Protecting the franchise
Bryce Young is the future, which means nothing is more paramount to this organization than protecting the No. 1 pick. Thankfully for Young, the Panthers have done a splendid job building a fortress up front. Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu went sixth in the 2022 draft. He's a sensational athlete with natural pass-blocking prowess because of his quick feet, heavy hands, and intelligence. After enduring some expected rookie growing pains to begin his career, the former NC State standout compiled an impressive 11-game stretch without surrendering a single sack.
Ekwonu has drawn rave reviews from Panthers offensive line coach James Campen, who told the team's website: "He is so far ahead of where he was last year, and that's a testament to him. He'd done work in the offseason before coming back. … He's sitting on the line. He's fluid. He's asking for change-up things to do with his hands. He's way ahead of where he was last year."
That makes sense, too. I spent a little time with the big fella (he checks in at 6-4, 320) during Super Bowl week in Arizona. My main takeaway was just how much Ekwonu learned as a rookie: how to eat, how to prepare, how to anticipate stunts and twists from certain defensive linemen and defenses at specific points over the course of a game. As well as he handled himself in 2022, we should expect a significant step forward in his sophomore season.
Next to Ekwonu at left guard will likely be Brady Christensen, a capable run-blocker with enough juice to hold up in the passing game. Center Bradley Bozeman is stout and reliable and played well after coming over from Baltimore before last season. The right side features either rock-solid Austin Corbett (coming off a torn ACL) or rookie fourth-rounder Chandler Zavala - an enticing prospect and former college teammate of Ekwonu. Zavala allowed only four pressures on 422 snaps as a senior and could start right away. (How he wasn't invited to the combine is beyond me.) Finally, there's right tackle Taylor Moton, who hasn't missed a single start in five seasons (he's yet to miss a single snap since 2019). Moton, 28, is the definition of consistency and one of the more important players for this offense.
Saints: Batman and Robin
The Saints still believe in Michael Thomas, which is why he's remained on the roster despite a slew of injuries over the past two years. And let's not forget that he was one of the very best in the business, earning three straight Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro nods, and NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors after a sensational 2019 season (149-1,725-9). He's finally healthy and ready to reassert himself as a top-flight wideout for Derek Carr.
Next to him is an emerging superstar in second-year man and fellow Ohio State alumnus Chris Olave, who finished his rookie season with an 82.5 PFF grade. A tremendous route-runner with elite speed (4.39-second 40), Olave went for 72 catches, 1,042 yards, and four touchdowns as a rookie, despite missing two games. I wrote a piece about Olave last season after catching up with Brian Hartline, his wide receivers coach with the Buckeyes. A former seven-year NFL receiver himself, Hartline was hardly wowed by Olave's fast start, telling me we haven't seen anything yet in terms of his true upside.
"Usually most guys are one or the other (fast or good route-runners). He's very cerebral, too. He's smart. He's gonna feel spaces and use his speed the right way."
Hartline added: Olave will "slide through the lane like he's Dwyane Wade."
Bottom line: I believe this duo - with Carr delivering at quarterback - has a chance to inflict all kinds of damage in this wide-open division.
Oh, and if you're looking for a No. 3 option, look no further than former Wake Forest standout receiver A.T. Perry. During his final two seasons in the ACC, the 6-foot-3-1/2 speedster tallied 152 catches, 2,389 yards, and 26 TDs. Carr, fresh off signing a $150-million deal with $100 million guaranteed, should enjoy deploying Perry in the red zone to complement Thomas and Olave.
Falcons: On and on and on and on and on ...
It's not enough to have one or even two quality running backs anymore. Not in today's game, at least. The Falcons, who ran the ball over 55% of the time last season (second only to the Bears), now have three! Ground and pound - that's their identity. That's their game plan. That's who they are.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a four-time Pro Bowler and rare chess piece for head coach Arthur Smith, who touted Derrick Henry as the linchpin to his prolific ground attack with the Titans, back when he was their offensive coordinator. Because of his size and vast skill set, Patterson can line up anywhere and find a way to cause problems for opposing defenses. Tyler Allgeier, a fifth-round pick in 2022, is a highly capable, highly efficient back who went over 1,000 yards rushing as a rookie on a healthy 4.9 yards per carry.
And then there's Bijan Robinson, a once in a generation - perhaps once in a lifetime - player who can change an entire offense. Yes, he's that special. I argued during the pre-draft process that we should stop referring to him as a "running back" and simply call him an "offensive weapon." Quick, fast, decisive, tough, smart, nasty, great hands, great stiff arm, great vision, innate feel ... there isn't a single weakness to his all-around game.
Unknown to fans, the Falcons actually held a private workout for Robinson in Austin leading up to the draft, telling the Doak Walker winner they'd do everything they could to get him at No. 8. True to their word, Atlanta now empowers Smith to maximize Robinson's immense potential, which is great news because Smith believes the Longhorns icon is the perfect addition to his offense, the one player who can truly elevate it to its absolute pinnacle. The highest running back taken since Saquon Barkley (the Giants took him second in 2018), I believe Robinson will eclipse the 2,000 all-purpose mark in Year 1, while guiding the upstart Falcons to a surprising playoff berth.
I've had the good fortune of getting to know Robinson and people who've been around him - people who truly know Bijan as a person and not only as a football player. Without question, I can tell you he embodies all of the qualities you want and need in a superstar. To that point, Robinson's magnetic presence and overall talent will also enhance Desmond Ridder, the young QB drawing rave reviews for his leadership, athleticism, and improved accuracy. Atlanta - the city, this team, and franchise - could not ask for anything more than No. 7.
Buccaneers: Pass-catching murderers' row
The GOAT may be gone, but I'm still giddy to see what a healthy Tampa receiving core does in 2023. Chris Godwin, a second-team All-Pro pick in 2019, battled through multiple injuries last season but still managed to hit the 100-catch, 1,000-yard mark, while being slotted sixth among all WRs, per PFF. Russell Gage was a fairly marquee addition in 2022 after inking a three-year, $30-million deal following his 2021 breakout for division foe Atlanta (66 catches for 770 yards). Both are still just 27, both are now healthy, and both have yet to reach their NFL ceilings. Mike Evans, meanwhile, is the only player to ever start a career with nine straight 1,000-yard seasons. A four-time Pro Bowler, Evans will be the new best friend of Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask - depending on who wins the job and the distinct pleasure of replacing Tom Brady.
One under-the-radar name you should focus on (especially the fantasy football enthusiasts): Cade Otton. The second-year tight end out of Washington is a phenomenal athlete who already understands the position like a 10-year vet.
Otton's grandfather, Sid, is Washington State's all-time leader in high school coaching wins. Otton played for his father in high school. He's been immersed within the game his entire life and it shows. New OC Dave Canales has a reputation for being very TE-friendly - just turn on the 2022 Seahawks' tape - and that should benefit the 24-year-old.
"I ultimately want to be an every-down tight end, just never come off the field and be a big contributor in the run game and the pass game," Otton told the team's website. "(I want to) have the coaches be able to trust me on the front-side run plays to take care of defensive ends, and also to win one-on-one versus safeties. You've seen some of the greats do that, like (Rob Gronkowski) and Travis (Kelce) and George (Kittle). I just want to look at the greats in the game and emulate after them."
Otton's aspirations are lofty but hardly a pipe dream. His 42 catches led all rookie tight ends, while his 391 yards were second. Here's the best part: nearly half of those receptions resulted in first downs. Why? Because at 6-5, 247, he can flat-out run, is a natural hands-catcher, and - perhaps most importantly - thinks the game at a high level.
Keep in mind what a personnel director told me last season: "His upside is exciting. He reminds me a bit of Mark Andrews. Similar frames with natural strength. As he grows into his body more, he's got a chance to become a matchup problem. I'm not saying he's Andrews, but that's how you can use him to your favor."
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