Connect with us

NFL

NFC South 2024 burning questions: Can Panthers’ Bryce Young bounce back? How will Falcons’ Kirk Cousins look?

Getty

No division around the NFL has been more winnable than the NFC South the last two seasons despite the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being the back-to-back division champions.

In 2022, the Buccaneers wheezed across the finish line with an 8-9 record while the NFC South’s other three teams — the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — all stumbled to 7-10 records. Last season, Tampa Bay and New Orleans finished with identical 9-8 records with the Falcons close behind at 7-10. The Buccaneers emerged atop the heap once again thanks to a higher win percentage in common games acting as the tiebreaker between the two.Β 

Once again, it’s possible that any of the division’s four teams, including the Panthers after an active offseason, could challenge for the NFC South’s top spot. Here is the most burning question for each team in the division ahead of training camps kicking off in July.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Question: Can Baker Mayfield maintain the play shown in his 2023 career year with another new OC?

The 2023 season looked like quarterback Baker Mayfield’s last chance to prove he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL. The first overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Buccaneers last offseason after suiting up for his fourth team since 2021: the Cleveland Browns (2021) the Carolina Panthers (2022) the Los Angeles Rams (2022) and the Buccaneers (2023). Mayfield became the only quarterback in NFL history to start for four different teams in the span of two calendar years.

He was even in a quarterback training camp battle with Kyle Trask, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft out of Florida, one that stood as the longest lasting training camp QB competition of the preseason.Β 

However, Mayfield certainly proved head coach Todd Bowles made the right choice in 2023 by choosing him to be their guy as put up career numbers across the board in completion percentage (64.3%), passing yards (4,044) and passing touchdowns (28). He ranked as a top 10 quarterback in the entire league in yards (ninth) and passing touchdowns (seventh), even throwing one more touchdown in the regular season than Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes (27 regular season touchdowns in 2023).Β 

Baker Mayfield 2023 Season

Career Rank

Comp Pct

64.3%

Best

Pass Yards

4,044*

Best

Pass TD

28*

Best

* Ranked top 10 in NFLΒ 

The question here is simple: Can Mayfield make what he did in 2023 routine? Can Mayfield maintain this level after being re-signed to a three-year contract worth $100 million with $50 million guaranteed this offseason and after losing offensive coordinator Dave Canales, who is now the head coach of the Carolina Panthers?Β 

The good news is the Buccaneers were able to retain five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, who co-led the NFL with 13 receiving touchdowns in his first year with Mayfield, by re-signing him to a two-year, $41 million deal with $29 million fully guaranteed. Another piece of good news is Mayfield’s new offensive coordinator is someone he has already worked with before in Liam Coen.Β 

Coen was the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator under head coach Sean McVay in 2022 when the Rams claimed Mayfield off of waivers following a lackluster stint with the Panthers. Mayfield famously helped rally the Rams back for a 17-16 win on “Thursday Night Football” against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 14 of the 2022 season, a game in which Los Angeles trailed by 13, 16-3, with 12:20 left to play. Mayfield tossed the game-winning, 23-yard touchdown to wide receiver Van Jefferson with nine second remaining that day.Β 

Tampa Bay certainly hopes Coen can get the fourth quarter version of Mayfield from that night and the 2023 season iteration of their $100 million quarterback consistently going forward.Β 

Carolina Panthers

Question: Can Bryce Young rebound after a horrific rookie season?

The rookie campaign for quarterback Bryce Young, the 2023 NFL Draft’s first overall pick, was the manifestation of the Carolina Panthers’ worst-case scenario for the diminutive passer’s first year in the NFL.Β 

Young’s 5.5 passing yards per attempt and 73.7 passer rating both ranked as the worst in the NFL last season, making him only the second first overall draft pick rookie to rank last in both since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger along with Troy Aikman back in 1989. His 5.5 yards per pass attempt are the fourth-fewest in a single season in NFL history, among quarterback with at least 500 pass attempts. Brutal stuff.Β 

Fewest pass yards/attempt in a season all-time (min. 500 attempts)

SeasonQBYards/Attempt

2003

DET Joey Harrington

5.2

2001

CAR Chris Weinke

5.4

2014

OAK Derek Carr

5.5

2023

CAR Bryce Young

5.5

However, not all of Young’s struggles in 2023 were purely on him. Carolina’s offense allowed the fourth-highest quarterback pressure rate in the NFL last season (42.1%), which resulted in him being sacked a Panthers single-season record 62 times. His pass-catchers didn’t help him out much, either, as Carolina totaled the NFL’s fifth-lowest expected points added per target, a metric partially indicating his receivers weren’t all that open even when Young was able to deliver the football their way.

The Panthers have been on a mission to upgrade the offensive ecosystem around Young this offseason. They threw stacks of cash at their offensive line this offseason, signing longtime Seattle Seahawks starting offensive guard Damien Lewis to a four-year, $53 million contract as well as inking former Miami Dolphins guard Robert Hunt to a five-year, $100 million contract with $63 million guaranteed.Β 

General manager Dan Morgan also flipped cornerback Donte Jackson and a sixth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for wide receiver Diontae Johnson and a seventh-round pick to add another steady veteran presence for Young to rely on. Then, he spent three of the Panthers’ first four picks in the 2024 NFL Draft on offensive help: South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette (32nd overall), Texas running back Jonathon Brooks (46th overall) and Texas tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders (101stΒ  overall).Β 

Between all the resources poured into Young’s supporting cast and hiring Dave Canales as his head coach, the former Buccaneers offensive coordinator who helped fix Baker Mayfield, the second-year quarteback should have what he needs to take a major step forward in 2024.

Atlanta Falcons

Question: What will Kirk Cousins look like at age 36 coming off a torn Achilles?

There appears to be a somewhat natural assumption that Kirk Cousins, who played like a top-five quarterback in the first eight weeks of 2023 before tearing his Achilles, will simply bounce back and keep playing a steady, Pro Bowl-caliber level of football at age 36.Β 

Is that really realistic though? The Falcons are certainly banking on that hope after signing Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract with $100 million in guaranteed money this offseason.Β 

Kirk Cousins Weeks 1-8 in 2023

NFL Rank

Comp Pct

70%

5th

Pass Yards

2,331

2nd

Pass TD

18

T-1st

*Tore Achilles in Week 8

According to CBS Sports Research, there are only four notable examples of quarterbacks tearing their Achilles later in their careers and then returning to play. Only one of them, Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Mario at age 32, returned to throw at least 10 more touchdowns than interceptions post-Achilles tear. What Cousins and New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers are attempting to do in 2024 — play high-caliber football post-Achilles tear while on the wrong side of 30 — is simply unprecedented.Β 

Notable QBs after tearing Achilles

  • 1993 Dan Marino at age 32 … 86 more starts (50-36, 122 TD, 84 INT, 2 Pro Bowls)
  • 1999 Vinny Testaverde at age 36 … 68 more starts (70 TD, 76 INT)
  • 2000 Jim Miller at age 29 … 21 more starts (26 TD, 19 INT)
  • 2002 Trent Dilfer at age 30 … 19 more starts (20 TD, 28 INT)

It helps that Cousins’ pass protection isn’t changing much in quality after leaving the Minnesota Vikings to join the Falcons. Minnesota’s Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade of 74.4 ranked as the second-best in the NFL last season while Atlanta’s ranked third (74.2). The Falcons are also built to run the football with three former first-round offensive linemen: left tackle Jake Matthews, right tackle Kaleb McGary and two-time Pro Bowler Chris Lindstrom at right guard.

Leaning on second-year running back Bijan Robinson, whose 1,463 scrimmage yards last season were the most among rookies in Falcons history and the second-most among rookies in the NFL during 2023 behind Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, should help ease Cousins’ burden. Robinson did say he is preparing to be utilized like San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, the 2023 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, in 2024.Β 

That would be ideal for Cousins’ sake. However, there is a chance 2024 eighth overall pick Michael Penix Jr. may see the field earlier than expected should the 36-year-old’s health waver again.

New Orleans Saints

Question: Can the Saints generate more of a pass rush to help out their top 10 defense?

The free agency acquisition of quarterback Derek Carr didn’t pay immediate dividends for the New Orleans Saints, but Carr did heat up at the end of the season, providing some hope that he can stabilize their offense in 2024.

Derek Carr 2023 SeasonΒ 

First 12 GamesFinal 5 Games

W-L

5-7

4-1

Comp Pct

66.2%

74%

TD-INT

11-6

14-2

Passer Rating89.4118.9

However, if the Saints are going to challenge some of the league’s best that have top-tier quarterbacks, they need to have a more menacing pass rush. Head coach Dennis Allen’s defense played at a top 10 level in key situations buy-and-large, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down conversion rate allowed (34.5%) and takeaways (29), as well as in points allowed overall (19.2 PPG allowed, eighth-fewest in the NFL).Β 

But the pass rush was an issue in 2023 despite those solid numbers. Their 34 sacks were tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and their 72 quarterback hits were tied for the third-fewest in the league. New Orleans’ quarterback pressure rate of 33.3% ranked 11th last season, not much better. It’s worth noting eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, a 2010’s All-Decade Team member, registered just two sacks in 2023 — the second fewest of his career after totaling one his rookie year in 2011. At age 35 in 2024, it’s clear the Saints can’t bank on him to carry their pass rush anymore.Β 

New Orleans’ two most notable notable defensive front additions were 2020 second overall pick Chase Young, who they signed to a one-year, $13 million deal, and Northern Iowa defensive tackle Khristian Boyd, a sixth-round draft choice (199th overall) who stood out at the East-West Shrine Bowl in February. Will those two players — plus the presence of 2024 second-round cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, an All-American out of Alabama, on the backend — be enough to help add enough juice to the Saints’ pass rush? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Go to Source
Author: Garrett Podell
June 5, 2024 | 2:25 pm

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

More in NFL