We look at one of the weakest divisions in the NFL last season, the NFC South. This division was a sloggy wasteland last season, but there's money to be made with your NFL picks here.
Consider this: the last three NFC divisions to draw the weakling AFC South as an out-of-conference opponent have had a pair of 10-win teams. Before getting stuck with a similarly down NFC East, the AFC South had produced two seasons in a row where they generated three different ten-win teams from their NFC out-of-conference team.
That's why even though the NFC South was stacked with sadness last season, Las Vegas has looked at the non-Tampa Bay Buccaneers teams, thrown their hands up, and installed them all with an over/under north of eight wins. If you look at the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, I find more reason to be optimistic about Atlanta than the other two, and here's why:
On a year-to-year basis, pass offense is the most consistent thing in the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been remarkably consistent, ranking in the top 5 of Football Outsiders' DYAR statistic in every season since 2010. Cam Newton has never done that. And while the Saints aren't fully admitting they are out on Drew Brees, he's getting older and they did try to draft his replacement in third-round quarterback Garrett Grayson. Combine that with the loss of Jimmy Graham, and I think you can argue that the Falcons are the smartest money to remain a great offense.
But what the NFC South really comes down to is how much you believe in the defenses. The Saints are relying mainly on rebounds -- the safety combo of Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro played incredibly poorly last season -- having brought back much of the same personnel. The Atlanta defense was worse -- dead-last in the NFL according to Football Outsiders' adjusted metrics -- but they made sweeping changes. Dan Quinn comes over from Seattle, where he coordinated the best defense in the league, and he spent his first first-round pick on Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley, who according to one projection system was far-and-away the cleanest pass-rush prospect in the draft. Pair him with cornerback Desmond Trufant, who was an oasis in the blistering failure of Atlanta's secondary last season, and the building blocks are in place.
Will Atlanta be able to rebound quickly under Quinn? That's the great unknown. The Seattle defensive scheme hasn't proven to be as effective in Jacksonville, where head coach Gus Bradley brought the playbook but not Earl Thomas. Bradley has at least been able to develop a pass rush though, and if Atlanta can get some more of that going, I don't think it's crazy to think they could finish much better with the aid of an easy schedule.