NFL Picks: NFC South Power Rankings

Matthew Jordan

Thursday, May 22, 2014 3:10 PM UTC

Thursday, May. 22, 2014 3:10 PM UTC

No team has ever repeated in the NFC South, the only division to claim that interesting statistic since realignment in 2002. Sportsbooks don't list defending champion Carolina as the favorite on NFL odds to be the first this year, either.

1. New Orleans Saints (+120 on NFL odds to win)
At some point Drew Brees will stop having 5,000-yard seasons. It just won't be in 2014. Brees and Coach Sean Payton appear to have more harmony than any coach/QB duo in the NFL, as evidenced by how good the Saints have been the past several years except for the one year Payton was suspended. Brees is now working on three straight seasons of throwing for at least 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns. Amazing. He also has been incredibly durable because like Peyton Manning, Brees gets rid of the ball so quick on those timing routes that defenders don't get to him.

As if Brees needs any more targets, the Saints got a potential steal with the No. 20 overall pick the draft in Oregon State's Brandin Cooks. He led the nation with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last year with a combination of deep balls, slants and screens, just about everything. He also ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds) of any receiver at the NFL combine. Cooks is 6/1 on NFL odds to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and that looks like a value NFL pick. The Saints didn't ignore Rob Ryan's defense this offseason, either, adding arguably the best safety available in Buffalo's Jairus Byrd.

2. Atlanta Falcons (+360 on NFL odds to win)
No NFC team was more disappointing last season than the 4-12 Falcons, but it was a combination of bad luck and injuries. I expect them to have the biggest win increase of any team in the conference in 2014. The Falcons made protecting Matt Ryan a priority this offseason after he was under duress more than any other QB last year. Thus, the Falcons should have two immediate starters on the line in free agent guard Jon Asamoah and No. 6 overall pick Jake Matthews, a tackle out of Texas A&M. In addition, a return to health of receiver Julio Jones will help solve many problems. One concern might be at running back. Steven Jackson looked old last season in the few games he was healthy. The Falcons are likely to play only one cold-weather outdoor game all year, Dec. 8 in Green Bay, and that's a good thing for a team built for a dome.

3. Carolina Panthers (+360 on NFL odds to win)
While the Falcons might have the biggest wins increase this year, the Panthers could suffer the biggest drop off following their 12-4 mark and NFC South title. Carolina will be very good defensively again, led by tackling machine and 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. Stud defensive end Greg Hardy was kept off the market with the franchise tag, but he might be facing a suspension after a domestic violence issue. The loss of safety Mike Mitchell will hurt a bit. It's on offense where the problems lie. The team said goodbye to its three top receivers, led by Steve Smith, and did little to replace them unless you count Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant as big additions. Some think the Cats reached by taking big Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the No. 28 overall pick in the draft. The offensive line also has to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross. Cam Newton might have to do a lot with his legs.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+600 on NFL odds to win)
Many experts believe the Bucs "won" free agency with the likes of quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner, among others. Teams that "win" free agency often flop in the next season. That said, the talent infusion could see the Bucs double their four wins of last year. Receiver Mike Evans, the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, is the +400 favorite on NFL odds for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Expect running back Doug Martin to bounce back from his disappointing sophomore season. The defense could be really good. New coach Lovie Smith knows how to win in the regular season, and the Chicago defense was always excellent under his watch. The offense was usually the problem. Former Cal coach Jeff Tedford is his coordinator on that side of the ball in Tampa.

Free NFL picks: The Saints simply don't lose at home under Payton, so just a .500 record on the road get them to 12 wins. That should be plenty for the division and a top-two seed in the NFC. Atlanta will battle for a wild-card spot.

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