Bucs Rising, Panthers
One could make an argument that the Buccaneers were the overall winners in free agency this offseason and the Panthers were the big losers. Tampa is going to look very different under new coach Lovie Smith. The Bucs were very active in free agency and in reworking the offensive line. The key signings were quarterback Josh McCown (Bears), center Evan Dietrich-Smith (Packers), defensive end Michael Johnson (Bengals) and cornerback Alterraun Verner. McCown was excellent last year in place of an injured Jay Cutler, but he's never started a full season and in fact wasn't even in the NFL in 2012. His rating of 109.0 last year was one of the best in the NFL, but now teams have tape on him and he won't surprise anyone. Often times McCown simply threw the ball up jump-ball style and let Chicago's two big receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, go get it. He might be able to keep doing that as the Bucs have two big receivers too, veteran Vincent Jackson and 2014 first-round draft pick Mike Evans from Texas A&M. He's one of the favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year at +600 on NFL odds.
About the only good thing that happened in free agency for Carolina was the Panthers keeping defensive end Greg Hardy by slapping the franchise tag on him. He was arrested earlier this month on a domestic violence charge that included allegations of a huge stash of guns in his apartment. It's possible Hardy will face suspension for a game or two. Hardy and fellow defensive lineman Charles Johnson take up more than 20 percent of the Panthers' cap space by themselves. Carolina had the second-best defense in the NFL last season and lost safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, two important players. It was on offense the Panthers really were hit hard. Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Cam Newton's top three receivers are all gone: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. The team is hoping to replace them with mediocre guys like Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and rookie first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State. He's +1500 for Offensive Rookie of the Year at sportsbooks.
Carolina is +320 on NFL odds to become the first-ever repeat winner of the NFC South. Tampa Bay is a +600 long shot to win its first division title since 2007.
The Panthers had little trouble sweeping the Bucs last year. The most recent meeting was Week 13 in Charlotte, a 27-6 Carolina victory. It was the Panthers' eighth straight victory of 2014. The Bucs managed just 206 total yards and one third-down conversion against that terrific defense. Mike Glennon, who will backup McCown this year, was 14 of 21 for 180 yards with a pick. Newton threw for 263 yards, two touchdowns (one to LaFell, one to Ginn) and two interceptions. He also led the team with 68 yards rushing and had a 1-yard TD run. The teams also met Week 8 in Tampa, a 31-13 Panthers victory as 6.5-point favorites on NFL odds. Newton threw for two scores and ran for one in that game as well. Glennon threw for 275 yards with a touchdown but Tampa Bay fell to 0-7. The Bucs played without starting running back Doug Martin and top safety Dashon Goldson.
NFL Free Picks: Take the points and the 'under' 39.5 points even though it's the lowest total on the board. Carolina is 0-5 ATS in its past five season openers. The 'under' is 9-1 in its past 10 games overall. The 'under' is 4-0 in Tampa Bay's past four home games in September.