The NFC South division has underwent a massive change on the offensive side over the last two years. As recently as 2019, the division boasted two league MVPs at quarterback in Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Carolina's Cam Newton, a top overall draft choice in Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston, and a Super Bowl MVP and first-ballot Hall of Famer in Drew Brees of New Orleans.
Winston left the Buccaneers in 2020, ironically signing with the Saints to back up Brees. He was replaced by none other than Tom Brady, a five-time Super Bowl MVP and three-time league MVP.
Times have changed. Brees retired after the 2020 season. Newton, already a shadow of his former self, left in 2020, although he returned briefly for the Panthers last season. The Falcons traded a fading Ryan to the Colts after an unsuccessful run at Deshaun Watson left him disenfranchised. Even Brady retired after last season, only to change his mind week’s later.
There are still some familiar faces. Brady is back for his third season in Tampa. Winston, who has spent his entire seven-year career in the division, has his second shot at being the heir apparent for Brees. Sam Darnold, the 3rd overall pick of the Jets in 2018, starts his second year in Carolina hanging onto his job by a thread.
Unlike a short two years ago, there are more questions than answers in the NFC South at football's most important position. Here are my projections for the division's top five quarterbacks as we head towards the 2022 season.
5. MATT CORRAL, PANTHERS
It was widely accepted that the 2022 draft class was a down year for quarterbacks. Only Pitt's Kenny Pickett, who went 20th overall to the Steelers, was selected in the first round.
The NFC South got two new additions at the position when Atlanta drafted Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder and the Panthers chose Corral out of Mississippi. Both players, along with Liberty QB Malik Willis, were third-round picks despite being protected to go in the first or second round.
Andy Dalton, added by the Saints this offseason, is the division's most accomplished veteran backup. However, he ideally won't see the field if Jameis Winston stays healthy. The guess here is that either Willis or Corral will get a chance to play early in their careers because of projected poor finishes by their respective teams.
Carolina coach Matt Rhule is seemingly holding on to his job by a thread. The Panthers have some talent, especially on the defensive side, but haven't progressed nearly enough under Rhule's leadership. He could be fired by mid-season if Carolina starts the year poorly, with an interim coach possibly turning to the rookie Corral.
A smaller quarterback, Corral is a good athlete with an accurate arm and intense competitiveness. He’s a developmental project with intriguing tools, but may get an early test if the Panthers season unravels. It's for that reason that he’s my choice at #5 over Dalton or Willis.
4. MARCUS MARIOTA, FALCONS
The second overall pick behind Jameis Winston in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Oregon, Mariota got off to a promising start with the Tennessee Titans. He accounted for 80 touchdowns over his first four years and had a winning record as a starter in three of those seasons, even engineering a 2018 playoff upset of Kansas City.
Mariota regressed in his fifth year and was replaced at mid-season by Ryan Tannehill. He’d sign with the Raiders during the 2020 offseason, where he backed up Derek Carr for the last two years. Atlanta signed the 28-year-old Mariota to a two-year contract this offseason worth a reported $18.75 million.
Mariota's tasked with replacing Matt Ryan, the most productive quarterback in Falcons history. He’ll try to revive his career with one of the NFL's least talented rosters.
Atlanta spent a first-round choice on WR Drake London and already has game breaking threats in TE Kyle Pitts and RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson, but little else. The Falcons also have one of the league's worst defenses and a sieve for an offensive line.
Second-year coach Arthur Smith might be given more patience from ownership to rebuild the team than Rhule in Carolina. Mariota has a chance to establish himself as a long-term starter, but he’ll have an uphill battle with so little talent around him. If he struggles, the Falcons could switch to rookie Desmond Ridder.
3. SAM DARNOLD, PANTHERS
Like his coach Matt Rhule, Darnold is in a fight to even continue his career in Carolina beyond this season. The third overall pick in the 2018 draft out of USC is entering his second year with the Panthers. He was acquired in a trade with the Jets after 45 touchdowns, 39 interceptions, and a 13-25 record over his first three years.
Darnold started off 2021 strong with the Panthers. He averaged 297 yards passing over the first four weeks, including a 305-yard in a Week 2 win over New Orleans, while his team stormed out to a 4-1 record.
The Panthers finished the season 2-11 after that hot start. Darnold was dealing with a bad shoulder that forced him to miss five games, but averaged a meager 191 yards through the air with 4 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over his final seven contests.
The 25-year-old Darnold has talent around him. The Panthers have a playoff caliber defense and focused on rebuilding their offensive line this offseason. If RB Christian McCaffrey is finally healthy, he’ll have two top-tier weapons with him and star WR D.J. Moore,, along with solid complementary pieces.
Carolina has the defense and enough offensive talent to push for a postseason berth if they get consistent quarterback play. As stated earlier, the fates of Darnold and Rhule are directly connected. If the Panthers start slowly, both men may be looking for new jobs as the team starts from scratch at both spots.
2. JAMEIS WINSTON, SAINTS
After looking into a possible trade for controversial QB Deshaun Watson, New Orleans re-signed Winston to a two-year deal with $21 million in guarantees.
The top overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Buccaneers out of Florida State averaged over 274 yards per game in his five years with Tampa Bay, including a 5,000-yard season in 2019. However, Winston was prone to crippling turnovers and poor decisions on the field, throwing 88 interceptions against 135 touchdowns.
Winston’s passing numbers didn't jump off the page in 2021, his first year as a starter in New Orleans. He averaged only 195 yards/game before being lost for the year with a knee injury in week 8. His biggest positive is that he took care of the ball, throwing just 3 interceptions while accounting for 15 touchdowns.
New Orleans showed faith in the 28-year-old Winston this offseason. They passed up multiple opportunities to draft a quarterback, instead drafting WR Chris Olave and OT Trevor Penning in the first round and adding Pro Bowl WR Jarvis Landry in free agency. With the return of a healthy Michael Thomas and dynamic RB Alvin Kamara, Winston is surrounded by the most talent he’s ever had.
A strong-armed passer with prototype size and underrated mobility, Winston has all the tools needed to be an elite quarterback. If he can ascend to that level, New Orleans has the talent to be a Super Bowl contender.
1. TOM BRADY, BUCCANEERS
Will Tom Brady's abilities finally decline?
Brady, who turns 45 in August, announced his retirement after last season, only to change his mind just weeks later. He’ll enter his 23rd NFL season with a Buccaneers team talented enough to give him his 11th Super Bowl berth. Brady has stuck around long enough to surpass Drew Brees for the top all-time spot in every major passing statistic. However, he’s also coming off a year where he threw for a league-best 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Tampa Bay, like New Orleans, changed head coaches this offseason. Also like the Saints, they promoted from within and kept most of their staff intact. Brady returns most of his offensive weapons and still has a strong defense on the other side.
Tom Brady deserves the top quarterback ranking in the NFC South until someone proves otherwise. The most likely contender is Jameis Winston, who's flashed elite potential throughout his career. New Orleans and Tampa Bay also have a significant talent advantage over Carolina and Atlanta, who may also be weighed down by their issues behind center.
Mariota and Darnold have tenuous holds on their jobs, at best, for franchise's with other questions throughout their roster. With the two strongest rosters in the division, the title chase should come down to the Saints and Buccaneers. The deciding factor between the teams might come down to quarterback play.
Will a hungry Winston, who's replacing a legend, be able to step up his game to surpass the legend who replaced him in Tampa Bay?
The answer to that question should not only determine the NFC South race, but also might provide the answer for who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LVII.