The NFC South. For the past 2 seasons, the NFC South division has arguably been the best in Pro Football, with 2 of its teams -- the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons -- representing the National Football Conference as conference champions in back-to-back Super Bowls (50 and 51).
And although both of those teams lost those 2 Super Bowls, including the Falcons a few months back in an unbelievable and historical 4th quarter collapse; the division still remains a strong one headed into the upcoming 2017 season.
As the summer swings into full gear, and teams conduct their Mini-Camps in the next week or so before heading on to their month-long vacations to destinations around the country and across the world; before eventually returning home for the start of Training Camps beginning League-wide at the end of next month --- it's now that time of the year where we see a variety of lists and rankings for the best teams and of course, the best players.
Many of the early lists predictably have included a handful of players from the Falcons, and deservedly so given their brilliant performance of a year ago.
However as we all know: the sport of Pro Football is always somewhat unpredictable and definitely unforgiving in nature, and the team (and subsequently the players themselves) that was on top one year, might find themselves down near the bottom of the rankings or standings the very next one.
Just ask the Carolina Panthers and QB Cam Newton, about that.
That's exactly why ranking the Top 100 Players in the NFL, or the Top 10 or Top 5 players in any specific division (offense or defense) can be a tricky proposition.
Sure, there probably is no reason other than an off-season injury for a player to see any sort of a significant drop-off in where they're ranked from one year to the next, but more often than not it comes down to the person's point of view (which in most instances are the writers who compose these type of articles, such as the one that you're reading right now).
Which is exactly why this morning, I'm taking the liberty to give you my own version of the NFC South Top 5 Players for the upcoming season, as someone who has been following and now covering the sport of professional football now for almost 44 years --- dating back to the very first game that I ever saw played live in person: the New Orleans Saints' 19-7 victory over the defending 1972 NFC Champion Washington Redskins at the old Tulane Stadium in uptown NOLA, on October 28, 1973 (a gift from my late, great "Paw Paw", for my 6th birthday)
Now without bias as someone who covers the New Orleans Saints franchise on a daily basis, here are my Top 10 Players in the NFC South for 2017 --- with numbers 10 through 6 listed right below; and then my quick synopsis / analysis of the Top 5 Players in the division starting at #5 all the way down to the player who in my opinion is #1 for the upcoming 2017 season.
10. Cam Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
9. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers
6. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
#5. DEVONTA FREEMAN, RUNNING BACK, ATLANTA FALCONS
By far and away the division's best RB in 2016 and perhaps its most "explosive" player, Freeman has actually been the #2 ranked player in the entire NFL dating back to the 2015 season in total yards from scrimmage --- trailing only his Falcons teammate, Julio Jones (more on him in a minute). He's also the only player in the NFL to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.
Last year, Freeman was an integral part of the Falcons' eventual run to Super Bowl 51; totaling 1,541 yards from scrimmage (1,079 rushing, 462 receiving) and 13 total TD's (11 rushing, 2 receiving). When you take into account that he split both carries and receiving targets out of the backfield with fellow RB Tevin Coleman, those numbers were even more impressive.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that if new Saints free-agent RB Adrian Peterson is in fact "rejuvenated" and has a "come back" season for New Orleans in 2017, that he could push Freeman for the title of the NFC South's best RB. But until that actually happens, there's nobody better at the RB position in the division than Freeman is, which is why I have him ranked as the 5th best player overall for 2017.
#4 (TIE) GERALD McCOY, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
A model of consistency since entering the NFL in 2010 as an unanimous 1st team All-American selection at the University of Oklahoma under their recently departed head coach Bob Stoops, McCoy has very quietly become one of the most underrated players in the entire NFL since that time.
I use the term "quietly" since it's almost damn near impossible to have tallied up 168 total tackles, 42 sacks, 19 passes defended / batted down and six forced fumbles from the DT position, and yet still go widely unnoticed by the rest of the NFL. Most of that is because of Tampa Bay's recent lack of success in the past several years; though all indications are that the Buccaneers are a young team that's currently on the rise --- and McCoy is about to get all of the accolades that he's rightfully deserved since then.
The 29-year old McCoy finished the 2016 season with 49 quarterback pressures, 34 total tackles, 8 sacks (5th-most among defensive tackles in the entire League), and 2 forced fumbles (and recoveries); and additionally he was chosen for the Pro Bowl for the 5th time in his 7-year career. McCoy might be the division's most DOMINANT defensive player, and it's why I have him tied at #4 with the division's "other" top player on that side of the football.
#4 (TIE) LUKE KUECHLY, LINEBACKER, CAROLINA PANTHERS
The only reason why Carolina Panthers perennial All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly isn't ranked even higher on this list was because he was hurt for the better part of the 2nd half of the season, after suffering a severe concussion in a home game against the Saints in November and ended up missing the team's final 6 games.
The 'good news' for Panthers fans is that Kuechly is fully recovered and oh yeah: there's also the fact (unbelievably) that he only just turned 26 years old, and has the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award, and 4 Pro Bowl selections (in all 4 of his NFL seasons) already to his credit.
In just 10 total games, Kuechly still managed to make 102 tackles and was considered one of the "bright spots" for the Panthers in an otherwise very disappointing 6-10 season that saw Carolina finish last in the division, after their Super Bowl appearance 2 years ago. With Kuechly now back to full health and leading the way, the Panthers will look to rebound behind his leadership, in 2017.
#3. MATT RYAN, QUARTERBACK, ATLANTA FALCONS
There's a very sound argument to be made that Falcons QB Matt Ryan was THE best QB in the entire NFL last year, after guiding Atlanta to its 2nd Super Bowl in franchise history --- and their first Super Bowl appearance since their 34-19 loss in Super Bowl XXXIII to John Elway and the Denver Broncos (Elway's final game of his career), following the 1998 season.
Unfortunately, Ryan has perhaps been unfairly blamed for the Falcons' historical 4th quarter collapse against New England, allowing the Patriots to overcome a 25-point deficit for a 34-31 victory in what might have been the most memorable Super Bowl ever (though Falcons fans would probably rather forget it).
But the heartache of that painful loss aside, Ryan still was able to set several new personal bests in 2016. He threw for 4,944 passing yards while averaging 9.26 yards per pass attempt, along with a 69.6 percent completion rate. Additionally, his total passer rating (117.1) ranked #1 overall in the League; and the only reason he's not #1 on this particular list is because of past inconsistency and the fact that I believe the final 2 players on the list are BETTER.
#2. JULIO JONES, WIDE RECEIVER, ATLANTA FALCONS
As a man who now is pushing age 50, you can imagine that I've seen quite a few good and even GREAT players at the wide receiver position, throughout my entire lifetime. Guys like Fred Biletnikoff. Lynn Swann. Drew Pearson. Jerry Rice. Michael Irvin. Randy Moss. Cris Carter. Terrell Owens. And now, you can add another name to that list: current Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones.
More than any one player, Jones led the charge to the Falcons' 2016 Super Bowl season as the team's most dominant player, while averaging 17 yards per catch; the highest number since his rookie season in 2012. Jones led Atlanta with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and 6 TD's, in only 14 games played thanks to a toe injury that prevented him from doing a lot more damage -- such as the phenomenal 300-yard receiving game he had against Carolina in Week #4.
Jones went on to rack up 19 catches for 334 yards and 3 TD's in the Playoffs; and his Super Bowl "highlight reel" catch in the 4th quarter would have been the game's biggest play, had it not been for the Falcons defense's inability to get a stop against Patriots QB Tom Brady. Some may argue that the best WR in the NFL right now is Antonio Brown of the Steelers or Odell Beckham, Jr. of the Giants, but for me, it's not even close: Julio Jones is THE best WR in the NFL, and it's why he's the #2 player in the NFC South for 2017.
#1. DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Yes, it's indeed true that both Panthers QB Cam Newton and Falcons QB Matt Ryan have led their respective teams to the past 2 Super Bowls, while proudly representing the NFC South division. But you want to know something? Saints QB Drew Brees is still the only QB in the division to have actually WON the Super Bowl. That's something that fans from the rest of the NFC South don't like to hear or be reminded of, but they'll get over it.
The reason that a 38-year old guy gets to be on the top of this list is pretty simple: consistency. Since he and head coach Sean Payton first teamed up back during the 2006 NFL Free Agency signing period, Brees hasn't EVER thrown for less than 4,000 yards in any season since --- and then of course there's that little factoid that he just also happens to be the most accurate quarterback in the NFL's entire 97-year history.
Brees led the NFL in passing yards once again in 2016 with 5,208, surpassing the 5,000 yard mark for the 5th time in his 15-year career. Oh, and by the way: he's THE only player in League history to have done it more than once. More than Marino. More than Manning. More than Brady. Not too shabby, for an 'old guy' who everyone outside of New Orleans, still believes is "washed up".
The NFC South's other 3 QB's are all good QB's in their own right. But there's only one QB in the NFC South who has achieved the level of GREATNESS (and a future 1st ballot Hall of Famer) --- and it's the reason why in 2017, Saints QB Drew Brees is still the #1 player in the NFL's most competitive division..............