Today we continue discussing where the NFL is going in 2022 with a look at the NFC South. Our NFL projections are based on a forecast of team performance and a subjective assessment of each team’s quarterback’s storylines.
The team win forecast is primarily driven by a new advanced QB metric called QB Wins. The preview is intentionally QB centric. These players disproportionately drive on-field success, fan interest, and salary cap issues. The NFL is the dominant sports league across just about every demographic group, and the QBs are the stars. We will publish a new division each week. See last week's NFC North division preview here.
Also streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers & Tom Brady
Tom Brady will be the top quarterback story until he retires or his performance drops off. In 2021 at age 44, Brady led the league in passing yards, and the Buccaneers won 13 games. Brady is just padding his stats as the GOAT at this point. There should be a documentary crew following Brady around until he retires permanently.
Brady is still at the top of the league, and he positions Tampa for another Super Bowl run. Yet the Buccaneers are still near the bottom of our NFL fan base rankings. This brings up a fascinating question about NFL fandom. When Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots were hardly an elite NFL brand. They clearly are now. How many championships are needed to become a top brand?
Brady’s QB Win contribution has been about 2.5 wins since he arrived in Tampa. The projection for Tampa is for a 10.5 win season. This is enough to keep Brady in the chase for home-field advantage and sets him up for another legacy-building playoff run.
Bucs’ Forecast: 10.5 wins
Buccaneers Fan Ranking: #25
Media Narrative Grade: A
2. New Orleans Saints & Jameis Winston
New Orleans is one of the great NFL marketing stories. A team that once had fans wearing paper bags in the stadium is now a perennial top-ten fan base. The Saints' Super Bowl run, Drew Brees career, and a community-building response to Katrina were all essential building blocks.
The team was 9-8 last year using multiple QBs. Winston was a .4 QB Win player in 2021 (and a minus 1.26 in Tampa in 2019). The Saints seem unsettled at QB, and the Saints have not devoted big dollars to Winston.
The team and QB seem in a holding pattern, but the wild card is Drew Brees. While it may be a long-shot, Drew Brees has the highest recorded QB Wins score over the past three seasons, with a plus 4.66 win contribution in 2019. If Brees returns, the Saints become an A-level story, and the NFC South competition between Brady and Brees becomes the best story to start the season. The 8.2 win forecast assumes no Brees.
Saints Forecast: 8.2 wins
Saints Fan Base Ranking: #7
Media Narrative Grade: C-
3. Carolina Panthers & Sam Darnold
Carolina scores higher in the fandom/brand rankings than many might expect. The Panthers have a surprisingly passionate fan base, ranked #10 in our fandom rankings. It’s probably a legacy of the Cam Newton era, but Carolina also has a larger footprint than many teams.
Regarding the team and QB, Darnold has performed poorly on the QB Win metric in New York and Carolina. Four years into a career and approaching free agency, my best guess is that Darnold is on the path to becoming a backup somewhere else, and Carolina is looking at a 6 or 7-win season. I suspect Carolina feels the heat locally as fans wait for their future QB. Nothing newsworthy at this point on the national level.
Panthers Forecast: 6.8 Wins
Panthers Fandom Ranking: #10
Media Narrative Grade: D
UPDATE: We discuss why my prediction stays the same following Carolina's acquisition of Baker Mayfield in this week's podcast.
4. Atlanta Falcons & Marcus Mariota
The storyline will likely be whether to play the veteran (Mariota) or the rookie (Ritter). QB battles are always fascinating for the die-hard fans. Here the story is a reclamation project versus a 3rd round pick.
The Falcons are probably a minus 1 team independent of the QB position. Shifting from a positive .5 QB in Ryan to either Mariota or Ritter (likely -3 players) means that whoever starts the season will likely get pulled. Mariota starts, and Ritter finishes? A rookie QB on the bench and a journeyman starter is good material for local sports radio, but it’s hard to imagine this being more than a local story. The Falcons rebuild and stay out of the national limelight.
Falcons Forecast: 5.5 wins
Falcons’ Fan Base Ranking: 18
Media Narrative Grade: C
NFC South Summary:
Tom Brady will be a top NFL story until he retires permanently. In addition to everything on the field, Brady is making moves to bolster his media presence – TV Commentator job with Fox, a compelling TikTok channel, and solid work for Subway. The rest of the division lacks star power at the QB position, and a lack of star power at the QB position means very little national media focus. Drew Brees, please make a comeback.
Check out our other divisional projections here:
All Divisional Projections
Stream the podcast discussion of the projections on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.