Tom Brady led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43) at age 44, and he won’t care at all if an improved Tampa Bay running game in 2022 puts a dent in those numbers.
After all, the man is 45.
Tom Terrific is all about winning Super Bowls – he’s got six with New England, one with Tampa Bay – and last year the Bucs didn’t get there, getting out-dueled by the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams. Brady knows that leading the league in pass attempts is a problem – allowing opponents to key on him and increasing the risk of injury. Brady has worked with new coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to find ways to improve the Tampa Bay run attack.
Brady says he keeps playing because he loves the game, but is he still as motivated? The team’s announcement in training camp that Brady is taking 10 days off for non-football reasons may be no big deal, but it’s not a good sign. Can he pick up an eighth Super Bowl ring? Maybe, but our NFL Manopicks for the NFC South are going against the conventional preseason picks.
New Orleans Saints (11-6)
Yes, Sean Payton is gone but too much is being made of that. GM Mickey Loomis, a mainstay of the front office and the man who hired Payton, is one of the NFL’s top executives. He knows the Saints have a lot of talent — keeping Dennis Allen on to take over as head coach was a no-brainer. Loomis also knows how to build a team and the Saints are not afraid to keep churning their roster. Sure, this Saints team is filled with questions, mostly tied to offensive stars returning from leg injuries, but it boasts one of the NFL’s best defenses. A fierce defensive front rotation is led by Cameron Jordan, with solid linebackers and a secondary where Marshon Lattimore is joined by free agent signee Tyrann Mathieu. It’s the New Orleans defense that makes this a tough team to pull away from.
Defense only goes so far in a league designed to favor the offenses. Can the Saints put up enough points? Quarterback Jameis Winston (knee) and receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) headline the question marks. Both are talented players returning from surgery but are deemed 100 percent. Thomas has hardly been on the field the past two seasons, but if can come close to his past form, Winston will have more than he had last season at receiver. Then there’s star running back Alvin Kamara. His offseason bar room assault case could see him suspended for a few games.
The Saints made moves to add firepower at receiver, signing Jarvis Landry and drafting Chris Olave out of Ohio State. With Taysom Hill moving from quarterback to tight end, while Andy Dalton steps in as backup QB, it’s an offense that has the pieces to succeed. I’m picking the Saints because I see them getting off to a solid start and gaining confidence, but it’s more that I see a team capable of taking a step forward from last year. And here’s my sleeper call: Hill has a great season – catching passes from Winston. I think 11 wins takes the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-7)
It’s always tempting to pencil in a Tom Brady-led team for 12 wins, and there’s certainly plenty to like about this team. Brady can still pile up the yards and he’s got talented receivers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Julio Jones.
Or does he? Godwin is coming back from ACL surgery and Jones has not looked like a true threat since his days with the Atlanta Falcons. And yes, Brady has Leonard Fournette and promising rookie Rachaad White in the backfield, but the Bucs are replacing three of five starters on the offensive line.
On defense, the line is being retooled as the Bucs dumped big salaries and used their first-round draft pick to land Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and then grabbed defensive end Logan Hall in the second round. What it all means is growing pains and a defense that is unlikely to again be No. 1 against the run. Last year, the secondary that gave up more completions than any team in the league, mainly because teams could not run on Tampa. This year could be different.
On paper, the offense draws attention, but there are plenty of question marks and aging players returning from injury. And yes, the Bucs will miss tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired over the summer.
The bottom line is I don’t think this Tampa team is better than last year’s squad. It’s older in the offensive skill positions, it’s young in areas that will show, and sooner or later, Brady’s not going to be able to work miracles.
Carolina Panthers (8-9)
Just think, if the Panthers win eight games, that will be three more than it has won in each of the past three seasons. Coach Matt Rhule was highly successful in the college ranks at Baylor and Temple, but he is 10-23 in two seasons with Carolina. Many believe he’ll need to show progress this year to return.
Rhule’s fate may rest in the hands of Baker Mayfield. The team’s quarterbacking has been a disaster, with Sam Darnold looking spectacular some weeks and completely lost in others. Carolina even tried Cam Newton again and now we can be sure he’s played his last game as a Panther. The offensive line started 13 different combinations. The team’s star, running back Christian McCaffrey, got hurt again.
Mayfield is the most experienced winner on the team. If he can get production from receivers Robbie Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. to support 1,000-yard stalwart DJ Moore, the Panthers could score enough points to support a decent defense. If it does turn out to be a growing year, that would be a good thing for Rhule, one of the NFL’s good guys and an excellent football coach. Making a run at a wild-card playoff spot and finishing 9-8 would be heroic, but eight wins is realistic.
Atlanta Falcons (5-12)
It is doubtful anyone will look back at 2022 as the start of the “Marcus Mariota Era” in Atlanta. Matt Ryan has escaped and the Falcons offense, despite having a number of potential playmakers led by running back Cordarrelle Patterson and massive rookie receiver Drake London, is going to hope Mariota can distribute the ball. If he cannot, do not be surprised to see rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder starting by midseason. He is the Falcons’ future. The team definitely got better in some ways on offense, but not at quarterback, at least not this year.
The only way Atlanta will compete is by scoring points, because the defense is shaping up to be one of the league’s worst. The Falcons don’t pressure the passer and they don’t defend passes – not an exciting combo in a league built on passing. Atlanta reloaded on defense in the draft and will need its youngsters to step up at defensive end and linebacker.