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NFC South burning questions for 2022: Tom Brady lands his eighth ring? Baker Mayfield to the Panthers?

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In one of the weirdest NFL offseasons in history, the NFC South helped put on a show. Tom Brady retired only to quickly unretire, and Matt Ryan is no longer with the Atlanta Falcons — the franchise legend traded away to the Indianapolis Colts. The Carolina Panthers are in on trading for Baker Mayfield, but then they’re not, but then they are again (maybe, kinda, sorta?), and the New Orleans Saints are entering their first season without Sean Payton as head coach since the 2006 season (his “Bountygate” suspension in 2012 notwithstanding) when he and Drew Brees began their reign over the division. 

Add to this the fact Bruce Arians decided to give the keys to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching castle to his defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, and it’s not difficult to see just how much upheaval has occurred in what is often one of the most competitive divisions in all of football. But with so much change comes an equal or greater number of questions, and while there are plenty, these four are the most burning as the calendar turns to June.

Feels like a silly question, I know.

I mean, let’s be real here for a second. This is Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. we’re talking about. The very same one who helped turn the New England Patriots into a dynasty before leaving to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win a Super Bowl ring in his first year with the club. All that despite the challenges presented by a raging COVID-19 pandemic. And yes, the very same one with seven Super Bowl rings and five Super Bowl MVP honors. Still, the question needs to be asked — Brady himself keeping it in the forefront of his super-competitive mind as a means of motivation on an annual basis. So, let’s circle back to the question of can he do it even if we know he’s capable, because we also know all it takes is a hiccup at the wrong time to prevent it from being so.

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The Buccaneers have achieved yet another offseason feat of keeping most of their band together from 2022, but they nearly didn’t, seeing as Brady retired and then swiftly unretired; and they still don’t know if Rob Gronkowski will return. There is also a shift at head coach, with Bruce Arians moving into a front office role while former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles ascends to Arians’ former role, and it’s unknown if that new wrinkle will cause a hitch in the step of an offense mostly orchestrated by Byron Leftwich. Brady still has a bad taste in his mouth from how his postseason ended against the Rams, and Chris Godwin is set to return from injury as well, so it appears the NFC South is again Brady’s to lose … but can he land that eighth ring?

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Atlanta Falcons: Can they be competitive in 2022?

This coming season will mark the first time the Falcons have not had Matt Ryan as their franchise quarterback since he took over as a rookie in 2008, the previous season having been one of the most controversial and disappointing in the history of the organization — led by Bobby Petrino headlines only one season after the Michael Vick dogfighting revelation. Ryan went on to not only become league MVP in his career, but to also become the longest-tenured quarterback in Falcons history, a legend in Atlanta who is now readying to suit up for the Colts in 2022. And while it’s arguable if Ryan is on a decline of some sort, it’s inarguable that his departure creates a massive void at the most important position in football and thrusts the Falcons into what many view as rebuild mode.

The acquisition of Marcus Mariota seems admirable as far as potentially making them competitive, but it’s also true that Mariota devolved into being a backup for a reason. The former second-overall pick fell from grace in Tennessee and then served as the alternate for Derek Carr in Las Vegas until now, and it feels like quite a stretch to assume he’d be equal or close to what Ryan was/is. Time will tell if Mariota can make the Falcons competitive in 2022 as a bridge to the future, or if that bridge will instead collapse under the weight of a division owned by Tom Brady.

So, what’s the situation in Charlotte regarding the quarterback position? Well, your guess is as good as theirs, if we’re being totally honest here. They went from being all-in on Sam Darnold after acquiring him from the Jets to rethinking that decision entirely after seeing him flounder about in a Panthers uniform, but while they’ve seemingly moved on from him by trading up for a high-ceiling talent in Matt Corral in the 2022 NFL Draft, they haven’t completely — seeing as Darnold is still on the roster. But maybe Darnold isn’t around at all if the Panthers had their way prior to the draft and were able to convince the Cleveland Browns to send them Baker Mayfield, or maybe Corral isn’t, but there’s no way to really know what head coach Matt Rhule is doing at QB at this point.

Rhule’s time thus far in Carolina has been an unmitigated disaster at the position, and even includes a reunion with former league MVP Cam Newton that produced little to nothing of merit (after failing to rejuvenate Teddy Bridgewater on a multi-year contract that was cut short). And even with Corral in tow and Darnold still on the roster, there are reports that the Panthers are still open to acquiring Mayfield, but that they’d have to also fend off the Seattle Seahawks to acquire him. The bottom line is this: if you can guess (right now) who’ll be the starting QB for the Panthers in 2022, and correctly, you should buy a Powerball ticket before your luck runs out like the Panthers’ continues to do.

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Barring the wildly unforeseen, Drew Brees isn’t returning to the Saints, but Winston has after suffering a torn ACL in what was a chance to be his breakout year in New Orleans. The battle with Taysom Hill is over, as Hill tries his hand at tight end following a disappointing showing at QB1 in 2021, and former fourth-round pick Ian Book isn’t remotely close to getting the nod as franchise QB. And so it’s Winston’s job to lose after signing a two-year deal this offseason, and head coach Dennis Allen is trying to get off to a roaring start in Year 1 of the post-Sean Payton era, so he’ll need Winston playing the best football of his NFL career going forward.

Otherwise, Allen might try getting a look at Andy Dalton as a possible stopgap to whomever they’d go after in the 2023 quarterback prospect pool ahead of next year’s draft, Dalton having been signed in free agency in a move that preceded the requested release of Blake Bortles. Dalton isn’t exactly entering on a glittery horse, though, after failed stints with both the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears and so, again, it truly is Winston’s show in New Orleans — at least for now. That leaves only one burning question in The Bayou, and the answer to it will help determine if Brady runs rampant over the NFC South or if at least one team will give him a fight, as the Saints typically have: can Jameis Winston deliver?

We’ll find out soon enough, along with the answers to questions hovering above their division rivals.


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