Cover 9@9: Who won the NFC South offseason title?

Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn speaks during a press conference at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly blog of everything you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons. This week, with the Falcons serving their three-practice penalty for violating excessive contact OTA rules, we try to determine who won the absolutely unofficial NFC South offseason title.

FLOWERY BRANCH — While the Falcons had to overtake the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South last season, it looks like their primary challenger in 2017 will be Tampa Bay.

The Bucs had a breakthrough 9-7 record last season and missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker. They’ve had an excellent draft and a year of seasoning on defense under former Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

The Falcons snapped Carolina’s reign of three consecutive NFC South titles. Before that no team had won the division in consecutive seasons since it became a division in 2002.

Football Outsiders projected that the Falcons will finish 9-7 and in second place.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell believes the Falcons won the NFC South offseason title.

Below is a look at what the team’s moves, the players added, loss, weaknesses, strengths and comments.

You make your own call and vote in our poll:

ATLANTA FALCONS –11-5

No longer with the Falcons: DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Tyson Jackson, LB Paul Worrilow, RG Chris Chester, OT Tom Compton, FB Patrick DiMarco, WR Eric Weems, WR Aldrick Taylor and TE Jacob Tamme.

Key free agent signings/pickups: DT Dontari Poe, DE Jack Crawford, FB Derrick Coleman and FB Soma Vainuku.

Atlanta Falcons’ 2017 NFL draft class

1 26 Takkarist McKinley DE UCLA
3 75 Duke Riley OLB LSU
4 136 Sean Harlow G Oregon State
5 149 Damontae Kazee CB San Diego State
5 156 Brian Hill RB Wyoming
5 174 Eric Saubert TE Drake

Weaknesses: The young defense must make strides and learn how to extend their spurts of good play into an entire game of solid play. The defense’s leaky nature hurt in the Super Bowl and led to the dismissal of defensive line coach Bryan Cox Sr. and defensive coordinator Richard Smith. The Falcons have plenty of things to improve on defensively as they ranked 26th on rushing yards per play (4.52 yards), 28th in passing yards (266.7), 26th sacks per pass attempts (5.19), tied for 29th first downs per game (22.4), 26th in third down percentage (41.78), 32nd in red zone percentage (72.73) and 27th in points allowed (25.4).

Strengths: The offense is not slated for any major changes. They must find a fullback and right guard. The Falcons led the league in yards per play (6.59 yards), yards per passing play (8.23) and points (33.8 points). Matt Ryan will expected to follow-up his MVP season with a similar campaign.

Comment: The coaching staff, which will feature a defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator who have never called a game in the NFL, will be heavily scrutinized after winning the NFC title and making the franchise’s second trip to the Super Bowl. Also, the depth along the offensive line will be important. Last season, none of the starters missed a game and it’s unrealistic to think the team could be that healthy up front for a second consecutive season.

 

FILE – In this Nov. 15, 2015, file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter talks to quarterback Jameis Winston (3) during an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, in Tampa, Fla. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced that they have named Dirk Koetter the 11th head coach in franchise history, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File) The Associated Press

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS — 9-7

No longer with the Bucs: PK Johns Lunsford, CB Greg Mabin, LS Dax Dellenbach, WR Vincent Jackson and CB Alterraun Verner.

Key free agent signings/pickups: WR DeSean Jackson, DT Chris Baker, SS J.J. Wilcox, LS Garrison Sanborn, CB Robert McClain and PK Nick Folk.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’   2017 NFL draft

1 19 O.J. Howard TE Alabama
2 50 Justin Evans SAF Texas A&M
3 84 Chris Godwin WR Penn State
3 107 Kendell Beckwith ILB LSU
5 162 Jeremy McNichols RB Boise State
7 223 Stevie Tu’ikolovatu NT USC

Weaknesses: The Bucs need to revive their rushing attack. They finished 29th in rushing yards per play at 3.57 yards. The pass defense was also shaky last season. The Bucs ranked 26th in yards per passing play (6.85 yards) and 22nd in overall pass defense (250.8 yards per game.) Quarterback Jameis Winston needs to cut down his 18 interceptions.

Strengths: Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander is a budding Superstar. The addition of Jackson and Howard should bolster the passing attack.

Comment: The Bucs went 9-7 last season, their first winning season since 2010.  The Bucs missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the NFL with Jacksonville. The teams split last season’s series with Tampa Bay winning 31-24 in Atlanta on Sept. 11 and Atlanta winning in Tampa Bay 43-28 on Nov. 3.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has a 10-3 mark against the Falcons. (Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS — 7-9

No longer with the Saints: S Jairus Byrd, OG Jahri Evans, OG Tim Lelito, CB, B.W. Webb, RB Tim Hightower, WR Brandin Cooks and  LB Kasim Edebali.

Key free agent signings/pickups: RB Adrian Peterson, OG Larry Warford, LB A.J. Klein, WR Ted Ginn Jr., LB Manti T’eo, LB Alex Okafor and QB Chase Daniel.

New Orleans Saints’   2017 NFL draft

1 11 Marshon Lattimore CB Ohio State
1 32 Ryan Ramczyk T Wisconsin
2 42 Marcus Williams SAF Utah
3 67 Alvin Kamara RB Tennessee
3 76 Alex Anzalone LB Florida
3 103 Trey Hendrickson DE Florida Atlantic
6 196 Al-Quadin Muhammad DE Miami (Fla.)

Weaknesses: The Saints moved to improve their rushing attack by signing Peterson and adding Kamara in the draft. They were 31st in kickoff return yardage and the defense was ranked 27th overall total yards allowed at 375.4 yards per game.

Strengths: Brees is still dangerous as the Saints were No. 1  in total yards per game at 426.  The play of receivers Michael Thomas and Willie Snead made the Saints comfortable enough to trade Cooks. Peterson and Mark Ingram should provide a better rushing attack with Kamara talking on the old Reggie Bush/third down role. A more balanced offensive attack will keep the shaky defense off the field more.

Comment: The Saints finished 7-9 for the third consecutive season which led to a shake up on the coaching staff. Former defensive line coach Bill Johnson’s contract expired and he landed with the St. Louis Rams. The Saints need to make major strides of defense to break their recent cycle of losing.

122815 ATLANTA: Officials seperate Falcons wide reciever Roddy White and Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman as they get into a tussle after White made a reception during the first quarter in a football game on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Atlanta. Looking on is Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

CAROLINA PANTHERS — 6-10

No longer with the Panthers: S Tre Boston, DE Kony Ealy, DT Paul Soliai and RB Mike Tolbert.

Key free agent signings/pickups: LB Julius Peppers, LT Matt Kalil, CB Captain Munnerlyn, WR Russell Shepard, SS Mike Adams and WR Charles Johnson.

Carolina Panthers’   2017 NFL draft

1 8 Christian McCaffrey RB Stanford
2 40 Curtis Samuel WR Ohio State
2 64 Taylor Moton G Western Michigan
3 77 Daeshon Hall DE Texas A&M
5 152 Corn Elder CB Miami (Fla.)
6 192 Alex Armah FB West Georgia
7 233 Harrison Butker K Georgia Tech

Weaknesses: The Panthers’ wide receiver corps and the secondary are both weak links. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is battling weight issues and Devin Funchess has been a disappointment. The secondary will welcome the return of Munnerlyn and  they are hoping Peppers still has some gas left in the tank.

Strengths: Steve Wilks, the former secondary coach, was promoted to defensive coordinator to take over for Sean McDermott, who was named Buffalo’s head coach. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula will figure out how to integrate the news weapons added through the draft.

Comment: The Panthers went from 15-1 to 6-10 and missed the playoffs after playing in Super Bowl 50. Quarterback Cam Newton had offseason rotator cuff surgery. The Panthers picked up Newton, who needs to cut down his running activities, a few new weapons in McCaffrey and Samuel. Three-time All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly missed six games with concussions issues. His return to form is key to any revival in Charlotte.

 https://twitter.com/Falcons_PA/status/867023250278297604

THE FALCONS 2017 DRAFT

MUST READ PROFILE: Falcons top pick McKinley makes name for himself

2017 Falcons report card: Falcons earn a B-plus

NFC Champs add a pass rusher, quality depth 

1st rounder: Meet defensive end Takkarist McKinley

3rd rounder: Meet linebacker Duke Riley

4th rounder: Meet offensive guard Sean Harlow

5th rounder: Meet defensive back Damontae Kazee

5th rounder: Meet running back Brian Hill

5th rounder: Meet tight end Eric Saubert

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