The NFC South always seems to be one of the toughest divisions in football. Sure, the Bucs haven't been great in a while, but there was a time there when the winner of this division seemed to change every year. These four teams, the Falcons, Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers, really go after each other with all they've got each year, and they're also four of the teams that seem to have a changing landscape quickly when things don't work -- they don't put up with losing.
What makes the NFC South so highly competitive each year is that they not only have the star players but they also seem to have a lot of up-and-coming young guys who play important snaps every season. Last year there were a handful of rookies in the division that really stood out, and there are five players this year who are poised to play important roles in who ends up winning the division in 2019.
WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Despite only "starting" five games, the Falcons' former first round pick saw himself get 92 targets with 64 catches, 821 yards and ten touchdowns.
Ridley's impact on the Falcons offense was massive in his first year. He was truly that player that took the Falcons' offense over the top with enough weapons to be a tough matchup every week. Defensive injuries really hurt the team overall, and that's why their win count didn't match their offensive talent. However, I don't expect any sort of sophomore slump from Ridley, and I expect the Falcons to be right back at it contending for the division title in 2019.
DT Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vea had a rough start to his first year. He suffered a calf injury on the very first padded practice of training camp that sidelined him for nearly two months, time that went into the regular season. When he did get on the field, he was timid, at first. You could tell he really didn't know how to use his strength and speed. But, as the year went on, Vea did improve and ended the season with three sacks.
With Gerald McCoy out of town, it will be up to Vea to really take a big leap in consistency and impact in his second year. They have Ndamukong Suh now, as well, but Vea will still play an important role in Todd Bowles new defense in Tampa Bay.
CB Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers
After being drafted in the second round, some though that Jackson was drafted too high for the little impact he was going to have in year one, or at least that he would need some time before he really could make his mark on a potential starting role.
Boy, were they wrong.
Jackson had a very encouraging first year with the Panthers after collecting four interceptions and a sack. His speed proved to be his biggest asset, and when he was thrusted into a starting role, he was able to keep up with some of the best and fastest wide receivers in the league. Expect him to continue having success in year two.
CB Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Speaking of first-year cornerbacks, second rounder for the Buccaneers, Carlton Davis, really took an accelerated track towards his NFL career, as well, in year one. Very soon into the season, Davis was asked to play opposite Brent Grimes as one of Tampa Bay's starting cornerbacks. Davis was about the only one who could play in a press coverage role, and because of that he saw a ton of early playing time.
The Bucs drafted three defensive backs in the 2019 NFL Draft, so it's uncertain how exactly their starting depth chart will look. But I expect Davis to be one of their starters again.
WR D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
Moore finished his rookie campaign with 722 receiving yards on 55 catches with two touchdowns. He was productive, but I expect this second year to be a big leap for him.
The Panthers are going to continue to emphasize their speed players in creative ways, and that will very much include Moore's great athletic ability. He, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will be a mismatch waiting to happen every week.