TAMPA, Fla. — Since Tom Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South has seen Cam Newton and Drew Brees both leave the division.
With the trade announced on Sunday (pending final approval) the division has now lost Julio Jones as well. Before this season, one could argue Jones was the most accomplished wide receiver in the NFC South. Now that Mike Evans has a Super Bowl ring to go with everything else he’s accomplished though, it would be a much harder argument to make, even with Jones’ tenure in the league.
This exodus of veteran talent, even with the arrival of Brady, has opened a lot of questions about the future of each team in this grouping. Even with Matt Ryan still leading the Falcons, there are plenty of questions about the team’s road ahead; and the Carolina Panthers certainly can’t claim to have it all figured out after taking on Sam Darnold who failed to impress with the New York Jets.
Then there’s the New Orleans Saints who have to choose a starting quarterback between two candidates in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston who many NFL teams wouldn’t even give a test drive to if given the choice.
It would seem the division is at a crossroads, with the top talent at several positions among the four competitors up for grabs. So how many Buccaneers players have the leg up on the competition? I thought about this, and the answer may surprise you.
I’m going to start where the deliberations started, at the wide receiver position. One candidate from each team to be the guy on top of the NFC South hill. This made for tough work coming out of the gate as I view Evans and Chris Godwin as two of the best receivers in the game today.
Sticking to the exercise though, I went with Evans. History and his record-setting run of 1,000-yard seasons gave him the edge. For the Saints, Michael Thomas is the obvious answer. As is D.J. Moore in Carolina, and now Calvin Ridley for the Atlanta Falcons as their new number one receiver.
Now, to rank each team’s top target. Bottom to top.
Fourth place was easy. For me, it’s Ridley. I like his upside and he’s shown some solid potential. He even cleaned up some of his drop issues. But he hasn’t played a game as the top target for his team yet, so he gets the fourth spot, automatically.
Next, I’m going with Michael Thomas. While I do think the harping on his being just a five-yard slant receiver is overblown, there’s no denying his yards per catch average is low when compared to each of these competitors. It’s not even close really. His 11.7 yards per reception average is a full two and a half yards shy of Ridley’s career 14.1 average, and he’s the second lowest.
Also, when you consider Thomas just came off his lowest yards per reception average in a single season while Moore had his best (15.2), I think the Panthers’ target has proven to be a more versatile receiver at all three levels of the passing game.
Finally, there’s the mental connection Thomas and Brees shared which helped lead to a lot of those short-yard adjustment plays. Neither Winston or Hill have proven to be the most cerebral quarterbacks, and this may cause issues for Thomas. Further complicating his claim to the wide receiver throne.
Which is why Moore is number two on my list of the receivers who could be the next dominant NFC South player at his position.
Because even with a drop in quarterback play, and a severe drop in targets (118 in 2020 vs 135 in 2019) and receptions (66 in 2020 vs 87 in 2019), Moore still managed to improve his yards output to a career high 1,193. He also matched his high in touchdowns with four - which is not a good number.
Then, there’s the ultimate advantage Moore brings into 2021 over Thomas - the best ability - availability. Moore has missed two games in his three-year career while Thomas missed nine in 2020 alone.
Now, before last season Thomas had only missed one game. So maybe he can get back to his healthy norm, but maybe he can’t. When we’re talking projections, recent injuries costing significant time off the field are more problematic, obviously.
Which leaves the top guy poised to take over Julio Jones’ crown as the lead receiver in the NFC South: Mike Evans.
As I said earlier, he may have already done so even if Jones was still in the division. To be fair, many Bucs and Saints fans probably felt their stars already passed Jones in 2020 if not earlier. If the NFL scored points per reception the way fantasy football does, New Orleans supporters may have a stronger argument.
After all, Jones missed seven games in 2020, and hadn’t looked as dominant as he had in years passed even as his stats still ranked pretty high. While Evans was on pace to break Randy Moss’ streak of 1,000-yard seasons from rookie year on, Jones was matching him season for season. If not for his 11 games missed in 2013, the record might be Jones’.
So, no Super Bowl title for the Falcons legend certainly helps place Evans at the top of this list, but the appreciation for what Jones brought to the NFC South for 10 seasons shouldn’t be understated.
For more on this story and for more on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, check out the Locked On Bucs Podcast.
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