By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the NFC South’s top players on offense.
QB: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
The NFC South has the best group of quarterbacks in the league, thus making this a tough decision. However, the spot has to go to last year’s league MVP. Ryan was unbelievable last season, finishing with career-bests in completion percentage (69.9 percent), yards (4,944), yards per pass attempt (9,26), touchdowns (38), interceptions (seven), and Passer Rating (117.1). Ryan also had a 136.1 Passer Rating on throws 20+ yards downfield, which is the best statistical mark of the Pro Football Focus Era (the site launched in 2007). In addition to MVP, Ryan was awarded NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was named first-team All-Pro. With Atlanta’s Super Bowl meltdown still fresh on his mind, Ryan will be as motivated as ever this season.
RB: Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman put together his second consecutive solid season, despite continuing to lose touches to teammate Tevin Coleman. Freeman carried the ball 227 times for 1,079 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns, while adding 54 receptions for 462 yards and two receiving touchdowns. The 25-year old back received the eighth-highest overall grade among running backs by PFF, but his 1.59 yards per route run was the third-best mark of NFC running backs. Freeman’s play earned him another trip to the Pro Bowl, and more importantly, a contract extension that has made him the league’s highest-paid running back. It would not be surprising to see rookie Christian McCaffrey have a Pro Bowl season, but as of now, Freeman is still the NFC South’s top running back.
WR: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
After another strong season, Jones is smack in the middle of the discussion for the NFL’s best wide receiver. 2016 was actually a down year for Jones, who still wound up catching 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games. The 6-foot-3 receiver was the highest-graded wide receiver last season by PFF with an overall grade of 96.4. He also led all 115 qualifying WRs with a receiving grade of 95.6, in addition to ranking first among 96 qualifying receivers with 3.12 yards per route run. No other wide receiver can come close to Jones’ combination of size, strength, speed, and catching ability, which is why PFF listed Jones as the fourth-best player in the NFL heading into the 2017 season.
WR: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If he were in most of the other divisions around the NFL instead of the NFC South, Evans would have likely landed in the No. 1 WR spot. Evans made a big leap in 2016, recording his third-straight 1,000+ yards season when he caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. He actually finished the regular season with the highest PFF grade for a wide receiver before Jones’ performance in the playoffs helped him jump Evans for the top spot. Evans was also able to cut his drops down from 15 in 2015 to only seven in 2016, while lowering his drop rate a full 10 percent to 6.8 percent. The big receiver came through for Tampa when they needed him most, converting a massive 83.3 percent of his 96 catches into either first downs or touchdowns, the best mark of any wide receiver in the league (with at least 40 receptions). Evans and Jameis Winston have developed a connection in their two years together, and will look to have their most successful season yet in 2017.
WR: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Although he has only one NFL season under his belt, Thomas looks well on his way to joining Jones and Evans in the group of the league’s elite wide receivers. The 2016 second-round pick led all rookies in yards (1,137), catches (92), and touchdowns (nine), and by the end of the season had established himself as Drew Brees’ go-to receiver. Despite having Pro Bowler Brandin Cooks lined up on the other side of the field, Thomas’ 119 targets were six more than Cooks. The rookie also caught 77.3 percent of those passes compared to Cooks who caught only 63.6 percent. At 6-foot-3, 212-pounds, Thomas is one of the most physically imposing receivers in the league. The Saints knew how to use his size to their advantage in 2016, and with a full offseason to work with Brees, Thomas looks primed for a breakout sophomore campaign.
TE: Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
While most players’ performances tend to decline as they get older, Olsen somehow seems to get better each year. The 32-year-old put together his third consecutive 1,000+ yard season, catching 80 receptions for 1,073 yards and three touchdowns. Olsen has been a top three-graded tight end in each of the past three seasons, partially due to his ability to line up anywhere on the field. The veteran tight end ran a pass route from 18 different positions on the field last year and was targeted at 16 of those positions, both the most by a tight end in 2016, while his 509 yards from the slot also led his position. Olsen was slightly less dominant last year than in 2015, but has proven to still be one of the top three tight ends in the NFL.
OT: Jake Matthews, Atlanta Falcons
Matthews has been a productive player for the Falcons in his first three NFL seasons while missing only one game in his career. But the former first-round pick has significantly improved since his rookie season. Matthews received a pass-blocking grade of 38.3 in 2014, but in the two seasons since, has boosted that number to 82.1 in 2015 and 79.2 in 2016. The 6-foot-5 lineman allowed just 14 hurries last season, finishing fourth in the NFL among offensive tackles in that statistic. Matthews also saw an increase in his Pass Blocking Efficiency, receiving a mark of 96.2, the 11th-best of all tackles. Still only 24-years-old, Matthews has yet to reach his full potential. 2017 could be when that happens.
OG: Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
Norwell serves as the perfect example of a team striking gold with an undrafted rookie free agent. Carolina signed the guard in 2014 after he went undrafted, and all he has done since then is develop into one of the best at his position. Norwell has ranked as the eighth highest-graded guard in each of the last two seasons, and finished last year with a top-15 grade in both pass-blocking and run-blocking. In fact, his run-blocking grade of 84.8 was the fourth-highest of the league’s guards, and since he became a starter for the Panthers back in 2014, Norwell has allowed a mere six total sacks. Norwell is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season, and another strong performance this year will earn the young guard a massive payday.
C: Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons
Mack was Atlanta’s big free agent acquisition last offseason when they signed the center to a five-year, $45 million contract. One year through the deal, the Falcons could not be happier about their decision to sign the Pro Bowl center. Mack ranked third among centers in both overall grade and run-blocking grade, and was a huge boost to Atlanta’s offensive line, leading them to the No. 6 ranking among offensive lines last year by PFF. The veteran center, who has played all 16 games in seven of his eight NFL seasons, made his fourth Pro Bowl in 2016, as well as his second All-Pro second-team. Mack was a big reason why Ryan, Freeman, and Coleman all had successful seasons, and will look to match his 2016 performance this year.
OG: Trai Turner, Carolina Panthers
Carolina signed Turner to a four-year extension last month, despite the lineman struggling a bit in 2016. Turner had one of the best seasons among guards in 2015, finishing with the fifth-highest overall grade of 87.4 from PFF. The 6-foot-3 guard had the NFL’s seventh-best pass blocking efficiency that year, giving up only 17 total pressures during the regular season. But Turner slumped slightly in 2016, largely due to having to play some games at right tackle as injuries affected Carolina’s o-line all season. Turner’s three games at right tackle were three of his five worst-graded games of 2016, giving up ten total pressures and collecting four penalties in those three contests. Returning to his natural position at guard, Turner should have a bounce-back season in 2017.
OT: Ryan Schraeder, Atlanta Falcons
Schraeder is one of the better stories in the NFL, going from an undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State to one of the league’s most respected right tackles. The 6-foot-7 tackle was PFF’s highest-rated right tackle in 2015 after he allowed just three sacks, two hits, and 20 hurries in 16 games. He followed that up with another strong season in 2016, finishing with the sixth-highest grade at his position. Schraeder peaked at the right time last season, allowing just four quarterback hurries in the final three games of the regular season. The Falcons signed the 29-year-old tackle to a contract extension in the middle of last season, locking Schraeder up for the next five seasons for $31.5 million. With the way he’s been playing, that could prove to be quite the steal for Atlanta.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.