Madden NFL 15 Player Ratings continue with a division-by-division look at team and player ratings. We move on to the AFC South and NFC South.
The first two years of the Andrew Luck era have been everything the Colts could have hoped for. Luck has a number of targets in the passing game including Reggie Wayne (health permitting), TY Hilton, and newly acquired Hakeem Nicks, as well as tight end Coby Fleener. On the ground, the Colts must adjust to the losses of Donald Brown (free agency) and Vic Ballard (injury). The onus will fall on Trent Richardson to live up to the first-round pick the Colts spent to get him.
On defense, it starts with Robert Mathis, who led the world with 19.5 sacks in 2013. Leading tackler Jerrell Freeman returns alongside top-five cornerback Vontae Davis, but the Colts must recover from the loss of Antoine Bethea.
The Matt Schaub era has ended in Houston, and the Texans will take the field behind newly acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Texans inked Fitzpatrick to a two-year deal, and he has several capable targets in Andre Johnson and second-year speedster DeAndre Hopkins. On the ground, the Texans are relying on Arian Foster to stay healthy after an injury-plauged 2013. Andre Brown will spell Foster, replacing the departed Ben Tate.
Of course, the excitement in Houston comes on the defensive side of the ball. First overall pick Jadeveon Clowney joins all-world defensive end J.J. Watt to form one of the most feared pass-rushing duos in the league. The Texans are also crossing their fingers for the return of Brian Cushing, who should help shore up last year’s 23rd-ranked rushing defense. In the secondary, Jonathan Joseph anchors an impressive pass defense that finished third in the league last season.
The fate of the 2014 Titans will largely be determined by the health of quarterback Jake Locker, who managed just seven starts last year. Gone is former 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson, and the Titans hope the trio of Shonn Greene, second-round pick Bishop Sankey and pass-catching extraordinaire Dexter McCluster can exceed Johnson’s declining production. The underrated Kendall Wright (94 catches, 1079 yards) returns as Locker’s primary option alongside Nate Washington and tight end Delanie Walker.
93-rated Jurrell Casey is a force on Tennessee's defensive line. The Titans finished in the bottom third of the league with just 31 sacks, and they hope veteran Shaun Phillips (79.5 sacks with San Diego and Denver) can help remedy that. Tennessee's secondary is impressive, with Jason McCourty supported by an impressive safety duo - New England Patriots nemesis Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin. However, the Titans must account for the loss of Pro Bowler Alterraun Verner, who signed with the Buccaneers.
Optimism is growing in Jacksonville. After a disastrous 0-8 start, the Jaguars went 4-4 in the second half and then nabbed local boy Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the draft. Veteran Chad Henne is expected to start the season, but don’t be surprised if the Jags hand Bortles
punting duties the keys at some point. Toby Gerhart steps out of an Adrian Peterson-sized shadow in Minnesota, and should be the Jags’ workhorse back this season. Underrated Cecil Shorts should be the number one option in the passing game, but keep an eye on second-round pick Marquise Lee.
The Jaguars hope that former Seahawk Chris Clemons can provide a pass-rushing spark to a defense that has long struggled to get to the quarterback. Jacksonville acquired another former Seahawk, Red Bryant, and former Steeler Ziggy Hood to boost the defensive line. Leading tackler Paul Posluszny returns to anchor the linebacking unit, while 2013 second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien is hoping to build on an impressive rookie season (104 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception).
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The Saints offense needs no introduction, as record-breaking quarterback Drew Brees will make use of a number of targets. Top-rated tight end Jimmy Graham is defying his position at this point because of his productivity. We know about most of Brees' targets (Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem) but keep an eye on rookie Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. On the ground, the Saints must replace the versatility of Darren Sproles, and will look towards their usual stable of backs (Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson) to do just that.
On defense, both Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette broke out to the tune of 12.5 and 12 sacks respectively. In the secondary, the Saints pulled off one of the coups of the offseason when they signed three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better safety duo than Byrd and second-year Kenny Vaccaro, who looks like a star in his own right.
Despite the 13-3 record and NFC South title, there are still some questions surrounding this Panthers offense. Cam Newton continues to progress, but enters 2014 without his favorite wideout target in Steve Smith. Tight end Greg Olsen is coming off a career year that saw him catch a team-high 73 passes, earning himself a top-five tight end rating in the process.The Panthers will continue to rely on a proficient ground game featuring DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and, of course, Newton.
Defense is where the Panthers' bread is buttered, and it starts up front with Greg Hardy (92 OVR, 15 sacks), Charles Johnson (88), and Star Lotulelei (88). Carolina's linebackers are among the best in football, with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly (94 OVR) and Thomas Davis (89) leading the way.
After coming up yards short of the Super Bowl in 2012-13, the Falcons endured a nightmarish, injury-plagued season in 2013-14. Luckily for them, their offensive firepower makes a quick turnaround very possible. Matt Ryan is still among the game's best quarterbacks at 87 OVR, and Atlanta's trio of wideouts (92 OVR Julio Jones, 89 OVR Roddy White, 81 OVR Harry Douglas) are dynamite. After allowing 44 sacks last season, Atlanta hopes rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews helps keep Ryan upright.
The Falcons were the second-worst rushing defense in football last year, and addressed this by throwing some cash at Paul Soliai (87 OVR) and Tyson Jackson (84 OVR) in free agency. Atlanta's linebacking corps could struggle without Sean Witherspoon. In the secondary, 82 OVR Desmond Trufant will be asked to slow down the likes of Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
With some new uniforms and a new, proven head coach in Lovie Smith, things are looking up in Tampa Bay. After shining in a backup role in Chicago, the Bucs hope Josh McCown (83 OVR) can bring some stability to the position ahead of the young Mike Glennon. The Bucs could have some bigtime mismatches at the skill positions thanks to Vincent Jackson (92) and first-round selection Mike Evans. The Bucs hope running back Doug Martin can replicate his 2012 form that saw him run for more than 1,4000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie.
In defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (95 OVR). linebacker LaVonte David (93) and end Michael Johnson (91), the Bucs have some top-shelf talent in their front seven. They'll be looking for big-money acquisitions Alterraun Verner (87) and Dashon Goldson (81) to improve a secondary, an important task in a division with three great quarterbacks.
Click here for a full breakdown of all player ratings from the AFC South and NFC South.