ATLANTA (AP) — Mike Evans endured four last-place finishes in the NFC South in his first six seasons with Tampa Bay before last season's breakthrough Super Bowl championship earned the Buccaneers long-awaited respect.
The former doormats of the division are now envied by every other NFL team.
"I've been waiting for this for seven years now," said Evans, a first-round pick in 2014. "That's what we want. When we went to Pittsburgh my rookie year, we wanted to be the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now everybody wants to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's what you want, and we look forward to the challenge."
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers aren't the defending division champions. New Orleans won its fourth consecutive division title at 12-4, one game ahead of Tampa Bay, which made the playoffs as a wild card.
The retirement of Saints quarterback Drew Brees only makes Tampa Bay a stronger favorite in the division.
First-year Falcons coach Arthur Smith, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, says the Saints' four-year run atop the division deserves respect.
"I know Drew Brees is retired, but they've won a lot of football games and sustained success, so we've got all the respect in the world for New Orleans," Smith said.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians has reminded his players they can't lean on last year's run of eight consecutive wins to the championship. Arians relayed a simple message on the first day of training camp in July.
"Don't assume anything. We're starting from scratch. That was last year's team," Arians said.
Brady, 44 and who had offseason knee surgery, is doing his part to make sure complacency isn't an issue. Even though the Bucs return all 22 starters, Brady reiterated the difficulty of the challenge ahead.
It's difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but Brady knows the path. No team has repeated since Brady led the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots to consecutive titles.
"We have to be able to create our own future, and that's really about attitude, effort, and preparation," Brady said. "Nothing about last year is going to carry over into this year. It's an entirely new challenge."
Brees' retirement and Carolina's acquisition of Sam Darnold from the Jets created quarterback turnover in half of the division's teams. Brady returns for his second season in Tampa Bay while Matt Ryan, 36, enters his 14th season in Atlanta.
With Brees launching a new career as a broadcaster, Ryan says the division won't be the same.
"It's a little different," Ryan said. "Obviously playing against Drew every year for my entire career was a challenge. He's a great player."
Jameis Winston has been named the successor to Brees.
Believe in Payton
Saints coach Sean Payton must show he can win without Brees. GM Mickey Loomis says that point has been proven.
New Orleans was 8-1 without Brees the last two seasons, including 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater when Brees was out with a thumb injury in 2019. The Saints were 3-1 with Taysom Hill at quarterback while Brees was out with injured ribs last season.
Hill is expected to have a role behind Winston this season. Loomis said Payton will find a way to keep the Saints winning.
"Sean and his staff will adjust accordingly," Loomis said. "I think they've been fantastic doing that over the years."