The topsy-turvy NFC South, which never has seen a back-to-back conqueror, took another spin this offseason.
The gap between teams in the South closed as the teams that finished 2013 at the top of the division shed veteran players, while the teams at the bottom took steps to strengthen their weaknesses.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought in Lovie Smith to guide their rudderless ship. The Bucs were one of the most active teams in free agency, identifying players and locking them down. This wasn’t a team that was devoid of talent — especially on the defensive side of the ball — but Smith brought in players who better fit his scheme. In most cases, they were also big upgrades in talent.
The Buccaneers now will be a popular pick to repeat the success of the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs, who made the playoffs following a dismal season. With Smith at the helm and an infusion of talent, there is good reason for that comparison.
On the flip side sits the division winning Carolina Panthers, who saw more retirements than game-changing signings. The Panthers won last season on the back of a ferocious defense and run-heavy offense. Those two aspects must be replicated and improved upon if Carolina is to repeat because all other areas have been downgraded.
In our “Roster Reset” series, Around The League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The NFC South is up next.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
» How they improved: New coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht revamped the Bucs’ crew, signing a whopping 17 new players. Their additions were complements to the talent already in place when the new regime arrived.
The duo overhauled the offensive line, cutting veterans Donald Penn and Davin Joseph and trading away center Jeremy Zuttah. Evan Dietrich-Smith is a big upgrade over Zuttah at center, and left tackle Anthony Collins is a massive improvement — he allowed zero sacks last season.
Releasing Darrelle Revis might have been bad PR, but replacement Alterraun Verner will fit seamlessly into Smith’s system and came at a much cheaper price. High-priced defensive end Michael Johnson is a perfect partner to Gerald McCoy on the inside and should immediately upgrade the Buccaneers’ pass rush.
In the end, swapping in the respected Smith for the mercurial Greg Schiano was the biggest boon for the Bucs’ franchise.
» Find a complement to Vincent Jackson: Trading Mike Williams to Buffalo left a big void opposite Jackson. The rest of the depth chart is awash with No. 3 receivers — Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins etc. Finding a playmaking receiver in the draft is a must to take the heat off Jackson. (Mike Evans, anyone?)
» Linebacker depth: Smith had the luxury of an All-Pro group of linebackers during his stint in Chicago. Pro Bowl snub Lavonte David should dominate in Smith’s system. The coach must cultivate a Brian Urlacher-type to augment David’s Lance Briggs imitation.
» Future QB: Josh McCown will begin as the Bucs’ starter. Incumbent Mike Glennon plans to battle for the starting job, but in reality could be fighting for the backup job. The 35-year-old McCown is not a long-term solution. Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford must decide if Glennon can be the future or if a developmental rookie is necessary.
2. Atlanta Falcons
» How they improved: The goal was to get meaner and more versatile along the offensive and defensive lines. General manager Thomas Dimitroff did both on the first day of free agency, signing defensive tackle Paul Soliai, defensive end Tyson Jackson and guard Jon Asamoah.
Adding Soliai and Jackson while retaining defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters will give defensive coordinator Mike Nolan the ability to mix and match his fronts. Soliai will immediately bolster a porous run defense.
The pickup of return man Devin Hester could be a sneaky-good move for Dimitroff. The Falcons were terrible in returning kicks last season. While he didn’t come cheap for a specialist, we expect Hester to have an improved season playing his home games on carpet — as opposed to the mush-pit inside Soldier Field.
» Safety help: After cutting Thomas DeCoud and the failed offer sheet to restricted free agent Rafael Bush, the Falcons are bereft of talent on the back end. Strong safety William Moore is a movable chess piece, but is coming off a poor season. Dimitroff has added corner depth, but so far he’s mostly whiffed at the safety spot.
» Offensive tackle upgrade: The team clearly seems to like left tackle Sam Baker when he’s healthy — evidenced by his six-year, $41-million deal last year. Regardless, Matt Ryan could use an upgrade at both tackle spots, immediately.
» Young pass rusher: Whatever schemes Nolan plans to employ, the Falcons can still use a young, pass-rushing outside linebacker to supplement the worst rush unit in the league in 2013.
3. New Orleans Saints
» Getting defensive: Some Saints players displayed candid morose during the team’s offseason purge. Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis made cuts with the cold calculation of George R.R. Martin dismembering another Stark. It was a harsh reality for several players who helped New Orleans win a Super Bowl, including Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Lance Moore.
Most players who the Saints did sign — and re-sign — were for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to play with. Jairus Byrd was the best signing of the offseason, considering the Saints’ cap restraints. The ball-hawking Byrd in Ryan’s defense will keep quarterbacks awake at night.
Adding veteran Champ Bailey to the secondary was the type a savvy move championship teams pull off. Keeping Rafael Bush, Ramon Humber and Parys Haralson will add depth on defense.
» Extend Jimmy Graham: Let’s not pretend every Saints fan doesn’t wake up every morning praying to hear that Graham was given a big extension. It’s going to happen, eventually. Loomis and Drew Brees had a staring contest all summer two years ago but, when crunch time came, a deal got done. The well-worn wide receiver-tight end debate might drag it out longer than necessary, but Graham isn’t leaving New Orleans.
» Replace Darren Sproles: Whether it is with another scatback or a shifty young wide receiver, Payton needs another playmaker whom he can move around the formation. The in-house candidate is Travaris Cadet, but Payton might look for another “joker” in the draft.
» Competition on the offensive line: Bringing back tackle Zach Strief was a solid move, and the coaching staff is planning on Terron Armstead improving in Year 2. However, there is still a hole at center where undrafted second-year man Tim Lelito is the lone wolf on the depth chart.
4. Carolina Panthers
» Why they took a step back: General manager Dave Gettleman has the patience of a mother fostering 12 sons. He is unbending, assured his path is correct. No amount of handwringing, sulking or disgustingly ill-conceived provocation of emotional children will redirect his course.
The Panthers will fix their cap situation, no matter the cost.
Unfortunately, that cost has been watching solid veterans retire or flee, cutting a longtime franchise face and hoping to strike gold on low-cost vets for the second straight season.
Sure, a monster front seven is in tact after Gettleman smartly franchise tagged Greg Hardy, so maybe an older, depleted secondary won’t be exposed. And perhaps a fistful of possession receivers, like Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, can succeed in coach Ron Rivera’s “Moneyball”-type offense without a field stretcher.
Maybe, but I’m a Doubting Thomas.
» Who is going block Cam Newton’s blind side? Other aspects of a rough offseason are getting more pub, but losing Jordan Gross was the single biggest departure from the division champions’ roster. He was the proverbial rock shielding Newton’s backside. SuperCam could be fleeing for his life next season.
» Who is going to catch the ball? Receiver depth chart: Avant, Cotchery, Tavarres King, Tiquan Underwood and Marvin McNutt. The Panthers don’t boast a No. 2 receiver, let alone a No. 1. Perhaps Rivera will run a throwback, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. In that scheme, Ol’ Riverboat would get to go for a lot of fourth-and-1s.
» Cam’s contract extension: Sure the Panthers will exercise the fifth-year option, but at some point Newton’s contract will need to be extended. Hopefully soon. Newton played fantastic last season when he was Happy Cam. We’d rather not see Moody Cam return if he feels disrespected.
In the latest edition of the “Around The League Podcast,” the guys begin the offseason Roster Reset series with the AFC West and dive into the ATL mailbag.