Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Hole: Defensive tackle

The Falcons don't have too many holes to fill this offseason, but an infusion of youth and athleticism along the defensive line would be a welcome addition for a defense that has made strides every season under Dan Quinn. Grady Jarrett and Takkarist McKinley look like superstars in the making, while Vic Beasley can still be a productive player as he moves back to defensive end. However, with the potential losses of Dontari Poe, Courtney Upshaw, and Adrian Clayborn (who occasionally kicked inside on passing downs), they'll need to add some young blood on the interior through the draft and free agency. Having a young trio of Jarrett, Beasley, and McKinley is a major plus for the Falcons, but they'll need to keep establishing depth along the defensive line if they want to go on another postseason run.

Atlanta ranked 28th in defensive success rate on short-yardage runs, which speaks to their need to get a bit more talented at the line of scrimmage. Veterans like Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson will be names to watch for the Falcons.

Major Free Agents: Dontari Poe, DT; Adrian Clayborn, DE; Taylor Gabriel, WR; Matt Bryant, K; Courtney Upshaw, DL.

     

It appears that the Falcons will be focusing another offseason on adding pieces to their defensive line. It will be hard for Atlanta to keep Poe, Clayborn, and Upshaw considering the future contract extensions for players such as Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews, Vic Beasley, and others coming down the line.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

It feels like this has become a yearly offseason talking point, but the Panthers desperately need to find more weapons at receiver for Cam Newton. By the end of the season, Kaelin Clay and Brenton Bersin were receiving starter reps. This is partially due to the injury of Curtis Samuel, but he wasn't exactly lighting up defenses while he was healthy. Devin Funchess was the only Panthers receiver to register enough targets (minimum 50) to qualify for our wide receiver DVOA tables, where he ranked 33rd among 86 qualifying players. Within Carolina's own division, the Falcons (Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu) and the Saints (Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr.) each had two receivers finish higher in DVOA than Funchess. If the Panthers hope to maximize what Cam Newton has to offer, then they'll need to do whatever it takes to give him the receiver talent that he needs.

Major Free Agents: Andrew Norwell, G; Star Lotulelei, DT; Julius Peppers, DE; Graham Gano, K.

Carolina has some decisions to make regarding their free agents. Andrew Norwell has a legit chance to become the highest-paid guard in the league, Star Lotulelei should make a pretty penny himself, and Julius Peppers will be a valued commodity coming off of an 11-sack season.

According to Over The Cap, Carolina has about 20 million dollars in cap space, not including the money they saved in the recent releases of Kurt Coleman and longtime pass-rusher Charles Johnson. They'll likely have to let either Norwell or Lotulelei walk, but it might be worth it if they can get in on the Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, or Paul Richardson sweepstakes.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Hole: Defensive tackle

New Orleans was poised to have one of the more intriguing defensive tackle duos in the league after Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley picked up steam in the back half of the 2016 season. Unfortunately, a heart condition forced Fairley to miss all of 2017, and as Rankins developed, his play didn't become as consistent as the Saints would have hoped. Rankins still has the potential to grow into an upper-echelon defensive tackle, but he needs a potential running mate for the future after Fairley was cut early in February.

     

Major Free Agents: Drew Brees, QB; Alex Okafor, DE; Kenny Vaccaro, S.

With the Saints being as close as they were to making a trip to the NFC Championship Game, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a deal done with Drew Brees for at least one more run. Alex Okafor was having a strong season before tearing his Achilles at the end of November. Kenny Vaccaro will likely be playing elsewhere in 2018 as the Saints have hit on two draft picks at safety (Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams) in recent draft classes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Hole: Defensive line

Outside of Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers don't have any playmakers along the defensive line. They have already cut ties with free agent bust Chris Baker, leaving the unit razor-thin. Their lack of defensive line talent was a major reason they finished the season 32nd in defensive DVOA. Tampa Bay ranked dead last in total sacks and adjusted sack rate. They were also the worst defense in the league when it came to runs coming off the side of the left tackle.

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Luckily, Tampa Bay has $71 million in cap space according to Over The Cap. On the off chance that players such as Demarcus Lawrence hit the free agency market, they should be prime targets for Tampa Bay. If not, a reunion with former Tampa first-round pick Adrian Clayborn would make sense, as would spending the seventh overall pick in this year's draft on a defensive lineman.

Major Free Agents: Doug Martin, RB; Brent Grimes, CB; Chris Baker, DT; T.J. Ward, S.

Doug Martin and Chris Baker were recent cuts by the team, so obviously will not be back. Brent Grimes is a soon-to-be 35-year-old free agent cornerback who probably won't be back with the team. Considering the fact that Tampa Bay had the 31st ranked pass defensive according to DVOA, they'll likely try to get younger at the cornerback position. T.J. Ward likely won't be back with Tampa Bay either, as the Buccaneers need to revamp their entire secondary.

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