Four Downs: NFC South
by Andrew Potter
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise tagged or re-signed before March 5).
Biggest Hole: Defensive line
Any way you slice it, the Falcons defense was bad in 2018. Bad against the pass, bad against the run. Bad at rushing the passer, bad in coverage. Bad at shedding blocks, bad at tackling. Only the culmination of the ongoing multi-year crisis that was Mike Smith's Buccaneers prevented the Falcons from having the worst defensive DVOA in the NFL. It did not help that they were also very, very bad at staying healthy, but Thomas Dimitroff and company should not let the prospect of improved health in 2019 blind them to a defensive roster that has glaring holes throughout, whether due to free-agency and salary-cap losses or the lack of progress from younger players who were expected to develop.
These problems have afflicted the defensive line most severely. Last year, the interior of the defensive line was again reasonably effective in pass-rush situations but a liability against the run. Takkarist McKinley on one edge provides a dynamic pass rush, but Vic Beasley's return to defensive end (after a hugely successful 2016 season lining up primarily as a strongside linebacker gave way to a mediocre 2017 at the same spot) only exacerbated his descent into mediocrity. Beasley's huge fifth-year option figure and uninspiring production would usually make him an obvious cap casualty, especially after midseason acquisition Bruce Irvin quickly sent him to the bench, but the team has nobody else currently signed to take his spot. Irvin and former Super Bowl star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett are both unrestricted free agents, as are depth options Derrick Shelby, Terrell McClain, and Steven Means -- all of whom started multiple games on the Falcons defensive line last season. Another depth option, Brooks Reed, has already joined the Cardinals after his early-offseason release. The unit requires an injection of both top-end talent and depth, but instead might lose two of its best three players and several rotational contributors in free agency with no obvious replacements in sight.
Grady Jarrett is the team's best defensive lineman; re-signing him is a major offseason priority. Bruce Irvin would be handy to retain at the right price as a starting-caliber veteran defensive end. Tevin Coleman tallied a career-high 800 rushing yards in his first season as a full-time starter after Devonta Freeman was injured, but Coleman is widely expected to move on. 43-year-old kicker Matt Bryant will not be re-signed, but he does intend to play another season if he can find a suitor. Andy Levitre missed most of the 2018 season with a torn triceps but was an established starter prior to that injury. He, Ben Garland, and Zane Beadles form a respectable trio of veteran Falcons guards who are all unrestricted free agents.
Biggest Hole: Edge rusher
No matter what happens to the Panthers in free agency, two of the biggest offseason losses will have been retirements: center Ryan Kalil hung up his cleats at a relatively young 33 after his first healthy season in three years, while outstanding veteran defensive end Julius Peppers rode off into the sunset on his own terms at 38 after appearing in every game for no fewer than 11 consecutive seasons -- a quite incredible mark for any edge defender, never mind one in his mid- to late thirties. Kalil has a ready-made replacement on the roster in Tyler Larsen, who started 15 of the 18 games Kalil missed in 2016 and 2017 and signed a two-year contract extension last summer. No such replacement exists for Peppers.
In fact, with Peppers gone and 29-year-old Wes Horton an unrestricted free agent, the cupboard for the Panthers is uncharacteristically bare at defensive end. Peppers, Horton, and 31-year-old Mario Addison accounted for all 32 starts between them, racking up over 470 snaps apiece. Addison had a respectable 9.0 sacks and Peppers 5.0, but Horton had only 1.5 and both of those came in the season opener against Dallas. The Panthers finished 20th in adjusted sack rate, their lowest rank in that measure since Ron Rivera took charge. Despite this lack of production, the two younger players given meaningful action -- 26-year-old Nigerian Efe Obada and 24-year-old Bryan Cox -- failed to accumulate 390 snaps combined or start a game, and accounted for only 2.0 sacks (both by Obada). Addison is signed through 2019, but a potential Horton departure -- even after an unproductive season -- would leave a gaping hole in the Panthers front seven. (Cox is also technically unsigned, but as an exclusive rights free agent he will be back if the Panthers want him.)
2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess has been productive in each of his four seasons in Carolina but has never quite lived up to the potential implied by his physical attributes. He is likely to be offered a contract elsewhere that the Panthers are unwilling to match. Mike Adams is the sort of veteran journeyman the Panthers often use to fill out their defensive backfield, but last year's secondary was not good enough and Adams is not likely to return. Cameron Artis-Payne has yet to reach even 50 rushing attempts in a single season during his four-year career; the perennial backup should be cheap to re-sign assuming the Panthers want him. Daryl Williams started 26 games across 2016 and 2017, mostly at right tackle, and was voted second-team All-Pro at right tackle by the Associated Press in the latter of those seasons. He missed most of the 2018 season with a dislocated kneecap and torn MCL, but is likely to be one of the better tackle options in free agency, as long as he has fully recovered.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Hole: Tight end
In providing a one-year sticking plaster, Benjamin Watson's return to New Orleans only emphasized how few options the Saints currently have at tight end. The 38-year-old's retirement leaves the Saints with only sixth-year veteran Josh Hill, converted receiver Dan Arnold, and free-agent-to-be Michael Hoomanawanui at the position. Not one of those three players has reached even 200 receiving yards in a single season, and only Hill has exceeded 150. Saints observers frequently bemoaned the lack of a consistent second receiver during Ted Ginn's injury absence last season, but Watson's retirement leaves a much greater void at this spot. Coby Fleener was overpaid and inconsistent at this position in 2016 and 2017, but at least we knew for sure that Fleener existed.
Forget the second coming of Jimmy Graham; of the three options currently on the roster, only Arnold gives any reason at all for hope that he might develop into even a Fleener-caliber player. Even that is only because he is a relatively unknown quantity: a third-year player who was picked up after passing undrafted as a receiver in 2017, placed on injured reserve that summer, then moved to tight end the following year following Fleener's release. Hill has proven himself to be a mere role player: his five touchdowns in 2014 are a clear outlier, as he has only added a further five across the four years since, but he at least set a career high with 185 receiving yards in 2018. Hoomanawanui is a veteran blocking tight end who may return in that limited role, but the soon-to-be 31-year-old has missed two of the past three entire seasons (2016 and 2018) to injury.
All of which is a lengthy way of saying that despite the offseason reports indicating that the team expects Hill to start next year, most likely the 2019 Saints' leader in receiving yards by a tight end is not on the current roster.
Teddy Bridgewater is one of the more intriguing quarterback options this offseason: nobody is quite sure whether he is healthy, what a multi-year layoff has done to him, and whether he will be able to recapture the form that made him a potential franchise quarterback in Minnesota. The Saints traded for him in September as insurance for Drew Brees, but they look likely to let him leave after only one start in black and gold.
Mark Ingram had his least efficient season since 2014 after returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league policy on performance enhancing substances. Ingram turns 30 in December and has over 1,300 carries to his name, which may further depress his market. He may be more valuable to the Saints than to any other team at this point in his career. Tyeler Davison is a former fifth-round pick turned established starter on the interior defensive line, who should provide good value for his likely contract whether in New Orleans or elsewhere. Alex Okafor returned from a 2017 Achilles injury to start 16 games in 2018, contributing 4.0 sacks at the head of the defensive end rotation opposite Cameron Jordan. P.J. Williams is an occasional starting cornerback who played well as the primary slot corner during the second half of 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
For all the things at which the Buccaneers defense was terrible last season -- DVOA had them 30th against the pass, 31st against the run, and 32nd overall -- it is highly likely that much of the reason was a combination of bad coaching and an inexperienced secondary. The 2018 Buccaneers front six was much improved over its 2017 counterpart: Jason Pierre-Paul was the first player to register double-digit sacks for the franchise since Simeon Rice in 2005, and Gerald McCoy and Carl Nassib both contributed at least another 6.0. Rookie Vita Vea started the team's final six games alongside McCoy after displacing free-agent acquisition Beau Allen and finished with 3.0 sacks in his debut campaign. Some offseason departures may impact the team's depth, but with McCoy now likely to remain in Tampa Bay after an offseason filled with rumors of his impending departure, talent is not an issue on the defensive line.
Behind them, at least one of Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith should return to partner with Lavonte David at linebacker next year. (Alexander is a free agent, but he wants to remain in Tampa Bay and there seems little reason why the Buccaneers would not retain him if the price is right.) The secondary remains young and inexperienced, especially after the departure of malcontent veteran Brent Grimes, but each of the prospective starters has shown flashes of enough potential that none of the spots is necessarily considered a specific hole. If former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, reunited with his former head coach Bruce Arians, can add some schematic creativity in place of Mike Smith's bland rush-four-and-cover vanilla, the Buccaneers defense could be much improved without an enormous investment in added talent.
Still, an investment in added talent would be welcome. Grimes' departure leaves no clear No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart, and none of last season's young players look likely to progress enough to fill that role by opening day 2019. Vernon Hargreaves looked much better as a slot cornerback than an outside corner in 2017, but Hargreaves missed too much of 2018 for anybody to be certain how or whether he has progressed. M.J. Stewart had a difficult rookie campaign, though Carlton Davis looks like he could develop into a long-term starter with some help from a better coaching staff. A true no. 1 corner would make a big difference to this defense, and the no. 5 overall draft pick should give the Buccaneers enough options to find one in April's draft.
As we revealed in Scramble during his stunning September explosion, Ryan Fitzpatrick is objectively the greatest journeyman quarterback ever. The legacy of FitzMagic will continue to grow, whether in Tampa Bay or, more likely, elsewhere. While Donovan Smith is not an upper-tier left tackle, he is at least good enough that any other available option, whether a draftee or a free agent, is likely to be at best a short-term downgrade. That makes Smith a likely candidate for the franchise tag if a long-term contract is not agreed to. Adam Humphries is a very productive slot receiver of the type that seems inevitably destined for New England or New Orleans; his price is likely to be higher than the Buccaneers can afford to pay.
On defense, 35-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes surely talked his way out of Tampa Bay, if not the league, with his All-KCW-caliber ill-advised comments on his role, which he expressed on wife Miko's #IHeartMiko podcast last season. Vinny Curry has already been cut, and rumors have him returning to Philadelphia. Kwon Alexander, as mentioned above, wishes to return, and most observers expect that to happen.