Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Potter

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Need: Cornerback

The Falcons came into the offseason with two major goals: plug glaring holes in the defensive front seven and rebuild their offensive line. Veteran free agents Tyeler Davison and the returning Adrian Clayborn help immensely with the first of those, whereas the team spent massive amounts of draft capital on the second. That leaves cornerback as the most obvious area of uncertainty: Isaiah Oliver made only two starts in his rookie season but is now first in line to start opposite Desmond Trufant. The vital nickelback spot is a contest between a recently-converted safety (Damontae Kazee), a career backup with one start in three years (Blidi Wreh-Wilson), and two developmental late-round rookies (Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller). Even if one of those players develops quickly into a worthy starter, depth in the secondary remains a clear issue. Atlanta only needs to look back a single season to see just how important that can be.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Another large Falcons UDFA class has four names of particular note. Center Chandler Miller started 38 games in three seasons for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, being named second-team All-AAC in 2018 and first-team in 2017. The Falcons need depth behind Alex Mack, and Miller has a chance to stick in that spot. Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus is another former first-team all-AAC player; he holds Virginia's all-time record for receptions and ranks second all-time in receiving yards. Offensive tackle Devon Johnson was a Division II All-American whom many observers expected to be a Day 3 pick. He should stick on the practice squad at the very least. Finally, Shawn Bane is one of the most productive receivers in the history of Northwest Missouri State, but he is more likely to make the Falcons roster for his ability in the return game: his lone first-team All-MIAA selection came as a returner.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Need: Safety

Top draft pick Brian Burns filled Carolina's most glaring need (edge rusher), and second-round pick Greg Little filled their second-most glaring -- indeed, the need at left tackle might now be truly filled for the first time since Jordan Gross retired five years ago. That probably leaves the defensive secondary, once again, as the top area of concern for Panthers fans. Ron Rivera has made a career out of covering for a middling secondary with an exceptional front seven, and this cornerback group does have plenty of promise, but the Panthers would probably benefit from a superior second safety to pair with the excellent Eric Reid. Right now, the projected starter is 2018 third-rounder Rashaan Gaulden, who as a rookie didn't play at least 50 percent of snaps in a game until Week 17.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: In contrast to the Falcons, the Panthers only signed four players as undrafted rookies. Georgia halfback Elijah Holyfield is the most notable name, not only because of his famous father, but also because he recorded 1,000 yards rushing for the Bulldogs despite a timeshare with D'Andre Swift in 2018. Safety Corrion Ballard (Utah) will compete for the aforementioned second safety spot, and hails from the same college as Panthers greats Steve Smith and Jordan Gross. Damion Jeanpiere is a receiver and punt returner who has a decent chance to earn a spot in the latter role. Linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk had 148 tackles in his senior year for the California Golden Bears, who just happen to be the alma mater of former linebacker and current Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

There is not much to dislike about arguably the strongest starting lineup in the league, and the Saints are one of the offseason favorites to win the NFC. To make that a reality, they will probably need to get more from a receiving corps that, top target Michael Thomas aside, struggled to make an impact in 2018. Veterans Ted Ginn and Cameron Meredith spent more time on the treatment table than on the field, elevating Tre'Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood into roles for which they were not quite ready. Another year of experience should benefit Smith, and the addition of a tight end who must be respected as a playmaking threat (Jared Cook) should help, but Ginn is not getting any younger and neither is his quarterback. A Dez Bryant-style signing has been mooted as a possibility, though signing Bryant did not exactly work out last year. Failing that, somebody needs to emerge from the communion behind Thomas to take some of the pressure off Drew Brees' primary target.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Receiver Emmanuel Butler will hope to add his name to the mix of young receivers behind Thomas. Butler set school records for yards and receiving touchdowns at Northern Arizona and was a three-time All-Big Sky selection. Halfback Devine Ozigbo (Nebraska) is a power runner who excelled in his final year of college; he could stick as a stylistic replacement for Mark Ingram. Utah linebacker Chase Hansen played three years at safety before switching to linebacker for his senior year and immediately earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Wyoming defensive end Carl Granderson is a talented player with a troubling history: he faces a jury trial for sexual assault and battery in July, which may put an end to his professional career before it has a chance to begin.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Need: Defensive line

Since the moment he cleared out his locker for 2018, rumors out of Tampa Bay have suggested that Buccaneers stalwart and franchise legend Gerald McCoy will be playing elsewhere in 2019. That move has not yet happened, but the new coaching staff has been, at best, lukewarm at the prospect of retaining arguably the greatest active veteran never to have appeared in a playoff game. Even with McCoy, the Buccaneers' defensive line rotation is shallow; most of the team's 4-3 defensive linemen project better as stand-up edge rushers in a Todd Bowles defense. A prospective McCoy departure would leave a gaping hole at the heart of the defense; the Buccaneers should probably still be looking to add beef up front rather than to offload their one true standout interior defensive lineman.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Former North Dakota State halfback Bruce Anderson has a great chance to stick on a Buccaneers roster that has need of both a receiving back and a talented returner. Anderson returned kicks all four years in college, averaging over 26 yards per return while also showing potential as a third-down back. Guard Zack Bailey (South Carolina) ended his senior year early after breaking his leg, but could win a spot as a versatile backup lineman with experience at center, guard, and even tackle. Finally, Kahzin Daniels is one of this year's oft-highlighted stories: the former Charleston defensive end is completely blind in his right eye, but still dominated his Division-II competition for 31.5 sacks over the past three seasons.

Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.


2 comments, Last at 21 May 2019, 5:06am

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Man, this was submitted not only before McCoy's release but way back before we knew any details about JPP's neck injury. (The ESPN+ section was submitted earlier on the same day that he had his accident.) Scary to think that the line situation is now even worse than it was back then.