Four Downs: NFC South
Biggest Need: Safety
Surprisingly, the Falcons defense was the relative strength of the team in 2020, its bang-average -0.1% DVOA narrowly ahead of the offense's -3.1% and the -1.2% recorded by the special teams. However, this offseason could open a gaping hole in the secondary, with Ricardo Allen already released and each of Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, and backup Sharrod Neasman entering unrestricted free agency. Of the five safeties who started at least one game for the Falcons last season, only fifth-round rookie Jaylinn Hawkins is currently under contract for 2021. The Falcons will need to add or retain at least three safeties across the draft and free agency this offseason.
Most observers expect one starter to come via free agency, and a second via the draft. This year's free-agent class is deep: Marcus Maye, John Johnson, Anthony Harris, Justin Simmons, and Marcus Williams are the headline options, with a second tier including the aforementioned three Falcons, Duron Harmon, Xavier Woods, Jaquiski Tartt, and Malik Hooker. That second tier may be more relevant than the first: both Spotrac and Over The Cap list the Falcons with the fifth-highest cap overspend of any team heading into 2021, and Atlanta also needs to replace center Alex Mack, among others. A veteran deep safety and a draftee to play closer to the line looks like the most likely path to replacing what once looked like a very promising trio of long-term options in Atlanta.
Other Major Free Agents: Alex Mack, C; Todd Gurley, RB; Allen Bailey, DL; Brian Hill, RB; Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB
Alex Mack was once considered among the very best players in the sport at his position, but the former Browns and Cal standout has shown significant decline over the past couple of years and turned 35 in November. That said, he should have another couple of seasons as a starter left in the tank, and he has been linked heavily with former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's 49ers. Todd Gurley was also once among the best in the game at his position, but he has been constantly battling knee issues since late 2018 and his career appears almost at its end. Fellow halfback Brian Hill had his most productive season for the Falcons in 2020, but that still amounted to less than 500 rushing yards and a single touchdown for the fourth-year career backup.
Biggest Need: Secondary
While any talk of Deshaun Watson trades was verboten during our recent Bold Moves piece for ESPN, any discussion of the Panthers' current roster needs to account for constant reports that they are aggressively clearing cap space specifically to make a run at Watson. That goes some way toward explaining the current composition of the Panthers roster: Carolina lacks both a replacement for the recently released Tre Boston and an established edge rusher across from Brian Burns (following the release of Stephen Weatherly who had, it must be noted, disappointed in Carolina anyway). They may lose both starting tackles and both starting guards when free agency opens. At tight end, Ian Thomas has never grown into the role of Greg Olsen's replacement, and Chris Manhertz is a 28-year-old free agent coming off a six-catch season. As you might expect for a 5-11 team who many thought over-achieved, the Panthers have a lot of roster holes.
Following the Boston cut, the biggest of those holes is the defensive secondary. In particular, there appears to be no natural replacement on the roster for Boston's deep centerfield role. Hybrid linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn could move to start at safety full time, but the best use of Chinn's talent likely sees him deployed as a big nickel defender nearer the line of scrimmage. Justin Burris started 12 games last year, but Burris is the kind of safety you hope to have in a backup or limited role rather than replacing your top starter. Youngsters Sam Franklin and Myles Hartsfield could be given further opportunities, but it's tough to have confidence in players who couldn't break into the lineup on a defense that ranked just No. 24 in DVOA.
The good news is the aforementioned cap space. Even if they were to get their top target, they can't really devote all of the cap space to him. They have the freedom to add players at other spots too, and as noted above, this is a very deep class of free-agent safeties.
Other Major Free Agents: Russell Okung, OT; Curtis Samuel, WR; Taylor Moton, OT; John Miller, OG; Chris Reed, OG; Mike Davis, RB
The Panthers may lose four of their five preferred starters on the offensive line from last season, but that news is tempered by the likelihood that Greg Little was always intended to replace Okung this offseason and Moton is the likeliest franchise tag candidate for the Panthers. It could be tough to replace both starting guards too, however. Curtis Samuel was a very productive player in Carolina, but one who was often regarded as something of a disappointment relative to his potential. Mike Davis filled in admirably for Christian McCaffrey while the latter missed most of the season with a high-ankle sprain, and the former 49ers and Seahawks backup will hope for an opportunity to earn a starting role.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Need: Quarterback?
Explicit or implicit, every Saints article so far this offseason carries the same disclaimer: at the time of writing, Drew Brees has not retired. All indications remain that he will do so, in which case the obvious question is the identity of his successor.
Head coach Sean Payton was on record last season with his belief that Brees' successor "is in the building," albeit the same quote was circulating the previous summer. The subject at that time was Taysom Hill, who right now is the only succession plan the Saints have. Hill has the advantage of being the only quarterback, other than Brees, under contract for 2021. His two-year deal, signed last summer, definitely pays him like a quarterback rather than his more customary role of special teams gunner and offensive gadget player. When Brees missed a handful of games for the second straight season it was Hill, not Jameis Winston, who started in his stead. Hill even impressed in the first of those, a 24-9 win against the Falcons. However, across all four starts and all 135 dropbacks, Hill posted a below-replacement-level -19.0% passing DVOA, good for -19 DYAR. That won't be nearly good enough to replace Brees over a full season.
The next-most likely candidate is Winston, the former Buccaneers No. 1 draft pick who fits a more orthodox mold than Hill. Winston, though, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of his one-year deal, and one who will likely have other suitors. The Saints also have the fairly major issue of being in the worst cap shape of any franchise, the result of going "all in" in the hope of capping Brees' career with another title. They simply do not have the cap space to make a run at a top veteran replacement, should one come available, and as a 12-4 division champion they will probably have to trade up to have a chance at drafting a top prospect. Replacing Brees was never likely to be easy, but the cap situation only makes it tougher.
Major Free Agents: Jared Cook, TE; Trey Hendrickson, DE; Sheldon Rankins, DT; Marcus Williams, S; Nick Easton, G
In addition to Jameis Winston, the Saints have four other major contributors headed for free agency. Jared Cook was a big-ticket free-agent signing who generally worked out well enough, though he may be remembered for a costly playoff fumble against the Buccaneers. Another player with postseason nightmares, Marcus Williams is still perhaps best known for his role in the Minneapolis Miracle, but he has otherwise mostly been one of the best young free safeties in the league. Trey Hendrickson led the team with 13.5 sacks in the final year of his deal, after the 2017 SackSEER sleeper had recorded just 6.5 sacks across his first three seasons. Sheldon Rankins was one of the most dominant interior pass-rushers in the game two years ago, but he hasn't been the same player since tearing his Achilles near the end of the 2018 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Need: Receiving back
As we might expect from the reigning champions, the Buccaneers have few if any significant weaknesses, even allowing for potential departures. Their defense is deep and talented, with young stars at all three levels meshing around a veteran core. The front seven would benefit from an injection of youth, particularly at edge rusher, but they can take care of that in the draft. They will likely return most of the same starters as last season at most spots on both offense and defense.
The one area last season that did come up frequently as a problem was receiving out of the backfield. Leonard Fournette had a solid year on the ground, and an outstanding postseason, but he dropped 15% of his pass targets (per Pro Football Reference) and gained just 235 yards on receptions. Ronald Jones, LeSean McCoy, and Keshawn Vaughn likewise each dropped more than 10% of their targets, and the Buccaneers gained only 500 yards, give or take, from their backs. That is well below the usual production expected from Brady's backs, who usually account for at least 700 yards as a major part of the scheme.
Meanwhile, over in New England, Brady's former teammate James White recorded his first sub-400-yard season since his 2014 rookie year, but he still had a drop rate below 5% while hauling in almost 80% of his pass targets. In each of his last two seasons with Brady, White gained more yards himself than the entire Buccaneers backfield did in 2020. White is a free agent this season, and a native of Florida (Fort Lauderdale). If the Buccaneers believe their backs' lack of receiving production is due to personnel rather than scheme, White would appear to be a natural fit.
Major Free Agents: Shaq Barrett, DE; Lavonte David, LB; Rob Gronkowski, TE; Ndamukong Suh, DT; Chris Godwin, WR
Shaq Barrett is the headline free-agent edge rusher, after a marquee performance in the Super Bowl capped off two hugely productive years in pewter and red. Lavonte David has been a favorite around these parts for years as an outstanding player on mostly terrible teams who is finally getting the success his career has merited. Rob Gronkowski is GRONK, and needs no introduction. Ndamukong Suh is a veteran tackle renowned for his outstanding run defense and occasional overzealousness. Chris Godwin is a terrific receiver who can play either from the slot or outside, and who is likely to re-sign in Tampa Bay if the Buccaneers can match his price tag.