Panthers, Saints in Need of QBs
NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2022.
Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
The Falcons need to find a new franchise quarterback, as there's little chance Matt Ryan is still Atlanta's starter in 2023. They'll need a running back, as Mike Davis was underwhelming and Cordarrelle Patterson is a free agent. They'll need between one and three wide receivers, depending on the statuses of Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. They need a left guard and a right tackle to bolster the 20th-ranked offensive line in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. They need a pair of edge rushers, as they ranked dead last in pressure rate in 2021. They need at least one interior lineman, two if Grady Jarrett is a cap casualty. They need a pair of interior linebackers to cover the middle of the field, a pair of safeties to replace their two free-agent starters, and a pair of cornerbacks to go alongside A.J. Terrell. Oh, and both the kicker and punter are free agents, too, and Atlanta is $7 million over the cap at the moment. At least they're set at tight end.
Quarterback is the biggest need for the long-term success of the team, as they can't afford to be paying a 38-year-old Matt Ryan $44 million in 2023, not when he hasn't been a top-10 passer since 2018. But at least he's likely to be one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the world next season, and it's not like this is a great class to be drafting a replacement. Instead, first priority for 2022 goes to making opposing quarterbacks' lives more difficult. The Falcons had a 16.7% pressure rate last season, the second-worst total in the past four years per Sportradar. Their 3.8% adjusted sack rate was dead last, too. Someone like Florida State's Jermaine Johnson would go a long way to giving Atlanta's defense a fighting chance at stopping a passing attack—though, in all honestly, point in any direction you want and you'll find an area in need of some sort of upgrade.
Major Free Agents: RB Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Russell Gage, TE Hayden Hurst, ER Dante Fowler, LB Foyesade Oluokun, CB Isaiah Oliver, S Duron Harmon, K Younghoe Koo, P Thomas Morstead
A creative team is going to pay Patterson a bunch of money to be its matchup nightmare. That's not going to be the Falcons, who are in the red with very few realistic options to carve out cap space; only the Packers can generate less cap space via simple restructures than Atlanta. Reworking Grady Jarrett—be it by extension, trade, or cut—will give the Falcons a little room to sign players like Gage, Oluokun, and Koo to reasonable deals. But the Falcons are going to have to do most of their free -gent shopping this year at the thrift shop, looking for castoffs from other teams that need a fresh start for little money.
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Well, trading for Sam Darnold didn't exactly work out, did it? Darnold's -558 passing DYAR and -31.6% passing DVOA are both second-worst in Carolina franchise history among qualified passers, better only than 2010 Jimmy Clausen. There are situational factors in Carolina which you could argue mean that Darnold's performance was slightly better than his underlying stats, but it's clear at this point that Darnold is not an NFL starting quarterback, and his poor play in New York was not just a result of being mismanaged by Adam Gase. And, since the Panthers used all their mid-round picks last season trading for Darnold and CJ Henderson, they don't really have the capital to go out and get a new passer. This is somewhat less than ideal.
If they can't upgrade quarterback and settle for another Darnold year, the most pressing issue would swing to the offensive line. Carolina ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate and 25th in adjusted line yards last season. With Matt Paradis a free agent, the Panthers line consists of Taylor Moton and four spots that need significant help.
Major Free Agents: C Matt Paradis, ER Hasson Reddick, DT DaQuan Jones, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Donte Jackson, K Zane Gonzalez
There was a point when you could argue that Stephon Gilmore was the best cornerback in football. Those days are probably behind the 31-year-old, but he's still among the top tier of press-man corners out there. I can't imagine him coming back to Carolina as contenders are going to want to bring him into the fold. A more realistic return option would be Haason Reddick; he thrives in Carolina's blitz-heavy system and will be looking for something similar for 2022. There will definitely be other contenders for his services, but the Panthers should be able to carve out the cap room for him if they're not using it on a new high-priced passer.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Well, honestly, the Saints' biggest need is some salary cap amnesty, but that's not a position, per se. The Saints are $42 million over the cap at the moment, and that's after restructuring Michael Thomas and Ryan Ramcyzk. Now, this was planned for ahead of time, but that pushes a lot of cap charges into the future; Thomas, for instance, now has two void years tacked on to the end of his contract where the Saints will be paying for him whether he plays or not. And while paying for Thomas and Ramcyzk aren't hard calls, they still have to work their cap-restructuring magic on a lot of players -- they just sent some Andrus Peat money into the future, and it's much harder to justify $18 million cap hits for Peat in 2023 and 2024 than it is to justify paying Thomas or Ramcyzk. Most of the Saints' remaining options are on the wrong side of 30 (Cameron Jordan, Bradley Roby), struggled last season (Alvin Kamara), or both.
And that brings us to Taysom Hill. Hill has not been as bad as some of the initial jokes would have you believe, but that doesn't mean he has been good. His -10.9% passing DVOA last season counts as a high-water mark for him in seasons with at least 100 plays; he has never actually had enough volume to qualify for our leaderboards. He's inaccurate and has terrible timing and pocket awareness, and he's 32 years old—it's extraordinarily improbable that he's going to improve in any significant manner going forwards. That's not to say he doesn't have value as a player; he's just not $10-million-a-year valuable like last year's contract extension would have you believe. Trevor Siemian is not the answer at quarterback either, and Jameis Winston is a free agent. Drew Brees' successor is not on the roster at the moment.
Major Free Agents: QB Jameis Winston, OT Terron Armstead, LB Kwon Alexander, S Marcus Williams
It's honestly not a very long list of significant free agents, which is good, because the Saints can't afford to bring any of them back. Winston is the best quarterback freely available—no need for trades or draft picks here, just a willingness to accept the spin-the-wheel gunslinger style. He'd be a very solid addition for a team who also plans to use a Day 2 pick on a quarterback. Meanwhile, it's quite possible that Armstead and Williams will be the two best free agents to actually play for a new team next year. If the Saints can carve up enough room to sign one, it would probably be Williams—he's an important part of new head coach Dennis Allen's defense, the best coverage player the Saints have, and is likely to be an order of magnitude cheaper than a top-flight left tackle like Armstead.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Need: Interior Offensive Line
We could have gone with quarterback again—all four teams in the division could make an argument that nothing is more important than finding their new passer. Tom Brady's retirement obviously dramatically changes the prospects of this team, and backup Blaine Gabbert is a free agent. Unlike their rivals, however, the Buccaneers do have a young prospect in Kyle Trask. While I'm doubtful he's going to be able to step in for Brady, the Bucs do at least have a live lottery ticket in the franchise quarterback race at the moment.
Instead, we'll focus on the guys protecting whomever Bruce Arians puts back there this year. The Bucs have a great offensive line—tops in the league in adjusted sack rate, fifth in adjusted line yards, constantly praised by film junkies around the league. The problem is that Ali Marpet just retired, while both Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa are pending free agents and likely to draw significant bids from around the league. Cappa in particular may have been the weakest of Tampa's starting linemen last season, but he and Jensen would still be notable improvements for about half the teams in the league, and that will up prices. Maybe the Buccaneers will be happy seeing last year's third-round pick Robert Hainsley replace the aging Jensen, but that would still leave big holes to fill at both guard spots.
Major Free Agents: RB Leonard Fournette, RB Giovanni Bernard, WR Chris Godwin, WR Antonio Brown, TE Rob Gronkowski, TE O.J. Howard, G Alex Cappa, C Ryan Jensen, ER Jason Pierre-Paul, DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Carlton Davis, S Jordan Whitehead
Honestly, we could have stretched this list out even longer if we wanted; the Buccaneers' free-agent squad might be better, on the whole, than any of the NFC South's four actual starting lineups right now. At the moment, the Buccaneers are basically right at the salary cap, but they have a lot of potential extensions and restructures they can do to free up room for anyone they deem particularly important. They're in much better shape than the other three teams in the division in the short term. The Buccaneers will likely be unable to bring back Godwin and Jensen and Davis, but they could pull off one return. What I'm saying is don't count Godwin as gone just yet; I would not be at all surprised if Arians and company move heaven and earth to keep Godwin and Mike Evans together rather than leave a major question mark for their question mark of a quarterback.