The 2014 season saw all four NFC South teams finish below .500, so if nothing else 2015 was surprising in the way it unfolded.
The Panthers were infinitely better than anyone could have predicted—especially after they lost Kelvin Benjamin to an ACL injury in training camp—going 17-1 en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons looked promising after starting the season 5-0 but were their own worst enemy down the stretch, floundering to an 8-8 finish. In New Orleans, we saw flashes of the great air attack we’ve come to know over the past decade but it’s clear we’re nearing the end of the Drew Brees era.
Lastly, the Buccaneers were actually in the playoff race until Week 14 before losing the final four games of the season then unceremoniously firing Lovie Smith in January. They’ve got a promising franchise QB in Jameis Winston, but there’s loads of room for improvement in most areas.
Each team is set at the quarterback position and all had success with their running backs, but Carolina is the only team with a legit, top-end defensive unit. With the Panthers the clear frontrunners to repeat as division champs the other three teams need to do some catching up. As most organizations do, each of these four teams will look to the draft to address certain areas, but there are some gems that will hit the open market when free agency opens on March 9.
Here’s a look at some key needs in the NFC South that could be addressed through free agency, which kicks off March 9.
Needs: Offensive tackles, defensive end, corner to play opposite Josh Norman, running back depth, slot receiver, safety
Possible targets: Russell Okung, Andre Smith, Prince Amukamara, George Iloka, Cris Conte, Jeremy Lane
The interior of Carolina’s offensive line, led by centre Ryan Kalil and guard Trai Turner, is in good shape, but they could use an upgrade on the outside. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware ate up Panthers tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers in the Super Bowl. Not entirely surprising considering just how good Miller and Ware are, but that performance definitely opened some eyes.
Protecting Cam Newton is priority No. 1, as it should be, and improving their offensive tackles is something they need to consider. Russell Okung and Andre Smith are two big names out there.
Needs: Wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, safety
Possible targets: Travis Benjamin, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Ladarius Green, Bruce Irvin, Brandon Mebane, George Iloka, Tashaun Gipson, Robert Golden
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after the season that his team needed to improve on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but another area that must be addressed is pass catching. Julio Jones is perhaps the best at his position in all of football, but if he’s Matt Ryan’s only real weapon the Falcons will continue to toil away in mediocrity. It’s unfortunate, but Falcons mainstay Roddy White is no longer worth his salary, which is north of $6 million.
One possible player Atlanta could target is Travis Benjamin. Not only could he be a solid No. 2 to Jones but he’s effective in the return game should the Falcons part ways with Devin Hester and the final year of his contract ($3.8 million). Talks between Benjamin and the Browns have reportedly broken down.
The Falcons also need a tight end that can threaten teams in the red zone. For example, going after one of the two Colts free agent tight ends (Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen) would be an upgrade over Jacob Tamme.
Needs: Defensive linemen, guard, tight end, depth at linebacker, depth at cornerback, kicker
Possible targets: Cedric Thornton, Courtney Upshaw, Adrian Clayborn, Alex Boone, Ramon Foster, Mason Crosby
The Saints have very little cap space to work with so navigating free agency could pose some problems for New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis. They’re getting rid of veteran Marques Colston and his $5.9 million, but they still need to be economical and defence has to be the priority.
Rob Ryan is no longer the coordinator so it will be interesting to see what strategy the new D.C., Dennis Allen, employs. Allen works best with the secondary and the Saints have talent there—on paper at least.
Where they need to improve the most is on the defensive line. The Saints had trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks last season and were terrible against the run with only the Eagles allowing more yards on the ground. They likely won’t have the room to take a run at players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Chris Long or Mario Williams, should the Bills let him go. Instead, they could go after second-tier options like Cedric Thornton, Courtney Upshaw or Adrian Clayborn.
Needs: Corners, safeties, defensive line, offensive line, running back (if Doug Martin leaves), everywhere on special teams (place kicker, punter, returner)
Possible targets: Kelechi Osemele, Olivier Vernon, Trumaine Johnson, Sean Smith, Jeremy Lane, Prince Amukamara
The biggest decision the Bucs face is what to do with running back Doug Martin, but they need more help on defence than they do on offence. In particular, they need to upgrade their secondary. There’s a strong chance they address the pass rush in the draft, so targeting available corners and safeties on the open market would be wise.
Their NFC South rivals all have dangerous passing attacks and Tampa needs to be prepared for that once again in 2016. If they could somehow snag a player like Trumaine Johnson or Sean Smith to compliment whoever they add in the draft it would be a huge feather in the cap of GM Jason Licht.