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Competitive NFC South leaves top teams with holes to fill

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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When the lockout is over, it could be a mad dash for talent all over the NFL. With that in mind, we examine the most important things each team must accomplish with a division-by-division breakdown. This is a look at the NFC South.

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Atlanta Falcons

Solve the offensive line issues: The Falcons are the most vulnerable team in free agency when it comes to their offensive line. Both starting guards (Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl) and the starting right tackle (Tyson Clabo) are scheduled to be free agents and their franchise quarterback -- Matt Ryan -- is a drop-back passer. Right now, guys like Andrew Johnson (a 2011 seventh-round pick from Fresno State) and Jose Valdez (a college free agent with two years of practice-squad experience) are penciled in as starters. The Falcons need two of the three starters back, or go into free agency and sign two players.

Sign a legitimate pass rusher: John Abraham is still a premiere pass rusher, but the opposite side in the Atlanta 4-3 defense needs more production considering opponents usually slide protections to Abraham. The Falcons would be wise to go after the Minnesota Vikings' Ray Edwards or even better, the Carolina Panthers' Charles Johnson. Johnson has 19 sacks in his last 18 starts. Johnson is from Georgia and would fit well in the front four. Last year, Abraham and Johnson combined for 24.5 sacks, which would make them a top defensive end tandem in the NFL.

Resolve the kicker/punter situation: Both kicker, Matt Bryant, and punter, Michael Koenen, are free agents. Bryant should be re-signed after finishing fourth in the league in scoring for non-skill position players with an impressive 90.3 percent conversion rate on field goals attempted last season. He was also 9-10 from 40 yards or better. As for Koenen, the Falcons might consider a new punter. Koenen was ranked 30th in punt average and 27th in net average. There are better choices out there like the Jacksonville Jaguars' Adam Podlesh, Philadelphia Eagles' Sav Rocca and New York Jets' Steve Weatherford. All three have better numbers than Koenen.

Carolina Panthers

Re-sign Johnson: Last year, Julius Peppers landed with the Chicago Bears after the team exhausted the use of the franchise tag and made it prohibitive to re-sign him. The Panthers have a new star pass rusher in Charles Johnson, who was not franchise or transition tagged. At this point, the Panthers will have to overpay to keep Johnson. Even if clubs squeezed a right of first refusal out of the new CBA, a team who wanted Johnson could put a poison pill in the deal, which Carolina couldn't match. The Panthers need to do what it takes to keep a 25-year-old player with 11.5 sacks last season.

Sign a veteran quarterback: Cam Newton is the future, and might very well be the present. Still, there really isn't a veteran QB on the roster to be an example for Newton on how to prepare each week and, most importantly, be on the sidelines during the game to help the rookie. That could also mean occasionally relieving Newton when he's struggling. A guy like Marc Bulger would fit the bill. If the Panthers really wanted to slow things down for Newton and let him learn from the sidelines for a year or two, then maybe Donovan McNabb makes sense. There really aren't many guys out there who are realistic choices for this assignment, but the Panthers have to find one.

Trade the face of the franchise: Steve Smith has been the heart and soul of the Panthers. It's time to grow this young team, and let it develop its own personality and leaders. Smith needs to finish his career somewhere else. If that doesn't happen, Smith will dominate the young players and no one will emerge as a leader going forward. Smith will only get frustrated with the losing that will occur over the next two seasons, and that could make things ugly in Carolina. The Panthers should be able to get a decent player and low-round draft pick for Smith.

New Orleans Saints

Sign a linebacker: Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has a complicated scheme and little patience for those who can't perform. Right now, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas are penciled in as starters at the weakside and strongside spots, respectively, with rookie Martez Wilson in the wings. I would like to see the Saints add a linebacker with plenty of starting experience. The Redskins' Rocky McIntosh is a free agent and played his first two seasons (2006-07) under the direction of Williams. Last year, McIntosh was in on 110 tackles and two sacks. In 2010, the Saints were 16th against the run and could use some fresh faces at linebacker.

Re-sign Harper: The Saints have one safety under contract, Malcolm Jenkins. Three safeties who played for them last year are free agents: Roman Harper, Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau. Harper is a solid player and, at 28 years old, young enough to invest in. Sharper is too old to commit to when free agency opens up, and Prioleau is an insurance policy. Harper might see some teams come after him and the Saints need to respond. There are some good safeties in the free-agent pool and New Orleans should not get left with a void at the position. Harper has the experience under Williams and can quarterback the secondary.

Make some important offensive line decisions: Drew Brees gets rid of the ball quickly and stays away from pressure for the most part, which helps the offensive linemen. However, with left tackle Jermon Bushrod a free agent, the Saints have some decisions to make. Bushrod has given up 14 sacks in his last 31 starts. He replaced Jammal Brown, who only gave up seven sacks in his final two seasons protecting Brees. Is it time for Charles Brown to step up after being a second-round pick in 2010? What about the aging Jonathan Stinchcomb on the right side? Cowboys tackle Doug Free would look good in a Saints uniform and could be available. Free can play on either side and that would give the team flexibility. As for the interior of the offensive line, it's possible the Saints will use some of the new-found salary cap space to extend guard Carl Nicks. Nicks has become a premier player and would surely have to be franchised in 2012, so doing a deal now might be a better idea.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Re-sign three key veterans: There's little doubt that general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris are building a nice team. The Buccaneers are projected to be way under the salary cap and should try to re-sign veterans Davin Joseph, Barrett Ruud and Quincy Black before venturing into free agency. Joseph is an outstanding guard who told me he wants to stay in Tampa. Ruud gets criticized for his play, which appears to lack aggression. However, Ruud's the QB of that defense and his value doesn't always show up in stats. Black is a young linebacker who will give you six to seven tackles a game and has some blitz and coverage skills.

Have a plan for life after Talib: The rule in personnel work is to replace talent with talent. Aqib Talib is very talented, but his off-the-field issues make him a liability. He does the team little good if he's suspended. To replace his talent, the Buccaneers need to look at Nnamdi Asomugha or Johnathan Joseph. A message has to be sent that talent alone will not keep you on the Buccaneers' roster. Also, it might be time to consider a down-the-road replacement for Ronde Barber.

Sign another running back: The Buccaneers hit it big when they signed running back LeGarrette Blount last year. He is a young, inexpensive player who should be a 1,000-yard runner for the foreseeable future. Still, a solid third-down back -- especially if Cadillac Williams isn't coming back -- would be a priority. The Buccaneers have said they are not interested in Tiki Barber, but I wonder if they would like to add Jason Snelling or even Reggie Bush, if the Saints can't redo his deal.

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