Not every need can be met via the draft. So what's a team to do? Thankfully, the free agency period will be here soon. To help get you ready for the opening of the NFL's annual talent marketplace on March 11, Elliot Harrison is taking a division-by-division look at all 32 squads' biggest priorities, continuing with the NFC South below.
Top priority in free agency: Pass rusher.
This promises to be an interesting offseason in Atlanta. Will the Falcons push the right buttons and position themselves for another deep playoff run (like they did in 2012)? Or is this club closer to the last-place disaster we saw in 2013? Depends on how general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Co. proceed in the coming months. Bolstering the pass rush is crucial -- after all, this team finished last season with the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. Of course, while the Falcons should be hell-bent on adding players who can collapse the opponent's pocket, they also must look to fortify their own pocket. This offensive line needs some attention, specifically at tackle, but this might be an area the Falcons can address with their No. 6 overall pick in May's draft. In fact, a pair of colleagues have Atlanta doing exactly that in their post-combine mocks: Daniel Jeremiah has Jake Matthews as the pick, while Charles Davis thinks it could be Greg Robinson. (Bear in mind, offensive tackle will be a hot offseason commodity in this division, given Jordan Gross' retirement in Carolina as well as needs at the position in New Orleans and Tampa Bay.) If the Falcons do indeed plan on going with an OT in the draft, they can use available cap space (they're projected to have between $15 million and 18 million) to pump up the pass rush. Or they could dive into the running back pool for the second consecutive offseason, as the signing of Steven Jackson last year hasn't worked as planned. I like the idea of Ben Tate in the ATL.
Other areas of interest: Offensive line, tight end, running back.
Top priority in free agency: Offensive tackle.
After Jordan Gross' sudden retirement, the Panthers are left with questions at both offensive tackle spots. Needless to say, they had better come up with some answers, or Cam Newton could get pummeled in 2014. Panthers brass gets frightened enough when the young quarterback takes off and runs; imagine if neither edge blocker can hold the fort. There's no room for error -- and certainly no room for a Newton injury -- in a competitive division that should see much better efforts from Atlanta and Tampa Bay next season. Of course, when it comes to Carolina's offseason outlook, Dave Gettleman's buzz phrase in recent weeks has been "cap-strapped." (But I guess that's better than cap-gate.) The Panthers GM did some restructuring to free up cap space, but then Carolina placed the franchise tag on Greg Hardy. The franchise tag for a defensive end: a hefty $13.116 million. The Panthers and Hardy still could work out a long-term deal to lessen this year's cap blow, but cash likely will be tight regardless. Thus, signing one of the front-line tackles on the market -- say, Branden Albert or Jared Veldheer -- isn't plausible. That doesn't mean all is lost, though, as someone like Anthony Collins could be available at a reduced rate.
Other areas of interest: Wide receiver, defensive end, cornerback.
New Orleans Saints
Top priority in free agency: Cornerback.
New Orleans is in serious need of secondary help. Cornerback Jabari Greer, who hit injured reserve in November with a torn ACL, was released a few weeks ago. Greer might not have been awesome last season, but he formed a decent enough CB tandem with Keenan Lewis (who acquitted himself well in his debut season with the Saints) to allow New Orleans' pass rush to routinely get home (49 sacks, fourth in the NFL). The Saints also cut longtime safety Roman Harper, while another veteran safety, Malcolm Jenkins, is due to hit free agency. Kenny Vaccaro is a stud at one safety spot, but remember, he's recovering from a season-ending ankle injury. So any way you look at it, New Orleans has to refresh the secondary with some, well, fresh legs. When it comes to free-agent cornerbacks, though, the club will not be able to get into a heavy-lifting contest with the Oaklands and Cincinnatis of the world (teams with a boatload of cap space). The Saints franchised Jimmy Graham on Friday, but the two parties could still hammer out a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline.
Other areas of interest: Offensive tackle, linebacker, safety.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Top priority in free agency: Defensive end.
When Lovie Smith was a defensive coordinator in St. Louis, the Rams had edge rushers who could get to the quarterback. Same deal during his head-coaching days in Chicago -- first with somewhat anonymous guys like Alex Brown, and then with Julius Peppers. The 4-3 defense in Tampa will still rely on Gerald McCoy as an interior force, but the Buccaneers need more pressure off the edge. Michael Johnson would be a nice addition, but he will command too high a figure for the Bucs, who should have around $10 million to play with. A couple weeks ago, we floated the idea of veteran Jared Allen signing with Tampa to play 20 to 25 snaps per game as a pass-rushing specialist. Perhaps Everson Griffen could be a cheap alternative if the Bucs don't pursue this position in May's draft. All that said, it sure would be interesting if Tampa Bay took a long look at Josh McCown in free agency, as the quarterback spent two years with Smith in Chicago. Is the front office sold on Mike Glennon?
Other areas of interest: Offensive tackle, tight end, quarterback.