Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Jeremy Bergman examines the current makeup of the NFC South below.
No one team owns the NFC South. The 16-year-old division has crowned each of its four combatants nearly equally -- Carolina leads the way with five titles, Atlanta and New Orleans each own four, and Tampa Bay brings up the rear with three -- and the Panthers are the only franchise ever to repeat. But for most of last season, the South sure owned the NFL.
With 37 wins to just 27 losses, the NFC South posted the best overall record in football, sending three teams to the postseason with at least 10 wins and two to the Divisional Round. If not for Julio Jones tripping at the goal line and Marcus Williams failing to wrap up a defenseless Stefon Diggs, we could have witnessed the first-ever all-NFC South title game.
Don't expect that to be a one-year trend, either: The NFC South's poised to make plenty of noise again in 2018.
Resurrected from the depths of football purgatory, the Saints are giving it another go with Drew Brees and Sean Payton, signing the former to a team-friendly, two-year, $50 million deal and hauling in veterans (Demario Davis, Kurt Coleman, Patrick Robinson) to shore up a defense that was on the very wrong end of the "Minnesota Miracle."
In need of more athleticism at skill positions, Carolina, led by new/old general manager Marty Hurney, swapped promising cornerback Daryl Worley for Philadelphia's Torrey Smith and let go of veteran running back Jonathan Stewart. In an unsurprising move, the Panthers passed on paying flavor-of-the-month guard Andrew Norwell top-tackle money, choosing to use their capital to reinforce their greatest strength (the front seven) rather than overpay in an attempt to shore up a sketchy offensive line.
The city of Atlanta might be booming, but its team has so far played this offseason close to the vest, neglecting to drop dollars on big-name wideouts or edge rushers to replace Taylor Gabriel or Adrian Clayborn, respectively. A Super Bowl roster that underwhelmed in its attempt to return to the Land of Roman Numerals, the Falcons finished the 2017 season strong and will look to do the same with the upcoming draft.
Then there are the outcast Buccaneers, the team that "won the offseason" in 2017 after signing DeSean Jackson and T.J. Ward, drafting O.J. Howard and locking down a season of "Hard Knocks," which is always a good choice for a green, overhyped team ON THE RISE. The Bucs flopped in 2017, looking more like Pirates of Penzance than of the Caribbean. But perhaps we anticipated their offseason victory a year too early. After loading up on an arsenal of offensive talent last season, the Bucs were responsible for at least two of the top defensive acquisitions in March, including one that should have the division's MVP quarterbacks shaking in their wee cleats ...
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
Cast off from New York in a surprising trade just over a week into free agency, Pierre-Paul is one of four new defensive linemen in Tampa Bay who could have earned this title -- but due to his USF cachet and substantial price tag, JPP's acquisition best symbolizes what's going on in Ybor City. The Bucs decided to focus their capital this offseason on Extreme Makeover-ing their front seven, which garnered a league-low 22 sacks in 2017. Out are Chris Baker and Robert Ayers. In are JPP, Super Bowl champions Vinny Curry and Beau Allen and underrated ex-Bear Mitch Unrein. On a roster that took more hard knocks than it delivered last season, JPP and the rest of Tampa's spring bounty will surround Gerald McCoy and Noah Spence and look to form the most improved defensive front in the NFL this season. It might have cost Jason Licht a pretty penny (and picks), but if TB's defense improves only marginally and the Bucs become immediate wild-card contenders, the GM's swap will have been well worth it.
This was really a toss-up between Poe and former Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, the top NFC South free agent this offseason not named Drew Brees. Norwell ended up signing a mega-pact with the trendy Jaguars. There are arguments to be made by someone else that Norwell is the greater loss, given that Cam Newton is Carolina's whole offense and the Panthers have struggled to invest in protecting him over the years. But Poe leaving Atlanta kills two Falcons with one stone, if you will. Not only does his departure leave Atlanta's young defense without an accomplished defensive tackle to pair with upstart Grady Jarrett (Joey Ivie, anyone?), but the Falcons also lose him to a division rival with arguably the most sturdy front seven in the South. Poe didn't quite thrive on his one-year prove-it deal as the Falcons had hoped, but Atlanta has yet to replace him with a veteran player of his stature. In Carolina, Poe is a significant improvement in the long term over Star Lotulelei and should pair nicely with good company (Kawann Short, Julius Peppers) along a line that has sacked Atlanta's Matt Ryan 23 times over the last four seasons.
Try to pass on the Saints. As a matter of fact, don't. Robinson's return to New Orleans, where he played the first five seasons of his pro career, brings him into the fold right as the Saints' long-maligned secondary is turning the corner, thanks to breakout rookie seasons from Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams. A top option in the second or third tier of free-agent corners, Robinson was an unheralded ballhawk in the slot for the Super Bowl champs and will likely fill that position for Dennis Allen in New Orleans, as Lattimore and Ken Crawley man the outside. After seeing their season end in Minneapolis due to an epic rookie mistake in the secondary, the Saints are looking to avoid similar breakdowns in 2018. Robinson's veteran presence helps in that regard.
Atlanta Falcons:Extend Matt Ryan, for one. You don't need me telling you that, Tommy Dimitroff. At the start of free agency, Ryan was among four star quarterbacks in need of or in discussions for new deals; Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees got theirs, while Aaron Rodgers is still waiting. If the Falcons want to avoid paying Ryan out the wazoo, i.e. $30 million per year fully guaranteed, then they can't wait until Rodgers signs his pact. A-a-ron is the superior QB, but if Atlanta can't sign Ryan before Rodgers, Ryan will earn the top annual salary in football history by default. Thems the breaks when you have a league MVP under center.
Carolina Panthers: Replace Norwell, somehow. Guards don't grow on trees, or in the ground, or from nuclear waste. The interior offensive lineman market has dried up with nary a sniff from Marty Hurney. Thankfully, the incoming guard class is surprisingly strong. Paced by Quenton Nelson, who most definitely will not fall to Carolina at No. 24, the class also provides enticing options like Isaiah Wynn and Will Hernandez who could be there when the Panthers go on the clock. If Hurney wants to kick that can into minicamp, Carolina could also spend that top pick on a speedy rookie wideout to pair with Devin Funchess or a replacement at corner for the jettisoned Daryl Worley.
New Orleans Saints: Good on ya, Mickey Loomis. From top to bottom, the Saints boast one of the most solid rosters in the league, thanks to consecutive all-star drafts. But depth is needed at key positions, namely wide receiver and everywhere along the offensive line. Want to make sure Drew Brees continues to play at a Pro Bowl level? Draft a more consistent option than Ted Ginn and seek out some Armstead-Ramczyk tackle insurance. Want to begin planning for life after Brees? Trade up to select Breesus' physical and aspirational doppelganger in Baker Mayfield, if he stays in the green room a little longer than some expect. Buoyed by a youth movement and anchored by a Hall of Fame QB, the Saints are playing with house money for the next two seasons, but it's not quite clear whether they are ready to go all in or invest in the future. How they attack the draft will tell that tale.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After pouring serious resources into the front seven in free agency and the trade tsunami, Tampa Bay will wash ashore if it doesn't address the safety and running back positions in the draft. Sitting pretty at No. 7 and in no need for a quarterback, the Buccaneers can let the draft come to them -- i.e., allow someone like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Denzel Ward, Derwin James or even, as improbable as it might seem, Saquon Barkley to fall into their lap. The Bucs can't go into 2018 with Jacquizz Rodgers as their starting RB, but after letting T.J. Ward walk into free agency, their secondary needs as much help as (if not more than) Tampa's backfield. Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston are all still available.