The topsy-turvy NFC South, which never has seen a back-to-back conqueror, took another spin this offseason.
The gap between teams in the South closed as the teams that finished 2013 at the top of the division shed veteran players, while the teams at the bottom took steps to strengthen their weaknesses.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought in Lovie Smith to guide their rudderless ship. The Bucs were one of the most active teams in free agency, identifying players and locking them down. This wasn't a team that was devoid of talent -- especially on the defensive side of the ball -- but Smith brought in players who better fit his scheme. In most cases, they were also big upgrades in talent.
On the flip side sits the division-winning Carolina Panthers, who saw more retirements than game-changing signings. The Panthers won last season on the back of a ferocious defense and run-heavy offense. Those two aspects must be replicated and improved upon if Carolina is to repeat because all other areas have been downgraded.
In our Roster Reset series, Around The League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The NFC South is up next.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Releasing Darrelle Revis might have been bad PR, but replacement Alterraun Verner will fit seamlessly into Smith's system and came at a much cheaper price. High-priced defensive end Michael Johnson is a perfect partner to Gerald McCoy on the inside and should immediately upgrade the Buccaneers' pass rush.
In the end, swapping in the respected Smith for the mercurial Greg Schiano was the biggest boon for the Bucs' franchise.
»Find a complement to Vincent Jackson:Trading Mike Williams to Buffalo left a big void opposite Jackson. The rest of the depth chart is awash with No. 3 receivers -- Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins, etc. Finding a playmaking receiver in the draft is a must to take the heat off Jackson. (Mike Evans, anyone?)
»Future QB: Josh McCown will begin as the Bucs' starter. Incumbent Mike Glennonplans to battle for the starting job, but in reality could be fighting for the backup job. The 35-year-old McCown is not a long-term solution. Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford must decide if Glennon can be the future or if a developmental rookie is necessary.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The pickup of return man Devin Hester could be a sneaky-good move for Dimitroff. The Falcons were terrible in returning kicks last season. While he didn't come cheap for a specialist, we expect Hester to have an improved season playing his home games on carpet -- as opposed to the mush-pit inside Soldier Field.
»Safety help: After cutting Thomas DeCoud and the failed offer sheet to restricted free agent Rafael Bush, the Falcons are bereft of talent on the back end. Strong safety William Moore is a movable chess piece, but is coming off a poor season. Dimitroff has added corner depth, but so far he's mostly whiffed at the safety spot.
»Young pass rusher: Whatever schemes Nolan plans to employ, the Falcons can still use a young, pass-rushing outside linebacker to supplement the worst rush unit in the league in 2013.
3. New Orleans Saints
»Getting defensive: Some Saints players displayed candidmorosity during the team's offseason purge. Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis made cuts with the cold calculation of George R.R. Martin dismembering another Stark. It was a harsh reality for several players who helped New Orleans win a Super Bowl, including Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Lance Moore.
»Extend Jimmy Graham: Let's not pretend every Saints fan doesn't wake up every morning praying to hear that Graham was given a big contract extension. It's going to happen, eventually. Loomis and Drew Brees had a staring contest all summer two years ago but, when crunch time came, a deal got done. The well-worn wide receiver-tight end debate might drag it out longer than necessary, but Graham isn't leaving New Orleans.
4. Carolina Panthers
»Why they took a step back: General manager Dave Gettleman has the patience of a mother fostering 12 sons. He is unbending, assured his path is correct. No amount of handwringing, sulking or disgustingly ill-conceived provocation of emotional children will redirect his course.
Unfortunately, that cost has been watching solid veterans retire or flee, cutting a longtime franchise face and hoping to strike gold on low-cost vets for the second straight season.
Sure, a monster front seven is in tact after Gettleman smartly franchise tagged Greg Hardy, so maybe an older, depleted secondary won't be exposed. And perhaps a fistful of possession receivers, like Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, can succeed in coach Ron Rivera's Moneyball-type offense without a field stretcher.
Maybe, but I'm a Doubting Thomas.
»Who is going to block Cam Newton's blind side? Other aspects of a rough offseason are getting more pub, but losing Jordan Gross was the single biggest departure from the division champions' roster. He was the proverbial rock shielding Newton's backside. SuperCam could be fleeing for his life next season.
»Who is going to catch the ball? Receiver depth chart: Avant, Cotchery, Tavarres King, Tiquan Underwood and Marvin McNutt. The Panthers don't boast a No. 2 receiver, let alone a No. 1. Perhaps Rivera will run a throwback, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. In that scheme, Ol' Riverboat would get to go for a lot of fourth-and-1s.
In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys continue the offseason Roster Reset series by breaking down the NFC West and AFC South.