The NFC South was a division in turmoil last year. The Falcons came out smelling like a daisy, going 13-3 and winning the division en route to an NFC Conference Championship berth. The Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers all faltered, however, albeit in different ways.
The Saints were expected by many to contend for a division crown. Down Sean Payton and boasting a historically awful defense, they sank to 7-9. The Buccaneers had a hot stretch and then collapsed near the end of the season. The Panthers were the opposite, starting off horribly and catching fire late in the season.
All of these teams have flaws, and all of these teams needed to address them coming into free agency. You know what the Falcons have been up to, so I thought I'd take a closer look at how each team has fared thus far. Buckle up.
The Panthers let go of Dwan Edwards and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, as well as potentially retiring cornerback Chris Gamble. They got...Drayton Florence, who hasn't been a force in a good many years.
The Panthers have enough talent on their roster to contend next year, but they're weak at cornerback and still don't have a strong corps of receivers to help out the promising Cam Newton. In a tough division, they could push for nine wins, but they'll need to have a nice draft to push them further than that.
The Saints locked up linebacker Junior Galette, center Brian de la Puente and running back Chris Ivory, and re-structured the deals of Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma. Also lost nickel rusher Jonathan Casillas to the Buccaneers.
The Saints were in a tough spot. Drew Brees soaks up a huge amount of their cap space, their defense was historically terrible just a year ago and they were way over the cap. These moves put them under the cap and give them a fighting chance at signing a couple of free agents, while locking up a very promising center and rush linebacker for 2013.
Unfortunately for the Saints, there's still a lot of holes on this roster. The defense still projects to be bad after a 3-4 switch, at least for 2013. The offense as a whole is a year older. Getting one of the best coaches (yes, it hurts me to write that) will help, but this is a team that needs major help at several positions. We'll see what they can get done with limited resources on the open market.
They do always play the NFC South tough, though, so we can't afford to count them out. That offense is still likely to be explosive, too. Let's see what the draft brings.
For the second straight off-season, the Buccaneers are throwing money around like their lives depend on it. Perhaps they do.
The Bucs are scary because they have so many great players, but they're less than intimidating because they haven't been able to get those pieces to fit together. Josh Freeman is talented but inconsistent. Doug Martin faded down the stretch. Carl Nicks got hurt. The defense couldn't quite muster up enough pass rush or coverage skills to win the Bucs a whole lot of games in the second half.
That said, they've signed Dashon Goldson and Jonathan Casillas, improving their secondary and their pass rush...sort of. If Michael Bennett walks away, this team will need to hope for great things from Da'Quan Bowers or add a few pieces. They're still arguably the most dangerous non-Falcons team in the division in the upcoming year, and they're not through yet. Watch them closely.
Your thoughts on the NFC South?