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2018 NFL free agency: A fresh look at the NFC South two weeks in

Are the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints better than they were?

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saint Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There will be more free agent signings for the NFC South, but chances are most of the big names are already done with. That’s why it’s an excellent time to take a closer look at what the NFC South’s four teams have done, and whether they’ve gotten any better in the process.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Major Additions: DT Beau Allen, K Chandler Catanzaro, DE Vinny Curry, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, C Ryan Jensen, DT Mitch Unrein

Major Losses: None

The Buccaneers are the one team in the NFC South that is unambiguously better than they were in 2017. That’s because they were not great in 2017, for one thing, but also because they signed legitimate upgrades at positions of need. With a ton of cap space and holes you could drive a truck through, it only made sense for them to be active, and you have to give them credit for it.

Even that comes with caveats. The Bucs gave Cameron Brate a massive deal that looks especially weird after they drafted O.J. Howard a year ago, and Ryan Jensen is a significant upgrade at center but only has season as a 16 game starter under his belt (2017, naturally). Chandler Catanzaro may not be an upgrade over Patrick Murray, the latest kicker in the team’s carousel. The Bucs still have a questionable ground game and a lack of truly elite options at linebacker and in the secondary, areas they’ll need to address in the draft to truly take a big step forward.

There’s also the small matter that Mike Smith defenses have traditionally not been particularly effective at rushing the passer or getting off the field on third down, and the two defensive ends they’ve added are definite upgrades but not necessarily elite options. Curry is a rotational guy who is good enough to help out and JPP is definitely their best edge rusher more or less immediately, but neither is a transformative player for this defense.

Still, justified slagging aside, the Bucs have likely ensured they’ll be an interesting team and a tougher out in 2018. At some point, the improvements to the roster are going to result in some genuine improvement on the field, and the Bucs will be dangerous. With the Facons and Saints looking very strong again and the Panthers usually contending, though, it may not be this year.

Atlanta Falcons

Major Additions: OG Brandon Fusco, CB/ST Justin Bethel

Major Losses: WR Taylor Gabriel, DT Dontari Poe, DE Adrian Clayborn

There’s no sugarcoating it: The Falcons have more holes today than they had in 2017. That’s what happens when you allow two of your best defensive linemen and your #3 receiver to walk. The question is whether the Falcons will be able to patch over those holes effectively in the coming months, and it’s a legitimate question.

Fusco is a genuinely useful addition and a likely upgrade at right guard, which helps shore up the one true trouble spot on the offensive line in 2017. Bethel will be a slam dunk upgrade at gunner on special teams, and useful depth at cornerback at the very worst. The Falcons also have one of the league’s premier talent bases overall, which will help them weather these losses.

Even so, does a rookie defensive tackle figure to be an upgrade on Dontari Poe? No. Does Marvin Hall or Reggie Davis figure to be as good or better than Taylor Gabriel? Probably not, though I’m slightly more optimistic about that. Is a defensive end rotation minus Adrian Clayborn and not plus another solid veteran figure to better than it was a year ago? Maybe, but it depends on Takk improving. And so on.

Atlanta’s always going to bank on their ability to get more out of their own guys, whether that’s a rookie draft pick or a second year player like Takk or Eric Saubert at tight end. Thus far it has worked out well, but the major worry is that Atlanta’s banking a lot on internal improvements and Steve Sarkisian without external additions. We’ll see how that works out.

Carolina Panthers

Major Additions: DT Dontari Poe, LG Jeremiah Sirles, CB Ross Cockrell, S Da’Norris Searcy, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jarius Wright

Major Losses: LG Andrew Norwell, S Kurt Coleman, CB Daryl Worley, DT Star Lotulelei

The Panthers are perhaps the most interesting team in the NFC South right now. They’re changing ownership, they have old GM Marty Hurney back in place and making decisions, and they have made some major changes to their roster. It’s just not immediately clear whether they’ve improved in any meaningful way.

The loss of Andrew Norwell—and the signing of former Viking Jeremiah Sirles as a replacement—represents a pretty significant downgrade. The addition of Dontari Poe is a strong one, but it’s also an addition at one of the team’s strongest positions. Cockrell and Searcy are solid players, but not major upgrades.

Then there’s the fact that the team dealt away a solid young cornerback in Worley and added two wide receivers who could crowd out younger, more talented players, and there’s still a bit of shakiness along the offensive line, at receiver, and in the secondary. The Panthers could well be a playoff team again—they have the talent—but I’m not convinced they actually got any better, despite the flurry of moves.

New Orleans Saints

Major Additions: S Kurt Coleman, LB Demario Davis, CB Patrick Robinson, QB Tom Savage

Major Losses: S Rafael Bush, QB Chase Daniel, OL Senio Kelemete

The Saints also objectively improved, but it’s a question of degree. Patrick Robinson is fresh off a career year but may not repeat it, Davis is a speedy, solid player, and Coleman is a good safety coming off a weak season. All three of those players could prove to be significant upgrades, or they could prove to be very minor ones.

The only real downgrade here is from Chase Daniel to Tom Savage, mostly because I think Tom Savage is one of the league’s lousiest quarterbacks. But otherwise the Saints are banking on a roster that proved to be one of the league’s most surprising in 2017, and barring sharp regression from Drew Brees, they’re going to be a force of nature once again in 2018. I hate that as much as you do.

So how does the NFC South shake out next year? It’s way too early to say, but it is obvious that this is one of the most stacked divisions in football. Atlanta should be a legitimate playoff contender again with the strength of their current roster, but any team in this division could legitimately win the divisional crown. That’s a scary thought, but it’s a reality we’d better get used to.