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An early look at the free agency decisions ahead for the NFC South

The Falcons aren’t alone in having some big decisions to make with their dollars.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The season’s over and all that remains is to watch, apprehensively, as the Saints try to keep moving forward. It’s fair to wonder what the division might look like in 2019, though, and that’s what we’ll take an extremely early look at today.

We’ll do this again closer to the draft and after the draft, as well, so consider this a preliminary look at who these teams might lose, their cap space, and what that might mean.

Atlanta Falcons

Big name free agents: Grady Jarrett, Andy Levitre, Bruce Irvin, Tevin Coleman, Matt Schaub, Justin Bethel

Projected cap space: $23.7 million

The Falcons have exactly one free agent they absolutely cannot let go, and that’s Jarrett. Beyond that there’s a mix of nice-to-have (Irvin, Bethel, maybe Levitre) and clearly headed elsewhere (Coleman, maybe Schaub). If they get Jarrett locked up, they’re in very good shape.

Their cap space is the second-highest in the division at the moment, and that’s not accounting for Atlanta’s ability to free up more than $20 million pretty easily by cutting or extending Vic Beasley and cutting ties with Brooks Reed, Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder. They’re not necessarily going to do all those things, but they could have a ton of financial flexibility to work with, especially compared to the 2018 offseason.

The Falcons just cleaned out their coordinators and have to turn over their roster a bit thanks to disappointing performances and bloated contracts, so it’s no lock that they’ll return to relevance in 2019. With the Panthers looking likely to shed useful players and the Buccaneers dealing with less cap space than anyone else while they try to claw back from years of irrelevance, plus Atlanta’s excellent nucleus of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, they should be one of the two best teams in the division if healthy. Anything less than that may mean more sweeping changes for the franchise.

Carolina Panthers

Big name free agents: Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Mike Adams, Eric Reid, Devin Funchess, Wes Horton, Daryl Williams

Projected cap space: $25.4 million

The Panthers have a solid block of cap space, and it’s a good thing they do. They’re going to lose top-shelf center Ryan Kalil to retirement, Daryl Williams could bolt for greener pastures, and they’re still paying Matt Kalil to do Matt Kalil things at left tackle. Their offensive line has been getting Cam Newton killed, and he’s not healthy heading into this offseason at all.

Beyond that, they could lose quality veteran contributors like Peppers, Adams, Reid, Funchess and Horton, who are not irreplaceable but are certainly useful. Carolina will probably take advantage of their solid cap space and expiring contracts to try to revamp the offense, but the defense was disconcertingly limp down the stretch this year, and nothing short of a fully healthy Newton with a better line in front of him is going to drag them back atop the NFC South. With Ron Rivera hanging on for one more year, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of urgency animates this Panthers offseason.

New Orleans Saints

Big name free agents: Mark Ingram, Manti Te’o, P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley, Will Lutz

Projected cap space: $17.15 million

The Saints, blast them, are well set up. They don’t have a lot of cap to work with, comparatively, and there’s no obvious avenue for them to free a lot more up. But they’re really only in danger of losing Ingram, a very useful running back in a league that de-prioritizes running backs, and top-flight kicker Lutz, plus a couple of useful defenders. Barring Drew Brees pushing the plunger in and blowing up the franchise by retiring, they’ll be one of the two best teams in the division once again in 2019, which I hate with all my heart.

The big question with New Orleans is really just how sustainable this all is. They have quality defenders, but that defense sometimes looks extremely shaky. They have a terrific offense that largely went in the tank in the second half of the season and is light on reliable pass catchers. The Saints will have the cash to make a key addition or two, but keeping their success going may depend on how well they draft, and they don’t have a couple of key picks this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Big name free agents: Brent Grimes, Donovan Smith, Cairo Santos, Kwon Alexander, Peyton Barber, Chris Conte, Adam Humphries, Ryan Fitzpatrick

Projected cap space: $16.6 million

The Bucs made waves by hiring a star-studded coaching staff led by Bruce Arians, who will try to turn Jameis Winston into the true franchise quarterback he’s supposed to be. But they’ll be attempting a live rebuild without a lot of ammunition.

They’ll need to make changes, starting with the rumored release of still-terrific defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, to afford key players like Smith and Alexander. The release of McCoy instead of other borderline players suggests that the Bucs are still not a well-run team, which is nice. They’ll have to let useful contributors like Humphries and Barber go, more than likely, and will be heavily dependent on highly overrated GM Jason Licht to nail the draft in order to get them up to speed.

Tampa Bay’s future does look brighter with Arians on board and dead weight likely to come off, but they’re an easy pick for the basement of the division for one more season, at the very least.

Projected finishes

Please note that this is based on nothing but what the teams have currently, who they might lose, and their cap space and draft pick availability. Much will change in the months ahead, and our predictions for the division will evolve accordingly.

#1: Saints

#2: Falcons

#3: Panthers

#4: Buccaneers

Let’s get yours.