As we steer our ship into the muddy waters of the offseason, the best news I can offer anyone is that all three NFC South rivals are in the same boat as the Falcons. That boat, to further mix this thing up, is full of questions.
Here, I’ve assembled a list of the biggest single question every franchise faces as they navigate the offseason. I welcome yours in the comments.
Falcons: Where is improvement coming from?
The Falcons are largely running back the same coaching staff, the same quarterback, and so on. There will be tangible changes to the roster, but most of the most important pieces are already in place.
So where is that improvement going to come from?
The Falcons will tell you that while defensive improvement is a priority, it had already begun in the second half of the year. Having Raheem Morris in charge of the unit, adding draft talent, and getting improvement out of young players like Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield figures to be the path forward. On offense, they’re going to count on Dirk Koetter improving—whether they should or not—and probably try to fix up the left guard and running back gigs with more talent.
All of that seems doable, especially if you squint, but it’s awfully rare that everything works out the way it’s supposed to. If some of that goes awry, will the Falcons get enough improvement out of the players and coaches who are already here?
That question is going to keep me up at night for a while.
Buccaneers: Is the defense on track to be great?
At first glance, Tampa Bay would seem to be yet another team that needs to figure out its quarterback situation, as the two teams below must. I don’t think this will be the year they make that decision, however.
Short of coaxing away a top quarterback like Tom Brady or Drew Brees, the Bucs will probably stick with Jameis Winston for at least one more year. Winston’s downside is enormous and frustrating—all those picks definitely cost the Bucs games in 2019—but he’s also a legitimate talent with one of the best arms in football, and Bruce Arians is a coach who can’t resist that.
I’m wondering more about the Buccaneers defense. They finally appear to have locked up a handful of capable young defensive backs, and their free agent signings ran the gamut from solid to spectacular. The defense’s awful ranking against the pass has as much to do with Winston’s habit of putting them back on the field over and over again as it does the actual talent level.
That’s important, because Tampa Bay has to see 2020 as an opportunity year, and they won’t be able to take advantage of that opportunity without the help of an improved defense. If they can get that on track and cut down on Winston’s costly turnovers, they could be one of the best teams in the NFC South. As is always the case with the Bucs, who have been lauded as a breakout team every year since 2008, that’s a big if.
Panthers: Who is the quarterback in 2020?
Matt Rhule is here and charming everyone now, but among the many decisions he has to make during his on-the-fly rebuild for Carolina is who is playing quarterback.
Cam Newton is one, logical choice. He’s under contract at the moment, for one thing, and he’s easily the best option Carolina has, especially when you consider that Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa are both going before Carolina will get to make a selection. If Newton is healthy, giving him a year to try to thrive with a new coach is just a smart idea, and it’ll probably help the Panthers contend this year.
Their other options are not on the roster. If Carolina decides to trade or cut Newton to start over, Will Grier and Kyle Allen have decisively shown they are backup-caliber quarterbacks, with Allen getting a particularly long audition. Unless Rhule is intent on using his first year to tank hard in the hopes of snagging the best quarterback in the 2020 class, he doesn’t have a QB in this scenario.
If Newton isn’t back, things get interesting in a big hurry. Might the Panthers go for Oregon’s Justin Herbert, perhaps a little earlier than expected? Might they try to contend in a bridge year by wooing a veteran, maybe even Tom Brady or Drew Brees? Will they take a shot at a quarterback whose stock is at an all-time low, like Miami’s Josh Rosen?
The boring answer is that they’ll stick with Cam, and it’s also the right call. Don’t be surprised if a new coach brings new faces to Carolina, though, and that’ll make for a very interesting offseason for our neighbors to the north.
Saints: Who is the quarterback in 2020?
On one hand, the Saints have three options here and only one of them would be a hilariously bad choice. On the other hand, it’s the defining question of the offseason because the Saints are (unfortunately) very good, and quarterback is one of their few truly unsettled positions.
That’s because all three of their options are free agents at the same time. Drew Brees put together a year that was among the very best in his career statistically, but he is older (42 next season), expensive, and his arm strength has become an actual liability. Michael Thomas is good enough to vacuum up targets underneath, but Brees barely attempts deep ball anymore, and when he does things sometimes go hilariously awry.
Teddy Bridgewater has never been known for a strong arm, but he’s nearly 15 years younger than Brees, can run this Saints offense with its emphasis on short, accurate passes extremely well, and won’t be nearly as expensive as Brees, even if he should be expected to land starter money somewhere. Keeping Bridgewater behind Brees would be one of the league’s best insurance policies, but starting him outright would be turning the page on Brees for a franchise that has been reliant on him for many, many years. In a legitimate unbiased take, I think it’s a tough call for New Orleans.
Keeping Taysom Hill is likely to be Sean Payton’s biggest priority, given that he’s completely obsessed with him. Hill has proven to be an invaluable gadget player who can do many things well, but he is emphatically not a full-time quarterback. If Payton decided to bet big on his own genius and make Hill the starter to save a ton of cash, I would laugh and laugh and laugh. I hope he does.
The most likely scenario is that Brees and Hill return and Bridgewater finds a starting gig elsewhere, since he deserves to get one. But it’s an interesting subplot of the offseason, either way, and it could help determine what the next 2-3 years in New Orleans look like.