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How challenging will the offseason be for the NFC South?

There’s plenty of questions ahead for all four teams, even if the Buccaneers annoyingly have fewer.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images

Every team except the Buccaneers is already full tilt into offseason mode in the NFC South, a product of yet another disappointing finish for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. Those three teams have major question marks this offseason, but for a change, so do the Bucs. Just how challenging is the offseason going to be for all four of these teams?

This is one of the more interesting divisions in football, as always, because every team is in some degree of flux. The Buccaneers are trying to keep this thing together as long as Tom Brady plays, and their success at doing so to this point suggests they should be expected to win the division again in 2022 despite some potentially significant attrition to come. The Falcons, meanwhile, have their veteran quarterback but are in need of drastic roster renovations, while the Panthers and Saints don’t have quarterbacks, don’t have a ton of cap space to play with and have legitimate roster question marks as well. It feels like every team but the Buccaneers are at least a year away from being a contender, but that’s the beauty of the NFL—sometimes teams surprise you.

All cap space estimates are from OverTheCap and based on their estimated effective space . Let’s take a high level look at the offseasons ahead for these four teams.

Atlanta Falcons: Tough

2021 record: 7-10

Players under contract: 50

Expected effective cap space: $-11.2 million

Noteworthy free agents: LB Foye Oluokun, WR Russell Gage, RB Cordarrelle Patterson, OLB Dante Fowler, TE Hayden Hurst

We won’t spend quite as much time on our favorite team because we are going to talk about this offseason, conservatively, often. We’ll just note that the task ahead is a major one.

The Falcons have to address Matt Ryan’s cap hit if they’re keeping him and carve out space elsewhere, with some limited relief available from cutting ties with Tyeler Davison and Kendall Sheffield. They need to figure out whether Calvin Ridley is coming back or being traded, add playmakers on offense in either of those scenarios, and upgrade an offensive line that was ruinously bad at times in 2021. They also need to retool the defense significantly, particularly the league’s most moribund pass rush, and they need to do it on what’s likely to be another shoestring budget. The path to contention against a tougher schedule—at least on paper—is wholly dependent on Terry Fontenot and company’s ability to absolutely nail this offseason.

I have faith in this group, maybe more than I should, but there’s no denying it’s a very tall order.

Carolina Panthers: Moderately challenging

2021 record: 5-12

Players under contract: 51

Expected effective cap space: $13.4 million

Noteworthy free agents: CB Stephon Gilmore, C Matt Paradis, OLB Haason Reddick, S Juston Burris, CB Donte Jackson, TE Ian Thomas, G John Miller

Out of all the teams in the NFC South, the Panthers probably have the best blend of cap space, manageable load of departing free agents, and players currently under contract. They have a lot of gifted defenders, a couple of legitimately terrific pieces on offense and a nice draft pick coming their way.

What makes this thing tough is that the Panthers are bad. They have a coach who may have no idea what he’s doing, a rebuilt front office that needs time and patience to scrub away the mistakes of the past, and no real good options at quarterback heading into a draft class where there may real good options at quarterback, especially if you need an immediate starter. Their expensive running back can’t stay healthy, their offensive line is pretty terrible, and the secondary could be in some trouble if they can’t bring back some of the talented defenders they’re set to lose to free agency. There’s no clear, one-year path to relevance, much less rocketing up the standings in the NFC South.

The Panthers have to decide, quickly, whether they think Sam Darnold can do the job this year or not. If not, they have to secure a competent replacement, bring back essential players like Reddick, Paradis, and at least one of Gilmore/Jackson, and get an offensive coordinator who can somehow make the offense less listless. They also have to use their six draft picks wisely and count on huge improvement from Rhule and the roster. There’s enough here to be interesting for the right coach, but it feels like that right coach won’t be here until 2023 at the earliest.

New Orleans Saints: Tough

2021 record: 9-8

Players under contract: 56

Expected cap space: $-77.7 million

Noteworthy free agents: LT Terron Armstead, S Marcus Williams, QB Jameis Winston, CB P.J. Williams, LB Kwon Alexander, WR Tre’Quan Smith

The Saints have been defying the odds for so long that you just expect that to continue, and perhaps it will. There are enough cracks here to think that it’s unlikely 2022 goes quite as well, no matter how admirable a job this coaching staff does.

There’s simply no easy way to free up cap space for New Orleans without digging a deeper hole down the line, something this team is no stranger too. There’s no easy relief to be had from releasing or trading any of their biggest stars, including super-disgruntled receiver Michael Thomas. Perhaps Mickey Loomis will just re-structure a bunch of deals, magically get this team well above the cap, and re-sign Armstead and Marcus Williams to keep this thing rolling.

Perhaps not, though. The Saints continue to get by year-after-year with the smallest number of draft picks of pretty much any team, and they’ve only drafted seven full-time starters in the past four years. Some of those players are terrific—Marcus Davenport is coming on as a pass rusher, and Paulson Adebo was a huge surprise this year as a rookie cornerback—but when you only have 22 picks over four seasons you have to hit at a higher rate.

That’s especially true when you have to be the most agile team in the league just to get out of the red in cap space every single year, as the Saints do. This year promises to once again be a challenge in that regard, one that will force the Saints to let good players go, cut useful depth at minimum, re-structure deals to ensure this thing is a mess again in 2023, and potentially settle for upside swings and lesser players to get by.

The Saints also do not have a quarterback at this point. They may be in a position to get one—this draft class is shaky enough that a couple the team likes might fall to them in the middle of the first round or perhaps even the second—but generally when you’re this deep in a hole with the cap and don’t have an established high-end quarterback under contract, it’s a major concern.

The Saints will have to be very good and very fortunate to be 9-8 or better again next year. They’ve been both for a long time, but it doesn’t feel like this year’s going to be as kind as 2021 was.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Not easy, but not very difficult

2021 record: 12-4; still active in playoffs

Players under contract: 35

Expected effective cap space: $5.7 million

Noteworthy free agents: WR Chris Godwin, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, C Ryan Jensen, TE Rob Gronkowski, DT Ndamukong Suh, OT Alex Cappa, CB Carlton Davis

On one hand, this team has a killer roster, a respected (if, this year, under fire) head coach, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time and a division filled with teams in various stages of rebuilding. On the other hand, they don’t have all that much space, they have several absolutely critical players hitting free agency, and they don’t have any easy ways to generate more space.

Their biggest potential saving would come from releasing tackle Donovan Smith, who will free up nearly $10 million, and tight end Cameron Brate, who will free up $5.3 million. They’ll need every penny with Godwin, Jensen, and Davis likely to break the bank, while Gronk, Pierre-Paul, Suh and Cappa will command quite a bit of money themselves. Getting all those guys back will be tricky if not impossible, and the team’s two-year window of brilliance is likely to give way to a 1-2 year window of really good-ness.

It’s not a huge dropoff, though, and the Bucs have both the pieces and the division to sail into the playoffs again. As we outlined above, every other team has a bit of a mess on their hands to deal with. Tampa Bay is going to bleed talent, but they’ve done a good enough job replacing talent and building the roster with young talent to think only a Tom Brady injury is going to significantly dent them in 2022. That’s assuming Brady returns, at least, as he’s at least vaguely motioning at the idea that he could walk away this offseason.

Tampa Bay has nailed some of their draft classes recently, which has given them young building blocks like tackle Tristan Wirfs, safety Antoine Winfield, and linebacker Devin White. They’ve also burnt second day picks on running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and quarterback Kyle Trask, something that they can’t afford to do as Brady eyes his extremely overdue retirement and the cap crunch continues.

The Buccaneers will still be a good team if they bring back Brady and retain even a couple of those free agents. Staying on top of the pile beyond 2022 will get trickier unless they have a strong offseason, however.

How do you think the NFC South shakes out in 2022?