The NFC South has been something of a two-team division in recent years, with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints duking it out for first place while the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fight for table scraps.
Things were different in 2012, as the Falcons stormed to an easy division title with a 13-3 record and an NFC Championship Game berth. The Saints, crippled by Bountygate punishments, were without coach Sean Payton and fielded one of the worst defenses in NFL history. The Bucs and Panthers took some small steps forward, but both teams remained stuck in neutral. All three teams finished 7-9.
Every team in the division has significant issues to fix in the offseason if they want to make a real run at contention. Atlanta is still looking to get over the playoff hump, while the other three are just trying to play catch-up. With free agency and the NFL Draft around the corner, we're going to take a look at what the perfect offseason would be for each team — in other words, what would need to go right in order to become a real contender in the 2013 season. Let's start with the defending division champs:
The Falcons finally got that elusive playoff win in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era, but once again went home empty-handed after blowing a big home lead to the San Francisco 49ers. The primary culprit was the lack of a real running game. Michael Turner is 31, averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, and is set to earn $5.5 million next season. He is almost certainly a cap casualty. This year's draft class isn't particularly deep at running back, but Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard are tempting options at the end of the first round.
Dave Choate of The Falcoholic argues that while running back is an obvious need, the Falcons shouldn't use a lot of resources to fill the hole.
The point is that a mid-round draft pick may be able to put up better numbers than the Burner did in 2012 as part of a running back platoon while not stressing the team's already slim cap space. For a team built first and foremost to pass the football, that's enough.
Don't spend a lot of money on running backs, is what i'm saying. It's not that kind of league anymore.
Tight end is another position of concern. Tony Gonzalez is likely to announce his retirement soon, leaving a huge hole on the roster. It will be nigh impossible to replace his Hall of Fame production, but Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz should be available in the draft and both are capable of stepping in and producing from Week 1.
On the defensive side, the pass rush could use an upgrade. John Abraham is still playing well at age 35, but there's precious little depth behind him. It's an issue that was further exacerbated when the team cut Ray Edwards midseason. Brent Grimes got a $10 million franchise tender and promptly tore his Achilles in Week 1. He's unlikely to get that much money again. Re-signing Sam Baker could be a priority after a much-improved season.
The Falcons will be contenders as long as Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones are around. They just need to fix these nagging roster issues to truly take a step forward as legitimate Super Bowl threats.
Perfection: Upgrade running game in draft, find replacement for Gonzalez, beef up defensive line depth.
The Panthers were much improved over the second half of the season, but cap hell makes them unlikely to be big players in free agency. They need to clear between $10-15 million off the books, and Chris Gamble is one of the top candidates for release. He's due $7.9 million in 2013 and will be turning 30 in March. Jon Beason and DeAngelo Williams are also potential casualties.
Cutting all three players would save around $15 million, and from there I would focus on the draft to upgrade the secondary and defensive line. Kenny Vaccaro, Xavier Rhodes, Sheldon Richardson or Jesse Williams would all be solid options at the No. 14 spot. Wide receiver is another position in need of upgrades, with Steve Smith getting one year older and Brandon LaFell disappointing. Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Dwayne Bowe are out of their price range, but I can see them pursuing one of the B-list free agents like David Nelson or Domenik Hixon. Draft prospects like Justin Hunter or Terrance Williams may be available in the second round.
As noted on SB Nation's Carolina Panthers blog Cat Scratch Reader, Panther fans should hope several quarterbacks see their draft stock increase so one of the more highly-touted non-quarterback prospects falls to the Jaguars at No. 14.
Carolina is in a tough spot this offseason, and likely won't be able to afford to make the big moves needed to push this team into contention. For me, the focus should be on clearing the books and making incremental upgrades through the draft.
Perfection: Free up cap space, land best available DT or DB in draft, look for WR talent in the later rounds.
New Orleans Saints
The good news for the Saints is that it can't get any worse. Sean Payton is coming back, and he'll be switching to a 3-4 defense in an attempt to fix a historically awful unit. The bad news is that they're in serious cap trouble and need to clear about $20 million off the books. Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Malcolm Jenkins appear to be the most popular candidates for release. Cutting them would save about $18 million, and none of those players are a good fit for the 3-4 anyway.
Dave Cariello of Canal Street Chronicles took a closer look at potential cap casualties including Smith, Vilma, Jenkins and several other players.
The Saints should be focusing exclusively on defense in this draft. Dion Jordan, Jarvis Jones and Sam Montgomery could be available at the No. 15 spot, and would all be instant upgrades in the new scheme. Nose tackle should be another priority, as it's unlikely that Brodrick Bunkley has the size to play the position.
New Orleans doesn't have many holes on offense, so I expect them to completely overhaul the other side of the ball. Even a halfway competent unit will be good enough for Drew Brees and company. This could be a quick turnaround if all goes well in the draft.
Perfection: Clear bad contracts off the books, inject youth into the new scheme.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa is one of the more enigmatic teams in the league. They sat at 6-4 at one point in the season, with Josh Freeman playing well and Doug Martin enjoying a breakout rookie year, but five straight losses took them out of playoff contention. The secondary was the biggest culprit, as the Bucs finished with the worst pass defense in the league. Eric Wright is due $7.75 million next year and did little to justify his lofty contract. He's a strong candidate for release.
The Bucs have lots of money to play with and aren't afraid of making a big splash in free agency. I would pursue someone like Terence Newman or Sheldon Brown after washing my hands of Wright. Failing that, they could go after Xavier Rhodes or Dee Milliner in the draft, provided either player is available at No. 13. The team could also use some defensive line help to complement Gerald McCoy. Michael Bennett is set to be a free agent, and re-signing him should be a priority.
Re-signing Bennett may be a priority but as Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation wrote, there is no momentum toward a deal between the Bucs and Bennett. That, however, may not be reason to panic just yet.
As we've said before, re-signing Michael Bennett should be the team's main priority this offseason. The defensive end led the Buccaneers in sacks last season with 9, and has been absolutely crucial as a run defender. Bennett will get a big contract on the free agent market, but the Buccaneers can easily afford to pay him well, as they have a lot of salary cap room.
Finally, there's the quarterback position. Freeman has been maddeningly inconsistent, is entering the last year of his rookie contract, and there have been no peeps about getting a long-term deal done. Consider 2013 a "make or break" year for him.
The Bucs are heading in the right direction, but their second-half collapse revealed that there's still a lot of work to be done. They should be worried about Freeman. If he doesn't prove himself to be long-term answer, they have some tough decisions to make next winter.
Perfection: Cut Wright, upgrade secondary through free agency or draft, re-sign Bennett.