The NFC South has been a lot of things in recent seasons, but predictable isn't one of them. Teams have gone from worst to first in a single season, or they've fallen from the top of the standings to the top of the draft. The Panthers rose to the top this season, just edging out the Saints, but Carolina will have some serious work to do in the offseason if it is going to stay atop the division.
The Panthers retained Greg Hardy for at least a year with the franchise tag but still face the loss of several starters. The Saints will also have their work cut out for them in free agency, while the Buccaneers and Falcons attempt to retool to make a run at the division next season.
Here is a closer look at a few of the top players from each NFC South team who hit the open market on Tuesday.
Atlanta dropped to 4-12, a year after being the No. 1 seed in the NFC and coming up a game short of the Super Bowl. The Falcons have some holes to fill in the draft and free agency. Fortunately for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta doesn't have many expiring contracts.
After locking in Corey Peters with a one-year deal, the Falcons may have to let the other half of their defensive tackle duo go. The 32-year-old Babineaux didn't have his best season, but remains an above-average player. Pro Football Focus gave Babineaux a plus-5.8 grade, the 30th-best among defensive tackles. Babineaux has been a mainstay in Atlanta, starting 92 games during the last six seasons. He signed a five-year, $25 million deal during the 2008 season, and remained a productive player through the life of the contract. But the Falcons may be unwilling to sign him to as lucrative a deal this offseason.
Team needs: RG, C, RT, DT, FS, DE, TE
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SB Nation NFL
The Panthers took care of priority No. 1 when they franchise tagged Greg Hardy, but they have several other key players who appear to be on their way out. With limited salary cap space, the Panthers resorted to signing a number of one-year deals last season. The good news for Carolina is many of those players had excellent seasons. The bad news is the team now has a slew of players set to hit free agency.
Munnerlyn turned down a three-year deal from Carolina last season. After not receiving much interest in a flooded cornerback market, he opted to sign a one-year deal with the Panthers and take his chances. He started all 16 games, recording three sacks, 12 passes defended and intercepting two passes. He continued to be a playmaker with the ball in his hands, scoring two defensive touchdowns. The cornerback market is once again flooded, but at 25 and coming off a very strong season, Munnerlyn should receive significantly more interest this time around.
Team needs: OT, WR, CB, S, TE
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SB Nation NFL
The Saints have been busy freeing up cap space this offseason, releasing Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. A good chunk of that cap space was devoted to franchising All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham -- and that chunk could be even bigger if Graham's agent can successfully argue that he deserves to be tagged as a wide receiver.
Zach Strief, RT
The 30-year-old Strief has developed into a very good starting right tackle for the Saints. Pro Football Focus graded him among the best tackles in the league last season, and tops among right tackles. According to PFF's charting, he allowed only four sacks all season. Strief earned slightly more than $2.5 million last season and he could come close to doubling that in free agency. Sebastian Vollmer, one of the top right tackles on the market last year, signed a deal worth just more than $4 million per season.
Team needs: CB, FS, WR, DE (3-4), OLB (3-4), RT
Tampa Bay has a new head coach, and one of Lovie Smith's first tasks will be handling free agency. Fortunately for Smith and the Bucs, most of Tampa Bay's key players are locked up for at least another season. The decisions in 2014 will be more about deciding which depth players to bring back.
Dekoda Watson, LB
After playing a reserve role for most of the season, Watson stepped into the starting lineup late and played well. The former seventh-round pick could be a potential starter moving forward. With that said, he only started three games this season and still has a lot to prove. He set career highs in tackles and sacks, while also snagging the first interception of his career.
Team needs: OG, DE (4-3), TE, WR, QB