Two years ago, the Carolina Panthers rallied after a 1-3 start to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South crown. They took the division again in 2014, but the results weren't quite as inspiring.
Like the rest of the division, the Panthers ended the season with a sub-.500 record. All year, the Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons traded disappointing losses and, as a result, control of the NFC South. Each team struggled through injuries and the inability to stop opponents from scoring. The competition proved so poor that even the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team picking No. 1 overall in the upcoming NFL Draft, was not eliminated from playoff contention until the final weeks. Without question, the NFC South was the worst division in the National Football League.
So how have things changed for the four clubs since the start of free agency? Here's how the NFC South looks today.
For the first time in several years, the Panthers actually entered the offseason with some cap space. The club had previously been hamstrung by the series of bad contracts handed out by former general manager Marty Hurney, including multiple long-term deals to running backs. Hurney's replacement Dave Gettleman said the team would no longer be "shopping at the dollar store."
What he failed to mention is that Carolina would barely be shopping at all. The team signed discarded former starters Michael Oher and Ted Ginn for small deals and added backup defensive backs Kurt Coleman and Teddy Williams. Gettleman also released veteran tailback DeAngelo Williams and chose not to re-sign Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy. As a result, the team will wait until the draft to improve their roster. While that strategy has worked well for teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, it's too early to know whether Gettleman possesses the draft acumen to match.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints spent the offseason making a series of contradictory moves. Bogged down by over $20 million in cap debt, the team still signed running back Mark Ingram to a four-year deal and added C.J. Spiller to the backfield. Meanwhile, the team dismantled the offensive line blocking for them, trading away Ben Grubbs and pursing a similar outcome for Jahri Evans. New Orleans also traded away All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for Max Unger and a first-round pick and sent top receiver Kenny Stills for a third-rounder and the contract of Dannell Ellerbe. On the other side of the ball, the Saints signed aged cornerback Brandon Browner to a long-term deal and released inside linebacker Curtis Lofton.
So what does this mean in the aggregate? The Saints will enter 2015 with essentially the same defense in place -- a group that finished 31st in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric -- and an offense that has several new parts but fewer playmakers. Unless Drew Brees can somehow reverse the effects of aging, it could be another difficult year in New Orleans.
Like the Saints, Atlanta endured a disappointing 2014 season. The offensive line fell apart and the defense failed to establish a consistent pass rush. Flush with cap space, the Falcons' front office looked for ways to fill in their holes while adding valuable depth.
The first step was finding players who could pressure the quarterback. The Falcons signed edge rushers Brooks Reed and O'Brien Schofield while adding Adrian Clayborn along the interior. The club also acquired Phillip Adams to help the secondary. The offensive line remains an issue, but the team will address it in the draft. As it stands, the Falcons are the most improved team in the division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers "won" the 2014 offseason by spending gobs of money on a bevy of players only to cut most of them after one year. Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins and Josh McCown all received multiyear deals from Tampa Bay and are now no longer with the club. While the team still has plenty of cap space, this is a dangerous way to build a roster.
The team seems to recognize this and has largely avoided free agency this year. The team's only signings -- Henry Melton, Bruce Carter and Chris Conte -- are role players who've previously played for head coach Lovie Smith or Smith's defensive coordinator in Chicago, Rod Marinelli. That means the new players shouldn't take long to get up to speed, but they also shouldn't be expected to contribute much. The Buccaneers are going to find their quarterback in the draft, and start building from there. As such, unless the division in historically bad again in 2015, Tampa is likely another year or so away from the playoffs.