Free Agency 2016

NFC South Free Agency Grades

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The Carolina Panthers ran through the NFC South this past season, but there’s a couple teams in the division who have improved their roster through free agency thus far.

Let’s take a look.

Carolina Panthers 

Grade: B-

Key acquisitions – DL Paul Soliai, Brandon Boykin

Key retentions – CB Josh Norman, FB Mike Tolbert and T Mike Remmers 

Key losses – DE Jared Allen and WR Jerricho Cotchery

After a historic (15-1) season, the Carolina Panthers fell short of the ultimate prize against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Although they weren’t able to finish the deal, there was no need to overreact in free agency.

Carolina’s main priority was to retain Josh Norman, which they partially did by placing the franchise tag on the Pro Bowl corner. However, Norman is seeking a long-term deal, where he’d get paid roughly $16 million per season. In addition to Norman, the Panthers stole veteran defensive lineman Paul Soliai from rival Atlanta.

“He’s a solid run-defending big man, and at the same time he’s a guy that can push the pocket and apply middle pressure on the quarterback,” head coach Ron Rivera stated. “I also think his space-eating ability will allow our linebackers to run.”

Yes, Carolina let Jericho Cotchery walk, but with top receiver Kelvin Benjamin returning, it’s safe to say Cotchery won’t be missed.

New Orleans Saints 

Grade: C-

Key acquisitions – TE Coby Fleener and LB James Laurinaitis

Key retentions – T Tim Lelito and CB Kyle Wilson

Key losses – WR Marques Colston, CB Brandon Browner, TE Ben Watson, RB Khiry Robinson and G Jahri Evans

For a team that’s been one of the worst defensive units in the NFL the past few seasons, New Orleans hasn’t done anything significant to solve the issue. Sure, Brandon Browner didn’t live up to expectations, but was it all his fault?

The Saints pass rush was virtually non-existent, as they ranked near the bottom, totaling only 31 team sacks. 

“We weren’t good enough overall as a defense; our front struggled,” Sean Payton said. “I asked the same question; this guy just won a Super Bowl in New (England). So obviously the pass rush — it’s that perfect storm. The surrounding parts for us weren’t as strong as they needed to be.”

New Orleans has uncertainty on the other side of the ball now.

Long-time fan favorite Marques Colston is gone, but the front office believes Brandon Coleman can fill that role, which has yet to be seen.

Also, after having a career-year, tight end Benjamin Watson took his talents to Baltimore. The 35-year-old totaled 74 catches for 825 yards to go along with six touchdowns this past season.

New Orleans has signed Coby Fleener to replace Watson.

Atlanta Falcons 

Grade – B +

Key acquisitions – C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Sanu and DE Derrick Shelby

Key retentions – LB Paul Worrilow and DE Adrian Clayborn

Key losses – DL Paul Soliai, G Chris Chester, OLB Kroy Biermann and OLB O’Brien Schofield

Talent has never been the problem in Atlanta, but execution is a completely different story in the ‘Dirty South’.

Falcons fans have turned on three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, however, he shouldn’t be their biggest concern. Pass rush should be or should I say lack therof.

Last season, Atlanta finished dead last in sacks with 19.

The signing of defensive end Derrick Shelby should help in that department. In nine starts for the Miami Dolphins last season, Shelby totaled 3.5 sacks, while breaking up four passes.

Nonetheless, the big signing for Atlanta was center Alex Mack.

Atlanta’s offensive line was already pretty good, but now it could be potentially great.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff understands the magnitude of this addition.

“We knew we needed to add an established presence along our offensive line,” Dimitroff stressed. “Alex is a three-time pro bowler and is an ideal scheme fit for our offense. We understand the importance of solidifying the center position and we have been able to do that today. We are pleased to be able to add Alex to our roster and believe he will be an anchor to our line.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Grade – B

Key acquisitions – LB Robert Ayers, LB Daryl Smith, G J.R. Sweezy, CB Brent Grimes 

Key retentions – RB Doug Martin

Key loss – G Logan Mankins

In the wake of Mankins retirement, Tampa Bay found his replacement in J.R. Sweezy. Now, Sweezy won’t be able to completely replace the production of Mankins, but he’s shown flashes of being a great run blocker at the very least. Having said that, Sweezy is too inconsistent.

There was tons of chatter over whether or not Doug Martin would stay in Florida after his resurgence. Well, the speculation can end now after Martin agreed to an five-year, $35 million deal.

For such a young promising team, Tampa Bay added veterans such as Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes, who should all have immediate impacts.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.