Free Agency Diary

NFC South Free Agency Preview

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The NFC South is a division of haves and have nots. The haves are the NFC champion Carolina Panthers who could be even better in 2016, and the have nots are the rest of the division who are just trying to get into the playoff picture.

The New Orleans Saints once again find themselves with very little room to work on improving their team when it comes to salary cap space, while the Atlanta Falcons have a nice amount of money to spend, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers once again have a ton of cap space for when the opening bell rings on free agency 2016.

Atlanta Falcons

Team needs: Center, Tight End, Defensive End, Linebacker, Cornerback

The Atlanta Falcons offense is pretty strong, and while you could argue that they could use a little more depth at receiver, center and tight end are much bigger needs for the offense. Defensively, the team could use help all over the place. They’re going to have to replace Justin Durant, who they just released, and they could use some more depth at cornerback. The most glaring need defensively is still at pass rusher, even though the team spent their first-round pick last season on Vic Beasley.

Top target that would make sense: Bruce Irvin, linebacker, Seattle

He isn’t one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about great pass rushers, but Bruce Irvin is a versatile linebacker who would fit right into Falcons’ head coach and former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme. Irvin provides exactly the kind of attitude and energy that Quinn would love to add to the Atlanta defense.

Other potential targets: Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Robert Ayers, DE, New York Giants; Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts; Marcedes Lewis, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Sean Smith is the kind of long, physical cornerback that Quinn covets, and Robert Ayers is coming off of a strong season in New York. Both players would be obvious fits for a defense that needs to improve, and either Marcedes Lewis and Coby Fleener could be the answer the team needs at tight end.

Carolina Panthers

Team needs: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety, O-line

These are more like luxury items than team needs for the Carolina Panthers, because there are no glaring holes on this football team. Many of us spent the season arguing that Carolina was pedestrian at wide receiver without Kelvin Benjamin, but after what they accomplished without him, you could almost argue they’re pretty good at the position with his return. The offensive line and defensive backfield could be strengthened, but considering how often this team runs the ball and the fact that Jonathan Stewart isn’t getting any younger, finding another dynamic running back could be an offseason priority.

Top target that would make sense: Doug Martin, running back, Tampa Bay

This would be pretty pie in the sky for Carolina fans, as there’s a good chance Doug Martin remains with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but stealing a talent like Martin from a division opponent that’s chasing you would be quite the coup for the Panthers. Martin brings the kind of hard-nosed running that the “keep pounding” crowd would really appreciate, while simultaneously crushing the souls of a division rival’s fan base.

Other potential targets: Eric Weddle, S, San Diego; Alfred Morris, RB, Washington; cornerbacks galore

There are a bunch of talented cornerbacks potentially hitting the open market, and you could see guys like Leon Hall (Cincinnati Bengals), William Gay (Pittsburgh Steelers) or Sterling Moore (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) being very good fits in Carolina. While Josh Norman isn’t going anywhere, the unit could use more depth. Considering the Panthers likely won’t go too hard after a guy like Doug Martin, Alfred Morris makes a lot of sense as a complementary back, and Eric Weddle would be an unbelievable upgrade if Carolina signed him up to play safety.

New Orleans Saints

Team Needs: D-line, O-line, Cornerback, Tight end, wide receiver

The New Orleans Saints aren’t a bad football team, but let’s just say there’s a lot of places they could get better. The Saints need some depth on the interior offensive line and all over the defense. Somehow a team that went just 7-9 last season is supposed to get a lot better with very little cap room. That should be interesting.

Top target that would make sense: Sean Smith, cornerback, Kansas City

Like a lot of teams, the New Orleans Saints would really love to find a pass rusher, but of the few that are actually going to shake free, there aren’t many that really jump off the page at you. Jason Pierre-Paul will likely be the most talented pass rusher on the market, but it’s going to be very difficult to be the team that strokes the big check to a guy with as many question marks as he’s going to have. The Saints won’t be able to stroke many big checks, and if they do at all, it needs to be for more of a sure thing, and that’s exactly what Smith is. He’s a big, physical cornerback that would make an immediate impact in New Orleans.

Other potential targets: William Gay, CB, Pittsburgh; George Selvie, DE, NY Giants; Brandon Mebane, Seattle.

William Gay is the kind of veteran leader that the Saints defense could really use, but much like the case will probably be with Smith, I suspect that teams with more cap room may outspend them. As is the case with the cornerbacks, teams with cap space are looking for the top tier defensive linemen on the market. If the Saints are lucky, perhaps they sneak away with a couple of guys like George Selvie and or Brandon Mebane who could be solid rotational upgrades.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Team needs: Defensive end, Cornerback, Safety, O-line

The needle is pointing upward for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team has a franchise quarterback for the first time in eternity, and they’ve got a strong nucleus of young players to build around and a ton of cap money to build around them with. General Manager Jason Licht has already warned Bucs fans the team may not be spending big money on top-tier free agents, but don’t be surprised if the team adds as many as three defensive backs in the free agent market.

Top target that would make sense: Eric Weddle, Safety, San Diego

As much as the Buccaneers need help at defensive end and cornerback, Eric Weddle might be the best player at a glaring position of need for Tampa Bay. The team has the cap room to drastically change the defense before 2016, and signing Weddle, a pair of solid corners (and there are quite a few out there), and a mid-level defensive end, they could enter the draft with enough depth to select the best player available to them with the 9th-overall pick come April 28th.

Other potential targets: Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City; George Iloka, S, Cincinnati; Robert Ayers, DE, NY Giants; Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati

The Buccaneers pass defense was atrocious last season, and while their offseason plan may not be as aggressive as the one I’ve laid out for them, don’t be surprised if they’re sniffing around a lot of defensive backs and defensive ends. Veteran corners like Sean Smith, Leon Hall, and a cast of others make a ton of sense for Tampa Bay, and you can expect them to be reaching out to all of the best pass rushers available. Robert Ayers is a guy whose effort shined through last season, and makes a ton of sense for a Mike Smith led defense. The Bucs have so many positive things going under Dirk Koetter offensively, if they can spend that cap space this offseason turning around the defense, Tampa Bay will surprise some people in 2016.

The NFC South is an interesting division, but the reality is the have nots will likely be battling for 2nd-place in 2016, because the Panthers are the most talented team in the division, and that likely won’t change in a year.


About Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.