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Offseason Outlook: NFC South

All four teams in the NFC South have quarterback listed here as a team need, to varying degrees. The reigning Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers eventually need to think ahead to life after Tom Brady. The need is slightly more pressing for the other three teams.

Here’s a preview of what lies ahead during the offseason for the NFC South:

Atlanta Falcons

Estimated Cap Space: ($17.3M)

Draft Picks: 4 (Rd. 1), 35 (Rd. 2), 68 (Rd. 3), 99 (Rd. 4), 132 (Rd. 5), 163 (Rd. 6)

Needs: DE, QB, CB, RB

Although the Falcons appear to be on the verge of rebuilding, they are still substantially invested in their top two earners, QB Matt Ryan (played 99.11% of snaps in 2020) and WR Julio Jones (41.67%). Ryan will be 36 at the start of next season and is under contract for three more seasons. He is set to earn over $46 million through 2022, while carrying a current dead cap hit of $49.9 million and a dead hit of $26.5 million if released next offseason. Jones is also signed through 2023 and will earn nearly $27 million the next two seasons. He also carries substantial dead cap hits of $38.6 million if released this offseason and $15.5 million if released next. Trading both players will incur the same dead cap hits.

I do not think either player should be part of their long-term retooling. I suspect they will both be back next season because those write-offs are just too overwhelming. They cannot justify taking on a larger cap hit to not have the player around, but I think we are only a year away from both of them being gone. With that said, I would be intrigued with the quarterbacks in this draft if I were them, sitting with the fourth overall pick. They will be interesting to watch to determine where some of these quarterbacks end up going.

On defense, they ranked 23rd in the NFL with 29 sacks. Charles Harris (26.71%) and Steven Means (59.43%), who helped drive their pass rush, are both free agents. Takk McKinley (7.86%) was waived after having his fifth-year option declined. I think this is emblematic of their bigger problems as a franchise. They have had talented players and good coaching, but I do not believe they have driven their personnel decisions in a manner that reflects the more successful teams. That starts with the offensive and defensive lines. Even looking at their former head coach, Dan Quinn, his philosophy on defense is to dominate with a strong defensive line, so that never really made sense to me. I think this has to be a reoriented focus for them in this draft and moving forward. Their new general manager, Terry Fontenot, is coming from New Orleans, where they have valued the defensive line, so I do expect a philosophy change here.

In the back-end of their defense, they already moved on from S Ricardo Allen (55.91%) and have CB Darqueze Dennard (40.39%) and S Keanu Neal (84.84%) entering free agency. They have to prioritize keeping Neal. They spent a first-round pick on him in 2016, and he is only going to be 26 at the start of next season. The quality players that they think can contribute meaningfully in 2-3 years are the guys they need to bring back to build around as they get their cap aligned.

Fifth-Year Option: Hayden Hurst (69.99%) and Calvin Ridley (73.20%)

I commend the Falcons for being open about some of the challenges Hurst has faced. They gave up a lot for him, so I think if they are comfortable with that, he will be a guy they look to bring back. They have to bring back Ridley. They believe in having difference-making receivers, and he proved he can be a good No. 1 receiver when they eventually move on from Jones.

Carolina Panthers

Estimated Cap Space: $32.7M

Draft Picks: 8 (Rd 1), 39 (Rd 2), 73 (Rd 3), 104 (Rd 4), 135 (Rd 5), 169 (Rd 6)

Needs: OL, CB, TE, QB

Everything for Carolina starts with their decision at quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater (89.84%) has two seasons under contract, but I think their actions indicate they want to find the next guy. He is due nearly $40 million the next two seasons and only carries a $10 million dead cap hit if cut before this season. I would assume that this is a decision they will try to solve in the draft, whether that is with the eighth pick or they try to move up.

Beyond that, they have been very busy creating cap space to start the offseason. They released DT Kawann Short (11.61%), DE Stephen Weatherly (33.81%), and S Tre Boston (97.92%). They also restructured C Matt Paradis (99.71%). The moves created over $20 million in cap space. That could indicate a move at quarterback, but they have a flurry of their own guys to re-sign. Along the offensive line, RT Taylor Moton (100%) has to be a priority to re-sign. They also have LG Chris Reed (86.45%), RG John Miller (88.19%) and LT Russell Okung (39.40%) entering free agency. They did draft all defense last draft, so between signing some of their own offensive linemen and finding some guys in the draft, this should be something they can stabilize. If they do this right, they could have a solid offensive line, or they could be really starting from scratch.

If they are committing to a young quarterback and expect to be successful relatively soon, this is a huge problem. A good offensive line is the most probable way a young quarterback will have success for two reasons: 1) It gives them slightly longer in the pocket, scanning the field; and 2) A really good offensive line gives you the best chance to successfully run and pass.

Fifth-Year Option: D.J. Moore (80.93%)

Moore will be given his option because he has been productive, but they have interesting decisions to make at wide receiver. Robby Anderson (77.93%) only has a season left and Curtis Samuel (63.79%) is scheduled to be a free agent.

New Orleans Saints

Estimated Cap Space: ($60.2M)

Draft Picks: 28 (Rd 1), 60 (Rd 2), 124 (Rd 4)

Needs: QB, DL, TE, DB

This is another team whose offseason will be dictated with what they decide at quarterback. I imagine Drew Brees (66.57%) is retiring, so I think the most probable outcome is some sort of a platoon with Taysom Hill (43.92%), who is under contract for one more season, and Jameis Winston (5.01%), who is a free agent. With not much draft capital and lack of cap space, I think their options here are severely limited, unless they have conviction with a sleeper that may be there at 28.

Over the past few seasons, they have been all-in on trying to win a Super Bowl. They only had four draft picks last year and currently only have three picks for the 2021 draft. They also have borrowed cap dollars substantially from future years and with the cap going down this year, that philosophy has caught up with them.

I think part of the reason this has become such an accelerated issue for them is because of how productive their 2017 draft class has been. S Marcus Williams (84.13%), LB Alex Anzalone (50.19%), and DE Trey Hendrickson (53.35%)are all now free agents from that class. They join DT Sheldon Rankins (39.67%), CB P.J. Williams (47.71%) and Winston as unrestricted free agents. I think Hendrickson is a particularly tough decision, because he had such a productive season last year. I typically don’t like signing decent players coming off monster seasons, but I think he should be a priority, even if that costs them Marcus Williams. He could be vital in maintaining their strong d-line as guys like Cam Jordan begin to age.

The biggest problem, outside of quarterback, remains the Saints’ current cap space. I imagine Kwon Alexander (33.46%) will be let go, saving $26 million over the next two seasons. They also have both RT Ryan Ramczyk (96.47%) and CB Marshon Lattimore (83.27%) coming back on relatively substantial one-year deals. I am not the biggest Lattimore fan, and he is going to demand significant money, so I am less sure about extending him long-term, but Ramszyk is certainly someone I would extend to lower his 2021 cap hit. They are also going to need to convert some salaries to signing bonuses for some of their core pieces to lower cap hits with guys like WR Michael Thomas (32.03%), DT Cam Jordan (78.01%), and RB Alvin Kamara (61.19%). They have a lot of work to do to get under the cap and that will involve some cuts and some restructuring, along with not being able to bring back all the free agents they would want to.

Fifth-Year Option: Marcus Davenport (35.76%)

They traded a lot to go up and get him, so I certainly expect them to exercise his option and would not be surprised if they reached a long-term extension to help lower his cap in 2021 like I described above. If they bring back Hendrickson, he and Davenport have the potential to form a dynamic duo for years to come along their defensive line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Estimated Cap Space: $15M

Draft Picks: 32 (Rd 1), 64 (Rd 2), 96 (Rd 3), 128 (Rd 4), 160 (rd 5), 216 (Rd 7), 224 (Rd 7)

Needs: DE, OT, IDL, TE, QB

The first question with Tampa is how they can afford to bring back some of their pending free agents, beginning with WR Chris Godwin (62.91%) and OLB Shaq Barrett (77.33%). I imagine they will try to extend both guys and would be happy to settle on the tag for one of them if they cannot get both re-signed. I know they value Godwin, but if they are unable to get either signed, I think the wiser decision is to tag Barrett for the second straight season. I am already a proponent of the value of defensive linemen being more impactful than receivers, but I also believe Barrett is more valuable for them due to the skill they already have in that receiver room. Mike Evans (79.78%) is under contract for three more seasons, and I think Antonio Brown (30.10%) returns to Tampa, due to his relationship with Tom Brady. The Bucs also have Scotty Miller (41.01%) and Tyler Johnson (24.60%) under contract on rookie deals.

After that, I think their next toughest decision is LB Lavonte David (99.34%). I understand he has been there since 2012 and has been a team captain, but I would have a hard time spending big money on a linebacker over 30, especially knowing Devin White (93.23%) will be eligible for his extension after next season. I think we have seen the value of linebackers that can cover increase significantly over the past 10 years, so I am not underestimating how big of a loss this would actually be for them.

To conclude, history suggests the teams that have the most success after winning a Super Bowl are not the teams that try to bring everyone back. It is better to be a little more selective and let guys go too soon, rather than too late. I think they should value re-signing some of their younger guys like DT Vita Vea (20.98%) and CB Carlton Davis (85.04%) over veteran free agents Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Ndamukong Suh that Tampa has as free agents. This has been a real historical trap and requires tough decisions.

Fifth-Year Option: Vita Vea (20.98%)

I have been impressed with his impact when he is on the field. I think they should exercise his option and consider a long-term deal. His value over the next couple seasons, I think, surpasses what a guy like Suh will give you.