The NFC South figures to be one of the most exciting divisions in football next year, from the Buccaneers’ attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions to the Saints’ attempt to replace Drew Brees in New Orleans. We could see future franchise quarterbacks drafted in Atlanta and Carolina, making this a particularly pivotal offseason for each team. Entering the offseason, the Saints were in one of the tightest cap squeezes in recent memory, while the Falcons weren’t in much better shape. The Panthers had a bit of room to play with for year two of the Matt Rhule era, and Tampa Bay had its limited space quickly eaten by re-signing several marquee free agents. Through the first few weeks of free agency, how many of 2020’s snaps has each team brought back?
(Roster moves through March 27)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Offensive Snaps Returning: 92.82% (second in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Returning: 94.72% (first in NFL)
The Buccaneers have brought the entire band back. Re-signing nearly every one of their key free agents, particularly LB Lavonte David (99.34% of snaps), LB Shaq Barrett (77.33%) and TE Rob Gronkowski (75.30%), Tampa Bay becomes the first Super Bowl winners to bring back all 22 starters. They’ve also resisted the urge to clear large amounts of cap space by cutting OT Donovan Smith or DE Jason Pierre-Paul. As a result, the reigning champs get to run it back with the benefit of a full offseason program.
New Orleans Saints
Offensive Snaps Returning: 73.67% (19th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Returning: 71.78% (16th in NFL)
Facing a roster that was nearly $75 million over the salary cap even before any moves and the retirement of their long-time face of the franchise, the Saints have managed to keep a surprising amount of the team together despite some predictions that anything not bolted down would go. While their salary cap gymnastics aren’t the focus here, they managed to retain both Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to stabilize the QB position next year, but also have kept some secondary pieces in Marcus Williams and P.J. Williams (no relation). Of course, QB Drew Brees (66.57% of snaps) is the main casualty here. Unfortunately for the Saints, a good amount of depth made it out the door as well. CB Janoris Jenkins (76.96%), WR Emmanuel Sanders (51.90%) and LG Nick Easton (52.27%) were all cap casualties, while DE Trey Hendrickson (53.35%), TE Jared Cook (43.27%) and DT Sheldon Rankins (39.67%) escaped in free agency. The team will find out quickly whether Hill or Winston can elevate the talent around them.
Offensive Snaps Returning: 67.62% (26th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Returning: 64.98% (25th in NFL)
A year after turning over an unprecedented amount of their roster, Matt Rhule and his staff are back at it again. Granted, it’s to a lesser extent, but the team has its work cut out for them to build cohesiveness and unity on the bottom half of the roster. Losing a pair of big-time players in the secondary in S Tre Boston (97.92% of snaps) and CB Rasul Douglas (77.53%) might sting the most, but a few contributing front defenders in DE Efe Obada (39.19%), LB Tahir Whitehead (37.58%) and DE Stephen Weatherly (33.81%) will also need to be replaced. On the offensive side, guard Chris Reed quietly played 86.45% of snaps last season and could still re-sign later, but for now joins WR Curtis Samuel (63.79%), RB Mike Davis (56.05%) and TE Chris Manhertz (48.69%) as the most notable absences. The Panthers clearly have some pieces to build around, but making the most of their draft and their depth-focused free agent signings will be key to take the next step into playoff contention.
Offensive Snaps Returning: 72.30% (20th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Returning: 64.22% (26th in NFL)
With the number four overall pick in the upcoming draft, it’s going to be extremely tempting for the Falcons to take Matt Ryan’s heir apparent, but taking a QB to sit on the bench will put a lot of stress on the rest of the new additions to fill in this roster. Atlanta has taken a sizeable hit to the offensive line, watching C Alex Mack (86.55% of snaps), OG James Carpenter (73.64%) and OT Matt Gono (30.01%) leave, while TE Luke Stocker (44.79%) and RB Todd Gurley (45.15%) remain unsigned. The defensive side of the ball has seen even more turnover, with a large secondary overhaul failing to return safeties Keanu Neal (84.84%), Ricardo Allen (55.91%), Sharrod Neasman (26.71%) and Damontae Kazee (22.27%) nor cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard (40.39%) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (22.37%). All together, it’s a large defensive change for what was the fourth-worst total defense in 2020, even before considering DL losses in Steven Means (59.43%), Allen Bailey (39.19%) and Charles Harris (26.71%).
SEE ALSO: Snaps Lost archive