In part four of this eight part divisional series we continue our trip to the NFL’s dirty south. My previous story talked about the recent goings on the AFC South. Now, we switch over to the NFC’s Southern Division.
To say it was an awkward year for the division would be an understatement. Every team in the south finished with a losing record, a rarity in today’s National Football League. The Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) only made the playoffs because they won the division championship, otherwise they would have remained at home in January.
The New Orleans Saints (7-9) struggled defensively as they gave up 30 or more points seven times in 2014. The Atlanta Falcons (6-10) sustained their second straight losing season which cost Mike Smith his head coaching job.
As for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14), year one under Lovie Smith was a year that many would like to forget. Every team in this division could use improvement. Here are the biggest offseason moves within the NFC South…
If the Carolina Panthers hope to improve their win-loss record this year, they have some talent holes that need to be filled. They let defensive end Greg Hardy walk into free agency unabated. He signed a one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday.
Despite his legal troubles, Hardy is still one of the best pass rushers in the game. Dallas will now benefit from his 34 career sacks, 204 career tackles, and seven forced fumbles. Carolina is also pretty thin in the backfield.
They cut running back DeAngelo Williams due to salary cap concerns and injuries. But they have yet to replace him. The only other backs on the roster are halfback Jonathan Stewart, and fullback Mike Tolbert.
Stewart has only played 29 games since 2012 due to various nagging injuries over the years. Since then, the former Oregon standout has only rushed for 1,444 yards and five touchdowns. Tolbert also got bit by the injury bug last season as he only played in six contests.
The Panthers were a mostly one dimensional passing team because of the lack of depth at the running back position. If Carolina wants to win another division crown this year, they need to find a stud pass rusher and restock the talent in the backfield.
Even though the Saints issues were mostly on the defensive side of the ball last season, this year their biggest move thus far has been on the offensive side of the ball. Last week, the Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle for center Max Unger and the Seahawks fourth round pick in this year’s draft.
Before the 2014 campaign began, New Orleans signed Graham to a four-year, $40 million contract with $21 million guaranteed. This made him the highest paid tight end in the NFL. And the former Miami Hurricane earned that money with 85 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also averaged 10.5 yards per reception.
This appears to be strictly a salary cap move more than anything else. Trading Graham and his mega contract allowed the Saints to sign new running back C.J. Spiller, re-sign running back Mark Ingram, and add defensive back Brandon Browner who just won Super Bowl 49 with New England.
These moves by the Saints front office are understandable, but it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to replace Graham’s numbers and production.
The Atlanta Falcons are in rebuilding mode to some degree. They hired former Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Dan Quinn to be the new head coach, they cut unproductive and injury prone running back Steven Jackson, and they’re in an uphill battle to re-sign defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
But they have made some moves to try and better the team. They re-signed wide receiver Eric Weems, running back Antone Smith, and backup quarterback T.J. Yates. They also boosted their defensive talent pool by adding defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield, linebacker Justin Durant, and safety Charles Godfrey.
The Falcons are not done making moves and it will be interesting to see how their roster fills out.
The Bucs were one of the worst teams in the league last year. Head coach Lovie Smith dispatched quarterback Josh McCown and is retooling his roster. The Bucs are expected to use the number one overall pick in this year’s draft on Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.
So far, the Bucs have amped up their defense in free agency. Lovie Smith re-signed Major Wright who played for Smith in Chicago from 2010-2012, then joined Tampa Bay last season. He also added another former Bear in safety in Chris Conte, as well as former Bears defensive lineman Henry Melton.
It’s rumored that Smith is expected to reach out another pair of former Bears in linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. Tillman met with the Bucs front office last offseason but opted to stay in Chicago. This time around that could change.
The Bears have already parted ways with Briggs. They both may be aging and their skills diminishing, but they would make at least temporary cornerstones as the Buccaneers try to find themselves again.
Expect the tide to turn in the AFC South this coming season.