NFL Free Agency Updates: NFC South

NFL Free Agency Updates: NFC South

Zack Goodrow, Sports Editor

Before the NFL season starts on Sept. 10, Lanthorn Sports will be recapping keys moves of the off-season while breaking down where teams now sit after the initial free agency period. Today, we will be recapping the NFC North.   

ATLANTA FALCONS: It seems like the Atlanta Falcons are still recovering from their Super Bowl defeat in the 2016 season. The Falcons have missed the playoffs the past two seasons and finished at 7-9 last year. Atlanta’s inability to sneak into the playoffs as of late has been frustrating for fans. The offense includes former MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and star wide receiver Julio Jones that led the team to the fifth-ranked offense in the league in yards. Most of the Falcons’ struggles came on defense, where the unit ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed and points scored.

On a high note, Atlanta finished the season 6-2 and have expectations of turning the franchise around after the draft and free agency. If not, head coach Dan Quinn might be shown the door.

On offense, the Falcons made sure to address the running back position. In 2019, Atlanta ranked 30th in yards gained on the ground. Even with former Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman leading the way, the Falcons struggled to generate anything in their rushing attack. This led the team to release Freeman and bring in former offensive player of the year, RB Todd Gurley.

Gurley struggled last season with the Los Angeles Rams as he only gained 857 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games. Gurley saw his workload diminish as he struggled with arthritis in his left knee. He was released by the Rams this offseason and signed with the Falcons for $6 million. While there might be risks concerning Gurley’s health, the upside to this signing is tremendous as he can make this offense more dynamic. 

Tight End Austin Hooper departed from Atlanta to join the Cleveland Browns. Without one of Ryan’s favorite targets and a starting tight end, the Falcons traded a second round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for TE Hayden Hurst. Hurst has yet to live up to his first-round pick status and he caught only 30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. Hurst was stuck behind two solid tight ends on the Ravens roster and only started four games last year. In Atlanta, he has the potential to burst onto the NFL landscape as he tries to replace Hooper’s production. 

The Falcons also made several moves to improve their defense. Atlanta re-signed defensive tackle Tyeler Davison to a three-year, $12 million deal after his first season with the team. In 2019, Davison recorded 55 tackles with a sack starting on the defensive line. In the secondary, Atlanta signed former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback and MSU star Darqueze Dennard to a one year deal to compete for a starting position. 

The biggest signing Atlanta made was bringing in EDGE rusher Dante Fowler in on a three-year, $48 million contract. Fowler has struggled to vindicate his third overall selection in 2016 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He struggled with injuries and his play on the field until 2019. With the Los Angeles Ram,s he had a career year, recording 58 tackles and 11.5 sacks. In the draft, the Falcons selected Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with their first round pick. Terrell was thought of as a reach with other quality cornerbacks still available, but he has the potential to be solid in the secondary for years to come in Atlanta. 

The Falcons made several additions all around the roster. It will be tough for them to get back into the playoffs this year, with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers gearing for a Super Bowl run. The offense includes all first round picks as starters, and still has Ryan and Jones leading the team. Even with the additions on defense, it may not provide enough to slow down opposing offense. It may be another tough year in Atlanta. STOCK NEUTRAL. 

CAROLINA PANTHERS: The Carolina Panthers are hardly recognizable anymore. Before the end of the 2019 season, head coach Ron Rivera was fired after nine seasons with the team. Head coach Matt Rhule signed a seven-year, $62 million contract to lead the Panthers. During his tenure at Baylor University, Rhule turned around the program and will now be tasked with doing the same in Carolina. 

There are many new faces in Carolina as this rebuild begins, as several players from Rivera’s regime have departed. QB Cam Newton was released during the offseason. QB Kyle Allen was traded to Washington after he started last season. TE Greg Olsen was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.  Pro Bowl offensive guard Trai Turner was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Defensive ends Mario Addison and Vernon Butler signed with the Buffalo Bills. Former defensive player of the year, linebacker Luke Kuechly, retired because of concussion issues. In the secondary, cornerback James Bradberry signed with the New York Giants and safety Eric Reid wasn’t re-signed. 

QB Teddy Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million contract to be the new face of the franchise. After tearing his ACL in 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings, Bridgewater has spent the past two seasons with the New Orleans Saints as their backup quarterback. He started five games last season and threw for 1,384 yard, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, and went 5-0. WR Robby Anderson was brought into the fold with a two-year, $20 million deal. In 2019, Anderson caught 52 catches for 779 yards and five catches. Anderson has shown flashes of being a number one receiver and can fulfill his potential if he develops chemistry with Bridgewater. 

The offense may be welcoming new faces, but the defense looks completely different. In the 2020 draft class, the Panthers selected all defensive players. They took big names like DT Derrick Brown from Auburn, EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos from Penn State, S Jeremy Chinn from Southern Illinois, and CB Troy Pride Jr. from Notre Dame. With no preseason games and a limited training camp, it will be difficult for the Panthers defense to perform well on the field. While they might struggle in 2020, all the young faces on defense have them on track to be great in the next few seasons. 

This year will be a tough one for the Carolina Panthers. They might be one of the worst teams in the league with a new coach, huge roster turnover and an abundance of rookies who will be playing in 2020. Carolina is also competing in one of the most difficult divisions in the league. While they might not be winning many games, there should be several flashes of greatness as the season progresses. It’s all about the future now in Carolina. 

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: The New Orleans Saints have arguably the best roster in the NFL. With no glaring weaknesses on the team, the Saints spent their offseason re-signing key players and rounding out depth roles. Starting DT David Onyemata re-signed with the Saints for a three-year, $27 million deal. Pro Bowl OT Andrus Peat stayed in New Orleans after receiving a five-year, $57.5 million contract. Most important of the re-signings, though, was making sure NFL career passing yards and touchdown leader returned to the Saints for at least one more season. Star QB Drew Brees signed a two-year, $50 million contract and 2020 may be his last season before retirement. 

Speaking of quarterbacks, New Orleans brought back Taysom Hill to a two-year, $21 million contract. The versatile quarterback-receiver hybrid is a unique player in head coach Sean Payton’s system. He’s used in the run and passing game, special teams, and under center. He may or may not be the future QB in New Orleans, but he will still be a versatile gadget player in 2020. QB Jameis Winston also signed with the Saints. The former first overall pick flamed out in Tampa Bay after his infamous 30 touchdown and 30 interception season in 2019. On an extremely cheap deal, one year for $1.1 million, he could benefit tremendously working with Brees and head coach Sean Payton. If he can limit his turnovers and make less mistakes, he could be the next starting quarterback for the Saints. This season, however, he should be a great backup in the league’s best quarterback room. 

WR Emmanuel Sanders signed a two-year, $16 million contract. Sanders will be an amazing number two receiver, complementing star WR Michael Thomas. Sanders caught 66 passes for 869 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2019. As a brand new weapon for Brees, Sanders should see his production increase with the loss of fellow receiver Ted Ginn Jr. The Saints offense should now be scarier than ever.   

With starting safety Vonn Bell leaving for Cincinnati, the Saints signed former Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins who started his career in New Orleans. Jenkins signed a four-year contract worth $32 million. The 32-year-old safety had a down season last year with the Philadelphia Eagles which led to his release. Jenkins may be declining, but he is unquestionably a great leader in the locker room and will be a vocal factor on this Saints team trying to win a Super Bowl once again this season. 

New Orleans only made four selections in the year’s NFL draft. With their first round pick, they selected Michigan center Cesar Ruiz. This pick was surprising, considering the Saints have a great offensive line. After this selection, the Saints released guard Larry Warford who made the Pro Bowl last season. This move was most likely to save money and add more speed to the offensive line. New Orleans also selected Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun in the third round. He may not start much this season, but he has the potential to be a key player in this defense for years to come. 

The NFC South may be tough, but it’s the Saints division to lose. They will look to win the division for the fourth year in a row. With an excellent roster, outstanding coaching staff, and new weapons for Brees to throw too, the Saints will likely be atop of the division once again. STOCK UP.   

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went all in this off-season. Signing arguably the greatest quarterback of all time wasn’t enough for head coach Bruce Arians and company, but they also had to bring back an all-time great tight end out of retirement.  

QB Tom Brady signed a two-year, $50 million contract. In 2019, Brady threw for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions. While his play has declined in the past two seasons and his arm strength will continue to decrease, Brady might have a chance to have a big season with more offensive weapons in Tampa Bay. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were two of the best receivers last season playing with Jameis Winston. Even though Brady won’t be chucking the ball downfield at the rate Winston did, the duo should improve with smarter quarterback play and better accuracy. 

TE Rob Gronkowski was also brought into the fold and came out of retirement to play with Brady once again. Gronk last played in the league during the 2018 season and has slimmed down in his lone season off. He could be injury-prone and has been given a smaller role with the Buccaneers, but he also has the potential to be faster and more dynamic with a smaller frame. RB LeSean McCoy was also brought in on a one-year deal. McCoy might be a factor in the passing game as Brady loves to throw to his running backs, but chances are more likely that the 32-year-old McCoy doesn’t have much left in the tank. 

Tampa Bay spent the rest of the off-season retaining pieces of their defense that improved tremendously last season. EDGE Shaquille Barrett was given the franchise tag after he led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2019. EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul signed a two-year, $27 million deal after recording 8.5 sacks last season. DT Ndamukong Suh re-signed with a two-year, $27 million deal. All three of these players should help retain a defense that ranked first in the league in rushing defense. 

In the draft, Tampa Bay selected OT Tristan Wirf from Iowa with their first round pick. The Buccaneers traded up to make sure Brady would be protected on the edge. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. from Minnesota was selected in the second round. Winfield Jr. slipped out of the first round, but he’s a dynamic player who should start in 2020. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn was taken in the third round out of Vanderbilt. He should compete with RB Ronald Jones for playing time, but a rookie who might not be able to pass block very well may not be on the field much with Brady. 

The Buccaneers are the biggest conundrum in the NFL. They could be a Super Bowl contending team, or they could fall down the standings with an aging quarterback. Time will only tell, but there’s no debate they have improved this offseason. STOCK UP.