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The NFC South features three serious contenders that can all put big points on the board. Last season the Falcons, Saints, and Panthers all reached the playoffs, and the Buccaneers are expected to show improvement. All four teams made vital offseason moves to set the stage for a highly competitive season in the NFC South.
Even though the Atlanta Falcons were not able to replicate their 2016 season success last year, they were still able to post a 10-6 record followed by a playoff win over the Rams. They did not make any substantial offseason moves, but Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff took the right steps to ensure another highly competitive season.
Justin Bethel: The Falcons added depth to their cornerback corps with the signing of Justin Bethel to a one-year deal. The three-time Pro Bowler made 29 tackles and one interception in 16 games with the Cardinals last season, and he is also a great asset on special teams.
Brandon Fusco: The Falcons signed the offensive lineman to a three-year, $12.75 million deal in the offseason. The 29-year-old right guard played in all 16 games with the 49ers last season, and he compliments a strong offensive line.
Logan Paulson: Atlanta signed the 31-year-old tight end to a one-year deal. Paulson did not make any receptions last year with the 49ers, and he will primarily be used in a blocking role. Austin Hooper will remain the Falcons primary tight-end.
Taylor Gabriel: While not a huge loss, the 27-year-old wide receiver did register 33 receptions on 51 targets for 378 yards last season.
Adrian Clayborn: The veteran defensive end departed for New England after spending the last three seasons with the Falcons. Clayborn collected 9.5 sacks last season, and his departure could sting. The Falcons are counting on Takkarist McKinley to step up in place of Clayborn. McKinley recorded six sacks and 20 tackles last season.
Dontari Poe: The 27-year-old nose tackle left Atlanta for division rival Carolina in the offseason. Poe made 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season.
Levine Toilolo: The tight end had only made 12 catches for 122 yards last season, but he is mostly known for his strong blocking abilities. The signing of Logan Paulsen will offset the loss of Toilolo.
Falcons Draft Recap
First Round, 26th overall: Calvin Ridley WR: Ridley will be another weapon in Matt Ryan’s arsenal. The 23-year-old wide receiver was Alabama’s go-to receiver last season under Nick Saban. Ridley brought in 967 receiving yards for an average of 15.3 yards per reception in 2017. He should make an immediate impact.
Second Round, 58th overall: Isaiah Oliver CB: The Falcons already feature a talented cornerback corps led by Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford which made this pick a slight surprise. The 21-year-old cornerback made one interception and deflected 12 passes with the Colorado Buffaloes in the PAC-12 last season.
Third Round, 90th overall: Deadrin Senat DT: The 23-year-old defensive tackle made 66 tackles with the USF Bulls last season.
Falcons Recap: The Falcons most significant move of the offseason came in the form of a lucrative 5-year, $150 million contract extension awarded to Matt Ryan. The 33-year-old quarterback accumulated 4095 passing yards with a 20:12 TD to INT ratio last season. Julio Jones did not attend Falcons’ mini-camp in June as he is seeking an updated contract. The superstar wide receiver has three years remaining on his contract. Atlanta's offense should more closely resemble their 2016 season after ranking 15th in the NFL in points per game last season.
The Carolina Panthers added to their receiving corps in the offseason; however, it remains to be seen if it will be enough to give them an edge over the talented Saints and Falcons in this tough division. Carolina was able to go 11-5 last season, and they were ousted in the first round by the Saints.
Torrey Smith: The Panthers traded Daryl Worley to the Eagles in exchange for Torrey Smith. The 29-year old wide receiver had a solid 2017 season with the Eagles, recording 430 receiving yards with an average of 11.9 yards per reception. Smith will add depth to a deep receiving group that features Devin Funchess and tight-end Greg Olson.
Ross Cockrell: The Panthers had a deal to sign cornerback Baushaud Breeland; however, he failed his physical resulting in the signing of Ross Cockrell. The 26-year-old cornerback made three interceptions and a combined 50 tackles in 16 games with the Giants last season. Cockrell will help fill the void left behind with the departure of Daryl Worley.
Dontari Poe: The 27-year-old nose tackle signed a three-year deal with Carolina in the offseason. Poe will improve an already talented defense, and he will be a force alongside Kawann Short. Poe made 2.5 sacks and 39 combined tackles with the Falcons last season, but takes up a ton of space and almost always commands a double-team.
Da’Norris Searcy: The 29-year-old safety inked a two-year deal as a free agent. Searcy only made one interception last season, but Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has high hopes for the safety. Searcy was used primarily in a depth role last season; however, he is expected to step into the spotlight with a more substantial role this season.
Jeremiah Sirles: The Panthers signed Jeremiah Sirles to a one year deal. The 26-year-old offensive tackle adds much-needed depth to the offensive line after Norwell departed in free agency.
Andrew Norwell: The loss of Andrew Norwell to free-agency is perhaps the Panthers’ biggest offseason loss. The 26-year-old guard signed a five-year, $66.5 million deal with the Jaguars, making him one of the highest-paid guards in the NFL. Amini Silatolu will be Norwell’s replacement.
Star Lotulelei: The talented veteran defensive tackle departed to Buffalo as a free agent. The Panthers will likely utilize 2016 first round pick Vernon Butler in his place, and they also feature Kyle Love who had 3.5 sacks last season. While losing Lotulelei stings, the Panthers have enough talent to fill the void.
Kurt Coleman: The Panthers released the eight-year veteran before division rival New Orleans signed him. The 30-year-old safety missed four games due to injury last season, and he finished the year with 76 combined tackles; however, he did not record an interception. Da’Norris Searcy was signed to replace Coleman.
Jonathan Stewart: The Panthers parted ways with Jonathan Stewart after ten outstanding seasons with the franchise. The Panthers will lean on second-year running back Christian McCaffery in a prominent role this season. McCaffery had a tremendous rookie year, rushing for 435 yards on 117 carries, and he also tallied 651 receiving yards on 80 catches.
Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera has a new set of coaches to work with this season. The Panthers added Norv Turner as the new offensive coordinator in place of Mike Shula. Turner brings extensive experience to the fold which included two Super Bowl wins with the Cowboys. He last served as the Vikings offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2016.
Carolina also promoted defensive line coach Eric Washington to defensive coordinator. Lastly, the Panthers added Chase Blackburn as the new special initially drafted coordinator after he was the assistant special teams coach the last few seasons.
First Round, 24th overall DJ Moore WR: DJ Moore adds depth to a receiving core that already features Torrey Smith and Devin Funchess. Moore will likely slide in as the number three receiver after collecting 1033 passing yards on 80 receptions with Maryland of the Big-10 last season. He has been compared to DeAndre Hopkins by some scouts.
Second Round, 55th overall: Donte Jackson DB: The 22-year old defensive back had continually season with LSU, amassing 48 tackles to go with deflected nine passes. The Panthers filled some holes at cornerback with the signing of Ross Cockrell and continued with the pick of Jackson who should evolve into a solid corner.
Third Round, 85th overall: Rashaan Gaulden S: The 23-year-old cornerback only made one interception for the Tennessee Volunteers last season; however, he did have a combined 63 tackles.
The Panthers added to their receiving core through free-agency and in the draft which counters the loss of Kelvin Benjamin who was traded last season. Carolina lost a few key pieces on defense; however, it's still a very talented unit. Besides, Cam Newton will have several capable options at his disposal on offense. The Panthers will be in the hunt for a division title again this season.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints enjoyed a highly competitive 2017 season that resulted in a first-place finish in the NFC South with an 11-5 record, and they came one play short of a trip to the NFC Championship game. Their high-octane offense did not need any tweaking, and Saints’ GM Mickey Loomis did a good job filling some needs on defense.
Kurt Coleman: The Saints snagged safety Kurt Coleman in free agency from division rival Carolina. The 30-year old safety missed four games with an ankle injury last season, and he wasn’t quite 100% for a good portion of the season. He still finished with 76 combined tackles but did not have an interception. Coleman is a talented defensive player that should help the Saints against the tough offensive opponents in the NFC South.
Patrick Robinson: The Saints originally drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson in the first round in the 2010 draft and decided to bring him back via free agency after making four interceptions and 18 deflected passes with the Eagles last season. The 30-year-old cornerback is great in the slot, and he will be replacing Kenny Vaccaro who has yet to find a new team as a free agent.
Demario Davis: The 29-year-old linebacker was signed to a three-year, $24 million deal. This was a stellar upgrade by Saints GM Micky Loomis as Davis is coming off a career-year with the Jets. Davis accumulated a combined 135 tackles with five sacks in 16 games in 2017. Davis will be a starter and his presence will provide a positive impact.
Zach Strief: Offensive tackle Zach Strief retired as injuries constantly hampered his career. Strief joined the Saints back in the 2006 season, and he only played two games last season due to injury.
Senio Kelemete: The 28-year-old offensive lineman saw plenty of action with New Orleans last season due to injuries along the Saints offensive line. His loss won’t be felt if the Saints offensive line can stay healthy after an injured-plagued 2017 season.
Rafael Bush: The 31-year-old safety signed with the Bills after spending five of his seven NFL seasons with the Saints. His departure is not viewed as a big loss as he was the Saints’ number four receiver last season.
First Round, 14th Overall: Marcus Davenport DE: The Saints needed an edge-rusher, and they are confident they filled that need with the pick of Marcus Davenport out of the University of Texas San Antonio of the C-USA conference. The defensive end is an excellent pass rusher, and he collected eight sacks and 55 combined tackles last season.
Third Round, 91st Overall: Tre’Quan Smith, WR: The 6-foot-2 wide receiver out of Central Florida put up big numbers last season, registering 1171 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 59 receptions. He will fit right in with a talented receiving corps; however, he will be down on the depth chart on a team that features Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn.
Fourth Round, 127th Overall: Rick Leonard OT: The 6-foot-7 offensive tackle out of Florida won’t be a starter this season, but he has all the tools to develop into a solid offensive lineman.
The Saints are well-positioned for another strong season, and they made an array of strong offseason moves. They took the necessary steps to upgrade a defense that already ranked 10th in the NFL. Scoring points will not be a problem, and it was not required to make any big moves on the offensive side. The Saints window to win is now with Drew Brees turning at 39 this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went a disappointing 6-10 last season due to defensive struggles which included a terrible pass defense that ranked last in the entire NFL. Bucs G.M. Jason Licht was busy in the offseason upgrading the defense.
Jason Pierre-Paul: The Buccaneers acquired Jason Pierre-Paul in a trade with the Giants for two draft picks. The 29-year-old defensive end is a premier edge rusher, and he will provide a much-needed boost and upgrade on defense. The two-time Pro Bowler tallied eight sacks with 68 tackles in 16 games last season.
Vinny Curry: The Buccaneers signed Super Bowl champion defensive end Vinny Curry after he was released by the Eagles for salary cap relief. The 30-year-old defensive end was inked to a three-year, $27 million deal. Curry registered 42 tackles and three sacks last season, and he will significantly update the Bucs’ pass-rushing capabilities
Beau Allen: The defensive overhaul continued with the signing of another former Eagle Beau Allen. The 26-year-old defensive tackle made a combined 20 tackles with one sack in 15 regular season games last year, and he also played in all three playoff games.
Ryan Jensen: G.M. Jason Licht upgraded the Bucs’ offensive line in a big way with the signing of center Ryan Jensen to a four-year, $42 million contract which made him the highest paid center in the league. The former Baltimore Raven is regarded as one of the premier centers in the NFL, and this also allows Ali Marpet to move back to left guard.
Clinton McDonald: The nine-year veteran defensive tackle signed a two-year deal with the Broncos after spending the last four seasons in Tampa Bay. McDonald notched five sacks last season.
Robert Ayers: The veteran defensive end had a total of 8.5 sacks in his two years with the Bucs, however, he was released due to the signing of Vinny Curry from the Eagles. Curry is considered an upgrade over Ayers.
Doug Martin: The Buccaneers decided to release Doug Martin in a move that did not come as a surprise. The veteran running back did have a few big seasons with Tampa Bay which included 1402 rushing yards in the 2015 season. The Bucs drafted Ronald Jones to fill the void at running back.
Buccaneers Draft Recap:
First Round, 12th overall: Vita Vea DT: While there is no doubting the talent of Vea, the Bucs did have more pressing needs after they already signed Vinny Curry and acquired Jason Pierre-Paul. Vea made 44 tackles and 3.5 sacks with the Washington Huskies of the Pac-12 last season.
Second Round, 38th overall: Ronald Jones II RB: The Buccaneers made a strong pick in the second round with the talented Ronald Jones II. The 20-year-old, 5-foot-11 running back out of USC accumulated 1550 rushing yards with 19 touchdowns last season. He should make an immediate impact, and he is expected to get 15-20 touches per game.
Second Round, 53rd Overall: M.J. Stewart CB: The 5-foot-11 cornerback out of North Carolina did not make an interception last season however he deflected 12 passes. Stewart could also play safety, but he will likely be down on the depth charts for this season.
The Buccaneers management did a good job revamping a defense that was overmatched in 2017. The addition of Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry will pay immediate dividends, and they also re-signed cornerback Brent Grimes to a one year deal for $10 million. Ronald Jones will be intriguing to watch at running back on an offense that features Jameis Winston along with one of the best receivers in the game in Mike Evans. The Bucs passing game ranked fourth in the NFL last season, and Winston is set for a big season.