Thank the Carolina Panthers for saving at least a modicum of the NFC South's dignity last season. Their playoff victory over the quarterback-challenged Arizona Cardinals brought a little life back to the division after its four teams finished a combined 22-41-1 during the regular season.
"Was it a surprise that our division winner was less than .500? Absolutely, it was a surprise," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis in his end-of-season press conference. "But there are a lot of factors in that. There are injuries that happen, timing of when you play teams. There are lots of things.
"Look, I am proud of the Carolina Panthers and winning their opening playoff game. That is good for our division."
Can any of the South's franchises join the league's Super Bowl contenders in 2015? To do so, the next couple of months will have to be more productive than the February-May stretch was last year. Top to bottom, the division stumbled in the draft and free agency, leaving disheveled and talent-starved rosters abounding.
"Looking back on [free agency] last year, we had some hits and we had some misses," Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said on the team's radio network, via PewterReport.com. "We are going to be wiser in our decisions, and we’re going to make sure we’re spending our money wisely, too."
Easier said than done. Our NFC South off-season look-ahead:
• Key free agents: DE Kroy Biermann, K Matt Bryant, G/T Gabe Carimi, S Dwight Lowery, CB Robert McClain, DT Corey Peters, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, RB Antone Smith, DE Osi Umenyiora, LB Sean Weatherspoon, WR Eric Weems
• Players team needs to bring back: "Needs to" is strong phrasing for a 6-10 team that just underwent a coaching change, but there are some useful pieces among those impending free agents. The biggest name, and the most intriguing for new head coach Dan Quinn's purposes, may be Umenyiora. The veteran end had just 2.5 sacks in limited playing time last season, but he could fill a designated pass-rushing role in Quinn's defense.
Biermann (29) is four years younger than Umenyiora (33) and produced two more sacks in 2014. Of course, he needed an extra 500-plus snaps to do so. For the right price, the Falcons might have to consider retaining both guys -- they'll already head into this off-season scrambling to find edge presences.
Go ahead and pencil in Weatherspoon, whose entire season was lost to an Achilles tear, as a member of the 2015 Falcons. "Sean Weatherspoon is going to be an important part of building this defense and building this team," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said recently.
Lowery deserves to be paid after turning in a solid '14 season on a cheap deal. And speaking of cheap deals, both Weems and Smith are worthwhile members of the roster. Weems is a do-everything type of guy who excels on special teams, while Smith provided an unexpected boost to Atlanta's offense.
• Positions team needs to improve: Offensive line, DE/OLB, RB, TE.
The Falcons' injury-induced revolving door along the O-line could be reason enough to keep Carimi. He's not a starting-caliber lineman but at least offers some value as a swing backup.
Expect the Falcons first and foremost to be aggressive in hunting for those DE/OLB hybrid guys this off-season, regardless of the futures of Umenyiora and Biermann. Atlanta produced a mere 22 sacks last season, the second-fewest in the league, and Quinn's top job will be to make the defense more formidable in that regard.
Predictably, Levine Toilolo was unable to replace Tony Gonzalez at tight end last season. Also not surprising: Steven Jackson's plodding 3.7 yards per carry behind that haphazard line. Jackson could be (will be?) cut this off-season, leaving the starting spot to 2014 fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman. There's no Plan B at tight end outside of Toilolo, so the Falcons have to address that spot, either through the draft or free agency.
• Players team needs to bring back: No one ... and that's not a bad thing.
The headliner of the Panthers' free-agent class is Hardy, who played just one game in 2014 after being charged with multiple counts of domestic abuse. His case was dismissed on Monday, but even with that outcome the odds of him returning to Carolina appear slim. The Charlotte Observer reported that the Panthers are "not expected to bring [Hardy] back."
While Hardy's absence was evident during Carolina's 3-8-1 start, the defense found its footing during a division-clinching four-game win streak to close the regular season. Charles Johnson, the team leader in sacks, should be back in 2015, assuming the Panthers can restructure his deal to lessen a $20 million cap hit. Mario Addison (6.5 sacks), Wes Horton (3.0) and 2014 second-rounder Kony Ealy all are under contract as well, leaving some depth should Hardy depart.
Would Hardy be a nice piece to have up front? Sure. Is it absolutely necessary for Carolina's 2015 chances that he re-sign? Nope.
Beyond that, Carolina's impending free agents are a grab bag of replaceable parts. Bell was a 15-game starter, but a poor one -- he allowed nine sacks and 31 hurries while often looking overmatched on Cam Newton's blind side.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, DE, OT, S, WR.
A talent infusion in the secondary would help, as would another edge-rusher if Hardy signs elsewhere. On paper, the 2015 draft class is full of guys who could help Carolina move on from Hardy.
However, the pressing issues for Carolina headed into this off-season are mainly on the offensive side of the football. General manager Dave Gettleman must solidify his team's offensive line, particularly at left tackle. And he has to find at least one more weapon for the passing attack.
The Panthers' strong close to the regular season and their playoff win over Arizona made for a nice story, but it actually tied Gettleman's hands a bit in terms of what he can do via the draft. Had Carolina lost to Atlanta in Week 17 and missed out on the postseason, it would be selecting 11th overall; instead, it's locked into the No. 25 spot.
The good news is that the Panthers finally should have a little cash to spend in free agency, including an extra $2 million if they cut bait on running back DeAngelo Williams.
New Orleans Saints
• Players team needs to bring back: Ingram, and possibly some defensive depth.
This is a tough one, because the Saints currently sit $20 million or so over the projected 2015 cap, so handing a multi-million deal to Ingram might not be in the cards. Running backs are considered more interchangeable now than ever before at the NFL level, and Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson both are expected back next season. (Fellow running back Tarvaris Cadet is a restricted free agent.)
Still, after three disheartening seasons, Ingram finally produced the way New Orleans thought he might when it made him a Round 1 pick back in 2011. He finished with 964 yards rushing, 29 catches and nine touchdowns.
Having seen Darren Sproles excel after leaving New Orleans in 2014, could the Saints really stomach watching Ingram do the same?
Beyond their starting running back, the Saints are not in desperation mode on any of their potential free agents. Haralson and Humber combined for 18 starts in the linebacker corps, yet neither stands out as a three-down player. Walker showed well in his infrequent playing time, producing 2.5 sacks.
Robinson may have been the most heavily criticized player on an underachieving unit. A former first-round pick, he may wind up back in New Orleans only because the team has so little depth at cornerback.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, LB, OL depth, OLB, RB
It's the NFL version of the old chicken-egg dilemma: Did the Saints' cornerbacks stink because the pass-rush was inconsistent, or was the pass-rush inconsistent because the Saints' cornerbacks stunk?
The easiest way to find a solution this off-season would be to add bodies in the secondary and along the edge defensively. Junior Galette and Cam Jordan combined for 17.5 sacks last season (down from 24.5 in 2013); no other Saint topped the 3.0-sack mark. Turning the Galette-Jordan duo into a formidable pressure trio would make everyone on the Saints' defense look better.
But as this is a team game, the Saints also must provide Keenan Lewis with a reliable counterpart at corner. Robinson may be able to retain a nickel role, and there's still hope that Stanley Jean-Baptiste can emerge in his second season. A best-case scenario for both players still leaves the Saints short on impact coverage guys.
New Orleans eventually will have to replace Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Zach Strief along the offensive line. Starting the process now would smooth the transition down the road, as it should with Tim Lelito stepping in for Goodwin. The massive cap hits for Grubbs ($9.6 million) and Evans ($11 million) could accelerate the process.
Keeping Ingram may not be financially feasible, and losing him would put a lot of pressure on the injury-plagued Thomas if New Orleans does not add another back.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
• Key free agents: DT Da'Quan Bowers, DE Adrian Clayborn, OT Oniel Cousins, DE Larry English, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Mason Foster, CB Leonard Johnson (RFA), S Bradley McDougald (exclusive-rights), RB Bobby Rainey (RFA), S Major Wright
• Players team needs to bring back: McDougald and/or Wright.
Perhaps you've picked up on a theme here for what was a miserable division in 2014: Very few impending NFC South free agents are necessities for their current teams. The names listed as must-haves for Tampa Bay hardly move the needle. Rather, the choices are all about depth, with an eye toward creating some consistency year-over-year for Lovie Smith.
Wright was waived by the Buccaneers late last August, then re-signed in early September to grab a starting safety spot. His background with Smith in Chicago certainly adds to Wright's value, and his veteran presence would become even more necessary should Tampa Bay cut Dashon Goldson this off-season.
McDougald stepped in for an injured Wright late in the season. His exclusive-rights status all but assures he will be back, on the cheap.
The others to watch for Tampa Bay: Clayborn, Bowers and Foster. They were the Buccaneers' first-, second- and third-round picks, in that order, at the 2011 draft. Keeping any of the three would be purely for depth purposes at this point -- Bowers stepped in when Gerald McCoy went down with an injury last season.
• Positions team needs to improve: DE, G, LB, OT, QB, S.
Pretty much everywhere, in other words. A team doesn't earn the No. 1 overall pick by accident.
The possible hole at defensive end has to have the Bucs' brass tearing its hair out in the wake of the $43.75 million contract handed to Michael Johnson in free agency last off-season. Johnson produced just 4.0 sacks in his first season outside Cincinnati (after 3.5 sacks in his final season with the Bengals, 2013), so Tampa Bay may take the $7 million cap savings by releasing the 28-year-old end. In that hypothetical scenario, Clayborn's value may bump a tad internally, if only to maintain an iota of depth.
Smith and Co. are searching for a middle linebacker to drop between superstar Lavonte David and the emerging Danny Lansanah. Foster or Fletcher could form a patchwork option, but better alternatives are out there.
The need at safety depends on decisions reached regarding Goldson, Wright and McDougald. Likewise, the Buccaneers' plans along the offensive line will boil down to their confidence level in right guard Patrick Omameh and how they handle Cousins' free agency. Anthony Collins, another high-priced pickup from Cincinnati in 2014, is a decent bet to head out the door alongside Johnson.