John Abraham has posted 22.5 sacks over his last two seasons, a rate of return that may cost the Falcons a lot of money this offseason. (Getty Images)
Let's just label the NFC South as "intriguing" as we hit the offseason.
The divisional heavyweights, the Saints, have a few major predicaments on their plate, not least of which is trying to get Drew Brees signed long-term. The Falcons, right behind New Orleans in the South's pecking order, also have some tough decisions on their to-do list.
Still, Carolina and Tampa Bay would kill to be in the Saints' or Falcons' shoes, even as both of those teams work feverishly to get back to contention.
What does free agency hold for the NFC South?
• Key free agents: DE John Abraham, DL Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, WR Harry Douglas, DB Brent Grimes, LB Curtis Lofton, C Todd McClure
• Players Atlanta needs back: Abraham; Grimes; Lofton; McClure
Abraham could slip from here to the next category if he wants one last huge contract before hanging up his cleats. He is still one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL, but his impact elsewhere is increasingly minimal. Nevertheless, Atlanta would suffer up front without him.
Grimes and Lofton represent key cogs in the next two levels of Atlanta's defense. Lofton made 147 tackles in 211 and Grimes had 14 pass breakups before suffering an injury late in the season. It may not make financial sense to bring back Abraham, Lofton and Grimes, but Atlanta would be better in 2012 with all three returning.
McClure, meanwhile, was the somewhat-underrated man in the middle of Atlanta's offensive line. He's 34 and has been with the Falcons since 1999, so he may be on his last legs, but it would be hard for Atlanta to find someone to fill his shoes.
• Players Atlanta should let walk: Biermann; Douglass
The Biermann decision might be contingent on the Abraham one -- seeing both guys walk would severely hurt Atlanta's defensive end depth. That said, Biermann had a chance to start in 2010 and failed to deliver, then he struggled to do much of anything in '11.
Douglas, on the other hand, turned in some nice performances when Atlanta got the ball to him, finishing with 39 catches last year. The issue for the Falcons is that he could be a No. 2 receiver elsewhere, so he'd have to accept a lesser role (and probably lesser money) to stay.
• Outlook: After a disappointing finish to the 2011 season, Atlanta has some tricky challenges facing it in the coming weeks. Is it time to go younger and cheaper on defense? If so, then Abraham and a few others will hit the bricks.
• Key free agents: DE Antwan Applewhite, LB Dan Connor, OL Jeff Hangartner, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Jordan Senn
• Players Carolina needs back: Applewhite; Hangartner; Senn
If you want big names, look elsewhere. But in terms of bang for the buck, this trio delivered for Carolina in 2011 and could do so again, relatively cheaply, in 2012 -- that's important, because the Panthers are projected to be up against the cap thanks to hitting the market hard last offseason.
Applewhite, who joined Carolina after San Francisco cut him, and Senn, who excelled down the stretch, probably earned themselves starting spots if they return.
Hangartner already had a starting job, as he locked down the Panthers' right guard spot all season. He struggled against the pass too often, but he would be a smart keeper for the Panthers.
• Players Carolina should let walk: Connor; Naanee; Shockey
Let's start with Shockey, who made 37 catches, scored four times and was a nice addition to the Panthers' locker room. The problem is that he'll be 32 before next season and reportedly wants close to the $4 million he made in 2011. Given Carolina's financial situation and the fact that Greg Olsen (set to make $3 million in 2012) is on the roster, Shockey could be expendable.
Naanee played fairly well when given a chance, but the Panthers have some young talent at receiver, making him replaceable.
Connor started 11 games and made 75 tackles in 2011. Carolina wouldn't mind bringing him back but, like Shockey, at what cost?
• Outlook: Carolina has to feel decent about the core it has put together during this rebuilding phase. The Panthers need to play it pretty close to the vest this offseason, though, considering they don't have much money to spend and guys like Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart could be free agents next year.
New Orleans Saints
• Key free agents: QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, DT Aubrayo Franklin, WR Robert Meachem, OL Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter, DT Shaun Rogers
• Players New Orleans needs back: Brees; Colston; Nicks
Here's the rub with that list: Keeping all three guys might not be possible. The Saints will do whatever it takes to retain Brees as their quarterback, and part of that pitch may include extending Colston's contract. So, where's the money going to come for Nicks?
Remember, the Saints handed Jahri Evans a seven-year, $56.7 million contract last year ... and Nicks, at least in my opinion, was better than Evans in 2011. Even if Nicks agrees to take a little less than he's worth to stay in New Orleans, the Saints would have to commit an incredible amount of money to its offensive guards.
• Players New Orleans should let walk: Franklin; Porter; Rogers
This may be an either-or proposition with Franklin and Rogers, a pair of defensive tackles who failed to provide much up front this season. The Saints might opt to bring one of them back -- the smart money would be on Franklin -- for at least another season.
Porter's name carries more weight than his actual talent level these days. He was downright terrible in pass coverage, even if some of the blame falls on New Orleans' unusual defensive schemes. It's time for the Saints to look elsewhere for secondary help.
• Outlook: If New Orleans can re-sign Brees and either Meachem or Colston, the Saints' offense should keep humming right along. Don't underestimate, however, the potential impact of losing Nicks. There is not anyone available that New Orleans could slot into his spot on the interior of the O-line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
• Key free agents: DB Ronde Barber, K Connor Barth, RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights), RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, QB Josh Johnson, S Sean Jones, OL Jeremy Zuttah
• Players Tampa Bay needs back: Blount; Zuttah
"Needs" is maybe too strong a word for this crop of potential free agents. Blount will be back, but he showed more flaws in his game in 2011 than Tampa Bay would have liked.
Zuttah might be the most valuable player on this list. He played for new Bucs coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers and has proved himself to be a versatile lineman, capable of shifting around to wherever the team might need him.
• Players Tampa Bay should let walk: Barber; Graham; Johnson; Jones
I know it's borderline blasphemy to recommend cutting ties with Barber, who's been with Tampa Bay since 1997. The 36-year-old cornerback has yet to even decide if he'll play another season, though, and at some point, the Bucs have to readdress their defensive secondary. Barber made three picks in 2011 and got better late in the season, but he had some pretty crummy weeks.
Graham's Achilles injury around the season's midpoint hampered Tampa Bay's offense beyond repair. He'd be great to have back at 100 percent, but there's no guarantee he can reach or stay at that point.
It's also time to find another backup QB other than Johnson -- he's adequate at best. That's a fitting description for Jones, too, who started 16 games but might have been replaced if Tampa Bay had anyone else at safety.
Schiano does not have a lot of time to map out his strategy. Will he completely shift the direction of this team or will he try to fit his coaching style around what's there? Once that riddle is solved, the Bucs can go about the business of picking and choosing which of their own free agents to keep around.