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Free Agency Primer: NFC South

Jimmy Graham, Jonathan Babineaux, Greg Hardy and Dekoda Watson are all must-signs for their current teams. (AP [4])Jimmy Graham, Jonathan Babineaux, Greg Hardy and Dekoda Watson are all must-signs for their current teams. (AP [4])
The wait on the arrival of Cam Newton and his Carolina Panthers ended in 2013 -- they finished 12-4 to nip the Saints for the NFC South title. But are the Panthers here to stay?

If so, this division could be football's toughest next season, as the Saints should be contenders again and both the Falcons and Buccaneers (especially Atlanta) stand to improve on their performances.

A glance at the NFC South's free-agent outlook:

Atlanta Falcons

• Key free agents: DL Jonathan Babineaux, CB Dominique Franks, OL Joe Hawley, DT Peria Jerry, DT Corey Peters; CB Robert McClain (RFA)

• Players Atlanta needs back: Babineaux, Franks.

Franks did not make any starts in 2013, so he's not exactly a No. 1 corner. But with the Falcons having cut Asante Samuel already, they could use a little depth back there. That's precisely what the 26-year-old Franks provides.

Choices will have to be made up front. Peters was a 15-game starter and a key cog on the D-line; Jerry was a 14-game starter and is a former first-round pick; and Babineaux, 32, has been with the Falcons for his entire career and was on the first-team D for all 16 games in 2013.

Who gets the nod? Well, Peters blew out his Achilles in December, so that could push the Falcons away from re-signing him. The upside with Jerry is higher than with the veteran Babineaux ... but the floor's lower with Jerry, too. Bet on Babineaux being back.

• Players Atlanta should let walk: Jerry.

Atlanta started to rid itself of dead weight with the releases of Samuel and LB Stephen Nicholas. As already mentioned, figuring out how to fix the defensive line is front and center now -- the Falcons were miserable trying to generate pressure throughout the season and they finished 31st in the league against the run.

• Outlook: Tony Gonzalez's retirement and the departure of at least a couple other veterans will help push the Falcons to get younger across the roster, which is a must after a disappointing 2013 season that saw teams run circles around them. They're carrying a decent cap situation, with $13 million-plus already available under the projected line.

Carolina Panthers

• Key free agents: CB Drayton Florence, WR Ted Ginn Jr., OT Jordan Gross, DE Greg Hardy, WR Brandon LaFell, S Quintin Mikell, S Mike Mitchell, CB Captain Munnerlyn, G Travelle Wharton; OT Byron Bell (RFA)

• Players Carolina needs back: Ginn, Gross, Hardy, Mitchell, Munnerlyn.

Gross' future seems to be up to him -- there earlier were rumblings that he might retire. Given how he played in 2013, though, that's hard to see happening, and the Panthers certainly would welcome him back with open arms. The 33-year-old turned in a standout year protecting Cam Newton's blindside.

Munnerlyn could be tough to retain. He has ties to the area (including playing his college ball at South Carolina), but after working off a $1.1 million deal last season, he has a price tag that figures to shoot up quite a bit. The secondary is already in need of upgrades, a process that would become tougher should Carolina lose a 16-game starter.

At the safety spot, it makes sense for the Panthers to commit to re-signing the 26-year-old Mitchell over a 33-year-old Mikell (though it's possible both return). Mitchell was a pleasant surprise last season. The same could be said for Ginn, even if he was inconsistent. He finished the season with 36 catches and five touchdowns and remains a dangerous return man.

Hardy could be a franchise-tag candidate, which would run Carolina about $12 million. With him coming off a 15-sack season, that might not be too much to pay.

• Players Carolina should let walk: LaFell, Mikell.

We pretty much covered the argument against Mikell a few paragraphs ago. LaFell was the Panthers' third-leading receiver (behind Steve Smith and TE Greg Olsen) at 49 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. That's hardly what the team expects from its No. 2 guy -- and LaFell could have produced far more had he not been plagued by drops. Smith is in his mid-30s and Ginn could be exiting, so Carolina has to find a legitimate second option.

• Outlook: Carolina's front office remains a little hamstrung by the huge contracts of running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Together, that pair will count approximately $28 million against next year's cap, barring any contract restructuring. The Panthers currently sit about $15 million below the cap limit, but there are not many spots where they can gain additional wiggle room. As a result, they may not be able to retain everyone they want.

BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties

The Saints' entire 2014 situation revolves around Jimmy Graham's contract. (Margaret Bowles/AP) The Saints' entire 2014 situation revolves around Jimmy Graham's contract. (Margaret Bowles/AP)

New Orleans Saints

• Key free agents: OT Charles Brown, C Brian de la Puente, TE Jimmy Graham, K Shayne Graham, LB Parys Haralson, S Malcolm Jenkins, WR Robert Meachem, OT Zach Strief; S Rafael Bush (RFA), WR Joseph Morgan (RFA)

• Players New Orleans needs back: Bush, de la Puente, J. Graham, Jenkins, Morgan, Strief.

The reality is that New Orleans likely will not bring all of these guys back -- even after cutting several players Wednesday, they're still barely under the projected cap and need millions upon millions to re-sign Graham. Bush and Morgan, as productive young players under that "restricted" umbrella, should join Graham back on the roster.

Beyond that, what happens is anyone's guess. Strief and de la Puente are huge parts of the offensive line; losing the former would put a team already light on tackle talent in a bind, with little money to spend on the market. Centers, as a general rule, are easier to replace (at least financially) than tackles, but de la Puente is a three-year starter in front of Drew Brees.

Can the Saints squeeze Jenkins into their limited budget? It'll be tight if they can, part of why he might join longtime teammates like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma in searching for a new team.

• Players New Orleans should let walk: Brown, Meachem.

Not including Haralson here, because he was a worthy part of the linebacking corps before suffering an injury in the playoffs. If he's healthy for next season, New Orleans should float him an offer.

Meachem simply fell out of favor in the Saints' passing attack. With youngsters like Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Morgan around, there's no reason to re-sign him. Brown could be a fallback option if Strief walks, but he shouldn't be.

• Outlook: Pretty much everything the Saints do from here out in the offseason is tied to Graham. His contract could be a record-setting one, and it will not leave very much cash left to address the rest of the roster. Plain and simple, New Orleans has to be judicious with how it spends before the 2014 season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

• Key free agents: LB Jonathan Casillas, FB Erik Lorig, LB Adam Hayward, RB Brian Leonard, K Rian Lindell, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, WR Tiquan Underwood, LB Dekoda Watson

• Players Tampa Bay needs back: Lorig, Watson.

"Needs" is a strong term here. The Bucs have just shy of 20 players set to hit unrestricted free agency, and you could argue that they would not really miss any of them.

Transitioning Lorig -- once a defensive end -- to fullback was a wise move, as he thrived there. Meanwhile, Watson is just 25 and has seen decent minutes over his first four seasons in Tampa Bay's linebacking corps. Both are valued contributors and neither should cost all that much.

• Players Tampa Bay should let walk: Leonard, Te'o-Nesheim, Underwood.

Leonard and Underwood were bit players on the offense, with Leonard being especially extraneous on the current roster thanks to the surprising performances of Mike James and Bobby Rainey at running back. Underwood, who had 24 catches and four touchdowns, still has some potential. Retaining him would not be much in error, assuming it's at a reasonable price.

Multiple coaching staffs have tried to uncover Te'o-Nesheim's talent up front to little avail. He had just 1.0 sack and was fairly invisible despite 13 starts last season. It's time to move in a different direction.

• Outlook: Things definitely could be a lot worse. Once you figure in the Bucs' carryover cash saved in 2012, they should have upwards of $15 million to spend, with most of their starting lineup back for the 2014 season. They'll be able to pick and choose where they attack the offseason. And they might be able to justify a huge splash somewhere.

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