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NFC South Offseason Report Cards: Bucs, Saints Boost Defense; Falcons Brace for Negotiations with Julio Jones

In arguably the NFL's most competitive division, it will take more than double-digit wins to secure a playoff spot. Which team made the right offseason moves?

Atlanta Falcons

2017 record: 10–6

Crucial additions: CB Justin Bethel, TE Logan Paulson, G Brandon Fusco

Crucial losses: WR Taylor Gabriel, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Dontari Poe, TE Levine Toilolo, FB Derrick Coleman

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved? The Falcons replaced what they lost in the offseason, and the franchise improved at cornerback and at receiver. But thinking outside the box here—more than anything, Atlanta improved on its championship window by inking quarterback Matt Ryan to a five-year, $150 million contract extension. Ryan now has a cap hit of $17.7 million in 2018 and just $22.8 million next year before jumping to $31.8 million in ’20 (but by that time every top quarterback will cost a team at least $30 million per year).

Now look at Atlanta’s core group of defensive players. Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Keanu Neal, Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are all signed through at least 2019. A manageable quarterback cap hit plus smart contracts from the front office in recent years means space for free agents when needed.

What needs work? The Falcons have a great mix of veterans and young players, deep at positions they need to be and filled holes where necessary this offseason. So I’ll go outside of the box again and say that Julio Jones’s relationship with the front office needs work. The star wideout—possibly the best receiver in the NFL and probably the most complete receiver in the NFL—wants a new contract even though he has three years left on a deal he signed in 2015 that made him the second-highest paid receiver at the time.

Well… now he’s the eighth highest-paid receiver, and his average annual salary is nearly $3 million less than top-paid Antonio Brown. And though everyone within the Falcons organization believes the two sides will bridge this wide gulf, what if it doesn’t? What if Atlanta starts the season against Philadelphia without its best offensive weapon? But it’s not time to worry yet.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons Are Not Concerned About Julio Jones's Absence ... Yet

What can we expect? The Falcons have the unenviable task of having to play six games in the NFC South this season and fight for a spot in the NFC playoffs. But we’ve seen what this offense can be when it’s unlocked, and OC Steve Sarkisian has everything he needs to get them back to the 2016 level. If the offense gels in Year 2 under this offensive coordinator like it did the last one, the Falcons are heading to the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Fact/tidbit learned in the past few weeks: The Falcons recently released their social justice action plan that has been in the works since last fall. For the past three months, select players have been working with local law enforcement and communities, and here’s what they’ve found.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach


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Carolina Panthers

2017 record: 11–5

Crucial additions: WR Torrey Smith, G Jeremiah Sirles, S Da’Norris Searcy, CB Ross Cockrell, DT Dontari Poe

Crucial losses: DT Star Lotulelei, G Andrew Norwell, S Kurt Coleman, RB Jonathan Stewart, TE Ed Dickson, CB Daryl Worley

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved? This is, without a doubt, Cam Newton’s best receiving group in his career, besting the Steve Smith-Brandon LaFell-Ted Ginn Jr. trio from 2013. Under GM Marty Hurney, the Panthers have finally invested in the position for their franchise quarterback just as he enters his prime in his age 29 season. Devin Funchess had a breakout season last year with 840 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s now joined by rookie D.J. Moore, free agent pickups Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright and re-joined by 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel after he missed more than half the season with an ankle injury. Throw in speedster Damiere Byrd and remember All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen and this is clearly the best top-to-bottom supporting cast Newton has seen.

What needs work? The Panthers thought they had a deal in place with cornerback Bashaud Breeland early in free agency until he failed his physical. That put the Panthers in a bad place, because by the time the results were back the market had dried up. Cornerback James Bradberry is clearly the best member of the secondary, and Ross Cockrell, Kevon Seymour and second-round pick Donte Jackson will all battle for the No. 2 corner position. Da’Norris Searcy should find one safety spot while 37-year-old Mike Adams and Colin Jones fight for the other. But this is a pass defense that was 22nd in touchdowns allowed and 24th in interceptions last season.

What can we expect? For a team that’s gone to the playoffs in four of the past five years—including a Super Bowl 50 appearance—it’s truly remarkable that the Carolina Panthers have still never had back-to-back winning seasons. Even if this is the year that the team breaks the curse, it might not be enough to get back into the playoffs in a tough NFC South and a stacked NFC. (Additionally, fans can expect a more active owner with David Tepper than they had with Jerry Richardson, who over the last several years removed himself from league functions and did not make himself available to interviews.)

Fact/tidbit learned in the past few weeks: Luke Kuechly’s surgically repaired shoulder should be good to go by training camp. Kuechly sat out OTAs and minicamp for the second time since 2016 due to shoulder surgery, with his left shoulder being operated on in two years ago and this year having his right done.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach


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New Orleans Saints

2017 record: 11–5

Crucial additions: S Kurt Coleman, CB Patrick Robinson, LB Demario Davis, QB Tom Savage

Crucial losses: QB Chase Daniel, OT Zach Strief, S Rafael Bush, OL Senio Kelemete, RB Mark Ingram (suspended for four games)

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved? New Orleans wanted to make sure its 10th-ranked scoring defense from 2017 wasn’t fluky, so the Saints went out and strengthened the defense in both the draft and free agency this year. Cameron Jordan has desperately needed a pass rusher opposite him as he continues to ascend in the league, and even though the Saints gave up a lot to move up to get Davenport, the team now has what it’s long needed.

It will be interesting to see who wins some starting spots in the back seven. The Saints are rich at linebacker with A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson, Manti Te’o, and they signed Davis to a three-year deal indicative of a middle linebacker role. Coleman can play both strong and free safety, and even though the Saints seem set there with Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, the team didn’t ink him to a three-year, $18 million deal just to be the old, veteran voice in the locker room.

What needs work? It’s unfair to say because it’s not like these guys set out to get injured in 2017, but the Saints offensive line has to be healthier than they were last year. Left tackle Terron Armstead has never played a full season, and he has missed 15 games out of 32 in the past two seasons. That set off a season-long musical chairs along the offensive line with center Max Unger the only real constant.

For the Saints to be a Super Bowl team, they have to have another top-three offense. They managed to finish second last year thanks to a well-balanced offense and the line holding up despite injuries. But New Orleans would much rather not have to worry about plugging those holes every week again this season.

In his Fourth Season with the Falcons, Grady Jarrett Insists It’s Only the Beginning

What can we expect? They were a play away from making the NFC title game. The Saints have one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, both reigning rookies of the year and one of the top pass rushers in the league. Anything short of the conference title game in 2018 would be a disappointment for these Saints, who are built to win now with just a couple more years of Drew Brees left.

Fact/tidbit learned in the past few weeks: The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram for the first quarter of the season after he violated the league’s policy performance-enhancing substances. If Alvin Kamara takes over the top running back role by the time Ingram comes back, no one will be surprised. The league’s best backfield may not be together past 2018 since Ingram’s contract is up at the end of this season.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach


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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2017 record: 6–10

Crucial additions: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Vinny Curry, C Ryan Jense, DT Beau Allen

Crucial losses: DT Clinton McDonald, RB Doug Martin, DE Robert Ayers, OL Kevin Pamphile, DT Chris Baker

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved? Last year the Buccaneers defense gave up the most total yards, the most passing yards and the third-most rushing touchdowns of anyone in the NFL. Only two players had more than three sacks, and no one came close to double digit sacks. So after spending all offseason last year working on the offense, GM Jason Licht went to work on his defensive line this offseason. He traded for JPP, signed Vinny Curry shortly after the Eagles cut him, signed fellow Super Bowl champ Beau Allen after his rookie deal was up and then spent the first-round pick on defensive tackle Vita Vea.

What needs work? Jameis Winston should have had a breakout third year after a great second season, but instead he and the rest of the Bucs offense (minus Mike Evans) took a gigantic step back in 2017—and likely missing the first three games of the season due to a suspension isn’t going to help. Winston needs to improve his tendency for turnovers and his connection with WR DeSean Jackson, while his offensive coordinator and head coach need to put him in better situations to win. The QB had a career-low 11 interceptions but led the league in fumbles with 15 (at least he also led the league in recoveries with seven!). His 6.9% sack rate was the highest of his career thanks to a bad offensive line. On top of that, Jackson’s 13.4 yards per reception was by far the lowest of his career. All of that needs major work if the Bucs want to see the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

What can we expect?The Bucs open the season with the Saints, Eagles and Steelers, and they face the Falcons after their Week 5 bye, so we should know very early on what to expect from this team. Last offseason was about the offense and this one was about the defense. If it doesn’t come together for Tampa Bay in 2018 and the Bucs finish last in the division for the seventh time in eight years, head coach Dirk Koetter probably won’t see a fourth year at the helm.

Fact/tidbit learned in the past few weeks: Linebacker Adarius Glanton changed his name this offseason and will now go by Adarius Taylor. He did it to honor his late father, who died when he was nine years old, just as he begins his family. Taylor married his fiancée, Kristen, in February, and during summer workouts he played at all three linebacker positions.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach