- Quarterbacks are always in the spotlight, but it will be especially sharply focused on the four in this division, with age, injury and coaching turnover playing into the major storylines.
The MMQB is evaluating each team’s offseason, division by division. Find all the progress reports here.
New Orleans Saints
2018 record: 13-3
New players: Latavius Murray, Malcolm Brown, Jared Cook, Erik McCoy, Nick Easton, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Players lost: Max Unger, Mark Ingram, Alex Okafor, Tommylee Lewis, Tyeler Davison.
In what areas did the team improve? Tight end production in New Orleans has decreased steadily since the Jimmy Graham trade following the 2014 season. Ben Watson followed Graham, then Coby Fleener took over the top receiving spot, and last year Watson regained the top spot—with just 400 receiving yards. Enter Jared Cook. The 10-year veteran is coming off the best season of his career (68 catches, 896 yards—fourth-most among tight end—and six TDs with Oakland) and makes for an immediate upgrade over the aging Watson, who’s now back in New England.
What areas still need help/what does the team still need to do? The Saints roster looks very good, and they have successfully plugged what few holes they did have in free agency with little cap room and in the draft despite no first-round pick. The most concern I can find with this team is interior pressure. Sheldon Rankins, whose eight sacks last year were second-most on the team, tore his Achilles in the postseason and will likely start the season on the PUP list. David Onyemata (four sacks in 2018) returns but could face league discipline for a February citation related to alleged marijuana possession. New Orleans did sign Malcolm Brown in free agency, but his utility is more of a run-stuffer than pass-rusher. Add in the loss of Tyeler Davison in free agency and the Saints could be thin at defensive tackle to start the season.
Biggest question heading into the regular season: Can the Saints get the most out of Drew Brees in what could very well be his final season? Put more bluntly: Can the Saints get over the hump (they should have gotten over in the NFC title game) and get back to the Super Bowl? Brees is 40 now, and though he was playing at an MVP level for most of the 2018 season, there are reasons to believe this is it for him. The Saints restructured his contract in March to clear $10.8 million in cap space. His deal voids after the 2019 season. They kept Teddy Bridgewater from defecting to Miami on a one-year deal. To top it off, Super Bowl LIV will be played in South Florida, where 10 years ago Brees won the game’s MVP award.
Best tweet of the offseason:
2018 record: 7-9
New players: Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, James Carpenter, Adrian Clayborn, Luke Stocker, J.J. Wilcox, Jamon Brown.
Players lost: Tevin Coleman, Andy Levitre, Matt Bryant, Ryan Schraeder, Robert Alford, Bruce Irvin, Justin Bethel, Brian Poole.
In what areas did the team improve? Without question this team got better in the short and long term along the offensive line. The Falcons used two first-round picks on Lindstrom and McGary, and they figure to hold down the right side of the line for years to come. The Falcons grabbed James Carpenter at left guard in free agency, and with Jake Matthews and Alex Mack in place, there’s not much question about the starting five in Week 1. The Falcons allowed 42 sacks last season, so fresh blood there was necessary.
What areas still need help/what does the team still need to do? You should like the Falcons on paper, so we will go off the field here. The Falcons need to satisfy Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett. For the third time in the last four years, Jones led the NFL in receiving yards per game. After a protracted back-and-forth last offseason, Atlanta revised his contract, but now he’s due a major deal. Jarrett is franchise tagged in 2019, and the Falcons have another month to strike a deal with the former fifth-rounder who’s given them absurd value the last four seasons.
Biggest question heading into the regular season: With Dirk Koetter back for his second try in Atlanta, can the Falcons reclaim the offensive magic from 2016? The Steve Sarkisian Project post-Shanahan didn’t work after two seasons and in comes Koetter fresh off his pink slip in Tampa. Matt Ryan has been playing his best ball the last three years but is now on his third coordinator since his MVP-winning season. The Falcons have one of the best receiving trios in the game, so let’s see how imaginative Koetter is in getting them the ball. (And please pass to Julio in the red zone.)
Best tweet of the offseason:
Team record: 7-9
New players: Matt Paradis, Chris Hogan, Bruce Irvin, Brian Burns, Greg Little, Gerald McCoy.
Players lost: Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Devin Funchess, Matt Kalil.
In what areas did the team improve: I want to say the defensive line got better, and it probably did. But they lost a first-ballot Hall of Famer to retirement this offseason, so we’re going with the offensive line here. Losing Ryan Kalil hurts on the field and in the meeting room, but GM Marty Hurney did well to ink Paradis to replace Kalil in free agency. The Panthers were surprisingly able to re-sign Daryl Williams when it was thought he was for-sure heading out of town. Then Hurney traded up in the second round to get future left tackle Greg Little. Getting Matt Kalil off the books and turning the page on the next chapter was crucial this offseason.
What areas still need help/what does the team still need to do: The Panthers did not address free safety in free agency or the draft, much to fans’ disappointment. Hurney’s goals were clearly to improve the offensive line and pass rush and solidify the backup quarterback spot. So while the Panthers did ink Eric Reid to an extension, the other safety spot is currently occupied by second-year player Rashaan Gaulden, who had a rather forgettable 2018 season. The thought is the Panthers will give Gaulden every opportunity to win the position in training camp, and if things don’t work in August, go after a veteran free agent like former Panther Tre Boston.
Biggest question heading into the regular season: Last month I wrote about the QB controversy that isn’t in Carolina, and that absolutely holds up today, a week after Newton threw during individual drills at minicamp. But this is the second shoulder surgery in three years for the former MVP, and last training camp he was struggling to connect down the field with receivers. In his first season in his 30s, Newton would seemingly be on a pitch count in training camp so that he’s not overworked for the start of the season. It’s going to be odd seeing that new norm, but of course the hope is this surgery will be his last.
Best tweet of the offseason:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2018 record: 5-11
New players: Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett, Breshad Perriman, Devin White, Bradley Pinion, Deone Bucannon.
Players lost: Kwon Alexander, Adam Humphries, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Gerald McCoy, Adarius Taylor, Vinny Curry, DeSesan Jackson, Brent Grimes.
In what areas did the team improve? The Bucs moved on from Dirk Koetter and got Bruce Arians this offseason in what was clearly their biggest improvement from 2018 to today. Arians, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, has won 63% of his games and is one of the best offensive minds in the game today. The Bucs are going to need his best work. Not only has Tampa Bay not won the NFC South since the Bush 43 Administration, but the Bucs have finished last eight of the last 10 seasons. The culture badly needs changing there, and Arians has the résumé and diversity of thought among his coaches to succeed.
What areas still need help/what does the team still need to do? I’m going to hold my breath on the revamped secondary that GM Jason Licht and Arians put a lot of work into this offseason after a miserable 2018. But the receiving corps took a hit. Mike Evans is one of the most underrated receivers in the league, and I think O.J. Howard can take off in Year 2. But a group that loses DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries and adds Breshad Perriman is markedly worse.
Biggest question heading into the regular season: Jameis Winston is a perennial question, and he’s in a contract year. Because I could easily ask the question “will Jameis figure out his turnover issues this season?” I’ll go with something less obvious. The health of Jason Pierre-Paul is going to be crucial. He fractured his neck this offseason in a car accident and is almost certain to miss the start of the season (and unclear how much more). With JPP and Suh (and Vita Vea occupying an offensive lineman or two), Tampa’s pass rush would be formidable. Without JPP, things for Suh will be tougher.
Best tweet of the offseason:
Bruce Arians has longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore, 80, working with the Bucs as an advisor through training camp. Said every coach needs a "bitch to" coach he can complain to, and Moore continues in that vital role for him. Also to observe and offer insights from outside eyes …— Greg Auman (@gregauman) May 28, 2019
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.