By: Mike Sampogna
Each team in the NFC South is in a different state heading into free agency. The reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to defend their franchise's second championship win in the 2021-2022 season. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints are looking upon a new era with the recent retirement of Drew Brees. Finally, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are in their own respective rebuilding stages after disappointing a disappointing campaign last season. Below, we’ll take a look at the top three needs for each of these teams heading into free agency which begins on March 17 at 4 p.m. EST.
New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Cap Space: -$8.6 million
With the official retirement of future hall of famer Brees, the Saints are going to want to begin looking for his potential successor if they want to continue to compete in the NFC South and the NFC Conference. Resigning Jameis Winston who spent last season with the Saints may be the best option since he’s familiar with the system that the Saints run. Winston recently resigned with New Orleans, however it’ll be interesting to see if they stick with him, look in the direction of drafting a young quarterback, or pick up another signal caller in free agency, however with the troubled cap space they’re in it will be extremely difficult. The daunting question for the Saints is who will be filling in for Brees heading into next season as a quarterback is arguably the most important part of a successful team in today’s NFL.
The Saints recently cut notable linebacker Kwon Alexander on March 10th to free up $13 million in cap space. Regardless of the money they are saving by doing this transaction, it is difficult to imagine the Saints cashing in on a highly regarded linebacker to fill Alexander’s role. However, the Saints can possibly find a decent player for relatively a small contract to fill that missing spot. New Orleans is already looking a little bit thin at the linebacker position so if they don’t go the free agency route, expect them to take care of it in the upcoming draft.
3. Defensive Line
With Sheldon Rankins and breakout star from last season Trey Hendrickson heading to free agency, the Saints are going to have to replace these players who will most likely be receiving sizable contracts from other teams. New Orleans won’t be able to compete with those teams due to the high demand of money both Rankins and Hendrickson deserve. The Saints will have no choice but to look towards the cheaper market for their defensive line, or otherwise put that aside until the draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Cap Space: $9.6 million
1. Offensive Tackle
After winning a Super Bowl, it may seem that there is little to no needs on a roster, however that is false for almost any past championship team. Protecting seven time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady is the most important job for the Buccaneers and addressing a possible scenario with offensive tackle could help Brady and the rest of the team. The Buccaneers could possibly free up $14.25 million in cap space if they release left tackle Donovan Smith. If this were to happen, the Buccaneers would need to address this position immediately whether it be a cheaper and strong signing in free agency or the draft.
2. Running Back
A key free agent coming out of Tampa Bay is running back Leonard Fournette. The Buccaneers should try to resign him and keep the band together as Brady has mentioned he wants to do for the upcoming season. Fournette and running back Ronald Jones II were a stunning duo last season and it would be great for them to continue in the 2021 season. If the Buccaneers decide to let Fournette sign with another team, Tampa Bay can either search in free agency for a reliable replacement or look towards the draft for a young player to be in tandem with Jones II.
3. Defensive Line
Ndamukong Suh is another key player the Buccaneers are looking to retain during free agency. Suh is set to become a free agent, however he has expressed his desire to remain on the Bucs in search of another championship win. Tampa Bay can either work out a deal with Suh, look for younger options in free agency, or stick with the defensive lineman they currently have on the roster. Ultimately, the Buccaneers will need to address this position and decide what they want to do with free agency approaching.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Cap Space: $29.4 million
After his first season with the Panthers, Teddy Bridgewater had a disappointing campaign at the helm which has led to Carolina seeking other options at this position. There have been discussions of possible trades for Bridgewater as well as the Panthers being involved in possible trade talks for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Regardless, the Panthers will need to find a quarterback sooner rather than later if they officially decide to not resign Bridgewater and move on from him. There are not that many options for a great quarterback in the free agency market so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers attend to this position
2. Tight End
The Panthers tight end room was arguably the worst last season being ranked 31st in the league. This weak point on the roster must be addressed to improve an offence that has so much potential to be a top 10 offensive powerhouse. The free agency market for tight ends has some notable names that could possibly fit into the scheme of head coach Matt Rhule. Former Saints tight end Jared Cook could be a great option as well as Gerald Everett who played with the Los Angeles Rams last season.
After being ranked 24th overall in sack percentage last season, it’s crucial for the Panthers to add pass rushers to their young defensive crew. With a decent amount of cap space, Carolina could cash in on some free agent linebackers and address that issue in their defense. Adding a veteran player in free agency could possibly do wonders in the development of their young talent and additionally improve their subpar defense.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
Cap Space: $177,204
1. Defensive End
The main concern for the Falcons heading into free agency should be to improve their weak and porous defense. After ranking 26th in sack percentage in the 2020 season, an edge rusher is the focal need on the roster at the moment. The Falcons will only be able to bargain for small contracts due to their tight-cap situation. They did recently cut defensive end Allen Bailey to improve their cap, however that makes the need for a defensive end all the more necessary with a bleak room of edge rushers on the roster.
2. Defensive Back (CB/S)
Addressing either one of these positions would immensly benefit Atlanta’s secondary who ranked in the bottom half of teams last season. The Falcons cut safety Ricardo Allen to make some room in their cap space. This leaves an empty spot at free safety that must be filled. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is set to hit free agency so the best option for the Falcons is to either retain him or look for a suitable option that will be within their budget.
3. Running Back
Both Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are set to become unrestricted free agents which leaves Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison as the only running backs on the roster. It seems unlikely Gurley will return to the Falcons since he would have to take a large paycut. Atalanta could possibly retain Hill if he is willing to stick with the team. Ultimately, running back is another position that will need some focus heading into free agency.