The NFC South hosted two powerhouse football teams in 2020, the Saints (12-4) and the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (11-5). New Orleans is in a world of cap trouble and will find it difficult to keep their roster together, as I discuss in a moment. The Panthers (5-11) and Falcons (4-12) are much more in rebuilding mode this offseason. Atlanta has a new head coach in Arthur Smith who will be eager to get the team’s fortunes turned around, and Carolina’s second-year head coach Matt Rhule will be looking to further instill his culture. This should be a very interesting division in 2021, but all four teams have some key free agency decisions to make.
New Orleans Saints
Current Cap Space: -$69.5 million (as of 2/21)
Top Free Agents: TE Jared Cook, IDL Sheldon Rankins, CB P.J. Williams, S Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone (RFA), EDGE Trey Hendrickson (RFA), QB Jameis Winston (ERFA)
Biggest Team Needs: CB, LB, OT, EDGE, WR, QB, IDL, S, RB
2021 Draft Picks: #28 (R1), #60 (R2), #123 (R4)
Analysis: The NFC South is the last division I’m breaking down in these articles, and we saved the best for last in terms of teams in salary cap misery. The Saints are projected to be about $70 million over the cap as things currently stand, and it’s going to take a monumental effort in order to clear up space. The fastest route to cap space is an official retirement by quarterback Drew Brees, as that would save almost $24 million against the cap. Then, the team can release linebacker Kwon Alexander ($13.1M), DT Malcolm Brown ($4.9M), QB Taysom Hill ($5M), CB Janoris Jenkins ($7M), CB Patrick Robinson ($2.6M), RB Latavius Murray ($2.5M), and P Thomas Morstead ($2.5M). That would get the Saints to about $8 million over the cap, and that amount of space could be created by restructuring deals with veterans like DE Cameron Jordan, WR Michael Thomas, OT Terron Armstead, or OG Andrus Peat. New Orleans could also look to trade away CB Marshon Lattimore and his $10.2 million cap hit.
The Saints have some key free agents that will almost definitely not be with the team next season. Trey Hendrickson racked up 13.5 sacks in a breakout 2020 season, but he most likely will be playing elsewhere next year. Safety Marcus Williams has been a crucial piece of this team’s defense for the past several years, but PFF projected his contract at $57 million over 4 years (approx. $14.25 M per season). IDL Sheldon Rankins, CB P.J. Williams, and LB Alex Anzalone were all defensive starters for New Orleans last season, but the Saints have almost no chance to bring them all back. The Saints could look to resign these players on back-weighted contracts that help them maintain cap room this season, but the cap is expected to remain relatively flat over the next couple of years, so that approach could just lead to compounding problems.
As the Saints head into an offseason of transition, the quarterback position remains a major question mark for them. New Orleans hasn’t made it obvious that they see Jameis Winston as a long-term answer, and he becomes a free agent this year. Taysom Hill is also a bit more gimmicky than you’d like for a starting quarterback, although he performed well in some starts last season. Free agency could provide some stopgap options in Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or Tyrod Taylor, but with the Saints’ disastrous cap situation, they may not have the money to shell out on a QB. At #28 in the first round, it’s likely that the top quarterback prospects (Lawrence, Fields, Wilson, Lance, Jones) are well off the board. Kyle Trask could be an option, but I’m not sold on him as a professional prospect. The Saints still have a talented roster and an impressive level of continuity in their organization, but this will be a testing offseason for the club. Their almost need for Drew Brees to retire in order to retain some cap space puts them in an awkward position with the face of their franchise, and the New Orleans front office has to be full of tension and unease around this time.
First-Round Pick Targets: LB Zaven Collins, EDGE Azeez Ojulari, EDGE Jayson Oweh, CB Tyson Campbell, EDGE Jaelan Phillips, QB Kyle Trask
Free Agency Targets: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Cam Newton, RB Mark Ingram, WR Willie Snead, EDGE Takkarist McKinley, OG Larry Warford, WR T.Y. Hilton
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Current Cap Space: $13.3 million (as of 2/21)
Top Free Agents: EDGE Shaquil Barrett, LB Lavonte Davis, TE Rob Gronkowski, IDL Ndamukong Suh, IDL Steve McLendon, RB Leonard Fournette, WR Chris Godwin, WR Antonio Brown
Biggest Team Needs: IDL, WR, OT, EDGE, IOL, S, QB, RB
2021 Draft Picks: #32 (R1), #64 (R2), #95 (R3), #127 (R4), #159 (R5), #214 (R7), #221 (R7)
Analysis: The defending Super Bowl champions have arguably the most free agency talent in the NFL. EDGE Shaquill Barrett and LB Lavonte David have been critical defensive starters for Tampa over the past couple of years, while Steve McLendon and Ndamukong Suh are stout members of the best defensive line in the NFL. Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown were critical to the team’s championship run, and Chris Godwin is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. With this much talent potentially departing, the Buccaneers obviously need to find a way to clear some salary space to resign their players. Barrett (4/$68M), David (3/$40M), and Godwin (5/$110M) will cost the most to resign per PFF’s contract projections. If Brown is resigned at wide receiver, Godwin may be deemed expendable, especially with the money he is expected to earn on the open market – Washington and the Patriots have already reportedly expressed interest. Barrett and David would cost at least a combined $20 million to resign, so the Bucs have to find a way to clear some salary space. With Barrett reportedly ready to break the bank in free agency, he may be priced out of Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay does have some attractive cut candidates, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them release several players. Cameron Brate ($6.5M), O.J. Howard ($6M), and William Gholston ($5.5M) would provide the Bucs with significant cap relief via a release. The Bucs could also look to restructure Tom Brady’s contract into an extension beyond next season. Mike Evans is reportedly willing to accept a restructuring of his contract to help the team create cap room, something he has done willingly in the past. There’s no guarantee other players will be as willing, but Donovan Smith, Ryan Jensen, and Jason Pierre-Paul are the other likely candidates for a potential restructured contract. If Tampa loses Suh and McLendon, however, the defensive line would become a major need, with Vita Vea the only strong nose tackle left on the roster. If Godwin departs in free agency, the Bucs might target some lower-cost wide receiver options in addition to resigning Antonio Brown. Rob Gronkowski will likely accept a one-year, team-friendly deal to return, while Leonard Fournette is unlikely to return, leaving Ronald Jones as the workhorse.
The Buccaneers have the luxury of arguably the best roster in the NFL, but it may be weakened significantly entering next season with their level of free-agent talent. Of course, the Buccaneers have drafted better than just about anyone over the past few years with Devin White, Antoine Winfield Jr., Jordan Whitehead, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Vita Vea, some of the team’s best defenders, and all are under 25 years old. Tristan Wirfs, Ronald Jones, Scotty Miller, and Tyler Johnson are all under 25 as well. The Bucs have significantly more draft assets this year than last (they had 4 picks last year), and I expect Jason Licht to figure out a way to keep this roster among the league’s best heading into next season.
First-Round Pick Targets: RB Travis Etienne, LB Nick Bolton, S Trevon Moehrig, CB Tyson Campbell, EDGE Jayson Oweh, EDGE Carlos Basham Jr., WR Rondale Moore
Free Agency Targets: EDGE Hasson Reddick, EDGE Matt Judon, IDL DaQuan Jones, RB James White, IDL Henry Anderson, LB Avery Williamson
Current Cap Space: $31.1 million (as of 2/21)
Top Free Agents: OT Russell Okung, IOL John Miller, RB Mike Davis, LB Tahir Whitehead, WR Curtis Samuel, IOL Michael Schofield, TE Chris Manhertz, OT Taylor Moton, CB Rasul Douglas, CB Corn Elder, K Joey Slye (ERFA)
Biggest Team Needs: OT, IOL, LB, CB, QB, TE, IDL, EDGE, RB, WR, S
2021 Draft Picks: #8 (R1), #39 (R2), #73 (R3), #103 (R4), #134 (R5), #168 (R6)
Analysis: The Panthers showed flashes of real improvement during Matt Rhule’s first season as head coach, and they will be grateful to hopefully get 16 games out of stud Christian McCaffrey this season. With Mike Davis becoming a free agent and one with potentially significant interest from other teams after a strong 2020, CMC’s health needs to be a relative guarantee if Carolina lets Davis walk. Curtis Samuel becomes a free agent this year, but with D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson still with the team, the wide receiver spot is relatively solid. The Panthers also saw a strong season out of first-year starter Teddy Bridgewater, and his status as the team’s starter should be locked up, at least going into next season. Carolina could find itself in range to select Justin Fields or Zach Wilson with a trade-up or Trey Lance at #8. However, I’d expect them to look elsewhere in the first round.
One major need for the Panthers is the offensive line, a unit that only has one starter under contract for next season in center Matt Paradis. Offensive guards Michael Schofield and John Miller underwhelmed last season, and the Panthers may look elsewhere next year. On the other hand, offensive tackles Russell Okung and Taylor Moton had strong 2020 seasons, and Carolina will likely look to bring both back. Moton, in particular, won’t be cheap to resign as PFF projected his contract at $82.5 million over 5 years. Okung’s contract came in at a 3-year, $50 million projection. If Carolina wants to bring back both players, it would likely eat up almost all of their available cap space. TE Ian Thomas ($2.2M) and S Juston Burris ($3.8M) can be released for some additional cap relief, but the Panthers would still have a tough time resigning their defensive free agents. If the team loses one of their starting tackles, they would be able to address the position in the first round with some talented offensive linemen on the board. I would expect Moton to be the much bigger priority over Okung.
Defensively, the Panthers still have some major needs as well. Corn Elder and Rasul Douglas were two of the more reliable cornerbacks on the team last year, along with Donte Jackson, and both players are free agents who should have some significant interest with so many cornerback-needy teams across the NFL. Luckily for Carolina, they will be in a strong spot to select cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II or Caleb Farley in the draft. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead is also a free agent, but he underwhelmed last season and is expendable with Shaq Thompson and Jeremy Chinn manning down the position. Carolina could stand to add some pass-rushing help alongside Brian Burns, who was electric last season with 9 sacks and 21 QB hits, both team-leading marks. If Carolina is able to resign one of Elder or Douglas, they would be able to choose from a talented group of edge rushers with their early first-round pick. Carolina doesn’t have quite the same flexibility as some other teams with this level of cap space, but this is a roster on the rise and headed in the right direction.
First-Round Pick Targets: CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Caleb Farley, QB Trey Lance, LB Micah Parsons, EDGE Kwity Paye, EDGE Gregory Rousseau, OT Rashawn Slater, OT Christian Darrisaw
Free Agency Targets: CB Ronald Darby, CB Shaquill Griffin, OT Alejandro Villanueva, IDL Leonard Williams, TE Hunter Henry, CB Patrick Peterson, TE Jonnu Smith
Current Cap Space: -$20.3 million (as of 2/21)
Top Free Agents: C Alex Mack, RB Todd Gurley, S Keanu Neal, RB Brian Hill, CB Darqueze Dennard, K Younghoe Koo, S Damonte Kazee
Biggest Team Needs: S, CB, EDGE, QB, IOL, LB, RB, WR, TE
2021 Draft Picks: #4 (R1), #35 (R2), #68 (R3), #98 (R4), #131 (R5), #162 (R6)
Analysis: How the Falcons managed to spend well over the salary cap allocation on one of the worst rosters in football is beyond me, but at least they aren’t in as bad of a situation as the Eagles. Atlanta needs to clear about $20 million off its books, and it has some options to do so. The most obvious form of relief would be a trade of quarterback Matt Ryan, but new head coach Arthur Smith reportedly accepted the job with the understanding that Ryan would be the starting signal-caller in 2021. That means a Julio Jones trade is likely off the table, as well. The Falcons will look to restructure contracts with current veterans and could save a lot of money doing so. By restructuring the contracts of Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Deion Jones, Atlanta could potentially save up to $30 million in cap space. A restructure of Matt Ryan’s deal could save up to $15 million, but the team won’t pursue that route if it isn’t sold on him past this season – it would make him much harder to trade in the future. Of course, restructuring deals could hurt the team in the future if the salary cap doesn’t bounce back with improved league-wide revenue.
There aren’t any standout cut candidates on Atlanta’s roster beyond offensive guard James Carpenter (would save $4M). However, it seems likely that the Falcons will aggressively restructure deals to clear up cap space and pursue some free agents to improve this team. With that in mind, the clear position to address is the secondary. Darqueze Dennard becomes a free agent, and the Falcons will likely bring him back alongside second-year A.J. Terrell, who showed some flashes at cornerback last season. However, the Falcons should still look to solidify this group. Patrick Surtain II would be a bit of a reach at #4 in the first round, but the Falcons can trade down with a team desperate to move up for one of the quarterbacks. Safety can also become a major need with the impending free agency of Keanu Neal, a player whose inconsistency may make Atlanta unexcited to resign him.
The Falcons could also stand to improve in the interior of the offensive line as Alex Mack is a free agent and James Carpenter is a likely cut candidate. Corey Linsley is the top free agent at the center position, but the Packers will do everything they can to bring him back. David Andrews and Austin Reiter are other options at the center, while Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff are high-priced guard targets. Nick Easton, Lane Taylor, John Miller, Austin Blythe, and Jon Feliciano are all potential targets, as well. If the Falcons’ coaching significantly improves, which I expect it to under Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, Atlanta could make a push at the playoffs next season. A lot has to go right, and defensive reinforcements are needed, but this team isn’t far enough away to suggest that the roster should be completely blown up.
First-Round Pick Targets: CB Patrick Surtain II, LB Micah Parsons, CB Caleb Farley, EDGE Kwity Paye, QB Zach Wilson, QB Justin Fields
Free Agency Targets: OG Brandon Scherff, OG Joe Thuney, C Corey Linsley, IDL Leonard Williams, CB William Jackson III, CB Desmond King, S John Johnson III, C David Andrews, IDL Dalvin Tomlinson, EDGE Carl Lawson, EDGE Trey Hendrickson