A look at key free agent additions and 2016 NFL Draft picks for our NFC South division rivals.
If there's one collective strength the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division boasts, it's quarterbacks. From the reigning league MVP to a 4,000-yard rookie sensation, the NFC South is set in all four outposts at the game's most critical position.
The Bucs-Panthers-Falcons-Saints quartet is strong across the board at the running back position, as well, and there an awful lot of good defensive tackles in the division. Not every depth-chart strength is shared across all four NFC South locations, however. Tampa Bay and Carolina have star-studded linebacking corps but the Falcons may start two rookies in those spots in 2016 and the Saints are reshuffling the deck under Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan. With Josh Norman's departure from Carolina, the Falcons may have the division's most decorated cornerback in Desmond Trufant. The Saints' young left tackle, Terron Armstead, is considered a star on the rise at another extremely important position.
Obviously, those four teams have spent the spring trying to shore up their respective weaknesses through free agency and the draft. As we noted a week ago, the entire division took a defense-heavy approach to the 2016 NFL Draft, but it remains to be seen whether, for instance, Noah Spence will do more for the Bucs' edge rush than a trio of new corners will do to replace Norman in Charlotte.
That answer will be provided on the field this fall, but in the meantime we can make some educated guesses. Today, we'll take a look at the four teams of the NFC South with the goal of identifying the most and least improved unit on each depth chart. Keep in mind that "least improved" doesn't necessarily mean bad; it simply indicates an apparent lack of an upgrade.
Most Improved: Linebacker
The Falcons went into the offseason looking to add speed to their linebacking corps, though their first move was to let veteran Justin Durant go. After watching LSU's Deion Jones fly over the field during the Senior Bowl week, Atlanta targeted the former Tiger and jumped on him with their second-round pick in the draft. Jones should challenge returning veteran Philip Wheeler for the starting weakside spot right away, though former Falcon standout Sean Weatherspoon is also back with the team after spending time in Arizona.
The Falcons have apparently elected to move one of last year's big signings, Brooks Reed into the middle linebacker spot, but they also spent a fourth-round pick on an intriguing linebacker prospect out of the University of Minnesota, De'Vondre Campbell. Campbell is considered a bit raw but at 6-5 and 240 pounds he's got the size and speed to develop into a big thumper in the middle.
Pictures from Grimes' career with the Miami Dolphins.
Though it didn't exactly fit the speed mandate, the Falcons also signed former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw in free agency, likely ticketing him for the strongside spot. Upshaw isn't a burner, but he's a sure tackler who has been very good against the run. Atlanta ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL last year in both rushing yards allowed per game and yards allowed per carry.
The Falcons' leading tackler for the last three seasons, former undrafted free agent Paul Worrilow, is also still around. After years of devoting little draft capital to the position, Atlanta has seriously upgraded its linebacking depth, adding speed, veteran experience and even some promising youth all in the space of a couple months. It may take a while to get the depth chart sorted out, and for rookies Jones and Campbell to make their full impact, but the middle of the Falcons' defense will potentially be a lot more dynamic in 2016.
Least Improved: Defensive Line
Perhaps more accurately, it's hard to tell if Atlanta's edge rush improved much in free agency and the draft, and with a league-low 19 sacks last year, that was clearly something missing in the Falcons' defense a year ago. That likely ranked as a significant disappointment in Atlanta because the team did put a lot of effort into improving the situation in 2015. In addition to signing former Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn, the team also drafted edge rusher Vic Beasley in the first round and picked up two linebackers who had some edge-rush history in Reed and O'Brien Schofield.
While it didn't work out in 2015, it's possible that some of those moves plus a few more tweaks in 2016 will combine to solve the problem this year. Clayborn and company will be more familiar with Dan Quinn's defense in his second year at the helm, and the possibility of better coverage in the back seven (which also added S Keanu Neal in Round One) may give the big guys up front more time to hunt.
That said, the only major addition to the edge rush this year was former Miami defensive end Derrick Shelby, who got a four-year deal and will likely start opposite Beasley. Shelby's a fine all-around player and a good addition for a reloading defense but he has a career total of nine sacks in 63 games played. Perhaps the Falcons will get more of a push from the inside from 2014 second-round pick Ra'Shede Hagemen, or Grady Jarrett, a fifth-round selection last year.
<span style="text-decoration: underline;">Carolina Panthers</span>
Most Improved: Defensive Line
First, a caveat: It's not easy to find a lot of depth chart weaknesses on a team that went 15-1 a year ago and made it to the Super Bowl. The departure of Josh Norman obviously created a hole at cornerback but the team went the volume route in the draft and selected three potential replacements. The Falcons also just released free agent pickup Brandon Boykin, which would seem to indicate confidence in the three rookies who will vie for time opposite Bene Benwikere and in the slot. It's anybody's guess as to whether the Panthers will be significantly worse in the secondary or just fine, but it's hard to peg that unit as either most or least improved.
Pictures from Ayers' 2015 season with the New York Giants
And, certainly, the Panthers were not hurting on their defensive front last year. They might have had the league's best defensive tackle duo in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, but that didn't stop them from using their first-round pick on another potential standout at that position, Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler. With the adjacent signing of 10th-year veteran Paul Soliai, a strong and consistent inside force if not a pass-rusher, the Panthers can cycle in fresh legs on the interior line for 60 minutes. The formula worked in 2015, when the Panthers generated 44 sacks despite little star power on the outside.
However, there's help for the edge now, too. Charles Johnson, who was limited by injury to nine games and not much impact in 2015, re-signed with the team after testing free agency waters. Johnson will turn 30 in July but if he has anything left in the tank resembling his 2010-14 seasons, when he averaged more than 10 sacks a season, that front line could become scary. Though it was just one game, we should also factor in the coming-out party Kony Ealy enjoyed in the Super Bowl last February. Ealy, a second-round pick in 2014, had nine sacks in his first two seasons combined but might be on the verge of a breakout season.
Least Improved: Offensive Line
The Panthers didn't sign any notable free agent receivers or address the position in the draft, but that group will get much stronger in 2016 simply due to the return of 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the standouts in that history '14 class of receivers but he spent all of last season on injured reserve thanks to a training camp injury. If 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess continues his development, the Panthers should be just fine at wideout.
The offensive line might be fine, too. After all, it held up very well during the 2015 regular season even though most experts pinpointed that group as a potential weakness before the season. Analysts were unimpressed with the addition of Michael Oher to play left tackle and didn't know what the solution was going to be at right tackle. Well, former undrafted free agent Mike Remmers stabilized the right side, Oher held up well and third-round rookie Trai Turner settled in quickly next to Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. The Panthers ranked second in the league in rushing yards and tied for the 11th-fewest sacks allowed.
Still, the relentless pressure allowed on Cam Newton in the Super Bowl rekindled some of those lingering doubts, even if it was just one game against a historically good pass rush. Remmers earned his spot at right tackle, where he started every game last year, with a strong six-game cameo down the stretch in 2014. However, he may be pushed this year by Daryl Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2015 who offers great strength and size and might be a force in the rushing attack.
The Panthers must once again feel good about their offensive linemen because they did not address the position the draft (though, of course, it's impossible to hit every apparent need in that manner). They did pick up Gino Gradkowski in the early days of free agency, but the former Raven and Falcon has started just one game in the last two years and didn't impress as Baltimore's center in 2013. Otherwise, the only additions were February "street" free agents David Yankey, David Foucault and Donald Hawkins.
<span style="text-decoration: underline;">New Orleans Saints</span>
Most Improved: Defensive Tackle
The Saints have been busy.
After a disastrous season on defense that led to a midstream switch of coordinators, New Orleans was obviously going to rework that half of the depth chart for Dennis Allen. However, the Saints also spent big on tight end Coby Fleener, re-signed backup QB Luke McCown, used a high draft pick on a potential starting receiver in Michael Thomas and even inked two kickers to compete for that job (re-signing Kai Forbath and signing Josh Scobee).
It's hard to say the Saints got appreciably better at the offensive skill positions, though, given that Fleener replaces Ben Watson coming off a huge season and Thomas steps into the sizeable shoes of Marques Colston. It's on defense, where the Saints allowed almost 30 points per game last year to finish dead last in that category, where there almost have to be some gains made in 2016.
A look at the newest members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The linebacking corps got a gift when the Rams released James Laurinaitis, a signing that could lead to some position shuffling for promising youngsters Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha. With Dannell Ellerbe returning from an injury-marred first season in New Orleans and some mid-level veteran additions like Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson, that part of the depth chart will certainly be different; whether or not its significantly better remains to be seen.
It's much more cut-and-dried at defensive tackle, where the Saints used the 12th overall pick in the draft on Louisville's Sheldon Rankins. Considered the best of the bunch in a very strong class of DTs, Rankins was the predicted pick by the Saints for many a mock-drafter, for obvious reasons. New Orleans could easily add a difference-maker at any position on their defense, and Rankins was the best available one at that point in the draft. His pressure up the middle should free up opportunities on the edge for the team's best pass-rusher Cameron Jordan.
John Jenkins returns as an incumbent starter for the other DT spot, but he should be pushed by one of the team's biggest free agency pickups, Nick Fairley. The former first-round pick in Detroit did not have an enormous impact in his one season with the Rams but has history of being a strong pass-rusher up the middle, too. Tyeler Davison, a fifth-round pick a year ago, showed some promise as a rookie with five starts and 1.5 sacks. If he continues to develop, the Saints could have a nice four-man rotation up front.
Least Improved: Cornerback
Again, it's rare that a team can address every one of its depth-chart needs in a draft, and when an entire defense is getting reworked it's nearly impossible. So the Saints used two of their five picks on defensive linemen and another on a safety (Ohio State's Vonn Bell in Round Two) but they didn't snag any cornerbacks.
The Saints were somewhat limited in free agency by a tight cap situation, though they did land Fleener, Fairley and Laurinaitis. They did not pick up any cornerback help, though they re-signed Kyle Wilson, who started four games for them last year. Wilson played his first five season with the New York Jets but has just four career interceptions and five starts in the last three years.
As noted up top, choosing this position as least improved for the Saints doesn't necessarily mean it will be a weakness in 2016. The Saints liked the development of former CFL player Delvin Breaux, as did some of the more advanced analytics; he could be a star in the making and might be one of the most solid spots on the whole defensive depth chart. Keenan Lewis is just a few years removed from being one of the most coveted free agents on the market in 2013; he missed most of last season due to injury but if he returns strong the Saints might be better off at cornerback than it seems. Perhaps this was the least improved spot on the defensive depth chart this season because it needed the least improvement.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Most Improved: Cornerback
This one's a toss-up between two pretty obvious choices: cornerback and defensive end. These were clearly the team's two biggest needs heading into the offseason, and the Bucs hit both early in free agency with Brent Grimes and Robert Ayers, respectively. That gave Jason Licht added flexibility in the draft, but as it turned out the first two rounds still yielded another player at each position. Since it was the first-round pick that went to Vernon Hargreaves, with Noah Spence coming aboard in Round Two, will give the nod to cornerback overall.
Pictures of the Bucs' first-round draft pick during his first practices in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs are likely to have two new starters in those two positions in 2016. Given that Tampa Bay's defense allowed a 70% completion rate in 2015, that would seem likely to represent an upgrade. Now, a deficient pass rush and the defensive scheme should probably share the blame for those struggles, but the Bucs also needed an infusion of talent in the secondary.
Gone from last year's cornerback corps are Sterling Moore and Mike Jenkins. In addition to signing Grimes and drafting Hargreaves, the Bucs also picked up unrestricted free agent cornerback Josh Robinson. Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner are returning to find out how they fit in a new defensive scheme under Mike Smith, and Jude Adjei-Barimah will try to continue to ascend after getting several starts as an undrafted rookie last year.
Grimes seems like the most obvious starter in that bunch. The Bucs' secondary had a dearth of big plays in 2015 and that's Grimes' calling card, with 13 interceptions over the past three seasons. Hargreaves went #11 overall in the draft, the highest the Bucs have ever drafted a cornerback, and they would certainly like him to develop into a starter sooner rather than later. He might end up in a combo role, starting on the outside and moving into the slot in nickel packages. The other four should put up a spirited battle for the third and fourth corner spots, and all four have had stretches of NFL success.
Least Improved: Wide Receiver
The safety position returns in much the same shape as it was a year ago thanks to the re-signings of Chris Conte (an unrestricted free agent) and Bradley McDougald (a restricted free agent). Those were each one-year contracts, however, so the long-term future of the position is up in the air. That future could include Ryan Smith, a fourth-round cornerback out of North Carolina Central who is going to begin his NFL career at safety. That is a potentially significant addition to that group.
The wide receiving corps, on the other hand, looks almost exactly like it did at the end of 2015, with the exception of some more healthy bodies. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are the clear starters, and the Buccaneers did not any significant threats to those jobs in free agency or the draft. Instead, they will see what develops out of Louis Murphy, Kenny Bell, Adam Humphries, Donteea Dye and possibly Evan Spencer.
Murphy suffered a season-ending knee injury near midseason and is not expected to return to action until training camp. Still, he has put in good work in a third-receiver role, drawing some occasional starts, over the past two seasons and is a trusted target in the Bucs' attack. Bell was a fifth-round pick a year ago, a speedy deep threat considered by many to be a steal, and he was impressing during the offseason before suffering a season-ending injury in August. He may possess the most potential in that group as a starter down the road. Humphries and Dye were undrafted rookies a year ago pressed into bigger roles by Murphy's injury and a pair of unlucky knee collisions that kept Jackson sidelined. Spencer was a practice squad developmental project who got a promotion to the roster at the very end of the season.
The Bucs may very well see a significant improvement at the receiver position in 2016. Healthy campaigns from Jackson, Bell and Murphy would practically guarantee that. That's what the Buccaneers' brass appears to be counting on, as they focused their free agency and draft capital mostly on fixing a porous defense.