Free agency is well underway, the draft arrives in just one month, the 2013 schedule will drop in three weeks and teams are about to start their offseason training programs. It's a good time to check in once again on the headlines being generated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three foes in the NFC South:
The first few weeks of free agency have already carried a handful of significant players in and out of the NFC South. New arrivals include S Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay), RB Steven Jackson (Atlanta), CB Keenan Lewis (New Orleans) and WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr. (Carolina); departures include DE Michael Bennett (Tampa Bay), DE John Abraham (Atlanta), T Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans) and LB James Anderson (Carolina). The shopping is far from over, with the Falcons reportedly close to a deal with DE Osi Umenyiora and the Saints looking at a number of free agents to help their new-look defense under coordinator Rob Ryan. The draft is also looming, and the NFC South teams could find themselves vying for some of the same coveted players, as defense seems to be the division-wide theme.
In Atlanta, the Falcons are celebrating the retirement and imminent Ring of Honor status of long-time center Todd McClure, but they've also been busy molding their first McClure-free roster since 1999. So far, the process has gone well for the Falcons, as they have added a very significant piece in RB Steven Jackson and retained several key players that were no sure bet to return. That includes Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez, who chose not to retire, thus allowing the Falcons to focus on other needs on a roster that nearly made it to the Super Bowl last season. RB Michael Turner was released and defensive end John Abraham will not return, but starting left tackle Sam Baker was re-signed to an eight-year deal on the same day Gonzalez returned to the fold. As for the high-profile newcomer, the Falcons believe that Jackson and rising young back Jacquizz Rodgers can complement each other well, even if their styles aren't quite as dissimilar as many think. "The combination of Jackson and Rodgers in Atlanta's backfield for 2013 means two backs with the ability to do damage in a variety of ways," writes Daniel Cox of the Falcons' official web site. "Opponents will have to account for both backs and their ability to run and catch and Atlanta's Pick-Your-Poison offense will become even more multi-dimensional as they look to make another Super Bowl run." The most recent free agency news emanating from Atlanta deals with former Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who has been reportedly on the cusp of signing with the team for a week. The contract isn't in place yet, as of Wednesday, but the negotiations are described as "amicable." After landing Jackson and convincing Gonzalez and Baker to return, the Falcons may be looking to load up on defense in April's draft. Several analysts in the collection of mock drafts on NFL.com pair Atlanta up with a cornerback, although the possibility of Brent Grimes returning to the Falcons still exists.
The free agency action has been more low-key in Carolina, which is not unexpected given the Panthers' difficult cap situation when the new year began. The Panthers did land former San Francisco wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who could become the long-sought-after complement to Steve Smith, though he is most accomplished as a return man. Head Coach Ron Rivera was excited about what Ginn could bring to the special teams and suggested he had a chance to pick up significant playing time on offense. "He's an explosive guy coming off the line of scrimmage, too," Rivera said. "So there's some huge pluses for us as far as hoping to be able to bring a guy like that into the fold." The other spot on the depth chart the Panthers have addressed in free agency, albeit with a collection of under-the-radar moves, is the secondary. In addition to re-signing Captain Munnerlyn, who had something of a breakout year in 2012, Carolina also added cornerbacks D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence and S Mike Mitchell. None of the three were starters last year, but Moore had 10 interceptions over three years in Chicago, Mitchell has been a spot-starter in Oakland and Florence has 99 career starts over 10 season in San Diego, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Detroit. Moore and Mitchell, in particular, come to Carolina looking for a chance to start, and the opportunity does appear to exist. Long-time CB starter Chris Gamble was released and the team was not overwhelmed by last year's safety pickup, Haruki Nakamura. "Whoever's there, I'm ready to compete against," Mitchell said. "Really the opportunity was just too good. They said the best man was going to play." Free agency, or their own cap-related roster decisions, has robbed the Panthers of a few useful players, including tight end Gary Barnidge and linebacker James Anderson, but Charlotte Observer analyst Scott Fowler says the team's recent moves in free agency have eased some of the early sting. Those moves include the re-signing of 32-year-old defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who had a strong season in 2012 at a position of shallow depth for the Panthers. "Getting Munnerlyn and Edwards back, as well as backup quarterback Derek Anderson for another year, are the sort of under-the-radar moves that ultimately make for a good team," writes Fowler. "As I've said before, the Panthers are in position for a good run in 2013, and I think they will make one." Carolina picks one spot after the Buccaneers in this year's draft, and many of the NFL.com analysts have the Panthers going after one of the top-rated defensive tackles.
InNew Orleans, there have been some fairly significant comings and goings in free agency, and rumors of more to come. The team lost starting tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears in the early going of the open market, and has also seen LB Jonathan Casillas go to the Buccaneers, DE Turk McBride to the Bears and backup QB Chase Daniel to the Chiefs. The Bushrod loss, in particular, could be troublesome for the Saints, at least in the opinion of Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Time-Picayune, who writes, "Suddenly, the Saints have a huge question mark at a vital position that they haven't had to worry about much since 2006. Sure, they still have high hopes for young backup Charles Brown, provided he can stay healthy. And they will likely add a veteran free agent at a cheaper rate to serve as competition and insurance. Perhaps they will even use the 15th pick in the draft on a prospect capable of turning into a Pro Bowler. Those are all maybes, though. And for a team that relies so much on Brees and the passing game, the left tackle spot can't be a 'maybe.'" However, the Saints did pick up a valuable piece for their defensive rebuilding efforts in up-and-coming cornerback Keenan Lewis, the former Steeler. A New Orleans' native, Lewis had a strong first season as a starter in Pittsburgh in 2012 and hit free agency at the perfect time to go back to his hometown with a lucrative new deal. "We are excited to be able to add a player of Keenan's ability to our defense," said Saints G.M. Mickey Loomis. "He was a top free agent target for us and I know that he is very excited to be able to come home to play football." The Saints' offseason could get better if they could succeed in adding a few more parts to their beleaguered defense, which is shifting from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Free agents who have visited New Orleans or who have been rumored to be on the Saints' radar include CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DE Dwight Freeney and LB Victor Butler. Asomugha is supposedly deciding between the 49ers and the Saints and in the meantime Ian Rapaport of NFL.com thinks the Saints should turn their attention to Freeney, as long as they want him as a pass-rush specialist and not a full-time 3-4 end. Triplett, on the other hand, thinks former Dallas linebacker Victor Butler, a potential pass-rushing weapon, is the most logical fit for the Saints on the free agency market, especially since Butler would be reuniting with Ryan. Butler is still more potential than proven producer as a starter at this point, but he has definitely found a market for his services, already visiting with at least Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Philadelphia without striking a deal yet.