As free agency comes barreling down towards the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so does it also towards the rest of the NFL, including the Buccaneers' three division foes. With the new league year beginning on March 17 at 4:00 p.m., we're taking a look at where all four teams in the NFC South stand at a variety of positions in 2021.
Last week, we started with the quarterbacks, where some teams are or could be in transition after a long run of stability, and the offensive skill positions, where every team is loaded with multiple stars. Now we're going to look at the men who make it possible for those quarterbacks to get the ball to those stars, as we turn our attention to the offensive line.
The Buccaneers, Falcons and Saints combine to have 14 of their 15 regular O-Line starters under contract for 2021. That is very much not the case in Carolina, where six linemen are pending free agents and only one 2020 starter is currently under contract for the upcoming season. Only the Saints had a strong rushing attack last season (at least during the regular season), but the lines in both New Orleans and Tampa excelled in pass protection.
The Falcons offense was next-to-last in the rushing rankings in 2020 and finished middle of the pack in terms of sacks allowed per pass play, but they do have four of their five starters intact for next season. The exception is long-time center standout Alex Mack, who impressively finished the entire five-year contract he signed with Atlanta in 2016. Mack also started the first 78 games of that span before missing his last two with concussion and COVID issues.
As of now, Mack's last game with the Falcons was the Week 15 loss to the Buccaneers, and that could remain true as he is 35 years old and had mentioned the possibility of retirement before the 2020 season. The Falcons also a difficult cap situation to manage, which is going to require some roster trimming or contract restructuring before March 17. Atlanta could just transition to 2020 third-round pick Matt Hennessy, who started those last two contests with Mack out.
The rest of the line consists of tackles Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary and guards Chris Lindstrom and James Carpenter, all former first-round picks. McGary and Lindstrom are only going into their third seasons and are likely to remain starters. McGary struggled somewhat as a rookie in 2019 but improved last year, particularly before an MCL injury, and was particularly strong as a run-blocker. Lindstrom missed much of his rookie season with a foot injury but the former top prospect looked like a future star in 2020 and should hold down the right guard position for a long time.
Matthews, a 2014 first-rounder, played himself into a lucrative second deal and is still under contract for three more years. He's not going anywhere but could be a candidate to have his contract restructured. Carpenter also has two years left on his contract with Atlanta but it is one that would be much easier for the Falcons to get away from if they are trying to massage their cap space.
If Hennessy does indeed graduate to the starting lineup, the Falcons won't have a ton of offensive line depth to start the league year. Reserve tackle Matt Gono, who started four games in 2020, is a restricted free agent so he will likely be back. But Justin McCray, who started two games at left guard, and John Wetzel are both pending free agents.
Atlanta's ground game ranking has dropped ever since it finished fifth in 2016, but some of the issues last year can be traced to a failed gamble on Todd Gurley and too much time chasing from behind. The Falcons have invested a lot of draft capital in their offensive front and could have a mostly young line on the rise in 2021.
The Panthers' offensive line is the reverse image of that of the Falcons, with four of their five main starters from 2020 headed to free agency, and the exception being the center. Veteran Matt Paradis is still under contract for two more years with a relatively affordable contract.
The other four are left tackle Russell Okung, left guard Chris Reed, right guard John Miller and right tackle Taylor Moton. Moton is sure to be the priority for the Panthers as they try to navigate that group of free agents, which also includes reserves Tyler Larsen and Michael Schofield. A second-round pick in 2017, Moton has been the closest thing the Carolina offensive line has had to a constant, starting 48 straight games and performing quite well in 2020. The Panthers have a decent amount of cap space, the most of any team in the division, and will probably view Moton as a long-term building block.
Carolina tried to shore up left tackle last year with the unexpected trade of standout guard Trai Turner for the Chargers' Okung, but both players missed significant time due to injury. Okung doesn't figure to be a priority for the Panthers to bring back and offensive tackle could be considered one of their top needs in the upcoming draft.
The Panthers had better luck with the signing of Miller last March after the Bengals let him go but now but they only signed him to a one year deal so now both he and Reed are free agents at the same time. Carolina might only be able to keep one and could instead move Dennis Daley into one of the other two spots.
The Panthers do have another young player, chosen 37th overall just two years ago, in reserve in tackle Greg Little. But Little has only started six games over two seasons and the team doesn't seem confident in putting him in a critical role. It's worth noting that the Panthers turned to former undrafted free agent Trenton Scott when Okung went down last season, and also that Carolina just re-signed Scott as a restricted free agent two weeks ago.
Carolina ranked 18th in rushing yards and 21st in sacks allowed per pass play in 2020 but, of course, they were also without superstar running back Christian McCaffrey for all but three games. That was the first time since 2006 that the Panthers finished in the bottom half of the rushing rankings, and that part of their offense will surely get a boost when McCaffrey returns to action in 2021.
However, the Panthers could also be one of the team's targeting a top quarterback in the draft for second-year Head Coach Matt Rhule to develop. After moving on from Cam Newton last year the Panthers went with former Viking and Saint Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 and got underwhelming returns. If Carolina is going to draft a potential franchise quarterback and get him on the field quickly, they'll want him to have at least have adequate protection. And that means the Panthers have a lot of work to do to either retain or rebuild their front line.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have all five of the starters on their extremely good offensive line under contract for 2021, and three of those are still on rookie deals. That's what happens when you repeatedly use first and second-day picks on linemen, which is a staple of Saints drafting. However, standout right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is heading into the option fifth year of his rookie deal, which means his salary is going up dramatically.
Ramczyk has yet to make a Pro Bowl but he was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro choice in 2019. Left tackle Terron Armstead and left guard Andrus Peat were Pro Bowl selections this year, and they also have fairly high cap hits and the Saints have the most cap space in the NFL to trim before the new league year. Given how much the Saints have prioritized their O-Line over the years and the tremendous results they've gotten, it would be a surprise to see any of those three be cap casualties, but they could be candidates for restructuring.
First-round pick Cesar Ruiz stepped made nine starts and settled in as the right guard in place of the released Larry Warford. Ruiz had a solid first season and played disciplined ball so should become a fixture on that line. He can also played center, which was his position at Michigan, but the Saints have another recent draft pick, Eric McCoy manning that spot.
New Orleans' top reserve on the line in 2020 was Nick Easton, who ended up with nine starts. However, hew as released on February 12 as the Saints began that work on their salary cap. Reserves James Hurst and Will Clapp are also pending free agents, though Clapp would be a restricted free agent and relatively easy to keep around.
True to form, the Saints got good results from their offensive line in 2020, ranking sixth in rushing yards and 13th in sacks allowed per pass play. Even that sack percentage is a bit misleading as it includes 14 sacks in just 135 dropbacks by jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill. Brees was only sacked 13 times on 413 dropbacks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like the Saints, the Buccaneers return all five of their offensive line starters in 2020, though they've already invested heavily in three of them – left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen. Smith and Marpet are both former Tampa Bay draft picks who got big second deals, while Jensen was a high-priced free agent three years ago. Both Smith and Jensen are heading into the final years of their current deals.
That group is rounded out by right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle Tristan Wirfs, former first and third-round picks, respectively. Wirfs, who played at a Pro Bowl level as a rookie in 2020 and didn't miss a single offensive snap might be the best current value on the entire roster. Cappa is also entering the final year of his rookie deal.
Obviously, the Buccaneers are pleased with the results from their offensive line, which only allowed one sack of Tom Brady in each of the last three playoff games. The importance of that protection was stark in the team's dominant win over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. Brady was only pressured four times in that game while Mahomes was pressured 29 times, or a Super Bowl record 51.7% of the time.
During the regular season, Tampa Bay had the second lowest sacks-per-pass-play rate in the league, which helped Brady throw 40 touchdown passes. The Bucs' ground game tied for 28th but then came alive in the postseason with 122.5 yards per game and four touchdowns.
The Buccaneers also have guard Aaron Stinnie under contract for 2021 and that is a good start for their reserves up front. When Cappa suffered an ankle fracture in the Wild Card win at Washington, Stinnie finished out the postseason as the starting right guard and held his ground quite well. On the other hand, veteran reserve tackles Joe Haeg and Josh Wells are both pending free agents.
The Buccaneers are expected to aggressively hunt a second straight championship but they have a long list of key free agents to attend to in the coming weeks. They are fortunate, at the same time, to have no issues on their offensive line for 2021 and that should remain one of the team's main strengths next season.