For a decade or more, the NFC South has been a division defined by incredible quarterback play.
The New Orleans Saints signed Drew Brees in 2006 and he proceeded to fashion a Hall of Fame career while almost never missing a game. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan third overall two years later and he too has assembled Hall of Fame credentials while giving his franchise utter stability at the game's most important position. And while the Cam Newton era in Carolina may have ended last year, it was often breathtaking since he came aboard as the first-overall pick in 2011.
Within this framework, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have usually been the least established team at that most critical position. First-round picks Josh Freeman (2009) and Jameis Winston (2015) had some very impressive seasons, and Winston may still have a strong second chapter to his career, but neither put the Buccaneers at the top of the QB heap in the loaded NFC South at any point in that span.
Things may be a little different now, however.
Over the next three weeks, as the new league year approaches, we're going to look at how the Buccaneers' division stacks up at a variety of positions, which can help us understand how each club will approach free agency and the draft. We begin with the quarterback spot, where the Buccaneers are reaping the benefits of a bold free agency move and the rest of the division appears to be facing some interesting decisions.
The Falcons are in fine position at quarterback, with Matt Ryan still under contract through the 2023 season and still playing at a high level. In 2020, Ryan led the NFL in pass attempts (626) and completions (407), throwing for 4,581 yards and 28 touchdowns while being picked off 11 times. While his passer rating of 93.3 ranked just 21st in the NFL, he kept the Falcons' offense competitive despite being sacked 41 times and being supported by the league's 27th-ranked rushing attack.
Ryan is durable and consistent, having missed just three games over 13 seasons, with a passer rating no lower than 89.0 over the last 11 years. Atlanta could go into the 2021 campaign with full confidence that their quarterback will remain among the most productive in the NFL.
That said, Ryan is soon to turn 36 and the Falcons happen to be picking fourth in a draft that is top-heavy at the position and might end up with five quarterbacks taken in the first round. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Atlanta will take this opportunity with a very high pick – their highest since they took Ryan in 2008 – to prepare for the transition to a new franchise quarterback. The Falcons could even trade back and still land a QB of the future if they stay in the top 10.
If Atlanta does draft a quarterback, that doesn't mean the transition will be immediate. Moving on from Ryan this year would be extremely prohibitive in terms of the cap hit it would cause from the five-year deal he signed in 2019. That becomes less of a problem in 2022 and especially 2023.
Atlanta will probably be in the market for a backup at the quarterback position at least. Matt Schaub is heading into his year-40 season and is a pending unrestricted free agent. The Falcons also carried first-year man Kurt Benkert on their practice squad during the 2020 season but they released him in February.
Carolina is another NFC South team with a top-10 pick that could be in the QB draft market. After releasing Cam Newton last spring, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater as an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers had a new head coach in 2020 in Matt Rhule but top prospects Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert were all off the board before Carolina was on the clock with pick number seven.
Bridgewater is under contract in Carolina for two more years but the team could easily move on from him after 2021. The Panthers signed the former Vikings first-round pick last year after he went 5-0 as a starter for the Saints while Drew Brees was out with an injured thumb. Bridgewater was productive for Carolina, with 3,733 passing yards, but had a pedestrian 15-11 TD-INT ratio and a 92.1 passer rating that ranked just behind Ryan at number 22.
Carolina is in nearly the exact same spot as last year with the eighth-overall pick, but the quarterback pool is a bit deeper and there are several teams in the top five who might be willing to trade pick. It's reasonable to wonder if Rhule might want to hitch his wagon to a potential long-term answer at the position.
Meanwhile, the Panthers are awash in depth candidates. Will Grier and P.J. Walker are both under contract in 2021 and Tommy Stevens is an exclusive rights free agent who could easily be retained. Carolina drafted Grier in the third round in 2019, grabbed Walker out of the XFL last spring and carried Stevens on the practice squad for most of 2020. Walker, who played under Rhule at Temple, got into four games last year and threw for 368 yards and one touchdown but was also picked off five times.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints could be about to make a massive transition if Drew Brees chooses to retire. Brees has been at the team's helm for a solid 15 years, almost never missing a game until the last two years, and his career passing numbers rival those of Tom Brady in league history. He helped New Orleans beat the eventual-champion Buccaneers twice during the 2020 season before Brady and the Bucs ended what could be his last season in the Divisional playoff round.
The general consensus is that Brees is going to hang up his cleats, a belief that was strengthened when he restructured his remaining contract to pay out the veteran minimum in 2021. That was seen as a move to help the Saints navigate their extremely difficult cap situation for the upcoming season. That said, as of the first day of March, Brees has not announced his retirement.
Brees is clearly still a very effective NFL passer at the age of 42, having finished the 2020 season with a 106.4 passer rating that ranked sixth in the league. That marked the sixth straight year that he has finished in triple digits in that category, and it had a lot to do with a 24-6 TD-INT ratio. The Saints' offense has evolved into one that emphasizes quicker and shorter passes and a strong running game, and Brees rarely throws deep downfield anymore. Still, the Saints were the fifth-highest scoring team in the NFL in 2020.
If Brees does retire, the Saints have two possible in-house candidates to consider as potential replacements, although only one is currently under contract. Taysom Hill, the jack-of-all-trades offensive weapon who in recent years has lined up all over the formation, signed a fairly lucrative extension last May that has him under contract for 2021. He got the call this past season when Brees was out with a ribs injury and won three of his four starts, completing 72.7% of his passes and compiling a passer rating of 98.8.
Former Buccaneers first-round Jameis Winston is set to be a free agent after playing on a one-year deal with the Saints in 2020, but he is also a potential replacement for a retiring Brees. Winston only threw 11 passes during the regular season – plus one 56-yard touchdown toss on a trick play in the Bucs' Divisional win at the Super Dome – but he had some rather prolific passing numbers during his five seasons in Tampa Bay. The first-overall pick in the 2015 draft already has two 4,000-yard seasons and one 5,000-yard campaign, though a high number of turnovers have so far kept him out of the league's elite.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have stability at the quarterback position, as Super Bowl LV MVP Tom Brady is returning to chase his eighth title and the Bucs' third. Brady was among the NFL's most productive passers in 2020 from a purely productive standpoint, throwing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns during the regular season, but he was also a clear difference-maker in terms of the franchise's belief that it could win a championship.
Brady's final passing numbers, including a strong run in the postseason, were outstanding but they were particularly impressive during the final two months of the Super Bowl run, as the Bucs won eight straight and very rarely turned the ball over. It was clear that he and his talented group of pass-catchers were finally getting fully on the same page after having had no offseason program or preseason schedule to figure each other out. After the Bucs' Super Bowl win, Brady said he expected the offense to be better in 2021 after another offseason to work together.
Of course, Brady will also be 44 years old during the 2021 season, though General Manager Jason Licht has mentioned the possibility of an extension beyond next year. Either way, at some point the Buccaneers will have to start planning for a future at quarterback beyond Brady. It doesn't seem likely that includes a high draft pick at the position this spring.
As reserves, the Buccaneers had Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin in 2020, but both are headed towards unrestricted free agency. Gabbert was the primary backup last season and he performed well in the second half at Detroit in Week 16 after Brady built a 34-0 halftime lead. Gabbert, a former first-round pick by Jacksonville, has much more regular-season experience than Griffin and had five starts under Bruce Arians in Arizona in 2017.