But free agency is coming for everyone in the NFL, as is the 2021 draft, which is incredibly less than two months away. Thus, we are widening our gaze a bit to include the entire NFC South to get an idea of how the four teams in the division stack up at various positions on the depth chart. After all, while the Buccaneers may be defending the Lombardi Trophy in 2021 they haven't won an NFC South title since 2007.
On Monday, we started this exercise by comparing the quarterback situations in Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. That's a position at which the NFC South has long been loaded but also at which some of the four teams are or could soon be in transition. Now we turn our attention to the players who catch and run the football and, again, we find a division overflowing with elite-level talent.
Every team in the NFC South had at least one superstar ballcarrier and/or pass-catcher in 2020, and most of them had more than one. The division is particularly deep in star receivers, and both the Panthers, Saints and Falcons will all be getting back a top producer in 2021 after injuries cost them most or a good portion of 2020. The Buccaneers may have had the deepest cast of skill-position players in 2020, a big reason why they are the current holders of the Lombardi Trophy, but they also have the most work to do in free agency.
Atlanta is much deeper in pass-catchers than ballcarriers, which showed in their 2020 offensive rankings (5th passing, 27th receiving). When Julio Jones is healthy, that group starts with a pair of wide receivers that rivals the Bucs' Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as one of the best starting tandems in the league. Jones missed six games with hamstring problems in 2020 but still caught 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Calvin Ridley demonstrated that he is a full-fledged number-one receiver in his own right, tying for fifth in the league with 1,374 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
With Jones missing so much time, the Falcons also found they had some useful depth at the receiver position in former sixth-round pick Russell Gage, who stepped up with 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns. No other wideout had more than 20 receptions, but tight end Hayden Hurst, acquired in an offseason trade with Baltimore, was another productive target for Matt Ryan with 56 grabs and six touchdowns.
Ridley, Gage and Hurst are all going into the fourth years of their original rookie deals, which makes that trio quite cap friendly. Jones carries a hefty cap charge but it would be even worse if he were released or traded. Atlanta heads towards the new league year needing to clear some space in order to be compliant with the 2021 cap.
The Falcons rolled the dice on Todd Gurley's knee in 2020 but it was only a one-year deal and he is now a pending unrestricted free agent. Gurley led the team with 678 rushing yards and did score nine touchdowns, but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and saw his role diminish late in the season as he ended up playing only 45% of the team's offensive snaps. He didn't have more than 26 rushing yards in any game from Week 11 on. Brian Hill and Ito Smith picked up the slack and both averaged more than four yards per carry but they combined for just 733 yards and two touchdowns. Like Gurley, Hill is a pending unrestricted free agent.
The Panthers had one of the most productive trio of wideouts in the NFL in 2020 with Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. In fact, Carolina and Seattle were the only two teams in the league to have two wideouts top 1,000 receiving yards, and the Panthers weren't far from having three hit that mark.
Anderson was a free agent gem, coming over from the Jets where he had been a bit of a hit-and-miss big-play target. Interestingly, in Carolina he became more of a high-volume possession receiver with 95 catches for 1,096 yards and three touchdowns. He only gained 11.5 yards per catch after averaging 14.8 per grab over four years in New York. Instead, it was Moore who filled the big-play role, averaging 18.1 yards per reception on the way to 1,193 yards and four scores. Moore caught 21 fewer passes than he had in his 2019 breakout season but gained 18 more yards.
Samuel was the player the Panthers could move all over the formation and he added 851 yards through the air and another 200 on the ground, scoring five total touchdowns. Samuel is a pending unrestricted free agent, however, while both Moore and Anderson are under contract for 2021 and Moore is going into the fourth year of his rookie deal.
Normally, the Panthers' skill-position section would begin with Christian McCaffrey, who was the NFL's most productive offensive weapon in 2019. That led to the Panthers signing McCaffrey to a new and lucrative four-year deal last March. However, after joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the only players ever to top 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season, McCaffrey lost all but three games in 2020 to ankle, shoulder and quad ailments. That was a problem for the Panthers last year of course but McCaffrey, who when healthy plays nearly 100% of the team's offensive snaps, should be back at the center of the team's attack in 2021.
Veteran journeyman Mike Davis actually filled in quite well for McCaffrey and was a similar sort of duel threat, with 642 rushing yards, 59 catches and six total touchdowns. Davis is headed towards free agency in March, however. Carolina got little out of the tight end position in their first year without Greg Olsen. Ian Thomas was the top producer for the Panthers at that position with 20 receptions for 145 yards and one touchdown.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints' offense runs through running back Alvin Kamara, and that was even more true in 2020 with star wideout Michael Thomas missing nine regular-season games with a variety of injuries. New Orleans signed the 2017 draft pick to a five-year contract extension in September, though the big cap hits don't start until 2022. Kamara ranked third in the NFL last season with 1,732 yards from scrimmage, getting 932 on the ground and 756 through the air and leading the Saints in both categories. He gained 5.0 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per catch and, by the way, scored an NFL-high 21 touchdowns.
Latavius Murray gave the Saints a good complement to Kamara with 656 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry, and no look at New Orleans' pass-catchers and ballcarriers would be complete without including quarterback Taysom Hill. Hill ran for 457 yards and eight touchdowns and lined up essentially everywhere in the Saints' formation.
New Orleans seemed to have finally found their wide receiver complement to Thomas with 2020 free agent addition Emmanuel Sanders, but instead Sanders became the number-one wideout due to Thomas's injury issues. Sanders caught 61 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns. After averaging 117.5 catches per year over his first four NFL seasons, Thomas only caught 40 balls in 2020 but he's under contract through 2024 and still only 28 years old.
Tight end Jared Cook, a very good red zone threat over the past two seasons, originally signed a three-year deal with the Saints but the third year automatically voids so he will be a free agent again in 2021. In fact, New Orleans accelerated that move by releasing him on Wednesday. The Saints did draft his potential replacement, Adam Trautman, in the third round last year but he had just 15 catches in his rookie campaign.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers were probably the most loaded team in the NFC South at the offensive skill positions in 2020 but, again, they also face the biggest free agency issues in 2021. Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette are all headed towards unrestricted free agency on March 17 if the Bucs don't find a way to retain them.
Tampa Bay had one receiver top 1,000 yards (though not by much) in Mike Evans and no 1,000-yard rushers in 2020 but that was largely because there were so many options for Tom Brady's distribution of the football. There were some injury issues along the way, too. Ronald Jones finished with 978 rushing yards and surely would have cracked 1,000 for the first time if not for injury and COVID-19 issues in December. Godwin, coming off his sensational 1,333-yard Pro Bowl season in 2019, dealt with concussion, finger and hamstring issues in the first half of the season and topped out at 840 yards.
Evans was as productive and reliable as ever, even as he fought through his own injury issues early in the season. His 1,006 yards made him the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, and he also led the team with a Buccaneers single-season record 13 touchdown catches. The Bucs also got good contributions from mid-season signee Brown (45-483-4), second-year man Scotty Miller (33-501-3) and Gronkowski (45-623-7). And while the Bucs are in danger of losing one or more of their top skill-position players in 2021, they will also be getting tight end O.J. Howard back from an Achilles tendon injury that knocked him out in Week Four.
Fournette saw his role in the backfield wax and wane during the regular season but emerged as an incredibly productive runner and pass-catcher in the postseason. The Buccaneers picked up the former fourth-overall pick just before the season after he was cut by the Jaguars and his late-season surge showed he could still be a bell cow back. A duo of Jones and Fournette would likely be very productive in 2021 but the Buccaneers also have 2020 rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn to turn to if Fournette departs for an opportunity elsewhere.