Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Southern Cooking: Free Agency Update

Since the start of free agency, the NFC South has been a busy division, with each of its four teams adding faces it believes will make an impact this coming fall

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WR Joe Horn has changed teams but will remain in the NFC South as one of the newest Atlanta Falcons

The NFL's 2007 free agency period began March 2, and the landscape of the NFC South has changed significantly in the three weeks since.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans know, of course, that their team has deepened its roster this offseason with a number of intriguing signings. In addition to re-upping such key contributors as FB Mike Alstott, CB Torrie Cox and CB Phillip Buchanon, the Bucs have aggressively pursued and landed several unrestricted free agents who figure to be a big part of the team's plans in 2007. The acquisitions of QB Jeff Garcia, LB Cato June, T Luke Petitgout and DEs Kevin Carter and Patrick Chukwurah headline a slew of free-agent signings by the Bucs that should help the team immensely.

Unfortunately, the rest of the NFC South isn't exactly standing pat. One month ago, Buccaneers.com examined the early goings-on with its division neighbors. Now, nearly a month into free agency, many of the questions posed in that initial overview have been answered as the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints have reshaped their rosters as aggressively as have the Buccaneers. Here is a rundown of some of the major moves made by each team so far. Once again, this list is not intended to be comprehensive, but it does shed light on the direction each team is taking.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons may have parted ways with high-octane defensive end Patrick Kerney (Seattle), tough-running fullback Justin Griffith (Oakland) and former first-round pick wide receiver Ashley Lelie (San Francisco), but thanks to an unexpected trade with the Houston Texans, Atlanta is in position to recoup those losses.

Sending backup quarterback Matt Schaub to Houston has made the Falcons a major player in the 2007 NFL Draft. In exchange for the 25-year-old Schaub, a third-round pick by Atlanta in 2004, Atlanta will get to swap first-round picks with the Texans and receive Houston's second-round pick this year and next year. That means the Falcons now hold the eighth overall selection in this year's draft (they were 10th before the trade) as well as the seventh and 12th selections in the second round…or, in other words, three of the top 44 selections.

Could the Falcons use that strength to trade up even further in the first round of the draft, perhaps even into the top two or three picks? That speculation is certainly rampant.

While that scenario could be a stretch, what isn't hard to imagine is the boost the Falcons' offense will gain from the addition of wide receiver Joe Horn, who left New Orleans after seven seasons. Though injuries have slowed him the past two years, Horn, when healthy, is still a dangerous receiver, and he should provide quarterback Michael Vick with a consistent pass-catching threat.

Other Atlanta unrestricted free agents of note signed or re-signed by the Falcons are veteran kicker Morten Anderson and fifth-year cornerback Chris Cash.

Carolina Panthers

Facing serious cap limitations, the Panthers weren't expected to make many waves in free agency this offseason, and, so far, that's been the case. Still, the Panthers have done a good job of keeping their team intact with moves such as the recent re-signing of free agent linebacker Na'il Diggs. The 6-4, 240-pound Diggs played in 15 games for the Panthers last year, starting 10. He totaled 68 tackles and three passes defensed in 2006.

However, the club did lose versatile linebacker Chris Draft, who signed with the St. Louis Rams. Draft, who has played all three linebacker positions in the 4-3 alignment and was previously a Falcon, started 16 games for Carolina last season. He finished the season with a career highs in tackles (111) and sacks (5.5).

Other Carolina unrestricted free agents of note are fourth-year safety Colin Branch and 10th-year offensive tackle Todd Fordham.

New Orleans Saints

Entering the offseason with an estimated $27 million of cap space, the Saints have tweaked their already potent offense while adding defensive depth in hopes of improving their run defense, which last year ranked 23rd in the league.

Although it remains to be seen how much the loss of the sure-handed Horn will impact last year's number-one-ranked offense, the Saints O should still be highly effective, especially with the re-signing of offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who helped form a line that surrendered only 23 sacks last year.

In addition, the Saints have added tight end Eric Johnson who they are hoping will provide quarterback Drew Brees with a viable target in the middle of the field. Last season, Johnson caught 34 passes in 13 games for San Francisco, but the Saints would like to see the 27-year-old tight end return to the form he demonstrated in 2004. That year, Johnson posted 82 receptions for 825 yards.

On the defensive side of the ball, New Orleans signed a pair of Cincinnati Bengals, safety Kevin Kaesviharn and linebacker Brian Simmons. A 10-year veteran, Simmons played in 11 games with eight starts for the Bengals last season, logging 78 tackles and two interceptions. Kaesviharn, 30, enters his seventh season in the NFL after posting a career-high six interceptions in 2006 to go along with 58 tackles and four sacks. Both Kaesviharn and Simmons will be expected to strengthen a Saints defense that is scheduled to play nine games against teams that posted at least .500 records in 2006.

Also of note, the Saints have so far retained the services of franchised defensive end Charles Grant. They did however lose 10-year veteran safety Omar Stoutmire who signed with Washington Redskins.

Other New Orleans unrestricted free agents are fifth-year linebacker James Allen, veteran safety Jay Bellamy and kicker Billy Cundiff.

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