How teams in the NFC South can improve this off-season

Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers come under the spotlight.

Needs Must... Part 6

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are essentially at a crossroads after earning home - field advantage in the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and failing to capitalize, despite progressing beyond the divisional round in 2012-13.

General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has lobbying relentlessly for veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez to return for one last ride, and it seems the 36 year old who is second on the career receptions list with 1,242 yards, seventh on the career receiving yards list with 14,268 yards, and with 103 touchdowns to his name, has obliged - recently agreeing terms on a two-year deal worth $14m (£9.3m).

Good news for all concerned, doubly so when backup Chase Coffman accounted for a paltry one catch last season.

Contractual Issues: The first order of business for a team $4.9 under the cap is extending quarterback Matt Ryan, who will stand to earn $10 million in the final year of a rookie deal. What could potentially be a gargantuan $100 million, would render runningback Michael Turner and his $6.9 million salary expendable, which certainly appears to be the case as on Friday March 1st, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal reported that Atlanta had cut ties with ‘The Burner’, thus bringing to an end a productive 5-year association that brought 7,338 rush yards and 63 touchdowns (although only one reception came trough the air).

Cornerback Brent Grimes is coming off Achilles tendon surgery and could be too expensive to retain, and safety William Moore is also set to become a free agent.

Draft selection: The Falcons get on the board with the 30th overall pick. It was widely assumed priority would centre on providing an effective foil for Jacquizz Rodgers, but the recent signing of Steven Jackson (the St. Louis Rams all time leading rusher with 10, 135 yards, and recently coming off the back of his eighth consecutive season of 1,000 yards or more) on a contract worth $12 million over three years, may mean focus may shift to providing the team with an effective pass rusher to complement 34 - year old John Abraham - that is of course, they can’t land a free agent - perhaps in the mould of an Osi Umenyiora?

Carolina Panthers

Change begins with upgrading the supporting cast around quarterback Cam Newton, who in 2012, was a shadow of the rookie who lit up the league in his first pro campaign, where he posted an astonishing 4, 051 yards, threw 21 touchdown passes, and rushed for an equally impressive 706 yards and 14 scores.

Coach Ron Rivera was retained by new general manager David Gettleman, and former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator, following the exit of Rob Chudzinski, who left to take up his new role as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Contractual issues: Gettleman has to sort out a rather unsavoury contractual mess at runningback, where seldom used DeAngelo Williams is weighing down the teams salary cap. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, defensive lineman Dwan Edwards and receiver Louis Murphy are free agents - Murphy recently ended his four year tenure in Charlotte by recently signing with the New York Giants.

Kansas City wide out Dwayne Bowe was on the horizon for a while, although all hope of acquiring the pro bowler vanished with NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reporting the signing of a lucrative new contract worth $56 million over five years that includes $26 million in guaranteed money plus a $15 million signing bonus.

The task to relieve the pressure on Steve Smith just got a little more complicated…

Draft selection: Expect Carolina to use the 14th overall pick to bolster an average defense that finished 13th against the pass (223.0 yards per game) and 14th against the run (110.1 yards per game), or after missing out on Bowe, look to strengthen at receiver.

New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton returns following his year long suspension following the unfortunate ‘bounty gate’, and signalled his arrival with the prompt dismissal of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who oversaw the leagues worst defense that ranked 31st against the pass, conceded a mammoth 292.6 yards per game, and 32nd against the run, leaking a whopping 147.6 per game.

Contractual concerns: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma will be the likely casualty of Payton’s intended switch from a 4 - 3 to a 3 - 4. While their biggest free agent in need is on defense, the Saints are restricted by the unwelcome reality of being $16 million over the salary cap. This could well signal the departure of such names as linebacker Scott Shanle, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, left tackle Jermon Bushrod and receiver Devery Henderson. Though the team did just reach an agreement to keep wide receiver Courtney Roby, but lost outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas to division rivals Tampa Bay.

Draft selection: With the 15th overall pick, expect Sean Payton to and General Manager Mickey Loomis to target an impact pass rusher or perhaps even a linebacker. The rest of their draft wish list - beyond left tackle if Jermon Bushrod leaves - will be defense, defense, and just for a change of pace, yep, you guessed it - DEFENSE!! Though any bid to upgrade may be impacted significantly by the denial of a 2nd round draft pick, taken away in the wake of the bounty scandal. The plot thickens…

Tampa Bay

First year coach Greg Schiano took strides toward turning the Buccaneers around. Schiano is a firm believer in the talents of quarterback Josh Freeman, despite an up and down campaign. All he has to do now is surround him with the talent to maximise his undoubted potential - especially on defense. Although the buc’s went some way to addressing that particular problem with the capture of 9ers safety and two - time pro bowler Dashon Goldson in a deal worth $41.5 million, $4.5 million of which in base salary for this season, and he’ll also receive a $4.5 million roster bonus.

Contractual concerns: The Buccaneers lost six games by six points or less throughout the course of 2012. The first step is for safety Ronde Barber to decide if he wants to stay for another season, and it appears he may well do so, well if a variety of sources via twitter are anything to go by. But then, twitter doesn’t always represent the face of pertinent fact…

One free agent who most certainly won’t be is defensive end Michael Bennett, who, according to NFL Around the League contributor Kareem Copeland’s March 16th article published via NFL.com, said he'd give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a chance to match any offer he received in free agency, (it had been suggested Bennett could have demanded a $10 million franchise tag) only to sign for the Seattle Seahawks, without uttering as much as a word to his former team, although he did inform Tampa Tribute reporter Roy Cummings on Friday that "They acted like they didn't want me, so no, I didn't go back to them,. "I just didn't feel any love from them at all. And that's kind of disappointing, because for a team that you put everything you had into for four years to do that, you're just kind of, 'OK, whatever.'. Regardless, it will be interesting to see just how impactful his exit will be come the start of the season…

Tackle Jeremy Trueblood and tight end Dallas Clark represent other issues.

Draft selection: Cornerback and the pass rush are two areas the Buccaneers must address as a matter or urgency. The first step begins with the 13th overall pick.

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