Experts debate NFC South's future

Senior NFL analyst Ed Thompson and expert Matthew Postins talk about the NFC South in the second part of their discussion.

Who are Tampa's major unrestricted free agents?

Ed Thompson : Phillip Buchanon, Jeff Garcia, Jermaine Phillips, Antonio Bryant.

Matthew Postins: If the Bucs are smart they won't let Bryant go. He's the ultimate risk-reward payoff and with the diminishing skills of Joey Galloway, the Bucs need Bryant's talent. Who else will catch passes in this offense in 2009? Phillips should be re-signed, but he'll command so much on the open market that the Bucs will likely pass on matching the offer.

What was the biggest surprise of the NFC South in 2008?

Thompson: I think the fact that it was such a competitive division across the board. The Saints' inability to take control of the division despite the incredible season that Drew Brees had was also a bit startling.

Postins: Definitely Atlanta. There was no reason to believe the Falcons would be any good this year, with a new head coach, a rookie quarterback and a new running back. Their turnaround was one for the ages. I also think New Orleans' finish was surprising. I thought they had done enough in the offseason to get back into the postseason mix.

With all four teams in the NFC South finishing .500 or better, has the division returned to being considered one of the best in the NFL?

Thompson: It's certainly earned that status, and I don't see that changing much next year either. I actually think the Bucs are facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of personnel development and replacement out of the four teams, and then you toss a new head coach into the equation to boot. So this is an important offseason for Tampa Bay if they're going to be able to slug it out with the other three teams again next season.

Postins: If all four teams can sustain their improvement over the past two years, then yes it's going to rival the NFC East for toughness. Atlanta's success could be flukish, and Carolina may lose DE Julius Peppers to free agency. I see no reason to believe there will be any huge falloff by any of these teams in 2009.

Is Atlanta's remarkable turnaround a one-year aberration or is this a team on the rise?

Thompson: I like the direction they are heading and believe that they're for real. If they follow up this year with more smart moves in the draft and free agency, this is definitely a team on the rise.

Postins: I think they're on the rise. They did a fantastic job in the 2008 Draft and most of those players contributed. Their success will attract free agents during the offseason, as well. The Falcons are here to stay, if you ask me. It doesn't mean they'll make the playoffs in 2009, only that they won't fall off to 4-12 or 5-11 in 2009.

After finishing 9-7 in 2008, what should the Bucs consider doing this offseason to get better?

Thompson: As surprising as it was, the replacement of Jon Gruden was probably the right move for this team. Whether or not they put the right person in charge by promoting Raheem Morris won't be known for a couple of years.

Obviously, they have to make some major strides offensively. They need to find their franchise QB, at least one more stud wide receiver, and a young RB who can stay healthy. Defensively, the Bucs have to improve the defensive tackle position. I don't think they have a true starter-quality player at that position on their roster, and that's a glaring problem.

Postins: They need to add wide receivers, defensive linemen and, perhaps, a quarterback, to supplement to their existing talent. Those are the team's trouble areas heading into the season.

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