The Falcons and Saints were the most active in free agency, but each team in the division still has plenty of holes to fill. The draft gave the worst team in the division, the Bucs, an early infusion on offense with three picks in the first two rounds, including top overall pick Jameis Winston. That should help, but they would need a six-game improvement just to reach .500 status.
The Falcons saw an incredible amount of movement in their linebacker corps in free agency, and then used the No. 8 overall pick to further add there, picking Vic Beasley.
The Saints traded Jimmy Graham but didn’t address tight end or receiver in the draft.
Where does all this leave the teams of the NFC South after free agency and the draft? It might be the most wide open division in the NFL.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8½
Top free agent signings: The Falcons added to their defense, making necessary moves considering they were ranked dead last in NFL defense in 2014. The additions were heavy at linebacker – Justin Durant (Dallas), Brooks Reed (Houston) and O’Brien Schofield (Seattle). That made sense with the loss of LB Sean Weatherspoon to Arizona. The defensive line also saw solid talent added in DE Adrian Clayborn (Tampa Bay) and re-signing DE Kroy Bierman. What was interesting, however, is that the pass defense was ranked last, too, but they added only CB Phillip Adams to the secondary. Offensively, the biggest addition was OT Tyler Polumbus. In addition to Weatherspoon, the Falcons lost CB Robert McClain and DT Corey Peters.
Needs entering draft: RB, S, CB, TE, OL, LB
Draft picks: The three linebackers the Falcons signed in free agency didn’t stop them from drafting Clemson’s Vic Beasley No. 8 overall before addressing two top needs with CB Jalen Collins in the second round and RB Tevin Coleman in the third round.
What’s left at need areas: Safety is still a primary need with William Moore and Dezmen Southward as potential starters, along with tight end, as Jacob Tamme currently sits atop the depth chart there. Coleman could be what they needed at running back, but they will need an upgraded offensive line to fully feel his potential.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8½
Top free agent signings: The Panthers didn’t sign many starters in free agency, with their biggest outside signings being OT Michael Oher and CB Charles Tillman from the Bears. The losses were minimal, but the big one was Greg Hardy. However, given his salary demands and the 10-game suspension he incurred, it could prove to be a very wise move to move on without him. In short, the improvement from the Panthers will have to come from within and their draft picks.
Needs entering draft: LT, WR, CB, S, LB, RB, DL
Draft picks: With only two picks in the top 100, the Panthers may come away from this draft with only one immediate starter, first-round linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is undersized at linebacker by some standards and too slow for safety by other standards. But if his productivity at Washington carries through to the NFL, none of the measurables will matter much. Second-round pick Devin Funchess should have a clear path to a starting job, but is he skilled enough to take advantage of a thin receiver corps? Getting help on the offensive line with fourth-round guard/tackle Daryl Williams was a must, and Cameron Artis-Payne should work his way into a running back rotation.
What’s left at need areas: With so few picks at the top – the Panthers didn’t have a third-rounder – they left the draft with big needs still at cornerback and on the defensive line. Overall, their starting lineup wasn’t really impacted in free agency and the draft, beyond Oher and the Thompson pick.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8
Top free agent signings: The Saints didn’t add many outside free agents, but they did add some quality ones. DE Anthony Spencer (Dallas) and CB Brandon Browner (New England) should be immediate starters and impact players, and RB C.J. Spiller (Buffalo) and CB Kyle Wilson (New York Jets) could look to reclaim earlier expectations. The biggest moves came in trades for C Max Unger and LB Dannell Ellerbe. However, losing Patrick Robinson to San Diego and Curtis Lofton to Oakland could hurt.
Needs entering draft: DE, G, WR, TE, OLB, T, CB
Draft picks: The Saints eschewed the “skill positions” early in the draft, despite a big need at tight end after trading away Jimmy Graham. They upgraded the offensive line early with OT Andrus Peat and then the linebackers with Stephone Anthony later in the first round (pick from the Graham trade) and then Hau'oli Kikaha in the second round. Then it was planning for the future behind Drew Brees with QB Garrett Grayson.
What’s left at need areas: In a deep draft at receiver, the Saints selected none, leaving the depth behind Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks thin. And in a draft that wasn’t deep at tight end, they settled for not replacing Graham. That will put a lot more pressure on Brees and new running back C.J. Spiller to control the ball.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 6
Top free agent signings: The Bucs signed a few potential starters on defense, including LB Bruce Carter, DT Henry Melton, CB Sterling Moore and S Major Wright, and trading for DE George Johnson. Losing Clayborn to in-division rival Atlanta will be a move to monitor over the season, but the bigger loss might be DE Michael Johnson to Cincinnati, even if Johnson wasn’t as impactful as expected in the Bucs’ scheme, which calls for more pressure from their defensive ends rather than a mix of pass and run responsibilities. LB Mason Foster was also lost to Chicago.
Needs entering draft: QB, OT, DE, S, CB, LB, RB
Draft picks: The Bucs had plenty of holes to fill and concentrated first on offense. To the surprise of no one, they used the first overall pick on Jameis Winston, who will be expected to be the future and present of the franchise at quarterback. They wisely gave him some protection early with the selection of second-round OT Donovan Smith and second-round center Ali Marpet.
What’s left at need areas: It’s understandable that the Bucs concentrated on offense with their first three picks, but they didn’t do much to help out their 25th-ranked defense. They could have especially used an upgrade with a pass-rushing defensive end, one of the problems that contributed to their 28th-ranked pass defense. While they are expected to be better than their two-win season of 2014, that will have to be addressed next year to become a winning team against the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan in the NFC South.
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