The NFC South was expected to be dominated by the Carolina Panthers after they finished the 2015 season with an impressive 15-1 record. But the division, has been up-and-down over the years and prior to that, the Panthers won it with a losing record.
Well ... the Panthers tanked, the New Orleans Saints were mostly terrible on defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were actually decent and the Atlanta Falcons came JUST short of winning the Super Bowl.
So, you know, a typical NFC South year at this point. The Falcons were great under Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on offense. Drew Brees was good as usual, but the Saints were bad overall. Jameis Winston looked better than expected and that bodes well for the Buccaneers, while the Panthers were just terrible.
Going forward, the division is just as uncertain as ever. Winston will likely keep developing. The Panthers still have a roster good enough to make a Super Bowl. The Falcons still have Ryan. The Saints still have Brees.
Below, we’re going to take a look at the four teams in the division and their biggest needs going into the free agency period. Figuring out the needs of every other team is crucial in figuring out the landscape of the entire NFL and what it means for the 49ers. We’ll cover the rest of the divisions over the next two weeks
Needs: Defensive tackle, defensive end, offensive guard
Atlanta had a brilliant offense and a below-average defense last season. Fortunately for them, the offense is so good that they only need marginally better play from the defense to really stay on top of the division. Said defense was vastly improved in 2016, but still soft in several key spots.
Vic Beasley was incredible on one side of the line, but they have nothing opposite him on the other side other than the aging Dwight Freeney. They were also very soft against the run and going after the quarterback up the middle and defensive tackle is probably their top priority overall.
On offense, there really isn’t much to be worried about. They likely need to find a backup quarterback and they need to re-sign Patrick DiMarco, but other than that they really could use a replacement for Chris Chester on the interior of the offensive line. Chester is set to become a free agent.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Needs: Safety, running back, wide receiver, cornerback
Like the next two teams, the Buccaneers need help at and could be competing with the 49ers for cornerback help. The Buccaneers have one bright spot in that Brent Grimes was excellent last season, but he will turn 34 before next season and it’s a position that needs addressing.
On offense, Vincent Jackson is far past his sell-by date and is a pending free agent. Doug Martin at his best is one of the best backs in the NFL, but he’s inconsistent and also is having some off-field trouble. Charles Sims can’t stay healthy and Winston really needs someone else to hand the ball to.
Safety is the biggest weakness on the team and with Bradley Mcdougald set to hit the market, it’s an even bigger concern. They may look more toward drafting one early than addressing the need in free agency, however.
New Orleans Saints
Needs: Linebacker, defensive end, cornerback, offensive guard
It’s probably not fair to suggest the Saints have wasted Drew Brees given he’s won them a Super Bowl, and it’s probably not fair to suggest they’re coasting in hopes he can pick up the slack from the rest of the team. But the Saints just are not great at consistently adding talent to support him on either side of the ball.
On defense, they have a long list of needs. James Laurinaitis was extremely average at linebacker and they need a couple to add to the defense. At defensive end they need someone other than Cameron Jordan to get at opposing quarterbacks, and they could even use some more interior help, especially if Nick Fairley leaves in free agency.
Like the Buccaneers, they need cornerback help, which is a big area of need for the 49ers. Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams dealt with injuries last season and could improve the position going forward, but they could use another body.
On offense, the Saints should be thinking about Brees’ eventual replacement and they really need a Jimmy Graham replacement at tight end. The biggest hole is at guard, where Jahri Evans needs to be re-signed and the other position could be upgraded.
Needs: Cornerback, offensive tackle, defensive end, running back
Cutting Josh Norman was a stupid move, and there’s really no nice way to put that. It was inexplicable and, shockingly, the Panthers couldn’t cover anybody of note last season. They need a playmaker at cornerback, and sooner rather than later. The rest of the defense is pretty set, but both Mario Addison and Charles Johnson are set to hit the open market at defensive end.
Their biggest need is offensive tackle, though. Michael Oher wasn’t good at all, and then he got hurt, and Mike Remmers was flat-out bad. The Panthers need more protection for Cam Newton, who won’t last long behind that line again. On top of that, Jonathan Stewart is about to turn 30 and the Panthers could use some help there. Wide receiver also isn’t totally settled.