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NFC South: Preseason Grades and Analysis

ATLANTA FALCONS

Key Acquisitions: OG Brandon Fusco, WR Calvin Ridley, DT Terrell McClain, CB Justin Bethel, TE Logan Paulsen, CB Isaiah Oliver, DT Deadrin Senat

Key Losses: DT Dontari Poe, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel, TE Levine Toilolo, DE Courtney Upshaw, FB Derrick Coleman, DT Ahtyba Rubin

Offensive regression brought the Falcons back to earth a bit last season, but it wasn’t for a lack of talent, and the roster didn’t require much of a tweak in the offseason. The Falcons slotted Fusco in as a starting guard and were able to snag Ridley at No. 26 overall in the draft. Ridley has the polish and savvy to contribute immediately, and he should be very explosive on Atlanta’s home turf.

There are a few more questions on defense, where four linemen left via free agency, including Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn. Atlanta added only former Redskin Terrell McClain and third-round pick Deadrin Senat at defensive tackle, which could be an issue for a group that ranked 19th in yards per carry allowed in 2017. The Falcons deserve credit for using their top two draft picks on valuable players who slid, but waiting to address their biggest need may yield some headaches.

The Falcons did a lot of their off-season work in-house -- making Matt Ryan the highest-paid quarterback in league history and trying to resolve Julio Jones’ contract situation without his holdout bleeding into the regular season. Management of the Jones situation will be crucial, especially with several youngsters (left tackle Jake Matthews, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, safety Ricardo Allen) seeking extensions as they enter contract years.

Our Take: The Falcons needed less work than most teams, but it’s not clear whether they did enough at defensive tackle. -- B-

 

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Key Acquisitions: DT Dontari Poe, RB C.J. Anderson, WR Torrey Smith, WR D.J. Moore, WR Jarius Wright, OG Jeremiah Sirles, S Da’Norris Searcy, CB Ross Cockrell, CB Donte Jackson, TE Ian Thomas

Key Losses: OG Andrew Norwell, DT Star Lotulelei, S Kurt Coleman, RB Jonathan Stewart, DE Charles Johnson, TE Ed Dickson, CB Daryl Worley, QB Derek Anderson, WR Russell Shepard

A big chunk of the team that reached Super Bowl 50 departed this offseason, but it’s hard to fault Carolina for the exodus. It was expected that Andrew Norwell and Star Lotulelei would leave after counterparts Trai Turner and Kawann Short, respectively, received massive contracts. Meanwhile, Kurt Coleman, Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson are well into the backstretch of their careers.

Jeremiah Sirles has big shoes to fill following Norwell’s departure, but the offense upgraded elsewhere, with speedster Torrey Smith and first-rounder D.J. Moore, who should add some juice to the passing game under new coordinator Norv Turner. Despite his struggles as a head coach, Turner’s track record as a coordinator is excellent, and he could make magic with Cam Newton if the two develop chemistry.

C.J. Anderson arrived after the draft for just $1.75 million over one year, and he should complement 2017 first-round pick Christian McCaffrey extremely well. Nabbing Ian Thomas in Round 4 was a nice upside bet on a possible long-term replacement for 33-year-old Greg Olsen.

Getting Dontari Poe from the rival Falcons for less annual money than Lotulelei received in Buffalo was a steal, while Da’Norris Searcy and Ross Cockrell are exactly the types of veterans that Carolina has succeeded with in its zone-heavy defensive scheme under Ron Rivera. Second-rounder Donte Jackson could see early time in the slot as well.

Our Take: The Panthers recovered nicely, but some key losses will be felt. How Newton plays in Turner’s offense will likely make or break this team. -- C+

 

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Key Acquisitions: CB Patrick Robinson, LB Demario Davis, DE Marcus Davenport, S Kurt Coleman, WR Cameron Meredith, OG Jermon Bushrod, TE Ben Watson, QB Tom Savage

Key Losses: OT Zach Strief, S Kenny Vaccaro, WR Willie Snead, OG Senio Kelemete, TE Coby Fleener, S Rafael Bush, CB Delvin Breaux, LB Jonathan Freeny, QB Chase Daniel

The Saints accomplished their top priority -- re-signing Drew Brees -- and managed to keep him for $25 million annually. That qualifies as a bargain considering the current QB market. New Orleans then turned its attention to reinforcing and already improved defense by adding Patrick Robinson ($5 million/year) and Demario Davis ($8 million/year), though they might have bought high.

The Saints also nabbed savvy veteran Kurt Coleman to replace Kenny Vaccaro. Coleman will be a great fit in Dennis Allen’s three-safety nickel and dime packages the team also re-signed Alex Okafor (4.5 sacks in 10 games in 2017). Then came the splash in the draft, when New Orleans sent its 2019 first-rounder to Green Bay to trade up for Marcus Davenport. While Davenport is extremely talented, the move was awfully aggressive for a player most consider quite raw.

Little changed on offense, though Ryan Ramczyk will have big shoes to fill following veteran right tackle Zach Strief’s retirement. Jermon Bushrod returned to provide depth at guard in place of Senio Kelemete. The Ravens pilfered restricted free agent Willie Snead, but the Saints added an RFA wideout of their own in former Bear Cameron Meredith. They surprisingly didn’t add a young tight end, despite their top three veterans entering contract years.

Our Take: The Saints saved some money on Brees and found several upgrades. That’s impressive for an 11-5 team, although the Davenport trade must pan out. -- A

 

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Key Acquisitions: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Vinny Curry, C Ryan Jensen, DT Vita Vea, RB Ronald Jones, DT Beau Allen, DT Mitch Unrein, K Chandler Catanzaro, CB Carlton Davis, CB M.J. Stewart

Key Losses: RB Doug Martin, DE Robert Ayers, S T.J. Ward, DT Chris Baker, DT Clinton McDonald, C Joe Hawley, OG Kevin Pamphile, K Patrick Murray

It seems like the Bucs have often had productive offseasons that don’t translate into on-field wins, but it’s hard not to give them credit for this spring’s work. Rarely does a weak spot on the depth chart become a strength in a single offseason, but with the additions of Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and Vita Vea make Tampa Bay’s D-line well stocked around Gerald McCoy and Noah Spence. The group may lack an elite pass rush -- which was one reason to question picking Vea at No. 12 overall -- but it should bother quarterbacks plenty while shutting down opposing run games. GM Jason Licht also added Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, who could play early, to the secondary in Round 2.

With a third second-rounder (two were acquired by trading down) Licht grabbed Ronald Jones, who should immediately take the lead role after Doug Martin’s release. Ryan Jensen will help clear the way up front, though the Bucs almost certainly overpaid ($10.5 million annually, most ever for a center). But the move allows allows Ali Marpet to move back to guard. The Bucs also locked up tight end Cameron Brate to a hefty extension (six years, $41 million), meaning two tight-end sets with 2017 first-rounder O.J. Howard will be featured plenty. Tampa Bay took another swing at a kicker as well, but who knows if Chandler Catanzaro will be the answer.

Our Take: The Bucs’ roster is clearly improved, though it’s not guaranteed to lead to wins in a brutally tough division. -- A-

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