Logan Lockhart
BarnBurner Sports Writer


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Where Does Each Team In The NFC South Stand As Free Agency Opens And The Road To The Draft Begins?

The thought of Tom Brady playing in a different uniform that isn’t a New England one is unimaginable--but for NFL fans, it will be a reality in 2020.


Brady has been the face of the AFC East for over a decade and a half, but now, it appears the end of his career will be spent in the NFC South.


NFC South Power Rankings:


1. Tampa Bay

2. New Orleans

3. Carolina

4. Atlanta



Atlanta Falcons


It seems like a lifetime ago when the Falcons had a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in Super Bowl 51--but it wasn’t--same coach, same quarterback, same star wide receiver.


Atlanta finished second in the division in 2019, but the distance between the top ranked Saints and the rest of the pack was large. Seven wins for Atlanta in 2019, a total quite good considering how bad the Falcons were in the first half of the season. In 2020, Atlanta will suffer due to improvements made by its foes in the NFC South.


The Falcons are loaded with premium contracts on its roster--the reason Atlanta has been handcuffed in significant league transactions over the last few seasons. And yet again in 2020, the Falcons are so far amongst the quietest teams in the South.


But it took a move from the equally handcuffed Rams for the Falcons to get involved in one of the most notable moves of the offseason.


RB Todd Gurley was released by Los Angeles this week, and less than 24 hours later, the Falcons jumped on the opportunity to sign the former Georgia Bulldog. Former Falcons pro bowler Devonta Freeman was released, and as a result Gurley was suited as the replacement. Gurley appears to be an upgrade over Freeman, but despite only being 25 years of age, he is a diminishing asset. The 2017 NFL’s rushing leader has seen his numbers drop significantly since then, and injuries played a role in the decline.


The Falcons will need Gurley to return to his former self in hopes of providing Matt Ryan will dynamic help in the backfield--and if in fact he does, the trio of Ryan, Gurley and Julio Jones should be as explosive and effective as anyone in football. The loss of Austin Hooper to Cleveland hurts, but if Gurley has a resurgence, the loss at TE will be quickly forgotten.


Hooper’s replacement will be former Raven Hayden Hurst, who was selected in the first round by Baltimore in the 2018 draft. The TE was traded to the Falcons this week for a fourth round pick.


It will be vital for Ryan and Hurst to get on the same page fast, in an effort to find similar chemistry that the QB had with Hooper. Hurst is more athletic than Hooper, and for the sake of the salary cap, it is a well-calculated but also efficient move for Atlanta.


Among other notable moves made by the Falcons in free agency was the addition of former Rams LB Dante Fowler Jr. The firesale of Los Angeles pays off in Atlanta’s favour yet again, as Fowler will be added to a defence in need of substantial help. 


The bad money thrown around in Atlanta has prevented the team from adding strong defensive backs and pass rushers, two areas of the team sorely lacking.


The draft will be crucial for Atlanta in an attempt to find lighting in a bottle to improve the team at these positions, but unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems like the same old story--rely on the Ryan-Jones connection and hop for the best. 



Carolina Panthers


The Cam Newton era in Carolina is over--the end of an era that was seen from a mile away. 


The former number overall pick in 2011 was released by the Panthers on March 25th, after Teddy Bridgewater was signed to a three-year $63 million deal. The Panthers did its due diligence prior to the release of Newton by exploring a trade, but no appropriate suitors were found. 


With Kyle Allen now traded to Washington, the Panthers will turn to Bridgwater and back-up Will Grier, as well as former XFL star P.J Walker to provide stability under centre. 


But it’s not just a new era for quarterback play for Carolina--a era of coaching is on the horizon. 


Former Baylor coach Matt Rhule is now the man in charge for the Panthers. Rhule adds to the trend of college coaches getting an advancement in the NFL and immediately becoming head coaches. Rhule spent time as an assistant offensive lines coach with the Giants, the year they defeated the Patriots to capture Super Bowl 46. But in the present, Rhule will be faced with the task of bringing a relatively strong roster back into the picture to sit atop of the NFC South. 


After a short-lived playoff appearance in 2017, the Panthers started off strong in the last two seasons, but failed to maintain its compete level down the stretch, resulting in the firing of Ron Rivera and the release of Cam Newton.


The Panthers offseason has been eventful thus far--


- The retirement of All-Pro Linebacker Luke Kuechly

- The release of long-time Panther and three-time pro bowler Greg Olsen

- The release of its face of the franchise Cam Newton


Carolina will look different in 2020, but with D.J Moore, Curtis Samuel and newly signed Robby Anderson acting as the primary weapons for Bridgwater, the team should be in the hunt for a wild card spot, especially with the expanded playoff structure.


And then there’s Chrisitian McCaffrey--whose ability and importance to the franchise right now really goes without saying.


He may be the most dangerous offensive player in the league. 


New Orleans Saints


The last three playoff losses combined for New Orleans borders on tragic. 


2017: “The Minneapolis Miracle” 

2018: “The Worst Call Ever”

2019: “Kyle Rudolph should have been flagged”


Drew Brees re-upped with the Saints on a two-year deal worth $50 million, and unless the quarterback pulls off the unthinkable, this will be his final contract. The recent playoff losses are difficult to swallow, but for another year, the Saints roster remains intact and ready for a Super bowl run. 


Micheal Thomas won offensive player of the year in 2019 and solidified himself as the all-around best receiver in the league. Other players at his position may be faster, and more athletic, but Thomas gets the job done better than anyone. 


In 2020, Thomas will see a new member of his receiving group join him in former 49er and Bronco, Emmanuel Sanders. New Orleans got a bargain with Sanders, paying him $16 million in a total of two years. 


The native of Belleville, Texas had his options in free agency, but chose the Saints. His decision should demonstrate how the team is viewed around the NFL community--as a bonafide contender. 


There are only two scenarios that you would ever think Drew Brees matching up against Tom Brady was possible--


1. When New England matched with the Saints in the regular season, as they did once every four years


2. In the Super Bowl


Next season, the matchup is guaranteed to happen least. 


Brady and Brees are a combined age of 84, but yet, will surely provide some of the most compelling games in 2020. The quarterback comparison will dominate the discussion around the NFC South all year long. 


In other notable acquisitions, the Saints and safety Malcolm Jenkins will reunite in 2020. Jenkins spent the first five years of his career in New Orleans, after spending the last six in Philadelphia.


His familiarity with Sean Payton in the secondary is a plus, and his presence will stabilize the team’s backfield. 


Tampa Bay Buccaneers


The news was heard around the world--Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. 


In a shocking turn of events, the Bucs became aggressive and were determined to make a statement this offseason.


Unhappy with Jameis Winston’s 30 interception season in 2019, Bruce Arians and the rest of Tampa’s upper-brass decided to move on from the number one overall pick in 2015, and shift its attention towards a 43 year-old quarterback. 


Brady will have more weapons in Tampa to work with then he did in New England a season ago. The greatest quarterback of all-time was visibly frustrated with his offensive group last year, something very uncharacteristic for him. 


Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and O.J Howard--three players that Brady will learn to love early on in his Tampa tenure. The TE Howard in particular should work incredibly well with Brady, due to how well-prone the quarterback is in utilizing his tight ends. 


The “LeBron effect” has worked its way into the NFL, but this time it's the “Brady effect.” Free agents and unhappy players under contract with their current teams want to go to Tampa. 


Tampa’s offence should mesh well with Brady and with Bruce Arians' experience working with quarterbacks in the past, there should be no cause for concern, other than where Brady is at this point in his career. The Bucs have the greatest ever, and expect them to take advantage of it.


Drafting a quarterback this year and having the player sit and develop behind Brady for a couple seasons is definitely in the roam of possibilities. 


The defence in Tampa is underrated, but not for long. Brady will bring attention to this team not even seen since John Gruden was in charge. Double or triple the primetime games, the most eyeballs on them and potentially the most compelling games of the season. 


Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh were all retained to keep the Bucs defence strong, and rookie from a year ago LB Devin White is just getting better. 


This team is good, relevant, compelling and must-see. 


Not even the Super Bowl winning Bucs from 2002 can boast this much. Stay tuned.