Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Nick Shook examines the current makeup of the NFC South below.
In March, a storm blew into Tampa.
No, this wasn't just another front arriving in spring, still months before the start of hurricane season in Florida. This storm was named Brady, showering No. 12 jerseys all over the Tampa/St. Petersburg region and remaking the landscape of the NFC South.
Tom Brady is a Buccaneer, and the division's roster of quarterbacks is suddenly stronger than ever. Brady joins a high-powered offense in Tampa directed by Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich, who are armed with an arsenal of pass-catching weapons unseen by Brady since his best days in New England (Randy Moss, anyone?). Brady moves from being forced to acclimate with N'Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu to being surrounded by big-play wizards Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Those wondering if Brady still has "it" are about to get an answer.
Let's not forget about the reigning division champion -- by six games(!), no less -- located in New Orleans. Drew Brees is back for another run at it with Sean Payton and record-setting receiver Michael Thomas, and you know the Saints are still smarting from losing in surprising fashion to the Minnesota Vikings on Wild Card Weekend. With redemption on the agenda, New Orleans will be a tough out every week.
The Falcons saved their coach's job with a strong finish to 2019 and look to avoid the pitfalls that put them in a 1-7 hole before Halloween. With new addition Todd Gurley in their backfield and new threads to be worn by each of the 53 men on their roster, these Falcons are also out to prove 2019 was a fluke.
Carolina is in a rebuild, but has a couple of fresh faces to lead the way. Coach Matt Rhule makes the leap from college to the pros, enticing Teddy Bridgewater to join him in Charlotte for a chance to again be a starting quarterback in the NFL. With Christian McCaffrey freshly paid and lining up behind Teddy, the Panthers are ready to surprise some folks in what will be a gauntlet of a divison.
Who comes out on top? Who won the offseason? Can anyone get in the way of Brady returning to the final rounds of the postseason? Let's dive in.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
BIGGEST ADDITION:Tom Brady, quarterback.
Old team:New England Patriots. New team:Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Do we really need to explain this one? Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, considered by some to be the greatest of all time, and an owner of six Super Bowl rings. No player has ever won more, and now he'll be tasked with bringing his winning ways to a team desperately in need of them. Arians is here for a good time, not a long time, and he now has the Drake to his Kanye West and Leftwich's Big Sean (sorry, Byron). Brady's presence means you're instantly in the conversation for a title, but with his 43rd birthday coming in August, the clock's ticking. It's time to stop talking potential and start producing. Get ready to see that pirate flag plenty in 2020.
This loss is big primarily because of who it is. Just four years ago at this time, Newton was the league's reigning MVP and a nightmare for opposing defenses. Now he's a quarterback without a team and without the guarantee he can regain his form and play completely healthy. At 30 years old, Newton should still have good football left in him, but the beating he's taken as a dual-threat quarterback (who was often underprotected) is showing. Should he return healthy, he could make some noise for a contender. Either way, Carolina is going to miss having No. 1 behind center serving as the face of the franchise and a game-breaking threat every time he stepped on the field, no matter how well Bridgewater performs in his place. They'll also miss Trai Turner, whom they curiously sent packing to Southern California in exchange for Russell Okung.
The Falcons were never going to pay Austin Hooper what the open market could fetch him, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff did a nice job lessening the blow at the position by acquiring Hurst in a trade with the Ravens, who had a surplus at the position. A former first-round pick, Hurst had to battle injuries, a loaded depth chart and a revamped offense to find a way to be productive in his first two seasons, but he's going to get plenty of looks in Atlanta in place of Hooper, who played his way to a lucrative deal with the Browns. Hurst hasn't lived up to his potential yet, but with Matt Ryan -- a quarterback who has shown he likes the tight end -- he could enjoy his best season yet.
Atlanta Falcons: It seems as if Atlanta still hasn't recovered from that fateful loss in Houston. As May approaches, we must ask: Who are these Falcons? Gurley is a low-risk bet (based on how the contract is written), but the Falcons are also looking at a defense that still needs some additions at linebacker and in the shoes left empty by the departure of Desmond Trufant. With Atlanta known for using multiple tight ends effectively in recent years, Hurst could use a running mate, too. And ultimately, is Dan Quinn back to prove keeping him was the correct call? Or are we looking at wholesale changes come January? That's a long way off, but these Falcons aren't quite finished with roster moves.
Carolina Panthers: The rebuild is on and the Rhule era is about to begin. Owner David Tepper now has his man on the sideline, and that man has his guy under center in Bridgewater. This team is all about proving itself, including with McCaffrey, who is tasked with proving his lucrative extension -- which made him the highest-paid running back in terms of annual salary -- was worth the money. Most important to the Panthers is the offensive line, which needs additions at guard and overall stability, especially with Bridgewater taking the reins from Newton. There are also a few needs defensively, namely safety (Juston Burris is a good depth player, but not quite at starter level), corner and depth at linebacker and along the defensive line. Rome wasn't built in a day.
New Orleans Saints: There isn't all that much movement possible with the Saints, who are again up against the salary cap but still found a way to improve with the additions of safety Malcolm Jenkins and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. New Orleans did a good job of retaining its offensive line -- a strength of the offense -- by re-signing Andrus Peat, but this is more about 2020 than anything, because this might be Brees' last lap. Quality picks at receiver and linebacker would help this effort in a draft that will be a quicker exercise than usual thanks to the Saints owning just five picks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With Brady now in town, the Buccaneers are all in. First order of business: Make sure Brady is protected. That means going out and finding the best available talent at both tackle and guard for the right side of the line. Demar Dotson has departed, and while Joe Haeg can be relied on for depth, the Buccaneers need to shoot for the stars at right tackle, be it via free agency, trade or the draft. From there, a second option at running back is needed to complement Ronald Jones, who made a nice jump in his second season but can't be relied on to carry the full load. The loss of Carl Nassib to free agency will have to be mitigated by William Gholston, meaning the Bucs could use an addition there, too. Finally, it's about plugging the gaps. Brady can have the LeBron James effect in the NFL -- attracting veteran talent looking to make a run at a ring -- and it's time for Bucs general manager Jason Licht to take advantage.