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NFC South Offseason Forecast
By Matt Horkman

Atlanta Falcons

Team Needs: Every layer of Atlanta’s defense needs improvement. They need help in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. They also need to address the linebacker corps, with Sean Weatherspoon possibly departing via free agency. Pass rush is the top priority, though. The Falcons finished with a league-low 22 sacks. On offense, giving Matt Ryan a running game would help him tremendously.

Free Agency: Expect the Falcons to be aggressive in free agency. In fact, they’re a sleeper to sign DeMarco Murray or Ndamukong Suh. Byron Maxwell may also want to reunite with Dan Quinn.

Big Picture: The Falcons offense can score with the best of them, but they can’t stop anybody. They finished last in yards allowed, and gave up the sixth most points in football. Quinn presided over the best defense in football the last two years, but fixing the Falcons won’t be an easy task.

Carolina Panthers

Team Needs: Finding a suitable left tackle and another receiver tops Carolina’s wish list. Wait, is it 2014? I swear I just wrote that. With the exception of Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina pretty much ignored their dire needs last off-season. They also need to add a cornerback opposite of Josh Norman.

Free Agency: Carolina is one of the few teams that I could see giving left tackle money to Bryan Bulaga. The pending free agent, who is the best tackle on the market, has started only on the right side in Green Bay. However, he could get a few looks from teams desperate for help at left tackle. Carolina is among them.

Big Picture: Are the Panthers ready to proclaim Cam Newton a franchise quarterback? Newton is a free agent following 2015, and could be the next signal caller to join the $100 million club. He has done nothing but prove his draft day critics wrong. Critics said he couldn’t read a defense, but he’s continued to improve in that area. Those same critics questioned whether he could take snaps under center, but he’s made a smooth transition there. In fact, his mechanics are very good. He’s a franchise quarterback, so expect the Panthers to get ahead of things and lock him up long-term.

New Orleans Saints

Team Needs: Both starting guards, Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, are over 30 and have shown signs of regression. It is time to ponder the future of the position. The Saints also need to figure out what do with running back Mark Ingram. He’s coming off an excellent year, but durability is a huge issue. If they decide committing to him is too risky, they could look to the draft to replace him. Most of their focus will be on the defensive side of the ball. They need depth in their linebacker corps, and they desperately need to find a cornerback to play opposite of Keenan Lewis.

Free Agency: The Saints are an estimate $23 million over the salary cap, so they aren’t likely be players in free agency.

Big Picture: Many believe Drew Brees is regressing, but he still completed 70 percent of his passes for Drew Brees33 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards. He did turn the ball over 20 times, but he’s always been prone to turning the ball over. That’s been his weakness. He is not the problem in New Orleans. That would be the defense. It fell apart a year ago after showing improvements in 2013. Sean Payton retained Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. It’s put up or shut up for Ryan. The offense will do its part. Ryan needs to get the defense under control.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Team Needs: Quarterback tops the list and there is no doubt that Tampa Bay will address the position with the No. 1 overall pick. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs had Hall of Fame caliber careers under Lovie Smith in Chicago. He has his version of Briggs in Lavonte David. He needs to find his version Urlacher. Perhaps the Bucs will address that position with their second-round pick.

Free Agency: Don’t be surprised if the Bucs give up on Doug Martin, and look to free agency to find a workhorse running back. Murray is the obvious target, but Lynch and Peterson could also enter the market. Ryan Mathews would also be an ideal fit if he can remain healthy. They went hard into free agency last year to upgrade their offensive line. The results were disappointing. Would they dare do so again?

Big Picture: The Buccaneers need to hit on their top pick. Jameis Winston has experience in a pro system, but he comes with off-field baggage. Mariota is the total package, but he lacks experience in a pro system. If Tampa Bay believes they can successfully transition Mariota to the pros, then he’ll be the pick. If they are hesitant about his transition, then they’ll ignore Winston’s baggage and make him the top pick in May’s draft. In many ways, it’s the 21st century version of Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning. Leaf was probably a more physically imposing prospect than Manning was, but the latter had the maturity and dedication to thrive in the NFL. The Bucs better get it right just as the Cols did in 1998.

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