Atlanta ended Carolina's unprecedented three-year run of NFC South hegemony, riding the league's most unstoppable offense to the Super Bowl. Now that masterful play-caller Kyle Shanahan is in San Francisco, though, the other three teams have reason to believe the division is up for grabs if they can tweak their rosters in the right way this offseason.
The Panthers strengthened the offensive line with the addition of left tackle Matt Kalil and bolstered the defense with the returns of Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn to go along with the signing of two-time Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams. Questions remain, though, with Cam Newton unable to throw for the next three months following shoulder surgery and All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly coming off of a concussion that prematurely ended his 2016 season.
After watching the leaky defense undermine an annually prolific offense, the Saints sacrificed Brandin Cooks in an effort to stockpile draft ammunition for a turnaround. If they hit on a few impact talents in the draft, it's not out of the question that their defense will keep pace with the Falcons' promising young unit.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
Peppers' homecoming and Dontari Poe's arrival in Atlanta notwithstanding, Tampa Bay's acquisition of Jackson was the highlight of free agency. After watching a declining Vincent Jackson hold the passing attack back the past two years, the Bucs added a speedy playmaker to perfectly complement the playing style of big-bodied jump-ball specialist Mike Evans. Jackson is the most dangerous deep threat of his generation, helping his quarterbacks in Philadelphia and Washington to inflated numbers. With Adam Humphries also emerging as the answer in the slot, Jameis Winston finally has the well-rounded wide receiver corps necessary to reach his potential in his third season.
OK, this isn't exactly a "Free Agency Notable" -- Cooks was part of a trade -- but it happened at the outset of the free agency period and was a substantial development in general roster reshuffling. Cooks injected a much-needed playmaking element to the Saints' offense when Marques Colston reached his decline phase, Darren Sproles was traded to Philadelphia and Jimmy Graham fell out of favor. He has averaged 1,160 yards and 8.5 touchdowns as Drew Brees' deep threat the past two years. Once Michael Thomas and Willie Snead emerged as a viable tandem at wide receiver last season, though, New Orleans' brass determined that Cooks was a luxury rather than a necessity for a team desperately in need of assets to rebuild a doormat defense. Will the offense have enough firepower if the defensive overhaul takes another year or two before netting noticeable results?
Baker might not be a household name, but he's been Washington's most disruptive defensive lineman for the past two seasons. Similar to Titans Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey, Baker moves with uncanny agility for a 300-pound behemoth. He's not only stout in the run game, but he also puts heat on opposing passers, averaging 35 combined hits and pressures per season since moving from tackle to end in 2015. Including last year's additions of Robert Ayers and Noah Spence, the Bucs have done an impressive job of transforming the defensive line from a weakness into a strength.
Atlanta Falcons: The loss of Kyle Shanahan as play-caller can't be overstated. He was the best in the business last season. That said, the offense is loaded with talent. The exception is the interior of the offensive line, with veteran guard Chris Chester retiring. Dan Quinn has done an excellent job streamlining the defense, adding young legs with speed and range. With Dwight Freeney still unsigned, though, there's a need for another pass rusher and depth throughout the unit.
Carolina Panthers: The offense regressed after Cam Newton's MVP season in 2015. The best way to fix Newton is to bolster the offensive line, which means overpaying for left tackle Matt Kalil in free agency. There's still a need at right tackle, where Michael Oher is a question mark after missing the majority of last season with concussion issues. Look for Carolina to select a running back early in the draft, as a litany of injuries have sapped Jonathan Stewart's speed and explosiveness.
New Orleans Saints: Coach Sean Payton has made no secret about the plan to invest in the defense this offseason. Signing coverage-deficient linebackers such as A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o won't cure what ails Payton's team. The pressure is on the Saints to nail this month's draft, with four selections in the first 76 picks. There's a dire need at each level of the defense, from pass rusher to linebacker to cornerback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What's going on in the backfield? Adrian Peterson has a hankering for Tampa, but the Bucs seem content to gamble on suspended power back Doug Martin recapturing 2015 Pro Bowl form. They likely will add insurance in the draft. On the other side of the ball, the secondary has been a liability going back to the Lovie Smith regime. It just so happens that this year's crop of cornerbacks and safeties is billed as one of the deepest in recent memory.