Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Michael Baca examines the current makeup of the NFC South below.
Old team: Carolina Panthers
The free-agent signing of Davis highlights a quiet offseason for the cap-strapped Falcons, but his contributions won’t go unnoticed in 2021. Davis’ nervy running style is an ideal fit for the system of first-year coach Arthur Smith, whose offense was built around the strengths of Derrick Henry in Tennessee. Davis may not be the embodiment of King Henry, but the 28-year-old's attitude running the ball is comparable. The Falcons were front and center for Davis’ biggest game of 2020, which was a homecoming for the Atlanta-born back.
New team: Dallas Cowboys
The Falcons' secondary saw a mass exodus this offseason, but no absence will be felt more than that of a fan favorite. Neal had an inspiring 2020 season after coming back from two ill-timed injuries that plagued a promising start to his career. The Falcons couldn’t afford to retain the hard-hitting safety, and his sure-handed tackling on the back end will be missed. Erik Harris was one of the few free-agent signings for Atlanta, but there is still work to be had with Ricardo Allen, Darqueze Dennard and Damontae Kazee becoming ex-Falcons.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Edge rusher
Priorities may go by the wayside when it comes to Atlanta's No. 4 overall pick, which is an intriguing storyline as April 29 approaches. The Falcons can grab the top non-QB prospect in the entire draft, benefit from another team wanting to get into the QB mix, or even take a QB themselves. Looking at a roster with several needs, however, the Falcons should prioritize an inconsistent pass rush that has undermined the rest of the defense recently. An upgrade on the edge would do wonders for defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, and allow linebackers Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun to freely wreak havoc.
- First-year GM Terry Fontenot was hamstrung this offseason thanks to the Falcons’ dire cap situation, but the draft is where the longtime Saints scout shines. It’s why the Falcons can maybe afford to go outside of their biggest need at No. 4 overall and rely on his eye for talent in the later rounds. The Falcons have a total of nine picks this year (for now), and this draft is essential for the franchise as it enters a new era.
- It’s hard not to believe Smith isn’t dreaming about top tight end prospect Kyle Pitts, considering his perpetual use of the 12 personnel.
- This is a pivotal season for longtime QB Matt Ryan, who turns 36 in May and already sees the writing on the wall when it comes to his potential successor. But after Matt Schaub’s retirement this offseason, the Falcons still need a backup.
- Alex Mack’s exit in free agency is the other major loss and shouldn’t go unnoticed, but it seems like the team is comfortable with having Matt Hennessy as the starting center. Hennessy managed to get some experience as a rookie, appearing in 13 games and earning two starts at center last season.
Old team: New York Jets
As a QB feeding frenzy shapes up at the top of the draft, Carolina decided to try to revive the career of a former No. 3 overall pick with the acquisition of Darnold. He is still young enough to be molded into the signal-caller the Panthers want, and after three underwhelming seasons in New York -- where dysfunction trickled down -- the soon-to-be 24-year-old gets a much-needed restart. Darnold joins a team led by a young, inventive coaching staff and with a familiar target in wideout Robby Anderson, who had a good rapport with the QB during his first two seasons in New York.
New Team: Washington Football Team
Replacing a multifaceted weapon like Samuel won’t be easy. Samuel garnered 1,051 yards (851 receiving, 200 rushing) and five total TDs last season and was rewarded by Washington for his efforts. Signing David Moore is a solid play for WR depth but shouldn’t be seen as a replacement, especially with Christian McCaffrey on track for a healthy return this year. In fact, with that rare skill set back on board, optimistic Panthers fans are within their rights to believe Samuel’s absence may only be felt by OC Joe Brady’s imaginative process.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Offensive line
Carolina has options with the No. 8 overall pick after the Darnold trade. There are a handful of needs entering the draft, but the Panthers are well-positioned to select one of the top prospects from a healthy crop of offensive tackles. With RT Taylor Moton on the franchise tag, drafting a first-round blind-side protector could solidify the O-line. Considering the team signed veteran CB A.J. Bouye last week, we may be clued into what the Panthers do at No. 8 -- though trading out of the pick is another possibility.
- It will be interesting to see how new linebackers Haason Reddick and Denzel Perryman influence a young Panthers defense. Reddick was Carolina’s biggest addition before the Darnold trade, with the hybrid OLB fresh off a breakout season in Arizona. Now the 26-year-old's reunited with his former college coach at Temple, playing on a one-year, prove-it deal. The addition of Perryman could be looked at as a nostalgic attempt at filling the void left by Luke Kuechly’s retirement 15 months ago. Panthers lore is rich at MLB, and Perryman, a Miami product, is an intriguing play for a team that saw former Hurricanes Dan Morgan and Jon Beason help build a prominent tradition. Considering the Panthers have a healthy crop of young pass rushers and Jeremy Chinn at safety, Reddick and Perryman’s presence could help push a budding defense to the next level.
- Don’t be shocked if Dan Arnold becomes a Carolina favorite by season’s end. The hulking tight end showed flashes of potential with the Cardinals last season (31 reception, 438 yards, four TDs) and has the opportunity to finally earn a full-fledged role as a starter. The Darnold-Arnold connection seems like something.
Old team: Denver Broncos
Needing to shed around $100 million in cap space set the tone for a scrupulous offseason in New Orleans, and Vannett stands as the team’s biggest addition. The 28-year-old will take over the starting TE role for Jared Cook, who caught 37 balls for 504 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Josh Hill, primarily a blocking TE, was another cap casualty, but Vannett is someone who provides both skill sets. A third-round pick by Seattle in 2016, Vannett finally gets an opportunity to showcase himself -- and a breakout season is looming.
New team: Retired
There’s no understating the end of the Brees era and how different New Orleans will feel going into 2021 -- starting with its first QB competition in what feels like forever. Coach Sean Payton has already acknowledged the challenge ahead, but the Saints have smartly prepared for the inevitable. Jameis Winston returns on a one-year deal after learning the offense as a backup for a year and is set to compete with Taysom Hill for the reins of a cohesive unit. The Saints could very well end up using both regularly or at the same time, which sets the table for head-scratching storylines and mind-blowing play calls all season. Whatever the case may be -- it being a success or failure -- an interesting offseason is the aftermath of an all-time great hanging them up.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Cornerback
The Saints’ cost-cutting left several holes in the starting roster, especially on defense. Really, New Orleans can use players at all phases of its defense, but the release of Janoris Jenkins leaves a glaring hole at the No. 2 cornerback spot. Given the lack of depth at the position, Marshon Lattimore’s looming payday and the fact that you can never have too many good corners, the Saints can maintain one of the league’s top secondaries with a find in the draft.
- Not counting Brees, New Orleans lost more than a handful of starters in the offseason, but managed to keep its bigger names by restructuring contracts. There’s still a ton of talent on the offense and the Saints have procured one of the league’s best offensive lines, but some sort of upgrade seems inevitable through the draft. The loss of slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders (61 receptions for 726 yards and five TDs) is another notable cap casualty, and a new offensive weapon would be a sensible play for Payton’s appetite after the Brees era, even though it’s not necessarily a pressing need.
- As for the loss of defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who earned a nice contract with the Bengals after a timely 13.5-sack season, the Saints are hoping Marcus Davenport comes into his own in his fourth season. They will also rely on in-house promotions along the defensive line after the team traded away defensive tackle Malcom Brown and lost DT Sheldon Rankins to free agency, but a thin linebacking corps surrounding Demario Davis will need to be addressed in the draft.
Old team: Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard’s recent signing fits this category by default, considering he’s the only new free-agent added by the Bucs so far. Bernard is a proven, do-it-all running back who can run, catch and pass protect. It's no surprise the 29-year-old’s services were reportedly sought out by coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady. Bernard joins a crowded RB room led by Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, but he's sure to find his role amid a rigorous 17-game schedule.
New team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Haeg started just three games for the Super Bowl champions, and spotlighting his absence is a testament to GM Jason Licht’s impressive offseason. Along with Earl Watford (free agent) and A.Q. Shipley (retired), the loss of Haeg demonstrates the need for offensive line depth, which can be added in the draft at a team-friendly rate.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Defensive line
In retaining all 22 starters of a Super Bowl-winning roster, the Bucs are in the enviable position of having no real pressing needs ahead of the draft, giving them the opportunity to develop players through depth while also having the luxurious option of snagging a top prospect who unexpectedly falls into their lap. Yet, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston set to become free agents after the 2021 season, the Bucs should be thinking ahead here. A rookie gets the chance to learn under the veterans, and the bright future of Vita Vea needs a sidekick in the trenches.
- Tampa Bay went from configuring a new roster out of thin air one offseason to reversing strategies and retaining nearly all of its players the next, as the franchise goes for two consecutive Super Bowls. And the Bucs did it while giving Brady a big one-year extension through 2022. Should Tampa repeat, it’s an offseason that seems destined for a documentary with all the improbable maneuvering, convincing and … boating.
- As for Antonio Brown, who remains unsigned and may be considered a major loss, the Bucs still have an opportunity to retain the veteran wideout, but second-year pro Tyler Johnson is waiting in the wings. With Chris Godwin playing on the franchise tag, getting Johnson some more reps this season is ideal in order to prep him for a bigger role in the future.
- With Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin still unsigned, the Buccaneers currently don’t have a backup QB on the roster. Taking a flier on a QB in the draft could be in the cards. How far they reach remains to be seen, but with the Bucs strutting their stuff this offseason, there’s no doubting the actions of a confident front office.