Key NFC South Players Entering Free-Agency

Nov 27, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Robert Ayers (91) is congratulated after he sacks Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers will all be watching the playoffs from home while the Falcons have secured the 2nd seed in the NFC and will be moving into the post-season. While three of them will be getting a head start, all will need to give serious thought to who they bring back for 2017.

Just about every year sees a new team win the NFC South, and while the Buccaneers faded a bit at the end, everyone better believe they think they’ll be the next team to wear the crown.

For the Panthers and Saints, it’s not re-building time, it’s keep building time. Just like every renovation though, a little bit of the current structure is retained to help sturdy the new additions as they look to achieve the ultimate goal of building a Super Bowl winning franchise.

It seems every season we see a player who vacates their previous squad and finds big success in their new one. The Bucs are no stranger to this phenomenon as Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount have both gone on to win championships following their time in Tampa.

Some teams in this division have benefited from the same occurrence however, as New Orleans can undoubtedly call themselves the winners of the San Diego Chargers’ decision to let Drew Brees walk in favor of the still ring-less Philip Rivers.

Future history is made in the decisions of today. Which names will be tied to the NFC South’s future? Here are a few possibilities.

Dec 11, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (18) scores on a 64-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons – Projected Cap Space: $26.3M

Upcoming Free Agents:

*Restricted

OFFENSE:

QB Matt Schaub                                FB Patrick DiMarco
*WR Taylor Gabriel                           WR Eric Weems
WR Aldrick Robinson                      TE Jacob Tamme
TE Levine Toilolo                               OG Chris Chester
*OG Ben Garland                               OG Tom Compton

DEFENSE:

DT Jonathan Babineaux                 DL Courtney Upshaw
LB Dwight Freeney                         LB LaRoy Reynolds
*LB Tyler Starr                                  LB Sean Weatherspoon
LB Philip Wheeler                            LB Paul Worrilow
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson                    FS Dashon Goldson
SS Kemal Ishmael                           *SS Akeem King

The Falcons have the least amount of salary cap space heading into free-agency as it stands

currently. With a handful of these names on the short list when it comes to shelf-life most of the players under contract for 2018 are under 30, so there won’t be much in retirement relief coming their way.

This makes who they keep and who they let walk critical if they’re going to repeat as NFC South champs in 2017, or even compete at the same level as they did this season.

MUST KEEP – WR, Taylor Gabriel

As the Falcons’ third leading receiver, he may not get the credit star Julio Jones gets, but don’t sleep on how important he is to this team’s high-flying offense.

Atlanta doesn’t evoke visions of grind-it-out drives, and Gabriel is one of the reasons they won’t have to.

MOST EXPENDABLE – LB, Dwight Freeney

I’m as much a fan of Freeney as anyone is, and his ability to perform into his mid-30s certainly deserves a lot of adulation, but it’s time for him to see what life after football has in store for him.

For this roster, whether they find some youth in free-agency or in the draft, there’s no reason they can’t find a way to fill in for his 10 tackles and three sacks for less than $1M.

MOST LIKELY TO JOIN A RIVAL – LB, Paul Worrilow

A 26-year old linebacker who plays best in the middle, but can play on the outside if needed, Worrilow was a starter in Atlanta until the emergence of rookie Deion Jones pushed him to the bench.

While he may end up returning to play behind the young star in the making, it’s likely the fourth-year player will be looking for starting vacancies around the league before making a final decision.

Each of the three NFC South rivals has openings in their starting lineup entering free-agency, and the cap room to bring in a still young linebacker to fill a void for an affordable amount.

Dec 4, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) carries the ball as quarterback Jameis Winston (3) blocks during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Projected Cap Space: $74.6M

Upcoming Free Agents:

*Restricted

OFFENSE:

QB Mike Glennon                            *QB Ryan Griffin
RB Jacquizz Rodgers                      RB Antone Smith
*FB Austin Johnson                        *WR Josh Huff
WR Vincent Jackson                       WR Russell Shepard
WR Cecil Shorts III                          TE Brandon Myers
OT Gosder Cherilus                         C Joe Hawley
*LS Andrew DePaola

DEFENSE:

DT Sealver Siliga                                DT Akeem Spence
DE John Hughes                                 DE William Gholston
*DE Jacquies Smith                          *LB Adarius Glanton
LB Daryl Smith                                   CB Josh Robinson
FS Chris Conte                                    FS Bradley McDougald

The Buccaneers have the most projected cap space of any team in the NFC South and if recent rumblings about Doug Martin being cut loose after his suspension for performance enhancing drugs has any truth, they could have over $80M to spend when free-agency begins on March 9th.

This team performed well over the second half of the season following a disappointing start to the year, but they still have plenty of holes to fill. Who they keep will be a sign of who they intend to target outside of the organization and in the draft.

MUST KEEP – RB, Jacquizz Rodgers

He knows the system, and even more he had success in it. Rodgers doesn’t look like the Bucs’

primary back of the future, but he could pair nicely with Charles Sims if the team does part ways with Martin.

Losing the NFLs second leading rusher in 2015 could spark an early round running back selection in this year’s draft, and the team would be wise to hold onto Rodgers who could help ease the workload as they break in the rookie behind a less than stellar offensive line.

MOST EXPENDABLE – FS, Chris Conte

No, this isn’t bash on Chris Conte time, it’s be realistic time. Keith Tandy – the Tandyman – has made a name for himself here in the last quarter of the season and looks like he’ll be lined up to fight for the starting job in 2017.

On the other side, Bradley McDougald is just as good – if not better – is younger and has been more consistent than the six-year vet.

Add in a rookie who should get picked up in the draft, and there simply isn’t room or cause to re-sign Conte at this point.

MOST LIKELY TO JOIN A RIVAL – DE, William Gholston

William Gholston’s chances of re-signing have dipped a bit with the rise of rookie Noah Spence who flashed greatness at key moments of the season.

With his starter status in question, the former Michigan State stand-out is likely to pursue other options and the Buccaneers likely won’t overpay to keep him.

Every team in the NFC South could use help in their front-line attack, and Gholston could end up on any one of their depth charts in 2017.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Tim Hightower (34) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints – Projected Cap Space: $30.8M

Upcoming Free Agents:

*Restricted

OFFENSE:

RB Tim Hightower                           RB Travaris Cadet
FB John Kuhn                                     *WR Brandon Coleman
*WR Corey Fuller                              TE John Phillips
OT Tony Hills                                      OG Jahri Evans
OG Tim Lelito                                      LS Justin Drescher

DEFENSE:

DT Nick Fairley                                  *DE Kasim Edebali
DE Darryl Tapp                                   LB Sam Barrington
LB Paul Kruger                                   LB Michael Mauti
LB Jason Trusnik                               CB Sterling Moore
*CB B.W. Webb                                  CB Kyle Wilson
*SS Chris Banjo                                  SS Roman Harper
SS Shiloh Keo                                     SS Jamarca Sanford

$30 million sounds like a lot until you see the number of players the Saints have entering free-agency. Good news is none of them are franchise tag names and should be willing to negotiate if the franchise can squash their coach-trading rumors quickly.

Nothing deters a free-agent more than questions at the head coaching position, and New Orleans has exactly that to go along with an aging quarterback and lackluster defense.

If the team wants to keep the good ones, they need to give them a feeling of security beyond just the paycheck.

MUST KEEP – RB, Tim Hightower

It’s amazing to think about this player being out of the NFL a short time ago becoming the Saints’ second-leading rusher averaging 4.1 yards per carry for a total of 548 rushing yards.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Sterling Moore (24) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Ingram may not lead the league in rushing, but he’s good at what New Orleans asks him to do. However, what they ask him to do isn’t very conducive to staying healthy as 2016 marks the first full season for Ingram since 2012, and is just his second full year of his career.

Keeping Hightower to help carry the workload means prolonging both of their NFL lives, and ensures Brees has someone worth handing it off to from time-to-time.

MOST EXPENDABLE – OG, Jahri Evans

The 33-year old lineman was cut early this season before being brought back to help guard Drew Brees and try to reclaim some post-season success once again before he hangs it up.

They didn’t find the playoffs, but he did have one of his better years for the team leading to talks of bringing him back for 2017.

As it stands, Evans isn’t sure he won’t retire, and is going to take some time to decide his future for himself. Not that the team shouldn’t appreciate the time he’s given them already, but if he’s leaning on the retired side of the fence, maybe don’t pull him back so much.

The Saints need to get better on the front-line, and doing it in free-agency by finding youth and talent is better than keeping a veteran who is nothing more than a band-aid at this point.

MOST LIKELY TO JOIN A RIVAL – CB, Sterling Moore

Sterling Moore tied for the team lead in interceptions and was near the top in tackles despite playing in just 13 games this year for the Saints.

Entering free-agency he should be on the list of names to look at for each of the NFC South teams as they all have needs for cornerbacks who can play outside or inside, and have success in both parts of the field.

Smart money is on Carolina who certainly needs some experience in their defensive backfield, and could be the next spot for Moore to land as he continues his tour of the division.

Sep 25, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) runs out of the tunnel during player introductions against the Minnesota Vikings at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers – Projected Cap Space: $54.9M

Upcoming Free Agents:

*Restricted

OFFENSE:

*RB Fozzy Whitaker                        *WR Brenton Bersin
*WR Corey Brown                            WR Ted Ginn Jr.
OT Mike Remmers                           *OG Andrew Norwell
OG Chris Scott                                   C Ryan Wendell

DEFENSE:

DT Kyle Love                                      DT Kawann Short
DE Mario Addison                            DE Charles Johnson
*DE Wes Horton                                LB Ben Jacobs
LB A.J. Klein                                        CB Leonard Johnson
CB Teddy Williams                           *CB Louis Young
FS Colin Jones                                    FS Michael Griffin

With more than $50 million in cap space the Panthers still have the youthful talent to re-build their Super Bowl aspirations and the money to make a splash in free-agency.

When the doors open I’d expect some big-name targets as this team looks to re-open a window which some see as nailed shut after nearly winning it all just a season ago.

Thomas Davis will need his team’s leadership to figure out the puzzle if he’s going to get a ring before he retires, and it’ll all start with who they keep, and who they let walk.

MUST KEEP – DT, Kawann Short

Dec 24, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) with the ball in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

He didn’t have the same year he did last season; but then who in Carolina did?

Short is the best thing this defense has outside of Luke Kuechly and if the front office lets another Josh Norman incident happen then things are going to get worse before they get better.

Much worse.

MOST EXPENDABLE – DE, Charles Johnson

Before Panthers fans come at me with pitch forks and knives, understand this is based off his market value and the fact he’s 30-years old and is looking for his last payday before retiring.

Bottom line is the front line has some depth and youth, and they need to get talent at other positions more than they need to keep Johnson.

If Kony Ealy can build off what he’s shown early-on then they’ll be much wiser to spend the money they would here on him next season.

MOST LIKELY TO JOIN A RIVAL – WR, Ted Ginn Jr.

If this speedster doesn’t take a hometown discount to stay in Carolina then there’ll be a couple of NFC South teams who could swoop in during free-agency to add him to their arsenal.

Ginn isn’t a number one receiver and truth be told he’s probably not a number two. What he is, is a straight-line specialist who can turn a fly route into points, open the defense, run a jet sweep with the best of them and instantly improves any team’s special teams play.

The 10-year veteran looks as fast as ever, and if the Panthers can’t keep him, they may end up facing him.

Free-agency is two months away, and there’s no doubting the impact it will have on what happens in 2017 for the NFC South.

What we’ve covered today are just a few names who will help shape the divisional race next season, but they aren’t the only ones.

It’s hard to understate the impact Alex Mack had on the Falcons by giving Matt Ryan time to throw for nearly 5,000 yards; the improvements Brent Grimes and Robert Ayers ushered into the Buccaneers defense; how much more the Saints defense would have struggled without Nick Fairley’s 6.5 sacks; or what the loss of Josh Norman did to the Panthers secondary.

Which players do you see as indispensable for your team, and which do you see as a guy the roster could do without? Sound off below in the comments or look me up on Twitter with your thoughts!

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