NFL free agency roundup: Grading NFC South moves

The Atlanta Falcons' signing of defensive tackle Paul Soliai looms large for opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South this season.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The following is our rankings of NFC South teams since free agency started on March 11. This is not to say that it is the suggested order in which teams will finish; Carolina and New Orleans remain the teams to beat in 2014. However, the teams at the top of these rankings did the best job addressing their needs. As is often the case, though, the team that wins free agency is often not the team that wins the division, as has been demonstrated in the past:

Signings: DB Alterraun Verner; DE Michael Johnson; WR Louis Murphy; DB Mike Jenkins; OG Evan Dietrich-Smith; LB Dane Fletcher; OT Oniel Cousins; LS Jeremy Cain; OLB Jonathan Casillas; OT Anthony Collins; TE Brandon Myers, OG Jamon Meredith; CB Danny Gorrer; QB Josh McCown; DT Clinton McDonald

The Buccaneers cut a player considered to be one of the top cornerbacks in the game in Darrelle Revis and replaced him with an up-and-comer: Alterraun Verner, formerly of Tennessee. If Verner can pick up where he left off last season, he will help to defend the likes of inter-division wideouts Julio Jones and Marques Colston. With new head coach Lovie Smith’s famed "Tampa Two" defense, the Bucs will not leave him one-on-one with those players very often.

The Buccaneers also signed another one of the big prizes on the free-agent market in defensive end Michael Johnson, formerly of Cincinnati. If Smith can get Johnson to return to the form he showed in 2012, when he posted 11.5 sacks, and not the form he showed last season (3.5 sacks), the Bucs could be on their way to terrorizing one of the league’s top trio of quarterbacks — NFC South signal-callers Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton — the way that Carolina did last season.

The biggest question mark remains at quarterback where Tampa Bay signed Josh McCown to be its starter. McCown enjoyed excellent success (13 touchdowns, one interception) in a limited role last season in Chicago, making five starts in place of injured starter Jay Cutler. Does that mean he’s ready to lead Tampa to success as the starter for 16 games? We shall see.

Signings: DT Paul Soliai; DE Tyson Jackson; OG Jon Asamoah; WR/KR Devin Hester; DB Javier Arenas; DT Peria Jerry; C Joe Hawley; DT Jonathan Babineaux

The Falcons’ biggest issues were on the offensive and defensive lines. They did their best to fix those by re-signing defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and adding nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson. Soliai, signed to a five-year, $33-million contract, is the big prize. His signing appears to ensure the Falcons will shift to a 3-4 base, which the Falcons believe will make them more effective at defending the run, which was a major weakness in their 4-12 2013 season. Tyson Jackson is an effective run defender but has more to prove as a pass-rusher.

On the offensive line, Asamoah is part of a rebuilding project that should allow the team to be more physical up front. However, that project is far from complete and must extend to the draft. Arenas’ signing will push Robert McClain at the nickel and allow defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to employ four cornerbacks in a dime package, as he likes to do at times. Hester is a bit of a risk. The Falcons signed him to a three-year, $9-million deal in the hope that he can provide game-changing abilities in the punt or kickoff return game. If he does, that alone could help win games. If not, he becomes a bit of an expensive addition.

Signings: QB/WR Joe Webb; DB Antoine Cason; WR Tiquan Underwood; WR Jerricho Cotchery; DB Roman Harper; DB James Dockery; LB Jason Williams; TE Mike McNeill; QB Derek Anderson

Carolina’s best offseason move has been using their franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy and getting him to sign a one-year tender at $13 million. That will help ensure their pass rush — which was a huge part of their success last season — will remain intact.

Beyond that, the receiving corps will be entirely new. Gone is perhaps the franchise’s all-time best player in Steve Smith (cut, signed with Baltimore) and Brandon LeFell (49 catches last season, signed with New England), meaning that Cam Newton will have to build chemistry with almost an entirely new receiving corps. Maybe Jerricho Cotchery (46 catches, 10 touchdowns last season with Pittsburgh) can fit the bill, but he’ll be 32. Tiquan Underwood has never caught more than 28 balls in a season. Seems like the Panthers have a No. 2 and a No. 3, but not a No. 1.

Defensively, safety Roman Harper went from 11 passes defended in 2012 to one last season, which is why New Orleans cut him. If he does not turn that around, it could expose Carolina’s pass defense against the likes of Atlanta and New Orleans. The Panthers also will be hard pressed to fill the spot vacated by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who left for Minnesota.

Signings: FB/DE Erik Lorig; OLB Ramon Humber; WR Joe Morgan; OT Zach Strief; S Jairus Byrd

The great mystery continues to be how the Saints are going to be able to fit in the six-year, $56-million contract (with $28 million guaranteed) that they awarded to free safety Jairus Byrd. The guaranteed money assures that whether or not the marriage with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan works, Byrd will be around for a while, as the cap charge for cutting him would be too much to absorb for at least a few years. Maybe the Saints realize Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger, that their window to win is now and that they’re going for it.

It’s a high-risk/high-reward move, typical of head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis’ style. But in the modern NFL, safety is not a position generally where teams spend big dollars.

The defense that Ryan did such an excellent job of revamping will have a number of new faces, though. Gone are outside linebacker Will Smith, Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer. A safer move the Saints made was bringing back tackle Zach Strief for his ninth season with the organization to help protect Brees. Gone is wide receiver Lance Moore to Pittsburgh, but the Saints often seem to lose their secondary receivers (Robert Meachem, anyone?) and end up getting by just fine. A bigger move is the Saints’ trade of running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, which made Brees unhappy. The Saints seem to have more questions than any other team.