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NFL free-agency grades for the NFC South after the first weekend

Despite the NFL-wide cap crunch, the defending champion Buccaneers managed to keep the band together for another Super Bowl run.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.  Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL offseason now in full swing, the majority of big-name free agents have found homes for the upcoming season. While more signings, trades, draft picks, and potential holdouts appear in the offing, teams have provided the first solid indications of what they expect to look like in 2021.

To gauge where each team is so far this offseason, we’ll take you through each division to see how each team has done in its quest for a championship.

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Free agents added/retained

LB Shaquil Barrett
LB Lavonte David
TE Rob Gronkowski
WR Chris Godwin

Free agents lost

DT Ndamukong Suh
RB Leonard Fournette
WR Antonio Brown

During an offseason featuring a challenging cap crunch across the league, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ability to keep the band together stands as no small achievement. The team faced the departure of a premier player on the first two levels of the defense (Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David) and two of its top pass catchers (Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski) and managed to keep them all. Along with quarterback Tom Brady, those moves provide the Buccaneers with a solid foundation for another Super Bowl run.

That doesn’t mean the Buccaneers have completed their work in free agency, however. The offensive line could use some veteran depth and a void remains in Ndamukong Suh’s spot at defensive end. Still, given Tampa’s limited resources, the offseason has unfolded quite well for the defending champs.

Grade: A-

New Orleans Saints

Free agents added/retained

QB Jameis Winston

Free agents lost

QB Drew Brees (retired)
DE Trey Hendrickson
DT Sheldon Rankins

This New Orleans Saints’ offseason would always revolve around quarterback Drew Brees’ retirement, the worst-kept secret in the NFL over the past year. With Brees’ departure closing the most successful era of the franchise’s history, the Saints lack a central figure around which to build for the first time in more than a decade.

That will likely remain true for the remainder of 2021, but that doesn’t mean the Saints lack a plan under center. Jameis Winston returns for a quarterback competition with Taysom Hill, perhaps the most intriguing position battle anywhere in the NFL this year. Winston offers upside to several key New Orleans skill-position players that Hill cannot.

On defense, the loss of Trey Hendrickson hurts, but perhaps not as much as the four-year, $60 million deal he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals suggests. Hendrickson registered double-digit sacks in 2020, but he benefited greatly from the defensive talent around him. Most of that group remains intact.

Grade: C+

Carolina Panthers

Free agents added/retained

LB Haasan Reddick
OT Taylor Moton (Franchise tag)
OG Pat Elfein
WR David Moore

Free agents lost

OT Russell Okung (currently unsigned)
RB Mike Davis
WR Cutis Samuel

The Carolina Panthers had the most flexibility of any team in the NFC South, and perhaps their biggest move of the offseason has yet to occur. The front office geared their decisions around landing a franchise quarterback, and while the Panthers failed to acquire Matthew Stafford or another quality veteran, the draft could see them trade up to land their long-term solution.

But while the future under center has received the most attention, the Panthers also made a savvy move to sign Haason Reddick. The versatile linebacker can operate in a number of roles and help boost a pass rush that lacked juice outside of Brian Burns a year ago. Reddick doesn’t have to deliver double-digit sacks for Carolina in order to improve the defense.

They also boosted their offensive line with Pat Elfein and kept their best lineman, Taylor Moton, as they gave him the franchise tag. Reports have cited the team very much wanting to pry Deshaun Watson away from the Texans, but whoever does end up quarterbacking the Panthers will have some help up front.

Grade: B-

Atlanta Falcons

Free agents added/retained

RB Mike Davis
EDGE Barkevious Mingo
LB Brandon Copeland

Free agents lost

C Alex Mack
RB Todd Gurley
OL James Carpenter

One of the most intriguing teams in the NFL this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons had to decide whether to keep quarterback Matt Ryan and Julio Jones or spin them off as part of a roster teardown rework their roster. The league-wide cap crunch and the Falcons’ first-round pick (No. 4 overall) opened the door for the latter possibility, and Ryan and Jones’ enduring skill could have returned valuable draft choices.

Ultimately, the Falcons decided to continue building around Ryan, Jones, and their core.

With that decision made, the free-agency approach seemed to match. Adding Mike Davis provided a sensible, cheap replacement for Todd Gurley while Alex Mack and James Carpenter departed as part of the team’s cost-cutting. The overall talent doesn’t look considerably different than a season ago, but the new coaching staff has the chance to squeeze more out of it.

Grade: C+