<
>

Five moves each NFC South team should make this offseason

play
Panthers should consider breaking ties with Stewart (0:48)

ESPN's John Clayton explains that a bold move by the Panthers to release running back Jonathan Stewart might make sense, given his age and Carolina's need to free up cap space. (0:48)

Many NFL teams script their first 15 (or more) plays before a game starts to focus on getting a few fundamental concepts right. Whether they want to attack a particular defensive player or scheme, exploit a perceived weakness or simply drill down on the offensive elements they think are most critical to winning, they pay particularly close attention to the plays they'll start with on Sunday as they wrap up the week.

Likewise, organizations need to pay attention to the first few critical things they do during the 2017 offseason, as those might end up defining the year to come. Some teams have a lot to do before the new league year begins March 9, while others won't have to make critical calls until the first day of the NFL draft on April 27.

In this series for ESPN, I'll be running through the first five things that should be running through each team's mind as it prepares for the 2017 offseason. Today, let's get to the NFC South, where the Falcons hope to hold off the Panthers and repeat as division champs.

Falcons | Panthers | Saints | Buccaneers


Atlanta Falcons

1. Extend CB Desmond Trufant's contract. The Falcons won't need to make dramatic decisions this offseason, with just four of their starters hitting free agency. This is more about setting themselves up for the next few years, and that starts with re-signing their best defensive player. The Falcons didn't slip much with Trufant missing their final 10 games with a torn pectoral muscle, but he's arguably the most underrated cornerback in football and a genuine shutdown defender. Those guys aren't hitting free agency very frequently, and the Falcons aren't going to let Trufant move on, even after locking up Robert Alford.

Trufant, who will be in the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, will likely be looking for a Josh Norman-sized deal to stay off of the market. Norman picked up $51 million over the first three seasons of his deal from Washington, and the number might have climbed higher had the Panthers released Norman at the beginning of the offseason. Trufant won't have the same sort of leverage, given that the Falcons can keep him off of the market with this fifth-year option and a pair of franchise tags while paying just under $42 million. Trufant's deal will come in closer to the latter figure.

2. Lock up QB Matt Ryan. The league MVP has two years and $39.8 million in cash left on the deal he signed before the 2013 season, a figure that rises to $45.4 million with the final unamortized chunk of Ryan's signing bonus included. It's about time to start considering a new contract for Ryan, who obviously isn't going anywhere. You can make an argument for waiting a year, given that Ryan is likely to regress toward his career mean and won't cost as much as he will coming off of his best season, but the Falcons are going to pay a lot one way or another. It's more a matter of timing than savings.

Fellow 2008 draftee Joe Flacco picked up $76.3 million over the first three years of his new deal with the Ravens, and that's the mark Ryan will likely aim for with the Falcons. Atlanta doesn't often give out big upfront signing bonuses; Julio Jones, for example, had only a $12 million signing bonus to go with a $7.5 million roster bonus in the first year of his extension. Ryan picked up a $28 million signing bonus to kick off his last extension, but given that the Falcons are in relatively healthy cap shape at the moment, they may want to use some of the $27 million or so in room they have this offseason to pay Ryan with a hefty roster bonus.

3. Tender WR Taylor Gabriel at the second-round level. If that looks like the Falcons should be trying to get teams to bid on their breakout wide receiver, it's not an accident. Gabriel was wildly effective on his 50 targets last season, catching 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns while throwing in another touchdown on the ground. Not a bad return for a guy who was cut by the lowly Browns in September.

It's difficult to believe Gabriel will be as productive in 2017. He has struggled to stay healthy during his career, and indeed, Gabriel missed time last year with a serious concussion and a foot injury. Gabriel has great speed and is always going to be a big-play threat, but he's probably not going to score on 19.4 percent of his touches as he did in 2017. It's also true that the league didn't value Gabriel before this season: He was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and a chunk of the league wasn't interested in Gabriel on the waiver wire before the Falcons snatched him up.

There's a lot of information suggesting Gabriel is a decent player who had a very effective season as a role player in a great offense. It's easier to find those guys than you think. A second-round pick would be an excellent return for Gabriel, and the Falcons would be smart to hesitate on signing Gabriel to a long-term extension given their investments in Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

4. Find a replacement at right guard for Chris Chester. The offensive line was Atlanta's rock last season, as new signing Alex Mack led the way for a unit that went 80-for-80 in starts. No other starting five of offensive linemen in football pulled that off. Chester is the only free agent on the line, and it's unclear whether the 34-year-old will be back with the Falcons next season.

Could the Falcons try to find Chester's replacement in a deep pool of free-agent guards? It's certainly plausible. They could wait out the market and hope to sign somebody like Kevin Zeitler or Larry Warford if the price goes down. But given that Atlanta already has invested heavily in the rest of the line -- its four other starters will count about $28 million against the cap in 2017 -- I would suspect the Falcons use the draft to find their guard of the future.

5. Wait out RB Devonta Freeman. I'm not so sure it makes sense for the Falcons to pay Freeman like an elite back, as his representation has suggested. We basically have a season and a half during which Freeman has been wildly effective (the first half of 2015 and all of 2016) and a season and a half where he has been frustrating and ineffective (2014, where he mostly served as a backup, and the second half of 2015).

Freeman averaged 4.0 yards per carry over those first two seasons and really only popped off the page in 2016, when he jumped up to 4.8. His calling card comes with touchdowns, given that he has rushed for 22 over the past two seasons, but a lot of that comes down to opportunity. Freeman has been given the ball 32 times inside the 5-yard line during that span, generating 13 of those 22 scores. That's a 40.6 percent conversion rate. The league average over that time frame for backs with 10 or more attempts is ... 41.3 percent.

Of course, nobody is saying Freeman is a bad back. His style fits what Kyle Shanahan wanted to do on offense, and he should be effective next season under Steve Sarkisian. It's also true that Freeman was a fourth-round pick coming out of college and was a player the Falcons seemingly planned to replace with Tevin Coleman after the 2015 draft. He spent last year behind one of the best offensive lines in football and was buoyed by a dominant passing attack. Fifty-one of his carries came with the Falcons up 14 points or more, a figure topped only by LeGarrette Blount and Le'Veon Bell.

On the fourth and final year of a rookie deal with a cap hit of just under $2 million, Freeman is a bargain. If the Falcons have to pay him like he's Bell, though, they're probably better off getting one more year out of Freeman and moving on with another mid-round pick and Coleman in the backfield.

Carolina Panthers

1. Franchise DT Kawann Short. Dave Gettleman finally has the cap room to really operate in the free-agent market, but the first thing he needs to do is retain his best pass-rusher. Short has turned into a devastating interior disruptor, leading the team in quarterback knockdowns each of the past two seasons while recording a total of 17 sacks. That's good for third among interior linemen after Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald.

Short is going to be looking for Fletcher Cox money in free agency, and when the Panthers decided to let Josh Norman leave last year, they were likely thinking about budgeting an appropriately sized deal for their Purdue product. Cox got $58.5 million guaranteed over the first three years of his new deal, and Short will try to hit the same sort of ballpark. Chances are that Gettleman will need to franchise Short for just under $13.5 million before using his leverage to find common ground on an extension.

2. Bring back either Mario Addison or Charles Johnson at defensive end. One of the other reasons the Panthers will want to bring back Short is to provide a base for their defensive line from the interior as they rebuild on the edges. Johnson took a massive pay cut to come back to Carolina on a one-year deal but delivered only four sacks; the standout was Addison, a perpetually underrated pass-rusher who produced 9.5 sacks in 13 games. Addison sacked opposing quarterbacks once every 30.9 pass-rush attempts, the fourth-best rate in the league among players with 200 attempts in 2016.

The Panthers started run-first end Wes Horton 10 times despite cutting him in September, and it's probably time for Kony Ealy's workload to grow as he enters the final year of his rookie deal, so Carolina probably wants to consider drafting a defensive end while bringing Addison or Johnson back. Of the two, Addison may be the more productive pass-rusher at this point, given that Johnson has averaged 4.5 sacks over the past three years while struggling to stay healthy.

3. Release RB Jonathan Stewart. A holdover contract from the dying days of the Marty Hurney regime, Stewart's deal has been restructured twice to create more cap space for the Panthers. He had the second-largest cap hit in football among running backs last year at $9.6 million but was essentially uncuttable because of all the restructuring; it would have cost Carolina $13.1 million in dead money to dump their longtime running back.

If the Vikings cut Adrian Peterson this year, Stewart will again have the second-largest cap hit in football among running backs, this time behind LeSean McCoy. The difference is that the Panthers can either choose to pay Stewart $8.3 million to play or eat $3.5 million to move on. Given that Stewart averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season and hasn't played a full 16-game slate since the 2011 season, it's probably time for the Panthers to cut ties and draft Stewart's long-term replacement.

4. Re-sign G Trai Turner. The strength of Carolina's offensive line is on the interior, with center Ryan Kalil lining up next to Turner at right guard. The LSU product made his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 2016, and as he enters the final season of his rookie deal with a cap hit of $824,950, the Panthers will likely be earmarking a hefty raise for the 2014 second-round pick. Turner could be looking for Kyle Long-level money in free agency (nearly $26 million over the first three years of the deal). The Panthers will hopefully then address the tackle position in the draft.

5. Make a run at WR DeSean Jackson. Ted Ginn Jr. is a free agent and still reliant almost entirely upon his speed. Betting on the wheels of a 32-year-old player seems dangerous, and it's pretty clear that Ginn isn't suddenly going to develop great hands at this point of his career. Gettleman probably wants another deep burner for Cam Newton to target as the Panthers try to rebuild their passing game. Jackson will certainly be more expensive, and he's not that much younger (30), but he would represent a hefty short-term upgrade on the perennially-frustrating Ginn.

Another receiver the Panthers might target -- admittedly for entirely different reasons -- is Bills wideout Robert Woods. Carolina likes tall wideouts who are effective blockers, and the 6-foot-1 USC star is one of the best-blocking wide receivers in the game. He's worth more to the Panthers than he is to many other teams.

New Orleans Saints

1. Pick up WR Brandin Cooks' fifth-year option. Things haven't always been smooth for Cooks and the Saints, given Cooks' public frustration with not getting the ball at times last season, but he's too effective of a player to let leave for free. The Saints will happily pick up his fifth-year option for 2018 in advance of contract negotiations.

2. Designate S Jairus Byrd as a post-June 1 release. One of the more disappointing free-agent signings in recent memory, Byrd was expected to be a playmaker in center field after intercepting 22 passes during his five years in Buffalo. He has had just three picks in three years for the Saints, and 2016 was his only 16-game season in New Orleans. The Saints aren't as capped-out as they've been in years past thanks to the Drew Brees extension, but New Orleans can free up $8.3 million in room by designating Byrd as its post-June 1 release.

3. Re-sign S Kenny Vaccaro as the Saints rebuild their secondary. With Vonn Bell stepping in for Byrd, the Saints will want to lock up Vaccaro. He has been wildly inconsistent -- the former first-rounder was excellent as a rookie in 2013 and erratic at best over the ensuing two seasons before settling down last year -- but he has done enough to justify an extension as he enters the fifth-year option of his rookie deal.

Elsewhere in the secondary, New Orleans also could make an argument for bringing back cornerback Sterling Moore, who was signed in September to supplement a dismal depth chart at cornerback and ended up becoming the Saints' No. 1 corner for a stretch with Delvin Breaux out. Moore could slot in behind Breaux and 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams, who has been limited to two games in two seasons by injuries.

The Saints also can start talking to Breaux about an extension, but they should be patient. Breaux is a restricted free agent next year, capping his compensation dramatically and giving the Saints a ton of leverage in negotiating a long-term deal. Breaux also will turn 28 during the upcoming season, so the Saints are also really only looking at a window of two to three years where they'll want to pay their top corner. If they can use their leverage to negotiate a team-friendly extension, re-signing Breaux would be smart. If not, GM Mickey Loomis is better going year-to-year at the moment with the New Orleans native.

4. Let DT Nick Fairley leave. The Saints got solid production out of Fairley, who broke out with his best professional season. Fairley generated 6.5 sacks and 22 knockdowns lining up at defensive tackle for Dennis Allen, with the latter figure tied for fourth in the league among interior linemen. If the Saints could get that every year out of Fairley, they would be thrilled to keep him around for the long term.

The problem, of course, is that Fairley is hardly consistent. Last season was the first time in his career he has started 16 games, as he has missed 20 percent of his professional career to date. The only other time Fairley has been this productive during his career was 2013 with the Lions, and he followed that season with a one-sack, eight-game campaign (thanks to a knee injury) and a 0.5-sack season as a rotation tackle with the Rams. Fairley has done a good job of rebuilding his value, but unless his market crashes, he's a risk the Saints probably can't afford to take.

5. Sign pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware or Elvis Dumervil. A more plausible risk would be signing a defensive end to play across from Cameron Jordan as a secondary pass-rusher. Paul Kruger was a logical addition in that role last August but did little, generating just 1.5 sacks. It's unclear what the Saints will get out of Hau'oli Kikaha, who tore his ACL for the third time and missed all of 2016, so the Saints probably have to bring in another edge rusher to support Jordan.

It might be tempting to go after a would-be star such as Melvin Ingram or Jason Pierre-Paul, but the Saints are probably better off taking a smaller swing for a veteran defensive lineman who can fill in on a rotational basis. Ware is a free agent and could sign here if he doesn't return to Dallas, while Dumervil, a likely cap casualty in Baltimore, is one year removed from a 21-knockdown 2015 campaign. The Saints could -- and should -- supplement this addition by using one of their earlier draft picks on a defensive lineman.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Pick up the fifth-year option on WR Mike Evans. This is about as easy as it gets.

2. Release CB Alterraun Verner and C Evan Smith, but hold onto RB Doug Martin. Verner and Smith were both free-agent additions who were expected to solidify points of weakness at cornerback and on the interior of the offensive line, respectively, but it hasn't worked out. Bumped from the starting lineup in recent years, neither Verner nor Smith even played as much as one-quarter of the snaps on their respective sides of the ball last season. The Bucs aren't lacking for cap space, with $72.8 million in room, but they can free up $11 million in both cap room and actual cash from their budget by moving on from both veterans.

Editors note: This story was published before the Bucs released Verner on Thursday afternoon, clearing $6.5 million from their cap.

It may not be quite as easy to move on from Martin, to whom the Bucs gave an ill-advised huge offer last season after an impressive 2015 campaign. Martin hadn't been that effective since his rookie year, and he subsequently produced a dismal 2016 season, mixing injuries with poor play. Martin averaged just 2.9 yards per carry before finishing his season with a PED suspension, which will still be ongoing as the 2017 season begins.

The suspension also gave the Bucs a get out of jail free card, as it appears to have voided the guarantees on Martin's $5.7 million salary for 2017. I'm not so sure the Bucs should give it up. Martin's suspension for Adderall is unquestionably frustrating, but the Buccaneers thought Martin was talented enough to justify $15 million in guarantees 12 months ago. They also thought he wasn't worth securing for another season on a fifth-year option 24 months ago.

In other words, they've been reactionary and perpetually behind the curve on Martin, and while it would be foolish to assume Martin will have a massive 2017 season, chances are that he'll be more productive than he was a year ago. The return of 2016 free-agent addition J.R. Sweezy, who missed all of last season with a back injury, should help Tampa's run blocking as well. Unless the Bucs can sign Adrian Peterson for a similar sort of deal, they're probably better off going with the combination of Martin and Charles Sims for another season without making any more long-term commitments at the position.

3. Invest in a No. 2 wideout across from Evans. Vincent Jackson is a free agent and unlikely to return, and while the Buccaneers got surprisingly effective seasons from Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate, they can stand to use that cap room and add another weapon for Jameis Winston while still retaining roles for their incumbents in the offense.

It would be logical for the Bucs to target a different sort of player from the guys they already have, although another Evans would be nice. They could use more speed downfield to stretch teams, given that the only notable burner on the roster right now is Evans, who is almost always attracting extra attention anyway. The need for speed could push them toward DeSean Jackson or Kenny Stills, although Stills likely had a career year in terms of touchdown percentage in 2016.

The search for a more well-rounded target could push Tampa toward veterans such as Kenny Britt or Pierre Garcon, or it could consider a lower-end option such as Robert Woods or Andre Holmes. Under any circumstances, the Bucs will need to have a beefier depth chart at wideout come July.

4. Re-sign S Bradley McDougald. Starters Chris Conte (who lost his job via injury to Keith Tandy in December) and McDougald are both free agents, so general manager Jason Licht has some work to do. The Bucs should focus their efforts on signing McDougald, who has rounded into an effective, versatile safety after originally making the team as a special-teams contributor. He may attract attention in a very thin safety market, so the Bucs would be wise to re-sign the Kansas product before free agency starts.

The Bucs will likely commit to Tandy to start the 2017 season, given that the long-time reserve picked off four passes during his five-game, season-ending stretch as a starter. I would be skeptical of committing too much to a player based on a small sample after Tampa didn't think he was worth starting very frequently over the previous four seasons. The Bucs could draft a safety to compete with Tandy.

Likewise, Brent Grimes had a resurgent 2016 season after a mediocre 2015 campaign with the Dolphins. (He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 but didn't make it last year for reasons unexplained.) The Bucs will rightly start Grimes in 2017, but he's also turning 34 in July. Tampa would be thin at corner behind Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III if it releases Verner. The Bucs could be in the market for an upgrade at that third cornerback slot, both to play in nickel sets and serve as insurance for Grimes. A splash for somebody like A.J. Bouye would be defensible, given that the Bucs play in a division with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but seems unlikely.

5. Find a backup quarterback. Mike Glennon is likely to leave in free agency, and while the Buccaneers can afford to bring him back, it's tough to justify matching the $8-9 million or so per year Glennon is likely to receive from a team that perceives him to be a viable starter. Glennon is not going to get that chance behind Winston, of course, so the Bucs will have to let Glennon leave and pursue a replacement for him in the draft or free agency.

Head coaches tend to look toward veteran backups they had in previous stops, but that's not an obvious fix for Dirk Koetter, who coached T.J. Yates in Atlanta. The Buccaneers probably want somebody who either has more upside or has been more effective. Luke McCown, who worked under Koetter in Jacksonville and Atlanta, is under contract with the Saints. Tampa could look to the likes of Josh McCown or Matt McGloin as Winston's backup for the next couple of seasons.