The Big Question: The silent NFC South

Why has the NFC South been so quiet in free agency?

The NFC South has been a virtual nonfactor in free agency. Aside from Atlanta adding cornerback Dunta Robinson, there hasn’t been another signing of a true unrestricted free agent in the division.

Don’t look for that to change dramatically. First off there’s not much left in free agency. Even if there were, that wouldn’t change things. The NFC South’s silence is largely by design.

It may make for a boring time for fans, but the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers all like to say they’re committed to building through the draft. Now, we’re seeing them back it up.

The Bucs, 3-13 last year, have needs all over the place. But they’re not known for being big spenders and they pretty much have been sitting out of free agency. They keep pointing to the 10 draft picks they have accumulated and saying that’s how they’re going to build their team. Like it or not, that’s really what they’re doing.

Atlanta has become pretty transparent since general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith took over. They’ll always tell you they believe in building through the draft and that’s what they’ve done. They’re good for one or two big moves in an offseason. In the past, that’s been signing Michael Turner and Mike Peterson and trading for Tony Gonzalez. Robinson was this year’s big splurge and there’s not likely to be another. The Falcons might plug a hole or two with some mid-level or low-level free agents, but they basically started turning their attention to the draft the minute Robinson signed his contract.

Carolina long has followed the philosophy of building through the draft, which is fine in most years. But the Panthers are full of needs and currently without a first-round pick. They’ve been known to step away from their plan from time to time. One year, they spent a fortune on cornerback Ken Lucas and offensive lineman Mike Wahle. Those guys contributed, but their huge salaries caused big problems in the locker room and neither stayed long. That was a painful lesson for the front office, but it’s only part of the reason the Panthers are so quiet this year. Perhaps more than any other owner, Carolina’s Jerry Richardson is worried about the labor uncertainty. He seems to have given his football people orders to trim salaries and it sure doesn’t look like he’s given them permission to re-invest that money.

Then, there is the exceptional case of the Saints. They’ve been the division’s most aggressive team in free agency in recent years. But their hands are tied because of their Super Bowl victory. In this uncapped year, the final eight teams from last year are playing by a set of rules in which their ability to sign free agents is limited. The Saints can only sign an unrestricted free agent if they lose one. That eliminates a lot of possibilities, but the Saints aren’t sitting still. They’ve pursued some guys who have been cut by other teams, but that hasn’t resulted in much. The good news is the Saints are a team without many holes and they can use the draft to fill their needs.