<
>

Flurry of moves boosted every team's stock in competitive NFC South

DeSean Jackson, who signed with the Buccaneers in free agency, should help give QB Jameis Winston a consistent deep threat. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Which team in the division improved itself most during the free-agency period? ESPN's NFC South reporters make their picks:

Jenna Laine, Buccaneers reporter: The Bucs get a slight edge here because of the impact of the DeSean Jackson signing in what was such a glaringly obvious deficiency on their offense the past few years. Teams aren't going to be able to roll coverage Mike Evans' way or double him up with a burner such as Jackson lining up on the other side. It will impact the way defenses in the division try to defend the Bucs and could play a big role in helping Jameis Winston improve throwing the deep ball. I'm also intrigued by what the Saints did on defense and what they can now do with two first-round draft picks.

Vaughn McClure, Falcons reporter: The addition of DeSean Jackson alone should help the Buccaneers take a significant step offensively. Division champ Atlanta averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game, so any NFC South foe has to be ready for a shootout. The Bucs were tied for 18th in points last season (22.1 points per game), so the addition of Jackson could boost their scoring totals. The Bucs also added defensive tackle Chris Baker, who gives Gerald McCoy a new tag-team partner and makes the defensive front more formidable. Not to mention the late addition of kicker Nick Folk, which likely gives the Bucs a more reliable kicking option than inconsistent Roberto Aguayo, last year's second-round pick.

David Newton, Panthers reporter: The Carolina Panthers filled big needs at left tackle (Matt Kalil), nickel corner (Captain Munnerlyn), defensive end (Julius Peppers) and safety (Mike Adams). Yes, Peppers, 37, and Adams, 35, are close to the end of their careers. But they're still productive and an upgrade on what the Panthers had. Don't overlook the addition of wide receiver/gunner Russell Shepard, Tampa Bay's special-teams captain. That's a win for Carolina and a loss for the Bucs, who wanted to keep Shepard. The only real loss was wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who at 31 remains one of the fastest receivers in the NFL. But in Shepard and Charles Johnson, the Panthers have two younger options with potential. They also have the draft, which is deep in slot receivers. A stat you'll hear coach Ron Rivera say frequently is that the Panthers lost six games by three or fewer points during a 6-10 2016 season. In other words, the 2015 NFC champions weren't that far off from being contenders last season. This class has the potential to return the Panthers to the top of the division they won from 2013 to '15.

Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: New Orleans Saints. There is no obvious answer for this category, so I'll go with the team that has been the most active. Yes, the Saints traded dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks. But they added the No. 32 pick in the draft in that deal (which might wind up traded back to New England for second-team All-Pro cornerback Malcolm Butler). They also added potential upgrades in guard Larry Warford (No. 21 on ESPN's top-150 free-agent list), linebackers Manti Te'o and A.J. Klein and defensive end Alex Okafor. They replaced Cooks with a cheaper vertical threat in Ted Ginn Jr., and they kept their most important free agents, including defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Sterling Moore. There are two reasons the Saints haven't won this category more easily, however. They have not yet filled their two biggest needs -- edge-rusher and cornerback -- with major impact players. Meanwhile, the Falcons and Buccaneers have added the two biggest individual impact players in DT Dontari Poe and WR DeSean Jackson.