Ranking the NFC South coaching staffs

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Free agency is still a few weeks away, but the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are the NFC South's two biggest winners in the first phase of the offseason. The Carolina Panthers might have been the biggest loser and it's too early to fully judge the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In a very busy few weeks for most of the division's coaching staffs, Atlanta was able to keep its stellar group largely in place for the most part. The Saints didn't sit still and they made some moves that will make them a better team. Carolina curiously had most of its defensive staff walk away and also lost a very underrated offensive assistant.

The Bucs were the only team to make a change at the top, replacing Jon Gruden with Raheem Morris, and that led to an overhaul of most of the staff.

With all those changes so fresh, I'm going to rank the coaching staffs for the four NFC South teams. Keep in mind, the head coach certainly factors into this, but this ranking is for the entire coaching staff.

1. Atlanta Falcons. The best thing Mike Smith did when he took over as coach of the Falcons a year ago was to assemble an all-star team of assistants that included the likes of Mike Mularkey, Emmitt Thomas and Terry Robiskie. There's no doubt that coaching staff played a huge role in Atlanta's dramatic turnaround.

The best thing Smith has done so far this offseason was keep that staff pretty much intact. Some of that's just plain luck. Mularkey and Robiskie were mentioned in connection with head-coaching jobs, but neither became serious players. That's a huge stroke of luck because it gives the Falcons continuity on the coaching staff as they head into the second year of what Smith likes to call "the process."

That process is going to be a lot smoother because the Falcons can hit the ground running. If Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave were able to get so much out of quarterback Matt Ryan in his rookie year, imagine what they can do when they've got him for a full offseason.

That's kind of the same story for this entire coaching staff. After a surprising 11-5 season, it's easy to forget that Atlanta's roster wasn't fully stocked last season. In particular, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, Thomas and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder squeezed far more out of their groups than they had any right to.

Give general manager Thomas Dimitroff another offseason to fully get the roster where he wants and this coaching staff could really make the Falcons special.

2. New Orleans Saints. The jury still is very much out on head coach Sean Payton. He had a great rookie season in 2006, but the Saints have disappointed the last two seasons. There's a lot of personnel work to be done in the coming months, but Payton has made some strong moves with his coaching staff.

There's change at both coordinator positions and Payton did the smart thing by sticking with what's been working and blowing up what hasn't. After offensive coordinator Doug Marrone left for the head job at Syracuse, Payton promoted Pete Carmichael Jr. to his spot, basically tweaking an offensive staff that's had one of the league's most-productive units in recent years.

Payton took a dramatically different approach on defense, where he fired coordinator Gary Gibbs, whose group underachieved the last two years. In a move that's critical to Payton's future, he went out and (after some heavy bidding against other teams) got the best defensive coordinator available. That's Gregg Williams. There's no doubt Williams can coach and he'll bring an aggressive style to a defense that's been too passive. Now, it's up to general manager Mickey Loomis to get Williams some more players.

3. Carolina Panthers. Once upon a time -- like back in 2003 -- broadcaster and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson said John Fox had the league's best group of assistants. You can't say that right now. Continuity had been one of the best virtues of this coaching staff -- until now. In a bizarre series of events, almost the entire defensive staff walked away from the Panthers.

A lot of fans got excited when defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac declined a new contract with the Panthers and left to become Green Bay's defensive line coach. But the venom from fans toward Trgovac the last few years was misdirected. Fox was the one ultimately calling the defensive shots and Trgovac was working within his parameters.

The Panthers brought in Ron Meeks to replace Trgovac, who might look a lot better in hindsight. Although Meeks officially resigned as defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, the fact is he was forced out. Oh, and defense wasn't exactly a big part of the reason the Colts had all those 12-win seasons.

On a more subtle note, the Panthers lost quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Mike McCoy to the offensive coordinator spot in Denver. This will hurt the Panthers more than many realize. McCoy was very instrumental in running this offense and the former Utah quarterback also was one of the guys the team relied on to try to keep receiver Steve Smith on an even keel.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In time, Morris might turn out to be a great head coach. But it's too early to tell if the 32-year-old, who served as a coordinator for all of two weeks, will succeed. Give Morris credit for assembling a decent staff at a time when a lot of positions around the league already had been filled.

He made a great hire in bringing in veteran defensive coordinator Jim Bates. In a lot of ways, Bates' experience will give the Bucs someone similar to former coordinator Monte Kiffin.

Morris' most critical hire was Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator. The former Boston College head coach has been a coordinator in the NFL before and he likes to throw the ball downfield. That's something Gruden's offense rarely did. In theory, Jagodzinski should be a good fit. In reality, he's going to need a very productive offseason from general manager Mark Dominik. The Bucs need to re-sign receiver Antonio Bryant and get a few more receivers. But the biggest challenge is going to be deciding on a quarterback and letting Jagodzinski, who worked with Matt Ryan at Boston College, develop