Hot Button: NFC South

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Carolina Panthers

Primary issue: The Panthers face one of the league's most challenging starts to the offseason with defensive end Julius Peppers and offensive tackle Jordan Gross eligible to become free agents. Both are Pro Bowlers and were critical in Carolina's 12-4 season. They also were the first two draft picks by coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, and would play their entire careers in Carolina if the Panthers had their way.

The problem is this isn't a perfect world. There's only one franchise tag and the Panthers could use it on Peppers at around $17 million or Gross at nearly $9 million. This gets even more complicated because Peppers has made it clear he wants out of Carolina and Gross has said he wants to stay.

The Panthers have to come out of this with something in return. They can get two first-round picks if they franchise one of these guys and another team signs him to an offer sheet. But it's more likely and realistic that they'll franchise one and turn around and trade him.

Solution: The bottom line here is you might as well keep the guy who wants to be with you. Pay Gross his money before the start of free agency. Franchise Peppers and unload him for whatever you can get.

Secondary concern: No matter what happens with Peppers, the Panthers need to juice up their defensive line. A few years back, it was supposedly the best in the league when Peppers played with Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. Those three are long gone and Peppers is about to join them.

The Panthers have some nice role players in guys like Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis and Charles Johnson. But they don't have any cornerstones.

Solution: The Panthers need to get a first-round pick for Peppers and use it on a defensive end. The other option would be signing a high-priced free agent, but there's not a lot out there and the Panthers aren't flush with cap space. They've got to be aggressive in pursuing some midlevel defensive tackles in free agency.

New Orleans Saints

Primary issue: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was one of the few bright spots on the defense last season, but he can become a free agent. Vilma has said he wants to return and the Saints have said they want him back. But there is no deal in place yet and the Saints are waiting until the start of free agency to keep down the cost of draft picks they owe the New York Giants and Jets in trades for Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey.

It's a little risky to let Vilma hang out there because another team could swoop in and steal him away. But you have to believe the Saints will make sure they keep Vilma. They need him to be the centerpiece of the defense for new coordinator Gregg Williams to succeed.

Solution: Hope they've already got a handshake deal in place with Vilma. The Saints have a bunch of other needs and they can't afford to let their one certainty get away.

Secondary issue: The Saints need to overhaul their secondary -- again. They've got a keeper in cornerback Tracy Porter, who missed much of his rookie year with an injury. Roman Harper is passable as a strong safety if the Saints can add some cover guys around him. Cornerback Mike McKenzie is 34 and coming off another major injury, and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn got beat far too often last year.

Solution: The Saints have to get at least one more quality cornerback and a free safety. The problem is they don't have a lot of cap room and have only four draft picks at the moment. But the good news is the Saints are pretty much set on offense. They need to use pretty much their entire draft and whatever cap space they can clear on getting some defensive help.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Primary issue: Under offensive guru Jon Gruden, the Bucs never had much consistency on offense. New coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will install a much-needed vertical passing game and it looks like the Bucs will give Luke McCown a chance to win the quarterback job.

But the Bucs need to give McCown a fair chance and Jagodzinski's offense an opportunity to succeed. The best way to do that is with some downfield targets and the Bucs didn't have many of those last year. Veteran Joey Galloway is likely on his way out of Tampa Bay because of age and last year's injuries.

Antonio Bryant stepped up as the No. 1 receiver last year and he's scheduled to become a free agent. After Bryant, the Bucs got almost nothing out of their wide receivers last year.

Solution: With more than $40 million in cap space, the Bucs absolutely have to re-sign Bryant before free agency starts. But they can't stop there. There should be a good crop of free agents available and several more receivers could be available by trade. Tampa Bay's passing game was horizontal last season. Jagodzinski wants to make it vertical this year. But the Bucs need to get him some guys who can get open downfield.

Secondary issue: Much like the rest of the team, the defensive line fell apart at the end of last season. Kevin Carter and Chris Hovan started looking old. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye was hurt much of last season and not very effective when he was on the field.

Solution: With all that cap money, the Bucs almost have to make a run at defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth or Peppers. All they really have on the defensive line is end Gaines Adams, who is still a work in progress. They can let Haye walk as a free agent and it's not inconceivable that they might free up more cap room by cutting Hovan and Carter. The Bucs need to work on the line heavily in free agency and the draft.

Atlanta Falcons

Primary issue: The Atlanta defense overachieved last season and the coaches and front office know upgrades are needed at several spots. The most notable might be the two outside linebacker spots, where Michael Boley played his way out of the starting lineup last season and Keith Brooking showed his age.

The Falcons liked Coy Wire after he took over for Boley late last season. Wire and Boley are both scheduled to be free agents and Brooking presents a dilemma for the Falcons.

Brooking has spent his entire career with Atlanta, grew up in Georgia and played at Georgia Tech. He's been a good soldier through some good and bad times. But it's clear Brooking is near the end of his career. The Falcons found a good middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton in last year's draft. Now, they have to surround him with talent.

Solution: The Falcons might as well let Boley walk. The Brooking situation could work itself out. Brooking did some broadcasting after the season and it's possible he could decide to retire. That would end things gracefully. If that doesn't happen, the Falcons might have to release him. They should make a decent attempt to keep Wire, but linebacker has to be a priority in the draft and free agency.

Secondary issue: Safety Lawyer Milloy's experience was one of the reasons the secondary played beyond its talent level last season. He made guys like safety Erik Coleman and cornerbacks Chris Houston and Domonique Foxworth better than they really were. But Milloy is near the end of his career and it doesn't make a lot of sense to re-sign him to a long-term deal.

Solution: The Falcons will continue to try to help the secondary out by generating some pass rush from someone other than defensive end John Abraham. But, even with more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Falcons need some younger legs in the secondary. They need a replacement for Milloy and it wouldn't hurt to get another quality cornerback, too.