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Thursday, May 1, 2014
NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

By ESPN.com staff

 
The NFC South might have had the most dramatic offseason of any division in the NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers loaded up on enticing newcomers, starting with a new coach in Lovie Smith, a new quarterback in Josh McCown and a new pass-rusher in Michael Johnson, leading many analysts to believe they had the best offseason of any team in the league.

Meanwhile, the defending-champion Carolina Panthers lost several core players, including the face of their franchise, Steve Smith, leading many analysts to believe they had one of the worst.

And the New Orleans Saints did a little of both, parting ways with several longtime veterans while making a big splash with the addition of safety Jairus Byrd.

Throw in the Atlanta Falcons, who get star receiver Julio Jones back from injury and just plain get to start over with a clean slate and you can see why all four teams feel as if they have legitimate shots to make a playoff run in 2014.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton in Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division shakeup among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Has any team made moves that could alter the balance of power in the NFC South?



Vaughn McClure: The Buccaneers made a significant move by hiring Lovie Smith as their coach. After seeing the Bucs demolish the Falcons at home last season, it was easy to tell they were a talented team that just needed better leadership. Smith is a proven winner who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl behind a suffocating defense. One could argue Smith has even better defensive parts to work with in Tampa than in Chicago. If he can assemble a solid offensive attack behind coordinator Jeff Tedford, Smith could have his team in contention for the NFC South title immediately.

David Newton: Tampa Bay made the most significant moves, from cutting Darrelle Revis to signing defensive end Michael Johnson, tackle Anthony Collins, quarterback Josh McCown and cornerback Alterraun Verner. The Bucs needed to make changes with a new head coach inheriting a team with a 4-12 record. I'm not ready to say that has altered the balance of power in the NFC South, though. I'm still not sold on McCown and what the Bucs will be offensively. If the balance of power shifts, I believe it will go to Atlanta. The Falcons should improve defensively with the addition of nose tackle Paul Soliai. With a healthy Julio Jones back at wide receiver and a revamped offensive line, they should return to the team that averaged 11.2 wins a season from 2008 to 2012.

Mike Triplett: All of them have, to some degree. But the teams that stood out most were the Buccaneers (for better) and the Panthers (for worse). I loved a lot of the moves Tampa Bay made, starting with a solid coach and quarterback. The Bucs already had a very good defense and run game. I could easily see an eight-win season. There won't be any easy wins in this division. The Saints should be the favorites to overtake Carolina now that their defense is even more stacked with Jairus Byrd. But both teams have new question marks after letting a lot of veterans go. The Panthers, especially, seemed to lose several guys who were key players last season.

Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay has been the division's most active team this offseason, and I think that will make the Bucs a lot better than they were a year ago. The Bucs have the ingredients to have an excellent defense, and that should keep them competitive. If the offense can be at least average, this team has a shot at being a playoff contender.

@DNewtonespn The #CarolinaPanthers jettisoned their entire WR corps and did little to replace the admittedly average production #FourDowns

- Andy Briggs (@ambriggs) April 18, 2014

Second Down


Which newcomer to the NFC South will have the biggest impact?



McClure: The jury is still out because the Falcons and Bucs each have top-10 draft picks and could move up. If the Falcons secure a pass-rusher such as Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, either player could change the complexion of the defense. And if the Bucs land a receiver such as Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans to join Vincent Jackson, defensive backfields around the division could be in serious trouble. For now, I'll say safety Jairus Byrd from the Saints. A guy making $9 million a year had better make a strong impact. Byrd is a playmaker who showed a knack for intercepting the ball in 2009 as a rookie in Buffalo. He had a pretty good teacher over the years in Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd, his father.

Newton: Lovie Smith. Greg Schiano never seemed to have the respect in the locker room that it takes to win. Smith should have that immediately, based on his success at Chicago that resulted in three NFC North titles and one NFC championship. But before anybody crowns the Bucs as NFC South champions, remember it took Smith a year to turn things around in Chicago. His first team was 5-11. He's facing many of the same issues in Tampa that he did with the Bears in rebuilding the offense. In his favor is the nucleus for a strong defense that should keep the team in most games. My newcomer pick might change if Atlanta can find a way to move up and get Jadeveon Clowney in the draft. I just don't see the Texans passing on him with the first pick.

Triplett: Josh McCown. I don't think he'll be the best player of all the newcomers in the division. And I doubt he'll even be as good as he was last year for the Bears. But the quarterback position is so vital -- and it was the one element the Buccaneers were really missing. McCown should provide some stability there. And, as I said, their defense and run game are both excellent. This is suddenly a well-rounded and dangerous team. If Julio Jones counted, I would have picked him instead. His return from injury will be huge for the Falcons.

Yasinskas: I'm not going with a player. I'm going with a coach: Lovie Smith. I view Smith's arrival as the best thing to happen to Tampa Bay in a very long time. Smith is exactly what this franchise needs -- a coach who stays on an even keel and knows how to win. After the Greg Schiano era, Smith should provide a lot of fresh air for the Bucs.

@vxmcclure23 Paul Soliai, going to be the anchor of this shift to a 3-4 hybrid. #FourDowns

- Matt de Lisle (@MdeLisle84) April 21, 2014

Third Down


Which departing NFC South player leaves the biggest void?



McClure: Wide receiver Steve Smith, although the Panthers and Cam Newton are sure to feel the loss of tackle Jordan Gross, as well. Smith isn't the same player he used to be, but he's such a tough competitor. Although he's only 5-foot-9, he always does an outstanding job of securing the ball at its highest point. He has seven 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, and two of those came in the past three seasons with Carolina. I remember how Smith used to give Charles Tillman and the Bears fits whenever Chicago matched up with Carolina. The Panthers will realize how much they miss him when they face Smith and the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season.

Newton: Jordan Gross, because his retirement in essence forces the Panthers to start over with new players at two positions if the team winds up moving right tackle Byron Bell to the left side. I'm not sold on Bell, which is why I believe Carolina will take a tackle with the 28th pick of the draft. But for a team that depends on a power running game, having solid tackles is a must. Replacing Smith's 64 catches won't be nearly as hard. He hasn't been a No. 1 receiver for a few years. If I had to pick a player other than Gross, it would be Tony Gonzalez. Replacing a tight end who caught 83 passes and eight touchdowns -- in his 17th season -- is a tall task. You easily could make the argument he'll leave the biggest void.

Triplett: Steve Smith because of everything he has meant to the Panthers. It feels as if they lost part of their identity -- and I don't see an obvious replacement plan in place. Carolina was already thin at receiver before it let him go. I also think the Panthers will miss Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn in their secondary quite a bit. I thought both of those guys were a big part of their defensive surge last year. Darrelle Revis and Darren Sproles are obviously worth noting, but Tampa Bay and New Orleans have good fallback options.

Yasinskas: It would be easy to point to some big names such as Tony Gonzalez, Steve Smith or Darrelle Revis. But I'm going with former Carolina player Jordan Gross. I think his retirement will have a huge impact on the Panthers. For years, Gross was a solid left tackle. Without him, the Panthers are going to have to scramble for a replacement.

@PatYazESPN Steve Smith. Was the heart of that team for a long, long time. Even as an opponent, we'll miss him in Tampa Bay.

- Matt Holden (@JaedenStormes) April 21, 2014

Fourth Down

Which NFC South non-quarterback would you pick to start your own team?



McClure: Tough question, but I would have to go with Greg Hardy. Teams without a consistent pass rush can appreciate what Hardy brings to the table. He has 26 sacks over the past two seasons and seems impossible to stop at times, particularly when Charles Johnson is getting it done at the other defensive end spot. That's why the Panthers led the league with 60 sacks last season. Carolina rode a strong defense to the NFC South title, then kept Hardy in the fold by slapping the franchise tag on him. He'll get his big payday because he brings plenty of value to the team. For a non-quarterback, he would be a pretty solid cornerstone.

Newton: Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Hands down. Put him in the middle of any defense and that unit is going to be much improved. He's not only the best defensive tackle in the division, he's the best in pro football. He's stout against the run and can pressure the quarterback (9.5 sacks last season). He'll require double-teams, which will free up the ends. The only other player I considered here was Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He really is, as advertised, a tackling machine. His 24-tackle performance against New Orleans last season was amazing. Like McCoy, he's going to make any defense much improved. McCoy got the vote from me here only because it's harder to find a tackle with that kind of game-changing ability.

Triplett: This was, by far, the most difficult question for me to answer. The first two names that came to mind were Jimmy Graham and Julio Jones. I think both of them rank among the top 10 playmakers in the NFL. But, man, this division is absolutely stacked with defensive talent, from linemen such as Greg Hardy, Cameron Jordan and Gerald McCoy to linebackers such as Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to defensive backs such as Alterraun Verner, Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis. … OK, I'm hemming and hawing now. I'll go with Jones because I figure he'd earn the biggest contract on the open market. But Graham's an awfully nice fit for what the Saints like to do.

Yasinskas: I'm going to go with a guy who hasn't even started to get his due. That's Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He began his career with two injury-plagued seasons, but has followed that up with two stellar seasons. McCoy should only continue to get better because his position is so crucial in the Bucs' new defensive scheme. McCoy might be on the verge of being the league's best defensive tackle.

@MikeTriplett Keuchly. Already best defensive player IMO. Would be my first pick of any non-qb not named Calvin Johnson in entire NFL

- JetNet (@Bengeauxhornets) April 22, 2014