A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC South team:
1. Sign a pass-rushing defensive end: This move has been telegraphed since the draft, when the Falcons jumped up to add an explosive offensive player in wide receiver Julio Jones rather than a pass-rusher. It’s no secret the Falcons want to add an edge rusher who can complement John Abraham in the short term and replace him in the long term. The Falcons showed last year when they signed cornerback Dunta Robinson that they’re not afraid to spend big money in free agency. They’re poised to do it again, and Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two pass-rushers just entering their prime who will be on the market. The Falcons can offer big money and the chance to be the last piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. That should be attractive.
2. Figure out what the offensive line will look like: The Falcons have three starters on the offensive line who are likely to be free agents, and they’ll allow one or two of them to walk. That’s not as scary as it may sound, because none of those free agents is dominant, and the Falcons have stockpiled some promising linemen in the last few drafts. But center Todd McClure is near the end of his career, and left tackle Sam Baker is still a question mark. That means the Falcons can’t afford to let all their free-agent linemen walk. They need to maintain some continuity on the line to make sure quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the major priority.
3. Re-sign kicker Matt Bryant: The veteran has revitalized his career since coming to Atlanta. He’s come through consistently in the clutch. The Falcons are a team on the verge of great things, and they don’t need to suddenly go young or cheap at kicker. They need a veteran who can help them win some big games.
1. Re-sign DeAngelo Williams: The running back is sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the Panthers can’t afford to let him get away. Yes, Jonathan Stewart looked very good at times last season, and Mike Goodson made the most of his playing time after Williams was injured. But the Panthers don't want to put too much pressure on a young starting quarterback, whether it's Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. They need to have two or three strong running backs, and Williams is the most versatile member of the backfield.
2. Make a decision on Steve Smith: Other than the drafting of Newton, speculation about Smith’s future has been the dominant story out of Carolina this offseason. There have been conflicting reports about whether the veteran wide receiver wants to be traded from the only team he’s ever played for. The speculation was a moot point because no trades could be made during the lockout. Now, Smith and the Panthers will have to show their hand. If he truly wants out, the Panthers will try to trade Smith. But they’re not simply going to give him away. Even if he’s unhappy, Smith still might be the best player on the roster. The Panthers aren’t letting him go without getting a good draft pick or a decent player in return.
3. Sign a veteran quarterback: New coach Ron Rivera has said several times that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to serve as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Heck, he might even need that veteran to start the first few games of the season so Newton and Clausen can catch up on all the missed offseason work. The Panthers want someone who can help the development of the two young quarterbacks. Someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme could fit, if either is willing to accept a backup role.
1. Decide what to do with Reggie Bush. The running back/return man is scheduled to make almost $12 million and count $16 million against the cap. That’s not going to happen, but the Saints have indicated they’d like to keep Bush if they can work out a contract extension that would spread money around. The Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, but Bush still could play plenty of roles with this team. Sean Payton has been creative with the ways he’s used Bush, who has been productive when healthy. Last year’s injury problems at running back showed the Saints can’t have enough depth at the position.
2. Make some key secondary decisions. Safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are both potential unrestricted free agents, so the Saints have to make some choices. Sharper’s past his prime and is a free safety. That position now belongs to Malcolm Jenkins. Harper has been the starting strong safety and has been solid. Harper shouldn’t command huge money on the open market, and the Saints would be wise to re-sign him. If they do, they should have one of the league’s better secondaries.
3. Shore up the outside linebacker spots. Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and may or may not return. The other position is up for grabs. Martez Wilson was drafted in the third round, and the Saints have a few other promising prospects at outside linebacker. But this is a veteran team with a realistic chance to contend for the Super Bowl, so it might be wise to go out and get a proven veteran and let the young linebackers develop behind him.
1. Re-sign Davin Joseph. The guard is very much in his prime and is strong as a run blocker and pass blocker. Along with Donald Penn, he’s the anchor of an offensive line that may be working in some young players. Quarterback Josh Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep him protected.
2. Decide on a defensive leader. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is an unrestricted free agent and may bolt if a decent offer comes from elsewhere. Ruud’s been asking for a new contract for about two years, and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. They drafted Mason Foster in the third round and are high on his potential. But this is a very young defense, and putting a rookie at middle linebacker could be a risky move. Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny is a free agent, and there are reports that Green Bay could be looking to trade or release Nick Barnett. Either of those guys could come in and be an immediate leader on this defense.
3. Spend some money. The Bucs have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years. Still, they’ve made progress in a youth movement that won’t be abandoned. It might be time to start locking up some young players to longer deals. It might also be time to go out and get just a few free agents to keep the youth movement headed in the right direction.