NFC South: 2014 next big thing NFC

The next big thing: Saints

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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It’s not hard to identify the biggest issue for the New Orleans Saints this offseason. Their top priority will be to re-sign unrestricted free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham, either through a long-term deal or the franchise tag. Either one will be groundbreaking since Graham represents the new breed of hybrid tight end/wide receiver in the NFL.

But Graham’s deal isn’t the only one that will keep the Saints busy over the next two months. They’re about $12.5 million over the projected salary cap of $126.6 million – without counting Graham. So they’ll have to release players, work out pay cuts, and restructure deals to make room for the free agents they want to sign. Other full-time players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents are safety Malcolm Jenkins and offensive linemen Zach Strief and Brian De La Puente.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis insisted the Saints will be prepared since this isn’t their “first rodeo" when it comes to the salary-cap squeeze. And he insisted the Saints will still be aggressive in trying to improve the team. But he admitted their options will be limited.

The next big thing: Panthers

January, 23, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What's next for the Carolina Panthers in free agency and the NFL draft:

Free agency: Carolina has 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end Greg Hardy (second in the league in sacks with 15) and left tackle Jordan Gross. Three-fourths of the starting secondary also is on this list, as well as the team's No. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

The team remains somewhat strapped under the salary cap to go after a high-priced defensive back or receiver. The franchise tag may be the best solution for Hardy, who likely would break the bank with a long-term deal if allowed to test the market.

Draft: With the No. 28 pick, the Panthers are likely to go with a wide receiver or tackle. Wide receiver is the No. 1 need to give quarterback Cam Newton a weapon to work with opposite 13-year veteran Steve Smith. But general manager Dave Gettleman's theory of building from the inside out in last season's draft worked well. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, taken with the team's first two picks, were key to Carolina ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense.

The next big thing: Falcons

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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The Atlanta Falcons have plenty to accomplish over the next few months as they try to rebound from this past season's 4-12 implosion.

The first step in the retooling process was adding toughness with new line coaches Mike Tice and Bryan Cox. Then came the addition of new assistant general manager Scott Pioli to help bring expertise and a new perspective to talent evaluation.

Next, the Falcons have to see how they can improve the team via free agency come March 11. Cox said he already started breaking down the potential free-agent defensive linemen, so it will be interesting to see if the Falcons can find a pass-rusher at a bargain price. On the offensive line, the Falcons seem likely to target a free-agent guard while addressing tackle in the draft.

Safety, linebacker and tight end also are areas the Falcons need to improve either through free agency or the draft. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another quarterback to the mix as added insurance, although Dominique Davis has plenty of tools behind starter Matt Ryan.

It's too early to say which players the Falcons might target, although there is plenty of speculation ongoing. Pioli, currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM Radio, won't even technically start his new position until Feb. 3. Certainly general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- who still has the final say -- will value Pioli's input throughout the process.

The next big thing: Buccaneers

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The biggest decision the Buccaneers have to make this offseason is at quarterback.

They have to decide if they believe Mike Glennon is a capable starter or not. If the answer is no, the Bucs will need to go out and get a quarterback. There isn’t likely to be anyone overly impressive in free agency, so that means the Bucs may have to use the No. 7 overall draft pick on a quarterback.

Once the Bucs make a decision at quarterback, there are plenty of other areas that need work. Start with the pass rush and the offensive line. Both of those areas could be targeted in free agency and the draft. The Bucs need a pass-rushing defensive end to complement defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. They also may decide to overhaul an offensive line that underachieved last season.

Depth at tight end and wide receiver also are areas that need to be addressed this offseason.

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