NFC South: Eight in the Box 032213

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A look at whether each NFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Atlanta Falcons: The process is far from over, but the Falcons are winners so far. They made a significant upgrade to their running game by signing Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. That alone made the offense instantly better than it was last season. I also like the way the Falcons have kept their own, re-signing potential free agents Sam Baker and William Moore, and coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez back for another season. If the Falcons can re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes at a reasonable price and add a pass-rusher, this would look like a team without any holes.

Carolina Panthers: You have to call the Panthers losers in free agency so far, unless you want to give them credit for leading the league in signing mediocre defensive backs (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore and re-signing Captain Munnerlyn). I didn’t expect the Panthers to be big players in free agency, because their salary-cap situation prohibits that. The Panthers had to let go of No. 1 cornerback Chris Gamble because of the salary cap. That was inevitable, but replacing him with a slew of No. 3 cornerbacks doesn’t generate much hope or excitement.

New Orleans Saints: Despite a tight salary-cap situation, the Saints have been winners so far. Yes, they have a major hole to fill after losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod via free agency. But the Saints have pulled rabbits out of hats on their offensive line in the past, and they can do it again. The upside is that the Saints made themselves a lot better at cornerback by adding Keenan Lewis, and at tight end with the addition of Benjamin Watson. Lewis is a player with lots of upside, who should provide much-needed help for the secondary. The Watson signing probably hasn’t received as much praise as it deserves because people assume he’ll be nothing more than a backup to Jimmy Graham. But coach Sean Payton is crafty, and I expect Watson to play an important role in the passing game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: You have to call the Bucs winners because they got Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson right out of the gate. That was a great start, but the Bucs have been quiet since then. Can they afford to let every quality free-agent cornerback go elsewhere as they wait to see if the New York Jets blink in their talks about a trade for Darrelle Revis? It’s also somewhat bizarre that the Bucs were so willing to let defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller leave as free agents even though they didn’t get big money. The Bucs will tell you that Bennett and Miller were “just guys" and they might have a point. But Bennett and Miller must have been doing something right, because the Bucs ranked first in the league in run defense last season.

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