Publish date:

NFC + SOUTH

Author:

ATLANTA FALCONS 11--5

PRIMARY NEED: EDGE RUSHER

NOT ONLY did the Falcons reach the Super Bowl with a powerhouse offense that's in its prime, and with a rising defense that is one of the league's youngest, but they also now enter the off-season with just one free agent they must re-sign: Patrick DiMarco. Luckily he plays one of the league's cheapest positions, fullback. And so this off-season will be about improving a defense that's already an improvement on recent years. The way to do that is to add a pass rusher opposite NFL sack leader Vic Beasley—who, by the way, still has room to grow. Atlanta employs plenty of stunts and twists out of a four-man rush. Whichever pass rusher they find must be flexible.

CAROLINA PANTHERS 6--10

PRIMARY NEED: DEFENSIVE LINE

THE PANTHERS' front four must be dynamic for their zone coverages to work. In 2016, Carolina was 3--1 in games in which the D had at least four sacks, and 3--9 in games it didn't. In '17 sacks will likely come from guys who aren't currently on the roster. D-tackles Kawann Short and Kyle Love (combined: 7½ sacks) are free agents. At D-end, the free-agent list includes Charles Johnson, Wes Horton and Mario Addison (16 total). Next year Kony Ealy (five) could walk. Of these players, only Short is a must re-sign—and that may be tough without franchise-tagging him. GM Dave Gettleman has lamented the D-tackle-market-setting contract signed by the Eagles' Fletcher Cox last year: six years, with $63.3 million guaranteed.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 7--9

PRIMARY NEED: DEFENSE (BEST AVAILABLE)

IN MARCH 2015, when the Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to the Seahawks for center Max Unger and the 31st pick, GM Mickey Loomis said the end goal was to improve a defense that had been mired in mediocrity. But in the two seasons since then, the Saints have ranked 31st and 32nd in points allowed. Based on what he did as the coach in Oakland, it would seem that coordinator Dennis Allen would like to play a defense rich in variation and disguise. But with limitations at all three levels, he's had to go with schemes that simply minimize damage. With the exceptions of DT Sheldon Rankins, DE Cameron Jordan, CB Delvin Breaux and SS Kenny Vaccaro, Allen's unit can upgrade at any spot.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 9--7

PRIMARY NEED: SAFETY

DEFENSIVE coordinator Mike Smith likes to play a variety of zone coverages, often with a disguise. You don't necessarily need great safeties to operate like this, although the better you are at this position, the better your disguises. Both of the Bucs' starting safeties, Chris Conte and Brad McDougald, are free agents. Conte, a poor tackler who lacks range in coverage, lost his job to the much headier Keith Tandy in the final weeks of 2016 and should not be re-signed. McDougald is a quality downhill run-filler, but he can be a little hit-or-miss in coverage. Whether he's retained will largely depend on how Tampa Bay's front office feels about the NFL's '17 draft and free-agent class.