Jairus Byrd (31) celebrates his first half interception against the New York Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

2014 NFL Free Agency NFC South Grades

The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had exactly opposite free agencies, and it’s possible that their play in 2014 could mirror that. Although the Panthers were the story of the year last season and have excellent coaching, they could suffer a letdown by getting worse at their three positions of need in free agency (OT, WR, CB) for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, the Buccaneers were the most aggressive players in free agency, and new GM-HC combo Jason Licht and Lovie Smith were huge winners.

Carolina Panthers F

There is no doubt in my mind that the Panthers deserve a giant “F” for their work in March, and I’m starting to wonder if it would have been better for Dave Gettleman to avoid paying up Greg Hardy instead of releasing Steve Smith and letting just about everyone else walk. The Panthers secondary was held together by two very good players last year in CB1 Captain Munnerlyn and starting safety Mike Mitchell, but both players left. While the Panthers had a rough cap situation and wouldn’t have been able to sign both, I’m surprised they weren’t able to give Munnerlyn a significant offer. Sure, the Panthers had cap issues, but that’s no excuse for going into April without a legitimate starting tackle, a poor situation at corner, and a potential disaster at WR. On the bright side, the Panthers did at least sign three veterans who could possibly help (Jerricho Cotchery, Antoine Cason, and Roman Harper), even if Cotchery is the only “plus” player of those. Panthers fans should definitely look forward to the draft, because they need an excellent one and have a GM who is one of the best at identifying college talent.

New Orleans Saints B-

In order to keep Jimmy Graham and have some money left over for two more impact moves, the New Orleans Saints had to clear out a significant amount of cap space. They did just that by getting rid of solid players like Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, and Darren Sproles (trade), while the other guys they let go of weren’t exactly worth keeping.

Re-signing Zach Strief was an excellent move made by Mickey Loomis, and I think he’s one of the most underrated tackles in the NFL right now. I understand that he’s a RT and there were plenty of good tackles on the open market, but I’m surprised the Saints are able to pay like $5 million per year for him. Jairus Byrd might be getting too much money, but top free safeties are held at a premium. Plus, the Saints now have one of the league’s premier safety duos and clearly defined roles in deep coverage and the box for Byrd and rookie standout Kenny Vaccaro respectively. With Byrd shoring things up downfield, Rob Ryan can be even more creative with Vac next season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers A

It’s always risky to spend so much money in free agency, because it can easily end up backfiring on you, no matter how many talented players you added. But the Buccaneers deserve high marks for their work during the free-agent period, and I can’t believe they were able to sign Alterraun Verner and underrated DT Clinton McDonald for so cheap. Verner, Johnthan Banks, and fellow free agent signings Michael Jenkins and D.J. Moore (earlier) should form a decent cornerback group, and the Bucs were able to justify releasing Darrelle Revis because of the moves they made. While I would have actually kept Revis at $16 million, I’m sure the Buccaneers were glad to have spent that money on other upgrades. The defensive line looks a whole lot better with Michael Johnson and McDonald to add to Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, and thus the defense was upgraded significantly overall.

It’s going to be interesting to see how well the offense plays next season, and the Buccaneers are fully expected to be a running team again. Josh McCown is the favorite to start over Mike Glennon, but it’s awfully early to make any predictions at the position. I thought the Buccaneers most interesting moves were on the offensive line, as they traded Jeremy Zuttah after signing Evan Dietrich-Smith and cut veteran staples Davin Joseph and Donald Penn. While Penn has been solid over the years, Joseph was an easy cut to make, as his salary and play on the field were both unfavorable for the Buccaneers.

Reactions to the deal given to Anthony Collins have been all over the place, but I think he’s a better offensive tackle than Penn. That said, it will be interesting to see if he can perform at a high level next season, because he was one of the more underrated performers at the position last year. Brandon Myers put up some nice garbage stats in 2012 with the Oakland Raiders, but he was brutal for the New York Giants last year and was unsurprisingly released. I thought the Bucs could have added someone better at TE, because Tim Wright is honestly a more talented pass-catching TE.

Atlanta Falcons B-

The Atlanta Falcons had a solid offseason, as Thomas Dimitroff continues to show why he is one of the NFL’s best GMs. They were especially aggressive on the defensive line, as they look to transition to a 3-4 under Mike Nolan. After keeping Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux, and Peria Jerry, the Falcons signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. Soliai is one of the best nose tackles in the league due to his ability to swallow up blocks, get decent pressure on the QB, and generate massive push in the running game, while Jackson is also a very solid run defender. The Falcons also beefed up big-time on the other side of the trenches by re-signing Joe Hawley, who was a priority for them, and signing solid guard Jon Asamoah. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons choose to trade up for Jadeveon Clowney (if he makes it past the first pick) or stay put and draft one of the two elite tackles, because they could really use help at either position.

Tags: Atlanta Falcons Carolina Panthers New Orleans Saints Notes And Analysis Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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