New Orleans Saints (13-3, NFC South Champion)
Key additions: LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley, G Ben Grubbs
Key losses: G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter
Potential breakout: Curtis Lofton
Miracle workers: Faced with an extremely tight salary-cap situation and some bizarre off-field events, it’s somewhat amazing the Saints were able to keep as much as they did. They didn’t want to lose Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league and is in his prime. But that’s the price they had to pay to make sure they kept quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Marques Colston, as well as adding players like Lofton, Grubbs and Bunkley.
The Brees situation remains complicated. He still is carrying the franchise tag. The Saints need to get him signed to a long-term deal quickly. Even more than ever, the Saints need Brees’ leadership abilities. They need him signed and happy before their offseason program starts April 16.
What’s next: With the possibility of multiple defensive players facing possible suspensions as a result of the bounty program, the Saints still could be looking to make significant moves. It will be hard to draft players that will make an instant impact because the Saints are without picks in the first two rounds. That means they might have to pull some more help out of free agency, even with limited cap space. They could use another pass-rusher to complement Will Smith. Even after adding Lofton and Bunkley, the Saints still could use depth at linebacker and defensive tackle.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6, wildcard team)
Key additions: LB Lofa Tatupu, G Vince Manuwai
Key losses: LB Curtis Lofton, WR/KR Eric Weems
Potential breakout: Harry Douglas
Keeping their own: Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Falcons chose not to pursue defensive end Mario Williams or any other big-name free agent. Instead, they focused hard on keeping their own guys. That started before the season ended with the tight end Tony Gonzalez re-signing and continued into free agency as the Falcons made it a point to lock up guys like receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end John Abraham and running back Jason Snelling. They also protected cornerback Brent Grimes with the franchise tag.
The only loss that really hurt was Lofton. The Falcons liked him, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t view him as a three-down player. The Falcons still made an effort to keep Lofton, but weren’t willing to pay big money. They brought in the veteran Tatupu, who could be a short-term answer. But there’s a hope within the organization that second-year pro Akeem Dent can step forward and win the job immediately because he’s the guy that’s going to end up there for the long term.
What’s next: Don’t completely rule out the addition of a minor or mid-level free agent or two, but the Falcons are focusing mainly on the draft. Even with Abraham back, they’re still looking to improve their pass rush and defensive ends could be in play. But the Falcons also could add a defensive tackle because Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are coming off sub-par seasons. Some depth in the secondary and a kick returner also are possible targets.
Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Key additions: RB/FB Mike Tolbert, G Mike Pollak
Key losses: G Travelle Wharton
Potential breakout: Mike Tolbert.
The splash came last year: The Panthers haven’t been very active in free agency. That’s largely because they made their big moves coming out of the lockout last year. They signed defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker Jon Beason, defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebacker Thomas Davis to huge deals and that’s why they had very little salary-cap room to work with this year.
But the Panthers didn’t really reap the rewards of some of those signings because Beason, Davis and Edwards all suffered early injuries. That took a toll on the defense. But all three of those guys are back and healthy and that should improve the defense immediately. Carolina developed an explosive offense last season and a strong defense could turn the Panthers into playoff contenders.
What’s next: The Panthers have very little cap room and don’t figure to make many more moves in free agency. They’re focused in on the draft and their needs have been narrowed. They’re likely to address cornerback and defensive tackle early in the draft. But don’t be surprised if they take a linebacker somewhere in the first three or four rounds, and it’s even possible they could target one in the first or second. Davis is coming off his torn ACL and the Panthers don’t know if he’ll be anything close to what he was before the injuries.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
Key additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright
Key losses: C Jeff Faine
Potential breakout: Josh Freeman
Locking them up: Part of the reason the Bucs didn’t lose much of anything in free agency is because they’ve done a nice job of locking up some core players in recent years. They made it a point to make sure offensive linemen Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah never got close to leaving. Add Nicks to that group and the Bucs have a chance to have one of the league’s better offensive lines. As the season gets going, some other young players will be rewarded with contract extensions as they show they fit in coach Greg Schiano’s system.
What’s next: After making the initial splash, the Bucs said they’re done with free agency and are focused on the draft. That’s largely true, although the team is keeping a close eye on what remains on the market. This is a team that still is building and needs will remain after the draft. The Bucs have a big need at running back, where they have to find at least one player to complement LeGarrette Blount. The cornerback position could be an early target in the draft even after Ronde Barber decided to return for a 16th season. There also is some uncertainty about Aqib Talib’s future. Even if he remains with the team, the Bucs need depth at the position. There also is uncertainty at linebacker and a need for depth at safety and tight end.