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NFC South offseason preview: Quarterback issues all around

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All four teams could sneak into the playoff race.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions will make a variety of moves this offseason in their quest to eventually win Super Bowl LV. The moves other teams make around the league will effect this quest as well, and may be equally important to how successful the team can be this season.

Today, we take a look at the NFC South. Where the four teams stand today, how they might look in 2020, and how they affect the Lions’ ability to win the Super Bowl in 2021.

New Orleans Saints

Indianapolis Colts v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints looked set for Super Bowl run entering the postseason, but got booted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings after a lifeless performance from their offense. They will have to make some tough decisions this offseason if they plan on being back in contention again this year.

The Saints start the offseason with $12 million in cap space. They can save $8 million by cutting linebacker Kiko Alonso and another $4 million by cutting cornerback Pat Robinson. That will get them around $24 million, which is not much space to work with, especially considering who is hitting free agency this year.

All three of their quarterbacks, Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill, are free agents. While they will attempt to do whatever they can to retain Brees, that one deal alone will eat their entire cap and they still need a backup. Bridgewater was 5-0 as a starter in 2019 when he relieved an injured Brees and will most likely want starter money elsewhere. As Brees gets older—he is already 41—New Orleans may want to go for the cheaper Bridgewater to save money they have to spend elsewhere and have more long-term security at the position.

After figuring out quarterback, they will essentially need to rebuild their entire secondary and linebacking corps. While they can find cheap options in the draft, they will most likely end up giving large amount of snaps to players off the scrap heap.

The offense may be fine if the Saints choose the right option at quarterback, but the defense looks set to take a step back this year. New Orleans has been championship contenders for the past three years, but it looks like their window may finally be closing on them. Still, expect them to at least compete for a playoff spot in 2020.

Atlanta Falcons

Jacksonville Jaguars v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

How fast they fall. The 2017 Atlanta Falcons had one of the best offenses the league had ever seen at the time and were a few bounces of the ball away from winning the Super Bowl. Injuries decimated them in 2018, giving the front office false hope that they could compete again with the same group in 2019. It turned out to be a disaster.

The Falcons defense was ungodly horrible at the start of the season and could not stop anyone. They showed some signs of hope towards the end of the season, but did not really do much other than ruin a potential top five draft pick. Now the team has a lot of problems in need of fixing and not many resources to fix them with.

Atlanta only has $6 million in cap space and little options to free up more. Center Alex Mack can be cut to save $8 million, but he was arguably their best offensive lineman in 2019 and cutting him would just create another hole they can’t afford to fill. Defender Allen Bailey is the only player that the team can cut without out eating more in dead cap than cap savings and without letting go of an important talent, and even that is only $4 million.

Just for the draft alone the team will need around $8-$10 million. They may have to cut key players like Mack just to be able to sign players and fill their 53-man roster. They cannot build a better team this offseason even if they wanted to.

Expect Atlanta to fall deeper into the void this offseason as 2020 is projected to be a lost year already.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a chance to finally put things together and compete in 2020, they just have to make the right move at quarterback.

Tampa Bay looked great in the second half of 2020 and things began to click on defense. Sean Murphy-Bunting looked like a potential star as a rookie and should only get better from here. On offense, Chris Godwin had a breakout year, and with Mike Evans, the Bucs may have two of the best four wide receiver in the NFL right now. The Buccaneers have talent to work with.

The real question is what they will do at quarterback. Jameis Winston’s rookie deal ends this year, and now he is a free agent. The quarterback is coming off of a season where he threw 33 touchdown passes and lead the league in passing yards. He also threw 30 interceptions. The quarterback is definitely starting tier NFL, but we do not know whether the Bucs are willing to give a long-term deal to such a volatile player. A big arm like Winston throwing to Godwin and Evans may create an incredible offense, though.

The team has $84 million in cap space so they can re-sign Winston if they want to. They also can re-sign running back Peyton Barber and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh if they choose, and walk into free agency with basically every key piece from 2019 still around.

With cap space, a decent draft slot and a talented roster, Tampa Bay looks ready to compete in 2020. If their front office makes the right moves this offseason then do not be surprised to see them in the playoff hunt next year.

Carolina Panthers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Just like their rivals, the Carolina Panthers may be making a change at quarterback this offseason. Long-time franchise quarterback Cam Newton has been struggling with injuries the past two years, and the team has a chance to save $19 million be releasing or trading him this offseason. But doing that leaves them with another problem. Who will play quarterback?

Unlike the Bucs, Newton is demonstrably better than any quarterback in free agency and the draft. Unlike the Saints, they do not have someone like Teddy Bridgewater who has been learning the offense the past two years. Kyle Allen, the rookie quarterback who took over in Newton’s absence, was clearly not the answer, and they may be too far back in the draft to land a top prospect like Tua Tagovailoa.

They have some work to do elsewhere as well. The front-seven needs help, especially with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Luke Kuechly. They will also need a way to fix the offensive line that has allowed Newton to get beat up over the years. Longtime tight end Greg Olsen will also be leaving as a free agent this offseason, and they will need to replace him.

Carolina enters the offseason with $32 million in cap space, and that number flies up if they deal away Newton. They already have great skill position players, but could use a boost everywhere else. The Panthers do have talent, though, and if they keep Newton they definitely could still fight for a playoff spot in 2020. If they let go of Newton, then they may enter a rebuild as a new coaching staff comes into town.

What this means for the Lions

Despite their murky long-term outlook, New Orleans should be right back in the playoff race this year. The Bucs should at least be in contention for a Wild Card spot as well if things go right. With Carolina potentially sticking with Newton, that means at least three teams from the NFC South will be expecting to make the playoffs this year. This adds two teams to the wild card fray—both of which probably better than the Lions—making their path to the postseason extremely bumpy. The Lions, too, will play each of these teams during the 2020 season.