At this time last year, if I were to tell you that a team in the NFC South would win Super Bowl LV, the New Orleans Saints would almost universally be the answer, right? Well, the division saw tremendous activity last offseason with the Buccaneers capturing massive headlines after signing Tom Brady in free agency. That acquisition along with a few other key moves then helped send the Bucs on a road that eventually led them back to Raymond James Stadium to defeat the Chiefs to win their first title since 2002. That just goes to show you that a lot can change over the course of an offseason.
As we look toward the 2021 offseason for this division, we have four teams in rather different spots. As the Bucs gear up for a title defense, the Saints appear as if they are at the dawn of a new era in their franchise's history with Drew Brees likely opting for retirement. Meanwhile, the Panthers and Falcons sit inside the top 10 of the NFL Draft and could look to improve their quarterback situations either with those picks or via trade.
Below, we're going to highlight the needs of each of these teams and fill out a few other key notes as they begin crossing off things from their to-do list in hopes of building a winner for 2021.
New Orleans Saints
Needs: QB, TE, LB, S
The biggest shoe that seems destined to drop for the Saints this offseason is the retirement of Drew Brees. Once that becomes official, New Orleans will gain some much-needed cap relief, but the Saints are hardly in a favorable position in that regard and will likely need to make some hard decisions to get under it. That said, they will likely need to find a successor to Brees and that could come in the form of Jameis Winston, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason after spending last year in New Orleans. Given the familiarity with Sean Payton's system and an opportunity to start, Winston could be a high priority for the Saints to pair with utility weapon Taysom Hill.
With that lack of cap space, New Orleans' defense is at risk of being gutted with safety Marcus Williams, defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins and edge rusher Trey Hendrickson all entering free agency. That would, in turn, create tremendous needs that could be addressed in the draft. Tight end is also a secondary need for New Orleans with Jared Cook entering free agency, but they could look for Adam Trautman to take a leap in Year 2.
Draft position: No. 28 overall. In our latest mock drafts, Ryan Wilson has the Saints going with Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins. Meanwhile, Chris Trapasso has New Orleans targeting Purdue receiver Rondale Moore, Josh Edwards sees them taking cornerback Jaycee Horn out of South Carolina and Pete Prisco has them picking Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye.
Projected cap space (via Spotrac): $-65,576,484 (32nd in the NFL)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Needs: DL, LB, LT, WR. RB
When you win a Super Bowl, that typically means that you don't have many needs on the roster. That said, Tampa Bay does have a number of key free agents about to hit the open market. Offensively, receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are the most notable, along with running back Leonard Fournette and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Given their relationship with Brady, it would seem the Bucs would have the inside track to retain Brown and Gronkowski, but Godwin could be the top receiver on the market, making his return uncertain.
It becomes particularly tricky to keep those guys on offense when you look at who is heading toward free agency on defense. Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, and Ndamukong Suh will all hit the market and the Bucs have already stated their desire to keep them for their title defense. Again, keeping that defense intact could come at the expense of Godwin. Meanwhile, the Bucs could also make left tackle Donovan Smith a cap causality (Tampa Bay can clear $14.25 million if released), meaning they'd need to address that key spot in protecting Brady as well. Given how big that cap number is, they could also look to simply restructure.
Draft position: No. 32 overall. In our latest mock drafts, Wilson has the Bucs taking Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, Trapasso has them choosing defensive end Ronnie Perkins out of Oklahoma, Edwards has Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai heading to Tampa and Prisco sees Texas offensive lineman Samuel Cosmi landing at No. 32.
Projected cap space (via Spotrac): $27,784,114 (13th in the NFL)
Needs: TE, OT, CB, QB, LB
The big story for the Panthers this offseason is whether or not they'll be able to improve the quarterback position from Teddy Bridgewater. They'll be in the thick of the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes or could turn to the draft with the No. 8 pick to look for a long-term upgrade. While that will be the storyline that captures the headlines, Carolina does have some intriguing free agent situations. Running back Mike Davis -- who filled in splendidly for Christian McCaffrey -- is as good as gone, while wide receiver Curtis Samuel should also have a healthy market. The Panthers also have tackles Taylor Moton and Russell Okung entering free agency and may be forced to pick between the two, thus creating a need at that spot in the draft.
In terms of positions of need for Matt Rhule's club, the tight end room was arguable the worst in the league in 2020 and the Panthers should be players for some free agents there this offseason. They could also improve their pass rush after turning in the 24th-ranked sack percentage in the league last year. Landing an elite quarterback such as Watson could make up for a lot of holes, but adding to a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in 2020 is also imperative.
Draft position: No. 8 overall. In our latest mock drafts, Wilson, Trapasso and Prisco all have the Panthers taking Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. As for Edwards, who has Fields coming off the board much earlier, he sees Carolina taking Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.
Projected cap space (via Spotrac): $27,545,434 (14th in the NFL)
Needs: CB, QB, S, EDGE, OL
The Falcons are a bit of a wild card when it comes to what they'll do with the No. 4 pick in the draft. They could find Matt Ryan's successor with that selection or look to add a piece to double down trying to contend with their veteran quarterback. They'll not only need to make a decision on the direction they are going with Ryan but receiver Julio Jones as well. The 32-year-old has a $23 million cap hit for 2021, but because of the dead-cap implications, it seems as if Atlanta is still a year away from possibly putting an end to Jones' tenure with the club.
As it relates to free agency, the Falcons are still in a bit of a tight-cap situation but did clear some room after cutting safety Ricardo Allen and defensive end Allen Bailey this week. Improving the defense should be the prime concern, but because of their finances, they'll likely be looking in the bargain bin. Atlanta ranked 26th in the NFL in sack percentage in 2020 and could use an injection of talent coming off the edge. Corner Darqueze Dennard is also set to enter the free agent pool and it'd be wise for the Falcons to do their best to retain him to continue to deploy him alongside A.J. Terrell. With Todd Gurley and Brian Hill entering free agency, running back is another position that could need tending to over these next few months.
Draft position: No. 4 overall. In our latest mock drafts, Wilson has the Falcons selecting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Meanwhile, Trapasso has Atlanta focusing on the secondary by taking Virginia Tech corner Caleb Farley. As for Edwards, he has the Falcons targeting a quarterback, but it's Trey Lance out of North Dakota State. Prisco sees Atlanta taking Alabama corner Patrick Surtain II with their pick.
Projected cap space (via Spotrac): $-11,686,845 (26th in the NFL)