The first wave of NFL free agency is over and, as expected, the Falcons only made a small ripple. That’s the price paid for a bad team with contract miscalculations stacked on top of big-money deals for good players. The Falcons are short on pass rushers and don’t have a real No. 1 cornerback.
There’s a big talent gap between the Falcons and Saints in the NFC South. Per Bet Online, the over/under win total for the Falcons decreased from eight before free agency to 7-1/2 as of Tuesday afternoon. The Saints’ over/under remained at 10 wins because nothing that’s happened in free agency changes their status as the favorite to win the division for the fourth year in a row.
There’s an extra wild-card berth this season, but the Buccaneers are in better position than the Falcons to earn it. Tampa Bay’s over/under increased from 7-1/2 pre-free agency to nine games. Maybe the betting markets are overreacting to the surprise signing of legendary Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, but the Bucs also have a good defense.
Three NFC South teams made the playoff in 2017, but the division hasn’t produced a wild-card team in the past two seasons. The Saints won the division by six games each year with a 9-3 record against South foes. It’s hard to see the Falcons as currently constructed making much of a move in 2020.
Here’s a closer look at where the teams in the NFC South stand after the flurry of transactions over the past week.
Key losses: cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker A.J. Klein and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Key additions/retentions: quarterback Drew Brees, tackle Andrus Peat, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle David Onyemata, safety Malcolm Jenkins, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety D.J. Swearinger.
Draft picks: 24th, 88th, 130th, 169th, 203rd overall.
The Saints have managed their salary cap better than the Falcons, so really, their only potential problem is a hypothetical. What if Brees, 41, finally falls off? The Saints still have a good offensive line protecting him, but they no longer have Bridgewater as a backstop after he filled in capably for five games in 2019.
Apple signed with the Raiders after two solid seasons as a starter for the Saints. The Saints had already added his replacement, Janoris Jenkins, off waivers in December and restructured his contract to keep him for 2020. The Saints signed Malcolm Jenkins after incumbent starter Vonn Bell reportedly declined a free-agent contract offer.
Key losses: quarterback Jameis Winston, linebacker Carl Nassib and defensive tackle Beau Allen.
Key additions/retentions: quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and linebacker Kevin Minter.
Draft picks: 14th, 45th, 76th, 117th, 139th, 161st and 194th overall.
Not long ago I figured the Falcons wouldn’t have to worry about any other QB in the division except for Brees. That was back when no one could imagine Brady would leave New England, much less sign with the Bucs. There’s a chance Brady, 42, has lost his magic, but that assumption can’t be made with a high degree of confidence by any opponent in the division.
The Bucs already have a good pass-blocking line. They have two star wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The Bucs were very good on defense in 2019 and retained five free-agent starters, including effective pass-rushers Barrett (franchise tag) and Pierre-Paul (re-signed). Look out if they also bring back free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Draft picks: 16th, 47th, 78th, 119th, 143rd and 228th overall.
Five starters are among Falcons to depart. Pass rusher Beasley probably is the worst player among them, and he still has some value at an important position (the Titans gave him $9.5 million guaranteed for 2020). The Falcons have holes, with cornerback as the most glaring.
Hurst is a fine replacement for Hooper. If he can be more of a deep threat for an improved offense, then the No. 55 overall pick the Falcons surrendered to Baltimore in the trade will have been worth it. Hurst’s blocking can help an offensive line group that flopped in 2019 after an expensive rebuild.
Key losses: quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, cornerback James Bradberry, safety Eric Reid, linebacker Mario Addison, defensive end Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle Vernon Butler, tight end Greg Olsen, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, guard Trai Turner, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and quarterback Kyle Allen.
Key additions/retentions: quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, defensive end Stephen Weatherly, offensive tackle Russell Okung and guard John Miller.
Draft picks: 7th, 38th, 69th, 113th, 148th, 152nd, 184th and 221st overall.
Carolina is moving on from former league MVP Newton and traded Allen, who started while Newton was injured in 2019. The Panthers are paying Bridgewater $33 million in up-front money. Bridgewater is a dink-and-dunk, game-manager type, but he’s an upgrade from Allen.
Defense is the issue for the Panthers. They invested a lot of money in their front before 2019 and still had the worst run defense in the league. Carolina’s wave of departing defenders includes the best player, Kuechly (retired). The massive amount of “dead” money on their cap means the Panthers won’t be able to replace Kuechly or any other good outgoing starter with a comparable player.
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