Did the Falcons make enough moves to overtake Bucs as kings of the NFC South?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates a touchdown I the first half during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates a touchdown I the first half during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

FLOWERY BRANCH — With two new head coaches and one new general manager within the division, everyone in the NFC South is chasing Tampa Bay, winners of the past three division titles.

The Falcons, who will be guided by new coach Raheem Morris, signed quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency and revamped their wide receiving corps. The Falcons may have made up enough ground to overtake the Buccaneers.

However, their acquisition of Cousins could prove costly in the long run as it is being reviewed by the league office for possible tampering charges.

The Falcons clearly are counting on the reunion of Morris and Cousins to end their streak of six consecutive losing seasons, while the Panthers turned to former linebacker Dan Morgan to be their general manager and hired former Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales to their new coach.

“Raheem, I was around for (three) years in Washington,” Cousins said. “I was just so impressed with him as our (defensive backs) coach. He would walk down the hall to the quarterback meeting in OTAs. I was a rookie and didn’t know what (coaching behavior) was normal. But that wasn’t normal for me before that and wasn’t normal after.”

But there was a method to Morris’ visits to the quarterback meeting room.

“For a DB coach to walk down the hall,” Cousins said. “Now, looking back when that room was Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Mike McDaniel and Sean McVay, he had good reason to be walking down the hall. But I would put him right in that category.

“As I look back, he was one of the original people there in the room with those other names. The fact that I was in that room, too, the chance to get back with someone from that room was a real thrill for me.”

The Bucs won the division at 9-8 by virtue of a tiebreaker – higher percentage in common games – over the Saints (9-8). The Falcons were 7-10, and the Panthers were 2-15. The Bucs’ point-differential was plus-23, the Saints’ plus-75, the Falcons’ minus-52 and the Panthers’ minus-180.

With the key part of free agency basically over, the teams are pointing squarely toward the NFL draft, which is set for April 25-27 in Detroit.

Here’s a look around the division as the teams try to improve for the 2024 season:

Bucs (9-8): Quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft who essentially was tossed out of Cleveland, revived his career last season with the Bucs.

After passing for a career-high 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns (only 10 interceptions), he signed a three-year, $100 million contract with the Bucs.

“We love his leadership,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht told the Tampa-area media after Mayfield signed. “Love his ability on the field. His ability to rally the team, the city and the fan base has been surreal.”

Mayfield is not ready to concede the division title.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to being able to push for a deeper playoff run,” Mayfield said. “Obviously, if it’s not a Super Bowl, only one team is happy in the end. That’s the goal here, is to try and win a couple.”

The Bucs also re-signed veteran wide receiver Mike Evans to a two-year, $52 million contract after he posted his 10th consecutive 1,000-yard season.

The Bucs re-signed kicker Chase McLaughlin, defensive tackle Greg Gaines, running back Chase Edmonds, linebacker Lavonte David, offensive tackles Justin Skule and Brandon Walton, wide receiver Deven Thompkins and quarterback Jon Wolford.

David, a former All-Pro, is set to enter his 12th season in the league.

The Bucs addressed their secondary in free agency, and they brought back Jordan Whitehead, who spent the past two seasons with the Jets. He was with the Bucs for his four previous seasons. They also signed cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Tavierre Thomas.

Offensive lineman Ben Bredeson and guard Sua Opeta also signed.

The Bucs were hit with a couple of key losses on defense. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett signed with the Dolphins and inside linebacker Devin White with the Eagles.

Liam Cohen was hired to replaced Canales as offensive coordinator.

The Bucs also added Justin Peelle to coach the tight ends. He was the Falcons tight ends coach from 2021-23 and helped Kyle Pitts make the Pro Bowl when he was a rookie.

Saints (9-8): The Saints’ major move was signing defensive end Chase Young and giving him $13 million guaranteed before he had neck surgery.

The Saints also signed linebacker Willie Gay, safety Johnathan Abram, backup quarterback Nathan Peterman and wide receivers Stanley Morgan and Cedrick Wilson Jr.

Former backup quarterback Jameis Winston signed with the Browns. The Saints voided the contract of long-time guard Andrus Peat, a three-time Pro Bowler, who started 102 games over the past nine seasons. They released former Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas, who hadn’t played a full season since 2019.

Falcons (7-10): The Falcons signed Cousins and traded quarterback Desmond Ridder to the Cardinals for wide receiver Rondale Moore.

The Falcons also signed wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Ray-Ray McCloud in free agency, while wide receivers Mack Hollins (Bills) and Van Jefferson (Steelers) signed elsewhere. Also, the team re-signed wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge.

The Falcons also signed blocking tight end Charlie Woerner in free agency after releasing pass-catching tight end Jonnu Smith, who promptly signed with the Dolphins.

Former starting center Matt Hennessy signed with the Eagles.

The Falcons signed offensive tackle Storm Norton and defensive tackle Kentavius Street to provide depth.

Panthers (2-15): The Panthers, who promoted Dan Morgan from assistant general manager to president of football operations/general manager, tried to firm the interior of their offensive line and improve their defense and added a wide receiver for quarterback Bryce Young.

The Panthers signed guards Robert Hunt to a five-year, $100 million contract and Damien Lewis to a four-year, $53 million deal. They also signed offensive tackle Yosh Nijman for depth.

On defense, the Panthers traded linebacker Brian Burns and lost inside linebacker Frankie Luvu to Washington in free agency. They added defensive tackle A-Shawn Robinson, linebackers D.J. Wonnum, Josey Jewell and K’Lavon Chaisson, cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Troy Hill and safety Jordan Fuller.

The Panthers picked up wide receiver Diontae Johnson in a trade with the Steelers. He had five of the Steelers’ 13 TD receptions last season.

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