Free Agency Primer: NFC South
If so, this division could be football’s toughest next season, as the Saints should be contenders again and both the Falcons and Buccaneers (especially Atlanta) stand to improve on their performances.
A glance at the NFC South’s free-agent outlook:
• Key free agents: DL Jonathan Babineaux, CB Dominique Franks, OL Joe Hawley, DT Peria Jerry, DT Corey Peters; CB Robert McClain (RFA)
• Players Atlanta needs back: Babineaux, Franks.
Franks did not make any starts in 2013, so he’s not exactly a No. 1 corner. But with the Falcons having cut Asante Samuel already, they could use a little depth back there. That’s precisely what the 26-year-old Franks provides.
Choices will have to be made up front. Peters was a 15-game starter and a key cog on the D-line; Jerry was a 14-game starter and is a former first-round pick; and Babineaux, 32, has been with the Falcons for his entire career and was on the first-team D for all 16 games in 2013.
Who gets the nod? Well, Peters blew out his Achilles in December, so that could push the Falcons away from re-signing him. The upside with Jerry is higher than with the veteran Babineaux … but the floor’s lower with Jerry, too. Bet on Babineaux being back.
• Players Atlanta should let walk: Jerry.
Atlanta started to rid itself of dead weight with the releases of Samuel and LB Stephen Nicholas. As already mentioned, figuring out how to fix the defensive line is front and center now — the Falcons were miserable trying to generate pressure throughout the season and they finished 31st in the league against the run.
• Outlook: Tony Gonzalez’s retirement and the departure of at least a couple other veterans will help push the Falcons to get younger across the roster, which is a must after a disappointing 2013 season that saw teams run circles around them. They’re carrying a decent cap situation, with $13 million-plus already available under the projected line.
• Key free agents: CB Drayton Florence, WR Ted Ginn Jr., OT Jordan Gross, DE Greg Hardy, WR Brandon LaFell, S Quintin Mikell, S Mike Mitchell, CB Captain Munnerlyn, G Travelle Wharton; OT Byron Bell (RFA)
• Players Carolina needs back: Ginn, Gross, Hardy, Mitchell, Munnerlyn.
Gross’ future seems to be up to him — there earlier were rumblings that he might retire. Given how he played in 2013, though, that’s hard to see happening, and the Panthers certainly would welcome him back with open arms. The 33-year-old turned in a standout year protecting Cam Newton’s blindside.
Munnerlyn could be tough to retain. He has ties to the area (including playing his college ball at South Carolina), but after working off a $1.1 million deal last season, he has a price tag that figures to shoot up quite a bit. The secondary is already in need of upgrades, a process that would become tougher should Carolina lose a 16-game starter.
At the safety spot, it makes sense for the Panthers to commit to re-signing the 26-year-old Mitchell over a 33-year-old Mikell (though it’s possible both return). Mitchell was a pleasant surprise last season. The same could be said for Ginn, even if he was inconsistent. He finished the season with 36 catches and five touchdowns and remains a dangerous return man.
Hardy could be a franchise-tag candidate, which would run Carolina about $12 million. With him coming off a 15-sack season, that might not be too much to pay.
• Players Carolina should let walk: LaFell, Mikell.
We pretty much covered the argument against Mikell a few paragraphs ago. LaFell was the Panthers’ third-leading receiver (behind Steve Smith and TE Greg Olsen) at 49 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. That’s hardly what the team expects from its No. 2 guy — and LaFell could have produced far more had he not been plagued by drops. Smith is in his mid-30s and Ginn could be exiting, so Carolina has to find a legitimate second option.
• Outlook: Carolina’s front office remains a little hamstrung by the huge contracts of running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Together, that pair will count approximately $28 million against next year’s cap, barring any contract restructuring. The Panthers currently sit about $15 million below the cap limit, but there are not many spots where they can gain additional wiggle room. As a result, they may not be able to retain everyone they want.