NFL Offseason – In these editions of Four Downs, we’ll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team’s major free agents for 2023.
Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
The Falcons had an adjusted sack rate of 4.0%, worst in the league. The sad thing is, that’s actually a slightly improvement over 2021, when their adjusted sack rate was 3.8%, worst in the league. They also had the lowest pressure rate and quarterback hurry rate according to Sportradar. They aren’t entirely devoid of talent here—Arnold Ebiketie flashed some pass-rush skills early, though he tailed off badly in December—but it’s a room full of complementary guys at best, with no big, beefy, one-on-one winners like new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen enjoyed on his line in New Orleans.
Honestly, Atlanta could use a talent infusion on every level of defense—they were trotting out street free agents at cornerback by the end of the year, they were 31st in adjusted line yards on the ground, and were towards the bottom of the league defending receivers of all shapes and sizes. But with the second-most cap space in the league this offseason, Atlanta can afford to splurge on a veteran pass-rusher in free agency, letting last year’s picks of Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone continue to develop, and use their draft picks to address other needs.
Major Free Agents: FB Keith Smith, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, TE Parker Hesse, OT Kaleb McGary, ER Lorenzo Carter, P Bradley Pinion
The Falcons turned down McGary’s fifth-year option for 2023, just in time for him to have the best season of his career. He’s still mostly serviceable at best in pass protection, but he has taken significant steps forward every year as a run blocker and now has an argument as be the best right tackle in the game to run behind. Tagging him at $18.2 million might end up being a bit rich for Atlanta, but it’s worth at least trying to sign him to a long-term deal. Past him, Lorenzo Carter was second on the team with four sacks and might be part of the Falcons’ solution at edge rusher, but he’s not exactly an incredibly high-priority target.
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Since Cam Newton left, the Panthers have only had one qualified quarterback hit a positive passing DYAR: Teddy Bridgewater in 2020. Last season, it was swings and misses by Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and P.J. Walker as Carolina shuffled deck chairs throughout the end of the Matt Rhule era. Of the three, Darnold looked the best, occasionally flashing some of the potential he had as a first-round pick. But even if Carolina decided they wanted to look at that potential again—which, to be clear, they very much should not—Darnold’s a free agent. That leaves Walker and redshirt Matt Corral as the quarterbacks under contract. Whee.
Frank Reich came into Indianapolis with the promise that he would get to coach Andrew Luck for years to come. Since Luck’s surprise retirement, Reich has had to deal with a string of one-and-done free agents of wildly varying quality. Now the head coach in Carolina, Reich should finally get his chance to pick a prospect and develop him. It would be astonishing if the Panthers didn’t end up taking someone at the position in Round 1.
Major Free Agents: QB Sam Darnold, RB D’Onta Foreman, C Bradley Bozeman, DT Matt Ioannidis, K Eddy Pineiro
The only real free agent of note for Carolina is Matt Ioannidis. Normally, a new defensive coordinator coming in and reworking the scheme would be a sign that the team is going to let their free agents go, but Ioannidis does have experience playing in the 3-4 that new coordinator Ejiro Evero wants to install; Ioannidis’ first years in Washington were with Greg Manusky, who ran an odd front. Keeping Ioannidis wouldn’t be about continuity; it would be about keeping a fairly solid interior pass-rusher as the Panthers go through some growing pains as they shift philosophies. Ioannidis had a comparative down year with just 26 pressures per SIS charting, but he was consistently getting significant pressure throughout his time in Washington. He’s worth keeping around.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Need: Defensive Line
You were expecting quarterback? While the Saints are kicking the tires on a used Carr, they still have Jameis Winston under contract, and he would be adequate if the Saints can’t upgrade. They have more pressing needs elsewhere.
The defensive line, for instance! Their top three defensive tackles—David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, and Kentavius Street—are all slated to hit free agency, as is Marcus Davenport as an edge rusher. Even with all those tackles, the Saints were just 20th in adjusted line yards (22nd up the middle) and 24th in stuff rate. Onyemata is an effective interior pass-rusher with some good seasons left in him, but the Saints need to bolster the center of their defense even if they bring him back.
Major Free Agents: QB Andy Dalton, WR Deonte Harty, WR Jarvis Landry, ER Marcus Davenport, DT David Onyemata, DT Shy Tuttle, LB Kaden Ellis, CB Bradley Roby
Note that this list does not include Michael Thomas, who is widely expected to be released. The Saints restructured Thomas’ deal in January to allow them to spread his cap hit over two seasons if released as a June 1 cut; there was no other reason to make that extension other than to release him. But, for now, he remains technically on the roster.
Stop me if you have heard this before: the Saints are tight against the salary cap. They have already made a number of moves; they have gone from nearly $60 million over to $35 million over as of time of writing and likely will have pushed that down even further by the time you’re reading this. They’re actually in a little better shape this year than they have been in years past, though that’s damning with faint praise if I have ever heard it. If they do squeeze out the money to resign one player, they’d probably be deciding between Onyemata and Marcus Davenport. While Davenport really hasn’t paid dividends compared to the trade up the Saints used to go get him in the draft, he’s still a solid second edge rusher who is good for around 35 pressures a year. A team with cap space could use him! That may not be the Saints.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Did you hear Tom Brady retired? That may have gotten mentioned once or twice in passing this offseason. This time, it might even stick!
The only quarterback on Tampa Bay’s roster at the moment is Kyle Trask. The 2021 second-round pick has 10 career snaps; he went 3-for-9 for 23 yards against Atlanta in the regular-season closer. That, apparently, was enough for Bruce Arians to claim Tampa Bay is in “good hands” with Trask, for Jason Licht to believe he’s the best quarterback in the division, and for Dave Canales to claim he’s an excellent point guard distributor-type. Color us skeptical, to say the least. And even if Trask is indeed the next big quarterback prospect, the Buccaneers will still need someone else on the roster to flesh out the depth chart! They could go for multi-year deal for someone such as Derek Carr, a one-year stopgap such as Jimmy Garoppolo, or a veteran backup/bridge such as Jacoby Brissett, and what they do will tell us how they really feel about Trask. One way or another, though, they have to add someone.
Major Free Agents: G Aaron Stinnie, DT Akiem Hicks, LB Lavonte David, CB Jamel Dean, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, DB Logan Ryan
The Buccaneers are eating the remainder of Tom Brady’s contract this season, putting them in a precarious financial situation. At time of writing, they were both last in cap space and had the least potential room available after simple restructures. They had work to do to be cap-compliant, much less sign any of the small army of defenders with expiring contracts—49.1% of their defensive snaps are set to hit free agency, most in the league.
Interestingly, they may be able to save money by re-signing Lavonte David. David had three void years on his last contract, so he is slated to count $6.9 million against the 2023 cap even if he leaves in free agency. By signing him to a new deal, that bonus money would shoot back down to $2.3 million, so some creative accounting tricks could keep him on the roster and lower his cap hit for 2023. No such accounting trickery can fit Jamel Dean in, and someone is going to offer a much larger deal to Dean than the Buccaneers can afford to match—corners with his combination of size and athleticism do not grow on trees.