The NFC South was a rock fight in 2022, no one really wanted to win the division but someone had to. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 45-year-old Tom Brady wheezed to the finish line of the regular season, "winning" the division with a losing record at 8-9 as they lost three of their final five regular season games. The Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Atlanta Falcons finished with matching 7-10 records. Brady's bunch were then wiped out of the playoffs with a whimper, losing 31-14 at home in the opening round of the playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys, a team Brady had won his first seven starts against.
The division standings will likely look entirely different in 2023 as three of the four teams have experienced a changing of the guard at quarterback. Brady retiring gives way to a quarterback competition between 2021 second round pick Kyle Trask and free agent signee Baker Mayfield, the former first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, down in Tampa. The Panthers will have their pick of the 2023 NFL Draft's quarterback class after trading up for the first overall pick by sending four draft picks, two firsts and two seconds, plus wide receiver DJ Moore to the Chicago Bears. The Saints filled their opening at quarterback by signing the Raiders' all-time leading passer Derek Carr to a four-year, $150 million deal. Meanwhile, the Falcons are content to roll with 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder at quarterback after their only quarterback move was to sign former Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke to a two-year, $14 million deal.
Below, we will grade the four NFC South teams and how they have made out through the opening weeks of free agency.
Free agency contract information taken from Over The Cap
Carolina Panthers: B
Key additions: WR DJ Chark (Lions), WR Adam Thielen (Vikings), QB Andy Dalton (Saints), TE Hayden Hurst (Bengals), RB Miles Sanders (Eagles), DT DeShawn Williams (Broncos), Shy Tuttle (Saints), S Vonn Bell (Bengals), G Justin McCray (Texans), DT DeShawn Williams (Broncos), 1st overall pick in 2023 NFL Draft (Bears, via trade)
Key re-signings: C Bradley Bozeman
Key departures: QB Sam Darnold (49ers), QB PJ Walker (Bears), RB D'Onta Foreman (Bears), WR DJ Moore (Bears, via trade), LB Cory Littleton (Texans), K Zane Gonzalez (49ers), 9th overall pick in 2023 NFL Draft (Bears, via trade)
When the Panthers hired Frank Reich to be their new head coach, the team clearly took a look in the mirror at the quarterbacks they have been trotting out over the last five seasons and realized enough with the veteran stopgaps. Now thanks to trading their ninth overall pick (first round) and their second second-round pick (61st overall pick) in the 2023 NFL Draft as well as a 2024 first-round pick, a 2025 second-round pick, and 25-year-old wide receiver DJ Moore, they can choose whichever fresh-faced quarterback they want to lead their franchise into a new era. They also added veteran mentor Andy Dalton, 35 years old, on a two-year, $10 million deal. A wise investment in order for the new face of the franchise to learn how to carve out a long-term career in the league.
While that trade may have been perceived by some as reach because of what they gave up, the Panthers won't miss any of those picks if whoever they select between Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Alabama's Bryce Young, Florida's Anthony Richardson, or Kentucky's Will Levis becomes a Pro Bowl passer and gives the team some extended stability at the sport's most important position. Supplementing their defense with a couple defenders on the right side of 30 in defensive tackle Shy Tuttle (three years, $19.5 million) and safety Vonn Bell (three years, $22.5 million) are nice moves as well. Carolina could have a very bright future if they nail their first overall pick and add some younger receiving help in the draft's later rounds after a flurry of veteran signings. Adding former first-round pick tight end Hayden Hurst (soon-to-be 30 years old) on a three-year, $21.8 million deal was just the start.
The Panthers signing a new, top wide receiver to lead their passing offense in Adam Thielen was a necessity after losing DJ Moore in the trade that gave them the 2023 NFL Draft's first overall selection. Even though the terms of three years, $25 million aren't the greatest for a soon-to-be 33-year-old receiver, it was move that needed to be made. Carolina topped off their free agency run on pass-catchers with the explosive (14.4 yards per reception in five-year career) but injury-prone DJ Chark, who is soon-to-be 27 years old. Head coach Frank Reich has high hopes for the former Pro Bowler they brought in on a one-year, $5 million deal.
Bringing aboard former Eagles running back Miles Sanders on an affordable four-year, $25.4 million contract is a huge get as well. The soon-to-be 26-year-old made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2022 with career-highs in rushing yards (1,269) and rushing touchdowns (11). Those numbers made him only the fourth player in Eagles history with a season of over 1,000 rushing yards and over 10 rushing touchdowns, joining Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren (1947, 1949), Ricky Watters (1995-1996), and LeSean McCoy (2011). He's an ascending offensive weapon that the Panthers rookie quarterback can lean on.
Panthers quarterbacks since 2018
Cam Newton (14), Taylor Heinicke (1), Kyle Allen (1)
Kyle Allen (12), Cam Newton (2), Will Grier (2)
Teddy Bridgewater (15), PJ Walker (1)
Sam Darnold (11), Cam Newton (5), PJ Walker (1)
Baker Mayfield (6), Sam Darnold (6), PJ Walker (5)
* 63 passing touchdowns and 71 interceptions combined (Only team in NFL with more INT than pass TD in span)
Atlanta Falcons: C+
Key additions: QB Taylor Heinicke (Commanders), S Jessie Bates III (Bengals), TE Jonnu Smith (Patriots, via trade), DT David Onyemata (Saints), LB Kaden Elliss (Saints), WR Mack Hollins (Raiders), Scott Miller (Buccaneers), DE Calais Campbell (Ravens), CB Mike Hughes
Key re-signings: G Chris Lindstrom, LB Lorenzo Carter, T Kaleb McGary, T Germain Ifedi, P Bradley Pinion
Key departures: QB Marcus Mariota (Eagles), DL Abdullah Anderson (Commanders), CB Mike Ford (Browns), CB Isaiah Oliver (49ers)
The Falcons made a number of big swings to jumpstart free agency, but almost all of them were clear overpays by market standards. The decision to make former Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, Cincy's leader in interceptions (14) and tackles (479) since entering the NFL in 2018, the fourth-highest paid safety in the NFL on an annual basis with a four-year, $64.02 million contract is their most defendable move. Atlanta was the league's sixth-worst total defense, 362.1 total yards per game allowed, in 2022, and they weren't getting much out of their secondary, the eighth-worst pass defense in the NFL (231.9 passing yards allowed per game).
However, a strong argument could also be made that Bates III's money may have been served for different positional compensation down the road. Getting ahead of the rising salary cap to keep your own starting-caliber players is wise, but it's unclear why the Falcons felt the need to reset the offensive guard market by giving Chris Lindstrom five years and $105 million dollars coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2022. He's a great players with a strong fundamentals as he's only been called for one-holding penalty in his four-season career. However, is he better than the previously highest-paid guard, the Indianapolis Colts' Quenton Nelson, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro at four years and $80 million.
Similarly, taking on the final two years of one of the bigger tight end contracts in the entire league (four years, $50 million) after acquiring Jonnu Smith from the New England Patriots for a seventh round pick is a head-scratcher unless the plan is to move third-year tight end Kyle Pitts, the highest-drafted tight end in the Common Draft Era (since 1967) after being selected fourth overall in 2021, to a wide receiver role opposite Drake London.
Adding former Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke as a backup to Desmond Ridder on a two-year, $20 million deal is good business should the second-year passer get hurt or falter as the full-time starter. Ditto for their move to sign six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell to a one-year deal on Wednesday. Campbell totaled 5.5 sacks, 36 tackles and forced a couple fumbles in 14 games last season. He played an integral role in the Ravens finishing third in the NFL in scoring defense and run defense in 2022.
New Orleans Saints: C+
Key additions: QB Derek Carr (Raiders, RB Jamaal Williams (Lions), DT Khalen Saunders (Chiefs), CB Lonnie Johnson Jr. (Titans), S Johnathan Abram (Seahawks)
Key re-signings: QB Jameis Winston, TE Juwan Johnson, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DB J.T. Gray, WR Michael Thomas, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DT Malcolmn Roach
Key departures: QB Andy Dalton (Panthers), WR Marquez Callaway (Broncos), WR Deonte Harty (Bills), DT David Onyemata (Falcons), DT Shy Tuttle (Panthers), LB Kaen Elliss (Falcons), S Justin Evans (Eagles)
The Saints won the Derek Carr sweepstakes, snatching up the Raiders' all-time leading in passing yards (35,222) and passing touchdowns (217) with a four-year, $150 million contract. Bringing over the NFL's rushing touchdowns leader, running back Jamaal Williams who had 17 for the Detroit Lions in 2022, is a solid grab at the price tag of three years, $12 million. While their contract restructures and salary cap maneuvering of years' past has finally caught up them, the Saints were still able to sign the quarterback they wanted to lead them into a more positive light post-Drew Brees. They also acquired a 2023 first round pick and a 2024 second-round pick from the Denver Broncos in exchange for former head coach Sean Payton, who didn't do any work for them last season. That's good business.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: C
Key additions: QB Baker Mayfield (Rams), RB Chase Edmonds (Broncos), DT Greg Gaines (Rams)
Key re-signings: CB Jamel Dean, LB Lavonte David, DE Anthony Nelson
Key departures: QB Tom Brady (retired), RB Leonard Fournette (released), WR Scott Miller (Falcons), G Shaq Mason (Texans, via trade), DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches (Giants), CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (Titans), Mike Edwards (Chiefs)
Somehow, they found just enough cap space in their couch cushions to re-sign cornerback Jamel Dean to a four-year, $52 million deal on Monday. It's a solid retention for a player who has a 49.4% completion percentage allowed when targeted in his career, the third-lowest in the entire league since he was drafted in 2019. Dean trails only 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward (48.2%) and Falcons cornerback Casey Heyward (48.7%) among players with 200 or more targets in that span. Bringing back franchise legend Lavonte David on a one-year, $7 million deal is huge both on and off the field.
However, their QB room being filled bt Kyle Trask and Baker Mayfield in 2023 is a stark reminder that the Super Bowl aspirations Tom Brady brought with him from New England have vanished along with his football career as he enters retirement full-time.