The Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers and Saints came into the 2015 off-season with a lot of questions. Carolina had to figure out a way to help their franchise QB, Atlanta had to completely retool their defense to fit new head coach (former Seahawks DC Dan Quinn), and Tampa Bay was in their second year under head coach Lovie Smith. The Saints were a team that suffered a massive defensive collapse in 2014, particularly relative to their expectations coming into the year. In the 2015 off-season they had serious needs to address. This is how each team made out in the off-season in terms of addressing their needs.*
4.) Carolina Panthers
Needs: Defensive Back, Offensive Line (namely Left Tackle), Wide Receiver
Key Additions: CB Charles Tillman (Chicago), CB Chris Houston (Detroit), LB Shaq Thompson (University of Washington).
Key Losses: RB DeAngelo Williams, DE Greg Hardy, DB Thomas DeCoud, OT Byron Bell.
This isn't a knock against Carolina by any means, their GM Dave Gettleman has a very strict plan in each off-season and he generally follows it to the letter. It's just that Carolina wasn't particularly active in terms of making themselves better relative to the other teams in the South. Carolina likes their position at the top, and it's all about retention. Gettleman himself said that "Substance is more important than splash." Carolina is a team that doesn't need to make the big signings, they use what works. With Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis locked down on defense, plus the megadeal that QB Cam Newton signed until 2020, Carolina looks to be in good shape for the future. Their key losses were losses in name more than in talent, although the Saints won't be sad to see DeAngelo "Only Shows up Against The Saints" Williams leave the conference, but Carolina proved their front seven is still stacked without Greg Hardy las year. Thomas DeCoud contributed little to the Panthers defensively, and Marcus Ball could prove to be a suitable replacement for the Panthers' defensive backfield.
Carolina added cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Chris Houston to their cornerbacking corps. Although Tillman may easily be used in a coaching capacity as frequently as he is as a player (few players care about the game more than Tillman does), he is injury prone and some thought after he was sidelined last year his career may have been over. Chris Houston had a bit of a resurgence for Detroit in the past two years, but whether or not it's enough to help put Carolina over the top remains to be seen. After their massive deal for Cam Newton, Carolina didn't do much to shore up their line outside of the addition of Tackle Michael Oher (who was mediocre at best in Tennessee). They gave Newton another large target alongside Kelvin Benjamin in Devin Funchess out of Michigan, along with Jets WR Stephen Hill (who struggles with hands), but whether or not that's enough to help Newton remains to be seen. Carolina still has their core players that make them a threat, but they didn't do a whole lot to catapult them from where they went last year (no disrespect to the season that they had, along with their playoff win, but winning a division at 7-8-1 doesn't happen often).
3.) New Orleans Saints
Needs: Cornerback, Interior Line, Wide Receiver
Key Additions: C Max Unger (Seattle), CB Brandon Browner (New England), RB CJ Spiller (Buffalo), LB Dannell Ellerbe(?) (Miami), LB Stephone Anthony (Clemson), LB Hau'Oli Kikaha (University of Washington)
Key Losses: TE Jimmy Graham, ILB Curtis Lofton, G Ben Grubbs, WR Kenny Stills
The Saints go into the 2015 season a complete and total question mark. They went from the 4th ranked defense to 31st in the span of one year under Rob Ryan (I've never said that before, said no one who's literally read a single one of my articles in the past), and so they underwent a makeover in the 2015 offseason. Remember that fun span where everyone thought that the Saints were having a fire sale during the start of free agency? Drew Brees lost his two top receiving targets in Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and he didn't gain much to throw to. But the Saints did add quite a few players to the side of the ball that they really struggled on in 2014.
Cornerback Brandon Browner could well prove to be the Saints' most valuable addition. He is a vocal corner that is physical at the line, something that the Saints woefully lacked opposite Keenan Lewis in the 2014 season. Patrick Robinson and Corey White were both released at the conclusion of the year, and the Saints went out looking for one of the best names that wasn't Darrelle Revis on the market. Browner has played in the last two Super Bowls, but what he really brings is a sense of authority to a quiet Saints' defense. The days of leaders like Jonathan Vilma and (and I shudder to mention this name) Darren Sharper are long since past in New Orleans. Guys like Jairus Byrd (when he's healthy) and Keenan Lewis are significantly more soft spoken, and they possess a tremendous amount of talent without the vocality sometimes associated with that talent. Stephone Anthony should be a day one starter to replace Curtis Lofton, the Saints' steadfast ILB over the past few years, and he also remains a question mark for New Orleans. The only reason that I list Kikaha as a key addition is because OLB Junior Galette's role with New Orleans has largely been cast in shadow due to his tumultuous off-season and increasingly alarming allegations against his character.
Offensively, the Saints knew that they needed to protect Drew Brees. Their interior line struggled in 2014, so they added Center Max Unger (an All-Pro from Seattle) and traded Benjamin Grubbs and his contract to Kansas City for a shiny new pick. The Saints also drafted Andrus Peat out of Stanford with their first 2015 draft pick to protect Brees's blind side. Whether he starts at LT over Terron Armstead remains to be seen, but it seems to be as likely as not depending on how training camp and the preseason go. Brees lost his two favorite weapons in Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, but New Orleans did replace Pierre Thomas's screen game with CJ Spiller's. It will be sad to not see Thomas in the backfield anymore, but Spiller brings a certain explosiveness to the Saints' backfield. They also re-signed RB Mark Ingram to a new deal after a strong 2014 showing, and they should be able to do quite a bit with a versatile backfield that is also supplanted by the powerful Khiry Robinson.
While all of these things seem like positives, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the 2015 Saints. How will the new guard of defense mesh with the veterans, and can players like Stephone Anthony and (potentially) Hau'oli Kikaha make an impact day one? Furthermore, will the continued change in offensive philosophy benefit the offense? Adding players like Peat and Unger lets the Saints run a bit of a shuffle on their offensive line, and there are some flexible question marks like Tim Lelito in the mix, but the Saints gave up so much to gain so much that there remain a few holes. Management (namely Sean Payton) seems to have the impression that Drew Brees can throw to anyone successfully, but with the apparent decline of Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks has to step and become a true WR1, something that the Saints haven't utilized outside of Jimmy Graham in quite some time.
Ranking the Saints at 3 isn't a knock against their offseason, but rather a testament to the other moves being made within the division. Atlanta and Tampa Bay had a lot of rebuilding to do, and they did so, whereas the Saints seemed to be a relatively complete team that decided to change everything. Whether or not it pays off will dictate whether this list is pessimistic or realistic in 8 months.
*Note: This list is an OPINION, not meant to slight any teams. Atlanta and Tampa Bay rationales will be posted tomorrow.