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Best Off-Seasons In The NFC South: Buccaneers And Falcons

The Buccaneers and the Falcons experienced the most sweeping changes to their teams in the off-season, as they underwent personnel changes at the most important levels of a team. Tampa Bay drafted who they hope is their franchise quarterback of the future, whereas Atlanta finally got rid of the coach that held them back for years. While these changes will bring some speed bumps, for teams that floundered in the 2014 season they're steps in the right direction.

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Coaching and quarterback play are the two parts of a team that any fan will say are the most important.  This may not be 100% true, as there are dozens of factors that go into a successful NFL team, but their influence cannot be denied.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just wrapped up a 2014 campaign that was disappointing under their new coach Lovie Smith, whereas the Atlanta Falcons (and their fans) found themselves growing increasingly incredulous of Mike Smith's decision making.  The Buccaneers lacked true leadership (or at least that appeared to be the issue) under Mike Glennon and Josh McCown, whereas the Falcons had the personnel on the field to be successful but simply couldn't put it together under Smith.

Enter Jameis Winston and Dan Quinn, the two missing pieces for their respective teams' success.  Quinn thrived in Seattle in his time as defensive coordinator (although, like Gus Bradley before him he really had to work with his personnel), whereas Winston is a PR question mark but a proven winner.  Of course, it takes significantly more than an unproven quarterback to make a 2-14 team better, but the Buccaneers get significantly more with the passing of the season.  Winston seems to be settling into his new role as the quiet, reserved quarterback nicely, and the Buccaneers, despite a difficult 2014 season seem poised to make strides in 2015.

3.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Needs: Quarterback, linebacker, Offensive Line, Safety, CB2

Key Additions: QB Jameis Winston (Florida State), S Chris Conte (Chicago), LB Bruce Carter (Dallas), CB Sterling Moore (Dallas), TE Tim Wright (New England), DE Henry Melton (Dallas)

Key Losses: LB Mason Foster, OL Anthony Collins, QB Josh McCown, DE Michael Johnson, S Dashon Goldson

Tampa Bay had a lot of needs coming into 2015, and there was no way that they could address all of them at once.  They had a solid cornerback already in Alterraun Verner, but no one alongside him.  They had a steady stable of backs in 2014 that seemed to perform well when called upon.  They had a defense that was adapting to difficult but historically effective scheme, and they had star linebacker Lavonte David on the field.  What they lacked was a quarterback that was worthwhile, along with a defense that was capable, as a unit, of making head coach Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme work.  Mason Foster couldn't cover enough ground for the role dictated, and the Buccaneers sputtered to a 2-14 season and the worst record in the NFL.

They added veteran leadership to their fold, quietly going after talent that didn't make a splash in the free agent pool, but was effective.  Conte is arguably a step down from Goldson when factoring in his injury history, but Moore is quietly an efficient corner and Carter gives the Buccaneers some versatility in their 4-3 defense, particularly with David and his amazing run pursuit (alongside above-average coverage skills).  To Conte's credit, however, he is familiar with Smith.  More notably from the ex Smith days in Chicago is the signing of DT Henry Melton, who is a physical, powerful lineman that can tremendously supplant Gerald McCoy in the war in the trenches.  The Tampa 2 is largely contingent on pressure, and Melton and McCoy can bring just that.

The real story, however, all off-season was QB Jameis Winston.  The player that was ever present in the eyes of Tampa Bay.  In the media, they seemed to have their eyes set on Winston for some time.  And why not?  The big, prototypical QB that just wins games.  In Florida State, character aside, struggles aside, he had an incredible two years.  No one can take empirical success like that away from him.  Yes, football is a team sport, but the QB is always in the spotlight.  And Winston, despite struggling in that spotlight off the field, always shined on it.  That success may or may not translate to the NFL level, quarterbacks are always question marks, but Tampa Bay won't be going 2-14 next season under him and a defense that has added depth and leadership, alongside some experience in a new system.

1.) Atlanta Falcons

Needs: Head Coach, LB, DL, OL, RB, CB

Key Additions: Mike Smith (By Subtraction), Dan Quinn, LB Justin Durant (Dallas), DE Adrian Clayborn (Tampa Bay), LB Brooks Reed (Houston), OT Tyler Polumbus (Washington), G Chris Chester (Washington), G Mike Person (St. Louis), LB Vic Beasley (Clemson), CB Jalen Collins (LSU)

Key Losses: RB Steven Jackson, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR Harry Douglas, OL Sam Baker, OL Justin Blalock, OL Gabe Carimi, DT Corey Peters, LB Sean Weatherspoon, CB Robert McClain

Atlanta was another team that caught the disappointment bug in 2014, but they pinned most of their problems on the ever inadequate Mike Smith, who had a string of games where he seemingly directly caused increasingly baffling losses, culminating in the disastrous game against the Detroit Lions in London where he called a Chris Webberian timeout in its ineptitude.  Smith got a pass for a time for Atlanta's string of success that led them to an NFC Championship Game in 2012, but it became increasingly clear that Atlanta succeeded in spite of him rather than because of him.

As such, Atlanta hired a new head coach in Dan Quinn, who proceeded to, along with GM Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank, retool the Falcons both inside and out.  They made a series of calculated moves very quietly, including, but not limited to, ensuring that their Tight End Levine Toilolo won't have to play tackle in 2015 and that they'll have some depth along the line.  They completely changed the face of their offensive line in front of Matt Ryan, hoping to give him some reassurance.  They also added pass rushers such as Adrian Clayborn and, most notably, Vic Beasley (the latter coming through the draft), and they shed some of the age on the offensive side of the ball.  They also let players such as Corey Peters and Sean Weatherspoon go, adding the likes of Brooks Reed and Justin Durant.  They're a bit skimp on the inside defensively, but they appear to be hoping to make up for a lack of size with speed.  Drafting Jalen Collins complements CB1 Desmond Trufant well, and linemen such as Paul Solaiai and Tyson Jackson can benefit in the Dan Quinn defense as well.

Kyle Shanahan appears to be a lone question mark, although if he subscribes to the normal plan and allows Matt Ryan to do Matt Ryan things he could be more successful than he was in Washington.  A lack of nepotism that was present in Washington may not hurt either, but that's purely psychological evaluation and may have no bearing on anything.  Quinn is a man comfortable in his wheelhouse, and he's surrounded by tremendous talent such as Ryan and Julio Jones, so if that rapport remains unaffected the Atlanta offense will continue to thrive.  The Falcons may have serious question marks remaining, but for a 7-9 team to make the sweeping changes that they did, they're adamant about getting better.  Quinn is a strong, confident coach, and his players in Seattle respected him as much they seemed to respect Bradley before him.  If he can adapt to suit his players' needs (a base Cover 3 defense won't work in Atlanta like it did in Seattle), Atlanta could be looking at a much better year than the ones that they've had previously.