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Free-agency grades for all four NFC South teams

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 20: Robert Ayers #91 of the New York Giants celebrates a sack during a game against the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium on September 20, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

With the initial fury of NFL free agency beginning to quiet down, the PFF staff is taking a look at how each team fared through the first few weeks. Signings, re-signings, players lost to other franchises, and the dollar amounts for each of these transactions have been taken into account when assigning a grade (“A” through “F”).

PFF will be rolling out grades for every team by division throughout this entire week, with the NFC South and AFC South debuting today.

Atlanta Falcons

Grade: B+

Key retentions: RT Ryan Schraeder, DT/DE Adrian Clayborn

Key additions: C Alex Mack, DE Derrick Shelby, WR Mohamed Sanu

Key losses: DT Paul Soliai, DE O’Brien Schofield, DE Kroy Biermann, G Chris Chester, WR Roddy White

The Falcons still need to sign restricted free agent Ryan Schraeder to a long-term deal, but it looks as if the second-round tender is keeping other teams away. Schraeder’s growth was an important piece in Atlanta’s improvement along the offensive line, and he turned in the second-highest overall grade among right tackles last season.

While the line was much better in 2015, center was the weakest link, and Atlanta certainly addressed that need by signing Alex Mack. He did not play as well last season after returning from injury, but if he can regain his prior form, then the Falcons might have a top-five offensive line. Even at his worst, Mack is still a significant upgrade for Atlanta.

Olivier Vernon was the most talked about free agent coming out of Miami, but Derrick Shelby also put together an impressive season as he benefitted from more playing time. Shelby’s pass-rushing production should be an upgrade from Kroy Biermann and O’Brien Schofield, while also still being a very good against the run.

Losing Roddy White shouldn’t matter much in terms of production, as White has been among the bottom-ranked receivers the last two years. Mohamed Sanu might not be the receiver they should have signed if they wanted to improve at the position, though, particularly for the $7 million average over the first two years of the deal. Sanu’s 53.5 overall grade ranked 101st out of 121 qualifying wide receivers last year.

Carolina Panthers

Grade: B

Key retentions: CB Josh Norman, ED Charles Johnson, FB Mike Tolbert, RT Mike Remmers

Key additions: DI Paul Soliai, C Gino Gradkowski

Key losses:  ED Jared Allen (Retired), WR Jerricho Cotchery, P Brad Nortman

The NFC champions lacked any major signings from outside the team, with defensive tackle Paul Soliai as the biggest one. Soliai should fit well into their defensive line rotation behind Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. The Panthers’ best moves were being able to keep their own two top free agents. They have yet to lock up Josh Norman to a long-term deal, but keeping him was a must. Carolina was also able to re-sign Charles Johnson after cutting him prior to free agency due to his large cap hit. More impressively, they were able to sign him to a very team-friendly deal, even if it is just a one-year contract.

Jared Allen’s retirement is a loss, but if Kony Ealy continues to improve and Mario Addison is given more playing time, then they should be able to replace Allen’s production with relative ease. Cotchery had a poor showing in the Super Bowl, but he was the Panthers’ highest-graded wide receiver last year. Brad Nortman’s signing with Jacksonville means Carolina will need to find a new punter. Nortman was only the 20th-ranked punter last year, but it can be a difficult position to address with so many rugby-style punters in college these days.

New Orleans Saints

Grade: C-

Key retentions: CB Kyle Wilson, G Tim Lelito

Key additions: TE Coby Fleener, LB James Laurinaitis, LB Nathan Stupar

Key losses: WR Marques Colston, TE Ben Watson, CB Brandon Browner, HB Khiry Robinson, G Jahri Evans

Up against the salary cap, the Saints were forced to move on from a few players, including starters Marques Colston and Jahri Evans. They also moved on from Brandon Browner, but after his penalty-riddled season that left him by far the lowest-graded corner in nine years of PFF grading, his absence could be seen as addition by subtraction.

After getting a very productive season out of Ben Watson, the Saints decided to go younger by signing Coby Fleener. Fleener should be able to at least replicate Watson’s production, if not exceed. However, even in his best season with Andrew Luck, Fleener’s receiving grade was nearly equal to Watson’s last year with Drew Brees. At over $7 million per year, it seems like an overspend for a team up against the cap and has needs all over the defense.

The Saints did attempt to address the linebacker position with the James Laurinaitis and Nathan Stupar signings. Laurinaitis is a well-known player, but he has graded above-average just once in his seven seasons, has always struggled in run defense, and is coming off his first negatively-graded season in coverage. His overall grade ranked 59th out of 60 inside linebackers last year, while he ranked last in run defense. Stupar has played just 271 career snaps, most coming in 2015, but he did earn positive grades in coverage and as a pass-rusher.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Grade: B-

Key retentions: HB Doug Martin, S Chris Conte

Key additions: ED Robert Ayers, G J.R. Sweezy, LB Daryl Smith, CB Brent Grimes, CB Josh Robinson

Key losses: G Logan Mankins (retired), LB Bruce Carter, LB Danny Lansanah

Tampa Bay lost their best offensive lineman through Logan Mankins’ retirement, which prompted the team to sign J.R. Sweezy. Sweezy is capable of making some really impressive blocks in the run game, but he’s far too inconsistent over the course of a game and season. He’s never earned a positive overall grade in four seasons, and ranked 69th out of 82 guards last year (Mankins ranked 16th). At the very least, his $6.5 million average per year—which makes him the ninth-highest paid guard—was far too much for a player of his caliber, particularly with a strong free-agent class of guards.

In addition to Sweezy, the Buccaneers signed a few other veteran players. Robert Ayers should be an immediate boost to their pass-rush, while Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes were low-risk signings to boost the back seven. Ayers’ had the eighth- and ninth-best pass-rushing grades among edge defenders last two seasons, respectively. Prior to last season, Smith was consistently a very good linebacker, but his performance declined in 2015. Was it a down-year, or is Father Time catching up with the 35-year-old? Grimes’ production hasn’t been near what it was a couple seasons ago, but he’s still been an average cover corner the last two years who can also play well against the run.


More team free-agency grades by division:

– AFC East

– NFC East

– AFC North

– NFC North

– AFC South

– AFC West

– NFC West

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