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The Carolina Panthers are playing 2013 cheap, but the rest of the division have added valuable pieces.
The NFC South hasn't been the most active division in free agency, but there have been several excellent moves that improved teams -- as well as some head-scratchers. Here are your grades for week one of free agency in the NFC South.
It's clear to see where teams in the NFC South are directing their energies after the first week. The Atlanta Falcons are in 'win now' mode, New Orleans are trying desperately to improve their defense, the Buccaneers are still waiting to splash out, using their considerable free agent dollars to land a huge players, while the Carolina Panthers are looking to put a competitive team on the field for cheap.
Best move: Signing Steven Jackson from the Rams
Worst move: Sam Baker's mammoth contract
Landing Steven Jackson from the Rams was a move that made sense, but quietly it's still one of the best free-agent pickups this off season. The Falcons didn't break the bank to bring him, and immediately upgrades Atlanta in two ways: Firstly they get a legitimate 1,000 yard back for the next 2-3 years, and they get a player who is vastly superior receiver out of the backfield. An already dangerous offense becomes fearsome with this addition.
As good as getting Jackson was, signing left tackle Sam Baker to a huge new deal was the opposite. His 6-year, $41.1 million contract puts him at an even cap hit of roughly $7 million per season. Baker is a serviceable tackle, but not elite, and this long-term deal shackles the Falcons to Baker moving forward. When held in contrast to the 4-year, $34 million deal Jake Long got with the St. Louis Rams -- they made a smaller commitment to a better player, even if they pay a little more short-term.
Best move: Signing Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh
Worst move: Not retaining Jermon Bushrod
The Saints needed to get better on defense, and in the NFC South they had to find an upgrade on their pass defense. Adding Keenan Lewis vastly improves their secondary, and gives New Orleans some much-needed size in their unit. Like Chris Gamble, Lewis isn't a guy who leaps off the screen with eye-popping plays, but he's extremely effective.
While the Falcons over-paid to retain their left tackle, the Saints didn't commit enough. Jermon Bushrod is gone to Chicago, and finally gives Jay Cutler some protection. As good as Drew Brees is, the protection he's had in New Orleans has been vastly underrated. Losing Bushrod will hurt a lot if they're unable to find a replacement through the draft. The offense is still extremely talented, but it's a big gamble.
Best move: Signing Tom Crabtree from Green Bay
Worst move: Letting Michael Bennett leave
The flashiest move the Bucs made was nabbing Dashon Goldson from San Francisco. While he's their most talented pickup by far, the contract makes it prohibitive to say it was a great move. Picking up Tom Crabtree, however, was a extremely smart move that flew under the radar and has big potential. Unable to find regular snaps for the Packers, they were comfortable letting him go. What he represents is big play potential on a team with a lot of deep threats. He should slot in perfectly between Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams -- now if they can only find someone to get them the ball.
Perhaps letting Michael Bennett leave will look smart in ten months, but right now it looks short-sighted. Word out of Tampa is that the Bucccaneers want to give Da'Quan Bowers more reps, and a chance to start across from Adrian Clayborn. In letting Bennett go they essentially lost six sacks from their pass rush, for hope that Bowers can be a three-down defensive end. It's a big risk, especially given how little money Bennett got in Seattle. It seems overpaying Goldson was a bad move in light of losing their most productive pass rusher.