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A division in flux offers the Panthers some hope

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers woke up Wednesday morning with the same weeds in their lawn they had the day before.

The difference is, the neighbors' grass is a little patchier than it was yesterday. And even if they're not in a great spot, that at least offers a bit more hope than the day before — as long as they handle their own business correctly.

The sudden departure of head coach Sean Payton Tuesday was a big blow to the Saints, but just the latest one. They had a stack of problems taller than him before they became the ninth head coaching vacancy in the league.

The biggest and most obvious is the fact they're more than $70 million over the league's projected $208.2 million salary cap for 2022, meaning they're going to have to hack away at the roster with a machete before they can start adding parts this offseason. Being that far over the limit is nothing new for them (they carved over $100 million off the books last year), but it's not a game you can play forever.

That debt is partly the result of having a talented roster full of players who deserve the money, but also their own conscious decisions in handling the cap over the years.

When they were building around Drew Brees during the final years of his Hall of Fame career, the Saints played a game of kick-the-can with the salary cap, willing to create future problems in order to maximize their chance to win at that moment.

It worked, as they won 49 games in the four seasons from 2017 to 2020, creating one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

Now, the bills have come due. They can still create cap room while performing shell-game restructures with top players including right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, but you can only run up the credit cards for so long. They also have a Michael Thomas problem, as their top receiver didn't play a game last year because of an ankle injury, creating visible strain between him and the team. He also carries their second-biggest cap hit into next season ($24.7 million), adding another layer of tension.

And oh, by the way, Brees isn't there to save them anymore. And neither is any other quarterback.

The immediate complication for the Saints right now is they have no answer at the most important position on the roster. Jameis Winston was supposed to keep them afloat, but when he got hurt, they were adrift, starting four different quarterbacks over the course of last season.

They were still able to be a vaguely competitive 9-8, and that's largely a testament to Payton. He walked away with a 152-89 record (.631 winning percentage, fifth-highest among active coaches). He was also a particular torment to the Panthers, going 18-13 against them all-time and 9-2 the last five seasons (including the painful 2017 sweep, which included the Panthers' last playoff appearance).

Now, Payton's gone. And even if they stay in-house and promote defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, the road looks like a bumpy one for them. They also have a long list of free agents — beginning with left tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams — but you wonder if they're facing an inevitable reset.

And the Saints aren't the only ones in the NFC South with problems, or at least potential problems.

The Buccaneers are still very good, with 44-year-old Tom Brady playing the same excellent and efficient football he has the last 20 years.

With uncertainty about his future, though, there are a few cracks in the foundation in Tampa as well.

Prior to his final dramatic push in last Sunday's loss to the Rams, the Bucs were beginning to look a little weathered. Brady has the ability to plaster over all those cracks, and there's nothing about his play that suggests they wouldn't be a contender as long as he's under center. But his recent talk about the time football takes away from his family makes him sound like a guy who wants to retire but isn't ready to push the button just quite yet.

And that leaves the Bucs in a tricky spot, because if he's not there, the offseason outlook is considerably different.

Many of those veteran rentals they brought in on short-term contracts are up, and it's hard to imagine tight end Rob Gronkowski hanging around if Brady doesn't. They franchised wide receiver Chris Godwin to keep him in 2021, but now he leads a long list of free agents, including center Ryan Jensen, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

If Brady walks and the Bucs replace him with another future Hall of Fame quarterback, they should still be one of the top teams in the NFC. They still have one of the best offensive lines in the league, and talent any passer would enjoy (Mike Evans, still very good at football). But the next couple of months will be tenuous.

As for the Falcons, they showed some progress under first-year coach Arthur Smith last year, but they're also in a funny spot.

They're also over the salary cap, but only by a little ($3 million or so, spare change in the relative sense). It's a team with some interesting young parts (such as emerging cornerback A.J. Terrell and tight end Kyle Pitts), but it's a team built around an aging and expensive quarterback whose best offensive weapon is a hybrid runner-receiver. The fact that the 36-year-old Matt Ryan's scheduled to have the league's highest cap number next year ($48.7 million) and Cordarrelle Patterson's entering free agency after an 1,166-yard, 11-touchdown season makes the math a little complicated in Atlanta.

Again, none of this exercise in schadenfreude matters for the Panthers if they don't get their own stuff together in a neat little pile.

They also lack a long-term answer at quarterback, or a sufficiently funded offensive line. They have big free agent decisions of their own (Haason Reddick, Donte Jackson, Stephon Gilmore), and they're short of a full cabinet of draft picks after last year's trades for Sam Darnold and CJ Henderson — leaving them with just one of the top 125 or so picks this year (the gap between their own first, and the Rams' fourth).

That first one's still sixth overall, and offers the chance to add a significant part — a left tackle, a quarterback, or another impact player — or the opportunity to trade.

So if they want to compete in a suddenly more competitive division, they can't afford many missteps, and they can't afford much bad luck (like their best offensive player Christian McCaffrey getting hurt again). Things will still have to break their way on a number of fronts.

But the division is down. The conference as a whole is, really. Most of the top young quarterbacks live in the AFC, leaving the NFC in the hands of the mercenaries like the Rams, along with good teams with quarterback questions of their own. The 49ers are caught between the Jimmy Garoppolo present and the Trey Lance future. The Packers are not immune to the whims of Aaron Rodgers. The Seahawks may or may not have a Russell Wilson problem. The Vikings could choose to rebuild without Kirk Cousins. The Cardinals and Kyler Murray showed some alarming front-runner tendencies. The NFC East might be as messy as the South, though Dak Prescott still leads one of the most talented offenses in the league, even if the Cowboys make weird decisions at weird times.

The Panthers certainly have problems of their own — a lot of them.

But so do the rest of the houses in the neighborhood, which makes winning yard of the month a slightly more attainable goal than it was.

View select photos from the Panthers secondary in 2021, including Jeremy Chinn, Stephon Gilmore, Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and others.

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