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Carolina Panthers

Around the NFC South: Offseason plans


From finding a new owner to breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball to difficult decisions about pending free agents, the Panthers are poised for a season of significant change.

The good news? They're starting from a good place. That's important given that they're not alone in that regard in the NFC South.

The Panthers enter the offseason having qualified for the playoffs four of the past five seasons and will return the large majority of the core that has made them so successful. They'll spend the offseason trying to put themselves in the best possible position to continue the run of success in a division that just became the first in the NFC to claim three playoff spots since 2007.

Here's a look at some of the challenges facing Carolina's division foes this offseason.

SAINTS: The division winners are in a good spot heading into the offseason – assuming things pan out at quarterback as the Saints believe they will. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is set to become a free agent, but the 39-year-old has expressed his desire to remain in New Orleans. Backup Chase Daniel is also a potential free agent, so the Saints could look at the position in the draft.

The Saints would like to shore up their offensive line depth to presumptively protect Brees and could face an interesting choice at tight end, where Coby Fleener could be a cap casualty (by the way, former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is scheduled to hit free agency). On defense, New Orleans' young nucleus could use a boost to its pass rush to complement Cameron Jordan, and it will be interesting to see if the Saints opt to bring back pending free agent safety Kenny Vaccaro to a young but talented secondary.

FALCONS: Atlanta returned to the playoffs following its Super Bowl season in large measure because of a young, athletic defense. The biggest decisions on that side of the ball lie up front, with defensive end Adrian Clayborn (he of a six-sack game) and defensive tackle Dontari Poe are set to become free agents.

On offense, the Falcons' biggest offseason priority is extending quarterback Matt Ryan's contract beyond the 2018 season. He's helped the Falcons make the playoffs six times in his 10 seasons. Atlanta also could look for help protecting Ryan with a guard addition on the free agent market.

BUCCANEERS: Tampa will try to retool yet again with its NFC-long streak of seasons without a playoff appearance now at 10. The Buccaneers have talent on both sides of the ball but again couldn't put it all together. A starting point for change could come in the pass rush, where Tampa recorded an NFL-low 22 sacks. Help should come from Noah Spence – who had 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2016 but played in just six games before a shoulder injury sidelined him in 2017 – but more is needed. In the back end, veteran Brent Grimes is set to become a free agent and is approaching retirement age.

The offense has an impressive array of players at wide receiver and tight end but needs to improve up front and needs to figure out what will work at running back, where Doug Martin has been wildly inconsistent. And as much as anything – as is the case throughout the division – the caliber of play at quarterback will be key coming off a hit-and-miss (mostly miss) season for Jameis Winston.

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