Carolina Panthers

NFC South winners and losers? Panthers LB Thomas Davis says wait and see

Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, left, and head coach Dan Quinn (right) flank first-round draft pick Vic Beasley at the Falcons training facility on May 1. The Falcons’ offseason moves have been widely lauded around the league.
Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, left, and head coach Dan Quinn (right) flank first-round draft pick Vic Beasley at the Falcons training facility on May 1. The Falcons’ offseason moves have been widely lauded around the league. AP

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis has pretty much seen it all in 10 seasons in the NFL, including the annual lists of offseason “winners” and “losers.”

Davis regards such lists with the same disdain he shows when someone asks him when he’s going to retire.

A year ago the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the toast of the NFL’s offseason ball. The Bucs hired a new coach in Lovie Smith and acquired a number of big-name free agents, including quarterback Josh McCown, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson.

Of that group, only Smith remains, and plans for a Super Bowl parade have been put on hold.

Tampa Bay’s 2-14 finish in 2014 at least gave the Bucs the No. 1 pick, which they used to select quarterback Jameis Winston. But before they drafted Winston, the Bucs’ brass began the offseason by jettisoning several of last winter’s MVPs.

This year it’s the Falcons who have been crowned offseason kings of the NFC South. Like Tampa Bay last year, Atlanta brought in a defensive-minded coach to replace Mike Smith. Dan Quinn oversaw the league’s top defense the past two years in Seattle, but he is going from first to worst in taking over a unit that finished 32nd in 2014.

The Falcons signed several defensive players in free agency, including former Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn, and drafted ex-Clemson edge rusher Vic Beasley in the first round.

So they’ve become a popular pick as the NFC South’s biggest “winner.”

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, the only team to win the division in consecutive seasons has had a relatively quiet offseason.

Davis has heard this before.

“When you listen to a lot of people say who’s improved and who’s not improved, you don’t improve by adding players to your team,” Davis said last week. “You improve by going out there and doing what we did (Tuesday) – coming together as a group, working hard and learning the defense and learning the offense and learning how to play special teams.

“At the end of the day, when the season starts, we’ll find out who really got better.”

A look at what the NFC South teams have done during the offseason:

Carolina Panthers

Last season: 7-8-1.

2014 playoffs: Beat Arizona 27-16 in wild-card round; lost to Seattle 31-17 in divisional round.

offseason additions: OT Michael Oher (free agent signing); OT Jonathan Martin (claimed off waivers from San Francisco); WR Ted Ginn Jr. (free agent); WR Jarrett Boykin (free agent); RB Jordan Todman (free agent); CB Charles Tillman (unrestricted free agent); CB Teddy Williams (free agent); S Kurt Coleman (unrestricted free agent); LB Jason Trusnik (unrestricted free agent).

offseason departures: DE Greg Hardy (signed with Dallas); LB Chase Blackburn (not re-signed); CB James Dockery (signed with Oakland); RB DeAngelo Williams (released, signed with Pittsburgh); OT Byron Bell (signed with Tennessee); OT Garry Williams (not re-signed); OL Fernando Velasco (not re-signed).

Draft picks: LB Shaq Thompson (No. 25 overall); WR Devin Funchess (No. 41 overall); OT Daryl Williams (No. 102); LB David Mayo (No. 169); RB Cameron Artis-Payne (No. 174).

Comment: The Panthers wanted to get faster and improve their special teams. General manager Dave Gettleman checked both boxes when he brought Ted Ginn Jr. back a year after the return specialist left in free agency. Gettleman is putting a lot of faith in left tackle Michael Oher, hoping he can return to his Baltimore form after a disappointing, injury-plagued season in Tennessee. The Panthers targeted Florida tackle D.J. Humphries in the first round. But when Arizona took him one spot before the Panthers picked 25th, Gettleman grabbed Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson in a move most experts thought was a reach. Ron Rivera intends to use Thompson in blitz packages, which the Panthers will have to use more of after choosing not to sign an edge rusher to replace Greg Hardy.

New Orleans Saints

Last season: 7-9.

2014 playoffs: None.

offseason additions: RB C.J. Spiller, CB Brandon Browner, C Max Unger, LB Dannell Ellerbe.

offseason departures: TE Jimmy Graham, WR Kenny Stills, G Ben Grubbs, RB Pierre Thomas, LB Curtis Lofton.

Draft picks: OT Andrus Peat (No. 13 overall), LB Stephone Anthony (No. 31), DE Hau’oli Kikaha (No. 44), QB Garrett Grayson (No. 75), CB P.J. Williams (No. 78), LB Davis Tull (No. 148), DT Tyeler Davison (No. 154), CB Damian Swann (No. 167), RB Marcus Murphy (No. 230).

Comment: The Saints’ offseason began with the move heard round the league: the trade of Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to Seattle for center Max Unger and a first-round pick. Months later, trading away one of Drew Brees’ top playmakers in his prime still seems puzzling. If healthy, Spiller gives the Saints the home-run threat they lacked last season after trading Darren Sproles to Philadelphia. But defense has been New Orleans’ biggest issue. If the Saints struggle again, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might not last the season.

Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 6-10.

2014 playoffs: None.

offseason additions: DE Adrian Clayborn, LB Brooks Reed, LB Justin Durant, DE O’Brien Schofield, CB Phillip Adams, WR Leonard Hankerson, TE Jacob Tamme.

offseason departures: OLB Osi Umenyiora, LB Sean Weatherspoon, S Dwight Lowery, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR Harry Douglas.

Draft picks: OLB Vic Beasley (No. 8 overall), CB Jalen Collins (No. 42), RB Tevin Coleman (No. 73), WR Justin Hardy (No. 107), DT Grady Jarrett (No. 137), OT Jack Rodgers (No. 225), DB Akeem King (No. 249).

Comment: The Falcons signed what appeared to be a strong draft class. In addition to Beasley, Atlanta drafted a couple of players the Panthers either liked or visited with – Coleman, the Indiana running back, and Hardy, the NCAA’s receptions leader at East Carolina. The Falcons also addressed defensive needs by taking Collins, a big, physical cornerback, in the second round and picking up Jarrett, the fifth-rounder from Clemson and son of former Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. But Atlanta did little to improve an offensive line that has been victimized by speed rushers in recent years. Jake Matthews, the first-round pick in 2014, should be improved after being thrown into the fray at left tackle as a rookie.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last season: 2-14.

2014 playoffs: None.

offseason additions: LB Bruce Carter, DT Henry Melton, S Chris Conte, CB Sterling Moore.

offseason departures: S Dashon Goldson, LB Mason Foster, DE Michael Johnson, DE Adrian Clayborn, OT Anthony Collins.

Draft picks: QB Jameis Winston (No. 1 overall), OT Donovan Smith (No. 34), OL Ali Marpet (No. 61), LB Kwon Alexander (No. 124), WR Kenny Bell (No. 162), WR Kaelin Clay (No. 184), RB Joey Iosefa (No. 231).

Comment: Holding the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since taking Vinny Testaverde in 1987, the Bucs – Smith in particular – never wavered on Winston. Despite concerns about Winston’s maturity level in many league circles, Tampa Bay saw him as a transcendent player who can turn the franchise around. It doesn’t figure to happen overnight, although Winston has a couple of giant wideouts in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson to help ease his transition. Winston’s arrival should pump energy into a fanbase that watched the Bucs go winless at home in 2014 and lose all six of its division games.

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