NFL Free Agency Tracker: Players on the Radar of NFC South Teams
The NFC South was not as wide open in 2011 as it was the year before. Despite Cam Newton's early dominance, everyone knew the division title belonged to either the Atlanta Falcons or the New Orleans Saints.
This assumption proved true. Both teams made the playoffs only to be knocked off in disappointing fashion to set up the 2012-2013 season.
While the Falcons and Saints look primed to return to playoff form, the Panthers need to shove more coal into the Cam-Tram if they want to continue to improve. They are a few big offseason pickups away from being a threat for the division title.
Then there are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are still unsure how they went from 10-6 in 2010 to 4-12 in 211. They appear to be a few years removed from anything resembling competitive play.
This slideshow will highlight the free agent each NFC South team should target.
Atlanta Falcons: Mario Williams, DE
Mario Williams #90
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Last offseason, the Atlanta Falcons paid a heavy price to get Julio Jones. In 2012, they will focus on the defense.
The 33-year-old John Abraham is a free agent. They may cut ties with the four-time Pro Bowler, which would leave a huge hole on the defensive line.
They signed Ray Edwards to a 5-year, $30 million contract last offseason, hoping to be able to get more pressure on the quarterback. Instead, the Falcons finished 2011 with only 33 sacks, 3.5 of which belonged to Edwards.
Signing Mario Williams will give them the pass-rusher they need to beat Drew Brees and Cam Newton twice a year.
Williams will draw attention that will open things up for Edwards on the opposite side. This will enable Edwards to play as well as he did with the Minnesota Vikings when he teamed with Jared Allen.
Williams will be hungry to get in the backfield after missing most of the 2011 season with an injury. A 12-sack season from him is exactly what the Falcons need if they want to return to the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints: Jason Jones, DT
Jason Jones #91
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The New Orleans Saints' defense has never been dominant. In past years, they have relied on pressuring the quarterback to throw off the offense's rhythm.
Safety Roman Harper was the Saints leader in sacks last season with 7.5. This is unacceptable for a playoff team.
This offseason, Sean Payton and his staff should take a good look at Jason Jones.
In four seasons, the 6'5", 276-pound Jones has 15.5 sacks while playing both end and tackle. He is an every- down player who can bring offensive lineman to a standstill before beating them with a quick move to the quarterback.
Considering Jones is only 25 years old, his best days are likely ahead of him. He needs to add some muscle before he can call himself a true defensive tackle. But until then, the Saints' blitz-happy defense will benefit from having an athletic big man up front.
Carolina Panthers: Brandon Lloyd, WR
Brandon Lloyd #83
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Steve Smith has been the Carolina Panthers' lone reliable target since Muhsin Muhammad retired in 2009.
With a bevy of talented wide receivers to choose from in the NFL draft and free agency, it would be inexcusable for the Panthers to pass on a true No. 2 wideout.
Brandon Lloyd is an under-the-radar free agent Carolina should consider signing.
He does not excite with his athleticism or run-after-the-catch ability, but Lloyd is as steady as they come and knows how to get open.
In the last two seasons, Lloyd has 147 catches for 2,414 yards and 16 touchdowns. What is more impressive is that he was traded midway through the 2011 season from Denver to St. Louis and still managed to be productive.
This speaks to his ability to separate when running routes, something that Cam Newton needs in his second receiver.
Lloyd is also a deep threat. He has a smooth stride that masks his deep speed.
The combination of Smith and Lloyd will force the safeties to stay deep. That will open things up for Newton should he decide to take off with the ball, and only good things will come from that.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Tolbert, RB
Mike Tolbert #35
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a lot of work to do if they expect to compete in the NFC South next season.
LeGarrette Blount has been a pleasant surprise. In two seasons, the undrafted running back out of Oregon has a healthy 4.6-yard average, but lacks the speed to be a game-changer. He also is a liability as a pass-protector, which is disappointing given his tubby 6'0", 247-pound frame.
Tampa Bay should sign Mike Tolbert to be the foundation of its running game. Despite weighing nearly as much as Blount, the 5'9" bowling ball is incredibly versatile. He is not a home-run threat by any means, but he can be relied on to run, catch and block.
With Tolbert in their backfield, the Buccaneers can draft Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU) in the first round. Considering they may be without Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib next season, they will need an elite corner to go up against the three Pro-Bowl quarterbacks in their division.
In the later rounds, they can go after one of the scat-backs (Ronnie Hillman, LaMichael James or Chris Rainey) to add an explosive element to an otherwise heavy and plodding backfield.
Having a deep, talented and versatile group of running backs will be essential for the Buccaneers to get back on track in 2012.