Free-agency grades for all four NFC South teams

Analyst Matt Claassen assigns free-agency grades to the Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers, and Panthers.

| 7 months ago
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Free-agency grades for all four NFC South teams

With the initial fury of NFL free agency beginning to quiet down, the PFF staff is taking a look at how each team fared through the first few weeks. Signings, re-signings, players lost to other franchises, and the dollar amounts for each of these transactions have been taken into account when assigning a grade (“A” through “F”).

PFF will be rolling out grades for every team by division throughout this entire week, with the NFC South and AFC South debuting today.

Atlanta Falcons

Grade: B+

Key retentions: RT Ryan Schraeder, DT/DE Adrian Clayborn

Key additions: C Alex Mack, DE Derrick Shelby, WR Mohamed Sanu

Key losses: DT Paul Soliai, DE O’Brien Schofield, DE Kroy Biermann, G Chris Chester, WR Roddy White

The Falcons still need to sign restricted free agent Ryan Schraeder to a long-term deal, but it looks as if the second-round tender is keeping other teams away. Schraeder’s growth was an important piece in Atlanta’s improvement along the offensive line, and he turned in the second-highest overall grade among right tackles last season.

While the line was much better in 2015, center was the weakest link, and Atlanta certainly addressed that need by signing Alex Mack. He did not play as well last season after returning from injury, but if he can regain his prior form, then the Falcons might have a top-five offensive line. Even at his worst, Mack is still a significant upgrade for Atlanta.

Olivier Vernon was the most talked about free agent coming out of Miami, but Derrick Shelby also put together an impressive season as he benefitted from more playing time. Shelby’s pass-rushing production should be an upgrade from Kroy Biermann and O’Brien Schofield, while also still being a very good against the run.

Losing Roddy White shouldn’t matter much in terms of production, as White has been among the bottom-ranked receivers the last two years. Mohamed Sanu might not be the receiver they should have signed if they wanted to improve at the position, though, particularly for the $7 million average over the first two years of the deal. Sanu’s 53.5 overall grade ranked 101st out of 121 qualifying wide receivers last year.

Carolina Panthers

Grade: B

Key retentions: CB Josh Norman, ED Charles Johnson, FB Mike Tolbert, RT Mike Remmers

Key additions: DI Paul Soliai, C Gino Gradkowski

Key losses:  ED Jared Allen (Retired), WR Jerricho Cotchery, P Brad Nortman

The NFC champions lacked any major signings from outside the team, with defensive tackle Paul Soliai as the biggest one. Soliai should fit well into their defensive line rotation behind Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. The Panthers’ best moves were being able to keep their own two top free agents. They have yet to lock up Josh Norman to a long-term deal, but keeping him was a must. Carolina was also able to re-sign Charles Johnson after cutting him prior to free agency due to his large cap hit. More impressively, they were able to sign him to a very team-friendly deal, even if it is just a one-year contract.

Jared Allen’s retirement is a loss, but if Kony Ealy continues to improve and Mario Addison is given more playing time, then they should be able to replace Allen’s production with relative ease. Cotchery had a poor showing in the Super Bowl, but he was the Panthers’ highest-graded wide receiver last year. Brad Nortman’s signing with Jacksonville means Carolina will need to find a new punter. Nortman was only the 20th-ranked punter last year, but it can be a difficult position to address with so many rugby-style punters in college these days.

New Orleans Saints

Grade: C-

Key retentions: CB Kyle Wilson, G Tim Lelito

Key additions: TE Coby Fleener, LB James Laurinaitis, LB Nathan Stupar

Key losses: WR Marques Colston, TE Ben Watson, CB Brandon Browner, HB Khiry Robinson, G Jahri Evans

Up against the salary cap, the Saints were forced to move on from a few players, including starters Marques Colston and Jahri Evans. They also moved on from Brandon Browner, but after his penalty-riddled season that left him by far the lowest-graded corner in nine years of PFF grading, his absence could be seen as addition by subtraction.

After getting a very productive season out of Ben Watson, the Saints decided to go younger by signing Coby Fleener. Fleener should be able to at least replicate Watson’s production, if not exceed. However, even in his best season with Andrew Luck, Fleener’s receiving grade was nearly equal to Watson’s last year with Drew Brees. At over $7 million per year, it seems like an overspend for a team up against the cap and has needs all over the defense.

The Saints did attempt to address the linebacker position with the James Laurinaitis and Nathan Stupar signings. Laurinaitis is a well-known player, but he has graded above-average just once in his seven seasons, has always struggled in run defense, and is coming off his first negatively-graded season in coverage. His overall grade ranked 59th out of 60 inside linebackers last year, while he ranked last in run defense. Stupar has played just 271 career snaps, most coming in 2015, but he did earn positive grades in coverage and as a pass-rusher.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Grade: B-

Key retentions: HB Doug Martin, S Chris Conte

Key additions: ED Robert Ayers, G J.R. Sweezy, LB Daryl Smith, CB Brent Grimes, CB Josh Robinson

Key losses: G Logan Mankins (retired), LB Bruce Carter, LB Danny Lansanah

Tampa Bay lost their best offensive lineman through Logan Mankins’ retirement, which prompted the team to sign J.R. Sweezy. Sweezy is capable of making some really impressive blocks in the run game, but he’s far too inconsistent over the course of a game and season. He’s never earned a positive overall grade in four seasons, and ranked 69th out of 82 guards last year (Mankins ranked 16th). At the very least, his $6.5 million average per year—which makes him the ninth-highest paid guard—was far too much for a player of his caliber, particularly with a strong free-agent class of guards.

In addition to Sweezy, the Buccaneers signed a few other veteran players. Robert Ayers should be an immediate boost to their pass-rush, while Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes were low-risk signings to boost the back seven. Ayers’ had the eighth- and ninth-best pass-rushing grades among edge defenders last two seasons, respectively. Prior to last season, Smith was consistently a very good linebacker, but his performance declined in 2015. Was it a down-year, or is Father Time catching up with the 35-year-old? Grimes’ production hasn’t been near what it was a couple seasons ago, but he’s still been an average cover corner the last two years who can also play well against the run.


More team free-agency grades by division:

– AFC East

– NFC East

– AFC North

– NFC North

– AFC South

– AFC West

– NFC West

| Analyst

Matt has been an analyst for PFF since 2013. He is also a contributor to 120 Sports and a former NCAA Division-III football player.

  • Sam TMZ Admin

    Can someone let me know when the Bucs resigned Sterling Moore?

    • Nat

      Widely reported that this isn’t going to happen. Mum on details, but news sources seem pretty convinced he will not be resigned.

  • Adam Fogarty

    Sweezy is going to bust in Tampa Bay, it seems like this happens every year for them it’s like they don’t do their research……….Derrick Shelby will be one of the biggest steals if the off season mark my words

  • Panthers/Truth

    I’m shocked that some team hasn’t signed RT Ryan Schraeder to an offer sheet yet. With only around $9.5 million in salary cap room left, but needing around $5-6 million to sign their draft picks, and the remaining $3.5-4.5 million to sign replacements for injured players during the season, the Falcons can’t afford to match an offer sheet for Schraeder. Further limiting the Falcons ability to match his offer sheet, they have already used their ability to cut a player with a post June 1st designation (NT Paul Soliai). Schraeder’s 2nd round tender only carries a $2.55 million price tag, which is almost 5 times what his rookie contract paid last season. He’s worth around 3 to 4 times that much, and a 4-5 year contract.

    The Titans would be a perfect landing place for Schraeder. The Titans already have a LT in place (Tyler Lewan), a good young QB (Marcus Mariota), a quality starting RB (DeMarco Murray), and lots of salary cap room (they are still under the salary cap minimum). Schraeder is a sure thing, the top pass blocking RT in the NFL (the Titans led the NFL in sacks allowed in 2015), while drafting Laremy Tunsil at #1 carries some risk (over the last 5 or 6 years, more top 10 pick OT’s have failed than succeeded).

    The Panthers would also be a great landing spot for Schraeder. Their RT Remmers was destroyed in the Super Bowl, by the Broncos pass rush, so Schraeder would be a vast improvement. It would also be a 2 for the Panthers, helping them, while hurting their Division rival Falcons. Schraeder is well worth a 2nd round pick.

    • JudoPrince

      The Panthers still have over 14 million in cap space to spend even after you account tor their projected draft signings. They will have plenty of room for signing productive players who will eventually be cut by other teams if they choose. Great positioning for this team.

  • Dean H

    I would add Mike Hooomanawanui to your Key Retentions section for the Saints.

    I’d also add Craig Robertson (who you guys had rated as the 5th-best LB in the NFL in 2015: and Nick Fairley

    Obviously we can’t say anything for sure until the season plays out, but I don’t think a C- is right here. We need to see how the Brees extension shakes out before we can call it a successful offseason but here’s how I look at it:

    Offense: We lost some beloved veteran players (Colston, Watson, Evans) but Colston and Evans were not worth the price tag this late in their careers. Watson had an incredible run last year, but how long can he keep it up? Fleener has the potential to be even better and we have him locked up for a while. We got Hooman back on a cheap deal. Robinson was not going to get the money he could get elsewhere in a crowded position group. Also worth noting that we re-signed backup QB Luke McCown and potential starting RG Senio Kelemete.

    Defense: We cut Browner which needed to happen, and there is the issue of dead money, but that’s an issue of last year’s FA, not this year’s. We have some young, raw talent on defense and added some key veterans to help make a more cohesive unit (Laurinaitis, Stupar). On top of that we got two guys in Robertson and Fairley that I see as two of the more under-appreciated contributors in this FA period. We also managed to work out a pay cut with Dannell Ellerbe and re-signed backup Safety Jamarca Sanford.

    Special Teams: We also added Josh Scobee and retained Kai Forbath which should make for an interesting training camp position battle.

    Not necessarily a splashy offseason, but I think we made a lot of progress considering our lack of cap space.

  • William Berry

    Grades don’t matter they haven’t played yet!