greg hardy2

Winter has arrived, and for two of the four teams in the NFC South it came with salary cap fury.

Carolina Panthers

Estimated cap room: $7.2 million

Draft slot: 28th

End game: Late last week when the league officially jacked the salary cap up by 10 million bones to $133 million, you heard a sound. It was Panthers general manager David Gettleman firing any weapon he could get his hands on before playing “Dust in the wind” on a recorder. He’s a strange man.

He’s also a man who still has one helluva job ahead.¬†Before the cap increase Gettleman was right up against that sacred barrier after having to slap Greg Hardy with the franchise tag and commit $13.1 million to him. But even with some of that pain alleviated there will be a massive shift ahead, one which will make it mighty difficult for the Panthers to repeat their 2013 success when they appeared in the playoffs for the first time in five years. To do that, they’ll have to keep relying on an uber-dominant front seven to keep hiding the nothingness in the secondary. And you know, that might not actually be the worst plan.

With the minimal funds above available the Panthers have to deal with the reality that pretty much every wide receiver on their roster not named Steve Smith has an expiring contract, which is only a slight exaggeration. Of the four wide receivers who caught a pass from Cam Newton this past season, three of them could be gone, and that includes Ted Ginn, Domenick Hixon, and Brandon LaFell. Only Ginn has intrigued there with his speed after the catch and return ability, but the problem of receiving depth still looms for a team that didn’t have much of that to begin with.

Oh and hey, the Panthers also have three defensive backs set to reach free agency, including top cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. The good feelings from 2013 could quickly turn to tears in 2014, and in May Gettleman would surely like to fight that by taking the best player available at either corner or wide receiver with his first-round pick. However, the value might not be right if he isn’t high on Kelvin Benjamin, though late in the first round should be a fine time to grab a tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross. A popular mock target so far has been Cyrus Kouandjio.

Atlanta Falcons

Estimated cap room: $25.1 million

Draft slot: 6th

End game: In a world where everything is perfectly beautiful and peachy, enough character lunacy would bounce around to let Jadeveon Clowney stumble just outside of the top five, and to a Falcons defense desperately in need of a major pass rushing presence. Of course, that’s stupid talk, because Clowney getting out of even the top three won’t happen, and he could even be the first overall pick.

Clowney being a Falcons employee to fix a pass rush that crumbled a quarterback only 32 times in 2013 (29th) is still entirely possible, but it will require trading up a few slots. Please recall that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff orchestrated the massive jump up to grab Julio Jones, so draft aggression is very much his friend.

But whether it’s through the draft or free agency, the Falcons need to emerge from this offseason with a drastically improved pass rush. If he chooses the latter path because mortgaging future picks for Clowney isn’t appealing, there’s plenty of green to work with¬†after Asante Samuel was catapulted out of town (and Thomas DeCoud will soon follow). Expect the Falcons to be players in the Michael Johnson market, and they’ll have their hands on Michael Bennett too.

Another area of concern that needs to be addressed is an offensive line that gave up 44 sacks, which is why either Jake Mathews or Greg Robinson could/should be firmly in Dimirtroff’s crosshairs at No. 6. Lastly, there’s also a black hole at tight end now with Tony Gonzalez gone, and the free agent market at that position offers little. The Falcons’ first-round pick is too early for Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro, leaving Austin Seferian-Jenkins atop the wishlist on Day 2.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Estimated cap room: $18.8 million

Draft slot: 7th

End game: Away from the field, the Buccaneers’ 2013 demise can be traced back to two demons: one locker room disease that was figurative (Greg Schiano), and another that was literal (MRSA). The latter was an unfortunate incident, and I suppose the former was too, though it could have been prevented by never considering Schiano as a head coaching candidate two years ago.

Now Tampa enters this offseason with new life and optimism on the sideline in the form of Lovie Smith, but on the field two central problems remain: the question of whether or not Mike Glennon can really be the man be the man be the mannnnn (sorry), and regardless of who’s under center, the quarterback needs to be kept upright.

The Bucs gave up 47 sacks this past season, a hurt that wasn’t helped by the rookie quarterback factor, and the damage was furthered by the absence of Carl Nicks. That’s where the sadness truly begins here, as although he’s resumed light workouts, Nicks is still experiencing pain from nerve damage and similar symptoms to the foot injury which kept him out for all but seven games in 2012. Although he’s overcome his MRSA scare, that may have aggravated his foot problem, but regardless of the cause the outlook still seems dire. At the Combine Smith was non-committal when asked about Nicks being ready for training camp (“I think that’s still up in the air“), and starting in late December there’s been persistent whispers about his career being over at the still ripe age of 28.

You’re seeing the unfortunate end here. The Bucs are still waiting and hoping right now, but inevitably Nicks will be released, and then a cheap to moderately priced guard can be found in free agency. I’m looking at you, Zane Beadles.

But there are problems offensively beyond Nicks and keeping Glennon upright, problems that go back to the lack of support for a young quarterback. Leading that list is the desperate need for more capable hands to catch footballs. A few more, actually, as of the 514 throws attempted by Glennon/Josh Freeman this past season, 159 of them were directed at Vincent Jackson (30.1 percent, which includes nine double-digit target games, and one with 22). Jackson finished the season with 1,224 receiving yards, and that was in a different stratosphere than the next best receiver on the depth chart (Tim Wright with 571).

With their seventh overall pick Tampa will be in a prime position to draft the blazing Sammy Watkins, this year’s top wideout. They’ll gladly call his name, and then look for another set of capable hands attached to a tight end in the second round. And about Glennon: there’s still a lot of shoulder shrugging going on regarding his future, and competition could be sought this offseason through a veteran who may be aging, but is fully capable of pushing for a starting role. I believe I just described Michael Vick.

New Orleans Saints

Estimated cap room: $1.6 million

Draft slot: 27th

End game: And we arrive once again at the problem with having a really good quarterback in today’s NFL. Oh, it’s not a problem when you’re winning games, and enough of them to advance to the playoffs, win a playoff game, and contend for the Super Bowl. But paying Drew Brees an average of $20 million annually is a mighty hefty anchor (specifically, he’s set to account for $18.4 million this year, though Brees has said he’s willing to restructure) .

It’s a number he fully deserves, and it’s a number that’s been dictated by the market. But the reality is that free agent additions of note can become difficult, which is why given their minimal cap room the Saints will remain quiet this year. They began the offseason in a cap hole of death and about $12 million over before voting some veterans off the island (now former defensive anchors Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, and Roman Harper), and their priority will be signing Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract to lower his cap hit after he was franchised.

During the draft safety help is needed, but the Saints likely won’t be in position to pursue that in the first round. Instead they could find an elite pass rushing partner for Cameron Jordan to crank a vastly improved defense a few notches further, and with a late first-round pick New Orleans is right in Dee Ford’s wheelhouse.