This have become one of the most competitive divisions in the entire NFL. The last two seasons both the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have made the postseason. During that span the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010) and Carolina Panthers (2011) have created quite the roadblock for the two perennial powers.
While Tampa Bay plummeted back down to earth last season, Carolina appears to be on the upswing in a major way with the addition of Cam Newton and emergence of some of their young nucleus.
Needless to say, the Saints and Falcons remain the class of the division. Now both of them are looking to take that next step to, or in New Orleans case "back to," contention in the conference. Meanwhile, Carolina and Tampa Bay look to challenge for one of the two top spots in the division. This means that we are bound to see plenty of player movement in the NFC South this off-season. Today's article is going to focus on players that could find themselves out of a job in this ultra-competitive division come March.
New Orleans Saints
DE- Will Smith: $9.8 million cap figure
The Saints need to get that defensive end that can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Their blitz filled scheme was exposed a great deal during the 2011 season and I fully expect them to attempt to upgrade along the front seven.
This is going to be hard to do considering that the Saints are up against the salary cap and have three vital free agents: Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Carl Nicks. While it is going to be nearly impossible for them to retain all three with either Colston or Nicks being the odd-man out. With that said, they need to cut the fat somewhere in order to upgrade at other positions of need.
Smith clearly took a turn for the worst over the course of the last couple seasons and doesn't provide the added punch they need from the 4-3 defensive end position. The question here will be whether or not their are substantial upgrades in the free agent market. Keep in mind, New Orleans does not have a first round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
CB- Dunta Robinson: $7.8 million cap figure
Brent Grimes, Curtis Lofton and John Abraham are all set to become free agents. The Falcons front office has already indicated that they are looking more at upgrading both the defensive and offensive lines, which might spell doom for their chances of retaining Grimes.
Then you have this. Could they be forced into choosing between Grimes and Dunta Robinson? To me it makes perfect sense to let Robinson go and move forward with the younger corner that has been more consistent over the course of the last two seasons. Robinson's $7.8 million cap figure would cover what the Falcons would be forced to pay Robinson. Additionally, they would be saving $32 million in the three years following 2012 by releasing the mediocre starting corner.
FB- Ovie Mughelli: $3.3 million cap figure
Fullback has taken on less and less importance in the NFL if your name isn't Jim Harbaugh, who consistently used three backs sets in 2011. The Atlanta Falcons are not different than 30 other teams in the NFL outside of the bay. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to pay your lead blocker over $3 million when their are so many other issues to address on your roster.
This isn't to say that Ovie Mughelli isn't a good player, he is. Its all about finding the right personnel for your team and scheme. Consequently, the Falcons have Jason Snelling who acts as a hybrid running back and fullback type.
OT- Sam Baker: $2.0 million cap figure
The former first round pick is as good as gone in Atlanta. Sam Baker lost his job in 2011, struggles with back injuries and have been nothing less than a bust in the NFL. Atlanta sorely needs to have solid offensive tackles in order to protect their franchise quarterback, Matt Ryan. Look for them to part ways with Baker in short order.
CB- Chris Gamble: $9.8 million cap figure
This contract escalates all the way up to $11.9 million in 2014. That is going to work for a team that needs to upgrade at the corner position. Gamble is nothing more than a mediocre starting corner at this point. There is no logical way to believe deserves to count nearly $10 million against the Panthers 2012 salary cap.
He has struggled in man coverage, consistently gets beat on the outside and probably isn't much better than a nickel corner t this point. If you look at all the good teams in the NFL, upon which Carolina strives to be one, they don't have completely out of whack contracts. Gamble's contract is just that.
LB- Thomas Davis: $11.9 million cap figure
I am pretty sure that most Panthers fans cringed when they gave Davis a long term contract during last off-season, especially following injury issues that plagued him in 2010. Well, it didn't get any better last season either. Davis played a total of two games, once again succumbing to the injury bug. You simply cannot pay a player to sit on the bench in street clothes and hope to contend with the best teams in the league, it just wont work. Expect them to hesitantly cut ties with Davis in before his huge roster bonus is due.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Note: Already announced the release of DT- Albert Haynesworth.
C- Jeff Faine: $7.9 million cap figure
You simply cannot pay a starting center nearly $8 million dollars and hope to run a tight ship on the 53 man roster, finance wise. Tampa Bay has a sleuth of salary cap room this off-season, but that doesn't mean that they should retain Jeff Faine at this absurd cap figure. Instead, you can expect them to look to restructure his contract or look externally for a replacement. After all, there are numerous above-average centers in both free agency and the draft.