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NFC South makes free agency splash, except Panthers

By Jonathan Jones
jjones@charlotteobserver.com
0PTKU1B
Rick Havner - AP
In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd (31) returns an interception against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C. Byrd likes to remind his father, former Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd, that he'll one day have more interceptions as an NFL player. Jairus never mentioned he'd try to do it all in one season. (AP Photo/Rick Havner)

If you’re a Panthers fan, Tuesday was a day where seemingly everyone in the NFC South got better and Carolina stayed the same.

New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay all made headlines for their multi-million dollar contracts to multiple free agents while the biggest news out of Charlotte was the non-event regarding Steve Smith, the loss of a starting safety and the retirement of two more offensive linemen.

A “cap-challenged” Carolina squad didn’t make any splashes on the first day of free agency in the 2014 NFL league year. And though it’s difficult to grade or project signings around the division, it appears all three teams upgraded.

In New Orleans, the Saints found money in the mattress for safety Jairus Byrd, the top safety on the market. The Saints, who weren’t believed to be players in splash free agency due to their cap woes, gave Byrd a six-year, $54 million contract to anchor the defensive backfield along with emerging young safety Kenny Vaccaro.

But a closer look at the Saints shows the team lost Malcolm Jenkins in free agency (Philadelphia) and allowed Roman Harper to walk, as well. The team is also trying to trade Darren Sproles, an explosive and versatile running back/returner whose best days, the Saints are betting on, are behind him. They also let receiver Lance Moore walk and offensive tackle Zach Strief is testing the free-agent waters. All of this coming after the team tagged tight end Jimmy Graham for this season.

Atlanta re-signed defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to a three-year deal while picking up fellow defensive tackle Paul Soliai for a five-year, $33 million deal and defensive end Tyson Jackson for five years and $25 million.

The team also re-signed its center while adding offensive guard Jon Asamoah to what was last year one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Falcons will also have a healthy Julio Jones back next season, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff—one of the most respected GMs when it comes to the draft—has the No. 6 selection in May’s draft. Of course, they still have a hole to fill with the retirement of Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Finally, in Tampa, where a coaching staff change to Lovie Smith immediately made the Bucs a contender, the Bucs signed cornerback Alterraun Verner to a $25.5 million deal, according to reports. The signing strengthens an already-strong secondary, but it also signals the end of Darrelle Revis in Tampa.

The team also signed defensive end Michael Johnson to a reported five-year, $43 million deal while also nabbing defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and tight end Brandon Myers. Smith still isn’t saying Mike Glennon is the quarterback of the future for the Bucs, though, and the team may draft a quarterback with the No. 7 pick.

All of this, and crickets from the Panthers. Just like last year when the team didn’t sign a free agent until Day Three in cornerback Drayton Florence.

It’s not a mistake that Dave Gettleman is waiting for the market to settle down before he hops in. With about $7 million in cap space and holes to fill in the wide receiving corps and the offensive line, Gettleman will likely target those areas in the coming days while bargain shopping.

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