2020 NFL free agency grades for NFC South: Buccaneers, Saints lead the way with blue-chip additions

The 2020 NFL free agency period proved to be incredibly important for the NFC South, not only because of the varied team circumstances -- one vying for a Super Bowl bid, another for a complete overhaul -- but because one of the biggest names to ever hit the open market ended up calling the division his new home.

We're speaking of Tom Brady, of course -- the longtime New England Patriots star who, yes, is actually set to start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.

Brady wasn't the only big mover in the South, though, with the Atlanta Falcons swapping out some familiar faces, the Carolina Panthers starting over with a new regime and the New Orleans Saints building around Drew Brees one last time.

As we review the NFC South's performance in 2020 free agency, here are grades for each of the division's four teams:

Atlanta Falcons

Notable additions: RB Todd Gurley (Rams), WR Laquon Treadwell (Vikings), TE Hayden Hurst (Ravens), OLB Dante Fowler Jr. (Rams)

Notable losses: RB Devonta Freeman, TE Austin Hooper (Browns), DE Adrian Clayborn, LB De'Vondre Campbell (Cardinals), OLB Vic Beasley (Titans), CB Desmond Trufant (Lions)

The Falcons' biggest addition of the offseason, at least in terms of compensation, was undeniably Hurst, who cost Atlanta second- and fifth-round draft picks (the Falcons also got a fourth-rounder back from Baltimore). And while the tight end is bound to "break out" after two quiet years with the Ravens, he's both older and far more of an unknown than Hooper, who cashed in elsewhere. Are we sure he and Treadwell combined will account for Hooper's 2019 production?

That said, Atlanta made a big upgrade at pass rusher by swapping former first-round busts; Fowler has all the tools and upside to be everything Beasley never was. Parting ways with aging, injured veterans like Freeman, Clayborn and Trufant raises some concerns about depth ahead of the draft, but they should be better for those farewells in the long run. Gurley, in particular, could be an absolute steal as Freeman's successor even if he isn't carrying the ball 25 times a game.

All in all, the Falcons made do considering their tight cap situation, but only Fowler stands out as a surefire good move.

Grade: C+

Carolina Panthers

Notable additions: QB Teddy Bridgewater (Saints), QB P.J. Walker (XFL), OT Russell Okung (Chargers), WR Robby Anderson (Jets), WR Seth Roberts (Ravens), DE Stephen Weatherly (Vikings), LB Tahir Whitehead (Raiders)

Notable losses: QB Cam Newton, QB Kyle Allen (Redskins), WR Chris Hogan, TE Greg Olsen (Seahawks), OG Trai Turner (Chargers), DE Mario Addison (Bills), DE Bruce Irvin (Seahawks), DT Dontari Poe (Cowboys), DT Vernon Butler (Bills), LB Luke Kuechly (retired), CB James Bradberry (Giants), S Eric Reid

To say the Panthers have been busy this offseason would be to sell them extremely short. Under new coach Matt Rhule, they've uprooted significant portions of the Carolina core with the draft still to come. No change was bigger, of course, than at quarterback, where the 30-year-old Newton was released following failed attempts to trade the rehabilitating former MVP. Swapping Walker in for Allen at backup QB is a spicy high-upside gamble appropriate for a team in rebuild mode, and there's no denying Bridgewater is an upgrade on a rusty Newton, but the question is: How much better is he, and how, if at all, is Carolina building around him?

In other words, it's hard to make out just what the Panthers are aiming for right now. Allowing older vets like Olsen and Poe to leave was fine and smart, but what called for Rhule to send Turner, a 26-year-old five-time Pro Bowler, to Los Angeles for a 31-year-old tackle coming off a serious illness? Not overpaying Bradberry is fine, but with Kuechly and three pass rushers accompanying him through the exit, Carolina isn't exactly saying, "We're trying to win now," by making Weatherly and Whitehead their replacements.

Bridgewater is a solid addition under center, and Rhule seems energetic enough to reignite this team, but in terms of just 2020 free agency, the bag was mixed.

Grade: C-

New Orleans Saints

Notable additions: WR Emmanuel Sanders (49ers), S Malcolm Jenkins (Eagles)

Notable losses: QB Teddy Bridgewater (Panthers), WR Ted Ginn Jr., LB A.J. Klein (Bills), CB Eli Apple (Raiders), S Vonn Bell (Bengals)

Bringing back Drew Brees was priority No. 1, and that happened, confirming their strategy for 2020: Championship or bust. And guess what? New Orleans couldn't have had a better offseason in preparation for another run.

You can make arguments about how Apple and Bell are sizable losses in the secondary, but reuniting with Jenkins is, like, a Saints fan's pipe dream come to life. Yes, the guy is 32 now, and he's not nearly as spry as he was during his peak Eagles seasons, but he instantly gives New Orleans' defense not only immense versatility but a boost of on- and off-field leadership. Sanders, on the other hand, is one of the game's savviest, most underrated veterans at WR, and it'll be stunning if he doesn't put up numbers opposite Michael Thomas in the Saints' ultra-efficient passing game.

They didn't do a ton, but they did it absolutely right.

Grade: A+

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Notable additions: QB Tom Brady (Patriots), OT Joe Haeg (Colts)

Notable losses: QB Jameis Winston, RB Peyton Barber (Redskins), WR Breshad Perriman (Jets), OT Demar Dotson, DT Beau Allen (Patriots), DE Carl Nassib (Raiders)

Brady may be 42, and he may never have played outside of the Patriots' system in 20 years of NFL experience, but his addition alone changes the entire trajectory of this franchise. Is he the one and only ingredient to an instant Tampa turnaround? No. But he's close. Even if Brady's best days are behind him, he's a perfect pairing for coach Bruce Arians, who should give the six-time champ an unprecedented amount of freedom in designing and executing an offense already loaded with two elite receivers. It's merely a bonus that Brady is a stone-cold lock for fewer turnovers than Winston, who was going to be a mercurial starter as long as he stuck around.

Losing Perriman is a minor shame considering the way he finished 2019, but it's important to remember the Buccaneers' free agency was also headlined by keeping two pristine pass rushers in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Like the Saints, they didn't overwhelm the transaction wire, but considering all the circumstances, the Buccaneers signing Tom Brady (just read that again, and think about it) ensured them a winning offseason.

Grade: A-

CBS Sports Writer

Cody Benjamin joined CBS Sports in 2017 after time spent with SB Nation, various newspapers and his own Eagles outlet. Raised around the Philly sports scene, he now lives in Minnesota with his wife and... Full Bio

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