The past two NFC champions have come from the South Division, the Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.
Tampa Bay and New Orleans have been active in free agency trying to catch the Falcons, and the Panthers are trying to revive their operation after dipping from 15-1 in 2015 to last place at 6-10 in 2016.
With free agency basically over and the teams now pointing squarely toward the draft, here’s a look around the division:
Falcons (11-5). Coach Dan Quinn and his staff, which includes first-year NFL coordinators in Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel, have an improvement plan in place after basically re-signing the players they wanted to keep and adding defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency.
“(We want each player to) get better at one or two things,” Quinn said. “Not 10 things.”
The players will hold their own camp again in Florida before reporting April 17 for the strength-and-conditioning program. If each player can makes strides, the entire team’s boat will get a lift.
“Collectively, we’ll be that much better,” Quinn said. “The team that is going to sit in that meeting room for the first time is going to be significantly farther along than the one at this time last year.
“So, how do we get better? How do we climb to the next level? When your intent is about the growth and the learning and you trust in the process that you go through, you’re on the right course.”
Quinn was impressed with how cornerback Jalen Collins came back from a suspension and became a major contributor last season, and with Desmond Trufant and Collins, the Falcons can revisit last offseason’s plan to move Robert Alford to nickel back. They had to ditch that plan after Collins was suspended for four games for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Quinn also said that Brian Poole, last season’s nickel back, will get some work at free safety.
“We’ll let them battle,” Quinn said. “As much nickel as we play, with his speed and length, we’ll find our spot.”
And what about Alford inside?
“That’s definitely stuff that we’re going to look at to see how best to feature the guys,” Quinn said.
Offensively, Chris Chester must be replaced at right guard and wide receiver Julio Jones left foot must heal properly.
“I’m good,” Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The foot’s good. I’m two weeks out now, I think, but it’s good. … My thing right now is recovery.”
Tampa Bay (9-7). Of the division teams, the Bucs made the biggest splash in free agency with the signing of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Chris Baker and former Georgia Southern safety J.J. Wilcox, who played with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bucs also re-signed defensive end William Gholston, running back Jacquizz Rodgers and safety Chris Conte.
Tampa Bay hopes to make a stronger playoff push in 2017.
“We made a lot of progress last year, and that will be our goal again going into the season,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “Again, goals change a little bit as the season goes, but that’s our goal.”
The Bucs know they have a keeper in linebacker Kwon Alexander, who’s set to enter his third season.
“Yeah, when you hear the pitch in our voice when we talk about (quarterback) Jameis (Winston), it’s no different with Kwon on that side,” Licht said. “He’s one of the hardest working guys on our team. He’s got a bright, bright future.”
The Bucs want Winston to continue to improve.
“What he’s done his first two years is pretty good,” Licht said. “Now, we just want more.”
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has a plan to get more from Winston, the former Heisman Trophy winner.
“You add to it,” Koetter said. “You definitely add to it. You don’t go back to ground zero.
“You build on what happened the previous season. After his first season, we built on his rookie year, and we will continue to do that going into his third year.
“I just think Jameis will continue to get better and better.”
New Orleans (7-9). The Saints are scouting for quarterback Drew Brees’ eventual successor. They have had private workouts with Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs (Alpharetta High) and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.
While the Saints signed former Detroit guard Larry Warford in free agency, they have focused on improving their defense.
They added linebackers coach Mike Nolan, linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o and defensive end Darryl Tapp.
They re-signed defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who had 6.5 sacks last season, and are in the hunt to add New England cornerback Malcolm Butler.
The Saints made one of the bigger moves in free agency by trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to New England for the 32 pick in the draft and a switch of mid-round picks.
The Saints tried to replace Cooks, who had back-to-back 1,100 yards seasons, by signing Ted Ginn Jr.
Carolina (6-10). The Panthers revealed this week that quarterback Cam Newton is set to have surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
The Panthers, who hold the eighth pick in the draft, must improve the offensive line. They project that Newton will be ready for training camp.
When Newton returns, the Panthers want to see some evolution in his play, and they may ditch some of his read-option runs.
“One thing we don’t want to do is overexpose our quarterback as a runner,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “So we have to look to change some of the things we do. Some of our philosophies obviously have to be a little bit different when it comes to running the football.”
The Panthers plan to rebound in 2017.
“With four picks in the top 98, we (have) a chance to get four really good players because this is a deep draft,” Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said.
The re-signing of Mario Addison, who had been a designated pass rusher, caught some around the league off-guard. He would have had several suitors had he reached free agency.
“He’s grown, his game has really grown,” Gettleman said. “He’s learned how to play the run. … Mario has really improved in that phase of his game. So he’s going to play more, plain and simple.”