In NFC South, expensive QBs mean defenses built on the cheap

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston throws for a short completion in the first quarter against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 11.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston throws for a short completion in the first quarter against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 11.
Published Oct. 9, 2016

TAMPA — Welcome to the NFC South, where high-flying offenses with $100 million quarterbacks raise goose bumps while their defenses offer all the resistance of speed bumps.

The division with arguably the best collection of quarterbacks in the league also has four of the five worst scoring defenses.

The Saints are marching in place in the gumbo muck, allowing 32.5 points per game, the most in the NFL.

The Bucs are just a smidge better (32 points) and 31st overall. The Falcons are 29th (31 points), bettered only by Carolina, which is a surprising 28th overall, allowing 29.5 points.

So when did this division become the Arena Football League? When big-armed passers shrank the field … and room under the salary cap for defensive stars. You know, players such as Falcons' Matt Ryan, Panthers' Cam Newton, Saints' Drew Brees and Bucs' Jameis Winston.

"Tell me a division with four quarterbacks that everybody would like to have," Falcons president Rich McKay said. "In my mind, top to bottom, the NFC South is as good as there is at quarterback. … Regardless of the shape of the team, they still have a chance to win every week."

So should we be surprised they play no D in Dixie? Not really.

The NFL is an allocation league. Even with the salary cap set at $155.27 million per team, you still have to make choices about whom to spend the money on.

Furthermore, when a franchise quarterback reaches a second contract eclipsing $100 million, well, there's less for the other side of the ball.

Not only that, but if you're lucky enough to find that piece to build your team around, the philosophy changes and the resources tend to go to the offensive side of the football.

"There's no doubt about it. The league is set up that way with the salary cap, and each team tries to build around what they feel is going to give them the best chance to win," said Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who drafted Ryan when he was head coach of the Falcons. "You only have so many dollars that you can spend, and you're going to allocate it.

"When you experience going out and getting a good player on one side or the other, you're going to try to build around that guy. We've got to do that. That's the one thing about the NFL, oftentimes the best 22 players don't stay on your team year to year. It's a little bit different in collegiate football. You've got guys that move on that you'd love to have on your football team, but they can't be on your football team because you can't afford them."

Let's start with the Falcons, who signed Ryan to a five-year, $103.75 million contract in 2013. His salary cap hit the next two years is $23.75 million per season.

The Falcons wanted to build around Ryan, the third overall pick from Boston College in 2008. Perhaps that's why, as he evolved as a dangerous passer, they used a package of five draft picks in 2011, including their first-, second- and fourth-round picks, to trade up with the Browns and select receiver Julio Jones sixth overall. They also dealt their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012.

Jones signed a new deal that pays him $9.5 million per season. Free agency, whether it's the signing of center Alex Mack or receiver Muhammad Sanu, has centered on the offense, perhaps at the expense of the defense.

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The Panthers' collapse is puzzling. A year ago they were sixth in the NFL in scoring defense and rode it and Newton to a 15-1 regular-season record and the NFC championship.

They still have solid players on D, but after allowing cornerback Josh Norman to leave via free agency, the secondary has been so porous that Ryan passed for more than 500 yards against it Sunday.

Newton signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract, giving the Panthers less to offer Norman. In fact, they are hopeful to use that money to sign defensive tackle Kawann Short to an extension.

Brees might be the best example of a team that went all in on offense under head coach and play-caller Sean Payton. For years, Brees' salary cap figure, which would've ballooned to $30 million until he agreed to a more cap-friendly deal, has handcuffed the Saints' ability to retain players.

The Saints defense allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL in 2014 and the most in 2015, even though their next two highest-paid players are defensive end Cameron Jordan ($11 million per year) and safety Jarius Byrd ($9 million).

Having your best player be your quarterback "creates a mind-set" that leads to investing more in offense, McKay said: "It becomes the way you start to play and win games."

Sometimes, it's not how you spend the money but the draft picks. The Bucs drafted almost exclusively offensive players in 2014 and 2015, attempting to build around Winston, their hope-to-be franchise quarterback.

The two highest-paid Bucs are defensive tackle Gerald McCoy ($15.8 million) and receiver Vincent Jackson ($9.7 million), who is in the final year of his deal. Linebacker Lavonte David is next at $10.05 million average.

Winston still is under his rookie deal. But already, the Bucs have used valuable assets in drafting receiver Mike Evans, tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet while re-signing free agent running back Doug Martin to a $7 million-per-year deal.

Defense? Well, it's something to do while the high-powered offenses take a breather.