Are the Buccaneers still NFC South favorites after free agency?

It seems the pundits have started to jump ship.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers / Douglas P. DeFelice/GettyImages

We’re officially a week into the NFL offseason, with free agency fully underway and the fallout from the first wave of moves beginning to settle.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t terribly active, at least not on the open market and not nearly as much as their NFC South rivals. The Atlanta Falcons made the splashiest external move, signing Kirk Cousins to a $180 million deal while adding pieces like Darnell Mooney and Ray-Ray McCloud. New Orleans shed some money but still made the move to add Super Bowl champion Willie Gay, while Carolina spent $153 million on two offensive linemen.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have spent a fraction of that cost on outside free agents, opting instead to use its cap space to bring back key players already in the building. Baker Mayfield and Mike Evans were extended before the legal tampering period opened, while Antoine Winfield Jr. was franchise tagged. Other key players like Lavonte David and Chase McLaughlin were also re-signed and the Bucs opted to add depth in free agency rather than top-line players.

The lack of movement in the open market has some already suggesting the Bucs have been passed up as NFC South favorites, but is that really the case?

Are the Buccaneers still NFC South favorites after free agency?

After the Falcons signed Cousins away from Minnesota, former GM Rick Spielman became the first of what will likely be many pundits predicting that Atlanta is the team to beat.

"[Zac Robinson's] system fits identical to what Kirk Cousins' strengths are. Look at what Kevin O'Connell did with him up in Minnesota. Everything's from the pocket, quick processor, makes quick decisions, accurate thrower," Spielman said. "Getting Kirk Cousins into Atlanta makes them the lead dog next year to win the NFC South.

Spielman isn’t the only former GM sounding off on the Bucs, but not everyone is in agreement that free agency has tipped hte scales. Former Saints and Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller is singing Jason Licht’s praise after the first round of free agency and still thinks the NFC South is Tampa Bay’s division to lose.

“Without a doubt, it has to be what GM Jason Licht has done over the past week with the Buccaneers’ roster. No GM has protected his roster and re-signed his core guys like Licht,” Mueller said. “Sportsbooks have made the Atlanta Falcons clear favorites to win the NFC South after they added Cousins and others, but I would still favor the Bucs after they maintained continuity.

There’s a healthy amount of bias when trying to objectively see into the future and how things will shake out, but it’s difficult to see the Bucs taking as far of a step back as most experts will predict. A lot of it will be rooted more in how the Falcons and Saints are expected to improve rather than the Bucs being pegged to fall off, but even that discounts how well the talent Tampa Bay has holds up.

Cousins is a clear upgrade for the Falcons, who will be better under Raheem Morris than they were under Arthur Smith. The weapons Atlanta has weren’t properly used and a coach who figures that out will have dangerous team on his hands.

Tampa Bay still has a Top 10 defense in the league, though, and brought back key pieces with room to add even more young talent in the draft. The team also brought back Evans and Mayfield, two players who were going to be top free agents if they had hit the market.

It's easy to knock the Bucs back at a glance, but the team brought back a roster that reached the NFC Divisional Round last year and still has room to add pieces. The NFC South got better, but Tampa Bay didn't get worse and by the time the offseason is over could have an even better roster than it already has.

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