NFL Draft Coverage: NFC South
In the ‘worst to first’ division that is the NFC South, it’s a four horse race entering 2013
By AJ Young - February 27 2013
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Three teams finished 7-9 in the NFC South last season but had any of them been in the weaker AFC, they might have made the playoffs. Carolina was a lot better than their record showed last season and Tampa Bay looked hot at times. The Saints played horrible defence on their way to 7 wins but things might have been different had Sean Payton been pacing the side lines. In the end, Atlanta ran away with the division on their way to the NFC Championship game but they might return to earth with a bump next season. Each team has a legitimate chance of winning the division; what better place to start than by adding a few quality pieces in April’s draft. Here’s is todays look at the NFC South:
Atlanta Falcons (13-3), 30th pick – 7 total picks
Overview: With the best record in the NFC last season, alongside a win in the playoffs for the first time under Mike Smith, things look good going forward for the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately, things were a little inflated in the win column last season; according to Football Outsiders, Atlanta performed more like a 9 win team than a 13 win side (Football Outsiders' advanced metric takes into account consistency in a variety of situations and adjusts it to a league-average schedule to produce a statistic that projects a more appropriate number of wins based upon performance). The Falcons were a ludicrous 7-2 in games decided by 7 points or less points last year; a stat that will undoubtedly return to a more realistic number in 2013. As a consequence of this, the Falcons roster may not be as talented as last season's 13-3 record shows. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White form one of the best passing attacks in the NFL and Jacquizz Rodgers showed promise at running back late last year. Michael Turner doesn't have much left in the tank and is likely facing release; a mid-round pick on the halfback position to pair with Rodgers going forward would be ideal. With Tony Gonzalez contemplating retirement, Atlanta might look to replace his talents in the red zone with a tight end but such a pick would almost certainly be considered a luxury pick, especially with the amount invested in Julio Jones over the past two drafts. On the defensive side of the ball, John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux aren't getting any younger but the defensive line remains a talented unit on the whole. Although Brent Grimes and William Moore are free agents, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud form a competent secondary, though one in need of depth, especially if the aforementioned remain unsigned.
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
With two starters from a season ago in Sam Baker and Todd McClure pending unrestricted free agents, now would be a good time to consider drafting an offensive lineman. With right tackle Tyson Clabo over thirty and Baker potentially leaving as a free agent, Atlanta could spend their first round pick solidifying their offensive tackle position, ensuring that Matt Ryan is well protected going forward. Alternatively, the Falcons could draft a centre to replace McClure and there is an ideal candidate on the fringes of the first round. They are an aging group and with a draft plentiful on the offensive line, Atlanta is advised to cash in on this deep draft.
Second Biggest Need: Middle Linebacker
In Atlanta's 4-3 scheme, outside linebacker's Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas lead the team in total tackles last season with a combined 192 tackles. Nevertheless, Atlanta's defence seemed to take a step back in 2012 after Curtis Lofton left for New Orleans in free agency. Replacement Akeem Dent wasn't able to fill Lofton's shoes; maybe a certain prospect from down the road in Athens can? Alec Ogletree's off-field problems could cause him to fall to Atlanta but even so, I'm not sure it'd be sensible to take him; he might benefit from a fresh start, far away from Georgia. Regardless, new talent at middle linebacker should shore up their suspect run defence.
Editor's Update 03/01/2013: Following the news that Atlanta will release Michael Turner, John Abraham and Dunta Robinson, all three become priorities in April's draft. The defensive end position could now be subject to a first round selection whilst I anticipate a mid-round pick on the cornerback and running back positions.
Potential Draft Picks: Barrett Jones, C, Alabama; Kevin Minter, LB, LSU
Carolina Panthers (7-9), 14th pick – 6 total picks
Overview: As I’ve previously mentioned in a Down at the One Mailbag, Carolina have the potential to become an 11 win team in 2013. Cam Newton suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump in 2012 but a 5-1 finish down the stretch bodes well going into next season. They’re in a bit of a rut with the salary cap right now, partly because they have $13.24m tied up in the backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Unfortunately it would be punitive in dead money to sever ties with any of these three but a mid-round pick on a running back could make that an option next season. Outside of Steve Smith, Newton has minimal to no weapons at wide out but the draft appears deep at this position making it foolish to spend the 14th pick on the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson. On the offensive line, Jordan Gross carries an $11.7m cap figure in 2013; a saving of $6.7m can be achieved if he’s cut and he turns 33 in July. I think it’s unlikely the Panthers will cut him but a potential successor needs to be found. Defensively, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly form one of the best linebacker units in the league but the aforementioned struggle to stay healthy. Weaknesses on the defensive line and in the secondary are the problem on defence.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
With the Panthers salary cap struggles, it appears they’ll cut their best corner in Chris Gamble due to his $10.9m cap figure. Carolina would free up $7.9m by releasing Gamble; it’s not ideal to cut your best corner when you’re already weak at the position but Gamble has struggled and would probably be a number two at best on most teams. If Tampa went for a cornerback in the first round it might be advisable to follow this up with another defensive back in the third round; with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman comprising over a third of your schedule, Carolina can’t have enough defensive backs.
Second Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle
With a combined 23.5 sacks at defensive end from Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson in 2012, the Panthers could have one of the best defensive lines in football if they upgraded the defensive tackle position. Dwan Edwards figures to leave via free agency and there’s not much talent behind him. In Carolina’s 4-3 scheme they’re considerably lacking big men up the middle; in a deep draft on the defensive line, it might be tempting to spend a first round pick shoring it up.
Potential Draft Picks: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State; Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
New Orleans Saints (7-9), 15th pick – 6 total picks
Overview: Any time your team is associated with the words ‘worst in NFL history’, it’s unlikely that you’ve enjoyed a particularly successful season. The Saints defence earned those honours in 2012 by becoming the first team in NFL history to allow over 7000 yards, surpassing the 1981 Baltimore Colts as the worst defence ever by yardage. It’s a testament to Drew Brees and the Saints’ offence that New Orleans managed to make it to 7 wins with such a porous defence; had the Saints not finished second in the league in total offence it’s likely they’d have fared a lot worse. Brees and the passing game continue to dominate the league whilst their backfield by committee approach compliments the offence well. Ingram, Thomas and Sproles are each very different backs but the Saints do a great job of utilising them to the best of their abilities. Jermon Bushrod, Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans are all Pro Bowlers on the offensive line but New Orleans could still do with adding depth, especially if they lose Bushrod to free agency. All in all, the Saints problems are on the defensive side of the ball and with Sean Payton returning to steady the ship, New Orleans will be hoping to return to the playoffs in 2013.
Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle
With Sedrick Ellis likely leaving via free agency and Brodrick Bunkley struggling last season, the Saints need to address the defensive tackle position in April’s draft. 2011 first round pick Cameron Jordan and veteran Will Smith are capable defensive ends but Jordan needs to take the next step in 2013 and Smith is getting no younger at 31. An influx of talent at defensive tackle should shore up the line, enabling Jordan and Smith to concentrate on getting after the passer.
Second Biggest Need: Defensive Back
Considering the Saints have two recent first round picks invested at the defensive back position in Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson, you would expect New Orleans to be slightly stronger in the secondary. Nevertheless, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer looked like they slowed down a season ago and there’s certainly room for improvement at both the corner and safety position. If Alabama corner Dee Milliner’s injury concerns cause him to fall to 15, the Saints shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on the best corner in the draft. It’s unlikely he’ll fall that far though meaning New Orleans could pick one of the elite safeties available.
Potential Draft Picks: Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina; Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9), 13th pick – 7 total picks
Overview: The 2012 Buccaneers were very much a streaky team; they started the season with a three game losing streak to go 2-3 before putting together four consecutive victories to land them at 6-4. At that point the Buccaneers looked like a shoe-in for a Wild Card spot as an offence of Josh Freeman, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson were firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately the wheels fell off the wagon and Tampa rattled off five straight losses, including a 41-0 blowout to rival New Orleans and two demoralising defeats to the Eagles and Rams. They finished the season at 7-9 and looked like the young team that they were under first year head coach Greg Schiano. Josh Freeman hasn’t been a model of consistency over the course of his career in Tampa Bay and was poor down the stretch last year but he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league who will hope to take the next step in 2013. Additionally, the Buccs seem set at the skill positions going forward and the offensive line is one of the better in the league. The tight end and linebacker positions might need a day two selection and with safety Ronde Barber also contemplating retirement, Tampa’s secondary is in dire need of an injection of talent.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Having traded Aqib Talib to New England at the trade deadline last year, coupled with the potential release of Eric Wright due to his $7.75m cap figure, the Buccs are severely depleted at the cornerback position. Tampa is roughly $30m under the cap however so Wright might survive despite his inflated salary. Nonetheless, the Buccaneers fielded one of the worst secondary’s last season and need to improve. There’s been talk of a potential trade for Darrell Revis; I can’t see that happening myself, leaving the Buccaneers with a first round pick that might best be spent on a corner.
Second Biggest Need: Defensive End
Tampa’s defensive line was ranked 1st in the league at playing the run last season but was 31st in rushing the passer. 2011 first round pick Adrian Clayborn spent the season on IR with a knee injury and his return to the defensive end position will hopefully improve Tampa’s pass rush. Nevertheless, with Michael Bennett facing free agency and former Clemson standout Da’Quan Bowers seemingly facing jail time after a weapons charge, the Buccs might wish to invest in another defensive end to compliment Clayborn and solidify the defensive line as one of the best in the league.
Potential Draft Picks: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama; Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
NFC North | NFC West | NFC East | AFC North | AFC WestAJ Young
is the editor of Down at the One.