Thursday, April 28, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: NFC South

And now the conclusion of our eight-part NFL draft preview (ESPN, 8 P.M.). With the AFC complete we've focused on the NFC the last two days. Last but certainly not least in our analysis we wrap up with the NFC South.

Once a weak and often chaotic division, the NFC South could make an argument for the toughest division in the conference or even the league. If things keep going the way they are the Saints and Falcons will be title contenders every year Drew Brees and Matt Ryan put on a uniform. The Saints are now one year removed from a Super Bowl that changed New Orleans forever and the Falcons came up one Aaron Rodgers short of their own Super Bowl berth. And now the upstart Buccaneers have forced themselves into the picture. Tampa Bay went 10-6, falling just short of a playoff berth. Josh Freeman has this team ready to compete with the Falcons and Saints for years. The lone wolf in all this are the Panthers. Carolina went 2-14 in a terribly disappointing season, fired coach John Fox, and have to rebuild. So how do the Saints and Falcons fortify their rosters and what will the Bucs do to overthrow them? And is Cam Newton really Carolina's best bet? Here's our predictions.

Atlanta Falcons
2010 Record: 13-3 (Lost in NFC Divisional Playoff)
Early Picks: 27th, 59th, 91st
Team Needs: Tight End, Guard, Defensive End, Linebacker

Michael Vick who? Matt Ryan (3705 yards, 62.5 completion percentage, 28 TDs, 91 QB rating) has brought a team that hit rock bottom all the way back to the top in just three years. The Falcons are one of the lucky teams with this lockout situation that can afford to wait for the draft to fix their needs, which are slim and minimal. Ryan has been nothing short of a franchise quarterback. Tony Gonzalez (70 catches, 656 yards, 6 TDs), Roddy White (115 catches, 1389 yards, 10 TDs) and Michael Turner (1371 yards, 12 TDs) are great weapons. The defense is led by studs like John Abraham (40 tackels, 13 sacks), Sean Weatherspoon (42 tackles, 1 sack) and Curtis Lofton (118 tackles, 2 sacks). Now it's time for this contender to push beyond their NFC Championship berth.

The Falcons have few needs in this draft, and most of them are on defense or picks to solidify depth. The best pick would be a defensive end to learn under Abraham while playing opposite him and eventually replace him. Adrian Clayborn should be available or possibly Da'Quan Bowers if he slides with his injury and character concerns. If not linebacker might be a target with someone like Akeem Ayers. Finding a replacement for Gonzalez won't happen until the later rounds and the run on offensive linemen will leave the Falcons in a tough position if they want to shore up their line. Could Atlanta trade up to find an impact player or trade down for more picks to fill depth? Both options are very possible.

Carolina Panthers
2010 Record: 2-14 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 1st, 65th, 97th, 98th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Tight End, Defensive Line, Outside Linebacker, Cornerback

Those poor Panthers. Once a yearly playoff contender with coach John Fox, the Panthers are lightyears behind their division rivals. A 2-14 record led to Fox's dismissal. Quarterback questions abound and star receiver Steve Smith has made it clear he wants out. New coach Ron Rivera has to rebuild and fast. There are some pieces to build around, particularly linebacker Jon Beason (121 tackles, 1 sack) who is one of the best in the game. James Anderson (130 tackles, 3.5 sacks) had a great year as well. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are easily the best two-headed monster in the game (1,131 yards, 3 TDs combined) despite a bad year last season, but Williams may be on his way out.

Carolina finds itself with the oh-so-fortunate first pick. All indications have them taking Auburn standout Cam Newton. If, by some miracle change of mind, they don't go with Newton, the only other options that seem possible are defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley. After that the Panthers don't pick until the third round, which greatly complicates everything. They have too many holes to fill in one year. If there's a good defensive tackle or linebacker when they pick in the third round they have to snag him. They only other option, which seems highly unlikely given the history of trading the top pick and the labor issues this year, is getting out of the top spot and getting more picks.

New Orleans Saints
2010 Record: 11-5 (Lost in NFC Wild Card Round)
Early Picks: 24th, 56th, 72nd, 88th
Team Needs: Running Back, Defensive Line, Outside Linebacker, Strong Safety

Super Bowl Champs to biggest upset in the playoffs last year. The Saints struggled last year and it was pretty clear they wouldn't repeat their story book season. The biggest issue was the running game. Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas weren't healthy. Chris Ivory (716 yards, 5 TDs) did great as a back up but is he 16-game starter? An aging defense also caught up to them as Darren Sharper was nowhere near his 2009 form. However, Malcolm Jenkins (64 tackles, 2 INTs) made a great transition to safety. With Drew Brees (4620 yards, 68.1%, 33 TDs, 90.9 QB rating) behind center the Saints are a lock to make the playoffs and force teams to win in a shootout, but if they want that Lombardi Trophy in time for Mardi Gras they need some help.

The Saints have to focus on their defensive front seven in the first two rounds. Their line and linebackers are solid, but there are a few aging pieces.A Da'Quan Bowers or Akeem Ayers would be the perfect weapon to bolster a below average pass rush. As the NFL goes, the best way to improve your pass defense is with pressure. Even Adrian Clayborn would be a good fit. I could also see Mark Ingram possibly sneaking in here if coach Sean Peyton wants to add a stud back to help Brees. And don't be surprised if cornerbacks Jimmy Smith or Aaron Williams are taken here too. Any way to get Brees the ball has to be explored.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2010 Record: 10-6 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 20th, 51st, 84th
Team Needs: Running Back, Defensive End, Linebacker, Safety

The Buccos find themselves in an interesting position. QB Josh Freeman (3451, 61.4%, 25 TDs, 95.9 QB rating) proved he can lead this franchise, but the young team has to fight past the Saints and Falcons. Good luck with that. LeGarrette Blount stepped up with a surprising rookie campaign (1007 yards, 6 TDs) and Mike Williams (65 catches, 964 yards, 11 TDs) proved all his doubters wrong. Once a defensive minded team with their trademark Tampa 2 scheme, the Bucs are now an upstart offense-first team. A 10-6 record in a tough division is nothing but promise for a young team trying to make a statement in 2011.

There are some questions at running back but Tampa can afford to wait and see how Blount handles his second season. The offense is clicking and as Freeman and company continue to gel it's time for the front office to focus on the defense. Ronde Barber (81 tackles, 3 INTs) is nearing the end and Aqib Talib (40 tackles, 6 INTs) showed he will be his replacement. But a weak pash rush needs some serious help. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Prince Amukamara sliding to the Bucs. I don't agree. Barber has a year or two left, so Tampa can afford to wait until the later rounds or early in next year's draft to find a second corner. If defensive end J.J. Watt slides here, watch out. Tampa could even go for Bowers or Ayers. Still, don't fault them for drafting another shutdown corner and giving themselves a tremendous duo for years.

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