Draft Needs: NFC South
Teams have now had a month of free agency to chase down veteran upgrades, replacements, and hole-fillers but their roster-twisting work is not done. Next on the horizon is the 2013 NFL draft and with it comes the yearly opportunity to land youthful talent that, ideally, will provide a long-term positive impact.
In our division-by-division look at current draft needs, the most pressing roster concerns are addressed for each team and some early- and late-round draft day options.
In spite of some fairly aggressive moves, jettisoning veteran players like John Abraham and Tyson Clabo, the Falcons still have one of the best rosters in the league so they don’t approach the draft with many needs. However, even considering their move to replace Abraham with Osi Umenyiora they are still short of a difference-making every-down defensive end. At a similar age Umenyiora is a step back from Abraham in terms of recent production, and he hasn’t been an every-down player for the Giants for the past two seasons (653 snaps in 2012, 541 snaps in 2011). He is still capable of the odd big game, but he hasn’t been consistent for some time and the Falcons have simply traded in one aging defensive end for another, so they haven’t moved forward yet in the free agent period. The Falcons’ defense last season wasn’t terrible, but it completely lacked a player in the front seven who was capable of taking over a game and turning it, or shutting it down, in their favor. Their recent history would suggest they won’t be shy of going after a player to fill this role if they identify a difference-maker to be had.
Early Round Option: Corey Lemonier, Auburn
Atlanta’s plethora of picks has them rumored as a trade-up candidate, perhaps into the Top 10. If they stay at No. 30, the options become limited. Lemonier is expected to go at the top of the second round, but he might be the best edge rusher available in the back end of the first.
Mid/Late Round Option: Alex Okafor, Texas
Expected to be a first-round pick coming into the season, Okafor disappointed, both on the field and during offseason workouts. If he falls to the middle rounds, he’s worth the risk to see if he can work back toward his predicted top-round potential.
The Panthers are one of the more unsettled defenses in the league and the presence of Ron Rivera as head coach hasn’t settled their defensive personnel or their performance. Outside of the defensive end and linebacker positions this is a defense in dire need of investment, so we’ll focus our attention on the defensive secondary. They are also short at defensive tackle and safety but that void at corner, exacerbated by the loss of Chris Gamble is the most potentially damaging to this team. With Gamble missing most of last season we got to see just how starved of talent this secondary was — and it was not helped by some average (at best) safety play. However, with the loss of Gamble — and the addition of Drayton Florence does little to mitigate that — their top returning corner is Josh Norman who earned a -7.4 coverage grade last season. Last term Norman yielded 670 yards and a quarterback rating of 96.4 on the 80 passes where he was in primary coverage. The Panthers are again in the unfortunate position of having a handful of pressing needs entering the draft, but porous coverage in a division featuring the likes of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Vincent Jackson could be the quickest way to a losing season, and Ron Rivera being out of a job.
Early Round Option: Jamar Taylor, Boise State
Depending on how much the draft analysts match-up with NFL team boards, Taylor could be a surprise Top 15 pick at Carolina’s No. 14 overall or he could be around when they pick in the second round at No. 44. Regardless of where he’s picked, Taylor will be a versatile option who can play either outside or inside in the slot.
Mid/Late Round Option: Logan Ryan, Rutgers
There are a number of intriguing options at cornerback throughout the draft, so the Panthers should have ample opportunity to add one or two strong additions to their secondary. Ryan may not be ready to play right away, but he looks like a nice developmental prospect.
New Orleans Saints
Much as the Saints’ defense is still a walking disaster zone and is transitioning to one of the tougher schemes in the league to execute under Rob Ryan, their head coach has essentially given us the Saints’ biggest need as we head toward draft weekend. Talking to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times, Sean Payton said that the left tackle, opened up after Jermon Bushrod departed for the Bears, is keeping him up at night. While Bushrod might not have been among the league’s elite, he was solid in a scheme that puts stress on their offensive line by asking them to pass protect on a high volume of passes with infrequent help from tight ends and backs. In theory Charles Brown is the next man up, but he has battled a slew of injuries since entering the league and Payton is not thought to be sold on his ability to replace Bushrod in the lineup when the new season rolls around. The Saints’ sole addition at tackle this offseason has been injury-plagued letdown Jason Smith, whose most recent contribution was at right tackle for the Jets. Barring a draft-day move for Branden Albert from the Chiefs, the options on the open market at left tackle are few and far between and the draft may be the only option left to get their head coach a better night’s sleep in the run up to the new season.
Early Round Option: Lane Johnson, Oklahoma
The Saints are in a tough spot if they’re looking to land a first-round offensive tackle. Johnson is expected to be the third left tackle off the board, though he’s not expected to be around at No. 15 overall. They may need to trade up into the Top 10 to grab him, but with only five picks in the draft, it looks unlikely. The Saints do not have a second-round pick due to their ‘BountyGate’ sanctions.
Mid/Late Round Option: Chris Faulk, LSU
The middle rounds look like a more realistic option for the Saints to find a tackle, and going the local route with Faulk would be a nice addition. Though he missed the majority of 2012, he was poised to make a move toward the top of the draft. Injury concerns keep him off the board until late.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There isn’t a more obvious and well-publicized need in the entire draft as we head to New York than the Bucs’ saga at cornerback. A timely re-structure with Eric Wright has spared the Buccaneers some blushes from what was one of the worst contracts handed out last spring. Wright didn’t live up to his deal (-0.9 coverage grade) and Tampa Bay didn’t see fit to retain E.J. Biggers who put in a solid season and was our highest graded corner to finish the season with Tampa Bay last season. The Bucs’ pursuit of a cornerback has been far from subtle this offseason with a protracted pursuit of Darrelle Revis still running as we start to count the days to the first round of the draft. If the deal isn’t done before Friday then one way or another Mark Dominik needs to find himself a top quality cornerback to push everyone else on the depth chart into roles that better suit them. Whether that is a proven, and costly, commodity in Darrelle Revis or adding more youth to this depth chart is a decision they’ll have to make. However, much like division-rival Carolina, failing to improve their cornerback corps would be sure to hold Tampa back from developing and being able to challenge New Orleans and Atlanta within the division.
Early Round Option: Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
Banks has seen his stock slide since the end of the season, but teams will like his 6-foot-2 frame. There’s a chance he is still around when Tampa Bay picks at No. 43 overall, and if he can live up to his previous hype, Banks would be a steal of a second-round pick.
Mid/Late Round Option: Tharold Simon, LSU
At 6-foot-3, Simon has a similar long-limbed build as Banks. His game resembles that of Antonio Cromartie as he struggles with underneath passes at times though his length helps when defending the deep ball. The Buccaneers should be able to get him with one of their two fourth-round picks.
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