We come to the NFC South, the final division of my 2013 NFL Draft previews. Though always a competitive division, the NFC South had no bad teams last year, just the Atlanta Falcons and a few mediocre teams that beat up on each other. For the past three seasons, this division featured a team 4-12 or worse. Though Atlanta had the best record in the NFC in 2012, there is no team we can easily count out. There are variables that will affect this: Is Josh Freeman the franchise QB in Tampa going forward, or will Greg Schiano try to bring in somebody else? After Cam Newton’s sophomore slump and an unfulfilled Super Bowl victory promise, can the Panthers make the changes they need to bounce back? After Bountygate has come and gone, can the Saints not have a horrific defense that makes fans want to divert their eyes? There are questions in Atlanta, too, but not nearly as many.
Atlanta Falcons (Last Season: 13-3; First Pick: 30th Overall; Number of Picks: 11)
The Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL are already getting a head start on being disrespected for the 2013 season. While Seattle (whom Atlanta beat in last year’s postseason) and San Francisco are the sexy picks in the NFC, the Falcons remain one of the elite teams in the NFC and have only gotten better so far this offseason. They added the pass rusher they needed by signing DE Osi Umenyiora, and easily fixed their 29th best running game with former Ram RB Steven Jackson, who will go very well with Jacquizz Rodgers. Possibly the most important addition of the offseason was no addition at all, but the retaining of TE Tony Gonzalez, who puts off his retirement one more year. Atlanta’s 2012 defense had top ten talent in my mind, and they were fifth in scoring defense (18.7 points/game) but 24th in yards allowed (365.6/game). That was only because teams were playing from behind and chucking the ball downfield in virtually every game, and the Falcons managed 13 wins. Face it: This is a team with a shrinking number of weaknesses, and with all the major parts in place to succeed. The kind of team who can afford to use their late first-round pick on a project with a potentially great upside… guys, have I found a team for Manti Te’o? The media has talked about how bad it would be for Te’o to be drafted by a New York team, because the media – they, themselves – would be ruthless on the poor kid. Atlanta is the opposite of that, because they’re a great but anonymous team nobody pays attention to all season! It really is the perfect fit… except that I said “shrinking number of weaknesses,” not “zero weaknesses.” Atlanta has a desperate cornerback problem. They lost both Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes in free agency, and Asante Samuel is about 47 years old or so. It was fun while it lasted, but Te’o has no place in the first round. Atlanta will take either Washington’s Desmond Trufant or Boise State’s Jamar Taylor, whoever’s available, go for a tight end to succeed King Gonzalez in Round Two or Three, and their other nine picks are smooth sailing. See you in the postseason.
Carolina Panthers (Last Season: 7-9; First Pick: 14th Overall; Number of Picks: 5)
The 7-9 record was a disappointment in 2012, but it could have been much worse – they started off 3-9 before winning their last four and playing their way right out of the Top Ten of the draft. Carolina has its share of needs, but not many are truly desperate first-round must-haves. Wide receiver, for instance: Steve Smith is good but about to turn 34, and Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy are alright but not about to succeed Smith as WR1. But the Panthers aren’t in the market for a Cordarelle Patterson – more of a Markus Wheaton (Oregon State) in the second round. Probably the most pressing need for Carolina is at defensive tackle, and luckily for them, it’s a very deep D-line class and Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson should fall right into their laps at #14. Look for Carolina to also invest in some depth on the O-line, to keep Cam Newton healthy, and at cornerback, because everyone needs cornerbacks (particularly a team whose only good one, Chris Gamble, retired last month).
New Orleans Saints (Last Season: 7-9; First Pick: 15th Overall; Number of Picks: 5)
There is not much to say about the Saints. Whether or not you blame it on the repercussions of BountyGate, New Orleans had a historically bad defense in 2012. The worst in NFL history, in fact, in terms of yards allowed (440.1/game). Having Drew Brees is great, but he can’t make tackles for you too. Luckily for New Orleans, there is a wealth of very good defensive players in this draft class, and one or two that used to be considered Top Ten locks will likely fall the Saints’ way. Not because their stock has fallen that much, per se, but because of the top-heaviness of defensive players in the first ten or twelve picks. Georgia LB Jarvis Jones, LSU LB Barkevious Mingo, or Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson will be available for the Saints, and they win no matter what. Secondary for the second round, perhaps safety Matt Elam of Florida or Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas. With having only five draft picks, the Saints can’t afford to spend more than one on an offensive player.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last Season: 7-9; First Pick: 43rd Overall; Number of Picks: 7)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already addressed their most pressing need, cornerback, by trading for Jets start CB Darrelle Revis. They sent New York their thirteenth overall pick and a conditional mid-round selection in 2014. Now that the Bucs don’t have their first-round pick, their earliest pick is 43rd, the eleventh pick in the second round. While Tampa’s main needs are defensive line, tight end and CB2 (Revis can’t cover the entire field), second-year head coach Greg Schiano is reportedly not as confident in quarterback Josh Freeman as the rest of the organization. It will be interesting to see if the Bucs consider a quarterback like Ryan Nassib, Matt Barkley or EJ Manuel here, but it isn’t likely. Tampa lost DE Michael Bennett to Seattle in free agency, and Texas DE Alex Okafor would be very good value here. Schiano, former Rutgers head coach, will probably try to get Rutgers CB Logan Ryan in the third round if he’s available, though it may be a stretch.