For the first time since each conference went to four separate divisions, the NFC South was won by the same team in consecutive seasons. The Panthers may not have cracked .500 to accomplish the feat, but did pick up a playoff victory before losing to the eventual NFC champion Seahawks. Also for the second straight year, both the Buccaneers and Falcons landed top-eight picks as both teams look to climb back to the top of the division.
With the eighth overall selection, the Falcons upgraded a pass rush in desperate need of speed off the edge by drafting Clemson’s Vic Beasley. Beasley’s speed, explosiveness and agility are off the charts and he registered 25 sacks in his final two seasons with the Tigers. Beasley should make an immediate impact rushing off the edge in Atlanta, but his lack of bulk and shoddy run defense will have to be covered up by his teammates. The Falcons drafted LSU cornerback Jalen Collins at No. 42 to continue building new coach Dan Quinn’s defense. At 6-1, 203 pounds with 4.48 speed, Collins brings good measurables and athleticism to the table but struggles reacting to plays instinctually. A physical press corner with good tackling skills, Collins has the upside to be a good starter in the defensive system Quinn brings from Seattle, but needs to improve his understanding of the game to reach his potential. The Falcons went away from the defensive side of the ball in the third round, drafting Indiana running back Tevin Coleman to compete with 2014 fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman. A home-run hitter who consistently broke big runs in the Big 10, Coleman flashes quickness and burst with the skills to beat first contact as well as effectively catch the ball out of the backfield. He isn’t a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s zone scheme, but will have a chance to at least split carries with Freeman. Atlanta stayed on the offensive side with the No. 107 overall pick, replacing slot receiver Harry Douglas with East Carolina’s Justin Hardy. Hardy is small (5-10, 192) and lacks great speed (4.56), but the rest of his game is extremely polished. His soft hands, spatial awareness and body control should endear him to Matt Ryan relatively quickly. In the fifth round, the Falcons returned their focus to defense and traded up to draft Beasley’s college teammate, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. A disruptive force shooting gaps up the field, Jarrett uses his squatty 6-0, 304-pound frame to his advantage, firing low off the line and playing with great pad level and leverage. He lacks bulk but possesses polished enough hand moves to shed blocks, falling into the middle of Day 3 due to concerns over size and scheme limitations. We him rated as a third-rounder. Atlanta had two seventh-round picks, selecting Eastern Washington tackle Jake Rodgers and San Jose State cornerback Akeem King. The 6-6, 325-pound Rodgers broke out as a senior and shows good awareness, a nasty attitude and the ability to protect the edge, but will need time to adjust to the pro game. King is another player who didn’t break into the starting lineup until his senior season after switching positions from wide receiver in 2011. At 6-3, 212 pounds, he gives the Falcons a cornerback with great size and room to improve. Atlanta added one notable free agent after the draft in Houston defensive tackle Joey Mbu. A fifth-rounder on our board, Mbu has the size to succeed as a 4-3 nose tackle and more athleticism than his combine numbers would suggest. He can occupy gaps in the middle of the defense, but isn’t a playmaker in the same mold as new teammate Jarrett. The two would complement each other well in a defensive line rotation.
Grade: B+ The Falcons came out of this year’s draft with five players rated in our top 100 and got good value with most of their picks. Beasley, Coleman and Hardy should have significant roles immediately, as all three are ready to contribute at the pro level.
With a need for another linebacker to play next to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers spent the 25th overall pick on Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. Undersized at 6-0, 228 pounds, Thompson was a productive college linebacker with great speed and instincts. He is slated to start on the weak side for the Panthers, which will allow him to take advantage of his run-and-chase skill set. After drafting Kelvin Benjamin at the end of the first round last season, the Panthers doubled up on tall wide receivers by trading their third and sixth-round picks to move from No. 57 to No. 41 and draft Michigan’s Devin Funchess early in Round 2. We had Funchess ranked as a tight end as he lacks the quickness and smoothness of a receiver, but the Panthers will likely start him opposite Benjamin with Greg Olsen entrenched at tight end. At 6-4 with 33 ½-inch arms and a 38 ½-inch vertical, Funchess should be an immediate red-zone threat while helping quarterback Cam Newton, who tends to miss high. Oklahoma tackle Daryl Williams was the pick in the fourth round and should compete for a starting job immediately considering Carolina’s underwhelming starters at both tackle spots. Williams is a nasty run blocker best in small spaces, but he struggles on the move and doesn’t have the footwork or lateral range off the edge to protect the blindside. Carolina rounded out their five-player draft with two fifth-rounders; Texas State linebacker David Mayo and Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne. Mayo is a high-motor player with sideline-to-sideline range and a nose for the ball, which should fit perfectly on special teams while he develops. Artis-Payne has good patience, quickness and receiving ability and will provide some nice insurance for the injury-prone Jonathan Stewart, considering we had him rated as a third-round prospect.
Grade: C The Panthers had just five picks in this year’s draft thanks to their trade up for Funchess, who meshes well with Newton’s skill set but may not be best suited to play as an outside receiver. Thompson has an opportunity to learn from a player he’s compared to often in Davis despite being overdrafted, but both Williams and Artis-Payne will likely be important pieces on offense and were good value picks. It’s tough to see this draft providing more than two or three long-term starters in Carolina, and the Panthers didn’t add any players of note as UDFAs.
New Orleans Saints
After drastically changing their offensive philosophy this offseason by trading Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, the Saints addressed their offensive line at No. 13 with Stanford tackle Andrus Peat. Peat has the pass-blocking ability to eventually settle in at left tackle, but may start at guard as a rookie. He needs to improve his balance and reaction off the snap, but plays with good leverage for his size (6-7, 313), shows quick feet along with good lower-body strength and has excellent upside, though he also has some bust potential. With the pick New Orleans got from Seattle for Graham, the Saints selected Clemson inside linebacker Stephone Anthony. Anthony is a heat-seeking missile who shoots gaps extremely well and consistently makes plays in the backfield. He shows great speed in pursuit but needs to improve playing in reverse, as he wasn’t asked to cover much in college. Anthony will compete for a starting job on the inside of the Saints’ 3-4, and has the versatility to play the weak side in 4-3 alignments as well. New Orleans added another linebacker in Round 2, drafting Washington pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha. An All-American who had 32 sacks over the past two seasons, Kikaha is an intense competitor with below-average size and speed for the pro game and an extensive injury history, as he missed all or most of two seasons early in his college career with knee issues. We had him ranked as a seventh-rounder, making it a tough pick to justify despite his impressive numbers. The Saints drafted a potential successor to the aging Drew Brees in the third round, grabbing Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson. Grayson has a strong arm and a quick release along with good awareness and poise. A classic pocket passer despite his 4.65 40-yard dash, Grayson has definite starting potential in a run-oriented offense, which is the direction the Saints are moving towards. New Orleans drafted again three picks later thanks to the Stills deal, taking Florida State cornerback P.J. Williams. An aggressive press corner with elite explosiveness, Williams struggles against receivers with deep speed and needs to improve his consistency and keep his nose clean off the field. If he gets it straight Williams has the talent to provide a first-round return on a pick outside the top 75. The Saints continued to revamp an underwhelming linebacking core in the fifth round, taking Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Davis Tull. An athletic pass rusher with the versatility to stand up over tackle or come out of a three-point stance, Tull is a smooth mover with good hands who shows force off the edge. The transition to the NFL won’t be easy, but Tull has potential as a pass rusher and in pursuit against the run. New Orleans had two additional fifth-rounders, drafting Fresno State defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and Georgia cornerback Damian Swann. We had a free-agent grade on Davison, as his lack of athleticism and inconsistent pad level limits his upside. He does play with a nasty attitude and shows a good first step to be an effective run defender, but his 8.5 sacks as a senior overstate his rush skills. Swann was also a free agent on the Draft Insider board, but plays aggressive football against the run and shows a nice burst out of his plant in zone coverage. Swann also shows good hands but struggles in man coverage and will likely max out as a sub-package corner. The Saints made Missouri running back Marcus Murphy their final pick in Round 7, and he’s a quicker-than-fast scat back who has some similarities to former teammate Henry Josey, who’s now in the CFL. Murphy is a slippery runner with limited size (5-8, 193) and lack of long speed (4.52), but could be effective if schemed into space and on returns. New Orleans added Syracuse left tackle Sean Hickey after the draft, and he has a chance to settle in as an NFL right tackle or guard despite playing the blind side with the Orange. An average athlete who lacks great footwork on the edge, Hickey has great vision and patience but needs to consistently play with leverage to have success against NFL defenders.
Grade: C+ The Saints had nine picks in this year’s draft, including five in the top-80, but came away with a somewhat underwhelming haul. They did well in the first round but Kikaha will find it tough to justify a second-round pick. Williams and Tull were nice upside picks with an eye towards the future, but overall New Orleans didn’t improve as much as they could have with the picks they had.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston to Tampa Bay at No. 1 was the worst-kept secret around the NFL throughout the draft process and while we had Marcus Mariota rated slightly ahead of Winston, it’s difficult to argue with the fit in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s vertical scheme. Winston is poised in the pocket, can make all the throws and plays without fear of making mistakes that sometimes led to unnecessary interceptions during his senior season. If the former Florida State star continues to improve his decision-making, both on and off the field, this pick should be a hit for the Bucs. In the second round, Tampa Bay drafted two players they hope will protect Winston for years to come: Penn State tackle Donovan Smith and Hobart guard Ali Marpet. Smith’s work ethic has been questioned and he never improved after impressing early in his college career, but he’s a big body (6-5, 338) who shows good footwork off the edge and potential as a blind-side protector if he focuses on football. Marpet was a likely late-Day 2 or early-Day 3 pick at the start of the offseason, but he impressed at the Senior Bowl and throughout the draft process to move into the second round. Marpet has the athleticism and skill set to play any position on the offensive line but is best inside, and the Bucs plan to use him at guard. He plays with good technique and is fast enough to quickly reach the second level or block effectively in motion. He may need some time to adjust to the speed of the NFL but once he does, Marpet has Pro Bowl potential. Tampa Bay addressed their defense in the fourth round with LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. Alexander lacks size at just 227 pounds, but is a fluid mover who is very effective in pursuit. He struggles taking on blocks and isn’t a strong blitzer, but should settle in as Lavonte David’s backup on the weak side and a key special teamer as well as insurance if David leaves in free agency. The Bucs added a receiving weapon for Winston in Round 5, drafting Nebraska’s Kenny Bell. A reliable underneath receiver with good quickness, timed speed and body control, Bell has the potential to provide a nice chain-moving slot complement to Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson outside. Tampa added another receiver in the sixth round with Utah’s Kaelin Clay. Most famous for dropping the ball before the goal line on a potential touchdown against Oregon, Clay is small (5-9, 195) but quick and will likely make his biggest impact as a returner, as he was an All-American specialist with three punt-return scores last season. Hawaii fullback Joey Iosefa rounded out the Bucs’ draft in the seventh round, and he will need to prove himself healthy after a foot injury took him off the field too often over the past three seasons. If healthy, he has good size and speed as a lead blocker. Tampa Bay added two players in our Top 225 as UDFAs; TCU safety Chris Hackett and Towson defensive end Ryan Delaire. Hackett doesn’t have great size or speed, but is a leader on the field who plays faster than his workout times. He combines good range and instincts with a well-rounded game and starting potential if used properly. Delaire is a tweener; too small (6-4, 254) for an end but too slow (4.84) for a linebacker. He’s fast off the edge and uses his hands well, giving him a chance to make it as a special teamer and situational rusher on passing downs.
Grade: B Not only did the Buccaneers secure their quarterback of the future, but they came into the draft with a plan to build the rest of their offense around him and succeeded. Their picks came at solid value and they hit on multiple needs, hitting the blueprint for a well-executed draft.
Chris Tripodi has been writing draft reviews and rookie reports for Draft Insider since 2008. He is also an ACC and Conference USA scout for Optimum Scouting and writes about the New York Jets for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi to talk NFL Draft and Jets football.