The NFC South is shaping up to be a competitive division. Tampa Bay has work to do but seems headed in the right direction while the talent level in Atlanta and New Orleans was better than the results on the field in 2013. Carolina is developing a dominant defense and needs to add a few pieces on offense. Yet despite this the division owned two selections in the top eight.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons worked the days before the draft attempting to move up to the top spot in the hopes of selecting Jadeveon Clowney. When that never materialized they did the next best thing; stood pat and chose Jake Matthews with the sixth pick. While Greg Robinson was all the rage at the offensive tackle position Matthews is more polished, more NFL ready and much lower risk compared to the Auburn sophomore. In the second frame the team filled a need on the defensive line with Ra’Shede Hageman. At the top of his game Hageman dominates opponents and can be a destructive force. The issue for Hageman is he disappears for stretches. Dezmen Southward was a bit of a surprise in round three. From a size/speed point of view Southward grades as a first rounder but his game is unpolished and the senior struggles making plays with his back to the ball. There’s no denying he comes with a huge upside. Devonta Freeman has size/speed limitations but the fourth rounder is just a good football player who’ll do well as a rotational back. I’m in the minority but I like the selection of Prince Shembo in round four. On the field he’s a terrific defender who forces the action but also plays disciplined football. He’s a terrific fit in a 3-4 and Shembo has starting potential. Ricardo Allen has the underlying ability to make an NFL roster and start down the road but he’s a prospect who must play to a high level every snap. After watching him in 2011, I thought Marquis Spruill was a star in the making but his game never took off. He’s been spotty on the college field but should find a home as a back-up linebacker/special teams player on the Falcons roster. As I wrote in the weeks leading to the draft Yawin Smallwood had a small tear in his hamstring which pushed him deep into the draft. He’s tough, instinctive and has starting potential in the right system. Tyler Starr was a disruptive force on the small school level and plays tough, disciplined football. He’ll be a natural fit in the Falcons new defensive alignment.
Grade B+ From start to finish I like the Falcons draft day collection. In Matthews they have an immediate starter that can play both tackle spots. The defensive players selected represent value, versatility and the ability to fit the 3-4 alignment Atlanta plans to implement this season.
Carolina Panthers: Entering the draft there was a consensus Carolina would stay on offense in round one as the discussion centered around receiver and the offensive line. To the surprise of many they grabbed Kelvin Benjamin at the end of the first frame. Considering some of the other receivers available at the pick Benjamin was a slight reach. He’s a massive receiver with limited quickness who’ll struggle to separate from NFL defenders. At 6-feet/5-inches and 240lbs, one can only guess if Benjamin will ultimately grow into a tight end. Carolina came away with a steal late in round two when they selected Kony Ealy. There are a variety of opinions on Ealy in the scouting community but I firmly believe he’ll be a productive starter and this was a great pick. The morning of the draft’s second day I had posted that Trai Turner would be selected earlier than many expected and the Panthers drafted him before the third round closed out. Turner has a great amount of upside but will need a lot of work before he’s NFL ready. Tre Boston was a slight reach in round four as he has scheme limitations. Fifth round pick Bene Benwikere is a terrific football player with speed limitations. I would expect to see Benwikere line up in dime packages this fall. Tyler Gaffney was a solid value in round six and offers options for an aging Deangelo Williams. Receiver Corey Brown was signed as a UDFA and has a real opportunity to make the roster. Also signed after the draft was Denicos Allen, a Ron Rivera type of linebacker who could add depth and be an ace on special teams. Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndum are two additional UDFA’s to keep an eye on while running back Darrin Reaves is practice squad worthy.
Grade C+: I was never very big on Kelvin Benjamin and feel his transition to the NFL could be rocky. The middle round picks were slight reaches. Kony Ealy elevates the grade for the Panthers.
New Orleans Saints: Most thought the Saints would look defense in round one but when Brandin Cooks started to slide the team traded up to grab him. Cooks should be a natural fit for New Orleans; a speedy skill player in a good weather division that will help his team at receiver, running reverses or as a return specialist. Selecting Stanley Jean-Baptiste in round two is high risk/reward. The Nebraska senior comes with great size/speed numbers but an unpolished game and spotty film. Khairi Fortt was a mild surprise in round four but in the end this could be a steal. Fortt is a good fit on the inside of the Saints 3-4 alignment and a speedy linebacker who stands out in pursuit. I don’t understand the selection of Vinnie Sunseri in round five. The Saints look set at safety and while you want competition in camp, I struggle to see how Sunseri, a one dimensional downhill defender coming off a serious knee injury, was worth a fifth round selection. Conversely the teams other fifth round selection, linebacker Ronald Powell, could be a bargain. Powell, who primarily played defensive end at Florida, is athletic, explosive and a fine pass rusher who can also play in space. Powell comes with a long injury history but if he shows durability he could surprise this season. Though I was higher on Tavon Rooks than most I didn’t think he would be a draft pick. He’s an underrated athlete I suspect will get consideration at guard. The Saints signed a number of quality players after the draft. Center Matt Armstrong will have a real opportunity to win the back-up job, Tim Flanders projects well as a third down back and Kasim Edebali has the smarts, toughness and determination to make the squad at outside linebacker/special teams. Brandon Coleman is the guy to watch. In many ways his college career parallels Saints pro-bowl wide out Marques Colston; a king sized, game controlling receiver with deceptive speed whose career was disrupted by a knee injury. If Coleman can return from his injury, which occurred just over a year ago, this could be a genius signing.
Grade: C+ While the Saints picks look good on paper I see a lot of bust factor. Can Jean-Baptiste play at a consistently high level? Will Fortt pan out? Can Sunseri return from injury? After Brandin Cooks I see a lot of value in the UDFA’s the team signed.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The rumors were rampant prior to the draft that Tampa Bay would be the team in the top ten to select quarterback Johnny Manziel. Didn’t happen. Instead the Bucs made the smart choice and tabbed receiver Mike Evans, who should quickly break into the starting line-up and help whomever is underneath center this season. I can’t be as kind with their second round choice, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. While there’s a lot to like about his game, there’s also much to be concerned about. If they wanted a tight end Jace Amaro was just as highly rated and came with significantly less downside. Charles Sims was ridiculously underrated and the Bucs could pair him with starter Doug Martin for a terrific 1-2 punch. Sims has the size, speed and versatility to produce at the next level. The team took a pair of offensive linemen in round five; Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile. I see Edwards as a prospect who needs a lot of work and may not make it. Conversely I started praising Pamphile prior to the 2013 college season and found it mind-boggling the way he fell under the radar in the scouting community. He has the athleticism and skill to line up at left tackle and may also get consideration at guard. Robert Herron was great value in round seven. He brings speed and game breaking ability to the Bucs wide receiver unit besides being a tough, dependable underneath pass catcher. Looking at Tampa’s depth chart I’d be surprised if Herron doesn’t make the final roster. The team did a terrific job signing UDFA’s who can make the roster and help on both sides of the ball. Solomon Patton is a smaller version of Robert Herron and deserved to be drafted. If Matt Patchan stays healthy he has the ability to be a third/swing tackle. Chaz Sutton looked like a middle round pick in 2012, played like a street free agent in 2013 then impressed scouts during pro-day. He’s very much a Lovie Smith type of defensive end but must up his game.
Grade B: Tampa did a good job with all their draft picks and signed a few quality players when the seven rounds was complete. Seferian-Jenkins keeps this from being a B+, not because he was a bad pick rather due to the fact there were better tight ends available.