Safe or Surprise Draft: NFC South
As the 2013 NFL Draft approaches, we're laying out both the safest and riskiest route that teams might take with their first selection. Read them all.
First pick: Round 1, No. 30 overall
The Safe Route: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State or Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State
It's hard to guess exactly which players will be available 30 picks deep in Round 1, but it's obvious that Atlanta needs a cornerback; that much was true even before Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left for Miami and Kansas City, respectively. Without some upgrades in the secondary, the pass defense could be the Falcons' bugaboo again, just as it was against San Francisco in last season's NFC title game.
The Surprise: Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas Pine-Bluff
The frontrunner right now is Lamar Holmes, a high-potential third-round pick from last year's draft. Armstead is cut from a similar mold -- he wowed onlookers at the combine with his athleticism, and he may have a brighter NFL future as a tackle than guys like D.J. Fluker or Menelik Watson. In Armstead and Holmes the Falcons would have a pair of promising young tackles to battle it out for the RT spot and, if all goes well, to hold down the bookend line spots for several years to come.
First pick: Round 1, No. 14 overall
The Safe Route: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The Panthers desperately need a playmaker along the interior of their line, preferably one like Richardson who is versatile enough to take on different responsibilities. He would be a very welcome addition to Carolina's defensive line.
The Surprise: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Steve Smith, the Panthers' top receiving threat since 2001, is 33. Brandon LaFell, Smith's sidekick, had just 44 catches last season. Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn, both added by Carolina in free agency, are not big receiving threats.
Which brings us to Patterson, an enthralling prospect who might be one of the NFL's next big stars. He's certainly talented enough, even if his technique needs some refining. His addition to Carolina's receiving corps would take some of the attention off Smith, while also putting in motion a plan for the team's top WR spot should Smith hang 'em up in the near future.
New Orleans Saints
First pick: Round 1, No. 15 overall
The Safe Route: Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU
The Saints have the pieces in place to unleash a fairly potent 3-4 rush, starting with Junior Galette and free-agent addition Victor Butler. Mingo could join that mix (which also includes Jonathan Vilma) as a pass-rushing hammer.
Mingo suffers through some shaky moments on tape, especially against the run. Given the opportunity to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback, though, he might be as dangerous as any defensive player in this draft.
New Orleans must continue to add disruptive elements to its D. Mingo, whose time at LSU would make him an immediate fan favorite, fits the bill.
The Surprise: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
The NFC South's draft approach will be fascinating, with the Bucs, Panthers and Saints picking 13-14-15, in that order. And just as Patterson would have to be a consideration for Carolina at 14, so too would the Saints have to give the Tennessee receiver a second look should he drop this far.
For as much as New Orleans should try to improve its defense, this is a team that goes as Drew Brees and the offense does. That offense could use another big-play threat alongside Marques Colston and Lance Moore, someone to free up even more space for tight end Jimmy Graham. No other Saints receiver had more than 22 catches last season and that player, Devery Henderson, currently sits an unrestricted free agent.
This would be more a luxury pick than a need-filler, but Patterson could also elevate the Saints' passing attack.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First pick: Round 1, No. 13 overall
The Safe Route: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Ronde Barber has yet to decide if he'll return for the 2013 season, but it would further deplete a unit that already lost E.J. Biggers in free agency if he walks away. Biggers was the Bucs' most reliable corner for the majority of 2012; his departure plus last season's trade of Aqib Talib leaves Tampa Bay with Eric Wright and Leonard Johnson currently penciled in as starters -- leaving little hope that Tampa Bay could improve on the league's worst pass D.
Rhodes is a physical corner, who might turn into a terrific bump-and-run guy. Considering Tampa Bay scored in Round 1 last year with safety Mark Barron, nabbing Rhodes here would give the Buccaneers a sensational base for the future.
The Surprise: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
In part because the secondary could not stop anyone (thus, teams aired it against Tampa Bay more than 600 times), the Buccaneers finished No. 1 against the run last season. Second-rounder Lavonte David was critical to that effort; could Ogletree be this year's find at linebacker?
The Buccaneers have Mason Foster holding down the middle, so they do not necessarily need to make this pick. However Foster graded as the Bucs' second-worst defender in 2012, per Pro Football Focus, and there's been some chatter -- though Jonathan Casillas' signing should quiet it a bit -- that Foster eventually could slide outside. Ogletree could push Foster for the middle linebacker spot, while also providing some depth on the outside. Given that Foster, a 2011 third-rounder, has an extremely manageable contract, the Buccaneers have the opportunity to keep adding at linebacker.