Projecting the NFL Draft: NFC South

Tuesday April 7th, 2015

 

2015 NFL Draft: Projecting the NFC South’s problems and solutions

 

 

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Falcons’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Two critical components of new head coach Dan Quinn’s scheme: strong, lanky cornerbacks and explosive edge rushers. One big problem: the Falcons have neither. Their only corner fit for the new system is Desmond Trufant. He’s hardly the prototype at 6-0, 190 pounds, but he’s an exceptional talent. Most likely, he’ll play the slot in nickel, which means the Falcons could pursue two new outside corners if the right guys remain on the board. This draft is much richer in pass rushers, though. Expect Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to address that position first, especially given that free-agent pickup Adrian Clayborn, who is better as a complementary strongside player, is coming off a biceps injury that wiped out most of his 2014 season. Fellow free-agent pickup O’Brien Schofield is a backup.

 

Middle linebacker could be considered another need considering Paul Worrilow’s limited size. But the free agent signings of Brooks Reed and Justin Durant suggest this position will be left alone. (There should be some concern about Reed, who has never played in a true 4-3.)

 

More important are the needs on offense. There are gaping holes at left guard and right tackle. There’s also a chance that 33-year-old wideout Roddy White has run out of gas. He now has a tough time recovering from injuries, even minor ones, which has hindered him in getting in and out of breaks. Dimitroff traded a king’s ransom to move up and draft Julio Jones in 2011, with the hopes of building an offense around a pair of superstar receivers. Now he needs to draft at least a viable intermediate receiver to play opposite the one true game-changer he has left.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North

 

 

 

 Falcons’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

Dan Quinn had great success in Seattle with Bruce Irvin, a lightning-quick pass rusher who came out of West Virginia a tad light. Let’s get Quinn his own version in Atlanta. At No. 8, the Falcons will have their pick of speedy pass rushers. The question is do they want one of the more conventional ones (Missouri’s Shane Ray or Clemson’s Vic Beasley) or do they want the long, freaky one (Nebraska’s Randy Gregory)? Quinn could have a lot of fun with any of the three.

 

If Quinn wants to use the cornerback archetype he and Pete Carroll preferred in Seattle, there is a chance he can grab the player with the most potential to turn into what he wants at No. 42. LSU’s Jalen Collins is raw (10 collegiate starts), but physically he’s exactly what Quinn wants. At the combine, Collins measured 6-1 and weighed 203 pounds, with 32 1/8-inch arms. That’s the kind of length that works best in this defense. He’s plenty fast (4.48-second 40), but he needs coaching. If Collins jumps into the first round, another possibility is Quentin Rollins of Miami (Ohio), who spent four years as a Division I point guard before spending his final year of college eligibility as a cornerback.

 

There should be plenty of guards available in the third round. Florida State’s Tre Jackson could be around, as could Ali Marpet, the former Hobart College tackle who more than held his own against potential first- and second-rounders at the Senior Bowl. At right tackle, Alabama’s Austin Shepherd should be available in the late middle portion of the draft. So should Wisconsin’s Rob Havenstein, a 6-7, 321-pounder who blew open holes for Melvin Gordon in college.

 

If the Falcons are looking for a receiver in the middle to late rounds, a player to consider is Baylor’s Antwan Goodley. The 5-10 Goodley weighed 209 at the combine, but assuming he gets back to his playing weight in college (220-225)—which Bears coaches and teammates say doesn’t alter his speed—he could be a matchup nightmare in the slot or play outside and use his speed to outrun cornerbacks as he did at Baylor.

 

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Panthers’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Drafting Kelvin Benjamin late in the first round last year was a good first step in the rebuilding efforts at wide receiver. The next step should be finding a threat who can take the top off a coverage on every down. Ted Ginn has wheels but little else; he doesn’t fit the bill. And Benjamin, while tremendous at high-pointing the ball, does not possess frightening speed. He’s more likely to draw a double-team from a corner and linebacker, rather than a corner and safety. Of course, deep threats only matter if your O-line can sustain blocks for a seven-step drop. The signing of Michael Oher ameliorates some of the line’s issues, but one more tackle is sorely needed. And preferably a left one, though that seems unlikely because those tend to go in the first round. Plus, GM Dave Gettleman has already declared that Oher is moving back to the blind side, even though Oher has demonstrated, and said on record, that he’s better at right tackle.

 

Defensively, Greg Hardy’s absence showed last season. To find a similar caliber inside-outside pass-rushing force, the Panthers would have to trade up in the first round. Most likely they won’t, given that Kony Ealy was taken in the second round a year ago. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad move. Pass rushers are paramount for any defense that likes to play a straight 4-3 zone.

 

Lastly, Carolina must find a strong safety to replace Roman Harper and his eviscerated legs to start alongside 2014 fourth-round pick Tre Boston.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North

 

 

 

Panthers’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

Picking at No. 25 makes grabbing an elite pass rusher tough, but there could be several excellent choices at receiver should the Panthers choose to go that route. Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong (6-2, 217) can turn short throws into big gains and make acrobatic catches while being covered. Pairing him with Kelvin Benjamin might give Carolina the most physical duo of receivers in the league. The same physicality—plus a little more freakish athleticism—is available with Auburn receiver Sammie Coates, but Strong showed more consistent hands in college. If the Panthers are comfortable with the off-the-field issues that got Dorial Green-Beckham thrown out at Missouri, they could take him and have almost 13 combined feet of receiver between Benjamin and Green-Beckham. The Twin Towers would be a tough matchup for any secondary.

 

At No. 57, the Panthers might be able to grab Utah’s Nate Orchard to fill their pass-rushing void. The 6-3, 251-pound Orchard showed during Senior Bowl practices that he can play as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but a team could get plenty of production out of him as a 4-3 defensive end. That’s what he played for the Utes, and he was a relentless rusher from that spot.

 

At tackle, Penn State’s Donovan Smith, Oregon’s Jake Fisher or Oklahoma’s Tyrus Thompson might be available when the Panthers select in the third round. Any of the three could provide good value at this point, and Fisher or Thompson might be athletic enough to wind up playing left tackle.

 

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Saints’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, Saints GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton have traded away another major offensive contributor. It’s no secret that the longtime co-conspirators are bent on revamping a defense that ranked second-to-last in yards allowed last season. Loomis and Payton believe that as long as they have Drew Brees, their offensive system can manufacture production. Maybe it can. But even though this held true in games that Jimmy Graham missed last season, the theory shouldn’t be tested without first finding a replacement for the three-time Pro Bowl tight end. The Saints don’t need a star, they just need an athletic dynamo who can line up along the front line or split out wide, forcing defenses to make tough decisions about what personnel package to play.

 

As for revamping the defense: the addition of corner Brandon Browner helps an embattled secondary that’s also getting Jairus Byrd back (he struggled mightily last year in Rob Ryan’s system before tearing his lateral meniscus in early October; the hope is those struggles were an aberration from his track record). Even with Browner’s arrival, there’s still a need at cornerback. Whoever fills the need had better be able to play the slot.

 

Dumping inside linebacker Curtis Lofton for Dannell Ellerbe could prove to be a downgrade given how tenacious Lofton was in this scheme. Ellerbe missed virtually all of last season with a hip injury, an injury that can spark ancillary issues in the back and hamstrings. Most likely, the Saints will determine that their inside linebacker position is set, which makes them potential players in this deep market of high-round pass rushers. Some might believe Ryan’s scheme doesn’t require dynamic edge-rushers because of all the blitzing. That’s true with Rex’s scheme, but not Rob’s, which is far more coverage-based.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North

 

 

 

Saints’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

With two picks in the first round, the Saints can make some significant upgrades. Meanwhile, they can wait until the second round to find a player to fill Jimmy Graham’s spot.

 

If Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes is on the board at No. 13, the Saints should grab him and start him opposite Browner. Waynes is the best cornerback in the draft. If Waynes isn’t around, one of those rushers (Ray, Beasley or Gregory) should still be available. If they draft a rusher first, they should take a cornerback at No. 31. Depending on how teams view his behavior issues in college, Washington’s Marcus Peters might still be available. Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson might be hanging around as well. If the Saints get Waynes, a rusher such as Mississippi State’s Preston Smith or UCLA’s Owamagbe Odhigizuwa might then be available. Neither is flashy, but both are reliable rushers and edge-setters who are more athletic than they got credit for in college.

 

At No. 44, the Saints can take the man who will take over Graham’s role. If he’s still around, they could grab Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, a 6-4, 249-pounder who averaged 16.2 yards a catch in two seasons for the Golden Gophers. But what the Saints should seriously consider is taking Michigan receiver Devin Funchess and playing him in the “Graham position.” Funchess measured 6-4 and 232 pounds at the combine and turned in a 4.7 40 and a 38.5-inch vertical jump. More important, his draft stock is suffering because he often had to bail out an offense that simply couldn’t block for its quarterback. And he did it while playing through a severe toe injury. Funchess told MLive.com last week that he’s still dealing with pain from the injury. A healthy Funchess would perplex defenses. He’s too big to be covered one-on-one by a cornerback or a safety, and too fast to be covered one-on-one by a linebacker. That’s exactly what made Graham so dangerous.

 

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Buccaneers’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Drafting Jameis Winston would make perfect sense considering not only the Bucs’ dire need at quarterback, but also the type of system they want to run. With wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans outside, and Dirk Koetter now the coordinator, this offense is tailored for a drop-back passing game. Winston is a true pocket passer.

 

But Winston’s arrival won’t solve everything. The Bucs still have a horrible—even pathetic—front five. Upgrades at any of the five positions would not be hard to stumble upon. Improvements up front, along with a healthy Doug Martin, should boost a running game that ranked 29th overall and 24th in yards per attempt last season.

 

Going back to the passing attack, Jackson and Evans can win jump balls on the perimeter, but neither has great quickness as a route runner. There’s a general lack of speed in this passing attack, which makes it easier to prepare for. Getting a true burner in the middle or even early in the later rounds would be huge.

 

Huger still would be finding an edge rusher to give Lovie Smith’s vanilla zone scheme some teeth. Jacquies Smith was a very pleasant surprise last year, but he’s not a cornerstone piece. The Bucs have good gap penetrators inside with free agent pickup Henry Melton, last year’s free agent pickup Clinton McDonald and, of course, Gerald McCoy, the league-wide bar-setter in this department. But these guys can only do so much without more talent lining up outside them.

 

* * * * *

More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North

 

 

 

Buccaneers’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

For the first time since we started this exercise, I feel confident that I will correctly predict a pick. The Buccaneers will take Florida State’s Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick. Wow. That was easy. See you next week.

 

OK, I suppose we can discuss the rest of Tampa Bay’s draft. At No. 34, the Bucs can take the best offensive lineman left on the board. If that’s Florida State’s Cam Erving, great. He can play all five positions. But he’ll probably be gone because he can play all five positions. So maybe Tampa Bay goes with Pittsburgh tackle T.J. Clemmings or South Carolina guard A.J. Cann.

 

If the Bucs want blistering speed at receiver, they’ll be too late here to take Miami’s Phillip Dorsett. That’s OK. They should be able to select Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett. He wouldn’t beat Dorsett in a race, but Lockett is better at getting open and grabbing a thrown football from the air—which is kind of the job description.

 

Later, the Bucs might be able to take Hillsborough County’s own Anthony Chickillo, who was miscast as a 3-4 defensive end at Miami. Put him in a 4-3 like the one the Bucs run and he’ll prosper.

 

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