NFC South rookie grades: Panthers restocked multiple positions


As coaches and general managers prepare to make potentially franchise-altering decisions in the 2015 NFL Draft, now is the perfect time to look back and see how the choices made last year played out on the field. Bucky Brooks is reviewing and grading each team's rookie class from 2014, as well as highlighting what organizations should hone in on at this month's NFL Scouting Combine -- continuing with the NFC South below. CLICK HERE FOR THE OTHER DIVISIONAL BREAKDOWNS.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons made a concerted effort to upgrade the size, athleticism and physicality of their offensive and defensive lines in the 2014 NFL Draft. Jake Matthews is expected to develop into a franchise-caliber offensive tackle with the skills to snuff out elite pass rushers off the edge. While he struggled in that capacity as a first-year starter, he possesses the tools to be a quality player in the NFL. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman delivered mixed results for the Falcons as a rookie starter. He provided a handful of splash plays at the point of attack, but he lacked the consistent production to make a significant impact along the front line. Devonta Freeman is an intriguing change-of-pace back, based on his production in limited action. If he can master the nuances of pass protection, he could play a major role in the system of new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Grade: C+

Combine focus: For all the work Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli have done from the front office to reshape the Falcons' roster, the team still lacks a dominant defensive presence on the edge. Atlanta finished with just 22 sacks (tied for 30th) in 2014. This will prompt the Falcons to focus their efforts on finding a dynamic pass rusher. Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Missouri's Shane Ray and Florida's Dante Fowler will garner significant interest from team officials in Indianapolis.

Carolina Panthers

Critics will suggest that the Panthers' sub-.500 record is indicative of a disappointing season, but the team claimed the NFC South title and won a playoff game -- thanks in no small part to the efforts of a superb 2014 class. The team got a 1,000-yard season from Kelvin Benjamin, who provided the NFL with a glimpse of his potential dominance as a WR1. Trai Turner shored up the interior of the offensive line and paved the way for Jonathan Stewart to make an impact in key moments. The defense started to flex its muscles when Tre Boston and Bene' Benwikere were inserted into the secondary down the stretch. Benwikere in particular played exceptionally well over the final month of the season, blanketing premier receivers in one-on-one coverage. With Carolina also receiving solid contributions from an undrafted free agent (receiver Philly Brown), there is a lot to like about the Panthers' rookie class. Grade: A-

Combine focus: The Panthers have to upgrade the protection around Cam Newton to help the quarterback take the next step in his development. Thus, the team will spend a lot of time assessing an intriguing offensive tackle class at the NFL Scouting Combine. This will put Stanford's Andrus Peat, Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings, Miami's Ereck Flowers and Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi under the microscope. With the team in desperate need of an edge blocker capable of playing on either side, Carolina will take a long, hard look at each player working through the battery of agility drills in Indy.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints attempted to remake their roster with a host of young players expected to occupy key roles. Brandin Cooks certainly looks like a keeper as a dynamic slot receiver with home-run potential. He was on pace for an 80-catch season before a broken thumb prematurely ended his rookie year. If Cooks returns to form in 2015, New Orleans will have a young, explosive playmaker to build around for the future. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste didn't play up to his draft slot, but he is a long, rangy athlete with the potential to be a solid starter. He needs some work, but his physical tools will give him a chance to be a good player on the perimeter. Vinnie Sunseri is a special-teams maven with tremendous instincts, while Ronald Powell is a bit of a wild card as a developmental prospect. Grade: C-

Combine focus: The Saints' defense took a huge step back last season -- dropping from fourth in total D in 2013 to 31st -- with the pass rush failing to generate consistent pressure. New Orleans will have an eye on Missouri's Shane Ray, Nebraska's Randy Gregory and Florida's Dante Fowler as possible upgrades along the front line. Additionally, leaky coverage in the back end suggests the team needs to spend some time investigating the cornerback market to find better solutions on the perimeter. Michigan State's Trae Waynes, Washington's Marcus Peters and Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson will garner interest.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers put forth dismal offensive production in 2014 (30th in total yardage). Still, the team landed a solid nucleus of young playmakers in Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Charles Sims. The trio has the potential to light up the scoreboard, particularly with Evans emerging as a legitimate WR1. The big-bodied receiver dominated the NFC South with a combination of size, strength and athleticism, which is exactly what a team wants from a top-10 pick. Sims battled through an ankle injury as a first-year pro, but his flashes in limited action suggest he could be a three-down back going forward. With Seferian-Jenkins also showing glimpses of big-time talent, the Bucs could have a formidable offense, provided the team can identify the right triggerman in the near future. Grade: B

Combine on NFL Network
In advance of the draft, Marcus Mariota and others will look to showcase their skills at the combine (Feb. 17-23), only on NFL Network. SCHEDULE

Combine focus: The Buccaneers must solve their quarterback problem to compete with the elite teams in the NFC. The Marcus Mariota-Jameis Winston debate will dominate the conversation in Tampa Bay's war room until scouts are able to determine which guy is the right player to lead the team into the future. Each signal-caller possesses unique skills and exceptional leadership ability, but scheme fit and character assessment ultimately will decide who dons a Buccaneers helmet on opening day. Given the opportunity to dig into each player's background profile and athletic ability in a four-day "interview" at the NFL Scouting Combine, team officials could make their decision by the end of the event.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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