Bucky Brooks is performing a division-by-division assessment of the 2014 NFL Draft, spotlighting notable picks and handing out grades for each team. You'll find the NFC South evaluation below; click here for other divisional breakdowns.
The presence of three legitimate franchise quarterbacks seemingly would make this a division governed by the pass, but defense could rule the day in 2014, with Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay sporting dominant units. Thus, it was imperative for decision-makers to use the draft to upgrade their respective offenses, while continuing to add disruptive defenders where appropriate. With the NFC South perennially rating as one of the NFL's most competitive divisions, the personnel decisions made during last week's three-day event could significantly influence a tight race.
NFC South notables
Sean Payton is arguably the league's top play-caller, with a knack for putting his best offensive weapons in position to hit home runs. Cooks is a polished pass catcher with explosive speed, quickness and burst. While some miscast Cooks as strictly a slot receiver, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner (given to the top college receiver) is a versatile player with the skills to wreak havoc from any spot on the field. Given Payton's masterful scheming and the offseason trade of Darren Sproles, Cooks quickly could become the X-factor in the Saints' lineup.
General manager Dave Gettleman's affinity for big, athletic defenders comes from his positive experiences with the New York Giants, but critics instantly wondered why the Panthers bypassed a pressing need at offensive tackle to select yet another pass rusher. The thought of ignoring a glaring hole on Cam Newton's blind side surely led to some head-scratching around Charlotte. Of course, Gettleman and Co. could've viewed Ealy as a value pick based on his immense potential. And when the pick was made, the Panthers undoubtedly were considering the unclear future of pass rusher Greg Hardy, given his impending free agency following this season. Then, on Tuesday, Hardy was arrested on a domestic assault charge, which obviously adds to the uncertainty going forward.
The devaluation of running backs in the draft process is a little perplexing, but dynamic feature backs are still coveted by savvy offensive coordinators around the league. Sims is a legitimate dual-threat from the backfield, boasting receiving skills that almost exceed his natural running ability. With a polished game that reminds some of Matt Forte, Sims is an every-down back ideally suited to play in offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's scheme.
Note: Click on team names to see complete draft classes.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Thomas Dimitroff was intent on building a bigger, tougher, nastier unit in the trenches this offseason after watching the Dirty Birds get pushed around last season. The Falcons GM stuck to his plan during free agency and continued to follow the script in the 2014 NFL Draft, selecting offensive tackle Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall and defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman in Round 2. Matthews steps in to alleviate the protection concerns around Matt Ryan, while Hageman gives defensive coordinator Mike Nolan a big, versatile athlete to add to the mix in a hybrid front. The Falcons scooped up an explosive change-of-pace weapon in Devonta Freeman to spice up a running game that ranked last in the NFL in 2013. GRADE: B
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Since winning the division last season with a patchwork roster, the Panthers have lost two franchise players (WR Steve Smith and OT Jordan Gross) and a host of key contributors. Although Gettleman has plugged a few holes in free agency, the team needed to find a few blue-chippers at marquee positions to remain among the NFC's elite. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin certainly has game-changing potential as a big-bodied touchdown-maker with exceptional ball skills. He expands the strike zone for Newton in the red zone while giving the Pro Bowl quarterback a go-to receiver in the mold of Panther great Muhsin Muhammad. Given the mounting uncertainty around Hardy, the Ealy selection holds increased significance. Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere are intriguing secondary defenders with the potential to slide into key roles as rookies. Gettleman couldn't address all of the team's biggest needs during the draft, but he snatched up a handful of athletic talents with upside. GRADE: C+
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: The Saints are one of the few NFL teams that boasts a stingy defense and an explosive offense. Payton and Co. ensured the balanced dominance would continue by expending top picks on blue-chip talents on both sides of the ball. The Saints aggressively moved up seven spots in Round 1 to snag Cooks at No. 20. The diminutive speedster is a well-rounded receiver with skills to play on the outside or in the slot in Payton's system. Not only will Cooks replace free-agent departee Lance Moore's production as a between-the-hashes playmaker; he'll also take over Sproles' role as a matchup nightmare. Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan another long, rangy corner to use in press coverage. Although the young defender has to work through some rough spots in his game, his development should be accelerated by the presence of veterans Champ Bailey and Keenan Lewis. Vinnie Sunseri will be a special teams demon, with the potential to also fill a role as a No. 3 safety in sub-packages. GRADE: B+
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Buccaneers newbies Jason Licht and Lovie Smith were expected to focus on building a defensive juggernaut in Tampa -- based largely on Smith's reputation as one of the game's top defensive minds -- but the Bucs are quietly constructing an offensive powerhouse. The team added some basketball-type athletes on the perimeter, using their first two picks on receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Both guys are red-zone weapons with the size, strength and ball skills to overwhelm undersized defenders near the end zone. Throw in Sims' diverse skill set, and it's not hard to envision Tedford creating matchup problems all over the field. After finishing at the bottom of the league in total offense last year, the Bucs now have the potential to make a major turnaround in 2014. For that, Tampa's draft effort deserves top honors from evaluators. GRADE: A-
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