NFC South draft grades: Falcons improve on both sides of ball

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks is performing a division-by-division assessment of the 2015 NFL Draft, spotlighting notable picks and handing out grades for each team. Below is his review of the NFC South. (NOTE: Click on the tabs to see other divisional breakdowns.)

Notable selections

BEST PICK: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson
Atlanta Falcons, Round 1, No. 8 overall

It's uncommon for the top pure pass rusher in the draft to come off the board outside of the top five selections, but the Falcons landed just that with the No. 8 pick. Beasley displays rare first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation off the edge. He has a toolbox full of tricks that allows him to routinely win against offensive tackles; the Clemson product excels with finesse and power. The Falcons desperately needed to come away from this draft with a disruptive pass-rushing specialist, so the team deserves credit for nabbing the premier edge rusher in the 2015 class.

MOST SURPRISING PICK: Shaq Thompson, LB/S, Washington
Carolina Panthers, Round 1, No. 25 overall

Coach Ron Rivera's defense-oriented approach has helped the Panthers build one of the top Ds in the NFL, but observers were shocked the team bypassed bigger needs to take a chance on a player without a true position. Thompson is a bit undersized to play linebacker, yet he lacks the agility and explosiveness to line up at safety in a pro scheme. While Thompson is an instinctive playmaker with two-way potential (he shined at linebacker and running back at Washington), expending a top pick on a player like this is a big gamble for general manager Dave Gettleman and his staff.

BIGGEST SLEEPER: P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State
New Orleans Saints, Round 3, No. 78 overall

Off-field issues and disappointing workout numbers torpedoed Williams' draft stock, but don't sleep on the cornerback's talent and polished game. He is a superb cover corner with the instincts and awareness to become a solid starter early in his career. While the Saints' coaching staff will need to work with Williams on a few technical flaws, he is a plug-and-play defender with Pro Bowl-caliber skills on the perimeter.

Team grades

NOTE: Draft hauls are ranked from best to worst within the division.

1) ATLANTA FALCONS: The Falcons have started to reshape their roster after enduring a pair of disappointing seasons that exposed deficiencies on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the team desperately needed to find a dynamic DPR (designated pass rusher) to upgrade an attack that mustered just 22 sacks in 2014 (worst in the NFC). Vic Beasley should make an immediate impact chasing down quarterbacks from the blind side. The Falcons continued to upgrade the defense with the selections of cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Collins, taken at No. 42 overall, gives the team the long, rangy corner needed to play aggressive bump-and-run coverage in new coach Dan Quinn's scheme. The Falcons also upgraded the explosiveness of their offense with the additions of running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Justin Hardy. Coleman is an electric one-cut back with the running style that perfectly matches the zone-based scheme Atlanta will use under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. GRADE: A

2) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Whenever a team is picking at the top of the board, it is imperative to land an elite player at a marquee position to ensure a return to respectability on the field. GM Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith are gambling on Jameis Winston's immense talent and potential as a franchise quarterback despite his character flaws. While the pick is an ideal fit based on scheme and personnel, the Buccaneers could see the move backfire if Winston fails to mature and display better judgment off the field. Adding Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet to the offensive line should solidify the protection in front of Winston. Although the young duo will experience growing pains as potential first-year starters, the rookies could form a solid nucleus that helps the Buccaneers grow into contenders in the NFC. Linebacker Kwon Alexander should be a special-teams dynamo in Year 1. GRADE: B+

3) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis were intent on reshaping the roster through a series of savvy moves on draft day. The Saints upgraded the offensive line with the selection Andrus Peat. The big-bodied left tackle isn't the nimblest athlete, but he displays the balance and body control to snuff out pass rushers on the edge. Also, he exhibits the power to move defenders off the ball in the running game -- that's essential, given New Orleans' desire to field a balanced offense. Defensively, the Saints added some toughness and athleticism with the selections of linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha and cornerback P.J. Williams. Those three should provide immediate contributions as rookie role players on a defense that should get back to its attacking ways under coordinator Rob Ryan. Williams, in particular, could be a key weapon as a physical corner with a diverse skill set. He could thrive as a sub-package defender in the Saints' aggressive defense. GRADE: B

4) CAROLINA PANTHERS: It takes three years to fully evaluate a draft class, but this Panthers haul certainly missed the mark when it came to filling the team's biggest needs. Carolina did not commit a high-value pick to a huge area of concern: offensive tackle. Moreover, the team opted to take a projection player in Round 1 instead of a proven commodity. Although Shaq Thompson is a dynamic defender with a strong nose for the ball, there are big-time concerns about his ability to ward off blockers and take down physical runners. Devin Funchess is certainly a talented pass catcher with extraordinary size and range, but he lacks the twitch and explosiveness to run past defenders on vertical routes. Questions about his overall consistency and separation skills make him a potential "boom or bust" selection. GRADE: C-

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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