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NFC South rookie grades: Saints strike gold with young talent

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With the 2017 NFL campaign in the rearview, draft season's about to kick into high gear. But before we completely shift over to the Class of 2018, let's review the returns from this past season's crop of rookies. Division-by-division, we're providing grades on each team's 2017 draft class, as well as identifying areas that must be upgraded this offseason. Jeremy Bergman examines the NFC South below.

Atlanta Falcons

Round 1: (No. 26 overall) Takkarist McKinley, DE, 16 games/0 starts.
Round 3: (75) Duke Riley, LB, 12 games/6 starts.
Round 4: (136) Sean Harlow, OG, 0 games/0 starts.
Round 5: (149) Damontae Kazee, CB, 16 games/1 start; (156) Brian Hill, RB, 1 game/0 starts; (174) Eric Saubert, TE, 14 games/0 starts.

The Falcons needed help in the front seven, and they got it when they traded up for McKinley. A hyperemotional fan favorite from Day 1, Takk further endeared himself to Atlantans with a six-sack rookie season, nearly matching top overall pick Myles Garrett. But outside of the rambunctious pass rusher, the Falcons saw little initial return on their draft investments. Riley, Kazee and Saubert played for a sizable part of their first seasons, but the #JuryIsOut on all of them. Riley suffered a midseason knee injury that kept him from improving and cementing a starting role, and both Riley and Kazee played in less than a quarter of Atlanta's defensive snaps. GRADE: C+

Combine/free agency focus: The Falcons' roster is not that different than the one that made the Super Bowl a year ago, but that doesn't mean it's not in need of re-evaluation. Atlanta could potentially lose its top slot receiver (Taylor Gabriel), top return man (Andre Roberts) and leading sack master (Adrian Clayborn) to free agency. If the Falcons can manage to secure a hometown discount for any of those three or Dontari Poe, that would save a lot of work and worry. In advance of the 2019 offseason, when the Falcons are slated to lose three offensive linemen and Matt Schaub, Atlanta should target tackles and guards in the first few rounds and a quarterback of the distant future in the later goings.

Carolina Panthers

Round 1: (No. 8 overall) Christian McCaffrey, RB, 16 games/10 starts.
Round 2: (40) Curtis Samuel, WR, 9 games/4 starts; (64) Taylor Moton, OG, 16 games/0 starts.
Round 3: (77) Daeshon Hall, DE, 1 game/0 starts.
Round 5: (152) Corn Elder, CB, 0 games/0 starts.
Round 6: (192) Alex Armah, FB, 9 games/0 start.
Round 7: (233) Harrison Butker, K, 13 games/0 starts (with Kansas City).
Notable rookie FA signings: Bryan Cox, DE, 7 games/0 starts.

McCaffrey was not a surprise selection on draft night, but he did come with risks attached -- namely, that he was not considered an every-down, between-the-tackles runner. While he didn't quite prove his critics wrong there, McCaffrey proved to be the perfect back for today's NFL, where pass-catching RBs are oft-utilized hot commodities -- the rookie was third among running backs in receptions (80). Unfortunately, outside of the first round, Carolina's picks didn't quite bear fruit. Samuel, seemingly primed to pair with McCaffrey, was an enigma and placed on IR, as was Elder. Butker, their best late-round selection, was a stud under pressure ... but not for the Panthers. GRADE: B-

Combine/free agency focus: Carolina's most vital offseason task will be keeping free-agent All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell in house. Holding a prime spot on Gregg Rosenthal's free-agent rankings, Norwell is an asset Carolina can't afford to lose, especially with a "speedbump" next to him at left tackle. The Panthers must also improve their wide receiver room, by any means necessary. After Carolina offloaded Kelvin Benjamin in the middle of the season, Cam Newton was left with Devin Funchess and a barely serviceable motley crew of pass-catchers. Carolina could use a reliable underneath option, like Jarvis Landry or Marqise Lee, to diversify its aerial attack.

New Orleans Saints

Round 1: (11) Marshon Lattimore, CB, 13 games/13 starts; (32) Ryan Ramczyk, OT, 16 games/16 starts.
Round 2: (42) Marcus Williams, S, 15 games/15 starts.
Round 3: (67) Alvin Kamara, RB, 16 games/3 starts; (76) Alex Anzalone, LB, 4 games/4 starts; (103) Trey Hendrickson, DE, 12 games/0 starts.
Round 6: (196) Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE, 4 games/0 starts.
Notable rookie FA signings: Justin Hardee, ST, 14 games/0 starts; Taysom Hill, ST, 5 games/0 starts.

When four players in your draft class make the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team and two of your first-years sweep the Rookie of the Year categories for the first time since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew, to be clear), you get one perfect draft grade. New Orleans' haul in 2017, reeled in by Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland, is an historic achievement. Lattimore and Williams led the team with five and four interceptions, respectively, with the former securing the most first-place votes in any category at NFL Honors (45). Ramczyk was just one of three rookie offensive linemen to start all 16 games. Kamara was a revelation at running back, terrorizing defenses with slippery elusiveness and devastating acceleration, en route to 1,901 all-purpose yards and 14 total touchdowns. GRADE: A+

Combine/free agency focus: After re-signing Drew Brees -- which, according to him, is an inevitability -- New Orleans must fix its eyes on building depth at vulnerable positions. The Saints could use some speed in the front seven, especially at inside linebacker and pass rusher opposite Cameron Jordan. New Orleans must look at free-agent and rookie safeties to compensate for Kenny Vaccaro's potential exit. But the Saints' offseason won't be viewed as a success unless there is a clear, concerted effort to find and secure the heir apparent to the 39-year-old Brees. For such a player, New Orleans will likely look to the draft, where there just so happens to be an undersized signal-caller drawing comparisons to Brees.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Round 1: (No. 19 overall) O.J. Howard, TE, 14 games/14 starts.
Round 2: (50) Justin Evans, S, 14 games/11 starts.
Round 3: (84) Chris Godwin, WR, 16 games/2 starts; (107) Kendell Beckwith, LB, 16 games/9 starts.
Round 5: (162) Jeremy McNichols, RB, 2 games/0 starts.
Round 7: (223) Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, NT, 0 games/0 starts.
Notable rookie FA signings: Antony Auclair, TE, 8 games/3 starts; Bobo Wilson, WR, 3 games/1 start.

After drafting marquee bowl-game heroes Howard and Godwin, Tampa Bay saw its offense's expectations shoot higher and faster than a Raymond James cannonball. While the Bucs' season was full of more hard knocks and hard times than expected, Tampa should revel in its underappreciated rookie class. Howard was arguably the league's top rookie tight end, tying New York's Evan Engram for second-most TD catches (six) of all rookies. Godwin started slow, but finished strong and with one hell of a good omen: A game-winning TD, his first score, on the last offensive play of the season. No Bucs defensive player played more snaps than Beckwith, while Evans looked to be a future fixture at safety before being placed on IR. GRADE: B+

Combine/free agency focus: Find a pass rush. Somewhere. Tampa Bay paced all 32 teams in defensive ineptitude, and recorded a league-low 22 sacks, despite boasting a promising front seven. Ezekiel Ansah could be a target in free agency, but the Bucs should also tackle this issue in the draft (Bradley Chubb, perhaps). With Brent Grimes and T.J. Ward primed for free agency, Tampa Bay should also target defensive backs on the open market. After Doug Martin's lackluster year, it's time for the Bucs to explore more solid options at running back. Oh, and find a damn kicker!

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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