NFC South draft grades: Panthers' new Peppers? Saints optimize

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Why provide instant grades on the selections of prospects who have yet to take an NFL snap? Well, you're reading this, aren't you? Considering the makeup of every roster and the factors surrounding each pick, Gennaro Filice and Dan Parr attempt a division-by-division assessment of the 2019 NFL Draft. Below is Gennaro's review of the NFC South.

NOTABLE SELECTIONS

BEST PICK: Brian Burns, DE, Florida State
Carolina Panthers, Round 1, No. 16 overall

It doesn't take a grizzled tape eater to appreciate Burns' elite get-off. The way he explodes off the edge is immediately noticeable to the naked eye. It's his calling card. But Burns is no one-trick pony -- the freshly minted 21-year-old hits the NFL with an extremely advanced pass-rushing arsenal. Possessing smooth footwork, refined hand technique and physics-defying bend, Burns mixes and matches spin moves and stutter-steps and jump-cuts and swim moves and rip moves and two-hand swats and on and on and on. The one thing that he lacks -- the thing that kept him on the board long enough for Carolina to pounce -- is a pure power game. He doesn't have a bull rush, rarely converting speed to power. This is a result of his physical makeup, which is long on athleticism and short on bulk. Despite possessing the kind of length NFL types love at 6-foot-5, Burns had to stack on weight just to reach 249 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. This makes some scouts nervous. But here's an interesting note: Von Miller weighed 246 pounds at the combine. Khalil Mack? 251. Those guys seem to fare OK on Sundays. And with a pair of heavyweights pushing the pocket from the inside -- SEE: 313-pound Kawann Short and 346-pound Dontari Poe -- Burns is in a perfect situation to do his thing. Julius Peppers, your edge is in good hands.

MOST SURPRISING PICK: Matt Gay, K, Utah
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Round 5, No. 145 overall

Gay just became the second kicker selected in the top 150 picks of the past eight NFL drafts. The first? He who must not be named. (Earmuffs, Bucs fans ... Roberto Aguayo.) Yup, for the first time since Tampa Bay spent a second-round pick (No. 59 overall) on the most accurate placekicker in college football history -- a move that was immediately lampooned ... and then lampooned A WHOLE LOT MORE when Aguayo was cut after one season -- the Buccaneers drafted a kicker. The selection, executed in the midst of the long Saturday slog that is Day 3 of draft weekend, made everyone stop in their tracks -- including the greatest kicker in franchise history. "I was shocked," Martin Gramatica told FOX 13. "After the Aguayo thing, that's all you hear. If you hear any negatively about Jason Licht, it's Aguayo." The Aguayo thing -- that's a good way to put it, Martin. Licht says Aguayo's epic bust wasn't taken into consideration last Saturday. "You wouldn't say the same thing for a receiver," Licht remarked, via ESPN. "If a receiver didn't work out a couple years ago that you took in the second round, would you be afraid to take a receiver in the fifth round? No." Totally fair. But let's be honest, Jason: Gay BETTER work out. Can't have another Aguayo thing.

BIGGEST SLEEPER: John Cominsky, DE, Charleston (WV)
Atlanta Falcons, Round 4, No. 135 overall

In the compensatory-picks section at the end of Round 4, Atlanta made a move nobody noticed for a player no one knew. The Falcons gave Oakland a seventh-round pick to skip up from No. 137 to 135 and select Cominsky, a defensive end out of Division II Charleston, which hadn't produced an NFL draft pick in 80 years. As NFL Network's Peter Schrager chronicled earlier this week on "Good Morning Football," Cominsky actually showed up at the small West Virginia school as a 210-pound option quarterback back in 2014. Over the next five years, he bulked up to a robust 286 pounds -- apparently, the formula was quite simple: weight-room dedication + pizza annihilation -- and then he blew out the combine. Ranking second among all defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash (4.69) and three-cone drill (7.03), as well as third in the broad jump (9-foot-8), Cominsky was a bona fide freak show. That's Thomas Dimitroff's type. Not to mention, the Falcons GM and Cominsky just happen to share the same birthplace: Barberton, Ohio. So that's fun. Now, Cominsky's a project, to be sure. A blunt instrument on the defensive line with minimal pass-rushing refinement, he's about to take a gargantuan step up in competition. But this is the "sleeper" section, right?

TEAM GRADES

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

RANK

1

PANTHERS: A

» Round 1: (No. 16 overall) Brian Burns, DE, Florida State.
» Round 2: (No. 37) Greg Little, OT, Mississippi.
» Round 3: (No. 100) Will Grier, QB, West Virginia.
» Round 4: (No. 115) Christian Miller, DE, Alabama.
» Round 5: (No. 154) Jordan Scarlett, RB, Florida.
» Round 6: (No. 212) Dennis Daley, OT, South Carolina.
» Round 7: (No. 237) Terry Godwin, WR, Georgia.

Stop me if you're heard this before ... It's a quarterback league. No, seriously, though: Everything revolves around the position, as evidenced by the Panthers' first three picks of this draft. Carolina snatched up Burns to pressure opposing quarterbacks -- something he did quite well last season, leading all Power Five pass rushers with 69 pressures by Pro Football Focus' count. Considering Carolina ranked 27th in sacks last year and Julius Peppers retired this offseason, the Panthers need immediate returns from the No. 16 overall pick with the shotgun-blast get-off and bag o' pass-rushing tricks. In Round 2, Carolina traded up and nabbed an athletic offensive tackle to protect its most valuable investment. The Panthers must do everything to safeguard Cam Newton, whose body has taken quite a beating over eight NFL campaigns, with the QB having just undergone his second shoulder surgery in three years. During his final two seasons at Ole Miss, Little allowed a grand total of 26 pressures over 993 pass-blocking snaps. (Even stats-hostile GM Marty Hurney's impressed by that figure!) Then in Round 3, Carolina snagged a backup quarterback in Grier. Remember a few sentences ago, when we discussed Newton's unclean bill of health? Not the worst idea to upgrade the rest of the QB room. It's a quarterback league, after all.

RANK

2

BUCCANEERS: A-

» Round 1: (No. 5 overall) Devin White, LB, LSU.
» Round 2: (No. 39) Sean Bunting, CB, Central Michigan.
» Round 3: (No. 94) Jamel Dean, CB, Auburn; (No. 99) Mike Edwards, S, Kentucky.
» Round 4: (No. 107) Anthony Nelson, DE, Iowa.
» Round 5: (No. 145) Matt Gay, K, Utah.
» Round 6: (No. 208) Scott Miller, WR, Bowling Green State.
» Round 7: (No. 215) Terry Beckner Jr., DT, Missouri.

The White selection was the least surprising pick of this draft. Any mock that didn't have the Bucs taking the LSU linebacker at No. 5 was produced by a Russian troll farm. What was at least mildly surprising, though, was Tampa Bay taking defensive players with its first five picks. Not saying this was the wrong approach -- the bulk of this team's needs were indeed on the defensive side of the ball -- but those were the first five picks of the Bruce Arians era. We're talkin' Mr. No Risk It, No Biscuit here, an offensive guru through and through. That said, Tampa's defense has been a mess for years, giving up the second-most points in the NFL last season, so Arians essentially didn't have a choice. White is the obvious crown jewel -- and one of the most widely approved prospects in this entire draft class -- as a do-it-all middle linebacker who will become the heartbeat of this defense in short order. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likes long corners with press-man ability, so that's what Jason Licht got him in Bunting and Dean. Bowles also relies heavily on safety versatility, seeking cerebral guys who can cover, play an aggressive enforcer role and get after quarterbacks via the blitz. That's basically the scouting report on Edwards. Nelson posted some impressive testing numbers at the combine, but the Iowa defensive end didn't always display his athletic gifts on tape. As for drafting a kicker early in the fifth round? Well, at least it wasn't the second round.

RANK

T-3

FALCONS: B

» Round 1: (No. 14 overall) Christopher Lindstrom, OG, Boston College.
» Round 2: (No. 31) Kaleb McGary, OT, Washington.
» Round 4: (No. 111) Kendall Sheffield, CB, Ohio State; (No. 135) John Cominsky, DE, Charleston (WV).
» Round 5: (No. 152) Qadree Ollison, RB, Pittsburgh; (No. 172) Jordan Miller, CB, Washington.
» Round 6: (No. 203) Marcus Green, RB, Louisiana-Monroe.

Since turf toe sidelined him for a pair of games as a second-year pro back in 2009, Matt Ryan hasn't missed a single start. Counting the postseason, that's 156 straight games for the Iceman. But seasons like 2018 -- when the Falcons couldn't keep their franchise QB upright, as Ryan took the second-most sacks of his NFL career (42) -- threaten to end the streak. Thomas Dimitroff knew this, making offensive line the priority of the entire offseason. After signing guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter in free agency, the Falcons GM scooped up a pair of O-linemen in Round 1 -- only the fifth time that's happened in the common draft era. Lindstrom and McGary are road graders, too, boosting an Atlanta ground game that ranked just 27th last season. Related note: The Falcons also brought aboard Ollison, a power back who'll compete for carries behind Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith. On the defensive side of the ball, Dimitroff spent a pair of fourth-round picks on traitsy projects: Sheffield's a blazing-fast CB with unrefined coverage skills, while Cominsky's a workout warrior who'll need time to make the transition from Division II to the NFL.

RANK

T-3

SAINTS: B

» Round 2: (No. 48 overall) Erik McCoy, C, Texas A&M.
» Round 4: (No. 105) Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S, Florida.
» Round 6: (No. 177) Saquan Hampton, S, Rutgers.
» Round 7: (No. 231) Alize Mack, TE, Notre Dame; (No. 244) Kaden Elliss, LB, Idaho.

Although the Saints lacked a first-round pick -- thanks to last year's draft-day trade for Marcus Davenport -- they did a fine job addressing their most pressing need. The unexpected retirement of Pro Bowler Max Unger back in March left a gaping hole at center. New Orleans signed OG/C Nick Easton in free agency, but his presence clearly didn't put the pivot question to bed. And on Friday night, the Saints vaulted up from No. 62 to 48 in order to draft McCoy. Ranked as the No. 2 center prospect and a top-40 overall player by Daniel Jeremiah and Gil Brandt, McCoy appears to be the total package at center, combining premium athleticism with a sturdy anchor. According to PFF, he allowed one sack during his entire Texas A&M career, spanning 1,445 pass-block snaps. A couple rounds later, New Orleans picked up Gardner-Johnson, a Swiss Army Knife DB who was projected to be long gone by Day 3. Despite the fact that Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland entered last weekend with the least draft capital in the division, the Saints came away with two players who could be major contributors in Year 1.

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.

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