Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks is performing a division-by-division assessment of the 2016 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.)
It's uncommon for a team sitting outside of the top 10 to address its biggest need with the best prospect at the position, but that's just what the Saints did with Rankins. The former Louisville star is an explosive rusher with outstanding first-step quickness and hand skills, which makes him nearly impossible to block in tight quarters. Most importantly, Rankins is a high-motor player with a relentless spirit that overwhelms opponents at the line. The Saints had significant defensive woes in 2015 (New Orleans ranked 31st in total D and dead last in points allowed), but Rankins' arrival should help the unit get back on track.
The kicking game is frequently touted as a vital phase, but few teams are willing to commit top picks to the unit, let alone trade up to do so. Aguayo is a "knockdown" kicker with impeccable accuracy on PATs and short kicks (40 yards or less). He'll provides the Buccaneers with guaranteed points following touchdowns and virtually assures points when the offense reaches the red zone. Although Aguayo isn't necessarily money on intermediate kicks (he has a 72 percent conversion rate on kicks of 40-49 yards), he displays the leg strength and technical skills to improve his accuracy as a pro. The Florida State standout will also upgrade the kickoff unit with pinpoint placement on "sky" kicks (high pooch kicks directed at the corner of the field) to help the kickoff coverage team corral returners inside the 20-yard line.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn is all about speed, speed and more speed on defense. He believes a collection of players pursuing the ball at a breakneck pace will not only corral free-runner backs and wide receivers on the perimeter, but also produce turnovers when multiple defenders get a hat on the ball. Based on that premise alone, Jones should quickly emerge as a star. The LSU product could be a hybrid player (linebacker/safety) in Atlanta's lineup.
NOTE: Draft classes are ranked from best to worst within the division.
General manager Dave Gettleman believes in developing through the draft, and he has stuck to his guns when the team has lost key players. It shouldn't surprise observers that the Panthers used three draft picks on cover corners to fill the void created by Josh Norman's departure. The team snagged James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez to vie for playing time in base and sub-packages. Each member of the trio possesses the size, athleticism and ball skills to thrive in the Panthers' zone-based system. Most importantly, they are high-football-IQ guys with the necessary instincts to play in a scheme that emphasizes pattern-reading and quarterback-clueing. Carolina also fortified the defensive-line depth behind Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the selection of Vernon Butler in Round 1. The Louisiana Tech standout serves as insurance for a potential free-agent defection down the road. Keep an eye on Beau Sandland as a complement to veteran tight end Greg Olsen in the team's "12" personnel packages. GRADE: B+
Despite beginning the head-coaching tenure of former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers concentrated their draft-day efforts on upgrading the defensive side of the ball. The team grabbed a couple of dynamic cover corners in Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith. Both guys should contribute in sub-packages, but Hargreaves could crack the starting lineup by the end of training camp, after he's mastered the Buccaneers' scheme. Noah Spence could give the defense the edge rusher it has desperately needed. The Eastern Kentucky/Ohio State product has quick hands and natural rush skills off the corner. If he can stay focused off the field, he could develop into a sack artist early in his career. The second-round selection of kicker Roberto Aguayo was met with skepticism, but the Florida State standout is deadly accurate on PATs and field-goal attempts from close range. While his accuracy on intermediate kicks is suspect, he should be a solid pro based on his superb mechanics and leg strength. GRADE: B+
The Falcons are committed to upgrading the defense in Dan Quinn's second season. The team added a few veterans during the offseason, but the draft-day haul should bring more speed, quickness and playmaking ability to the second level. Florida's Keanu Neal and LSU's Deion Jones will act as sideline-to-sideline chasers from their box-area spots. Neal, in particular, gives the Falcons a Kam Chancellor-like presence between the hashes to discourage receivers from venturing over the middle. De'Vondre Campbell is a speedster with intriguing skills to develop. He could be a star special teams player early on. On offense, the Falcons added an electric playmaker at tight end in Austin Hooper. He has the ability to sneak past linebackers down the seams, but he also excels at posting up defenders down the red zone. Wes Schweitzer will compete for a backup spot as a road grader at the point of attack. He brings much-needed toughness and physicality to the unit. GRADE: B
Sean Payton is looking to quickly rebuild the Saints by adding a few blue-chip players to the roster from the draft. Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell should be immediate difference makers as rookie starters on defense. Rankins is a disruptive interior rusher with active hands and slick moves. He overwhelms opponents with his overall athleticism, which is why he is nearly impossible to slow down in long-yardage situations. Bell is an instinctive centerfielder with outstanding range and communication skills. On offense, Michael Thomas gives the Saints a polished pass catcher to work into the rotation. He is a precise route runner with strong hands and superb ball skills. Thomas should thrive on the perimeter with Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead commanding attention. GRADE: B