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NFC South draft grades: Panthers double down on playmakers

Former NFL player/scout Bucky Brooks and Around The NFL's Conor Orr are performing a division-by-division assessment of the 2017 NFL Draft, spotlighting notable picks and handing out grades for each team. Below is Bucky's review of the NFC South.


BEST PICK: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Round 1, No. 19 overall

It is uncommon for a team to land a top-five overall talent (according to many evaluators across the scouting landscape) in the middle of the first round, but that's the case with the Buccaneers snagging Howard at No. 19. The ultra-athletic "Y" was the most complete tight end in the class and his versatility could make him a monster in the middle of an aerial attack that features Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Cameron Brate. Howard's playmaking between the hashes should open up the field for the Buccaneers' perimeter playmakers, which is frightening for opponents, based on the impressive résumés of Evans and Jackson heading into the season. With Jameis Winston on the cusp of emerging as an elite quarterback, Tampa Bay's offense might be one of the NFL's most explosive units in 2017.

MOST SURPRISING PICK: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Carolina Panthers, Round 1, No. 8 overall

The Panthers have relied on a power-based offense during the Ron Rivera era, but the selection of McCaffrey (and Curtis Samuel) could signal a significant change in their approach going forward. The electric, multi-purpose playmaker is capable of delivering explosive plays as a runner, receiver or returner, which makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. In addition, McCaffrey has shown the ability to handle a heavy workload (see: seven games with 30-plus rushing attempts during his final two seasons at Stanford). Considering how the Panthers are attempting to diversify their offense to make the game easier for Cam Newton, the addition of McCaffrey certainly makes sense -- IF the offensive staff can figure out ways to take advantage of his unique set of skills.

BIGGEST SLEEPER: Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
New Orleans Saints, Round 3, No. 67 overall

Sean Payton is undoubtedly one of the best play designers in football, as evidenced by the Saints' consistent ranking among the top 10 offenses throughout his tenure. The clever choreographer has a knack for creating big-play opportunities for his best playmakers, particularly dynamic running backs with outstanding receiving skills (think: Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas). With that in mind, Kamara could quickly emerge as an All-Rookie Team candidate based on how Payton is poised to take advantage of his skills as an electric, multi-faceted playmaker out of the backfield. Whether it's using the Tennessee standout on swings/screens/option routes from his halfback position or flanking the versatile playmaker out wide to run receiver-like routes against linebackers or safeties, Payton's creative scripting could make Kamara an 80-catch guy as a rookie.


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

» Round 1: (No. 8 overall) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford.

» Round 2: (40) Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State; (64) Taylor Moton, OG, Western Michigan.

» Round 3: (77) Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M.

» Round 5: (152) Corn Elder, CB, Miami.

» Round 6: (192) Alex Armah, FB, West Georgia.

» Round 7: (233) Harrison Butker, K, Georgia Tech.

The Panthers made a concerted effort to add some sizzle to their offense. McCaffrey and Samuel give the team two "triple threat" playmakers capable of delivering splash plays as runners, receivers or returners. McCaffrey, in particular, is a mismatch player with the potential to shred the defense from backfield as a multi-purpose weapon on the perimeter. Moton is a rugged blocker with the potential to play inside or outside along the line. He could get a chance at right tackle before sliding over to guard to fill a void on the inside. Hall is an intriguing pass rusher with the length and quickness to grow into an effective edge rusher. Elder is a junkyard dog on the perimeter with a rock-solid game that's ideally suited to the Panthers' zone-based scheme. Don't be surprised if he carves out a big role as a nickel or dime defender.

» Round 1: (No. 11 overall) Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State; (32) Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin.

» Round 2: (42) Marcus Williams, S, Utah.

» Round 3: (67) Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee; (76) Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida; (103) Trey Hendrickson, OLB, Florida Atlantic.

» Round 6: (196) Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE, Miami.

The Saints wanted to fix their defense by landing a number of blue-chip prospects throughout the draft. The team unexpectedly had Lattimore fall into its lap at No. 11, despite the Ohio State stud being rated as the consensus No. 1 corner. The fleet-footed cover man is as talented as they come, but must overcome some durability concerns to reach his potential. Williams gives the team a natural center fielder to pair with Vonn Bell in the back end. Anzalone and Hendrickson will compete for playing time as rotational players on the second level. On offense, Ramczyk should be a Day 1 starter at right tackle to shore up the protection around Drew Brees. Kamara is a Reggie Bush-like playmaker with a well-rounded game that should add some juice to the Saints' attack.

» Round 1: (No. 19 overall) O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama.

» Round 2: (50) Justin Evans, S, Texas A&M.

» Round 3: (84) Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State; (107) Kendell Beckwith, ILB, LSU.

» Round 5: (162) Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State.

» Round 7: (223) Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, NT, USC.

The Buccaneers added a few dynamic weapons to the offensive lineup to continue to accelerate Jameis Winston's development as a franchise quarterback. Howard should shine as a pass catcher in the middle of the field with defensive coordinators intent on taking away Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside. Godwin and McNichols could occupy roles as situational playmakers on an offense that has the potential to rank among the league's best. On defense, Evans gives the Buccaneers an enforcer between the hashes with outstanding instincts and awareness. He is a nice fit in Tampa Bay's zone-based scheme. If able to stay healthy, Beckwith could emerge as a tackling machine in the middle of the defense.

Atlanta Falcons

» Round 1: (No. 26 overall) Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA.

» Round 3: (75) Duke Riley, LB, LSU; .

» Round 4: (136) Sean Harlow, OG, Oregon State.

» Round 5: (149) Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State; (156) Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming; (174) Eric Saubert, TE, Drake.

The Falcons continue to add urgent athletes to their defense. McKinley is a "fastball pitcher" off the edge with an explosive first step and a non-stop motor. He will team with Vic Beasley to give the Dirty Birds a dangerous 1-2 pass-rushing punch. Riley is an explosive sideline-to-sideline defender with outstanding special teams skills. He could be a Pro Bowl-caliber special teamer early in his career. Kazee is a ballhawk with superb instincts. He could shine in the team's single-high safety scheme. Hill gives Atlanta a big-bodied runner to throw into the rotation. He has a nose for the paint and flashed a combination of strength and power that could make him a nice complement to the RB rotation.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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