With the initial free-agency frenzy winding down, organizations are turning their attention to the 2012 NFL Draft. What are the biggest remaining holes for each NFC South team? Let's examine ...
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Atlanta stole the headlines in last year's draft with their move up to select receiver Julio Jones, who they thought could help them over the hump in the NFC. Jones came up just short of 1,000 yards and scored eight times, but the offense stalled against better teams like the New York Giants, who stopped their playoff run. Left tackle Sam Baker will be a free agent after 2012, so using a relatively high pick (they sent their first-rounder to Cleveland in the Jones trade) on the offensive line wouldn't be a surprise. Tony Gonzalez isn't getting any younger, either, so a value pick at tight end makes sense. Picking up additional receivers for quarterback Matt Ryan might prevent an offensive slow-down if someone gets hurt.
Curtis Lofton led the Falcons in tackles the past three seasons, but defected to New Orleans, leaving the team with middle linebackers Akeem Dent (one tackle in 16 games last year) and Lofa Tatupu (the former Seahawks starter did not play in 2011 due to injuries in both knees). Thomas Dimitroff also locked up defensive ends John Abraham, Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann, safety Thomas DeCoud, and used the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes -- so the defense doesn't have a lot of glaring needs. However, building some depth at cornerback behind Grimes and Dunta Robinson wouldn't be a bad move.
Darlington: Opportunity knocks
Cam Newton, the top overall pick in last year's draft, became a playmaker much earlier in his career than most people expected, but he needs more explosive pass catchers to further develop his aerial attack. It seems likely the Panthers will add one, whether at receiver or tight end, in the first or second round. General manager Marty Hurney replaced starting left guard Travelle Wharton (who signed with Cincinnati) with Mike Pollak, but another addition there is likely.
The defense lost its third-leading tackler in linebacker Dan Connor to Dallas as a free agent. The team hopes Thomas Davis can stay healthy this year (he's played in just nine games since 2009), but needs to find young talent at linebacker in case he doesn't. Rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain might improve in 2012, but are by no means physically dominant. Finding better space-eaters inside would certainly help the 25th-ranked run defense. The Panthers might use one of their premium draft picks on a defensive end to take pressure off Charles Johnson, who led the team with nine sacks in 2011.
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Thankfully, the team has a talented roster, because filling needs through the draft will be difficult. They had already traded away their first-round pick to the New England Patriots to select running back Mark Ingram last April, and now forfeit their second-round selection as part of the bounty punishment. Losing Tracy Porter to Denver in free agency means special attention will be paid to the cornerback position. And re-signing receiver Marques Colston to a five-year, $40 million contract won't stop general manager Mickey Loomis (who will still be able to run the team's draft, as his bounty suspension doesn't start until the regular season) from picking up a replacement for lost free agent Robert Meachem (San Diego). Brodrick Bunkley was a solid pickup from Denver, but the team could use more bodies in the interior defensive-line rotation.
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The Buccaneers made a big splash in the free agency by landing Vincent Jackson -- exactly the type of big-play receiver quarterback Josh Freeman needed to take the next step as a passer. They also addressed a need area by reeling in cornerback Eric Wright and bringing back defensive leader Ronde Barber. Giving big contracts to interior offensive linemen Carl Nicks (nabbing him from the Saints) and Jeremy Zuttah will also help Freeman's development, but it will be interesting to see how new head coach Greg Schiano and his staff view starting tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood.
Schiano might want to build his team around a strong running game, which means he might want a stud back carrying the mail just as Ray Rice did for Schiano at Rutgers a few years ago. That's why it's easy to see Trent Richardson going to the Bucs if he's available at the No. 5 pick. If Schiano wants to upgrade the league's worst scoring defense early in the draft, the linebacker and safety corps would be natural places to start. Don't count out the team using its top pick on corner Morris Claiborne, either, because of Aqib Talib's mercurial manner and a potential league suspension from his pending felony gun charge.