The 2014 NFL Draft represents a prime opportunity for teams to shore up positions of need with an injection of fresh, young talent. As Day 1 in Radio City Music Hall draws closer, Elliot Harrison will be taking a division-by-division look at the draft priorities of all 32 teams in the league, continuing with the NFC South below.
Top priority: Pass rusher
There seems to be this idea out there that the return to health of receiver Julio Jones will put this team right back in the NFC Championship Game, or at the very least return it to the playoffs. Yet, when you look at the Falcons' depth chart, they resemble a middling 8-8 group more than they do a title contender. The reason? They simply don't have the horses in key spots, starting with the pass rush. First, a grand total of 32 sacks (second-fewest in football last season) is not enough to compete in a division with Drew Brees, who has been sacked less than twice per game in his Saints career, and Cam Newton, whose escapability can hurt teams all too often. Second, when your leader in that category -- Osi Umenyiora -- posts 7.5 sacks and no one else on the roster records more than five, you've got some issues. Third, the guy who should have led Atlanta in sacks -- veteran John Abraham -- was too busy racking up 11.5 in Arizona after being released by the Falcons last March. Umenyiora was supposed to replace Abraham's production, but he fell short. I've heard from a Falcons alumnus that the organization "loves" Kroy Biermann, but Biermann's never even sniffed a 10-sack season over six NFL campaigns. Make no mistake, this is a NEED.
Other areas of interest: Offensive tackle, running back, tight end.
Top priority: Wide receiver
If you're surprised by this, you haven't paid attention to NFL Network or read NFL.com -- or any other sports website, for that matter -- in months. In fact, you might be watching "Antiques Roadshow" out of the corner of your eye right now, or working your way through the series run of "Eight Is Enough" on DVD. OK, you get the picture. Everyone was wondering what the heck Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was doing earlier this offseason, given that at one point, the receiver depth chart featured a stunning lack of NFL experience. Carolina did add some modest résumés to the mix in the form of Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, but you can forgive Panthers fans if they weren't jumping up and down and linking hands across America. Now, that's not to say releasing veteran receiver Steve Smith was a misstep. It was probably time to part ways as Carolina moves forward. This is to be Cam Newton's team, and it would behoove the Panthers to add some fresh talent. Basically, letting an old war horse go should, in theory, lead to a young colt being brought aboard. Hence, Carolina could -- and, I think, will -- pick a wide receiver in the first round at No. 28. Question is, which one?
Other areas of interest: Offensive tackle, defensive back, outside linebacker.
New Orleans Saints
OK, you see the asterisk. That's for all the tweeps who scan articles like this on their mobile devices *without looking at the blurb -- we figure the asterisk will encourage some additional light reading. So let's get to the point: New Orleans needs a center badly after losing Brian De La Puente to the Bears in free agency, but rarely does a team draft someone at that position in the first round. Finding another pass rusher is arguably a bigger priority than finding a wide receiver, but given the chance that one of the talented wideouts in this class will still be there when the Saints pick at No. 27 overall, and given how much coach Sean Payton likes to spread the formation, adding a receiver seems likely. And who's to say wideout is not the Saints' No. 1 need? Payton is an offensive-minded coach, if not an offensive genius. Brees has produced half of the 5,000-yard seasons the NFL has seen. Frankly, the passing game is to the Saints what the front seven is to the 49ers. ... And now, watch the Saints take a center.
Other areas of interest: Offensive line, outside linebacker, running back.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Top priority: Wide receiver
Mike Williams' departure via trade leaves Vincent Jackson, Chris Owusu and Skye Dawson as the main aerial targets in the offense. Oh, and Eric Page is also in the mix. Those last three guys have 20 career catches between them. Louis Murphy is there, but I'm not sure that quite qualifies as the makings of a warm blankie for Josh McCown. Basically, we're saying there's no way Tampa Bay can leave Radio City Music Hall without a wide receiver. Beyond addressing the dearth of playmakers outside, taking a top-flight receiver in the draft would be a move for the future. Though Jackson is still productive, it's important to note that he turned 31 in January. Going a step further, the Bucs are hoping the triumvirate of Brandon Myers, Tom Crabtree and Luke Stocker can provide production at tight end. If Myers plays like he did with the Raiders, that could be possible, but the point is, none of these guys will be confused with Ozzie Newsome, Jay Novacek or Jimmy Graham. Yes, the Bucs added McCown, but they need plenty more medicine for their passing game.
Other areas of interest: Offensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback.