With the 2015 NFL Draft fast approaching, Bucky Brooks is breaking down the biggest areas of need for every team in the NFL, division by division. Below is his look at the NFC South. (NOTE: Click on tabs to see other divisions; click on team names to see a full list of draft picks.)
Biggest needs: Pass rusher, running back, offensive tackle.
First-year head coach Dan Quinn is expected to invigorate the Falcons with his infectious energy and defensive acumen. Given his success as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator over the past two seasons, he will certainly look to upgrade the Falcons' front seven with explosive athletes in key positions. At OLB in particular, Atlanta needs to add a dynamic rusher with explosive first-step quickness, acceleration and closing burst. Clemson's Vic Beasley and Missouri's Shane Ray are the most explosive pass rushers in the draft, though Florida's Dante Fowler Jr. is also capable of getting after the passer with a power-based approach. If a series of positive drug tests haven't torpedoed his character grade, Nebraska's Randy Gregory could enter the conversation. The dismissal of Steven Jackson puts the Falcons back in the running back market. Devonta Freeman flashed potential as a rookie and Antone Smith is a nice home-run threat, but the backfield lacks some oomph. Atlanta could seek out a feature back like Minnesota's David Cobb or Boise State's Jay Ajayi, or look to add a complementary back like Alabama's T.J. Yeldon or Miami's Duke Johnson. The Falcons could be interested in a big, athletic offensive tackle with developmental potential -- someone like Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings or Penn State's Donovan Smith.
Biggest needs: Offensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback.
The Panthers won their last four regular-season games to take the division and sneak into the playoffs at 7-8-1. In doing so, Carolina also became the first team to repeat in NFC South history, but GM Dave Gettleman needs to tweak the roster for the team to remain atop the division going forward. Although offensive tackles Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin have starting experience, the Panthers must upgrade the athleticism on the edges to keep Cam Newton upright in the pocket. Florida's D.J. Humphries, Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings, Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi and Miami's Ereck Flowers are viable candidates to start at right tackle. If the Panthers are looking for a pure left tackle, Stanford's Andrus Peat could get the nod on draft day. Kelvin Benjamin's emergence as a dangerous WR1 won't prevent Gettleman from looking for a complementary playmaker on the perimeter. Ohio State's Devin Smith, USC's Nelson Agholor or Miami's Phillip Dorsett would add some juice to the lineup. Defensively, the Panthers need to add a solid cover corner to allow Bene' Benwikere to slide inside as a nickel back. Miami (Ohio)'s Quinten Rollins, Florida State's Ronald Darby, Utah's Eric Rowe and USC's Josh Shaw are Day 2 prospects who could come in and start immediately.
Biggest needs: Wide receiver, pass rusher, defensive tackle.
Sean Payton is completely swapping out the Saints' roster after watching his team grossly underachieve in 2014. He's already traded away a pair of talented playmakers in the passing game (Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills) without filling the resulting void in free agency. Thus, the Saints will scour the draft looking for guys with the potential to contribute immediately. This could prompt the Saints to take a long, hard look at Louisville's DeVante Parker, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, USC's Nelson Agholor and Ohio State's Devin Smith on Day 1. Payton could also target Michigan's Devin Funchess or Missouri's Dorial Green-Beckham -- two potential mismatch nightmares -- on Day 2. Defensively, the Saints need a dynamic pass rusher to complement Junior Galette and Cam Jordan along the front line. This could prompt the team to consider Kentucky's Bud Dupree or Nebraska's Randy Gregory as a DPR (designated pass rusher). A big-bodied defensive tackle like Florida State's Eddie Goldman or Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips could fill a huge void at the point of attack. Clemson's Grady Jarrett could also be in the mix as a heavy-handed run stopper.
Biggest needs: Quarterback, offensive line, middle linebacker.
The Buccaneers have enough weapons to challenge in the NFC South, but they need a franchise quarterback capable of maximizing the available talent. Florida State's Jameis Winston appears to be the best fit in coordinator Dirk Koetter's offense, but Oregon's Marcus Mariota is also a solid decision maker with the explosive athleticism to create big plays with his feet or arm. If the Buccaneers select one of the aforementioned signal-callers, it is important to surround the rookie with a solid offensive line to allow him to make throws from a clean pocket. Oregon's Jake Fisher, Florida's D.J. Humphries, Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings and Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi all possess the athleticism to shine on the edge, but each would need some time to develop into a quality starter at left tackle. Defensively, Lovie Smith needs to find a "Mike" linebacker with the toughness and communication skills to orchestrate the defense. Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney, UCLA's Eric Kendricks and Miami's Denzel Perryman are ideal candidates for the role based on their experience and production as collegians.