The 2015 NFL season is in the books -- and now it's time to turn toward the 2016 NFL Draft. Before the NFL Scouting Combine shines the spotlight on the next crop of incoming talent, Bucky Brooks is taking a division-by-division look back at each NFL team's 2015 rookie class, providing grades and highlighting what teams should be focusing on when they head to Indianapolis.
Acquiring impact players at various stages of the draft is essential to rebuilding a program. The Falcons are on their way back to NFC South contention, with Vic Beasley and Tevin Coleman having shown promise as first-year pros. Beasley started every game in 2015, compiling four sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception as a disruptive playmaker off the edge. Although he remains a work in progress as a run defender, Beasley flashes the speed, quickness and burst to create chaos as a "closer" in passing situations. Coleman teased Falcons officials with spectacular flashes, but injuries and the emergence of Devonta Freeman prevented him from making a big splash as a rookie. If he stays on track in Year 2, Coleman could join Freeman as a high-caliber playmaker in the backfield. Jalen Collins didn't make a significant impact during his rookie season, but coaches should be optimistic about his future, based on his play in limited action. Grady Jarrett added a bit of a spark to the defense as a late-round selection who outplayed his draft slot. Grade: B-
Combine focus: Coach Dan Quinn needs to continue adding playmakers on the defensive side of the ball for the Falcons to compete with the heavyweights in the NFC. At linebacker in particular, the Dirty Birds could use a sideline-to-sideline defender with a strong nose for the ball. UCLA's Myles Jack and Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith will get extensive looks at the combine despite lingering injuries; both display exceptional promise as disruptive defenders. On offense, the Falcons should closely examine the wide receiver class to see if a guy like Baylor's Corey Coleman, TCU's Josh Doctson or Ohio State's Michael Thomas has the skills to fill the WR2 role currently occupied by former Pro Bowler Roddy White.
The Panthers' rookie class didn't make an enormous splash in 2015, but the largely unheralded newbies did contribute to the team's Super Bowl run. College safety Shaq Thompson has shown promise as a linebacker, having picked up the nuances of the position from Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The swift playmaker netted 50 tackles and a sack while making 10 regular-season starts. Most importantly, Thompson has shown a knack for finding the ball in the hole. Down the stretch, Devin Funchess started to make an impact as a red-zone threat (six touchdowns in his final 12 games, including playoffs), showcasing promise as a potential WR1. Cameron Artis-Payne finally cracked the rotation near the end of the season with moderate success (45 carries for 183 yards and a score). He should play a more prominent role in the coming seasons. Grade: B
Combine focus: Despite their Super Bowl appearance on the strength of a dominating defense, the Panthers desperately need a disruptive pass rusher to remain a heavyweight contender. Kony Ealy enjoyed a fine game in Super Bowl 50 (three sacks, one pick, one forced fumble), but this team still needs more firepower off the edges. Thus, the scouts will focus extensively on edge rushers like Clemson's Kevin Dodd, Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Florida's Jonathan Bullard and Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun. Although the Panthers have gotten solid play from veterans Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman, the team could look for an upgrade at the safety position. Boise State's Darian Thompson, Ohio State's Vonn Bell and Duke's Jeremy Cash could draw interest from Panthers reps at the combine.
The Saints might've fielded one of the worst defenses in NFL history, but their young defenders flashed promise as playmakers. Stephone Anthony led the team with 112 tackles, while Hau'oli Kikaha racked up 52 tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles. Each player made immediate contributions in the starting lineup; defensive coordinator Dennis Allen certainly can build around their skills. P.J. Williams and Garrett Grayson were non-factors as rookies, but the team should remain optimistic about their ability to eventually contribute, based on their talent and potential. Andrus Peat didn't crack the starting lineup until Week 5 due to stamina and conditioning woes, but he showed nice versatility by logging snaps at three different positions (RT, LT and LG). Despite a few struggles in pass protection, the first-rounder shows promise as a full-time player, particularly as a people-mover in the run game. Grade: B-
Combine focus: Defense, defense, defense! It must be the focus for the Saints heading into the combine. The defensive line needs more athletic big bodies in the middle to stop the run. Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed should command a lot of attention from Saints officials. The team could also focus on Baylor's Andrew Billings, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler and UCLA's Kenny Clark as interior defenders with instant-impact potential. The Saints could dig into the linebacker group to see if UCLA's Myles Jack and Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith will be healthy enough to provide major contributions in Year 1.
The Buccaneers didn't win enough games to save Lovie Smith's job, but the stellar performance of their rookie class contributed to former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's promotion to the top job. Jameis Winston earned rave reviews for his work as a first-year starter. He thrived as a playmaker during the second half of the season and showed great potential as a franchise quarterback. Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet were steady performers as rookie starters. On defense, Kwon Alexander -- prior to his season-ending, four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing substances -- looked like a star in the making as a "sideline to sideline" playmaker with exceptional quickness and burst. Despite logging just 12 games, Alexander finished second on the team in tackles and flashed disruptive ability as a designated playmaker on the second level. Grade: A
Combine focus: The need for a legitimate CB1 will force the Buccaneers to take a long, hard look at Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander. The team also could consider upgrading the defensive end position, which brings Clemson's Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd into the picture. In addition, the Buccaneers will take extended looks at Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Oregon's DeForest Buckner as potential fixtures on the edge.