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2014 Draft Needs: The NFC South
Around this time next week, 335 college football players (including 85 underclassmen) will descend upon Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the 2014 Scouting Combine. Here, NFL hopefuls will be tested both physically and mentally in an effort to prove their worth to potential employers: the general managers and scouting departments of the 32 teams in the National Football League.
Last season, the four teams in the NFC South had a combined record of 31-33 and each fell short of their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12), despite the talent on their roster, underachieved and fired Greg Schiano and replaced him with longtime Bears head coach Lovie Smith. In Atlanta, the Falcons (4-12) suffered from injuries to key playmakers and were plagued by the lack of depth across their offensive and defensive lines. On Bourbon Street the New Orleans Saints (11-5), despite their much-improved defense from the previous season, struggled to win key games on the road and lost key match-ups in Carolina and in Seattle at the end of their season. The 2013 Carolina Panthers made great improvements across the board but suffered the same fate as their rivals in the NFC South. Carolina’s lack of weapons in the passing game, suspect offensive line, and mediocre secondary were the main culprits that lead to their defeat in the playoffs at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
Since the creation of the conference prior to the 2002 season, there has never once been a back-to-back division champion in the NFC South. The four teams are consistently exchanging wins and losses and rely heavily on success in the draft to gain the upper hand in divisional play. Without further ado, here is an inside look at which direction each team in the NFC South might go in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Atlanta Falcons (6th overall):
The Falcons drastically need to improve their offensive and defensive lines. Matt Ryan has the weapons to succeed, but his offensive line is atrocious. If top pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney is off the board as I suspect he will be, look for Atlanta to select a top offensive tackle prospect among the likes of Greg Robinson of Auburn or Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews. If general manager Thomas Dimitroff prefers to add a dynamic pass-rusher to the Falcons defense, some names to keep an eye on in the sixth slot include Anthony Barr of UCLA or Khalil Mack of Buffalo. In 2011, Dimitroff made a massive leap up the draft board to select Julio Jones and it paid off. If Dimitroff falls in love with Clowney, I think it is possible he makes another bold move to land to South Carolina prospect that some call a once in a generation type talent.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7th overall):
At this spot in the draft, I have a feeling any quarterbacks that Lovie Smith and the organization might prefer to Mike Glennon will be of the board. Tampa Bay desperately needs a consistent pass-rusher to help anchor their defensive line for the foreseeable future. The aforementioned Barr and Mack are possible fits here. Tampa Bay’s staff might opt to select an explosive playmaker to pair and grow with Glennon. If Sammy Watkins is still available at this juncture, it is possible the Buccaneers pull the trigger on the Clemson product, which instantly upgrades their offense and allows the pressure to be taken off of Vincent Jackson. If tackle prospects Robinson and Matthews are still available, either offensive tackle is a viable option as a “best player available” type selection by Tampa Bay.
New Orleans Saints (27th overall):
Things get more difficult to predict towards the tail end of the first round. The New Orleans Saints could go a variety of ways with this selection. Depending on how things unfold in free agency, the Saints have needs at wide receiver, linebacker, offensive tackle, cornerback, and safety. If their front office chooses to improve their secondary, I believe corner prospect Jason Verrett of TCU is a viable option here. If Malcolm Jenkins leaves via free agency, the Saints could opt to select another safety after taking Kenny Vaccaro with their first pick in last years draft. Calvin Pryor, the hard-hitting safety out of Louisville, would make the backend of their secondary very formidable for years to come. On the offensive side of the ball, Drew Brees could use some new weapons in the passing game. Receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Brandin Cooks, and Odell Beckham Jr. may all still be on the board here and any of the three would provide upgrades to the receiving corps in New Orleans.
Carolina Panthers (28th overall):
Carolina has put no viable receiving threats around Cam Newton to further his development as a pocket passer. I have to believe that changes this off-season. Playmakers on offense and improving his protection upfront have to be the priority for second year general manager Dave Gettleman and his staff this time around after solidifying their defensive front last year in the draft. The Panthers should look to upgrade their receiving corps by adding targets such as Kelvin Benjamin, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, or Allen Robinson. During his rookie year, Cam Newton performed admirably with the help of two-tight end sets. If a top tight end prospect like Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, or Austin Seferian-Jenkins are still available at the 28th slot they are strong possibilities as well. It was rumored last year that Carolina would have selected Notre Dame product Tyler Eifert if Star Lotulelei had not fallen to them in the 14th spot. It is also highly possible that Carolina looks to upgrade their offensive line, specifically the tackle position, by adding the likes of Cyrus Kouandjio or Zack Martin. If the draft falls a certain way and a top corner prospect is still on the board at 28 and Carolina is not impressed with the offensive talent available, the Panthers could certainly use a large-bodied corner that excels in their zone coverage scheme.
By Ben Fink: Follow him @ProvAztec09
Stay tuned for a complete first-round mock draft following the 2014 Scouting Combine.