NFC South Draft Grades

Written by Aaron Aloysius on July 17, 2010

Moving right along in our “better late than never” draft grades series, Aaron Aloysius takes a look at the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons: B

Since taking over the Falcons in 2008, GM Tom Dimitroff has focused on bringing in high character, self-motivated players. Unsurprisingly, that trend continued in this year’s draft, with the Falcons selecting several prospects who earned high marks for leadership and excellent intangibles.

In the first round, the Falcons selected Sean Weatherspoon, one of our Red Star players. Weatherspoon truly is the “complete package” – he’s an aggressive, rangy linebacker who fires up his teammates with his never-ending energy. Though Weatherspoon wasn’t quite as impressive at a bulked up 250 lbs. in ’09, the Falcons should be able to get him down to his proper weight and bring him back to his ’08 form. If that happens, Weatherspoon could be the leader of that defense for the next eight to ten years.

Because the Falcons gave up their 2nd round pick in order to acquire Tony Gonzalez, the tean didn’t pick again until the middle of the 3rd round. With their first pick in that frame, the Falcons somewhat surprisingly selected Kentucky d-tackle Corey Peters. Before the draft, very few people expected the Falcons to address the defensive tackle position with one of their early round picks. In fact, much more focus was placed on defensive end, a position not addressed by the Falcons’ draft.

Upon further inspection, however, the Peters pick begins to make sense. The Falcons were in need of additional depth at the position, particularly to hedge against the oft-injured Peria Jerry once again going on injured reserve. Additionally, Peters is a perfect match for the team’s character profile: a self-described romantic who loves watching Lifetime, Peters isn’t likely to get into any trouble in ATL. He should easily blend into the Falcons’ team concept and become a solid (but not spectacular) contributor.

The Falcons used their second pick in the 3rd round on offensive guard Mike Johnson. Much like Peters, Johnson is a solid prospect who possesses excellent smarts and the potential to be a solid player in the league. Some poor offseason workouts may have dropped Johnson’s stock, but he should end up being an average to above average starter in Atlanta. And with both of the team’s starting guards hitting free agency in 2011, Johnson will have an opportunity to start very soon.

In the 4th round, the Falcons made something a surprise pick in UNLV center Joe Hawley. Most draft analysts considered BC center Matt Tennant to be the best pivot left on the board. However, Hawley may give them more of a power pivot to grind out yardage in their power running game: his 35 bench reps at the Combine more than adequately represent the UNLV prospect’s strength.

If any pick derivated from the team’s high character, consistent performer ethos, it would be 5th round pick Dominique Franks. A highly inconsistent player at Oklahoma, the underclassman slid deep down draft boards after he posted disappointing workout numbers in Indianapolis. However, Franks possesses a good deal of upside – much more than the Falcons’ other late round picks – and nicely rounds out the Falcons’ decent draft class.

Round 1 (pick 19) Sean Weatherspoon — LB — Missouri
Round 3 (pick 83) Corey Peters — DT — Kentucky
Round 3 (pick 98) Mike Johnson — OG — Alabama
Round 4 (pick 117) Joe Hawley — C — UNLV
Round 5 (pick 135) Dominique Franks — CB — Oklahoma
Round 5 (pick 165) Kerry Meier — WR — Kansas
Round 6 (pick 171) Schann Schillinger — FS — Montana

Carolina Panthers: B+

Due to Marty Hurney’s almost compulsive need to trade away future draft picks, the Panthers once again were left without a first round pick. Nevertheless, the team managed to double up on multiple positions of need, taking two prospects at quarterback and defensive end, as well as picking up three receivers.

At quarterback, the Panthers made one of the biggest splashes in the draft, selecting free-falling Golden Domer Jimmy Clausen. Despite concerns about his character and arm strength, Clausen was an excellent value at #48; we had him thirty spots higher on our Top 100 Board. If Matt Moore falters, Clausen can take the reigns in 2011. And fortunately for him, he’ll be bolstered by one of the best friends of a young QB: an excellent running game.

The Panthers returned to the position in the sixth round, selecting Cincinnati signal caller Tony Pike. Pike was a solid value in the sixth frame; some had projected him to go as high as the third round. However, it’s unclear whether Pike will have much of a chance to earn a roster spot. The team is said to like strong-armed second year QB Hunter Cantwell, so Pike could find himself praying that the team opts to carry four QBs on its 53 man roster. The team can’t be faulted for taking a flyer on the Cincinnati QB, but it very well could turn out to be a wasted pick.

To boost the passing game, the Panthers took another sliding prospect in Brandon LaFell. Before the season, many had the LSU receiver pegged as a future 1st round pick, but inconsistent hands and some very slow 40 times pushed him down draft boards. Though he still needs to polish some aspects of his game, LaFell could develop into the quality #2 receiver Carolina long has been looking for. Because of his deficiencies, there is a fairly large degree of risk with LaFell, but with Steve Smith getting older and increasingly arm fracture-prone, the team needed to prioritize the position.

However, the Panthers’ receiving additions after LaFell appear to be a bit more questionable. Hurney returned to his future pick-trading ways, dishing out a 2011 second round pick in order to draft Armanti Edwards. The Appalachian State QB will be converted into a slot receiver in Carolina. Though he possesses the tools to exceed in that role, it was quite a gamble for the Panthers to take him that high.

And like the Pike pick, the addition of multiple receivers creates a logjam at the position that will make it hard for 6th round pick David Gettis to make the 53 man roster. Gettis is a big, speedy wideout who needs a lot of refinement, particularly in learning not to body-catch passes. In many ways, he’s particularly suited to spend a year on the practice squad, but there’s a decent chance that another team will claim a player with his triangle numbers.

The Panthers also doubled up on pass rushers, first selecting South Carolina DE/LB Eric Norwood. Many expected Norwood to land with a 3-4 squad, but his lack of size may have scared off odd front teams. In addition, his adequate bu not excellent coverage skills make him a less than ideal fit as a 4-3 outside linebacker. However, the Gamecock should at least become a quality rotational player for the Panthers, perhaps developing into an early down LB and nickel DE. As a pass rusher, he’s a middle class man’s Everette Brown, the similarly undersized prospect the Panther drafted last April.

Later in the draft, the Panthers selected another pass rusher in Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy. To a certain degree, Hardy more closely resembles the prototypical defensive end the team lost when Julius Peppers left via free agency. However, Hardy also lacks the willingness to play through injuries, which reportedly drew the ire of the Ole Miss coaching staff. He followed that up with a middling performance at the East-West Shrine Game practices, which was a testament to how far the highly-touted prospect had fallen. But if he can keep his head on straight, Hardy could become a quality player for the Panthers. If he does that, he could have an easier road to making the 53 man than both Pike & Gettis.

Round 2 (pick 48) Jimmy Clausen — QB — Notre Dame
Round 3 (pick 78) Brandon LaFell — WR — LSU
Round 3 (pick 89) Armanti Edwards — WR/ATH — Appalachian State
Round 4 (pick 124) Eric Norwood — LB — South Carolina
Round 6 (pick 175) Greg Hardy — DE — Ole Miss
Round 6 (pick 198) David Gettis — WR — Baylor
Round 6 (pick 202) Jordan Pugh — FS — Texas A&M
Round 6 (pick 204) Tony Pike — QB — Cincinnati
Round 7 (pick 223) R.J. Stanford — CB — Utah
Round 7 (pick 249) Robert McClain — CB — Connecticut

New Orleans Saints: B

On draft day, the Saints appeared to address a series of not too pressing needs. However, the intervening months have proven that those positions were in heightened need of added depth; the major question is whether the players picked will adequately cover the reigning Super Bowl Champions’ needs.

In the first round, the Saints selected cornerback Patrick Robinson. Though the Saints appeared to be very deep at cornerback, the team has since moved ’09 1st round pick Malcolm Jenkins to safety, opening up an opportunity for Robinson. That said, the inconsistent cornerback may not be ready to be an effective contributor for the Saints.

Last fall, Robinson displayed an uncanny knack for falling apart at inopportune times: a missed tackle late in the Miami game, a beyond awful performance against the Gators, etc. With the Saints gearing up for another Super Bowl run, one can question whether Robinson is a quality addition or the type of player whose unfortunate mistakes could wreck the team’s season.

The Saints’ 2nd round pick, offensive tackle Charles Brown, became much more understandable once the team traded away the oft-injured Jammal Brown. Ironically, Charles Brown dropped in the draft due to similar durability concerns, but the USC offensive tackles possesses the physical ability to flourish in New Orleans. The team’s excelled at developing offensive linemen: starters Jermon Bushrod, Carl Nicks, and Jahri Evans all were drafted in the 4th round or later. In fact, if Brown eventually becomes a starter for the Saints, he’ll be highest drafted player on New Orleans’ offensive line.

With their success developing mid-round offensive linemen, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team got a tremendous steal in 5th round pick Matt Tennant. The Boston College center isn’t a massive mauler or an impressive athlete, but he transcends his physical limitations with a tenacious playing style and solid technique. With some added bulk and time in an NFL weight room, Tennant could develop into a capable starting center, as well as provide quality depth at guard.

In addition to providing added depth on the offensive line, the team added potential long-term answers at tight end and defensive tackle. Former basketball player Jimmy Graham is an impressive athlete who only began to scratch the surface of his potential in his one season playing for the Hurricanes. Of the tight ends in this year’s draft, Graham was one of the few who possesses the ability to be an effective in-line blocker and stretch the field as a receiver. Though he’s very raw, Graham could end up being Jeremy Shockey’s long-term replacement.

On the other hand, defensive tackle Al Woods has the potential to become an immediate contributor in his first year with the Saints. The powerful and surprisingly athletic plugger finally began putting it together in his final year at LSU, though remaining bouts of inconsistency dropped him to the 4th round. If he continues to progress, Woods could serve as a capable interior d-line complement to Sedrick Ellis. At the very least, he should be able to earn a role in the team’s defensive line rotation.

The team also added a decent late round QB in Oregon State’s Sean Canfield. Though he lacks the arm strength to be a quality starter, Canfield possesses the accuracy and anticipation skills to be a serviceable long-term backup to Drew Brees. Though not a very significant addition, the pick represents the Saints’ ability to get solid mid- and late-round value, though the Patrick Robinson pick may prove to have been an unwise use of an early round pick.

Round 1 (pick 32) Patrick Robinson — CB — Florida State
Round 2 (pick 64) Charles Brown — OT — USC
Round 3 (pick 95) Jimmy Graham — TE — Miami
Round 4 (pick 123) Al Woods — DT — LSU
Round 5 (pick 158) Matt Tennant — C — Boston College
Round 7 (pick 239) Sean Canfield — QB — Oregon State

Tampa Bay Bucs: B+

After a disappointing ’09 season, the Bucs came into the draft in desperate need of playmakers on both sides of the ball. The team’s Tampa 2 defense needed an infusion of disruptive defensive linemen who’d enable the team to get pressure deploying only their front four. Also, the team needed to provide their young franchise QB some dynamic targets who could boost their passing offense. From the looks of it, the Bucs managed to do both, though their laser-sharp focus on DT and WR came at the expense of some other high impact positions.

With their first two picks, the Bucs drafted a pair of immensely talented defensive linemen, most notably Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The explosive prospect was the #3 player on our Top 100 Board and is a perfect fit for the team’s Tampa 2 defense. Though not as stout a run defender as Ndamukong Suh, McCoy should do a great job of getting upfield and terrorizing opposing QBs.

The team drafted another quality defensive tackle prospect in UCLA’s Brian Price. At one point considered a first round prospect, Price dropped to the 2nd round because of concerns about his motor and conditioning. At first glance, doubling up on the defensive tackle position seemed like a curious move, given that the team already had added ’09 3rd round pick Roy Miller to the mix. However, Price and Miller should form a capable interior rotation, allowing Miller to help out on run downs while Price stays fresh enough to consistently make plays in the backfield.

While the Bucs did do a great job of boosting their interior pass rush, the team didn’t bring in a young defensive end to complement their d-tackles. In fact, the team waited all the way until the 7th round to select a defensive end in Erik Lorig, and the Stanford product isn’t a particularly dynamic pass rusher. Tampa’s lack of a serious edge rush threat could hamper their defense this fall. Stylez White is the closest thing the team has to a disruptive defensive end, and the soon to be 31 year-old pass rusher will be a free agent after this season. As a result, defensive end should be a priority for the Bucs next offseason.

Although the team didn’t add a talented defensive end, the Bucs did bring in some quality additions to their secondary and LB corps. Third round pick Myron Lewis is a heady defensive back who could end up being a long-term fixture in their secondary, either by eventually moving into Ronde Barber’s spot or by sliding back to safety. In addition, the team added VTech’s Cody Grimm and FSU’s Dekoda Watson in the 7th round. Both prospects played linebacker in college, but their most immediate route to making the 53 man roster will be as special teams demons. However, both offer decent long-term value: Watson as a weakside linebacker, Grimm as a strong safety.

In addition to bolstering their defense, the team provided quarterback Josh Freeman two potentially special playmakers. In the 2nd round, the Bucs drafted Arrelious Benn, a physical wideout whose ’09 season was wrecked by injuries and poor QB play. Even at his best, Benn isn’t the most elusive wideout, and he had some disconcerting drops issues last fall. But if he can recapture his ’08 form, Benn will prove to be an excellent 2nd round value.

Though Arrelious Benn is very talented, the Bucs may have gotten an even more dynamic wideout in 4th round pick Mike Williams. Unfortunately, the on-again, off-again Syracuse receiver comes with some major red flags. Williams was kicked out of school for cheating on exams, only to return to the Orange and quit on the team mid-season. But during his short time back at Syracuse, Williams displayed impressive ability on the field; the character-challenged wideout may have been the 2nd most talented receiver in this year’s draft. If he keeps his head on straight, Williams could eclipse Benn and become Josh Freeman’s favorite target. If Williams once again falls apart, the lost 4th round pick won’t be too painful, and Benn should be able to seize the opportunity.

In order for Tampa’s young receivers to thrive, the team’s offensive line will have to keep Josh Freeman clean. Unfortunately, the team wasn’t able to bring in any OL help in this year’s draft. After this season, the team could be in need of one, perhaps even two new starting offensive tackles. Left tackle Donald Penn is playing this year on a one year restricted free agent tender, and the team has been leery of giving the weight gain-prone offensive tackle a long-term deal. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood’s play took a major step back last fall; if he continues to regress, the team may not want him back in 2011.

As a result, the Bucs’ could have used a promising offensive tackle prospect, much like the team could have used an explosive defensive end. Not addressing those two high value positions could end up hurting Tampa this fall. But if the team manages to find long-term answers at those spots next April, this year’s DT and WR additions could prove to be excellent ones.

Round 1 (pick 3) Gerald McCoy — DT — Oklahoma
Round 2 (pick 35) Brian Price — DT — UCLA
Round 2 (pick 39) Arrelious Benn — WR — Illinois
Round 3 (pick 67) Myron Lewis — DB — Vanderbilt
Round 4 (pick 101) Mike Williams — WR — Syracuse
Round 6 (pick 172) Brent Bowden — P — Virginia Tech
Round 7 (pick 210) Cody Grimm — S/LB — Virginia Tech
Round 7 (pick 217) Dekoda Watson — LB — Florida State
Round 7 (pick 253) Erik Lorig — DE — Stanford

Check back soon to see draft grades for the rest of the NFL teams.

Aaron Aloysius

Aaron began closely following the draft in 2005. Since then, he’s overcome an Al Davis-like obsession with workout numbers, instead focusing more (but not exclusively) on the traits visible on prospects’ tape.

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