Finally!! The Draft is over and Free-Agency is essentially concluded so we now know how the teams are going to look (barring UDFA’s which are always unpredictable). Today I will be taking a more in depth look at the NFC South as a whole and in particular, how each of the teams stack up after the Draft.
Panthers: The defending division champs had an off-season reminiscent of another team based in Carolina. Fortunately for the Panthers Michael Jordan doesn’t own them, but he might as well be. Carolina had a number of significant losses this off-season; but no two losses will be more significant than losing receiver Steve Smith and having Jordon Gross, arguably their best lineman, leave (Ryan Kalil is their best lineman, but he is at a less important position on the line). Carolina might have actually have taken themselves from potentially the biggest pests in the division to an easy win in one year, and they did it masterfully. You can never really predict how a season is going to go, but losing your biggest leader (Smith), your quarterbacks best protector (Gross) and having Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud as your starting safeties isn’t going to help (those wo guys who were the worst safeties on two awful secondaries in the recent past). Add to that the fact that those two safeties may very well have more receptions in the NFL than your entire receiving core combined (it’s sad but I really am not exaggerating that much here). So what did the Panthers do to help themselves in the draft and to compete in the division? They took Kelvin Benjamin WR out of Florida State, and Kony 2014 (thanks @hakimdropsball for that one) out of Mizzou. Nothing is wrong with either of these players; however the issue comes from the fact that Benjamin is a very raw receiver who has nothing for speed and questionable effort…not the guy you want to build your entire passing game around. Ealy on the other hand is a very good pickup, but he has a chance to get lost in fold in an extremely talented Carolina D-line so while he brings value his impact may not be all that great. I decided not to go over the rest of the Panthers draft because honestly it’s just more of the same…I am seriously wondering if Cleveland’s ‘homeless man’ was hired to run this team in the offseason.
Offseason Grade: E. Not quite an F but even just an average year from Benjamin and it will be a resounding one.
Bucs: They just couldn’t do us a huge favor and stay as the ‘fighting Schianos’ for one more year could they? Jerks. Picking up Lovie Smith alone should give this team a solid B for the entire free agency period because the only thing keeping this team from being a threat last year was the total lack of leadership. They still have Vincent Jackson and ‘The Gerbil’ on offense which is plenty of firepower to build a team around; but the area where they are really a threat is on defense with players like Lavonte David, Adrian Clayborne, new addition Michael Johnson, and Gerald McCoy. Lucky for the Saints they have a far from dominant offensive line and a quarterback who inspires about as much fear in me as his brother would (Josh McCown’s brother Luke is the backup for the Saints). With all that being said, the Bucs probably had the best draft of any team in the NFC South: they drafted massive receiving threat Mike Evans out of Texas A&M who in combination with Vincent Jackson should prove to be a major pain in our collective behinds, a good ‘move the chains’ type tight end in Austin Jenkins, and a sleeper pick in Robert Herron. All in all Tampa had a very strong off-season that filled a lot of their holes while leaving few (safety isn’t great and Alterraun Verner is an adequate replacement for Revis..but doesn’t scare me).
Offseason Grade: B+. getting rid of Schiano boosts this quite a bit; but pickups liker Johnson and Verner are also strong, which when combined with the drafting of Mike Evans gives Tampa a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball. However, the fact that they lack strong safety play or a second corner of note gives both the Saints and Falcons a plan of attack and their lack of anything of note at the QB position puts them firmly in second place in the division in my mind.
Falcons: Seriously the Falcons ‘rise up’ like a turd in a pool… just a sad excuse for a front office. Even if I were an entirely unbiased source I would just not be impressed by the Falcons off-season. Their O-line struggled last year and their response was to draft Jake Mathews a right tackle out of Texas A&M…and if their off-season consisted of that move alone it would be a good year, too bad for the eleven Falcon fans out there that the rest of their off-season was awful. They signed 647 defensive tackles and if you combined all of them together you still wouldn’t get a pass-rush. They didn’t get a tight end to replace Gonzalez and they didn’t get any kind of depth to bolster their secondary or line outside of Mathews (did get a decent back out of Florida State in Devonta Freeman, but I doubt they can do anything with him). The Falcons wonder why the Saints see them as ‘little brother’, but when your owner complains to the world that we are bullying you (Kenny Vaccaro is a ‘meanie-head’ –Matt Rhianna) and that your team needs to get tougher the moniker kind of makes sense. I could write a whole article on the flaws this team has, but the failure to steal Rafael Bush combined with a lackluster offseason means this team is nearly as flawed now as when it ended last year. The only caveat I am forced to make is that the top-end talent on the team is still very good, especially on offense, and so they still have the potential to be their usual minor annoyance…but probably not a major threat.
Offseason Grade: Seriously…the dog ate their homework. The Falcons get a D because the teacher feels bad for them and Mathews could be a very good tackle.
Saints: I am going to do my best to not let my status as a fan of the team and also a ‘homer’ from Oregon State to cloud my vision on this off-season…let’s not check the over/under on this one folks.
If the entire Saints offseason consisted of drafting Cooks and signing Jairus Byrd I would still probably give the team an A because we would be filling our two biggest needs in those two picks. The Saints front office used some serious voodoo (see what I did there) to pull off a fantastic offseason even outside of those to major impact players. They resigned Rafael Bush while also keeping him away from the Falcons, which is kind of two moves in one. (And shame on the fans that went ballistic on him…really guys?) They also made a very sneaky move in roping in sure-fire hall of famer Champ Bailey who not only provides some decent value on the field (provided he is healthy) but also gives them someone who can mentor the great amount of young TALENT that the team has. (yes guys that included Robinson, his talent isn’t in question, it’s his head) It is most likely due in part to the acquisition of Bailey that they felt comfortable drafting a relatively raw corner in ‘the pirate’ Stanley Jean-Baptiste who I am sure the front office believes could develop into a fantastic complement to Keenan Lewis. I’m not going to get into the Graham situation here because frankly this is as we all should have expected it to go…if we are halfway through June and he still isn’t signed I will start to worry…but not till then. The one hole that the team had going into the draft that didn’t get satisfied was the need for interior line depth, (which is driving @saintsnationblog bonkers btw) but this really isn’t as big of a concern to me as it could be because of the nature of the center position. It is by nature a complementary spot which the team believes Lelito can fill (we will see about that) but even if he can’t they have several UDFA’s they can bring in anyone of which could be a quality starter at the spot. For the record I love that they brought in Mike Golic, Jr. because he has both the pedigree and experience to be a good, cheap, quality pickup.
Offseason Grade: A. The Saints get an A because they are my team and I love them; but more importantly because they not only filled needs, but did it with players who could have a significant impact. Cooks may just give the offense an element that it has not had at ANY time under Sean Payton, (I’m not being a homer on this one the tape shows it) Byrd could have the same kind of effect that Sharper had…except he has two good knees and doesn’t go on the… yeah you get it. They are now stacked at nearly every position and even their later round picks have high potential (although like a lot of later round picks they have their risk too).