Draft Watch: NFC South

April, 14, 2011
4/14/11
12:00
PM ET
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Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Draft philosophy.

Atlanta Falcons

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have been pretty open about the need to add some “explosive’’ players to the roster. Couple that with the fact that Dimitroff usually drafts for need and you can strongly surmise the Falcons will seek a pass-rushing defensive end or a big-play wide receiver with their first pick. But they’re sitting at No. 27 and that means there might not be any sure-fire prospects at either spot.

With division rivals Tampa Bay and New Orleans -- also in the market for pass rushers -- sitting just ahead of them, the Falcons may consider trading up to get a defensive end. There was a time early in Dimitroff’s tenure when moving up wouldn’t have been a consideration because the Falcons were stockpiling picks to continue building through the draft. With a 13-3 team that’s largely intact, it might be time to become more aggressive. The Falcons only have a few real needs and they might package some picks to make sure they get the right fit.

Carolina Panthers

Marty Hurney still is the general manager, but coach John Fox is gone. That’s led to a major change in how the entire organization looks at things. The Panthers realize they’ve fallen behind the rest of the NFC South -- and most of the NFL -- in offense and it’s time to start catching up. In the Fox days, there was no chance of the Panthers taking a quarterback in the first round.

Now, Carolina seems to be strongly considering Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert remains in the mix. Hurney recognizes that this might be the chance to get the franchise quarterback this team has needed for so long. But Newton comes with some questions and Gabbert’s not a sure thing. Despite the eye-opening changes within the building, the real question is if Hurney actually has the nerve to go out and take a huge chance?

New Orleans Saints

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton have become pretty good at taking a long-term view of the draft. Their past two first-round picks were defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins in 2009 and Patrick Robinson last year. There was a sense that these guys didn’t have to play immediately and that’s worked out well. Jenkins emerged as a very good starter at free safety last season, after working as a backup cornerback as a rookie. Robinson spent his rookie year as a backup and is expected to progress next season.

That’s just evidence that the Saints like to focus on the best available player and they don’t lock into needs that can be filled if and when free agency arrives. Defensive end is New Orleans’ biggest area of need, but the history of Loomis and Payton suggest they’re not going to take someone at that position unless they’re convinced he’s the best player available. With this approach, just about any position other than quarterback is in play when the Saints pick at No. 24.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

General manager Mark Dominik has been pretty deliberate about addressing needs in his first two drafts. He traded up to get quarterback Josh Freeman in 2009 and, last year, doubled up at defensive tackle and wide receiver. Dominik drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with his first two picks last year and also brought in receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams within the first four rounds.

This year, Tampa Bay’s needs are clearer than they’ve been throughout Dominik’s tenure. Getting a pass rusher is atop the list and history suggests the Bucs will go for that early on and, maybe, do it again a bit later. Dominik also needs to keep in mind the Bucs were the youngest team in the league last season and not get too carried away with the success of last year’s rookies. Some of them might have played over their heads last season and the Bucs need to keep their eyes open to keep improving the overall talent level of this team.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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