- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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We’re a little more than two months away from the NFL draft, but we’re about to enter a key time.
The scouting combine starts later this week and that’s when you’ll see the stock of various prospects rise or fall. As it stands right now, there seems to be a fairly clear consensus on the top 10 players, but that could change after players work out at the combine.
The NFC South has only two teams with first-round picks because Atlanta and New Orleans traded away their choices last year. But Tampa Bay and Carolina each are in the top 10 and should be able to come out of the draft with players that can make instant impacts.
Let’s take a look at the latest Insider mock draft by Mel Kiper.
He has the Bucs taking Alabama running back Trent Richardson at No. 5. I’m not ruling this one out at all because the Bucs clearly have to improve their backfield. LeGarrette Blount is not an every-down back and it doesn’t seem real likely that Earnest Graham, who will be a free agent, will return. But conventional wisdom says you can get a good running back a little later in the draft.
The Bucs have plenty of needs and running back is high on that list. But cornerback could be even higher. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs pass on Richardson and take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Cornerback could end up being the biggest need of all. We don’t know yet if veteran Ronde Barber wants to continue playing. Even if he does, we don’t know if the Bucs want him back. Aqib Talib is the other starting cornerback, but he’s got a trial on an assault charge coming up. Talib could end up with a prison sentence. He also could be subject to discipline from the league. It’s also possible new coach Greg Schiano might send a message to his team about off-field issues by parting ways with Talib.
Either way, it’s not that difficult to project what Carolina might do. Kiper has the Panthers taking LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers and I think that’s entirely possible. Even with Ron Edwards expected back from injury and the presence of second-year players Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, the Panthers need to make sure they finally fix the middle of their defensive line. I could also see them going with a cornerback if Claiborne falls a bit. I also wouldn’t be all that surprised if the Panthers went with an offensive tackle, such as Iowa’s Riley Reiff or Stanford’s Jonathan Martin. Left tackle Jordan Gross is getting older and right tackle Jeff Otah has had chronic knee problems. It might be a long time before the Panthers pick in the top 10 again. It might be hard to pass on a can’t-miss left tackle. The Panthers could play the new guy at right tackle for a year or two and eventually move him to the left side.