NFC South: 2011 NFL Draft

Video: Cam Newton's path to success

May, 1, 2011
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ESPN analysts Herm Edwards, Todd McShay, Tedy Bruschi and Mel Kiper Jr. discuss how the Carolina Panthers should proceed with No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton.
In this Insider post Insider, Mel Kiper grades the draft classes for the NFC South teams and the entire league.

I won’t reveal the grades here, since we’re not supposed to give away everything in Insider posts. However, I will tell you Kiper gave the Buccaneers the highest grade in the division. Tough to argue with that one, since Tampa Bay did a very nice job of filling needs. The Bucs also got what might turn out to be great value when they took defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who tumbled into the second round.

The Saints were next in the division in Kiper’s grading system.

He likes that they got defensive end Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram in the first round and thinks linebacker Martez Wilson should have been drafted long before the Saints took him in the third round.

Kiper gave the Falcons mixed-reviews. He says their draft was all about wide receiver Julio Jones and he’s right because the Falcons gave up a lot to move up to No. 6 to get him. Kiper also says that means the Falcons expect Jones to be very good right away. He’s probably right and that might not be fair to Jones. As a general rule, rookie receivers take a little time to develop. Atlanta’s draft can’t really be graded fairly for a couple of years. But Kiper gets paid to do his grades very quickly.

Although they had the No. 1 overall pick, Kiper gave the Panthers the lowest grade in the division. Like a lot of people, Kiper is torn on quarterback Cam Newton. He acknowledged the tremendous upside, but said the Panthers might be wise to let Newton sit for a season. That might be true, but I think the plan is to play him pretty quickly.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

As three division teams were winning 10 or more games last season, we often discussed the possibility that the NFC South is the best division in the NFL. That topic is always going to be open for debate.

But here’s one thing I think we can say with certainty. The NFC South had a more exciting and interesting 2011 draft than any other division. From the Carolina Panthers' decision to take Cam “Mr. Love Him or Hate Him" Newton to the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints making big trades to get Julio Jones and Mark Ingram to Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers tumbling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round, this draft was filled with huge storylines and intrigue all around the division.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of the NFC South draft:

BEST MOVE

The Saints played it safe with their first-round pick and took defensive end Cameron Jordan. That filled a big need that could become bigger if Will Smith eventually has to serve the four-game suspension that has been hung up in the legal system for a couple of years. But what the Saints did next was the real key to their draft.

They traded back into the first round to take Ingram. The cost was steep. The Saints gave up their second-round pick this year and their first-round choice in 2012. But next year’s first-round pick could be deep in the 20s or 30s if things work out the way the Saints envision.

They already had a trio of role-playing running backs in Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. Each of those players has certain things he can do well, but none of them is really a complete back. There also are durability concerns because all three were hurt at different parts of the past season, and the Saints ran out of running backs in their playoff loss to Seattle.

Ingram is a do-it-all back and history has shown that, unlike rookie quarterbacks and wide receivers, first-year running backs usually can step right in and make an impact from the start. Ingram already is drawing comparisons to former New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister, and I don’t disagree at all.

RISKIEST MOVE

Although I knew for about a month that the Panthers were pretty much set on Newton, I had my doubts that general manager Marty Hurney actually would pull the trigger when it came right down to it. Hurney and the Panthers have a long history of playing it safe and have taken the conservative approach for the past decade.

There’s nothing conservative about choosing Newton. He’s the classic boom-or-bust prospect. There were character and background questions, but the Panthers looked into that and didn’t see anything that made them back off Newton. There also are questions about Newton being able to adapt to an NFL offense after playing only one year at Auburn in an offense that’s nothing close to a pro-style scheme.

Even the Panthers aren’t sure how Newton will adjust to the pro game. But they’re so sold on the athletic ability and Newton’s upside that they were willing to step totally out of character and take a leap. If Newton is what the Panthers hope, they’ll be able to compete again in the NFC South. If not, this is the kind of move that can get a general manager, who survived a 2-14 season, fired a few years down the road.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJulio Jones had 2,653 yards on 179 catches with 15 touchdowns in three seasons at Alabama.
The rumors started flying a few days before the draft that the Falcons were looking to jump into the top 10 and get a receiver. But most people, myself included, kind of dismissed that notion because moving that far up from No. 27 would be too expensive.

The cost was incredibly high, but the Falcons did it because they wanted an explosive receiver like Jones. They gave up their first-round pick this year, along with their second- and fourth-round picks. They also had to include their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012. That got them to No. 6, where they gladly took Jones.

The stunner here was the cost. But it appears the Falcons are going for broke, which isn’t a bad move when you’re coming off a 13-3 season. Atlanta added Jones to a passing attack with Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan, and Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas as role players. By the way, the Falcons also traded up in the fifth round for Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers. He’s the kind of speed back the Falcons need to pair with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. I don’t see how this offense can add much more to get better.

Go out and get a pass-rushing defensive end in free agency, and the Falcons truly could be a Super Bowl contender.

FILE IT AWAY

Of all the later-round picks, I think Tampa Bay’s selection of Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker (the Bucs traded up to get him in the fourth round) is the one that could have the most impact. On the surface, the Bucs have a very good tight end in Kellen Winslow. He’s got knee issues, and the Bucs do a nice job of resting him most of the week and getting him on the field on Sundays. But there’s not a lot of depth behind him.

Jerramy Stevens was released last season after his latest off-field incident, and role player John Gilmore probably will depart as a free agent. That means Stocker has a chance to get some playing time pretty quickly. He’s not the receiving threat Winslow is, but Stocker can catch some passes. More important, he’s a strong blocker.

His presence should allow the Bucs to pick and choose their spots for putting Winslow on the field. Stocker can handle some of the obvious running downs and could even prompt the Bucs to use more two-tight end sets, which could add another dimension to the passing game for Josh Freeman.

More than anything, Stocker provides a nice insurance policy in case Winslow’s knees really flare up. He’s a guy who can do a little bit of everything that a tight end should. Yes, the early part of this draft was about defense and that was the correct move for the Bucs. But this franchise is built around Freeman, and this is another example of the Bucs doing everything they can to make sure their young quarterback has a strong supporting cast.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As the Carolina Panthers were preparing to make Cam Newton the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, we talked several times about how the climate in the offices of Bank of America Stadium was changing.

Heck, the Panthers gave a pretty good indication of that before the lockout when they signed tight end Jeremy Shockey. Newton and Shockey would have been the kind of players the old Panthers wouldn’t have gone near.

Newton’s a quarterback and former coach John Fox didn’t believe in drafting quarterbacks early because he thought they took too long to develop. Even with Fox out of the equation, there were reports about possible background issues for Newton, and the Panthers generally have stayed away from guys with checkered pasts. The current regime did its homework on Newton’s past and it didn’t stop them from taking him. But, even as a pure football decision, taking Newton didn’t come with any guarantees.

That’s a break from the past, when the Panthers almost always went with the safe or conservative choice. Shockey, who is aging and more than a little flamboyant, also wouldn’t have fit the old profile.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Hogan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCornerback Brandon Hogan had several off-the-field issues at West Virginia.
But times have changed and the latest evidence of that came in the fourth round when Carolina drafted West Virginia cornerback Brandon Hogan. He’s a guy with a rather-lengthy history of off-field issues and is also coming off major knee surgery.

Back in the old days, there was a running joke between scouts around the league and scouts for the Panthers.

When they’d all get together at the Senior Bowl, combine or college pro days, the topic of some prospect with character issues would often come up. The Carolina scouts would say there was no way they could touch a guy with major issues because owner Jerry Richardson simply wouldn’t allow it.

The other scouts would almost always fire back with something like, “What about Steve Smith?’’ and the Carolina scouts would roll their eyes about the one guy who was the exception to a lot of rules in Carolina.

Now, it sounds as if Smith might be traded as soon as trades are allowed. But that doesn’t mean the topic of character issues will go away with him. More than ever, or at least since the days of Kerry Collins and Rae Carruth, it looks like the Panthers have opened their doors to guys who come with some questions.

Video: Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff

April, 30, 2011
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The Falcons' general manager discusses Atlanta's trade to acquire receiver Julio Jones.

Video: Raheem Morris on young defense

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris talks about draft picks Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers.

Fourth round is up and running

April, 30, 2011
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers just opened the fourth round of the NFL draft by taking West Virginia defensive back Brandon Hogan.

Things are going to be moving very quickly and we won’t provide running updates of every pick Saturday. You can get that over on our main NFL page. If there are any surprises or big names taken by the NFC South teams, we’ll address that. But I’ll be working mostly on my draft wrap-ups for all four teams.

Also, one quick clarification on Atlanta linebacker Akeem Dent, who was taken in the third round Friday. Our Scouts Inc. people and some of the draft preview magazines said Dent’s a pure inside linebacker.

The Falcons said that’s not how they view Dent, who did play inside in his final year of college. But he played strong-side linebacker before that. The Falcons expect Dent to contribute immediately on special teams and they plan to work him as an outside linebacker. He’ll probably start off as a backup, but could be in the mix to replace veteran Mike Peterson in a year or two.

Wrapping up NFC South third round

April, 29, 2011
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The third round has ended, so let’s take a quick look at what each of the three NFC South teams did in this round.

Carolina Panthers. No. 65, Terrell McClain, defensive tackle, University of South Florida. This guy has a chance to step in and start immediately. Defensive tackle has been the weakest position on the defense for a couple of years. McClain is the kind of space eater that’s been missing since Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu departed.

“The opportunity is there,’’ McClain said. “I’m not going to back down from it. I’m going to be one of the hardest workers out there. I don’t want to have any regrets.

No. 97, Sione Fua, defensive tackle, Stanford. The Panthers opened and closed the round by taking a defensive tackle. Can’t argue with that because they need all the help they can get at the position. Like McClain, Fua can play nose tackle or the three-technique spot. Like McClain, he also will have a shot to get playing time right away.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No. 84, Mason Foster, linebacker, Washington. After getting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in the first two rounds, the Bucs stuck with their plan to improve their front seven. Last year’s linebacker corps of Barrett Ruud, Quincy Black and Geno Hayes really didn’t produce the number of big plays the team would have liked. Foster is more of an interior linebacker and this could be a sign that the Bucs are preparing to lose Ruud in free agency.

According to Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, Foster is more of a “thumper’’ than Ruud. But he’s not a three-down player and is not a great fit dropping into coverage over the deep middle.

New Orleans Saints. No. 88, Johnny Patrick, defensive back, Louisville. An interesting pick by the Saints because they appear to be in great shape at cornerback. When healthy, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Patrick Robinson can give the Saints as good a trio as any team in the league.

But general manager Mickey Loomis doesn’t always focus on glaring needs when he sees a player he likes. Patrick was close to being a shutdown corner in his last season at Louisville. He’s not known as a real physical guy, but he has the speed and athleticism to cover receivers and break up passes.

Atlanta Falcons. No. 91, Akeem Dent, linebacker, Georgia. This one was something of a surprise. Dent is purely an inside linebacker. He’s a two-down player who can play the run, but isn’t going to be on the field in passing situations. There wasn’t a glaring need for that kind of guy because the Falcons have a very solid middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton. There are greater needs on the outside. Sean Weatherspoon is set as one starter at outside linebacker. But the other spot is a question mark. Mike Peterson is aging and Stephen Nicholas probably will leave as a free agent.

Charting Da'Quan Bowers' fall

April, 29, 2011
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We talked quite a bit about Da'Quan Bowers' slide deep into the second round before Tampa Bay took the Clemson defensive end at No. 51.

But, thanks to the folks at ESPN’s Stats & Information, we can quantify Bowers’ fall, which presumably was related to numerous reports of concerns about a knee problem.

Anyway, let’s take a look at how Bowers slid in some prominent mock drafts. Let’s turn first to ESPN draft guru Todd McShay. His first mock draft appeared on Feb. 10 and Bowers was listed as the No. 1 overall pick. McShay’s next mock came on March 16 and Bowers dropped to No. 6. In mock drafts that came out April 6 and April 20, Bowers was at No. 20. In McShay’s final mock on Thursday, Bowers was at No. 27.

Now, let’s slide over to our other draft guru, Mel Kiper. In his first mock draft, Bowers was No. 4 and he jumped up to No. 2 in Kiper’s second mock. His fall in Kiper’s eyes started in the third mock when he dropped to No. 8. In the fourth mock, Bowers was No. 12. In Kiper’s final mock, Bowers was No. 24.
Da'Quan BowersKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDa'Quan Bowers amassed 74 tackles and 15.5 sacks for Clemson last season.
We’ve all heard of the law of diminishing returns. Well, I think we just saw an example of the law of diminishing risk.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just used their second-round pick on Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. The pick was No. 51, which is precisely 50 spots below where most people were saying Bowers would go back when talk about this draft really started in January.

He’s the most dynamic pass-rusher in the draft and a freakish athlete. But he tumbled beyond all expectations as concerns about what could be a chronic knee problem surfaced and continued to grow.

The Bucs supposedly considered Bowers in the first round at No. 20. But that’s where the law of diminishing returns might have played a role. Instead, the Bucs went the safer route and chose Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He’s not as dynamic a pass-rusher as Bowers, but he is a complete defensive end and doesn’t come with a lot of questions.

However, the law of diminishing risk kicked in as the second round kept rolling and Bowers kept sliding. At No. 51, the risk isn’t nearly as great as it would have been at No. 20.

The Bucs have played this game before and played it quite well. They took their shot on receiver Mike Williams in the fourth round last year. He came with some background questions and might have been a big risk if he had been taken any sooner. The returns came quickly, as Williams instantly turned into Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver.

I don’t know all the details that are in the medical reports about Bowers' knee, but the Buccaneers obviously do. Like every other team, they do their homework on these matters.

They must feel like Bowers can at least be a productive player for a few years. With Clayborn and Bowers, even if his knee is a bit of an issue, the Bucs suddenly look a lot better at defensive end than they did last season. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder were starters most of last year, and they generated almost no pass rush.

Even if the Bucs want to start off cautiously with Bowers and use him as a situational pass-rusher for 15 or 20 snaps a game, that gives them more of a threat than White and Crowder did over the course of an entire game. Clayborn is the kind of guy who should play a lot of downs because he can play the run and generate a decent pass rush.

There’s another theme emerging here. The Bucs used their first two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in last year’s draft. This time, they did it with defensive ends. McCoy and Price showed promise last year, and they should get a lot better with some help around them on the outside.

Suddenly, there’s at least the potential for the Bucs to have a very good defensive line. That should make the entire front seven a lot better. There weren’t a lot of big plays from the front seven last season, as the Bucs ranked 30th in the league in sacks. In a 10-6 season that was highlighted by the emergence of quarterback Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s secondary was the only area of the defense that made plays.

Now, there’s the potential for pressure up front, which should translate into more big plays for the secondary and maybe more wins for the Bucs.

Even if his role is limited, Bowers should help the Bucs. In a best-case scenario, Bowers’ slide could end up bringing back very happy memories from the franchise’s past.

Once upon a time, 1995 to be exact, there was a defensive lineman tumbling fast. He also had initially been projected as the No. 1 overall pick. But there were reports of a different nature (failed drug tests). The Bucs watched as that player slid. When their time came, they assumed the risk.

They drafted Warren Sapp. That worked out pretty darn well. If Bowers can bring half the impact Sapp did, this pick will be well worth the risk.
I’ll be back with more detailed analysis on this one in just a minute, but let’s get the news out there because it’s significant.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just selected Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second round with the No. 51 overall pick. Bowers was viewed by a lot of people as a possible No. 1 overall pick early in the draft process. But concerns about his knee prompted a tumble deep into the second round.

Tampa Bay also took defensive end Adrian Clayborn in the first round.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I’m back at Bank of America Stadium to monitor the NFC South draft.

At the moment, Tampa Bay is the division’s only team with a second-round pick. The others traded their picks previously and it may be difficult for them to trade back into the round.

I’m going to write a column on new Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, then analyze what Tampa Bay does at No. 51 overall. After that we’ll analyze the third round as the NFC South becomes a factor again.
Before taking the biggest leap in Thursday night’s first round, the Atlanta Falcons spent as much time researching Alabama receiver Julio Jones as they did on franchise quarterback Matt Ryan when he came into the league in 2008.

In this radio interview with 680 The Fan in Atlanta, general manager Thomas Dimitroff talked about what went into the Falcons leaping all the way from No. 27 overall to get Jones with the sixth pick.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe Falcons are expecting big things out of receiver Julio Jones.
“We spent a lot of time on this,’’ Dimitroff said. “This wasn’t a sort of off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, heat-of-the-battle, let’s just trade up because we like this guy. We’ve contemplated this for over a month and we’ve done probably as much research on Julio as we had done narrowing down on Matt Ryan. This was a major move. We all know that.’’

Yes, we do. In giving up much of this year’s draft and next year’s, the Falcons might have made the most aggressive move in the history of their franchise.

“We all know it’s a bold move, an aggressive move,’’ Dimitroff said. “It’s something we felt, at this time, in our development as a football team, it was the best move for us and the right move.”

Dimitroff has got a point. The Falcons went 13-3 last season, but got beat in their first playoff game. They haven’t won a playoff game since Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and Ryan came together. They obviously believe they’re close to taking the next big step.

“We felt, from the very beginning of this offseason, we wanted to, again, become more explosive on both sides of the ball,’’ Dimitroff said. “And we just felt the talent and the explosiveness and the play-making ability of Julio Jones over some of the other players that we were considering … that this was the impactful type of player we were looking for.’’

There’s no doubt Jones has the potential to make a huge impact on the Atlanta offense. But it’s probably wrong to say he’s the single player the Falcons need to really challenge for a Super Bowl title. Then again, that statement might be only slightly off.

I think the Falcons need to add two key players. They got one in Jones. Now comes the next part. They still need to add a pass-rusher on defense and they know it. Will that come in a draft in which the Falcons gave up their second-round pick?

Probably not. They may take a defensive end somewhere in the later rounds and hope that guy can develop into a pass-rushing force down the line. I think it’s much more likely that whenever free agency opens, the Falcons go out and sign a defensive end who already has showed he can be a force in the NFL.

I also have little doubt owner Arthur Blank will hesitate to write the check to get whoever Dimitroff and Smith view as the best fit for their team. The drafting of Jones was a very aggressive move and it shows the Falcons are aiming high. Whatever they do at defensive end, it may come in the form of a move that is equally aggressive.

Video: Jones excited to go to Atlanta

April, 29, 2011
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Julio Jones talks about getting selected by Atlanta and the tornadoes in Alabama.
After all the wheeling and dealing by the Saints and Falcons on Thursday night, the NFC South is running low on picks for the rest of the draft.

New Orleans is now holding a league-low four picks. They have two third-round picks and two in the seventh.

The Falcons have six picks, but three of those are seventh-round choices. They also have picks in the third, fifth and sixth rounds.

The Panthers have seven picks, but no second-round choice. They have two third-round picks and two in the sixth. They also have one pick in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds.

The Buccaneers are the only NFC South team with a pick in each remaining round. They have one pick in every round, except for the seventh round, where they have two choices.

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