NFC South: 2012 NFL Draft

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have sent out the list of undrafted free agents they have signed. The other three NFC South teams have yet to send out anything official. Teams generally wait until they have contracts in hand before announcing these signings. As soon as the other teams send out their lists, I’ll let you know.

Here’s who the Bucs added:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the NFC South winners in the NFL draft, according to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.



The Bucs and the Philadelphia Eagles were the only teams Kiper graded with an A on their overall draft, in this Insider postInsider.

No argument here. Tampa Bay came out of the draft with three instant starters in safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David. General manager Mark Dominik did an excellent job of moving up and back to squeeze as much as he could out of this draft.

Kiper gave the Carolina Panthers a B-. He talks glowingly about first-round pick Luke Kuechly and how he’ll solidify the linebacker corps. But Kiper questions the Panthers for not adding a defensive tackle, and I don’t have a big problem with that. The Panthers are getting Ron Edwards back after he missed last season with an injury and second-year pros Terrell McClain and Sione Fua should only improve on what they did as rookies.

Kiper graded the Falcons with a C and the Saints with a C-. That may be a little harsh and you have to factor in that the Falcons didn’t have a first-round pick and the Saints didn’t pick until the third round. You’re not going to get big-name players when you’re in that situation.

But I think the Falcons did a nice job of addressing needs, particularly with Wisconsin’s Peter Konz in the second round. He should solidify the interior of the offensive line. The Saints added defensive tackle Akiem Hicks in the third round and receiver Nick Toon in the fourth, and I like both picks. Hicks may have played college football in Canada, but he has lots of upside and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is likely to give him significant playing time. Toon might not have much upside, but he’s a polished wide receiver and should fit nicely into New Orleans’ passing game.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The 2012 NFL draft won’t be remembered as the flashiest in NFC South history. That honor belongs to the 2011 draft -- probably forever.

It’s tough to top a draft in which quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina, Atlanta traded up for receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. Aside from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pretty good splash, this year’s NFC South draft wasn’t filled with drama.

Instead, it was filled with very deliberate picks that addressed big needs all around the division.

BEST MOVE

No pick set the division's tone for this draft better than Carolina's selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 overall.

There’s nothing really flashy about Kuechly, but the Panthers didn’t need flash this time around. They got that with Newton, and he gave them a prolific offense. But that offense was only enough to carry the Panthers to a 6-10 record last season. Carolina couldn’t play defense, and opponents have run all over the Panthers the last few seasons.

A lot of people thought the Panthers should go with a defensive tackle in the first round. But there were two reasons they didn’t. They weren’t enamored of any of the first-round prospects at that position. They also feel pretty good about what they already have at defensive tackle. Ron Edwards, a big free-agent pickup last year, is coming back from an injury that kept him out last season, and the Panthers think he can anchor their defensive line. They also used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last year.

The Panthers believe they have the personnel to clog up the middle. Kuechly should be able to come in and do what he does best. He can roam the field and be the kind of tackling machine he was in college. This guy had as few flaws as any player in the draft and is ready to make an instant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keuchly or Jon Beason will play the middle and which one will slide outside. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Panthers now have a deep linebacker corps that should be able to stop just about any running game.

RISKIEST MOVE

You could say the Saints made a risky move by using their first draft pick on a player who didn’t even play his college ball in the United States. They drafted Regina (Canada) defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the No. 89 overall pick in the third round.

The fact Hicks didn’t play against elite completion means there is obvious risk with this pick. But why not take a shot when you’re this late in the third round? Hicks has tremendous upside, and he was good enough to be recruited to LSU before leaving for Canada. The Saints have a great history of discovering gems (Jimmy Graham, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston) later in the draft. They took a risk, but it might pay off.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Doug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs made headlines with their first-round draft picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin.
Hicks should at least have a chance at some playing time early on. The Saints don’t have much behind Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at defensive tackle. Hicks could end up in the rotation very quickly, and the Saints could end up looking very smart for taking this risk.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Bucs haven’t been exciting in any way in quite some time. But they provided virtually all of the excitement within the division in this draft. General manager Mark Dominik shrewdly made some trades that gave the Bucs the ammunition to move up twice and come out of the draft with three instant starters.

Get over the fact that Dominik used the No. 7 overall pick on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron. The Bucs weren’t sold on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne for reasons we don’t know. They were sold on Barron, and safety might have been the weakest position on their roster heading into the draft. Trading down from No. 5 to No. 7 started a process in which Dominik was able to manipulate the draft with trades that gave him two other starters -- running back Doug Martin and outside linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs traded back into the first round to get Martin late Thursday night. They were without a second-round pick Friday night. But they saw David sitting there, they had the ammunition, and they pounced. No NFC South team needed more help from this draft than the Buccaneers, and Dominik made sure they got help that will matter right from the start.

FILE IT AWAY

Atlanta’s selection of Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round might not seem like a big deal on the surface. For now, Ewing is probably nothing more than a special-teams player. But the Falcons also were looking a year or two down the road when they made this pick. Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli is coming off a major injury, and he’ll turn 32 in June. It was time to find someone to groom as Mughelli’s eventual successor.

Looking back on the sixth round

April, 28, 2012
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The sixth round of the NFL draft is over and each NFC South team made one pick. Let’s take a look.

The Buccaneers selected West Virginia cornerback Keith Tandy. At this stage of the draft, it’s all about depth. With Aqib Talib’s future still uncertain and the possibility of Ronde Barber playing safety, Tandy gives the Bucs some more depth at cornerback and a likely special-teams player.

The Saints took Syracuse guard Andrew Tiller. This is one guy that you don’t write off as a career backup just because he’s a sixth-round pick. First off, Tiller has great size and some upside. Second, the Saints have a history of finding great guards later in the draft. They found Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, although Nicks left this year via free agency. Oh, there’s one other factor here. Tiller’s college coach was Doug Marrone, who used to be New Orleans’ offensive coordinator, so Tiller should have some familiarity with the Saints’ offense.

The Falcons picked Mississippi State safety Charles Mitchell. He’s a little short, but he’s strong and powerful. As a three-year starter in the SEC, he has experience against good competition. He should provide some solid depth behind Thomas DeCoud and William Moore.

The Panthers used the final pick of the sixth round on Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. This is significant. The Panthers released punter Jason Baker in a salary-cap move and needed a replacement. They found one in Nortman.

Looking back on the fifth round

April, 28, 2012
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The fifth round of the NFL draft is over and it is worth noting this was the first time in this draft that each of the four NFC South teams had a pick in the same round.

Let’s take a look at who’s joining the NFC South from the fifth round.

The Buccaneers added West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode. He’s viewed primarily as an inside guy, but has the ability to slide outside. The Bucs are coming out of this draft much deeper at linebacker.

The Panthers took Coastal Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. He’s not a threat to contend for a starting job anytime soon. But Norman has good instincts and should have a chance to play on special teams.

The Saints selected Samford safety Corey White. He doesn’t have typical safety size, but does have good cover skills. That’s significant. Starting safety Roman Harper isn’t known as a cover guy. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to have safeties who can cover, so there’s room for White on the roster.

The Falcons picked Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing and Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Ewing’s not spectacular in any area, but does everything reasonably well. He likely will start off as a special-teams player, but eventually could take over for veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli. Massaquoi already is 24 years old, but he does have some upside as a pass-rusher. The Falcons need all the pass-rushing help they can get.
New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael isn’t known for being a great quote. He comes across as shy and quiet in interviews.

But Carmichael is one of those guys you need to listen to when he does have something to say because his thoughts usually carry some weight.

Carmichael and assistant head coach Joe Vitt met with the New Orleans media to discuss Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon, who the Saints drafted in the fourth round. Carmichael was asked if Toon compares to any other receiver he’s ever worked with.

“His range and his hands remind me more of [Marques] Colston,’’ Carmichael said. “He runs better than I think people give him credit for. He was timed real well at the combine. I think that speed shows up on film.”

Any comparison to Colston is pretty high praise for a receiver coming into New Orleans’ offense. Since arriving in New Orleans as a seventh-round pick in 2006, Colston has been Drew Brees’ favorite and most-productive target.

Toon had some medical issues in his college career, but Vitt said that’s not a concern.

“Our doctors passed him on his physical,’’ Vitt said. “I believe he missed only one game his senior year, the Indiana game, where he probably could have played in the game. I think he’s going to have to work through some issues in the National Football League, but they all do. Robert Meachem missed his whole first year. We have good medical grades on him. We like his production with over 60 catches.’’

If Toon turns out to be anything close to what Colston has been, the Saints just helped themselves.
The fourth round is just about over. It's down to the compensatory picks and those can't be traded, so this round will end with only three picks made by NFC South teams.

But this still was a relatively eventful round for the division. Carolina was the star in this round as the Panthers used back-to-back picks to get Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander and Arkansas receiver Joe Adams. I don’t think either is a candidate to start right away, but they give the Panthers some depth at positions where they needed depth.

Charles Johnson is Carolina’s big threat at defensive end and Greg Hardy hasn’t really produced the way the Panthers had hoped. They still have hope Hardy will emerge, but Alexander provides another option behind him.

I like the Adams pick even more. Carolina has one certainty at receiver. That’s Steve Smith. After that, the Panthers are hoping Brandon LaFell can continue to develop and David Gettis can come back strong from last year’s season-ending injury. But there are no guarantees LaFell and Gettis will become stars, so it makes sense to add another guy to this mix. Adams could end up being used as a slot receiver fairly early on. He has the potential to be explosive and, with Cam Newton’s arm, the Panthers could use someone besides Smith that can get open down the field.

Speaking of wide receivers, the Saints got one with the only other NFC South pick in the fourth round. They took Wisconsin’s Nick Toon. A lack of top end speed and questions about his durability are the main reasons Toon slid to the fourth round. But this is a polished player from a big-time program. In New Orleans’ offense, wide receivers tend to produce more than their draft status would suggest. Just look at what Marques Colston and Lance Moore have done.

The Saints did lose Robert Meachem in free agency. They still have Colston, Moore and Devery Henderson. Toon should have a chance to compete with Adrian Arrington for the fourth receiver spot.

Countdown Live: 2012 NFL draft

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
11:11
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It's finally here. Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the 2012 NFL draft, round-by-round. We'll have input from blog nation, Scouts Inc., Stats & Information and fantasy perspectives.

Thursday night we'll kick off Round 1 at 7 p.m. ET. For Friday night's Rounds 2 and 3, we'll be here at 6:30 p.m. ET. And we'll be back Saturday morning at noon ET to finish things off.

Contribute your thoughts and questions on all things NFL draft below. We'll see you there.

Around the NFC South

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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As we wait for the NFL draft to resume at noon ET, let's take a run through some headlines from around the NFC South.

— Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said he believes Nebraska’s Lavonte David can play any of the three linebacker positions. But Schiano admitted he plans to use David on the outside. Go ahead and pencil him as the starter at one outside position because the Bucs didn’t trade back into the second round to have David spend his rookie season on the bench. His arrival probably means second-year pro Mason Foster will stay in the middle and Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and the rest of the linebackers on the roster will compete for the other starting job on the outside.

— Boise State running back Doug Martin, who the Bucs traded back into the first round to get, has a great nickname. His college teammates dubbed him "The Muscle Hamster." It’s pretty simple -- Martin is short, but muscular and he’s going to be running a lot. I like what the Bucs are doing. They’re adding character guys with personality. That’s great because this franchise really hasn’t had much personality in recent years.

— Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks talks about the long, strange journey that took him from a junior college in California to a brief stay at LSU to two years of playing in Canadia and back to Louisiana as the Saints draft him in the third round.

— Although he grew up in the heart of Green Bay Packers territory, Wisconsin center Peter Konz made a confession Friday night. He’s always been a fan of the Atlanta Falcons. That’s a plus because the Falcons drafted him in the second round Friday night.

— Scott Fowler writes that the Panthers need to add some defensive players in what remains of the draft. They did get linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round, but they went with offensive lineman Amini Silatolu in the second round. Although some experts say Silatolu will take time to develop, the Panthers say he’ll have a chance to compete for a starting guard job this year. Fine, he may turn out to be something good, but the Panthers still need more depth on defense and they need to address that throughout the rest of the draft.
Earlier, we gave you the rundown on what picks each NFC South team currently holds heading into the last day of the draft.

Let’s also take a quick look at what players are still available. Mel Kiper Jr. has this Insider list Insider of the best players remaining and it has some names that many expected to be off the board long ago.

Mississippi tackle Bobby Massie and Miami running back Lamar Miller are easily the two biggest surprises on the list and people are starting to wonder if they have medical or other issues. I’m also shocked Oklahoma linebacker/defensive back Ronnell Lewis and Florida State offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders still are available.

Saturday’s portion of the draft starts at noon ET and it’s going to move very rapidly. If you’re able to, join us in Countdown Live, the interactive chat in which you can talk with the eight divisional bloggers, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, Football Scientist KC Joyner and others.

I’m not even going to try to give you instant analysis on every one of Saturday’s NFC South picks on the blog. That’s what our Insider Draft Tracker is for. I’ll weigh in on picks of note and maybe provide a quick summary of each round or every couple of rounds.

But my main assignment Saturday is to write a division-wide draft wrap-up and I’ll be working on that through much of the day. That should post on this blog soon after the draft ends.

NFC South remaining picks

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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There was a lot of trading up and down throughout the first three rounds of the NFL draft. So let’s take a look at what picks each team has remaining (at least for the moment) before the final day of the draft kicks off Saturday at noon ET.

Falcons: They have four picks remaining. They have two in the fifth round (Nos. 157 and 164). In the sixth round, they have pick No. 192. In the seventh, they have pick No. 249.

Panthers: Carolina has five picks remaining. They have a fourth-round choice (No. 104) and a fifth-round pick (No. 143). In the sixth round they have two picks (Nos. 180 and 207). In the seventh round, they have pick No. 216.

Saints: New Orleans has four picks remaining. In the fourth round, it holds pick No. 122; in the fifth, No. 162. In the sixth, the Saints have pick No. 179. In the seventh round, they hold pick No. 234.

Buccaneers: They have four picks remaining. The Bucs hold pick No. 140 in the fifth round. In the sixth round, they have pick No. 174. In the seventh round, they have two picks (Nos. 212 and 233).
The New Orleans Saints turned a few heads when they drafted a player from a Canadian university Friday night.

They used a third-round pick No. 89 overall on Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

ESPN Stats & Information passed along a great trivia nugget. Hicks became the highest-drafted player from Canadian Interuniversity Sports since offensive lineman Mike Schad went No. 23 overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 1986.

Schad, a native of Canada, stayed with the Rams through 1988. He then went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1989 through 1993.

Hicks took a different route. He’s a native of Elk Grove, Calif. He played at Sacramento City College before transferring to LSU. But Hicks didn’t stay in Louisiana for long. He transferred to Regina in 2010 and played two eight-game seasons at Regina where he had eight career sacks and 56 tackles, including 12 for a loss.

This isn’t the first time Hicks has been drafted. He was selected by the Omaha Nighthawks in the United Football League’s 2011 draft, but chose to return to Regina.

Falcons add more O-line depth

April, 27, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons just drafted an offensive tackle, but I don’t think you can go ahead and pencil in Lamar Holmes as an instant replacement for Sam Baker at left tackle.

Holmes
The Falcons took Holmes out of Southern Mississippi with a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) -- and that’s not where you find rookie left tackles who can make an immediate impact. The scouting reports on Holmes suggest he’s a project. He’s a big guy, a former basketball player with some athletic ability. But scouts say Holmes has decent run-blocking ability right now, but is very raw as a pass blocker.

I don’t think that sounds like the scouting report of a guy you want protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side right off the bat. Maybe Holmes develops into something down the road.

But, for now, it looks like the Falcons are preparing to go to training camp and let Baker compete with Will Svitek. But don’t be surprised if the Falcons bring in someone with experience (Marcus McNeill?) sometime after the draft.

Saints look to Canada for DT help

April, 27, 2012
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The New Orleans Saints, who were without a pick in the first two rounds, just made their first pick of the draft and it’s a unique one.

Hicks
Hicks
They selected a guy who played his college football in Canada. They chose Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the 89th overall pick.

This may sound like a stretch, but it really isn’t. Hicks isn’t a totally unknown commodity. He played at Sacramento City Community College and transferred to LSU. But Hicks then left for Regina. The competition in Canada might not be great, but Hicks showed enough to catch the attention of scouts.

He has great size and his athleticism gives him plenty of upside. But Hicks could end up being more than just a long-term project. He might have a chance to earn some time in the rotation pretty quickly because the Saints really don’t have much at defensive tackle besides Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis.
Peter KonzJeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Falcons bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Peter Konz in the second round.

As it turns out, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t planning to jump over that playoff hurdle that’s been talked so much about.

They simply plan to plow right through it. The latest evidence came Friday night when the Falcons used their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) on Wisconsin center (more on that in a moment) Peter Konz.

It would have been very easy for the Falcons to overreact and do something crazy after an embarrassing January playoff loss to the New York Giants. Yeah, they could have made a leap in free agency for defensive end Mario Williams, which seemed to be the preferred rout by 99 of every 100 Falcons fans.

But the fact is, if the Falcons had landed Williams back in March, they wouldn’t be as good a team as they are today. Seriously.

Yeah, I know it sounds a little ridiculous to say the Falcons are better off without a guy who could have brought them double-digit sacks. But it’s the truth. Had the Falcons signed Williams, they would have had to gut their existing roster.

The salary-cap space Williams would have taken up would have prevented the Falcons from keeping guys like receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and running back Jason Snelling. They might not have been able to fit cornerback Brent Grimes under the salary cap with the franchise tag. Even if they did, they would have had to have made some dramatic moves -- like releasing receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner or fullback Ovie Mughelli.

Any or all of those moves seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the loss in New York. But owner Arthur Blank, who earlier in his tenure may have been prone to overreacting, sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coolly came up with a plan on how the Falcons can take the next step.

Smith and Dimitroff have had four straight winning seasons, but have yet to win a playoff game. When you’ve had four straight winning seasons, you don’t blow a team up. You keep it together and fix the things that are wrong.

Without flash, that’s precisely what the Falcons have done and Friday night was just another step.

“We were really honed in on the offensive line as you can imagine,’’ Dimitroff said, moments after selecting Konz. “We need to get more stout on this offensive line.’’

There’s no doubt about that. Let’s consider this item from ESPN Stats & Information: The Falcons were one of 10 teams to average less than 4.0 yards per rush between the tackles last season. That came despite the fact they have a bruising runner in Turner.

The Falcons also didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. That failure was the major reason why all the downfield passing we heard about after the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones didn’t fully materialize last year. The Falcons were soft up front and it cost offensive line coach Paul Boudreau his job.

Other than left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, the Falcons really haven’t made huge investments in their offensive line. The arrival of Konz changes that.

Although he played center at Wisconsin, Dimitroff said “we’re listing him as a guard/center right now’’.

It’s no big secret McClure is at the end of his career. He’s 35 and it shows. The Falcons brought him back as insurance, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be their starting center on opening day. Guard Joe Hawley also can play center. Hawley also could factor into the situation at guard, where he played last season along with Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Add Konz to that mix and it’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to throw all their guards and centers onto the field in training camp and the preseason and see which of the three emerge as the best trio.

“Let’s come in here and have some great competition and see who can protect Matt Ryan the best,’’ Dimitroff said. “We want production and we want guys who can finish. In Peter, we have a guy who can do both of those.’’

Look, I’m not saying a guard/center from Wisconsin is going to come in the second round and push right through that hurdle all by himself. Konz is just a part of the puzzle and maybe fans can finally see that picture coming together now.

There’s a reason why Atlanta didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Jones was the first-round pick for last year and this year and he’s better than any receiver in this year’s draft. There was a reason why the Falcons didn’t make to splurge in free agency. They didn’t have the salary-cap room to do it without ripping a good team apart.

Little by little, they’ve made moves that have them gaining speed as they head for that hurdle. Just this week, they traded a late-round draft pick for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and quickly signed him to a cap-friendly deal.

In theory, Samuel should team with Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the Falcons one of the league’s best cornerback tandems. In theory, Konz should team with all those other offensive linemen to make the Falcons tougher up front.

Yeah, there still are a few needs -- the pass rush, depth at tight end and maybe some more help on the outside of the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of all that. They’ll address those needs in the rest of the draft and after it when the time and the price are right. But, now, you can see their offseason plan taking shape.

If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.

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