NFL Nation: 2014 NFL Draft NFC South Wrap

NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A wrap-up of the Atlanta Falcons' draft. Click here for a full list of Falcons draftees.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons will likely have Jake Matthews start at right tackle this season.
The Falcons stuck to their offseason theme of getting tougher up front while also filling pressing needs with their nine draft picks. The team selected six players on the final day of the draft: Florida State running back Devonta Freeman (fourth round), Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo (fourth), Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen (fifth), Syracuse linebacker Marquis Spruill (fifth), Connecticut linebacker Yawin Smallwood (seventh), and South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr (seventh).

Best move: Offensive tackle Jake Matthews with the No. 6 pick. The Falcons had to resist the temptation to move up and really focus on getting an NFL-ready pass protector with the ability to clear holes in the run game. Matthews was no question the most technically sound of the top three tackles, and the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews should be solid for years to come. Matthews will start off at right tackle, but expect him to be the team's left tackle of the future. He should provide immediate results for quarterback Matt Ryan, who was the league's most pressured quarterback last season.

Riskiest move: Safety Dez Southward. The third-round pick from Wisconsin doesn't appear to be too spectacular and even admitted his strength isn't his hands. The Falcons needed to find a playmaker at free safety next to strong safety William Moore, so they need someone with range capable of snatching balls out of the air. Southward also was kept from participating in the NFL combine by wrist and spine concerns, but the Falcons seem content with his medical outlook. But the team takes a chance of not having a solid player next to Moore, with veteran Dwight Lowery unknown and Southward unproven. Southward was projected as a fourth- or fifth-rounder.

Most surprising move: Defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round. This was more of a shock because most believed Hageman would be gone at the end of the first round. He started his college career at a tight end at Minnesota, then transformed into a versatile defensive lineman capable of playing end or tackle. The Falcons view him as a defensive end as they are set to go more toward a 3-4 look. The havoc 6-foot-5, 310-pound Hageman could create up front next to nose tackle Paul Soliai (6-4, 340) and defensive end Tyson Jackson (6-4, 296) could be devastating.

File it away: Most folks believed the Falcons would secure a top pass-rusher at some point in the draft, but it never occurred. Trading up for Clowney or Khalil Mack was never going to happen, but the Falcons at least attempted to trade back into the first round for Dee Ford (Kansas City). Then the Dallas Cowboys jumped ahead of the Falcons in the second round to take Boise State pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence. It could bite the Falcons in the end, considering they sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on just 22.4 percent of dropbacks last season, second worst in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

METAIRIE, La. -- A wrap-up of the New Orleans Saints' draft. Click here for a full list of Saints draftees.

Best move: Trading up for dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in Round 1. Normally, I preach fans shouldn't expect too much from any draft pick in year one, but Cooks sure looks like he could make a huge impact right away for a Saints offense that suddenly needed some more juice after parting ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIThe New Orleans Saints gained one of the more polished receivers in this draft class in Brandin Cooks, per ESPN's Scouts Inc. profile.
Cooks' combination of college production (128 catches for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State) and dynamic speed (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash) makes the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder another matchup nightmare for coach Sean Payton to play with. Cooks could also take over the Saints' punt-return role -- another area in which they need some help.

But Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said that's more of a bonus than the reason Cooks got drafted.

"Obviously, we were aware of his skill [as a returner]," Loomis said. "But he also had 120-some catches. We're pretty happy with him as a receiver."

Riskiest move: The same answer. The Saints had to trade away a third-round pick to move up from No. 27 to No. 20. Obviously, I think Cooks was worth that risk, but it’s really the only move the Saints made that could qualify as a gamble. Many NFL teams cherish those midround picks.

Loomis, however, has always shown a willingness to trade up when the Saints have a conviction on a player, which was clearly the case in this instance. And he said the Saints' success with undrafted free agents has made them more willing to trade picks over the years.

Loomis said that third-round choice was "not inexpensive," and it would have been "a hard pill to swallow" to give up more than that. That's why the Saints didn't move higher into the teens ahead of the New York Jets, for example.

Most surprising move: Not drafting a center or guard. It wasn't a huge shock -- I ranked receiver and cornerback as the Saints' top two needs, and that's where they went in Rounds 1 and 2 with Cooks and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. But I did expect New Orleans to add an interior lineman at some point in the draft. Payton explained the Saints considered a handful of centers but never came close to drafting one. He said it wasn't a deep draft at the position in general, and the grades never lined up when New Orleans was on the clock.

That leaves the center position as the Saints' biggest question mark right now, but they're high on second-year pro Tim Lelito. I still think there's a strong chance they'll sign free-agent veteran Jonathan Goodwin to compete for the job.

File it away: What a change for Florida linebacker Ronald Powell to come into this draft as an unheralded fifth-round pick (No. 169 overall). Four years ago, Powell was rated as the No. 1 high school player in the country, according to ESPNU, but he never quite lived up to that potential and missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL that required two surgeries.

Powell is still an enticing athlete -- and he insisted those setbacks will only serve as motivation.

"I think he is hungry. It's very important to him. You get that sense specifically with that player," Payton said. "For every one of these guys, it's important. But every once in a while, you talk with one of these players, and that just stands out."
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A wrap-up of the Carolina Panthers' draft. Click here for a full list of Panthers draftees.

[+] EnlargeKony Ealy
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Kony Ealy was a steal in the second round for the Panthers.
Best move: Adding another pass-rush threat to a team that led the league in sacks (60) with Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy at No. 60. He was rated a first-round pick by many teams, including the Panthers, which is why he was invited to New York City for the draft. He has freaky athletic ability at 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds. If he can play inside and out the way he and the Panthers say, he'll be a steal for a second-rounder. And as I wrote on Friday, if Ealy performs, he gives general manager Dave Gettleman the flexibility to move on after this season without the big contract of at least one of his star ends -- Charles Johnson ($16.4 million) or Greg Hardy ($13.1 million) -- as he attempts to get the payroll under control and sign quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to long-term deals. Many might argue taking Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round was the best move, but the pick of Ealy has the potential for a more long-term and big-picture impact.

Riskiest move: Not taking an offensive tackle in the first two rounds. With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, that leaves the starting job between right tackle Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. Bell was considered adequate at best on the right side. Chandler is a former defensive lineman who was being groomed to make the switch to tackle before injuries at guard last season forced him in the starting lineup on the right side. It seems like a big gamble to leave Newton's blind side that unsettled, but the Panthers believed after the first four tackles went in the draft, the value on their roster was better than using a pick on one.

Most surprising move: I could say that Gettleman went to his son's graduation in Massachusetts on Saturday and worked with the team via Skype, but I'm on the record as saying that was the right move. According to Gettleman, it worked great. He even had a GM from another team text that it was the right move. The biggest surprise for me was the selection of Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney in the sixth round. Carolina already has three highly paid backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. They selected Kenjon Barner in the sixth around a year ago and barely got him on the field because the backfield was so crowded. Gaffney just crowds it more.

File it away: I said when Gettleman released wide receiver Steve Smith and let his next top three receivers sign with other teams in free agency that the Panthers really didn't lose that much. They represented less than 10 catches per game in reality. An experienced No. 1 receiver aside, the team might be in better shape going into this season with Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King than they were a season ago. Smith wasn't a true No. 1 anymore, and I was never sold on Brandon LaFell as a No. 2. Benjamin will draw extra coverage simply because of his size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and ability to go up for passes. He has a chance to be a legitimate No. 1 even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. Cotchery and Avant are solid possession receivers and good leaders who will help Benjamin's transition. One of the others has the ability to stretch the field with speed. Moves that looked questionable a few months ago are starting to look smart now.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


TAMPA, Fla. -- A wrap-up of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft. Click here for a full list of Buccaneers draftees.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesMike Evans can begin his career as Tampa Bay's
No. 2 receiver opposite Vincent Jackson.
Best move: There was a lot of smoke about the Buccaneers possibly drafting quarterback Johnny Manziel. But Tampa Bay’s top target all along was wide receiver Mike Evans. The Bucs got him with the seventh overall pick. Evans projects as an immediate starter opposite Vincent Jackson. At 6-foot-4, Evans has a frame similar to Jackson, and this duo is going to cause matchup problems for opposing defenses. Evans can begin his career as the No. 2 receiver, but Jackson already is in his 30s. It might not be long before Evans takes over as the No. 1 receiver. By resisting the urge to take Manziel, the Bucs made it very clear they view Josh McCown as their short-term starter and Mike Glennon as their quarterback of the future. Evans’ arrival makes both McCown and Glennon better.

Riskiest move: The Bucs began the draft without a clear-cut starter at right guard. They still don’t have one. They did take guard Kadeem Edwards out of Tennessee State and Purdue's Kevin Pamphile, who projects as a tackle, in the fifth round. But it’s a lot to expect a fifth-round pick to be an immediate starter. The Bucs might have to keep an eye on the free-agent market to get their starting right guard. There also are health concerns with left guard Carl Nicks, so Tampa Bay doesn't have a lot of depth at guard.

Most surprising move: The selection of running back Charles Sims in the third round. The team already had a deep stable of running backs with Doug Martin, Mike James, Bobby Rainey and Jeff Demps. It wasn’t really necessary to add another back to the mix. But Sims isn’t a typical back. He was used extensively as a receiver out of the backfield in college, and it’s likely the Bucs want to take advantage of those skills. We don’t know what coordinator Jeff Tedford’s offense will look like just yet. But, with the addition of Sims, it probably is fair to say the Bucs want to throw some passes to a running back.

File it away: You generally don’t expect a sixth-round pick to get playing time early, but Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron has a shot. The Bucs have an opening for a slot receiver, and Herron has speed to spare. He’ll get a chance to compete for the slot receiver spot. Herron also has return skills and could factor in on special teams.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider