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Sunday, April 27, 2008
NFC South: Panthers take uncharacteristic gamble

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Atlanta got the face, Carolina and New Orleans got the beef, and Tampa Bay got the speed. As they finished the draft Sunday evening, each of the four NFC South teams had some new and much-needed ingredients.

DRAFT DIVISIONAL REVIEWS
• Walker: NFC East draft review
• Sando: NFC West draft review
• Willamson: NFC North draft review
• Yasinskas: NFC South draft review
• Sando: AFC East draft review
• Williamson: AFC West draft review
• Walker: AFC North draft review
• Yasinskas: AFC South draft review

The Falcons ended the Michael Vick era by selecting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan third overall and jumped back into the first round to protect his blind side with USC's Sam Baker.

Carolina, which hasn't been able to run the ball since Stephen Davis left, got a power runner in Jonathan Stewart and a bruising blocker in Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah.

The Saints snagged defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and Tampa Bay started a track team, taking cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Dexter Jackson in the first two rounds.

Sedrick Ellis
Sedrick Ellis was the key to the Saints' draft, and perhaps the team's entire offseason.

Best move

The Saints came into the draft knowing they had to get a dominant defensive tackle and there were only two available. They made some efforts to move up to get LSU's Glenn Dorsey, but he went at No. 5 to Kansas City. That left the Saints holding the No. 10 pick, and Southern California's Ellis as the only option.

The Saints didn't panic. They methodically did what had to be done. General manager Mickey Loomis worked the phones and found New England was willing to deal out of the No. 7 spot. The cost wasn't that bad: The two teams swapped top picks, and New Orleans gave New England a third-round pick (No. 78) and the Saints added a fifth-round choice (No. 164).

Although the Saints made a bad move trading up for defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan five years ago, this is a different situation because Ellis is pretty close to a sure thing. New Orleans, which also added Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter in the second round, has spent its offseason building up its defense. Linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan will be important, but Ellis will turn out to be the biggest move of the offseason.

Riskiest move

After taking a calm and conservative approach to personnel through their first six years, Carolina general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox took a big leap that could end up making or breaking them. After adding Oregon running back Stewart at No. 13, the Panthers traded back into the first round to pick up Otah.

The cost was huge: Carolina gave up its first-round pick in 2009 to Philadelphia as well as second- and fourth-round picks this year. It's always dicey when you sacrifice your future for the present. But hey, what do Fox and Hurney have to lose?

If Otah works out and the Panthers get to the playoffs, they'll look like geniuses. If not, they'll be gone and the lack of a first-round pick will be somebody else's problem next year.

Most surprising move

Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen might have a little more clout than the general public realizes. With much of the world certain the Bucs would take a wide receiver in the first round, they ended up taking a cornerback -- and not even the cornerback the locals wanted. The Bucs chose Kansas' Talib at No. 20 and passed on South Florida's Mike Jenkins.

They also passed on a bunch of receivers who could have fit nicely into coach Jon Gruden's offense. Gruden's always up for adding players to his offense, but the Bucs made the sensible pick in a draft that lacked a true first-round receiver. They filled a big need at cornerback and still got Appalachian State's Jackson in the second round. Both have outstanding speed and return skills, and Gruden compared Talib to Charles Woodson, whom he coached in Oakland.

File it away

A regional scout for one NFC team said Nebraska offensive tackle Carl Nicks has first-round physical talents and he's one of the strongest linemen ever to enter the draft.

So why did Nicks fall to the Saints in the fifth round (No. 164)? He was pretty much a one-year wonder after starting his career at a junior college, and he had some off-field troubles that forced him to miss Nebraska's pro day. The Saints have Bourbon Street in their backyard. But if coach Sean Payton can keep Nicks focused on football, the Saints could have an eventual starter.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.