The NFC South may be the most exciting division in football with the high-powered offenses of the Falcons and Saints, the dynamic play of Cam Newton and the ever-improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The NFC South is the classic example of taking divisional opponents into consideration when building your roster. Look at the 2011 Falcons as an example. Mike Smith could have locked every one of his offensive coaches out of the war room on draft day and focused solely on improving a defense that had significant needs, but instead, he traded five picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up 21 spots and select a wide receiver. Knowing that they would have to keep pace with Drew Brees in a shootout, even with all the holes on defense, giving Matt Ryan another weapon became the top priority. It has paid off too, since Julio Jones’ arrival in Atlanta, the Falcons have won two straight division championships and have held homefield advantage for both the 2011 and 2012 playoffs.
The Buccaneers desperately need upgrades at both cornerback spots.
The Panthers need help at all three levels of the defense.
The Falcons lost the equivalent of two starting corners this offseason.
And the Saints are returning one of the worst defenses in league history. But if history suggests anything, at least one of these teams will bypass the obvious defensive pick and add yet another dynamic offensive weapon to continue to light up the scoreboard.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Needs: CB, DL
After last year's active offseason brought in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have remained somewhat quiet this year despite the acquisition of Dashon Goldson from the 49ers. Goldson paired with last year's top-pick Mark Barron makes for a spectacular tandem at the safety position.
The problem is the Bucs are extremely vulnerable at corner.
Even if the Bucs are able to acquire Darrelle Revis from the Jets, they would still be best suited to draft a cornerback with the 13th pick to pair with him. Revis is coming off a season-ending injury and may not be 100 percent healthy for the better part of the year.
The Bucs did restructure Eric Wright’s deal, but he was beaten often last season and wasn’t any better for Detroit in 2011, so he could be upgraded for sure.
With the 13th pick in the draft, Dee Milliner will likely be gone and the X-factor for the Bucs could be what Miami does with the pick just before them. Miami has a clear need at the cornerback position too, and if the Dolphins take Xavier Rhodes, Tampa will need to determine if the third best corner (Washington CB Desmond Trufant) is still worthy of top-15 consideration. In my opinion, he is. I even have Trufant ranked higher than Rhodes on my board. Trufant has the NFL bloodlines and is one of the toughest competitors in this draft. He plays with great instincts and anticipation and jumps routes with a quick break, but sometimes gets caught being over-aggressive and needs some work in press technique.
It also wouldn’t be out of the question for Tampa to look at adding a defensive lineman even though the Bucs drafted Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers with early picks last year. Bowers has well documented knee problems and is now having legal issues as well. Clayborn has his own health concerns carried over from his career at Iowa and the interior of the defensive line has struggled to stay on the field. So if it’s not corner, the Bucs could go with the best defensive line prospect on their board and that could be Ziggy Ansah, Star Lotulelei, Sheldon Richardson or Sylvester Williams.
Just like the other teams in the division, taking an offensive player could be a curveball here, too. If they do, Tyler Eifert would be an option for a team that cut Kellen Winslow Jr. and got poor performance out of the position in 2012. Eifert is a cut above the other options this year and is comparable to Greg Olsen. Giving Josh Freeman a big tight end target could help him take his game to the next level.
Carolina hasn’t signed any big names this offseason, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers couldn’t use the help. They have brought in guys likes Ted Ginn and Chase Blackburn, but neither are impact players and will most likely just add depth and play on special teams.
Carolina is in the same position as the Saints and Bucs when it comes to needs. The Panthers could use defensive linemen and corners and would be evaluating many of the same players I listed above as the Panthers will be drafting 14th overall.
Lotulelei is sliding down draft boards as Sharrif Floyd has cemented himself as the best defensive tackle. Several mock drafts have paired Lotulelei and the Panthers together with the 14th pick. Lotulelei is powerful and athletic and although he has only seven sacks in college, he can provide an interior pass rush. If not Lotulelei, maybe Sheldon Richardson.
The Panthers also could take a cornerback with this pick as they need add depth.
But to me, the pick needs to be on offense to complement the aging Steve Smith and give Newton a weapon that he can grow and mature with.
Cordarrelle Patterson makes a ton of sense to me with his rare size and speed combination. Newton could complete some easy underneath passes that Patterson turns into explosive game-changing plays with his eye-popping run after catch ability. If not Patterson, Tavon Austin could be a consideration, but Austin is a little too small, which was the argument against Steve Smith. Look how that turned out.
With Sean Payton’s return, many in the Big Easy believe the Saints are immediately back in the Super Bowl hunt.
The loss of Jermon Bushrod hurt, but they believe 2010 second-round pick Charles Brown is more than capable. The problem, however, is not offense. With all due respect to Payton, the Saints and more specifically Drew Brees maintained the second-best offense in the league without him.
The problem is defense. The change to new coordinator Rob Ryan may not be enough to make the difference. Schematically, there are few systems as different as what former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ran to what Ryan will implement this season.
They have added three defenders in Victor Butler, Jim Leonhard and Keenan Lewis, but these are nominal gains at best. They are also without their second-round pick in the draft, which puts even more pressure on their first rounder to come in and make a difference almost immediately. The franchise's last two first-round picks — Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram — have taken longer than expected to make much of an impact.
With a defense that ranked 31st in points allowed and last in yards, the Saints must improve at all levels.
In a blitz-happy 3-4 scheme, there are some positions that become more important than others. The most important is a pass rusher, who can fill the role that DeMarcus Ware played in Ryan’s scheme in 2012 for the Cowboys. If they go in that direction with the 15th overall pick, it makes a lot of sense to draft LSU’s Barkevious Mingo. Mingo has the athletic upside and burst off the edge to be a difference-maker as a pass-rush specialist. However, Mingo is a bit of a gamble. He's a little undersized and is a better athlete than he is a football player. If you draft him at 15, you are betting on potential, and that can be a risky business for a team that needs help immediately.
The other option could be in the secondary. Ryan’s aggressive style relies on the secondary to play a lot of man coverage and often leaves corners on the edge by themselves. That can be dangerous. Last season, the Cowboys struggled at times even with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. So a top-tier cornerback like Xavier Rhodes would also be an option at 15 to pair with Lewis, who was recently signed from Pittsburgh.
But as I have previously suggested, don’t be completely surprised if the Saints either give Brees additional protection with another offensive tackle or give him another weapon on the outside.
Finished: 13-3, eliminated by San Francisco in championship round
Needs: DT, CB, LB, TE, OL
The Falcons have had a solid, yet under-the-radar offseason. Following the 2012 season, they were all but guaranteed to lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement, but convinced him to come back for one last run at a Lombardi Trophy.
They were able to convince Atlanta native Osi Umeryiora to stay close to home and provide them with a pass rush they have so desperately needed since Ray Edwards was such a bust opposite John Abraham. The problem being, they no longer have Abraham as he continues to explore the free-agency market. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were able to convince him to come back, but that probably won’t happen until after the draft.
They cut ties with Michael Turner and replaced him with the veteran Steven Jackson, who will give them a more dynamic pass catcher out of the backfield but the same level of physical running. If Jackson can remain healthy, even in a limited role, his addition could pay dividends for a team that was one play away from the Super Bowl in 2012.
Because of the aforementioned Julio Jones trade, the Falcons were without a first-round pick in last year's draft. While they are back in the first round this year, they will have to be patient as 29 teams will draft before them.
Atlanta could address a number of needs with the 30th pick, but the loss of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes and an aging Asante Samuel make the need for a cornerback a little more urgent.
Desmond Trufant, Jonathan Banks or Darius Slay could be options here with Trufant being a huge value at 30th overall. Banks and Slay have both been predicted to be taken at the end of the first or early second round.
Slay, who is the lesser-known name of this bunch was a highly recruited player out of high school who became academically ineligible and had to play two years of JUCO ball before eventually signing with Mississippi State. Because of the delayed route to D-1 football, he only has one year of starting experience against big-name competition. That initially hurt his stock, but since then he has been climbing up draft boards as more and more teams meet with him in person.
Tight end is always the wild card with Atlanta as they eventually have to find a replacement for Tony Gonzalez. Eifert is the only solidified first-round talent at the position on my board, but Stanford's Zach Ertz may be the only other option by the time the Falcons pick.
As I mentioned, Jackson was a solid pickup, but how much more does he have left? Just like the Falcons did when they drafted Jacquizz Rodgers, look for the Falcons to once again find value at the position by selecting another running back in the mid-to late-rounds.