Key player departures: WR Steve Smith, LT Jordan Gross, WR Brandon LaFell, S Mike Mitchell, WR Ted Ginn Jr., CB Captain Munnerlyn
Free-agent acquisitions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, SS Roman Harper, QB Derek Anderson, S Thomas DeCoud, WR Jason Avant, TE Ed Dickson
Position needs: Wide receiver, cornerback, offensive lineman
Analysis: Carolina had a wonderful season after starting 1-3, ending up as division champions at 12-4 and hosting a playoff game, which it lost to San Francisco. Cam Newton seemed to come of age, even though his numbers were very similar to his first two seasons, and led the Panthers to some huge wins late in ball games. His maturation as a quarterback and a team leader has people believing the Panthers will be contenders for a long time in the NFC South. However, the defense was sensational and their performance from a year ago will be tough to duplicate.
The Panthers are in desperate need of WR help as they lost all of their production from last season, so the 29th pick in the NFL Draft is going to be a pass catcher and I would not be surprised if they go for a true No. 1 like Kelvin Benjamin (FSU) or Marqise Lee (USC) with that pick. They also need to beef up their secondary and offensive line, and there are plenty of players at those positions in the middle rounds that can help them out like Bradley Roby (Ohio State), Lamarcus Joyner (FSU) or Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska). The guy I will be watching for is Pierre Desir (Lindenwood), who has excellent length and Richard Sherman-like ability. As for the offensive line, the Panthers will address the tackle position at some point with a player like Cameron Fleming (Stanford) in the fifth or sixth round.
New Orleans Saints
2013 record: 11-5
Key player departures: RB Darren Sproles (traded to Philadelphia for 2014 fifth-round pick), CB Jabari Greer, WR Lance Moore, SS Roman Harper, DE Will Smith, S Malcolm Jenkins
Free-agent acquisitions: S Jairus Byrd, OT Zach Strief
Position needs: Offensive tackle, cornerback, linebacker
Analysis: The Saints were in a terrible position with the salary cap this offseason, but they were able to land a talented safety in Jairus Byrd, although there was also a steep cost. Drew Brees no longer has Darren Sproles, who is the most dynamic offensive player in the game, as an offensive weapon. New Orleans is a wonderful home team (it didn’t lose there last season), but the Saints were only 3-5 away from the dome in 2013. If they can get more balanced on offense with some sort of rushing attack, it should help. When they won the Vince Lombardi trophy in 2009, they finished sixth in rushing at more than 130 yards per game, but last season they were only 25th at just over 90 yards per game.
With Brees making so much money, and deservedly so, New Orleans has to hit on its draft picks for the next couple of years in order to compete at the highest level. I believe they will select an offensive tackle at some point, and that might be in the first round with Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama). At Alabama’s pro day, Sean Payton was closer to his workout than any other NFL representative, and if they clear him medically it would be a solid pick. Also, look for defensive help in the middle to late rounds of the draft with an outside linebacker like Christian Kirksey (Iowa) or Jordan Tripp (Montana), or a cornerback like Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) or Chris Davis (Auburn).
2013 record: 4-12
Key player departures: CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud, G Garrett Reynolds
Free-agent acquisitions: G Jon Asamoah, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Peria Jerry, DT Paul Soliai, DE Tyson Jackson, G Joe Hawley, OL Gabe Carimi, DB Javier Arenas, KR Devin Hester
Position needs: Offensive line, defensive end, H-back, free safety
Analysis: Atlanta was several people’s pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII, but that quickly fell apart when the Falcons had a terrible string of major injuries on both sides of the ball. They will have to replace Tony Gonzalez, which is nearly impossible, but they have a young tight end they like in Levine Toilolo. However, Toilolo is more of a (Y) than an (H), so they should take a very close look at injured Oklahoma star Trey Millard, who is as versatile a player as there was in college football.
They have to improve on defense, and that should happen if they can play with the lead more than they were able to last year. With the lead it is imperative the Falcons create pressure on the QB, but they do not have an edge rusher that teams are fearful of. Anthony Barr (UCLA) has the highest upside of any defender in the draft outside of Jadeveon Clowney, and his athleticism and pass-rushing ability is the perfect fit with the No. 6 pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 record: 4-12
Key player departures: OT Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, CB Darrelle Revis, C Jeremy Zuttah (traded to Baltimore for fifth-round pick)
Key additions: C Evan Dietrich-Smith, CB Alterraun Verner, DE Michael Johnson, CB Mike Jenkins, TE Brandon Myers, OT Anthony Collins, DT Clinton McDonald, QB Josh McCown
Position needs: Offensive tackle, defensive end
Analysis: Starting 0-8 sealed the fate of Greg Schiano and now the keys are in the hands of new head coach Lovie Smith, who will immediately command the respect of the locker room. Lovie has a history of being a players’ coach, which is exactly why he needed a veteran to be his QB, and Josh McCown is the perfect fit. This team has some talent, and with all of the parity in the game I won’t be surprised at all if Tampa is battling for a playoff spot this year or next. However, it is a passing league and the Bucs finished dead last in passing last year, which has to improve.
The offensive line needs some help on the outside as the Bucs gave up 47 sacks last season, and getting to the QB will also be a high priority for Tampa when evaluating players for the draft. They will have to make a choice and I believe they will place a priority on the offensive line. Greg Robinson (Auburn) could be the No. 2 pick in the draft, but if St. Louis decides on Jake Mathews at that spot, then Robinson should be the pick here at No. 7. If the Bucs go with a pass rusher, they will take Khalil Mack (Buffalo) or Anthony Barr (UCLA), depending on who is available.