Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: NFC South report cards
By Rob Rang
Fox Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Every day this week, division by division, I’m taking a close look at each team’s rookie class, including a few of the undrafted free-agent signings I believe could surprise.
Here are my report cards for the four teams in the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons – Grade: B-
At No. 4 overall, the new decision-makers in Atlanta faced the most interesting decision in the 2021 NFL draft – whether to reinvest in their own superstars with the "unicorn" Kyle Pitts or generational tackle Penei Sewell, build for the future with a new quarterback, trade down. Many of the true "Dirty Birds" had to love it when new general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith opted for the most immediately competitive option with Pitts, whose combination of size, speed and catch radius should extend the careers of both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in Atlanta.
It is easy to venture into hyperbole with Pitts. He is a more polished and instinctive version of the Raiders’ All-Pro Darren Waller, instantly giving the Falcons a three-headed monster at pass catcher with Jones and Calvin Ridley that rivals anything else in the NFL.
Like Pitts, second-round pick Richie Grant is a natural playmaker who adds tenacity and physicality to an Atlanta secondary that lost perpetual tease and former first-round pick Keanu Neal to Dallas (as a linebacker) in free agency.
Pitts and Grant could be joined by offensive linemen Jaylen Mayfield (Michigan) and Drew Dalman (Stanford) as immediate impact players, though inserting rookies up front has not been a recipe for success in Atlanta.
Mayfield and Dalman are about as different as it gets. Mayfield signed with Michigan as a highly touted prep who left college with just 15 career starts and may need to move inside to guard after playing right tackle exclusively at Michigan due to below-average arm length. Dalman was "just" a three-star recruit but is an NFL legacy and team captain who left as a three-year starter and First Team All-Pac-12 pick.
Cornerbacks Darren Hall and Avery Williams have the elite speed necessary to run with the dominant wideouts in the division with the former possessing better ball skills to push his way into the lineup earlier.
While the roster turnover was not jumpstarted at No. 4 overall as some anticipated, make no mistake, the Falcons are looking to shake up this team, reportedly signing 20 undrafted agents — twice as many as most clubs — including strong-armed signal-caller Feleipe Franks.
Carolina Panthers – Grade: A-
While two of the three draft picks sent to the New York Jets for quarterback Sam Darnold will be in 2022, his presence impacts Carolina’s grade, with new general manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule smartly waiting after this past weekend’s draft before opting to pick up the quarterback’s fifth-year option.
By not divulging this plan prior to the draft, Carolina didn’t show its hand unnecessarily, creating plenty of conjecture as to what the club might do at No. 8 overall before ultimately filling a need (and Bank of America Stadium) with the popular "local" standout Jaycee Horn, the best cover corner in the draft.
Just as importantly, it also sparked the trades which resulted in Carolina generating 11 draft picks, tied for most in the NFL.
Losing gifted all-purpose threat Curtis Samuel in free agency meant that Carolina needed to add a playmaking wideout and the club filled that need next with LSU’s Terrace Marshall, whose size and run blocking proficiency fit well with Darnold and superstar Christian McCaffrey, who will be back from injury.
The fact that McCaffrey is returning from an injury-scarred 2020 season, of course, creates concern, which is among the reasons why the Panthers’ addition of Chuba Hubbard, the FBS’ leading rusher in 2019, is smart and gives Carolina options should durability concerns pop up with CMC moving forward.
Similar wins were generated at tackle, tight end and defensive tackle — where Carolina quietly nabbed BYU’s ultra-athletic Brady Christensen, one of the draft’s most physical blocking tight ends in Tommy Tremble (Notre Dame) and the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in Iowa breakout Daviyon Nixon in the middle rounds, as well as Senior Bowl standout Keith Taylor.
With 11 draft picks to play with, the Panthers even nabbed the draft’s top long snapper in Alabama’s Thomas Fletcher (as well as his teammate, guard Deonte Brown) and a similar big-bodied interior lineman in free agency, Grambling’s David Moore.
New Orleans Saints – Grade: C+
With first-ballot Hall of Famer Drew Brees announcing his retirement March 14, the Saints’ brain trust of head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew that a change in strategy was in order. No longer will the team be able to count on its offense to be able to outscore opponents – at least not in the pass-happy way that it did during Brees’ heyday.
Reflecting this understanding, the Saints’ 2021 draft class was heavy on defense, with each of the club’s first three picks on that side of the ball.
Frankly, I was higher on the Saints picks in the second round (Ohio State OLB Pete Werner) and third-round (Stanford CB Paulson Adebo) than the value in the first with raw Houston defensive end Payton Turner, but give the Saints credit. Their selection of Turner sparked a run on pass rushers high on potential but low on production to end the first round, with four of the final five picks of the opening frame being spent on players at this position.
Turner reminds me a lot of the Saints’ top pick in 2018 — defensive end Marcus Davenport, who was selected 14th overall. Both are gifted but unpolished, using their burst, bend and long arms to flash versus lower levels of competition. Davenport enjoyed his best season in 2019, collecting six sacks while starting all 13 regular-season games in which he played. He’s registered six more in the other 24 games before and after that season, starting just once last year and finishing with a career-low 1.5 sacks. Turner, who collected a total of 9.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 36 career games at Houston, should both push Davenport and complement him, though, frankly, I do not see either as true difference-makers.
Werner is the opposite of the Saints’ edge rushers. He is as proven as it gets after starring for the perennially playoff bound-Buckeyes. He is a heat-seeking missile who isn’t happy unless knocking either a would-be blocker or ballcarrier to the ground, preferably both.
Adebo is an intriguing combination of the two prior defensive positions, flashing both spectacular upside and just enough risk to explain why he was available this late in the draft. With all due respect to the first-round cornerbacks in this draft, none of them can match Adebo’s ball skills, which is why I love his potential opposite a proven shutdown corner like Marshon Lattimore. A gambler, Adebo is going to give up some big plays early in his NFL career, but don’t be surprised if he surprises as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate as he is going to pick plenty of passes, too.
With Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston both already in position to take over for Brees, the Saints’ selection of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book felt a bit like a luxury. I have to admit, though, I do like Book’s playmaking ability and poise. The kid is a gamer.
While I am not a huge fan of the Saints’ drafted class, their undrafted free agents do add to the grade. Iowa State tight end Dylan Soehner is a full-service tight end who can move people as a blocker, which fits with the offense if Hill is the primary quarterback. Former Indiana running back Stevie Scott III, Syracuse safety Trill Williams and Washington defensive tackle Josiah Bronson are also legit talents who could push for roster spots.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Grade: B
It is always fascinating to see how franchises respond in the draft a few months after winning the Super Bowl. Of course, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht had it a little easier than most after he (and likely some guy named Brady) convinced the entire starting lineup to return for 2021.
Even Super Bowl champions typically have some holes in the roster to fill but Licht had the luxury of drafting for the future.
Rather than rest with their Lombardi, the Bucs attacked, adding one of the more intriguing edge rushers in this class in Washington’s Joe Tryon with the final pick of the first round, a highly versatile and reliable swing offensive lineman in Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey in the third and dynamic receiver Jaelon Darden in the fourth.
A four-year starter at right tackle whose relatively short arms and physical nature suggest that his best fit in the NFL will be at guard, Hainsey is the offensive player most capable of playing immediately if needed. His counterpart on the defensive side of the ball — former Auburn linebacker K.J. Britt — is a classic run-stuffing thumper, who should be able to compete immediately on special teams and help in short-yardage defense situations.
With just nine career sacks, Tryon isn’t as polished as one might expect a first-round pick to be, but eight of those quarterback takedowns came in a breakout 2019 campaign in which the prototypically built 6-foot-5, 259-pounder earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors. After sitting out the 2020 season, Tryon is a bit of a gamble, but with stars Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul returning, the Bucs don’t have to rush his development.
The same is true at receiver, of course, with the Bucs bringing back Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown this year while also having the imposing Mike Evans signed long-term. Nevertheless, Darden is electric — scoring a staggering 19 touchdowns in just nine games last year for North Texas.
And, of course, the Bucs are not looking for anyone to replace Tom Brady any time soon but Trask was an obvious fit in Bruce Arians' offense, which is why I projected him to get picked at No. 64 in my final mock draft. Trask is a relentless competitor who will fit in perfectly with Brady and Arians, earning the top spot on my own list of personal favorites.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.