The NFC South has quietly grown into a very competitive group.
The New Orleans Saints have bounced back well since the return of coach Sean Payton. Once the top team in the division, they have had a growing challenge from teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
While Falcons slid last season due to injuries and a very thin roster, they will be looking to make a strong come back and take over the top spot. The Panthers have grown considerably better since coach Ron Rivera took over and made the playoffs last season. However, the Panthers took a big hit in free agency as Cam Newton lost his top four targets from last season.
Lovie Smith, makes a come back to the division. This time as a head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He made a splash bringing in top talent via free agency. How he builds his team along with new GM Jason Licht, will be something very interesting to watch.
With the division set up like this, the 2014 NFL Draft class for each team will need to make a strong impact to beat out one another. Let’s take a look at who landed the best draft grade
1.) Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
2.) Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
3.) Dezmen Southward, S, Wisconsin
4.) Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida St.
4.) Prince Shembo, OLB, Notre Dame
5.) Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
5.) Marquis Spruill, ILB, Syracuse
7.) Yawin Smallwood, OLB, UConn
7.) Tyler Starr, OLB, South Dakota
The Falcons landed their franchise left tackle in Matthews. Quarterback Matt Ryan couldn’t be happier after being harassed last season. Hageman, continues to build the belief that the Falcons are switching to a 3-4. Southward, was a bit of a reach as he is a liability in coverage but he is a thumper who can set the tone. Shembo is a nice addition who can get after the quarterback. Fellow linebackers Spruill, Smallwood, and Starr add needed depth. The Falcons land a low draft grade only due to their failure to address certain needs earlier.
Sleeper Pick: Devonta Freeman
The small running back from Florida State, leads to Warrick Dunn flashbacks. Especially, when you consider Freeman is Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Dunn in 1996. Freeman totaled 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He could be a future starter once Steven Jackson retires.
1.) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida St.
2.) Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
3.) Trai Turner, OG, LSU
4.) Tre Boston, S, North Carolina
5.) Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose St.
6.) Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Benjamin was a needed pick. He has the size and hands that Newton could really develop with. Ealy, was a surprise pick but with veteran Greg Hardy’s off-field troubles this offseason, Ealy may be playing earlier than expected. Boston and Benwikere helps build up, arguably, the teams weakest link. Gaffney, is the second running back in as many years to round out the Panthers draft class.
Sleeper Pick: Trai Turner
With the Panthers bone dry at guard, they went out and landed Turner. Turner, only had one season as a full-time starter but he turned that into a second-team All-SEC effort. He is a roadgrader, who should help build the running attack.
New Orleans Saints
1.) Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon St.
2.) Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska
4.) Khairi Fortt, ILB, Cal
5.) Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama
5.) Ronald Powell, OLB, Florida
6.) Tavon Rooks, OT, Kansas St.
The Saints made strong moves at the top of their draft. First, moving up to select the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner Cooks and then landing Jean-Baptiste. Cooks will make a bigger impact then last year’s rookie Kenny Stills. Jean-Baptiste, is a tall corner and has the aggression coordinator Rob Ryan likes. Fortt, never really made an impact at Penn State and then once he transferred continue to make no impact. Sunseri, could develop into a good player.
Sleeper Pick: Ronald Powell
A late round waiver landed Powell. Looking to have a breakout junior season in 2012, Powell instead missed the entire season after tearing his ACL twice. Last season he came back to start eight games but is still getting working on getting back to where he was.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1.) Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
2.) Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
3.) Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
5.) Kadeem Edwards, OG, Tennessee St.
5.) Kevin Pamphile, OT, Purdue
6.) Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
Lovie Smith, being a strong defensive mind clearly saw no upgrades needed on that side of the ball post free agency. An all offensive draft that is very impressive and earn the Bucs, the division’s best draft grade. Evans is a gigantic target (6’5″) and has the hands and ball skills any quarterback would love. Seferian-Jenkins, is another huge weapon (6’6″) but while he is last year’s John Mackey Award winner he also has some off-field issues. The fifth-round additions gives the team some needed young depth. Herron is an intriguing prospect who also played running back at Wyoming.
Sleeper Pick: Charles Sims
A surprising pick but a good insurance policy with Doug Martin coming back from injury. Sims proved he could be a workhorse running back totaling 1,095 yards rushing with another 401 yards receiving. He also displayed solid pass blocking and tallied 14 total touchdowns.
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