Saints-Bucs Week 11 (copy)

 

The 84th NFL Draft kicks off Thursday, April 25 at 7 p.m. in Nashville. The NFL South is expected to be competitive again. here's how the New Orleans Saints' division rivals might approach the draft.

Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons spent the past couple of drafts filling in the pieces on a team with championship aspirations.

This time around, they're coming off a hugely disappointing season that turned up the heat on coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

The Falcons have the 14th overall pick in next week's draft — their earliest selection since 2015, when they took Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley at No. 8.

Despite a 7-9 record in 2018, which led to the ouster of all three coordinators, Dimitroff said there is no greater sense of urgency than other drafts. Just two seasons removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, he still feels the Falcons have the nucleus to reclaim their place as one of the league's better teams, especially after addressing some of the most pressing needs in free agency.

"We're going into the draft in a really good place," Dimitroff said. "We don't feel the same amount of pressure going into the draft having to get all these depth areas taken care of. That's a good feeling."

This is the fifth draft together for Dimitroff, the Falcons' GM since 2008, and Quinn, who came aboard as head coach in 2015. The two take a collective approach to making their choices, which seems to work well for both.

"We all have our hands in it," Dimitroff said. "This is not an organization where you have one guy pounding their fist on the table."

The Falcons' success on the first night of the draft may be determined by how many quarterbacks are selected in the first 13 picks. Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins and Missouri's Drew Lock have all been mentioned as potential top 10 picks.

Atlanta, of course, is set at quarterback with 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and veteran backup Matt Schaub. Quinn jokingly lobbied for other teams to gobble up as many quarterbacks as possible before the Falcons get their turn.

"This is one of the best quarterback classes I've seen since 1983," Quinn said, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "It's really, really something to behold."

Here are some things to watch for when it's the Falcons' time to pick:

BULKING UP

After a devastating rash of injuries gutted both sides of the line, the Falcons learned the hard way there's no such thing as too much depth. Even though they signed guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency, and also brought back defensive end Adrian Clayborn, the Falcons will be looking for more big bodies in the draft.

If Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins or Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams falls their way, it would be hard to pass up — especially on the offensive side, where the Falcons must do a better job of protecting Ryan.

"It's a big year for offensive linemen," said Dimitroff, who thinks as many as 10 could go in the opening round. "It's not only a big year for number of tackles, but this is a year when several guards could fall in the first round as well."

THIN CORNER

The Falcons parted ways with three of their top four cornerbacks from 2018, including longtime starter Robert Alford, making this a top draft priority. Atlanta always seems to select a player from LSU, so Greedy Williams could be on the radar. Georgia's Deandre Baker is another player to keep an eye on.

"It's not necessarily a fast group," Dimitroff pointed out. "That said, there are some really good corners. Just because their (40-yard) times are in the 4.5s doesn't mean they won't be effective in this league."

EYES ON THE BACKFIELD

Running back Devonta Freeman has endured two straight injury-plagued seasons, and the Falcons no longer have insurance policy Tevin Coleman, who left in free agency to sign with the 49ers. Atlanta will likely be looking for another running back on the second or third day of the draft.

PLAYING IT SAFE

With starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both coming off major injuries, Quinn acknowledged that the team might be looking to add to its depth in that area.

"That's an important position, and it's evolved more," said the coach, who is taking on the added duties of defensive coordinator. "People are using a third safety more than they have in the past."

TRADING THOMAS

Dimitroff loves to wheel and deal on draft day, and he's got extra picks to work with in the fourth and fifth rounds, a total of nine selections in all. While a major deal seems unlikely, look for the Falcons to do some maneuvering to get the players they want.

Report by Paul Newberry

Carolina Panthers

After focusing on upgrading the team's overall speed the past few NFL drafts, don't be surprised if the Carolina Panthers look to add bulk up front this year.

The Panthers have needs at left tackle and defensive end following the retirement of Julius Peppers and the release of Matt Kalil. Carolina struggled to protect quarterback Cam Newton last season while the pass rush fell off — two major reasons Carolina finished 7-9.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney predictably didn't offer many clues to the team's upcoming draft plans, but said he likes what he sees from both positions in this year's class.

"It's a strong group up top and it's a deep group," Hurney said of the defensive linemen available.

Hurney also predicted there will be a handful of offensive linemen who'll be selected in the first round, and said that the group is strong overall.

After Kalil was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury last summer, Carolina brought in journeyman Chris Clark to play left tackle before turning to Marshall Newhouse later in the season. The Panthers re-signed right tackle Daryl Williams this offseason, a move that could potentially mean Taylor Moton will shift to left tackle.

But if someone such as Washington State's Andre Dillard or Florida's Jawaan Taylor falls to No. 16, the Panthers may head in that direction. Carolina hasn't drafted an offensive tackle in the first round since Jeff Otah in 2008.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers signed veteran pass rusher Bruce Irvin to a one-year deal, but he's not viewed as the long-term answer opposite Mario Addison. Clemson's Clelin Ferrell, Michigan's Rashan Gary and Florida State's Brian Burns are potential options with the 16th pick that could help fill the void left by Peppers' departure.

"It's a good class of edge rushers," coach Ron Rivera said. "We feel really good about the guys we have seen."

Some things to watch for the Panthers in the NFL draft:

NEWTON'S SUCCESSOR

Hurney sounded optimistic about Newton's recovery, saying the 2015 league MVP is gaining more range of motion in his surgically repaired right shoulder. However, Newton hasn't thrown a football yet.

Newton has two years left on his contract, and it's possible the team could start looking for a long-term replacement.

"Our philosophy is you have to develop young quarterbacks," Hurney said.

One potential option outside of the first round is West Virginia's Will Grier, who grew up in Huntersville, North Carolina, — about 20 miles north of where the Panthers play their home games. The Panthers have met extensively with Grier this offseason.

SAFETY DANCE

The Panthers re-signed Eric Reid to a big contract earlier this offseason, but the other safety spot remains up in the air after the team parted ways with veteran Mike Adams earlier this offseason.

Rashaan Gaulden, a third-round pick in 2018, and Da'Norris Searcy are potential replacements, but if the Panthers can find a safety with a knack for causing turnovers in the second or third rounds there is a real chance they could fill that need.

REPLACING OLSEN

Greg Olsen has been a magnificent player for the Panthers, but the three-time 1,000-yard receiver has struggled to stay on the field the past two seasons because of foot injuries. All signs are Olsen will be back for another season, but at some point the team will need to look to replace the 34-year-old tight end.

Carolina drafted Ian Thomas last year with the 101st overall pick and the jury is still out on whether he can develop into Olsen's heir apparent. But don't rule out the team grabbing another tight end at some point during the draft.

McCAFFREY'S BACKUP

No running back in the NFL was on the field more last season than Christian McCaffrey. And while Rivera still believes McCaffrey has a chance to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season, he'd like to lessen his role just a little bit.

The Panthers have Cameron Artis-Payne coming off the bench, but a back with a similar skillset to McCaffrey — fast, shifty and multi-talented — would be ideal.

TEPPER'S TIME

This will be new owner David Tepper's first NFL draft since purchasing the Panthers for $2.2 billion last summer, and he's been heavily involved in the team's draft process.

"He's very excited and Ron and I communicate with him every day," Hurney said. "He's looking forward to being in the draft room. He's dropped in on our meetings with scouts and has a good feel" for the draft.

Report by Steve Reed

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New regime, same old mission for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bruce Arians is the latest coach taking a stab at making the Bucs relevant again.

The former Arizona Cardinals coach came out of retirement in January to replace Dirk Koetter, who was fired after another losing season extended the club's playoff drought to 11 consecutive seasons.

And while Arians insists the Bucs are not in a rebuilding mode, it sure seems that way heading into yet another draft where Tampa Bay will continue an ongoing effort to fill holes in a leaky defense.

General manager Jason Licht is working with a third head coach in six years and is banking on the bond he developed with Arians while they were both in Arizona will help him finally get it right with the Bucs.

"I have a great relationship with Bruce. I have a good feel for him, what he likes. We've had many, many meetings together, they've all been great, very productive," Licht said. "It's an open door, no walls between the scouting and the coaching, which is what we had in Arizona and we've had here too."

Mistakes in free agency and recent drafts contributed to a tight salary cap situation that's placed limits on how much the Bucs could spend to fix one of the league's worst defenses this offseason.

Over the past three drafts alone, they've used a first-round pick and a pair of No. 2s on cornerbacks who've yet to make compelling cases that they can be long-term solutions or even bona fide starters.

Jason Pierre-Paul, a pre-draft trade acquisition a year ago, became the first Tampa Bay player to have at least 10 sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005, yet bolstering an inconsistent pass rush remains a priority a year after Licht used a first-round pick and invested heavily in free agency to overhaul the defensive line around veteran tackle Gerald McCoy.

Licht said the toughest part of the evaluation process for the draft is not gauging a prospect's talent.

"It's what the player is all about and how willing he is to put in the work, what kind of a teammate he's going to be. So you can kind of separate the guys that don't have the talent to make it. The guys that do have talent, you rank them into how talented they are, but then the tough part is reading the player," the GM said.

"Bruce doesn't live by a lot of mottos. ... But one thing he does adhere to that I took from him in Arizona is, 'trust, loyalty, respect.' You've got to have players that trust each other, trust the coaches, are loyal to everybody and respect everybody," Licht added. "So if you can get a talented guy that you know hits on all three of those things, you have a really good chance."

Barring a trade, the Bucs hold the fifth overall selection. In addition to improving the pass rush and secondary, they likely will seek help for the offensive line and, possibly, at running back in later rounds.

"We have at least five players that we think — at least five — that if we stay in our spot that we'd be very happy with," Arians said.

TRADE BAIT?

McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, is due to earn $13 million next season, his 10th with the Bucs. Both Arians and Licht have shied away from talking specifics about how the defensive tackle fits into the plan for 2019, including whether he could be traded on or before the opening day of the draft.

"That's hypothetical," Licht said. "Right now, we are focused on the draft."

RATING THE CLASS

While Licht expects to find help regardless of whether the Bucs stand pat at No. 5 or wind up trading down in the draft order, the GM said there is a clear drop-off in the level of talent available after a certain point.

"I would say after a certain number — which I won't give — then they kind of all are together," Licht said. "It's tougher than most years to really rank the let's just say top 50 players, because of that."

Staying put could mean taking one of the defensive studs up front — Quinnen Williams of Alabama, Ed Oliver of Houston, Montez Sweat of Mississippi State — or linebacker Josh Allen of Kentucky.

CUPBOARD NOT BARE

Despite going 5-11 and missing the playoffs again ast season, Licht feels entering the draft that Tampa Bay's roster is more than talented than it was this time a year ago.

"We think we have a talented team, but we know that we have some pieces that we need to add, too," the GM said. "We are not a finished product. We have the draft coming up, we have moves that we can make all the way up through training camp."

Report by Fred Goodall