How the NFC South has done:
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NFC South Draft Report Card
Published: April 30, 2016
The Carolina Panthers have won the NFC South the last three seasons. But the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were the division's big winners in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Panthers did just fine despite their draft position – No. 30. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted so well last year - four rookies ended up as starters -, did not have a great draft, despite having the division's earliest pick (No. 11).
We won't know for sure who had the best and worst drafts for a couple of years. But, for now, here are my overall draft grades for the four NFC South teams.
Atlanta Falcons The Falcons haven't drafted really well since their great class in 2008. But that's going to change with this year's class. Coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted as well as any team in the league.
The Falcons added quality talent and addressed positions of need. Atlanta should have three immediate starters – Florida safety Keanu Neal, LSU linebacker Deion Jones and Stanford tight end Austin Hooper.
The Falcons want to get more physical on defense, and Neal, Jones and fourth-round linebacker De'Vondre Campbell should help in that regard. Neal is very physical, and he'll give the Falcons a big hitter at strong safety, and Jones' arrival should provide instant improvement for a linebacker group that wasn't very good last year. Campbell probably isn't an immediate starter, but he should start his career as a regular on special teams.
The Atlanta pick I liked best of all was Hooper in the third round. Jacob Tamme was productive last season, but he still is a big drop off from former Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez. I'm not saying Hooper is the next Gonzalez, but I think he has a chance to be very good.
New Orleans Saints General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton put together a very nice class. Their main goal heading into the draft was to improve a defense that arguably was the worst in the league last year. First-round pick Sheldon Rankins is a perfect fit in the middle of the defensive line. He brings an element of quickness that's been lacking.
Loomis and Payton have had some success thinking outside-the-box in the past, and they did it again in the fourth round when they took defensive tackle David Onyemata from the University of Manitoba (Canada). He's a project, but has tremendous upside.
Rankins and Ohio State free safety Vonn Bell, a second-round pick, should be immediate starters. The Saints also improved their offense, adding Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas in the second round. The Saints view Thomas as the likely replacement for Marques Colston.
Carolina Panthers General manager Dave Gettleman continues to impress me. He's very methodical at addressing needs. Gettleman doesn't make flashy moves, but he makes solid ones and he did it again.
After rescinding the franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman and letting him depart as a free agent, the Panthers suddenly were thin in the defensive backfield. Gettleman attacked the secondary in this draft, using two early picks on cornerbacks.
The Panthers took Samford cornerback James Bradberry in the second round and West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley. Bradberry and Worley are drop offs from Norman, but they come with much lower price tags. Bradberry and Worley aren't exceptionally fast. But they're big and physical.
That's important because they're going to be going against big wide receivers - Atlanta's Julio Jones and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson twice a year. The need at defensive tackle wasn't as glaring as cornerback, but Gettleman, who loves to stockpile linemen on both sides of the ball, used his first-round pick on Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Bucs were methodical with their drafting when former coach Lovie Smith was calling the shots. That worked out well. They got four immediate starters in last year's draft. But general manager Jason Licht is running the show now and he took some big chances.
Tampa Bay's first two draft picks come with plenty of upside, but they also come with lots of risk. Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was the first-round pick. Hargreaves has a ton of talent and does everything well.
But there's one big question about Hargreaves. That's his size. Hargreaves is only 5-foot-10. He could have trouble against the big NFC South wide receivers. But Hargreaves wasn't the riskiest player the Bucs drafted.
That would be second-round pick from Eastern Kentucky (via Ohio State) Noah Spence. The defensive end has first-round talent and tremendous upside as a pass-rusher. But Spence comes with major baggage.
At Ohio State, Spence was kicked out of school after at least two positive drug tests. He also was charged with public intoxication soon after arriving at Eastern Kentucky. Spence said he has cleaned up his act and there is evidence that is true. Spence was very productive in his one season at Eastern Kentucky.
He made a smart move in sending all 32 teams a year's worth of clean drug tests. That's great. If Spence stays on the straight and narrow, the Bucs will have a steal. But his past is always going to follow him, and that means there will be questions about Spence throughout his career.
Speaking of questions, here's another one for you: Why?
That's the thought that crossed my mind when the Bucs traded to get Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round. A kicker in the second round? Kickers usually go in the later rounds, if they get drafted at all.
But kickers are becoming more important and Aguayo is the best kicker to come along in a long time. He has to live up to his potential, or there will be questions about why Licht drafted a kicker at a spot where he probably could have landed a starter on offense or defense.
Hargreaves Could be Big Pick for Buccaneers
Published: April 30, 2016
Let's stick with the facts, and only the facts, as they pertain to what might happen with the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers in the 2015 season.
Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin is 6-foot-5. Atlanta's Julio Jones is 6-foot-3 and might still be growing.
They're going to put up big numbers while going against Tampa Bay's top pick, Vernon Hargreaves III. Jones already is one of the best receivers in the league. Benjamin, who missed his rookie season with an injury, is going to put up huge numbers. It's a good thing New Orleans' Marques Colston is gone or Tampa Bay's defense would be getting shell shocked before the season even started.
Let's get back to the facts and focus on the defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are focused on defense. They drafted a player from the defensive side of the ball (Hargreaves) after ignoring that side of it for the last couple of years.
Back to the facts, and this is the biggest one of all. Hargreaves is 5-foot-10. Sticking with the facts, Hargreaves is going to get crushed by the big wide receivers in the NFC South, and it will probably be something you'll hear plenty about early in the season.
The Bucs had a bad defense last year. It could be even worse in 2016. They signed free-agent Brent Grimes a few weeks ago. They drafted Hargreaves on Thursday night. The Twin Towers? Hardly, Grimes and Hargreaves at best might become the Twin Tykes.
Grimes has a vertical leap of more than 40 inches. Hargreaves is right in the same territory.
"Confidence isn't something that leaves you, it's with you," Hargreaves said Friday as he was introduced to the Tampa Bay media. "It's something that you have, and it's kind of like a trial-and-error thing. I'm going to go in and whatever happens, happens. You know, I'm going to get beat and if I have to bounce back, make more plays and I'm going to learn. There's a whole bunch of good guys that I'm here to learn from – you know Brent Grimes is a guy that I really look up to. I like to model his game, so I'm going to have to be in his pocket, asking him a bunch of questions, and he's going to be annoyed with me, but he's just going to have to deal with me for a little bit."
But the Bucs are hoping Hargreaves will come along quickly. They once drafted Ronde Barber, who wasn't much bigger than Hargeaves. Things worked out. After a rocky start - an assistant coach grabbed me after Barber's first start and said, "Have you ever seen anything more embarrassing than Ronde?"
I had not, and Hargreaves might have a few of those moments. But, like Barber, he could be a star.
Buccaneers Might Have a Hit With Noah Spence
Published: April 30, 2016
For the first time in a long time – we're talking about two decades – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a chance.
If this one turns out anything like the last, they'll be thrilled. But, just like the last time, this pick is a leap of faith. The Bucs used a second-round pick Friday night to draft Eastern Kentucky pass-rusher Noah Spence.
This smells a little like 1995 when coach Sam Wyche drafted Warren Sapp. But the gamble isn't nearly as big. Sapp was a first-round choice with major questions. Spence was grabbed by a second-round pick without nearly as many questions.
To understand what I'm talking about, you have to go back to 1995 when the Bucs picked Sapp. The night before that draft, there were rumors flying that Sapp had failed multiple drug trests. Some of the reports said Sapp had tested positive for cocaine.
The next night, you saw Sapp falling like Laremy Tunsil did in this year's draft. But in the middle of the first round, Wyche did perhaps the only positive thing he did for the Bucs and asked for a promise from Sapp that there wouldn't be any more positive tests.
Sapp agreed and drugs never were an issue through the rest of his career. Sapp went on to become one of the dominant defensive linemen of his era and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Is it too much to ask Spence to do the same thing? Maybe not. Spence comes in with less of a gamble, less investment and nowhere near the risk that Sapp did.
At a time when the media is given much more access and information than a couple of decades ago, we know a lot more about Spence than we did about Sapp. What we know about Spence is evidence that general manager Jason Licht isn't taking that big of a gamble.
The Bucs walked the plank with Sapp, and it just happened to work out. In a best-case scenario, the Bucs are hoping Spence can do the same thing. The odds are much better than they were with Sapp. Spence's history is well-documented.
The whole world knows Spence's story because it has been reported so well. Spence started off very well at Ohio State, but his career was sideswiped by at least two positive drug tests. After the fact, Spence said the positive tests were for ecstasy. Spence said he was only a recreational user. Still, he got kicked out of Ohio State and checked into rehab.
Things didn't clear up for Spence when he got to Eastern Kentucky. Soon after he enrolled, Spence was charged with public intoxication. But Eastern Kentucky stood by Spence. He had an outstanding final season and excelled at the Senior Bowl and combine. He also answered questions. Lots of them. Teams said Spence was up front and honest about his past, and wanted to make things right for the future.
It looks like Spence has done that. The smartest thing Spence, or maybe his agent, has done in recent weeks was sending out almost a year of clean drug tests to all 32 teams.
Licht obviously answers his mail. Licht is not Tony Dungy, who will not take a player with any questions. But Licht also isn't the kind of general manager to fully step out on a limb. Licht has done his homework and obviously feels this is a low-risk, high-reward player.
If Licht's right and Spence hits his upside, this pick could end up looking a lot like Sapp.
Bucs Ready to Gamble With Mike Glennon
Published: April 26, 2016
Let me go on the record and make it clear that I'm very much opposed to the idea of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trading backup quarterback Mike Glennon.
But let's also make it clear writers and broadcasters don't get to make those decisions. Sure, we get paid to have opinions. But those opinions don't determine anything - unless you were talking about the Bucs during the days when they were run by hyper-sensitive general manager Mark Dominik.
But Dominik is long gone and Jason Licht is the general manager. Like writers and broadcasters, he gets paid to have opinions. But, unlike writers and broadcasters, his opinions mean something. He can turn those opinions into reality, and Licht's not hung up on what the media thinks.
Licht is hung up on what he thinks will help his team. With the 2016 NFL Draft approaching later this week, Licht appears to have his mind made up on one thing. As long as the compensation is right, Licht is going to trade Glennon.
Sources say numerous teams have talked to the Bucs about a potential trade for Glennon, although it probably won't happen until after the 2016 NFL Draft is underway. To me, that sounds like the Bucs are flirting with disaster if they unload Glennon. Without Glennon, they're one Jameis Winston injury from being the worst offense in football. Keep Glennon and they can still be respectable if something happens to Winston.
To me, it's a no-brainer to keep Glennon. He's not a great quarterback and never will be, but he's competent. That's more than can be said for the other quarterbacks on Tampa Bay's roster – Ryan Griffin and Dan LeFevour.
Strip your house of insulation and you're going to be very hot or very cold. Glennon, who has 18 career starts and has looked good at times, is high-quality insulation. Griffin and LeFevour aren't even close.
So why even think about trading Glennon? You know my opinion, but let's look at this through the eyes of Licht and coach Dirk Koetter. They know there are a bunch of teams out there that are in desperate need of a quarterback, be it a backup or a potential starter, and that's why Glennon has value.
In the eyes of much of the rest of the league - Philadelphia is excluded because the Eagles are up to about eight quarterbacks and counting -, Glennon is a better-than-average backup, maybe even a potential starter.
Licht and Koetter think as highly of Glennon as any other team does. But they also have to be realists and do what's best for their team in the long run. The reality is Glennon is in the last year of his contract. There's no way he'll re-sign with Tampa Bay in 2017. Glennon is a competitor and wants a chance to start. There's no way that happens with the Bucs as long as Winston is around. Glennon will simply walk away as a free agent and Tampa Bay will get nothing in return.
That's the crux of the reason the Bucs are listening to trade offers for Glennon. They can get something in return for him now. It's probably not going to be much – maybe a third- or fourth-round draft pick. The player they get with that draft pick isn't going to be a star.
But that player will at least help on special teams. That's more than Glennon will do as long as Winston is healthy. That's the chance Licht will take. He'll lose his 1-year security blanket at quarterback, but he'll get something in return for a guy who might not even play this year.
Best Drafts in NFC South History
Published: April 26, 2016
It's draft week, which means I'll be making a lot of decisions.
I'll be doing mock drafts on WalterFootball.com and making picks for numerous radio shows. Some choices will be difficult and some won't. But the easiest choices I'll make this week will come in this column.
I'm picking the best draft classes in the history of the NFC South. There will be some competition later. But not at the top. The best draft class in the history of the NFC South is a very simple call.
1995 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's not often that one team gets two of the three best players in franchise history in a single draft. The other was Lee Roy Selmon in 1976. But the 1995 class was simply spectacular. The Bucs got defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks in the first round. Both ended up being selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Sapp and Brooks were more than Hall of Famers. They were game changers. They joined a franchise that had been absolutely dismal for a long time and made it respectable. They anchored the famous Tampa Two defense and were leaders in the locker room.
But most of all, they'll be remembered for leading the franchise to its only Super Bowl victory. Coach Sam Wyche's time in Tampa largely was a disaster. But he did one thing right. He drafted Sapp and Brooks. Last year's draft included four starters and that was great. But that class has a long way to go before it comes close to catching Sapp and Brooks.
2001 - Carolina Panthers
This draft class was George Seifert's parting gift - really his only gift to the Panthers. He drafted linebacker Dan Morgan, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith and quarterback Chris Weinke.
Morgan, Jenkins and Smith were instrumental in the franchise getting to its first Super Bowl, and you could make the argument those three were the best in franchise history at their positions. Some say this class was underrated, and I won't disagree with that.
But when I think about this class, I sometimes get a little sad because it could have been a lot better than it was. Morgan had the potential to be one of the best middle linebackers in history. But his career was cut short by concussions. Jenkins was elite for a couple years, but he drank and ate his way out of where he should have been.
Smith exceeded every possible expectation and was the highlight of this class. Then, there was Weinke. I still think he could have been a decent starter if Seifert hadn't ruined him and John Fox didn't despise him.
1981 - New Orleans Saints
It's tough to top the 2006 class that included Reggie Bush, Jahri Evans, Marques Colston and Roman Harper. They were instrumental in the Saints winning the only Super Bowl in franchise history.
But I'm going with the class of 1981 because it was the first draft the Saints got right. The Saints took linebacker Rickey Jackson. Other than quarterback Drew Brees, Jackson, a Hall of Famer was the best player in franchise history. The Saints also drafted five other players who made the team's Hall of Fame.
2008 - Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons haven't had a lot of great drafts throughout their history, but this was one. It was memorable because it came on the heels of the fiascos involving Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. In 2008, the Falcons looked like a sinking ship that would take years to turn around.
They ended up doing it in one draft. Quarterback Matt Ryan was the key pick. But the Falcons also got linebacker Curtis Lofton and some key role players.