NFL Draft Preview: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

By Matthew Frankle

The first three picks of the 2021 NFL Draft will likely be quarterbacks, with the Jaguars selecting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the Jets likely to select BYU’s Zach Wilson and the 49ers trading multiple future first-round picks with the Miami Dolphins to move up to the third pick and take their quarterback of the future. This leaves the Falcons with the ball in their court at pick number four. Atlanta needs to upgrade their leaky pass defense, which finished worst in the NFL last season. This unit was ultimately responsible for the multiple instances throughout last season where inevitable wins became painful losses.

With most of the top talent in the draft on offense, the Falcons would be wise to trade down to a QB needy team, such as the Broncos at pick eight or the Patriots at pick 15. By trading down, the Falcons could take a cornerback, with Alabama’s Patrick Surtain or South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn possibly available. They could also look at drafting a pass rusher, such as Miami’s Jaelen Phillips, or versatile Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. If they trade down, they would likely receive significant draft capital in return. The best example of a team executing this would be the Colts in 2018, who moved down from pick three to pick six with the Jets and acquired two second-round picks in doing so. With the sixth pick, the Colts selected all-pro left guard Quenton Nelson. With the second-round picks that they acquired they selected right tackle Braden Smith along with cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, two solid starters.

Alternatively, the Falcons are in a position to select Matt Ryan’s successor. While Ryan is still effective, he will be 36 this season, and the team’s high pick and the numerous talented quarterbacks available in this class means that this is likely their best opportunity to draft a high quality quarterback without trading up. Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Mac Jones are the two names that are most heavily linked to the 49ers at pick three. If the 49ers take Jones, the Falcons should consider taking Fields, who grew up just outside of Atlanta. He is elite as a runner and thrower, and he showed his toughness and leadership on multiple occasions as a Buckeye. While Jones does not have the athleticism Fields has, he has elite football I.Q., anticipation and last year had the highest completion percentage in a single season in college football history —while leading Alabama to a national championship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Cam Cobey

The defending champs are coming into the 2021 NFL Draft poised for another run at a Super Bowl. In the offseason, they re-signed key pieces to their 2021 Super Bowl winning team in quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, edge rusher Shaq Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and receiver Chris Godwin. They’ve also returned their entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball from last season, which is almost unheard of. The Bucs will look to make the most of the end of Brady’s career. As Super Bowl champs, the Bucs have the last pick of the first round (no. 32) with seven additional picks after that. The Bucs don’t have any looming needs in this draft, so what they will look to do is add depth to their already very talented team and prepare for the future, when some of their top players head to free agency. What they should do with their first round pick is take the best player available, no matter who that is. I’ve heard the name Christian Barmore, the defensive tackle from Alabama, who would be a beast alongside Suh on the defensive line. I’ve also heard Jayson Oweh, the edge rusher out of Penn State. I believe this first pick will be on the defensive line. The Bucs will look to add depth to both their defensive line and offensive line in this draft to get this team set for a future beyond Brady.

Carolina Panthers

By Aaron Notis

After signing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal last offseason, most believed that the Panthers had found their quarterback for the future. Now, after finishing 5-11 last season, Carolina has acquired 23-year-old quarterback Sam Darnold from the Jets to become their new franchise quarterback. The Panthers intend to help Bridgewater find a new, right-fit team. He’s in Carolina for now, but not for long. In the meantime, the Panthers look to build around their backfield of Darnold and running back Christian McCaffrey in the hopes of eventually turning the team into a championship contender. 

The Panthers have possession of the eighth overall pick in this upcoming draft. Their best move would be to protect Darnold by picking one of the elite offensive linemen available. Both Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater would be solid picks for Carolina. Either of these linemen would help keep Darnold upright in the pocket and allow him to make throws, still giving McCaffrey room to run. 

With their later picks, the Panthers should look to prioritize defensive-backs and pass-catchers. Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes and Washington cornerback Elijah Molden would fit well in Carolina’s defense, while Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth would give Darnold another option on offense. 

New Orleans Saints

By Aaron Notis

The New Orleans Saints face a tough road ahead. After a 12-4 season where they came in first in the tough NFC South, their franchise quarterback Drew Brees retired after a hall-of-fame career. Usually, a team would look to rebuild in this situation, but the Saints are built to win. Their offense is filled with playmakers such as running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas, and their defense is still solid.

The Saints re-signed Jameis Winston and extended Taysom Hill, giving them two potential contenders for quarterback. The two are supposed to compete for the starting job. But what if they can’t get the job done? It’s possible the Saints could look to move up in the draft, taking advantage of the deep, top-heavy quarterback class. Or, they could look to the later rounds for Stanford quarterback Davis Mills or Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman. 

If New Orleans decides to stick with Hill or Winston, they should take advantage of the deep, athletic wide-receiver group. This would give them insurance for the injury-prone Thomas and add strength and ability to an already elite receiver corps. Prospects like Florida wideout Kadarius Toney or Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore would help New Orleans maintain their incredible offense and help them maintain their crown at the top of the NFC South.