NFL DRAFT LINKS
New England's Malcolm Butler made the last big play of the 2014 NFL season at about 10 p.m. ET on Sunday night, sealing the Patriots' 28-24 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Some confetti, trophy presentations and deep-into-the-night debate over the play call that led to Butler's goal-line interception…and then it was time to turn the page to 2015.
The Patriots and Seahawks were still in the spotlight as Monday dawned, of course, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will gradually be taking center stage as the team that owns the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. There will, of course, be endless and interesting speculation as to what the Buccaneers should do with that pick, which will make the next three months enjoyable for Tampa Bay fans. For the moment, however, let's turn our attention to the rest of the NFC South and speculate instead on what the Falcons, Panthers and Saints might be looking for in this year's draft.
Atlanta was one of three teams to finish 6-10 in 2014 but had a weaker strength of schedule than the New York Giants or St. Louis Rams and thus got the eighth pick in the first round. As confident as many analysts are in projecting a quarterback for the Buccaneers at #1, it is just as easy to connect the dots between the Falcons and one of the draft's top pass-rushers.
This has been a problem area for Atlanta for quite some time, even beyond the last two down years that cost Head Coach Mike Smith his job. The Falcons' defense managed just 22 sacks last year, the second-lowest total in the NFL, and Football Outsiders ranked it last overall and second to last against the pass. Atlanta tied for 29th in sacks in 2013, finished 28th in 2012 and hasn't ranked higher than 19th since 2008.
Gerald McCoy missed the Bucs' first game against Atlanta this year, which the Falcons won handily, but he was a thorn in Matt Ryan's side in last year's second meeting
Last year, the Falcons tried to address the problem through free agency, getting bigger along the front with the additions of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai and using some combo tactics between a 4-3 and a 3-4. It didn't work, and one has to assume the Falcons are at least considering taking a stab at the issue through the draft this year. The Falcons haven't used a first-round pick on a defensive linemen since the ill-fated choice of now-retired DT Peria Jerry in 2009 and they haven't use a pick in any of the first three rounds on a defensive end since Jamaal Anderson in 2007. That didn't work out so well, either, and in fact the Falcons haven't really found a standout pass-rusher in the draft since Patrick Kerney in 1999. It is highly doubtful, however, that past failures in that regard would color their decision on whether or not to target an end this spring.
The Falcons will reportedly have a new and prominent voice in their draft discussion by Tuesday, as they are expected to hire Seahawks Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn as their new head coach. Quinn spent the last two years running the NFL's best defense and it's pretty obvious that had great appeal to the Falcons' brass given their long-running struggles on that side of the ball. So maybe Lovie Smith did come in to Tampa and shock everyone with an offense-only draft a year ago, but good money would be on Quinn getting some immediate defensive help. His defenses in Seattle could bring pass-rushers in waves, so even if he thinks well of such Falcon holdovers as Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodwin that likely wouldn't stop him from using the draft to add to the position.
This also appears to be a good case of need meeting opportunity, because this year's class of pass-rushers is considered pretty deep, if not necessarily headlined by one Jadeveon Clowney type. There are at least four ends that are commonly showing up in the top 10s of early mock drafts – USC's Leonard Williams, Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Missouri's Shane Ray and Florida's Dante Fowler – and enough additional prospects to potentially land four or five more pass-rushers in the first round, especially if one includes 3-4 linebacker types.
Even if the expert opinion proves wrong and the Buccaneers do not take a quarterback at #1, it's still highly likely that two of the seven picks before Atlanta will be spent on Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Williams is widely expected to be among the first few picks, too, and Alabama WR Amari Cooper is such a strong prospect that some team in the top 10 is likely to snap him up. It's easy to envision a scenario in which one of Gregory, Ray or Fowler falls to Atlanta at #8, or one in which the stock of another end such as Vic Beasley or Arik Armstead climbs sharply in the next few months.
As I said, this is a pretty obvious connection, and one that the mock drafters are finding nearly irresistible. Surveying the work of eight prominent sites, you find Atlanta paired up with a defensive end on seven of them, with a couple votes each for Fowler, Beasley and Bud Dupree and one for Ray. The only dissenter pairs the Falcons up with Cooper, which would require both a drop out of the top five for the Alabama playmaker and a doubling down by Atlanta at a position that already includes Julio Jones.
Alternately, one could speculate that the depth at defensive end will convince the Falcons that a helpful pass-rusher will be available at the top of the second round, leaving that eighth-overall pick to be spent on an asset for a secondary that has a real keeper in Desmond Trufant but was gashed for 280 yards per game in 2014. In recent years it has become relatively common for one safety to crack the top half of the opening round, and a couple (Eric Berry, Mark Barron) were even top-10 picks. Maybe Atlanta will see enough in the latest Alabama safety, Landon Collins, to nab him at #8. The Falcons could also choose to trade down and select from a group of cornerbacks that doesn't, at this point in the evaluation period, appear to have a strong candidate for a top-10 pick.
The Saints finished a game ahead of the Falcons although they were eliminated from the division title race a week earlier than Atlanta. That's irrelevant now, as their 7-9 record left them tied with Minnesota and Cleveland and their .486 strength-of-schedule figure was just a wee bit better than those of the Vikings or Browns. That put them at the end of that rotation and at #13 overall in the first round.
That one game could make a big difference, because the Saints are five spots farther down than the Falcons but possibly hoping to grab the same players. New Orleans' rollercoaster of a defense under Rex Ryan – almost historically bad in 2012, then very aggressive and actually quite good in 2013, followed by a precipitous drop back to the bottom in 2014 – seemed to lose its pass-rush mojo last fall. Ryan is sticking around for 2015 and getting him some more players to menace opposing quarterbacks could be job #1.
Get to know the key players on New Orleans before the Saints take on the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
The cupboard isn't bare in New Orleans. Cameron Jordan saw his sack total fall from 12.5 in 2013 to 7.5 last year but is still a talented pass-rusher and former first-round pick. Junior Galette had 10 sacks as a pass-rushing linebacker. There just wasn't much else to the Saints' up-front attack on defense, but that could be easily addressed with a single high draft pick.
The depth of the pass-rushing class is addressed above, but it's possible that the Saints are in a better position to take advantage of it because of their 3-4 defensive front. For instance, Beasley is listed at 6-2 and 220 pounds, which would seem more like the dimensions of a rush linebacker. New Orleans could also choose to address their pass-rush issues from the inside, taking an interior lineman like Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips to collapse the pocket and create more opportunities for Galette and company.
The absolutely fascinating thing about the Saints' 2015 draft is that the team employs one of the best quarterbacks in football and there are plenty of pundits who believe the team will be looking to spend a high pick on a passer this spring. Could New Orleans try to find an Aaron Rodgers to slot behind their own Brett Favre?
Green Bay grabbed Cal's Aaron Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in 2005 despite the fact that they were coming off a fourth straight double-digit victory campaign and Favre had just posted a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season. Rodgers would have to wait his turn for three seasons, but it's obvious that the Packer franchise was pleased that it had prepared for a transition at the game's most important position.
The problem for the Saints is that there isn't an obvious Rodgers in the upcoming draft. When the Cal standout slipped to 24th in 2005, there was plenty of second-guessing. In 2015, is there any quarterback that would entice teams in the first round after Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota? That doesn't appear to the be the case now, but it wouldn't be a shock to see the stock rise on a passer or two in the coming months.
What makes things particularly difficult for anyone trying to predict the Saints' pick at this point of the year is the team's dire salary-cap situation. There are almost certainly some cap-correcting moves on the horizon; if they are renegotiations that spread a cap hit out that's one thing, but if they involve some high-profile player releases that's another. For instance, the Saints have a lot of cap space tied up in their Pro Bowl guards, Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. If either or both becomes a cap casualty, that would make interior linemen a pretty significant need in the upcoming draft. Along the same lines, veteran center Jonathan Goodwin seems like a serious candidate to be replaced and young tackle Terron Armstead may or may not work out in the long run. It would be no surprise to see the Saints use their first-round pick on an offensive linemen.
The trenches. That's where the draft cognoscenti expects the Saints to use their first-round pick. Referring to the same eight mock drafts referenced above, we find seven mentions of a defensive lineman and one of an offensive blocker, Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff. The good news for the Saints, at #13, is that they should have some good options on the O-Line if Scherff goes in the top 12.**
The Saints' one-win advantage over Atlanta might have cost them five spots in the draft, but that's nothing compared to the effect of Carolina's half-game edge at the top of the NFC South. The Panthers are in a unique situation, finishing one season at 7-8-1 and starting the next with the 25th pick in the NFL Draft.
Obviously, that's a tradeoff the Panthers willingly accepted to win the NFC South, and the fact that they followed that with a playoff victory over Arizona pushed them even farther down the list. It could work out just fine for Carolina, however, as popular speculation has them targeting an offensive linemen and this year's class appears to be deep in solid blocking prospects. Respected draft analyst Todd McShay of ESPN recently said that the "sweet spot" for taking offensive tackles, in particular, in this year's draft was the bottom half of the first round.
That's a somewhat unusual situation. Since the left tackle position is so highly valued in the NFL – some consider it the second-most important position after quarterback – the best prospects at the spot often go very early in the draft. In fact, there hasn't been a draft in which no offensive tackles went among the top 10 picks since 2005, and only once in that decade has there not been an OT in the top five.
There is plenty of depth at the position, however, and if the Panthers want to move on from the Jordan Gross era they will probably have their choice of several of them. Among the eight aforementioned mock drafts, six of them predicted an OT for Carolina, but the specific choices were split among Iowa's Brandon Scherff (who could also play guard), Miami's Ereck Flowers, Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings, Stanford's Andrus Peat and LSU's La'el Collins. Scherff is probably the least likely of the bunch to still be around at pick #25.
The Panthers struggled to protect QB Cam Newton and, until a late-season surge, to run the ball as effectively as they had in recent years. Football Outsiders ranked the Panthers' offensive line 27th in the NFL in 2014, so that certainly seems like a major area of need. After Gross's retirement left the team looking for answers at left tackle for the first time in a long while, Byron Bell was moved over from right tackle to that spot. Bell is now a pending free agent, and the Panthers have to decide if they want to give him more time to develop into a top-notch blocker.
If Carolina is satisfied with Bell and sees promise in the rest of their line – or if that need doesn't match up with the available talent at pick #25, they could also use a late first-rounder on a wide receiver for the second year in a row. That Matt Millen-esque strategy might actually make some sense, although in this case it's because the team hit on their first try at the position. WR Kelvin Benjamin was thought to be somewhat of a raw prospect when he came aboard at pick #28 last season (the fifth receiver taken in an almost unbelievably deep class), but he made an instant impact as a rookie with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. After that, however, the Panthers' next best wideout was veteran Jerricho Cotchery, with 580 yards. Steve Smith isn't coming back, so Carolina could try to find a new smaller but speedy wideout to take the top of opposing defenses. There are some of those in this year's draft, though perhaps not one worth the 25th pick.
The only dissenting opinion in the eight mock drafts regarding Carolina's pick chose to match the Panthers up with LSU cornerback Jalen Collins. The cornerback spot is another one in this year's draft that has decent depth without a lot of top-10 prospects, it seems. The Panthers haven't taken a cornerback during the first three rounds of the draft since nabbing Richard Marshall in the second round in 2006, and they haven't used a first-round selection on the position since the astute choice of Chris Gamble in 2004. It could be time; 2014 fifth-rounder Bene Benwikere emerged as a useful player late in his rookie season and 2012 fifth-rounder Josh Norman has developed into a good cover man, but the Panthers could use an impact player in the secondary. The absolute dominance of their front seven masked a talent-thin backfield in 2013 but fewer sacks last season put the back end of the defense under more scrutiny last year.