Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New Kids in the Neighborhood

Most of the compelling rookie storylines in the NFC in 2010 were fashioned in Tampa, but that’s unlikely to be the case again in 2011

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Last year, the Buccaneers drafted nine players and seven of them would end up starting at least one game during their shared rookie campaign.  By the end of the season, they had become the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start at least 10 rookies and still compile a winning record (note that some of those rookies were not members of the Bucs' 2010 draft class).

In November, the Buccaneers started seven different rookies in the same game and still defeated the Carolina Panthers, the first team since 2002 to pull off such a feat.

Obviously, Tampa Bay wrung a great deal out of their 2010 draft last fall, and that helped them unexpectedly keep pace in the rugged NFC South.  The Bucs didn't make the playoffs in the end, with their 10-6 record failing to qualify on a tiebreaker, but they held their own in a division that featured the team with the best record in the NFC (Atlanta) and the defending Super Bowl champs (New Orleans).

Of course, the Buccaneers weren't the only team in the NFC South to get significant contributions from players they added in the 2010 draft…but it was close.  Combine the 23 players drafted by Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in 2010 and you find only a small handful that had much of an impact last year.  That is absolutely no slap at the drafting capabilities of those other South squads; there is still plenty of time for those 2010 newcomers to develop into important players for their teams, and every reason to believe they will do so.

It's safe to say that the '10 Buccaneers offered more opportunities for young players, and were more eager to turn over segments of the depth chart.  The Saints and Falcons, by contrast, were bringing back big portions of their winning teams in 2009 and both had loaded up on key free agent veteran acquisitions in recent years (Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Mike Peterson, Dunta Robinson, Jabari Greer, Darren Sharper, Anthony Hargrove, Jimmy Wilkerson, etc.).  Also, Carolina was missing a first-round pick in 2010 and Atlanta was missing a second-rounder.

There were a few other notable newcomers from the 2010 draft in the division, including defensive tackle Corey Peters in Atlanta (15 starts, one sack), wide receiver David Gettis in Carolina (13 starts, 37 catches, three TDs) and tight end Jimmy Graham in New Orleans (31 catches, five touchdowns and a lot of late-season action.  First-rounder Sean Weatherspoon dealt with some injuries in Atlanta but started five games and contributed 42 tackles.  First-round cornerback Patrick Robinson picked up four starts at cornerback for the Saints but had just 28 tackles and no interceptions. Second-round quarterback Jimmy Clausen definitely had an impact in Carolina in his 10 starts, but it wasn't always positive (he finished with a 58.4 passer rating for the two-win Panthers).  With the season going badly, the Panthers found a decent amount of playing time for such late-round pickups as defensive end Greg Hardy, safety Jordon Pugh and cornerback Robert McClain.

Still, the draft impact in the NFC South was heavily concentrated in Tampa.  That's not likely to be the case again in 2011.

Thanks to some extraordinarily bold moves in the early going of this year's draft – and even sitting put and taking Cam Newton first overall was a bold move by the Panthers – the Bucs' division should be a hotbed of rookie action this year.  Let's take a team-by-team look at the last two drafts of the Bucs' three NFC South foes, and what we might expect to see from those players this coming fall.

**

Atlanta Falcons

Rd.

2010

2011

1

LB Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri

WR Julio Jones, Alabama

2

None

None

3

DT Corey Peters, Kentucky

G Mike Johnson, Alabama

LB Akeem Dent, Georgia

4

G Joseph Hawley, UNLV

None

5

CB Dominique Franks

Oklahoma, WR Kerry Meier, Kansas

RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State

6

S Schann Schillinger, Montana

K Matt Bosher, Miami

7

None

G Andrew Jackson, Fresno State

DE Cliff Matthews, South Carolina

The Falcons obviously meant for Weatherspoon to step immediately into their defensive front seven, but he missed time due to a succession of injuries.  Atlanta was reportedly excited by his play at the beginning of the season but ankle, knee and shoulder ailments followed.  Peters wasn't dominant as a rookie but he did get the starting job over 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry.  Of the two mid-round guards, Hawley made the roster and saw special teams action, but all five Atlanta OL starters opened 16 games, so there wasn't much opportunity for that duo.  Franks looked good in the preseason but barely played during the regular season.  Schillinger saw action on special teams.

Thanks to their very aggressive move to get first-round wide receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons won't have a lot of 2011 draft picks with a chance at action this year.  But it should be a case of quality over quantity.

Atlanta traded a king's ransom to move up from #27 to #6 in this year's draft to get Jones, including their first-round pick next year.  That's the move of a team that feels it is just a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, and the Falcons' 13-3 record in 2010 makes it easy to understand why that might be the belief in Atlanta.  Barring injury, it is virtually certain that Jones will be significantly featured in the Falcons' offense this year, much as Mike Williams was for Tampa Bay last fall.  As good as Matt Ryan and Roddy White have been as a QB-WR combination the last few years, the Atlanta offense was somewhat lacking in downfield ability last year.  Jones could be the answer.  If the Alabama wideout is as good as expected, his pairing with White will prove to be a major challenge for Tampa Bay's secondary.

Dent should help immediately on special teams and the Falcons have indicated that he will provide depth at all three linebacker positions.  Given the potential question marks on that unit – Peterson is about to turn 35, Weatherspoon had injury problems as a rookie, Coy Wire and Stephen Nicholas might be best served as reserve/special-teamers – it wouldn't be surprising if Dent carves out a big role pretty quick.

Rodgers could make a difference in Atlanta for the same reason that Jones is expected to.  Last year, the Falcons had just 14 completions of 25 or more yards, dead last in the NFL.  They also ranked just 22nd in rushing plays of 10 or more yards, with 41.  At Oregon State, Rodgers averaged five yards per carry during his career and was a talented pass-catcher out of the backfield, peaking at 78 receptions in 2009.  If the Jones-White combination is effective enough to have opponents worrying about the deep pass, there should be plenty of room underneath for Rodgers to catch swing passes and turn them into long gains.

**

Carolina Panthers

Rd.

2010

2011

1

None

QB Cam Newton, Auburn

2

QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame

None

3

WR Brandon LaFell, LSU

WR Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State

DT Terrell McClain, USF

DT Sione Fua, Stanford

4

LB Eric Norwood, South Carolina

CB Brandon Hogan, West Virginia

5

None

WR Kealoha Pilares, Hawaii

6

DE Greg Hardy, Mississippi

WR David Gettis, Baylor

S Jordon Pugh, Texas A&M

QB Tony Pike, Cincinnati

LB Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut

C Zach Williams, Washington State

7

CB R.J. Stanford, Utah

CB Robert McClain, Connecticut

T Lee Ziemba, Auburn

As mentioned above, Clausen got the majority of the starts during a lost season in Charlotte last fall.  It should be no surprise that a rookie would struggle under center, especially on a team that suffered in a variety of areas on the depth chart due to injuries.  Still, Clausen's 3/9 TD/INT ratio and 52.5% completion rate, not to mention the Panthers' 32nd ranking in passing offense, obviously convinced the Carolina brass that it should jump at the chance to add a potential franchise quarterback.

The Panthers have tried for some time to find a complement to wide receiver Steve Smith in the draft without huge success, and that included three different draft picks a year ago.  As it turned out, it was the sixth-rounder, Gettis, who emerged more quickly than third-rounders Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards.  With Edwards, that wasn't a terrible surprise, given that he is converting from his college position of quarterback.  Gettis finished with 506 receiving yards and three touchdowns; LaFell did eventually contribute 38 receptions for 468 yards and a score.  Those two could figure prominently in Cam Newton's development in 2011.

As mentioned above, Hardy, Pugh and McClain saw a good amount of action and looked promising for late-round draft picks.

Newton will obviously be one of the most interesting stories to follow in the NFC South this coming fall, no matter how well his NFL indoctrination goes.  While Clausen will compete to hold onto his starting job, it's likely that the Panthers would like to get the first-overall draft pick into the mix as quickly as possible.  As Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis and the New York Jets have done in recent years, the Panthers will give Newton every opportunity to emerge from his first training camp as the starter.  With a skill set that produced an incredible 30 touchdown passes and 20 touchdown runs last year, Newton could bring a completely different sort of threat to the Bucs than that currently posed by pocket passers Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

Carolina didn't have a second-round pick this year but they used both of their third-rounders to address another obvious position of need from the previous year's roster: defensive tackle.  In the early days of the NFC South, the Panthers used to give the Buccaneers' interior offensive line fits with such hard-to-contain defensive tackles as Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner.  By last year, the position was manned by such lesser-known figures as Nick Hayden, Edward Johnson, Derek Landri and Andre Neblett.

McClain and Fua could thus see significant playing time right away.  Stout but quick-footed, McClain had three sacks at South Florida last year.  Big-bodied and strong, Fua could step right in at nose tackle after playing a big part in Stanford's huge improvement against the run last year.

Hogan might also grab an important role right away if Richard Marshall ends up departing via free agency.  Hogan is considered a gifted athlete, but Carolina was able to get him in the fourth round due to a suspension, a knee injury and a deep class of cornerbacks this year.  A former receiver, Hogan could also help with his kick return ability.

In addition to last year's new receivers, the Panthers also gave Newton a potentially interesting weapon in fifth-rounder Kealoha Pilares.  The former Hawaii standout could contribute right away as a slot receiver, much like Sammie Stroughter did for the Buccaneers as a rookie in 2009.  Pilares had a minor knee injury to deal with at the end of his senior season, plus the perception that he was lacking in speed, but a strong performance in the 40-yard dash during his Pro Day put him back on the map.

**

New Orleans Saints

Rd.

2010

2011

1

CB Patrick Robinson, Florida State

DE Cameron Jordan, California

RB Mark Ingram, Alabama

2

T Charles Brown, USC

None

3

TE Jimmy Graham, Miami

LB Martez Wilson, Illinois

CB Johnny Patrick, Louisville

4

DT Al Woods, LSU

None

5

C Matt Tennant, Boston College

None

6

None

None

7

QB Sean Canfield, Oregon State

DE Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh

LB Nate Bussey, Illinois

The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 and brought back most of that championship cast, so it wasn't a surprise that there was little room for rookie contributions in 2010.  As the season progressed, however, the Saints did start to get significant production out of one of their six '10 draftees: Miami tight end Jimmy Graham.  Even with proven veterans Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas on hand, Graham emerged as the team's top pass-catching target at tight end by the end of the season.

Shockey still led the trio with 41 catches for 508 yards, but Graham had 27 catches for 305 yards and five touchdowns over the Saints last five games.

Robinson got four starts late in the season and pitched in with 28 tackles and two passes defensed but is still looking for his first NFL interception.  The Saints say he will compete for a more important role in the secondary in 2011.  Brown's chances of breaking into the starting lineup may depend on what the Saints are able to do with their own pending free agents.  He saw little action in 2010.  Woods ended up as a significant part of a DT rotation for a playoff-contending team as a rookie…but in Tampa, not New Orleans.  Tennant was a reserve and Canfield didn't make the roster.

The Saints tied for 18th in the NFL in sacks last year and their two 30-something starting ends, Will Smith and Alex Brown, combined for 7.5 of them.  Like the Buccaneers, the Saints were able to sit still at their spot in the second half of the first round and let a talented pass-rusher fall to them.  Tampa Bay took Iowa's Adrian Clayborn at #20 and the Saints picked up Cal's Cameron Jordan four picks later.  Obviously, NFC South fans will be watching those two for years to see which proves to be the more effective pass-rusher.  Regardless of how he ends up comparing to Clayborn, Jordan is likely to see quite a bit of playing time right away.

The Saints were almost as aggressive as Atlanta in the first round of the draft, following up the Jordan selection to trade back up to #28 and select Alabama's Mark Ingram, the first running back drafted.

Some analysts believe Ingram has a great shot at emerging as the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.  The 'Bama back certainly couldn't ask for a better offense to fall into – the Saints have been one of the league's most prolific teams since 2006 and Brees is renowned for using all of the weapons at his disposal.

New Orleans needs help in the backfield, too, and that will be doubly true if Reggie Bush is not retained due to the high salary he would be owed in 2011.  The Saints' offense "fell" from first in 2009 to seventh in 2010, but the passing attack was almost exactly as productive in both years.  It was on the ground where New Orleans dropped from seventh overall in 2009 to 30th in 2010.

Pierre Thomas could be a free agent and struggled with injuries in 2010.  The Saints got a lot out of undrafted rookie Christopher Ivory but there is clearly room in the attack for the type of every-down force that Ingram was at Alabama.

The Saints had no picks in the second, fourth, fifth or sixth rounds, in part due to the Ingram trade.  Still, they picked up two players in the third round who may also figure into their plans right away: linebacker Martez Wilson and cornerback Johnny Patrick.  Again, much of that will be determined by which players from their long list of pending free agents the Saints will be able to bring back this year.  Wilson, in particular, could be important if Scott Shanle departs.  The Saints may also want an upgrade at the other outside linebacker spot from last year's combination of Danny Clark and Jo-Lonn Dunbar.  Wilson is a potential high-impact player on the outside, as evidenced by his 112 tackles, four sacks and one interception at Illinois last year.

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