NFC South Early Draft Grades for 2016

With this year's Annual Selection Meeting AKA the "NFL Draft" in layspeak well behind us, I thought I'd take a snapshot-look at how the four teams of the NFC South have drafted for talent and value...with grades for each squad. & salary cap info. Let's dive right in!

All of the draft facts are provided by NFL.com. The opinions are mine. 

 

Atlanta Falcons Draft for Balance

Rd 1 (17) Keanu Neal SS  6'0" 211 Florida GRADE: 5.8

Rd 2 (52) Deion Jones OLB 6'1" 222 LSU GRADE: 5.7

Rd 3 (81) Austin Hooper TE 6'4" 254 Stanford GRADE: 5.7

Rd 4 (115) De'Vondre Campbell OLB 6'4" 232 Minnesota GRADE: 5.2

Rd 6 (195) Wes Schweitzer OG 6'5" 314 San Jose St. GRADE: 4.8

Rd 7 (238) Devin Fuller WR 6'0" 194 UCLA GRADE: 4.9

AVERAGE DRAFT GRADE: 5.35

Salary Cap Space as of now: $4,000,000

Dead Money: $18 million. DT Paul Soliai is 3rd on their current salary list at $6.8 million for 2016.

KEY FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: 

Alex Mack, C; Derrick Shelby, DE

The Falcons went defense with their top two picks and three of their top four, adding a guard and a WR late. I think if they're trying to replace Roddy White's production, Fuller isn't the answer in round 7. However, he IS a return man...not a bad pick for the back-end of the draft.

Julio Jones, already a game-plan target for enemy defensive coordinators, will continue to garner the most attention on passing downs and it doesn't look like anyone is ready to fill White's shoes just yet.

The two OLBs they got should really help improve team speed on the second level as many NFL teams are going lighter on defense, especially at OLB, due to the overall league-wide emphasis on the passing game.

Draft Value: B

Draft Talent: B

Overall Draft Grade: B+

Why: The Dirty Birds got a little of most of what they need, and that's a good thing considering their salary cap situation. I think the idea is Dan Quinn wants to improve the defense (correctly) while spreading the talent around many different areas of need. Meanwhile, if they can manage the cap, they should be able to begin retaining their better draftees starting with this draft class.

 

Carolina Panthers Draft for both Leverage and Need

Rd 1 (30) Vernon Butler DT 6'4" 323 La. Tech GRADE: 6.1

Rd 2 (62) James Bradberry CB 6'1" 211 Stanford GRADE: 5.3

Rd 3 (77) Daryl Worley CB 6'1" 204 W. Virginia GRADE: 5.3

Rd 5 (141) Zach Sanchez CB 5'11 185 Oklahoma GRADE: 5.5

Rd 7 (252) Beau Sandland TE 6'4" 253 Montana St. GRADE: 5.3

AVERAGE DRAFT GRADE: 5.50

Salary Cap room as of now: $30,000,000

Dead Money: $8 million. Re-working Charles Johnson's contract put half that figure in the "dead money" category; yet, he's still with the team.

KEY FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: Brandon Boykin, CB (since released); DT Paul Soliai

The headlines entering the draft this year were the need for players on the outside of the line on either side and defensive backs, especially after the departure of All-Pro CB Josh Norman. Well, GM Dave Gettleman certainly took care of the latter with three corners bracketed on the edges by a DT in the NFL's deepest DT draft class perhaps in history and a TE-on-the-cheap in Beau Sandland. 

With WR Kelvin Benjamin returning, rising 2nd-year pro Devin Funchess improving, and Ted Ginn, Jr.'s career resurgence in Carolina, the Panthers are set at the WR spot. Little depth is behind Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen & Ed Hickson, so Sandland should compete for that TE2 spot...next year. Butler's pick was insurance against Star Lotulelei's nagging foot injury, and the corners were needed whether or not Norman remained in NC. True to form, the corners are big ones that fit the scheme quite well.

Now that we have a few years' worth of drafts to consider, Gettleman approaches things with his own "secret sauce" formula, apparently. It has become widely known that he and Ron Rivera value the front seven more than the back four on defense, so drafting three corners shows not just need but perhaps even a bit of desperation if not for the surprising release of highly-rated nickelback Brandon Boykin. Gettleman decided to load-up on DBs in this draft while Butler's drafting at the bottom of the first round was a great value pick, not to mention potentially helping keep Kawann Short's contract demands from getting completely out of sight since Gettleman also re-signed DT Kyle Love. It may not help much in the short-term, but should pay dividends in the big picture, which Gettleman always is keeping in mind.

Draft Value: C

Draft Talent: B

Overall Draft Grade: B+

Why: Butler & Sanchez are both great values at their respective draft positions, but the Panthers traded up to get their rookie CB2; therefore it's hard to say they got great value because they gave up picks to get him. Nothing's free. However, Butler would start on about 28 teams in the NFL, Gettleman stocked up a depleted secondary, and the team should be even better after losing Norman when you consider the incoming draft talent and the fact that WR Benjamin returns to the offense...Cam's top wideout.

New Orleans Saints Draft for Salary Cap Hell...or do They?

Rd 1 (12) Sheldon Rankins DT 6'1" 299 Louisville GRADE: 6.2

Rd 2 (47) Michael Thomas WR 6'3" 212 OSU GRADE: 5.8

Rd 2 (61) Vonn Bell FS 5'11" 199 OSU GRADE: 5.6

Rd 4 (120) David Onyemata DT 6'4" 300 Manitoba (Canada) GRADE: 5.4

Rd 7 (232) Daniel Lasco RB 6'0" 209 California GRADE: 5.1

AVERAGE DRAFT GRADE: 5.62

Salary Cap Room as of Now: $200,000

Dead Money: $25 million. Junior Galette alone is costing the team $12 million in dead cap space. With Brees' situation, this team is in the worst cap situation of any other division rival by parsecs.

KEY FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: Coby Fleener, TE; James Laurinitis, ILB; Craig Robertson, ILB; Nick Fairley, DT

This team is scrambling to find money for aging QB Drew Brees. The market suggests he's worth about $25 million per season since Joe Flacco is the NFL's highest-paid player at just over $22 million per season. The Saints have really boxed themselves into a corner with Brees, having no real options of tagging him with either the transition or franchise labels due to past use of them with Brees. It's widely viewed that Brees has "more leverage than anyone in history," and he's not letting the Saints off cheaply. His cap number as it stands now? 

$30 million.

It'll be years before the Saints will have a stable roster as they're in at least as bad a spot as the Carolina Panthers were when Marty Hurney departed to make room for the much more frugal Dave Gettleman.

All that said, the Saints went top-heavy with three picks in the top two rounds.Last year's trading of TE Jimmy Graham to Seattle was a major symptom of the larger problem. They also need more bodies than just a handful from the draft.

Draft Value: D

Draft Talent: C+

Overall Draft Grade: F

Why: While the Saints got several nice players at the top of the draft, they should be thinking in the much longer term & draft bodies. If any trading was to be done, they should have traded back for more choices rather than forward for fewer. Then again, they may well know they'll have a revolving door for the foreseeable future with their roster because of such poor cap management and are maximizing their impact with a few guys rather than improving the overall roster with talent and depth. Looks like a boom-or-bust draft class, leaning toward the "bust" side not because of the kids they got but because of so few rookies taken on a team that needs a massive influx of cheap young talent. Although they have the NFC South's highest average grade, they drafted like a top team with plenty of cap space and few holes to fill -- exactly the opposite of the way they should be drafting.

 

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Tampa Bay Bucs Really Step in It

Rd 1 (11) Vernon Hargreaves CB 5'10 204 Florida GRADE: 6.6

Rd 2 (39) Noah Spence DE 6'2" 251 Eastern Kentucky GRADE: 5.9

Rd 2 (59) Roberto Aguayo K 6'0" 207 FSU GRADE: 5.5

Rd 4 (108) Ryan Smith CB 5'11" 189 NC Central GRADE: 5.3

Rd 5 (148) Caleb Benenoch OT 6'5" 305 UCLA GRADE: 5.3

Rd 6 (183) Devante Bond OLB 6'1" 235 Oklahoma GRADE: 5.1

Rd 6 (197) Dan Vitale FB 6'1" 239 Northwestern GRADE: 5.0

AVERAGE DRAFT GRADE: 5.53

Salary Cap Room as of Now: $12,000,000

Dead Money: $400,000

KEY FREE AGENT SIGNINGS: J.R. Sweezy, OG; Robert Ayers, DE; Brent Grimes, CB

Tampa Bay really needed to improve the defensive side of the ball and did a fairly decent job of doing just that when you consider what they did in both free agency and the draft. Only one question remains...well, two:

A KICKER in the SECOND ROUND? AND they traded UP to get him!?!???

I just shook my head at that one. Aguayo is apparently one of the top-rated kickers to emerge from the collegiate ranks in a while, but his long-range accuracy was horrid. He only connected on 50% of his field goal attempts outside of 40 yards. The NFL average is 75%. 

That is quite a gamble to take in the second round when you have a promising young QB that could use help and/or a defense that is in desperate need of help. If not for that, they'd have had quite a nice overall draft in terms of both need and value but the noodle-footed kicker ruined it.

Draft Value: C-

Draft Talent: B+

Overall Draft Grade: B- 

Why: It's all about the trade up for the underachieving kicker.  Sure; he might be deadly inside the 40 yard line, but it's those 40-55 yarders that are a kicker's money kicks. The last kicker I recall being drafted this high is Sebastian Janikowski, a first-rounder by the Raiders way back in the 20th Century, but he was known for a thunderous leg (and still is), and is still with the same team after 17 seasons...THAT is VALUE regardless of position! The Bucs did get some good talent overall with their other picks, but could have really knocked it out of the park had they waited on a kicker and not traded away bodies for a kicker that has little range. Scott Norwood, anybody? Oh - the first-round punter, since we're on the subject?

The Raiders again...some Guy named Ray who made the term "hang time" an NFL household phrase.

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