- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15 and we are two months away from the start of free agency, but it's never too early to start examining teams' potential needs and possible fits for the 2014 draft. Adjustments can always be made along the way.
Here's an early look at the NFC South, where the silver lining for Atlanta fans coming off a disappointing season is the Falcons pick No. 6 overall. It will also be interesting to see what Tampa Bay does with the No. 7 overall pick. New coach Lovie Smith reportedly has the final say over all personnel matters, and the Buccaneers have yet to name a new general manager.
One thing is clear for both teams. It's important that they not only fill their needs but also find value because Carolina and New Orleans have proved to be two of the best teams in the league. Per usual, all draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.
Draft position: No. 6 overall
Needs: Defensive end, offensive line, tight end
Atlanta finished 25th in the league in sacks per passing attempt. Getting Kroy Biermann back from an Achilles injury should help, but he drops into coverage too. The Falcons need a traditional edge rusher, and 32-year-old Osi Umenyiora isn't the long-term solution.
The Falcons finished last in rushing yards per game (77.9), and though running back is worth addressing, the offensive line is the bigger concern. Let's start on the inside. The Falcons fired both offensive line coaches, and the change could help 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz, who struggled at guard and center. There still needs to be a contingency plan plus center Joe Hawley is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
A third-round pick in 2012, Lamar Holmes should get another shot at one offensive tackle spot despite a rocky season as a first-year starter. Sam Baker could start at the other spot, but he missed 12 games with a knee injury and has battled injuries throughout his career. Aging veterans Jeremy Trueblood and Sean Locklear will be unrestricted free agents who are ideally replaced. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is expected to retire, and backup Chase Coffman is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
Also keep an eye on defensive tackle. Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry aren't under contract for next year. It wouldn't be a surprise if they re-signed Babineaux and Peters, but the Falcons finished second to last in rushing yards allowed per game so they could target a defensive tackle early if the value is right.
Draft position: No. 29 overall (final position TBD by playoffs)
Needs: Wide receiver, offensive tackle, secondary
Wide receiver Steve Smith remains effective, but his production has been on a downward trend the past two seasons and he turns 35 in May. Inconsistent Brandon LaFell isn't the heir apparent, so the Panthers need a playmaker to open up the passing attack for quarterback Cam Newton and bring more balance to this offense.
Left offensive tackle Jordan Gross turns 34 in July and isn't under contract for next year. Right offensive tackle Byron Bell, a rookie free-agent signing in 2011, has 41 career starts but is better at run blocking than he is at pass blocking and the Panthers need to protect Newton better.
Carolina's impressive pass rush masks weaknesses in the secondary, and the opportunity for turnover is there. Corners Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence are scheduled to hit the free-agent market. Safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell aren't under contract for next year either.
Defensive end didn't crack the top three, but the Panthers could be in the market for an end early on. Addressing the secondary will become an even greater need if they are unable to re-sign Greg Hardy, who leads the team with 15 sacks.
Draft position: No. 27 overall (final position TBD by playoffs)
Needs: Offensive tackle, outside linebacker, safety
Left offensive tackle Charles Brown lost his starting job to 2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead late in the season and will be an unrestricted free agent. Right offensive tackle Zach Strief, who is 30 years old, hasn't appeared in all 16 games of a season since 2009 and is scheduled to hit the free-agent market.
Outside linebacker Junior Galette is coming off a breakout season. The Saints also signed Victor Butler during the 2013 offseason and acquired Parys Haralson in a trade with San Francisco. But Butler tore an ACL in June, and Haralson will be an unrestricted free agent with durability concerns. Will Smith, at 32 years old, also missed the 2013 season with an ACL injury and is not a great fit for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme.
Ryan called 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro the best safety in the league before Vaccaro fractured an ankle late in the season. As bright as the future appears for Vaccaro, the Saints still need help at safety. A first-round pick in 2009, free safety Malcolm Jenkins has yet to play in all 16 games of a season and is scheduled to become a free agent. Roman Harper is 31 years old and missed seven games this season.
Draft position: No. 7 overall
Needs: Defensive end, offensive line, strongside linebacker
The Buccaneers ranked 22nd in sacks per attempt, and their defensive ends accounted for just 10 of their 35 sacks. Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier aren't expected to run Tampa 2 exclusively. It would be a surprise if they didn't frequently mix it in considering their backgrounds, though, and it's a scheme that requires the front four to apply pressure to be effective. It will be interesting to see if they take UCLA's Anthony Barr if he's there at No. 7. Even though he may be a better fit at outside linebacker in a 3-4-heavy scheme, Barr is an explosive edge rusher who could bulk up and play defensive end in a four-man front.
Left guard Carl Nicks sustained a season-ending left foot injury in 2012 and missed all but two games with a staph infection this season. His high cap number and uncertain future could make him a cap-casualty candidate. The Buccaneers should also be in the market for an offensive tackle who can push Demar Dotson on the right side.
A second-round pick in 2012, weakside linebacker Lavonte David is a difference-maker with the skills to shine in the new scheme, and 2011 third-round middle linebacker pick Mason Foster is steady. If the Buccaneers can upgrade their free-agent-laden strongside linebacker spot through the draft, they will have a young and talented linebacker corps.
Finally, it will be interesting to see if the new regime drafts a quarterback to push 2013 third-round pick Mike Glennon or gives him a year to show what he can do.
449dTodd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl