2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - NFC South
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the NFC South division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft later this evening!
Picks: 4, 35, 68, 108, 148, 182, 183, 187, 219
Set: Linebacker, wide receiver
In this series we attempt to tell you what position teams are least likely to draft (or where they are “set”), where they need to use early picks on impact players (immediate), and what places they might have expiring contracts, aging, or underperforming plays (depth). The Atlanta Falcons are one of the most interesting teams in the league as they essentially hold the keys to the car with the fourth pick and have a number of options.
But first, the positions they are least likely to draft. The Falcons aren’t really “set” anywhere but they have some promising pieces in the middle with Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun . They realistically run enough nickel that you could call their base a 4-2-5 rather than a 4-3 but they also have Brandon Copeland for depth just for good measure. I just don’t see them spending a top 100 pick on linebacker with their other needs.
Wide receiver is another tricky one because it kind of depends which direction they go with their draft and, therefore, their future. On paper for starters, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley at split end/flanker with Russell Gage in the slot is one of the better receiving corps in the league. And Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake have filled in admirably when needed. There are rumors about a Julio Jones trade but, as of now, they really only need some depth if they are planning to keep the roster as is and compete this season.
Immediate: Pass rush, offensive line, tight end*
The Falcons do have some solid pieces along the defensive front like Dante Fowler and Grady Jarrett . But a high end pass rusher takes pressure off the entire defense so you solve some of your secondary issues in the process by leaning into pass rush. The Falcons are a popular choice to trade back with a QB needy team and push draft assets to future years when they’ve moved on from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones so a trade back and then taking a defensive end is an interesting move.
If they keep the pick they could immediately improve the entire O-line by taking Peneii Sewell and moving everyone over a spot. The two most conservative options are doing that or trading back. By trading back they could still get a tackle or potentially a center to replace Alex Mack (who went to join former coach Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco). Or maybe even both; the price to move up to four would be steep.
Tight end has an asterisk here because they already have a pretty solid tight end. There weren’t necessarily enough targets to go around last season for him to be a “star” but Hayden Hurst handled the full-time job well in his first year with the team with a limited offseason. They also brought in blocking tight end Lee Smith from Buffalo and Have Jaden Graham as an all purpose backup. That said, Kyle Pitts is a generational talent at the position. In fact, he can pretty much play any of the positions from tight end to slot to split end to flanker. And sometimes, when a guy is seemingly that much better than his peers, you just take the best guy when you have the chance. So you have to mention Pitts in any discussion about the fourth pick. Just like you technically need to mention quarterback but we’ll discuss that in the next section.
Depth: Quarterback, running back
Matt Ryan is 35 and Matt Schaub is even older as he’ll be 40 when the season starts. Whether they take a QB early who may need time to develop like Trey Lance or whether they wait a bit and take a lower end asset in later rounds, they need to start thinking about what the future will be at the position. Not everyone can play at a high level until they are 40 like Tom Brady or Drew Brees . We have it under “depth” because, unless he’s traded, Matt Ryan would likely be the starter this year anyway and he certainly may have a few good years left. But there is no question quarterback is on the table.
Even if you think Mike Davis is the answer as an every down back they have seemingly moved on from Todd Gurley and they also released Ito Smith . That leaves them only with Davis, Qadree Ollison, and Tony Brooks-James on the roster. So they need depth here, even if it’s just some later guys to fill out the room as three running backs simply is not enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used a high end pick if they are really going for it this year but “high end pick” for running back usually means second or third. I mean, Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift are two of the better RB prospects we’ve seen in recent years and they went in the second round last year.
Picks: 8, 39, 73, 113, 151, 193, 222
Set: Defensive end, linebacker
This team has invested heavily at defensive end drafting Brian Burns in the first round of 2019 and Yetur Gross-Matos in the second round of 2020. With the fifth year option on Burns, that keeps them both around through 2023 at least. With linebacker, it may feel a little thin when you think about a typical 4-3. But we’re going to get into some stats on the prevalence of nickel and dime packages in the modern NFL in the next section. The short and sweet is that, even when your base defense is technically a 4-3, you are often running more of a 4-2-5 and you only need two full time linebackers. So you aren’t taking a linebacker at eight and probably not at 39 either.
Immediate: Tight end, offensive tackle, cornerback, defensive tackle
Last year Ian Thomas was 9th in the league for tight ends in routes run and 47th in receptions. That isn’t going to cut it. They brought in Dan Arnold , though Arnold is a journeyman himself who had only 37 receptions in 19 games on a Cardinals team that had no other pass catching tight end. He might not make it that far but, if Kyle Pitts is there are 8, he’s a generational talent that you almost can’t pass on. Even if he’s not there, they lost top notch blocking tight end Chris Manhertz so maybe in the later rounds they go for a blocking tight end.
Offensive tackle and cornerback have been the money positions in recent drafts. And it makes a lot of sense. On offense, many of the guards in the league are simply tackles that either didn’t pan out or got moved inside by a better asset. So tackle is a fairly safe pick as you shoot for the moon and, if they aren’t amazing, they usually land amongst the guards. On defense, more teams than ever are using nickel as their base (62% of snaps last season). In fact, more teams actually lined up in dime (19%) than base (16%) last year. So having three starting cornerbacks is becoming the norm and using four is more prevalent than just two. If the Panther’s don’t trade out of eight, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just take the best lineman or quarterback. Surprisingly enough, offensive line and secondary have the longest average careers - even slightly longer than quarterback (though there is an asterisk that starting quarterbacks have quite a bit of longevity).
You probably don’t use the eighth pick on it unless you really like Christian Barmore out of Alabama but the Panthers are thin on the defensive interior. If they were to select him it would be most likely after trading back. They have allocated 10% of the cap to the defensive line which is good for 30th in the league. What makes that even more glaring is that they run a 4-3 which requires more players up front than most teams yet they are behind a number of 3-4 teams in spending. Better pressure from the interior will help free up Burns and Gross-Matos on the outside as well.
Potential early round picks: Kyle Pitts (Florida), Peneii Sewel (Oregon), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Christian Barmore (Alabama), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Alim McNeil (NC State), Eric Stokes (Georgia), Milton Williams (Louisiana Tech)
Depth: Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety
I put quarterback under “depth” here because they just traded for Sam Darnold and my first instinct is that they want to see what they have. Would feel wasteful to spend a future second and third only to draft a high end quarterback immediately. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t take a quarterback at eight if one they really like falls to them or they don’t take a quarterback later in the draft if one is there as well. But, after bringing Darnold in and trading Bridgewater, I think the chances are pretty good that the season starts with Darnold under center so, even if they do draft a guy like Trey Lance, he likely has some work to do to become NFL ready given his limited college experience.
Christian McCaffrey might be the very best RB in the league and he’s locked up through 2026. So they aren’t likely to use high end draft capital here. But they did lose their backup RB Mike Davis in free agency and all four of the other RBs on the roster are free agents after this year. Rather than overpay to retain the guys they have, it might just make sense to draft someone in the later rounds to be a serviceable understudy. Wide receiver is in a similar boat. They have their guys for two wide sets in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson . They lost Curtis Samuel but the reality is that Samuel played 71 snaps in the backfield and, had CMC not gone down, Samuel likely wouldn’t have been featured as much as he was. So I could see them bringing in someone to compete with David Moore for the slot but not necessarily with a first or second round pick. Especially if they go Pitts at eight.
New Orlean Saints
Picks: 28, 60, 98, 105, 133, 218, 229, 255
Set: Running back, tight end, offensive line
Alvin Kamara is still 25 years old, he’s one of the best backs in the league, and they extended him through 2025. His counterpart on the ground, Latavius Murray , is also signed for this year and next. Behind Kamara in a pass catching role they have former wide receiver Ty Montgomery and behind Murray as an extra run down specialist they have Dwayne Washington . A high end pick at running back would certainly come as a shock.
As far as tight end, Jared Cook and Josh Hill departed in free agency but Jared Cook is also 34 and Josh Hill wasn’t much more than an extra tackle in jumbo sets. They just drafted a tight end in the third round last year with Adam Trautman which is fairly high draft capital for the position. They have Nick Vannett as a sturdy blocking tight as well as Garrett Griffin and Ethan Wolf on the roster. Maybe they draft another blocking tight end late to fill out the depth chart but nothing that’s going to really move the needle.
The Saints actually have a pretty rock solid offensive line with Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat holding down the left side and first round picks Ryan Ramcyk and Cesar Ruiz holding down the right. Center Erik McCoy is under contract for two more years and they even have one of the better backups in swing tackle James Hurst who played full games at both tackle and guard last season and graded out fairly well per PFF. Like any team, you really can’t be surprised or upset by an O-line pick but it’s not high on the pecking order.
Immediate: Cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver.
This is one of the more obvious ones. In the current age where 80%+ of the snaps in the league are nickel or dime packages, the Saints currently have only six cornerbacks on the roster. And five of them have contracts that expire this season. Marshon Lattimore is a star and they should do whatever it takes to retain him. C.J. Gardner-Johnson was technically drafted as a safety but is included on this list as he was the starting slot corner for the team. And last year’s corner that started opposite Marshon Lattimore on the outside, Janoris Jenkins , was released and signed with the Titans. Outside of the top 10 picks, if I had to hang my hat on one team drafting one position in the first two rounds, it would be the New Orleans Saints drafting a cornerback.
The Saints have stud linebacker Demario Davis in the middle but he’s also 32 years old. They bring back Zack Braun on the strong side but, on the weak side, Kwon Alexander tore his achilles tendon and is currently a free agent so it’s yet to be seen how he bounces back and if he will re-sign with the team. In the meantime, the Saints have a hole in their 4-3 defense that they may need to address in the draft. Some teams could just draft another corner or safety and play more nickel/dime but, as we mentioned, they don’t even have the bare minimum at corner, let alone enough to roll out a bunch of dime.
Michael Thomas is obviously All-World and signed to a long term deal. But beyond that they haven’t really found an answer. Perhaps it’s because running back Alvin Kamara consistently soaks up passes but the Saints have not had a second wide receiver top 85 targets since all three of Michael Thomas , Brandin Cooks , and Willie Snead topped 100 back in 2016. Tre’Quan Smith makes exciting plays at times but hasn’t really been consistent and the next best prospect has been undrafted free agent Marquez Callaway. The closest they’ve had to a second wideout is Emmanuel Sanders and he just signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Potential early round picks: Greg Newsom II (Northwestern), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU), Nick Bolton (Missouri), Zaven Collins (Tulsa), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky), Jamin Davis (Kentucky), Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), Chazz Surratt (UNC)
Depth: Quarterback, safety, defensive line
They have an ongoing battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill - one that currently has just about everyone confused. For Jameis Winston , it’s a bit of a “fool me once” situation because he just signed on last year then didn’t get the nod when Drew Brees got hurt so, if he signs with them again and once again doesn’t get the job, there will be no one to blame but himself (especially since he fired his last agent). The 29 year old Trevor Siemian is there but most likely to run the scout team. All three quarterbacks are essentially on one year deals so it’s not crazy to think the Saints might bring in a rookie later to see if they can hit on something with a little more upside.
They have their starters at safety in J.T. Gray and Malcolm Jenkins but Jenkins is also 33 years old. As we mentioned, Gardner-Johnson is potentially waiting in the wings but he’s currently occupied as the full time nickel corner. The Saints need to beef up the secondary so don’t be surprised if they take a corner then also take another safety/corner/linebacker hybrid that can be groomed to be a starter on the backend at some point. The same philosophy goes for defensive line. You’ve got what you need for now but Cameron Jordan isn’t getting any younger. Six contracts on the defensive line expire after this season and they like to rotate there with no player playing more than 80% of the snaps last season so you can always mix and match pieces.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Picks: 32, 64, 95, 137, 176, 217, 251, 259
Set: Offensive tackle, safety, inside linebacker
This is the first time in the salary cap era that a Super Bowl winner has brought back all 22 starters. So they are experiencing an unprecedented level of “setness”. But some positions are just stronger than others.
For instance, DonoVan Smith and Tristan Whirfs as your starting tackles at the prime ages of 27 and 22 are about as good as you are going to get. Whirfs is under contract through 2024 on a rookie deal and Smith is locked in for this year, 2022, and 2023 so you don’t need to think a whole lot about it beyond potentially employing a decent swing tackle in case of injury.
At safety you have second round pick Antoine Winfield Jr. with three more years on his deal, you have Jordan Whitehead at starting strong safety, and you have third round pick Mike Edwards who can essentially play either position. Not a spot where I’d go crazy drafting someone. At inside linebacker, Devin White and Lavonte David are two of the best in the business and are both under contract for at least two more years. But Lavonte David is 31 so maybe they make plans for the future. The proliferation of nickel and dime packages in recent years has taken some of the burden off the position as fewer and fewer teams are using fullbacks so you can technically rotate linebackers in a 3-4 front easier nowadays. 3-3-5 is a fairly common set.
Immediate: Defensive line/pass rush, interior offensive line
As we mentioned, the Bucs don’t need a whole lot. I mean, this exact team won the big game. But a lot of it is glued back together by one year contracts. For instance, Ndamukong Suh , Steve McClendon, Rakeem Nunez-Roches , Will Gholston, and Jason Pierre-Paul were all either signed to one year extensions or are on the last year of their deal. JPP is 32, Suh is 34, and McClendon is 35. So this is a spot where you know that a combination of contract or age are going to cause you to lose guys in the immediate future. The Buccaneers are a team that obviously has the luxury of going best player available so we’ll have to see how the draft shakes out in front of them. They could also be candidates to trade back and push assets to future drafts as well.
Again, there aren’t really many holes here. And Ali Marpet is a stud guard who is under contract for two more years. But, of the starting offensive linemen, center Ryan Jensen and guard Alex Cappa graded out the worst per Pro Football Focus. And both are on the last year of their contracts. In fact, they have six total centers and guards under contract currently and four of those contracts expire this year. So interior O-line could be an interesting place to look in the early round.
Potential early round picks: Jalen Phillips (Miami), Gregory Rousseau (Miami), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Quinn Meinerz (Wiconsin-Whitewater), Alim McNeil (NC State), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Kendrick Green (Illinois)
Depth: Wide receiver, tight end, running back quarterback
On paper they might have the best starting wide receivers in the league. Mike Evans at split end, Antonio Brown at flanker, and Chris Godwin at slot. But Antonio Brown will be 33 years old when the season starts and is on a one year deal. And Chris Godwin was brought back via the NFL’s version of a bandaid in the franchise tag. They have serviceable backups in Scott Miller, Justin Watson , and Tyler Johnson but none of them were acquired for more than a 5th round pick. This is actually a sneaky spot for the team to potentially use high end draft capital. Beyond age, the other question surrounding this team is future cap issues and they have the highest percentage of the cap of any team allocated to the position at a whopping 23.13%. A rookie contract on a starter would go a long way to alleviate that.
Rob Gronkowski ’s situation is no secret. He’s on the other side of 30 and he’s already retired once. Cameron Brate will be 30 when the season starts and he’s the only tight end on the team under contract beyond this season. OJ Howard is back on his fifth year options but he is coming off an achilles tear and his willingness to sign long term may be affected by the “demotion” he received when Rob Gronkowski arrived. This team also quietly lost it’s jumbo set tight end and/blocking specialist Anthony Auclair. So they could be in a position to simply draft the tight end of the future rather than pay to bring back Howard.
Running back is an interesting one because they have everything you need to compete right now. More than you need in fact with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones capable runners, Giovanni Bernard as a seasoned pass game vet, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn coming up behind him learning that role after being drafted in the third round last year. But all of them except for Vaughn are unrestricted free agents after this season so maybe they do take some depth and plan for the future.
And we don’t really even want to go there at quarterback. Because anytime anyone says Tom Brady is close to being done, he emphatically proves them wrong. But perhaps they should start thinking about a quarterback for the year 2027 when Brady turns 50 and potentially hangs them up.