Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Potter

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Need: Coaching Improvement

For most of the last year, football questions in Atlanta have centered more on coaches than players -- Steve Sarkisian has endured a lot of criticism already as the replacement for Kyle Shanahan, who endured harsh criticism of his own following that Super Bowl collapse. The team now has a hard-earned reputation for lulling opponents into a false sense of anxiety; no Falcons lead is ever considered truly safe. The Falcons remain a talented, youthful team with Super Bowl potential, and replaced the biggest of their recent departures with their top three picks in the draft. The one remaining roster hole may be fullback, and perhaps backup quarterback, which speaks volumes about the breadth of talent on the roster. Depth is a potential issue at several spots, but injuries are inherently unpredictable. The Falcons certainly have the players; the question now is whether the coaching will live up to them.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Falcons added a massive 27 undrafted players to their roster. Of those, the most intriguing name may be safety Chris Lammons (South Carolina) -- a talented, versatile, but undersized defensive back who can be effective as a slot defender, free safety, outside cornerback, and special teamer. Fullbacks Daniel Marx (Stanford) and Luke McNitt (Nebraska) will go head-to-head for a roster spot unless both flame out, with the Falcons being one of the few teams who retain a dedicated fullback. Kurt Benkert (Virginia) has a chance to stick as a developmental quarterback, either on the practice squad or as a rostered third quarterback.


Carolina Panthers

Biggest Need: Guard

The Panthers addressed their biggest need with their first-round pick, snagging receiver D.J. Moore out of Maryland. They addressed another need with their next two, a pair of defensive backs for their perennially-improvised secondary. The one obvious area of concern they did not attack at all in the draft was the interior offensive line, particularly the guard spot vacated by Andrew Norwell at the beginning of the offseason. The Panthers do have several young players who will compete with former Vikings backup Jeremiah Sirles for the starting role -- but the depth chart contains no clear favorite, and thus no obvious solution. The team has already added three guards as undrafted free agents, but hoping for another UDFA to replicate Norwell's success is probably a touch optimistic.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: As mentioned above, the Panthers very quickly signed three undrafted guards: Brendan Mahon (Penn State), Kyle Bosch (West Virginia), and Taylor Hearn (Clemson). Hearn in particular was widely projected as a Day 3 pick, and is initially considered to have the best shot of the three at earning Norwell's old spot. It would be no surprise to see at least two of the three stick on either the active roster or the practice squad. Elsewhere, defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle (Ohio State) is a true nose tackle who improved his stock with a good senior year, while linebacker Chris Frey (Michigan State) has a chance to unseat either of the team's Day 3 draft picks at the roster's deepest defensive position.


New Orleans Saints

Biggest Need: Tight End

The Coby Fleener era in New Orleans finally officially ended between the submission of this article to ESPN and its publication here on FO. Fleener was a disappointment for the Saints, barely surpassing 900 receiving yards across his first two seasons combined, and has never been the caliber of player his $7 million annual contract would demand. Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui are solid enough role players, but the Saints offense would benefit immensely from a true receiving tight end like ... well, like the recently returned Benjamin Watson, but 10 years younger. Enough other pieces are in place to make do with the existing depth chart, but the offense would certainly be enhanced by a reliable receiving tight end.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Tight end Deon Yelder (Western Kentucky) has a chance to become that reliable receiving option, but he is considered a developmental prospect with only one noteworthy season of college production. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was a college teammate of standout Saints receiver Michael Thomas, but his arm strength is severely deficient and he is an extreme long shot to become anything more than a practice squad player or emergency backup. Linebacker Colton Jumper (Tennessee) has a chance to make the 53-man roster at what remains the weakest position on the defense. Most of the team's other signings were aimed at rebuilding lost depth on both the offensive and defensive lines.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Need: Safety

The problems in the Buccaneers secondary last season were so deep and widespread that it would be grossly optimistic to expect them to be solved with a single draft, absent a game-changing talent at cornerback. The Buccaneers spread several Day 2 and Day 3 picks across both cornerback and safety, hoping that enough slightly upgraded parts will combine to make a substantially better whole. Safety is still the weakest of those positions: Keith Tandy and Chris Conte will probably open the season as the second and third safeties on the team, with draftee Jordan Whitehead easing into the rotation unless he excels quickly. Last season's safety draftee, Justin Evans, was in the starting lineup by Week 5 and started 11 straight games; the weaknesses of the veteran incumbents give Whitehead every opportunity to follow in those footsteps.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: If the Buccaneers were to finally move on from Conte and/or Tandy this season, strong safety Godwin Igwebuike (Northwestern) would likely be a big part of the reason why. A powerful downhill run-stuffer with the ability to operate effectively in man coverage, Ogwebuike is widely considered one of the steals of this year's undrafted class. He has a real chance to not only make the roster but earn significant playing time on defense. The rest of the class has very little promise: the team signed three tight ends and three defensive linemen, but those are the two deepest positions on the roster. Quarterback Austin Allen (Arkansas) is unlikely to last much beyond training camp; neither is kicker Trevor Moore (North Texas). Receiver Sergio Bailey (Eastern Michigan) and halfback Shaun Wilson (Duke) may compete for kick return duties, but they will need to supplement that with value elsewhere to earn a spot on the final roster.

Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.


4 comments, Last at 17 May 2018, 5:16pm

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Ninja I totally agree. The Australian movie Strictly Ballroom had a female dancer called Tina Sparkle.
If he makes a the team imagine the sledging at the LOS pre snap?
Maybe there is a need for an annual FO best named player roster?

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

No Aguayo mention, even with the UDFA kicker mention in the article. Our long national nightmare is over; every reference to the Bucs no longer mentions drafting a kicker!


Vita Vea has to be really, really good at NT to overcome the whole "not drafting Derwin James" thing, which was as obvious a marriage of need and value as I've ever seen. Chris Conte . . . I just don't know how he sticks around. Brent Grimes is 900 years old at one CB slot, Vernon Hargreaves III was torched he was reduced to ash by week 12, and the safeties are still awful. The defensive line got some intriguing upgrades, but I doubt any pass rush can overcome how bad that secondary was last year.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why they would pass on Derwin James there. I really, really hope I'm wrong. I do think Conte gets a bit of a bad rap, though. He's obviously not a star, but I also don't think he's the liability some make him out to be. Watching the Bucs pass rush was so goddamn painful - no one could have covered for that. There's also the outside chance that Tandy recaptures some of that late 2016 magic... right? right??

That said, I would love to see the Bucs dip into this depressed safety market. Eric Reid would be perfect. Let him play SS while Justin Evans roams. Vaccarro (sp?) and Boston would still be improvements. There is too much talent available to go into the season with the current depth chart. Even if Whitehead and/or the Northwestern kid whose name I'm not even going to try to spell are steals, there's no reason to take the chance.