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First round projections for the NFC South

A look at what could transpire Thursday among the four squads from one of the league’s toughest divisions. Max Luckan

Print This May 05, 2014, 03:38 PM EST
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With the 2014 NFL Draft finally just a few days away, teams are still using the extra time that we have this year to watch additional tape, make phone calls and spend time evaluating which players they should draft, particularly in the first round. Meanwhile, the fans and everyone else around the game are anxiously waiting for May 8, the first day of the draft.

There have been probably twice as many mock drafts this season as there were last year due to the additional wait, but perhaps the extra time has allowed us to more closely evaluate this year’s prospects. With that in mind, here are some predictions for the first round in the NFC South, with each team’s free agency signings and team needs in mind.

Carolina Panthers – 2013 Record: 12-4

It’s only fair to start with the team that dominated the NFC South last year. After beginning the season with a lowly 1-3 record, the Carolina Panthers won 11 of their 12 games and were able to finish at the top of the division. But the Panthers lost their divisional round matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, which ended their season.

Steve SmithUS PRESSWIREWith Steve Smith now in Baltimore, the Panthers need to find a new No. 1 wide receiver.

Behind linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy, the Panthers defense was very impressive last season and finished in the top five in total yards allowed per game. However, they also lost key players, including safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in free agency. The team attempted to counter those losses by singing safety Roman Harper away from the New Orleans Saints and they also added cornerback Antoine Cason in an attempt to replace Munnerlyn.

The key losses came on the offensive side of the ball, however, including the departure of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith. The team’s offense was not very impressive through the air last season and while the signing of veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery may help a bit, the Panthers desperately need to find some weapons for Cam Newton in this year’s draft.

Key Needs: WR, DB, OT

Projected First Round Selection: Carolina holds the 28th overall pick in the draft and with the top receivers such as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans out of Texas A&M, and Marqise Lee out of USC unlikely to be available, the Panthers should draft wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State. Wide receiver is the top priority for the Panthers and Benjamin has enough raw talent to be molded into the new number one receiver in Carolina.

New Orleans Saints – 2013 Record: 11-5

After a disappointing but perhaps expected 7-9 record in the previous season, the New Orleans Saints were able to bounce back and make the playoffs under the guidance of head coach Sean Payton, who returned from a year-long suspension.

This offseason the team’s roster underwent many changes, but the Saints did a decent job in filling many of the voids left by those changes through free agency. The biggest signing of the offseason came when New Orleans acquired former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd on a six-year deal. Byrd will play alongside impressive young safety Kenny Vaccaro, giving New Orleans one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Furthermore, they went out and signed veteran cornerback Champ Bailey after cornerback Jabari Greer was released, but they could still add more depth at the position through the draft.

In a surprising move, the Saints traded away electric running back Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fifth-round pick, so they definitely will need to acquire a running back that can catch the ball out of the backfield in the draft. But it seems the most pressing need for the Saints at the moment is defensive line depth, as they could really use a big body in the middle or an edge pass rusher.

Key Needs: DL, RB, CB

Projected First Round Selection: New Orleans picks right before Carolina at number 27 overall and while the need for a running back is high, it is hard to find a running back in this year’s draft class that is worth taking in the first round. Therefore, it would be wise of the Saints to draft defensive end Dee Ford out of Auburn here, as Ford’s versatility and explosiveness could really be useful for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Atlanta Falcons – 2013 Record: 4-12

The Atlanta Falcons disappointed many with their poor showing last season, which came as a total surprise. Quarterback Matt Ryan struggled at times and the prominent home field advantage that the Falcons normally enjoyed suddenly disappeared.

Jake MatthewsTexas A&M's Jake Matthews makes a lot of sense for the Falcons.

Injuries were a big part of last season’s demise, but inconsistent play also was a key factor. The Falcons expected to contend for a Super Bowl last year, but that simply did not happen. In the offseason, Atlanta re-signed many of its own players, including Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry on the defensive side, but they also were uncharacteristically active in free agency.

For instance, the Falcons found some help on the offensive line in Gabe Carimi, whom they signed away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Carimi had an average season in Tampa Bay, but in Atlanta he will be reunited with offensive line coach Mike Tice, which should boost his performance. On the defensive side, the Falcons bulked up on the defensive line with the additions of defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai. Still, Osi Umenyiora slightly underperformed last season and an explosive edge rusher would make a lot of sense for Atlanta in the first round.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez might have retired, but the Falcons have a wide array of very capable tight ends to choose from in this year’s draft.

Key Needs: TE, DE, OT

Projected First Round Selection: The Falcons are picking near the top of the order with the number six overall pick this year, meaning they will have plenty of options available. Ideally, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack would still be available for the Falcons, as he would be the perfect fit. However, that likely will not happen. Therefore, offensive tackle Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M is the next best choice. Matthews can instantly be installed as the starting right tackle and give Matt Ryan the additional protection that he needs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 2013 Record: 4-12

During the 2013 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to deal with controversy after controversy and that stress and drama was reflected in their play on the field. First, starting quarterback Josh Freeman was ousted and then after the season ended, head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik were shown the door.

The Bucs moved quickly to secure former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith as the team’s new leader and they later paired him up with Arizona’s personnel man Jason Licht, who became the new general manager. In free agency, the Bucs were one of the most active teams, signing cornerback Alterraun Verner to replace the overpriced Darrelle Revis and defensive end Michael Johnson to aid the pass rush.

Bolstering the offensive line was a key priority for Smith and Licht, so they went out and signed veteran center Evan Dietrich-Smith and offensive tackle Anthony Collins, with the latter replacing the underperforming Donald Penn. However, Tampa Bay did lose fullback Erik Lorig, who played a key role in Tampa’s offense last season, but with offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford now at the helm, that loss could prove to be minimal.

Still, the Bucs did trade away number two wide receiver Mike Williams, so there is no clear receiver opposite of Vincent Jackson at the moment, and as is seemingly always the case, there is no clear-cut answer at quarterback, though the team hopes that Josh McCown can replicate last season’s performance.

Key Needs: WR, QB, MLB

Projected First Round Selection: Tampa Bay has been linked to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel countless times this offseason, but Manziel might not be available. If indeed he is not, the Bucs desperately need a receiver capable of starting right away and Manziel’s teammate at A&M, Mike Evans, fits the bill perfectly.

Follow Max on Twitter: @MaxLuckan

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