It happened a few weeks later than almost everyone wanted, but the 2014 NFL draft is in the books.
What are draftniks going to do now?
It’s apparent what teams around the NFC South are going to do. It’s time to get busy. General managers and their front offices have spent months navigating free agency, the combine, pro days and now the draft. After these teams tie everything up with the neat bow that is the signing of undrafted rookie free agents, coaches around the division will focus on the X’s and O’s application of all these shiny new toys.
The goal, after this entire offseason process is complete, is for teams to get better. With a finite number of NFL players (all of whom can’t be stars), and only a fraction of the 256 players taken in the draft and the 100s of undrafted rookies signed destined to make a difference, it’s inevitable that some teams aren’t going to improve from their 2013 campaign.
Spoiler alert: Only three NFC South teams got better from season’s end 2013 to post-draft 2014.
With two teams—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons—enduring 4-12 campaigns last season, it’s easy to predict they’ll be two of those three teams that got better.
Which playoff team is due for a fall from grace: the New Orleans Saints or the Carolina Panthers?
New Orleans Saints
2013: 11-5 (lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs)
2014 Pre-draft prediction: 13-3 (they are more than playoff-ready)
2014 Post-draft prediction: 13-3 (could they be Super Bowl-bound?)
When the Saints re-signed safety Rafael Bush, wide receiver Robert Meachem and offensive tackle Zach Strief in free agency, you might have said "Great, but where’s the sizzle?"
The sizzle arrived in the form of safety Jairus Byrd, who will instantly transform this defensive backfield from good to great. When New Orleans added cornerback Champ Bailey, the secondary went from great to fearsome.
In the draft, the Saints continued to improve the secondary with cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round and made what might have been the best pick in the draft among the NFC South teams: grabbing wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round with the 20th overall pick.
Cooks was tailor-made to play for the Saints. His ability to get down the field quickly and take the top off a defense, combined with his knack for catching short passes and making huge gains happen, makes him an instant weapon for head coach Sean Payton to brutalize opposing defenses with.
With its improved secondary, the New Orleans pass rush will only be better in 2014. That’s bad news for the NFC South, because improvements on defense combined with a more powerful offense means this division belongs to the Saints.
Placing them in the Super Bowl conversation isn’t a stretch anymore either. This team is that good.
2014 Pre-draft prediction: 7-9 (they improved but aren’t there yet)
2014 Post-draft prediction: 9-7 (they're a borderline playoff team now)
The mantra for the Falcons this offseason was to get bigger, stronger and meaner up front, on both sides of the football. Mission accomplished for a team that definitely needed a bit of a boost.
Atlanta finished dead last in rushing yards with 77.9 yards per game last season, and next-to-last in rushing yards allowed. The Falcons’ offensive line failed to open holes for the running game or plug any on defense.
Additions were made via free agency to change the mentality up front. Jon Asamoah should take over at right guard and help a weak rush offense. Defensive end Tyson Jackson and nose tackle Paul Soliai will help stop the run and aid the team’s transition to more 3-4 looks on defense.
Prior to the draft, the Falcons still needed help at offensive tackle, an edge-rusher and a starting-caliber free safety.
Atlanta only hit, for sure, on one of those three needs in the draft.
Jake Matthews was a perfect pick in the first round. He’ll start at right tackle in 2014 and be ready to move to left tackle to protect quarterback Matt Ryan’s blind side by 2015.
But where did the pass rush get a similar improvement piece? Ra’Shede Hageman has tremendous upside and could be that guy as a 5-technique with the Falcons. But that’s as much a question as a statement. Atlanta’s fourth-round pick Prince Shembo could also materialize into that attack-the-quarterback tool for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
But instead of knowing (like we know about Matthews), we’ll have to wait to see how this all works out on the field. Atlanta was terrible at getting after the quarterback last season (32 sacks—ranked 29th), and there was no added piece that screams major improvement.
2013: 12-4 (NFC South Champions, lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs)
2014 Pre-draft prediction: 8-8 (a drop-off on offense will hurt this team)
2014 Post-draft prediction: 8-8 (draft failure wasn’t expected, and hurts)
The Panthers won 12 games last season on the strength of their defense, particularly the front seven. Carolina’s offense caught up and caught fire, and the secondary overachieved all season. This provided a perfect storm, as the Panthers won eight straight and 11-of-12 after starting 1-3.
But the wheels fell off the bus during the offseason.
Left tackle Jordan Gross retired, leading to a mass exodus of offensive linemen who considered themselves geezers and rode off into the sunset too. The offensive line wasn’t the only unit hit hard by departures in free agency.
Every wide receiver who caught a pass in 2013 for the Panthers left, including the team’s poster boy Steve Smith. What general manager Dave Gettleman did to replace the departed receiving corps left a lot to be desired.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was added in the first round. And while that helps this new group of pass-catchers, the pick led to two questions:
1. Why Benjamin instead of Marqise Lee?
2. Why a wide receiver instead of an offensive tackle?
The face of this franchise now is without a doubt quarterback Cam Newton. On one side of his offensive line he has Byron Bell, who was a questionable right tackle but now will be forced to play left tackle. On the right side—well, who knows who’s going to play there?
There is upside with Benjamin, especially if he fixes his case of dropped-ball-itis, so Carolina’s first-round pick isn’t all bad. But it wasn’t a great start to the draft.
The Panthers then proceeded to stock up on positions of little need instead of fixing current problems. Adding Kony Ealy would have been fantastic, as he’s a first-round talent. But he plays defensive end, and the Panthers already have two of the best in the business.
Instead of bolstering depth late in the draft, Gettleman decided to add another running back. Marty Hurney would be proud.
With opportunities to stay the course after the 2013 season, the Panthers blew both free agency and the 2014 draft. Wins will be much more difficult to come by in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2014 Pre-draft prediction: 7-9 (Schiano is gone, Lovie Smith brings promise)
2014 Post-draft prediction: 8-8 (Jason Licht and Smith know how to build a franchise)
No one is going to say former head coach Greg Schiano wrecked the Buccaneers, but it’s somewhat true. There was far too much talent on that 2013 roster to go 4-12, and finger-pointing has to land on the head coach who never quite figured out the NFL needed to be treated differently than the college ranks.
That said, new head coach Lovie Smith and new general manager Jason Licht have done a wonderful job of coming in and cleaning up the mess that was the Bucs.
The Bucs were busy in free agency, adding 15 new players and spending a truckload of money. Licht signed checks to the tune of $74.3 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN Stats & Information, by far the largest amount in the NFL.
The Bucs also got a new starting quarterback via free agency, and a handful of other starters and key producers.
The same can be said for the draft.
Tampa Bay took wide receiver Mike Evans in the first round and followed that up with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round. Both will make immediate impacts and revitalize the Bucs’ offense. In the sixth round, the Bucs struck gold again with wide receiver Robert Herron, who could be added to the offensive mix very quickly.
Tampa Bay had one of the better drafts in the division and without a doubt had the best free-agency period. Doubling their win total from a year ago shouldn’t be a question, it should be the expectation.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.