Seventh of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: With no first-round pick and only two picks in the first four rounds, the Falcons don’t figure to be major players early in the draft. GM Thomas Dimitroff isn’t shy about making bold moves, but there are no indications that the team is preparing to pull off another blockbuster trade to move back into the first round. Atlanta’s first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 were sent to the Browns as part of the trade to move up and select WR Julio Jones last year. The Falcons have six picks — a second-rounder (No. 55), third-rounder (No. 84), fifth-rounder, sixth-rounder and two seventh-rounders.
Need No. 1: Offensive left tackle
It appears likely that Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, will head into camp as the starting left tackle, and that doesn’t seem to sit well with a significant segment of the team’s fan base. While some of the fans have lost faith in Baker, the Falcons are counting on him to bounce back from a disappointing, injury-riddled season in which he was moved to guard. Plus, the team knows it has a solid backup in Will Svitek, who started 10 games at left tackle in 2011. Both Baker and Svitek are in the final year of their deals, however, and the team should be looking for a player with the potential to protect QB Matt Ryan’s blind side.
Need No. 2: Defensive line
The Falcons re-signed DEs John Abraham and Kroy Biermann and are hoping for stronger seasons from DE Ray Edwards, who was a disappointment after signing as a high-priced free agent last year, and DTs Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. They would be wise to continue looking for help at the DE and DT spots to ramp up a middling pass rush. Abraham has been their best pass rusher, but he turns 34 in May and Atlanta needs to get more speed and disruption from the front four.
Need No. 3: Tight end
Atlanta has not drafted a tight end since trading for Tony Gonzalez, but the Falcons have been looking at potential replacements for him in recent years and might be as tempted as ever to address the position with Gonzalez playing on a one-year deal and suggesting that the 2012 season could be his last. Gonzalez is still very effective, even at 36 years old, and QB Matt Ryan already has a good collection of weapons, but he certainly won’t complain if the team adds another dynamic receiving threat to its arsenal.
Overview: With limited salary-cap space to work with after spending big to lock up some of their own core players last year, the Panthers didn’t sit on their hands in free agency, but they weren’t pursuing major stars. They have plenty of starpower in 2011 first overall pick QB Cam Newton, who was named rookie of the year. It would make sense for this year’s priority to be upgrading a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed last season, but GM Marty Hurney subscribes to a best-player-available philosophy. He has seven picks — the ninth overall pick along with one second-rounder, a fourth-rounder, a fifth-rounder, two sixth-rounders and a seventh-rounder — to help the Panthers narrow the gap in the NFC South. The only round in which the Panthers don’t have a pick is the third — that selection was sent to the Bears in a trade for TE Greg Olsen last year.
Need No. 1: Defensive tackle
The Panthers invested in defensive tackles last year, signing DT Ron Edwards in free agency and spending third-round picks on Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, but their work at the position is not done yet. Edwards missed all of last season after suffering a torn triceps in camp and will turn 33 in July, and Fua and McClain received a lot of playing time but didn’t exactly burst onto the scene. There is little doubt head coach Ron Rivera, who intends to be more involved with the defense this season, will accept good help anywhere he can get it on the defensive line, so Carolina is looking at prospects on the interior and off the edge.
Need No. 2: Cornerback
Captain Munnerlyn became the full-time starter opposite Chris Gamble at cornerback last season after Richard Marshall departed in free agency, but the feisty Munnerlyn fits best as a nickel back. Munnerlyn was the best of some not-so-great options for the Panthers at the position last year and they are going to need bigger, physical corners to match up against the competition at receiver they will face vs. division foes. Gamble had a strong bounce-back season in 2011 after a rough ’10 campaign, but his salary over the next few years — he’s signed through 2014 at $6.75 million this year, $7.9 million in ’13 and $8.85 million in ’14 — could become very unappealing to the team if he takes a step back.
Need No. 3: Offensive tackle/offensive guard
A swing guard/tackle with the ability to compete for a starting job would be a good fit on an O-line charged with protecting the face of the franchise. Carolina is hoping Jeff Otah will stay healthy and return to his early-career form at right tackle, but Otah has played only four games the past two seasons because of injuries. The Panthers are also getting OG-OT Garry Williams back from a season-ending ankle injury, added ex-Colts OG Mike Pollak in free agency, and traded for ex-Raiders OT Bruce Campbell. However, they need to continue firming up an O-line led by Pro Bowlers OLT Jordan Gross and C Ryan Kalil.
New Orleans Saints
Overview: New Orleans was already without a first-round pick this year — that pick was traded to the Patriots for the Saints to be in position to draft Mark Ingram in 2011 — and they lost a second-round pick this year as part of their “bounty” punishment. It leaves the Saints with only six picks — a third-rounder, a fourth-rounder, a fifth-rounder, two sixth-rounders and one seventh-rounder. Their first choice isn't until No. 89 overall. Barring an appeal from Sean Payton that goes on longer than expected, his one-year suspension will keep him from being involved during the draft, and that will leave the Saints without their most authoritative voice in the war room. GM Mickey Loomis’ suspension does not begin until the start of the regular season, so he will take part in draft weekend. It’s not clear how much say an interim head coach might have during the draft, but it appears likely that the commissioner will have announced player sanctions for the “bounty” case by draft weekend so the team can prepare accordingly.
Need No. 1: Defensive end/defensive tackle
One of the top tasks for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — who could get another shot to be a head coach much sooner than anyone expected if the Saints decide to hire Payton’s one-year replacement from within — is improving the pass rush from the front four. DE Cameron Jordan, a first-round pick in 2011, had one sack last season and the Saints should be looking for help off the edge and on the interior to generate more pressure. The Saints signed DT Brodrick Bunkley, who is likely to start at nose tackle, but he has only six sacks in his six seasons, and DT Sedrick Ellis produced only half of a sack last season after collecting six sacks in ’10.
Need No. 2: Cornerback/safety
The Saints let CB Tracy Porter walk in free agency. Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, is likely to replace him, and while the starters in the defensive backfield are pretty well set, they need to add depth at corner and safety. These are not areas they have addressed in free agency to this point and an injury to a starter or two would be very significant at both positions given the lack of depth.
Need No. 3: Wide receiver
QB Drew Brees still has a deep collection of dangerous targets, even with the departure of WR Robert Meachem in free agency. Adrian Arrington could get a shot to replace him, but part of the reason the Saints have had such success over the past few years is because they have continued adding talented targets for Brees even when it seemed like other needs were more pressing. They should continue to make that a priority and look for a deep threat at receiver.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Overview: They were mostly spectators in free agency in recent years, but the Bucs came strong when players hit the open market March 13 and quickly reeled in the top wide receiver (Vincent Jackson) and top guard (Carl Nicks) available. They also addressed a need at cornerback by signing Eric Wright, but this is a team that was blown out on a consistent basis last season, when they lost 10 games in a row after starting 4-2. They improved significantly with their free-agent signings, but they still have holes to fill. GM Mark Dominik has indicated that the Bucs are open to trading down in the first round, where they are slated to pick fifth overall, but they are not interested in moving up in the opening round. Tampa Bay also has one pick each in the second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.
Need No. 1: Running back
LeGarrette Blount is in the plans for next season, but the Bucs need to add at least one back, and probably two, to bolster a rushing attack that was too one-dimensional and reliant on Blount last season. Alabama’s Trent Richardson — by far the highest-rated back this year — is expected to be available when the Bucs are on the clock in the first round and he has frequently been linked to the team this offseason. Richardson could quickly become Tampa Bay’s primary back.
Need No. 2: Cornerback/safety
The Bucs added Wright, who started 16 games for the Lions last season, and re-signed 37-year-old Ronde Barber to a one-year deal, but no one knows what the future holds for Aqib Talib, a starter for the past three seasons. Talib’s trial for felony assault with a deadly weapon is scheduled to begin June 25 and he’s also entering the final year of his contract. The Bucs should continue adding protection for themselves at corner in case Talib is not with them when the season starts, but they need to look at safety, too. They lack a dependable playmaker at the position.
Need No. 3: Linebacker
Tampa Bay was linked to MLB Curtis Lofton before he signed with the Saints, but the Bucs decided they were comfortable enough with Mason Foster, who started as a rookie at middle ’backer last season, and didn’t invest at the position in free agency. At the minimum, the Bucs should look to add depth at the position in the middle rounds with a player who can contribute immediately on special teams.