The gap between the Saints and their NFC South challengers remained too large to close for 2020 once Drew Brees decided he would play another season. The betting market believes the Bucs have pulled even but that’s an overreaction to the reunion of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The South’s best quarterback and most complete roster will add up to another division title for New Orleans, even if the margin isn’t six games for a third straight season.
But the NFL draft provides hope that the Falcons and the Bucs can pull a little closer to the Saints. (There’s little hope for the Panthers, who are rebuilding). Hitting on a couple prospects, especially at important positions, can be the difference between a playoff wild card - there’s an extra one this season - and another year out of the playoffs.
We can’t know how the former college players drafted over the past three days will perform as professionals. We can look at how the South’s teams addressed their needs in the top part of the draft and what that might mean for 2020.
The Falcons might be OK if third-round pick Matt Hennessy doesn’t crack the lineup at left guard. Veterans James Carpenter and Jamon Brown (combined $22 million guaranteed) weren’t good in 2019. But they’ve been better in the past so there’s always a chance at least one of them rebounds.
The Falcons won’t be OK if they don’t get starter-level production from first-round pick A.J. Terrell and major contributions from second-round pick Marlon Davidson. Terrell is projected to start at cornerback, where the depth is shaky. The pass rush will suffer if Davidson isn’t providing inside push next to Grady Jarrett.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he expects Terrell and Davidson to make an “immediate impact” because of their backgrounds.
“Marlon and A.J., they hit a lot of the marks: excellent high school players, excellent college players and competing at an excellent level against top competition,” Quinn said. “Those usually are guys that transfer well into the NFL.”
The Saints didn’t have many holes after free agency. They made protecting Brees their top priority in the draft. The Saints used their only pick within the first two rounds (No. 24 overall) on Michigan center Cesar Ruiz.
That selection was a bit surprising because New Orleans already has Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford and center Erik McCoy, who was very good as a rookie. But you may recall that the Falcons bothered Brees with pass rush pressure up the middle while winning at New Orleans last season. The Vikings did the same during their wild card victory at the Saints.
The Saints apparently aren’t as sold on Warford as Pro Bowl voters. Coach Sean Payton said Ruiz wasn’t a depth pick. That means either Ruiz or McCoy could end up supplanting Warford, who is in the final year of his contract.
If Ruiz is good enough to start, or pushes Warford to improve, then the Saints will have fixed one of their few weaknesses in 2020. Brees still has his famous quick release and accuracy but his precision on long passes slipped in 2019. Better interior pass protection would allow Brees more time on those deep throws.
The Bucs got an early start on the draft when they traded a fourth-round pick to New England for Gronkowski, who was out of football last season. They were deep at the position already but it’s obviously worth it for them to surrender the No. 139 overall pick for Gronkowski. Whatever he’s got left, it’s more valuable now than any prospect they’d get that low in the draft.
The Bucs were expected select a tackle with their top pick because they didn’t have a starter on the right side. They ended up trading up one spot and taking Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs at No. 13 overall. It cost the Bucs their other fourth-round pick, but they were no other top-tier tackles left on the board so they made sure they got Wirfs.
The Bucs were good defensively in 2019, especially along the line, and retained every key starter in free agency. One weakness was a lack of disruptive players in the secondary. Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr., could help create havoc on the back line.
The Panthers spent a lot of money for a good defense in 2019 but it turned out badly. Seven defensive starters are gone, which might be OK if the Panthers could replace them with other veterans. But they couldn’t do that because $48 million of their salary cap is tied up with players no longer on their roster.
To rebuild, the Panthers used their top four draft picks on defenders. They should have a better chance of stopping the run with their top pick, Auburn tackle Derrick Brown, playing alongside Kawann Short. The Panthers took Penn State edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos with their first second-round pick then traded up for another pick in the round and took Southern Illinois hybrid defensive back Jeremy Chinn.
The Panthers won’t be good in 2020. They could have accelerated their rebuild by trading star running back Christian McCaffrey. But, with four new defensive prospects plus 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns at end, Carolina has a chance to be good again on that side of the ball by 2021.
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