Looking at what Falcons’ NFC South rivals did in NFL draft

Former North Carolina State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu walks to the stage after being picked by the Panthers with the sixth pick of the NFL draft Thursday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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Former North Carolina State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu walks to the stage after being picked by the Panthers with the sixth pick of the NFL draft Thursday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s been a wild offseason in the NFC South. The Falcons traded quarterback Matt Ryan to Indianapolis, transitioning into a new phase. Saints coach Sean Payton retired, leaving the division without another staple. Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady retired, then unretired. Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians retired and moved to the front office.

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Dennis Allen and Todd Bowles, both defensive coordinators, are now head coaches for the Saints and Buccaneers, respectively. Carolina’s Matt Rhule is the longest-tenured coach in the division, though that might not last for long. He’s fighting for his job in the coming season.

With the dust mostly settled, the NFC South appears to have two playoff contenders and two rebuilding teams. The Buccaneers, last year’s winner and Super Bowl champions in 2020, are the best team on paper. The Saints also should vie for a playoff berth. The Falcons and Panthers lack the talent and overall depth of the other two teams. The Falcons can afford patience right now; the Panthers don’t seem to have that luxury.

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The Falcons’ draft generally has been viewed favorably. The team upgraded receiver (Drake London) and edge rusher (Arnold Ebiketie) with its first two selections. It also drafted quarterback Desmond Ridder, who can learn behind Marcus Mariota and perhaps get a chance to prove he’s the guy.

Here’s a look at how the other NFC South teams addressed their needs over the weekend:

Buccaneers draft

Round 2, No. 33: DT Logan Hall, Houston

Round 2, No. 57: G Luke Goedeke, Central Michigan

Round 3, No. 91: RB Rachaad White, Arizona State

Round 4, No. 106: TE Cade Otton, Washington

Round 4, No. 133: P Jake Camarda, Georgia

Round 5, No. 157: CB Zyon McCollum, Sam Houston State

Round 6, No. 218: TE Ko Kieft, Minnesota

Round 7, No. 248: OLB Andre Anthony, LSU

The Buccaneers made four trades during draft weekend, first doing so Thursday night. They dropped out of the first round (No. 27) for the second pick in the second round and other draft capital. They took Hall with their first choice, adding needed youth to their defensive front.

Goedeke is the favorite to replace the retired Ali Marpet at left guard. White is the type of receiving back that quarterback Tom Brady values. Otton will contribute regardless of whether Rob Gronkowski ultimately returns. Camarda was an All-American for Georgia. McCollum has extremely rare athletic traits and could grow into a starter.

The Bucs’ questions now center on veterans. Will defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Gronkowski return? Will they add more win-now help as they round out a deep roster? They are among the NFL favorites again.

Saints draft

Round 1, No. 11: WR Chris Olave, Ohio State

Round 1, No. 19: OT Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa

Round 2, No. 149: CB Alontae Taylor, Tennessee

Round 5, No. 161: LB D’Marco Jackson, Appalachian State

Round 6, No. 194: DT Jordan Jackson, Air Force

The Saints made a bold move to acquire a second first-round pick, from Philadelphia, in a trade that included their 2023 first-rounder. They used both Day 1 picks to upgrade their offense. They’ll hope Olave pairs well with a returning Michael Thomas to give them a dynamic duo of Ohio State products. The Saints also drafted Penning, needing tackle help after Terron Armstead signed with Miami.

Taylor went earlier than most analysts’ boards had him. Still, the team needed secondary assistance, which led to it signing Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year deal. Mathieu is an LSU product and New Orleans native.

The Saints have undergone significant changes over the past two years, but Allen will maintain a strong defense. If Jameis Winston is steady enough, and the team stays relatively healthy, the Saints should be in the playoff mix again.

Panthers draft

Round 1, No. 6: OT Ikem Ekwonu, North Carolina State

Round 3, No. 94: QB Matt Corral, Ole Miss

Round 4, No. 120: LB Brandon Smith, Penn State

Round 6, No. 189: DE Amare Barno, Virginia Tech

Round 6, No. 199: G Cade Mays, Tennessee

Round 7, No. 242: CB Kalon Barnes, Baylor

Carolina entered the draft shorthanded because of last offseason’s deal for quarterback Sam Darnold, which flopped. It still resisted the urge to reach for a quarterback and took Ekwonu, who once was considered a candidate for No. 1 overall. He plays with a mean streak and immediately bolsters one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines.

The Panthers traded up for Corral, taking a swing on a quarterback with a big arm who put up big numbers in Lane Kiffin’s scheme at Ole Miss. Smith and Barno are interesting developmental pieces. Mays once was a top Georgia recruit who transferred to Tennessee.

Rhule is on the hot seat, and Carolina needs to show it’s moving in the right direction in 2022. Its quarterback situation still ranks among the worst in the league. The Panthers and Falcons again appear substantially behind the other two teams in the division, though games aren’t played on paper.

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