NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2011 NFL DRAFT PICKS: Cameron Jordan, DE (1-24); Mark Ingram, RB (1-28); Martez Wilson, OLB (3-72); Johnny Patrick, CB (3-88); Greg Romeus, DE (7-226); Nathan Bussey, OLB (7-243)
With the exception of maybe Cleveland, nobody was more impressive the first night than the Saints. I was shocked when they had Cameron Jordan just sitting there for them with the 24th overall pick. What I always noticed about Jordan when he played at California was his long arms that made it next to impossible for anyone to get around him to the outside. He has great speed and size and a work ethic that comes from his father Steve who spent 13 years in the NFL as a tight end with the Vikings. To be able to follow up the Jordan pick by trading up to land the best running back in the draft in Mark Ingram 28th overall was an unbelievable value. The Saints didn’t fare as well in later days, neglecting the huge need they had for an offensive tackle but in regards to value I was definitely impressed by the pick up of Martez Wilson in the 3rd round. He was a great run-stopping linebacker at Illinois who I thought would go in the mid to late 2nd round but some off the field issues and a 2 injuries (a herniated disc 2 years ago and a stabbing last year) probably led to his fall into the 3rd round.
KEY ADDITIONS: Abrayo Franklin, NT (49ers); Darren Sproles, RB (Chargers); Lance Moore, WR (Saints); Roman Harper, S (Saints); Clint Ingram, LB (Jaguars); Jermon Bushrod, OT (Saints); Scott Shanle, LB (Saints); Zach Strief, OT (Saints); Alex Barron, OT (Cowboys); Will Herring, LB (Seahawks); Fabian Washington, DB (Ravens)
KEY LOSSES: Reggie Bush, RB; Akin Ayodele, LB; Remi Ayodele, DT; Jeremy Shockey, TE
While everyone was distracted by the Philadelphia Eagle’s Miami Heat-like stockpile of talent, few took the time to notice the impressive job that the New Orleans Saints did in free agency. They were able to land the biggest defensive line prize of the free agency period in Abrayo Franklin. Franklin is a largely unknown player but he is one of the premier nose tackles in the league who should fit nicely into Greg Williams’ scheme down in New Orleans. In a division that boasts Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Johnathan Stewart, and LeGarrette Blount, stopping the run is a must. They traded Reggie Bush away for a 2nd round draft pick and then were able to pick up the exact same player, maybe a better version, in Darren Sproles for a lot lower price tag than Bush would have demanded. They brought in Fabian Washington and Clint Ingram to tighten up that Saints secondary and then did the most important thing that any team can do in free agency, they re-signed their top free agents.
2011 DRAFT PICKS: Julio Jones, WR (1-6); Akeem Dent, LB (3-91); Jacquizz Rodgers, RB (5-145); Matt Bosher, P (6-192); Andrew Jackson, G (7-210); Cliff Matthews, DE (7-230)
For the Falcons, this draft will be mostly gauged in the future on the success of Julio Jones. The Falcons sold the farm and then some to trade up and grab him so it’s clear that they believe he is the missing piece that can help them win now. If he does nothing more than open up the field more for Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner – that alone could help the Falcons take the next step. The Akeem Dent pick in the 2nd round makes a lot of sense and I like the addition of Jacquizz Rodgers in the Falcons backfield. I see him being more of a pass catching back which could be a nice change of pace for the Falcons offense. I am also a fan of the Cliff Matthews pick in Round 7. Many have scrutinized this draft and while the price paid for a player with a high ceiling and good chance of getting injured was high. I like the “all-in” move.
KEY ADDITIONS: Ray Edwards, DE (Vikings); Justin Blalock, G (Falcons); Stephen Nicholas, LB (Falcons); Mike Peterson, LB (Falcons); Tyson Clabo, OT (Falcons); Eric Weems, WR (Falcons)
KEY LOSSES: Michael Jenkins, WR; Jamaal Anderson, DE; Jerious Norwood, RB; Harvey Dahl, OT
I really like what Atlanta did in the free agency period. They did the first thing they needed to do, re-signed the large majority of their free agents. The loss that probably hurts them the most is the departure of Harvey Dahl who was a very physical force on that Falcons line in previous seasons. Then the Falcons went out and made the move they needed to by getting the second best defensive end on the free agent market in Ray Edwards. There has been a lot of criticism that Edwards was a product of being opposite All-Pro Jared Allen on the Vikings front four. Great – now he’s opposite All-Pro John Abraham. The Falcons needed containment help in a division that has Drew Brees, Josh Freeman, and now Cam Newton. I think Edwards is a perfect fit here and will have considerable success in Atlanta.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
2011 DRAFT PICKS: Adrian Clayborn, DE (1-20); Da’Quan Bowers, DE (2-51); Mason Foster, ILB (3-84); Luke Stocker, TE (4-104); Ahmad Black, S (5-151); Allen Bradford, RB (6-187); Anthony Gaitor, CB (7-222); Daniel Hardy, TE (7-238)
I cannot say enough good things about how well Tampa Bay drafted this offseason. They went out with their first round pick and drafted Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn. A player who can play either the defensive tackle or the defensive end position. Either way he’s a game changer. Then the Bucs took what I consider the most low-risk/high-reward pick of the draft in taking Bowers in the 2nd round. Prior to getting injured, Bowers was considered to be a top 5 draft pick. The Bucs needed DE help and responded by taking two of the top ten defensive ends in this year’s draft. The late pick that I love of theirs is Ahmad Black. At Florida, Black was a hard-hitting safety who had excellent awareness and great instinct for finding the ball. Tampa probably should’ve addressed secondary concerns earlier but could not have done better in the 5th round than Black.
KEY ADDITIONS: Quincy Black, LB (Buccaneers); Davin Joseph, G (Buccaneers), Jeremy Trueblood, OT (Buccaneers); Michael Koenen, P (Falcons)
KEY LOSSES: Barrett Ruud, LB
As many good things I can say about their draft, I can say as many terrible things about the Buccaneers free agency period. They re-signed the majority of their impact free agents but the only really significant signing they made was luring Michael Koenen away from the rival Falcons. When your best free agency move is grabbing a punter (while yes, Koenen is a very good punter) you know your free agency has been less than desirable.
2011 DRAFT PICKS:Cam Newton, QB (1-1); Terrell McClain, DT (3-65); Sione Fua, DT (3-97); Brandon Hogan, CB (4-98), Kealoha Pilares, WR (5-132); Lawrence Wilson, OLB (6-166); Zack Williams, G (6-203); Lee Ziemba, OT (7-244)
Much like the Falcons and Julio Jones, the whole Panthers draft will be weighed in the future of Cam Newton. While I find him to be an incredible athlete, I do not believe he has the intelligence or discipline to play the quarterback position. I still feel like Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, Blaine Gabbert, or Patrick Peterson would have all been better choices. But now it is up to Newton as to whether or not he will succeed, it’s not a question of talent but of work ethic and leadership. The majority of the Panthers draft in taking players like McClain, Fua, and Wilson (who clearly fill needs) follows the same pattern as Newton. These are all players with great potential but the question is whether or not they pan out. Three years from now this will be remembered either as an excellent draft or a terrible one.
KEY ADDITIONS: Charles Johnson, DE (Panthers), DeAngelo Williams, RB (Panthers); James Anderson, LB (Panthers); Thomas Davis, LB (Panthers); Greg Olsen, TE (Bears); Jeremy Shockey, TE (Saints); Ron Edwards, DT (Chiefs); Omar Gaither, LB (Eagles); Olindo Mare, K (Seahawks); Derek Anderson, QB (Cardinals); Ben Hartsock, TE (Jets); Ron Rivera, Head Coach (Defensive Coordinator, Chargers)
KEY LOSSES: Matt Moore, QB; Dante Rosario, TE
Like the Saints, the Panthers had an unbelievable (but highly unnoticed) free agency period. What I love about what the Panthers did is they started off by finding their head coach in Ron Rivera who I believe perfectly fits the tradition of defense that the Panthers have. I thought this was an excellent hire. Then they turned around and re-signed every single one of their high profile free agents, they got Steve Smith excited about being a part of the Panthers, and just recently they extended Ryan Kalil. From their they got to work, they went from having no good tight end to having the best tight end receiving corps in the league in Olsen, Shockey, and Hartsock. They brought back the best defensive end in free agency in Charles Johnson and re-signed DeAngelo Williams (which I didn’t think they’d pull off). Then they brought in Gaither and Edwards to improve their front 7. And while often overlooked, they brought in Olindo Mare as a great replacement to the aging John Kasay. Overall a fantastic job for Ron Rivera in his first free agency period.
Overall, the NFC South as a whole probably improved the most of any division. While I am not a huge fan of what the Bucs did in free agency or the Panthers did in the draft, all four teams in this division should be considerably better next season. I am excited to see how this division plays out.