Draft Watch: NFC South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Atlanta Falcons

After making their one splurge into free agency to get Dunta Robinson and re-signing veteran Brian Williams, the Falcons have done a nice job of addressing a cornerback position that once was a big area of need. With those moves, the Falcons have whittled down their significant needs considerably.

The most glaring need is at defensive end and that almost certainly will be addressed early in the draft. John Abraham had a quiet year as a pass-rusher last season and age could be catching up to him. Nobody else stepped forward as a pass-rusher and the Falcons realize they need to get more pressure on quarterbacks. General manager Thomas Dimitroff believes in basing his drafts on need and getting a pass-rusher is critical.

The only other area that can be considered a high need is outside linebacker, but that’s not as dramatic as defensive end. The Falcons have Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas as their starting outside linebackers. Peterson is getting older, but still played at a high level last year. Nicholas was solid in his first year as a starter, but the Falcons could consider an upgrade.

Carolina Panthers

Their needs have grown since the start of free agency. The purge of veteran players has left the Panthers with needs in a lot of places. Without a first-round draft pick, the Panthers probably won’t be able to fill all their needs in the draft.

The defensive line, once the cornerstone of a John Fox team, has been gutted. The Panthers have high hopes for Everette Brown and Charles Johnson, but still could look for another defensive end to replace Julius Peppers.

The more glaring need might be at defensive tackle, where starters Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu were released. The Panthers have nothing but projects and journeymen at defensive tackle. Unless they suddenly get more active in free agency, they almost have to find one starting defensive tackle in the draft.

New Orleans Saints

They are the champions and, as a result, won’t draft until the final pick of the first round. The new free-agency rules prevent the Saints from doing much in free agency. Their roster is in good shape, but they still have some needs.

The defensive line is the most prominent need. Starting end Charles Grant was released after the season, and there is a possibility tackle/end Anthony Hargrove could be lost as a restricted free agent. The Saints would like to get a defensive end who can generate more of a pass rush than Grant, and they’d also like to find a solid starter to pair with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.

But the Saints can’t totally lock in on the defensive line with their first pick because they’ve also got a need at outside linebacker. With Scott Fujita leaving as a free agent, the Saints have some in-house candidates, but there’s no clear-cut replacement. Picking at the end of the first round leaves the Saints at the mercy of the teams in front of them, but it seems likely they’ll take the best available defensive lineman or outside linebacker.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There are needs just about everywhere, and the Bucs are counting heavily on this draft to be a big part of their building process. They have 10 overall picks and five in the first 99. They’ve got the third overall pick in the first round and it seems almost certain they’ll take defensive tackles Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh, if either is available.

After that, they’ve got plenty of other directions they could go. They could take several wide receivers because there isn’t a quality starter currently on the roster. Defensive end also is an area of need because there is no clear starter opposite Stylez G. White.