As three division teams were winning 10 or more games last season, we often discussed the possibility that the NFC South is the best division in the NFL. That topic is always going to be open for debate.
But here’s one thing I think we can say with certainty. The NFC South had a more exciting and interesting 2011 draft than any other division. From the Carolina Panthers' decision to take Cam “Mr. Love Him or Hate Him" Newton to the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints making big trades to get Julio Jones and Mark Ingram to Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers tumbling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round, this draft was filled with huge storylines and intrigue all around the division.
Let’s take a look at the highlights of the NFC South draft:
The Saints played it safe with their first-round pick and took defensive end Cameron Jordan. That filled a big need that could become bigger if Will Smith eventually has to serve the four-game suspension that has been hung up in the legal system for a couple of years. But what the Saints did next was the real key to their draft.
They traded back into the first round to take Ingram. The cost was steep. The Saints gave up their second-round pick this year and their first-round choice in 2012. But next year’s first-round pick could be deep in the 20s or 30s if things work out the way the Saints envision.
They already had a trio of role-playing running backs in Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. Each of those players has certain things he can do well, but none of them is really a complete back. There also are durability concerns because all three were hurt at different parts of the past season, and the Saints ran out of running backs in their playoff loss to Seattle.
Ingram is a do-it-all back and history has shown that, unlike rookie quarterbacks and wide receivers, first-year running backs usually can step right in and make an impact from the start. Ingram already is drawing comparisons to former New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister, and I don’t disagree at all.
Although I knew for about a month that the Panthers were pretty much set on Newton, I had my doubts that general manager Marty Hurney actually would pull the trigger when it came right down to it. Hurney and the Panthers have a long history of playing it safe and have taken the conservative approach for the past decade.
There’s nothing conservative about choosing Newton. He’s the classic boom-or-bust prospect. There were character and background questions, but the Panthers looked into that and didn’t see anything that made them back off Newton. There also are questions about Newton being able to adapt to an NFL offense after playing only one year at Auburn in an offense that’s nothing close to a pro-style scheme.
Even the Panthers aren’t sure how Newton will adjust to the pro game. But they’re so sold on the athletic ability and Newton’s upside that they were willing to step totally out of character and take a leap. If Newton is what the Panthers hope, they’ll be able to compete again in the NFC South. If not, this is the kind of move that can get a general manager, who survived a 2-14 season, fired a few years down the road.
MOST SURPRISING MOVE
The rumors started flying a few days before the draft that the Falcons were looking to jump into the top 10 and get a receiver. But most people, myself included, kind of dismissed that notion because moving that far up from No. 27 would be too expensive.
The cost was incredibly high, but the Falcons did it because they wanted an explosive receiver like Jones. They gave up their first-round pick this year, along with their second- and fourth-round picks. They also had to include their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012. That got them to No. 6, where they gladly took Jones.
The stunner here was the cost. But it appears the Falcons are going for broke, which isn’t a bad move when you’re coming off a 13-3 season. Atlanta added Jones to a passing attack with Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan, and Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas as role players. By the way, the Falcons also traded up in the fifth round for Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers. He’s the kind of speed back the Falcons need to pair with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. I don’t see how this offense can add much more to get better.
Go out and get a pass-rushing defensive end in free agency, and the Falcons truly could be a Super Bowl contender.
FILE IT AWAY
Of all the later-round picks, I think Tampa Bay’s selection of Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker (the Bucs traded up to get him in the fourth round) is the one that could have the most impact. On the surface, the Bucs have a very good tight end in Kellen Winslow. He’s got knee issues, and the Bucs do a nice job of resting him most of the week and getting him on the field on Sundays. But there’s not a lot of depth behind him.
Jerramy Stevens was released last season after his latest off-field incident, and role player John Gilmore probably will depart as a free agent. That means Stocker has a chance to get some playing time pretty quickly. He’s not the receiving threat Winslow is, but Stocker can catch some passes. More important, he’s a strong blocker.
His presence should allow the Bucs to pick and choose their spots for putting Winslow on the field. Stocker can handle some of the obvious running downs and could even prompt the Bucs to use more two-tight end sets, which could add another dimension to the passing game for Josh Freeman.
More than anything, Stocker provides a nice insurance policy in case Winslow’s knees really flare up. He’s a guy who can do a little bit of everything that a tight end should. Yes, the early part of this draft was about defense and that was the correct move for the Bucs. But this franchise is built around Freeman, and this is another example of the Bucs doing everything they can to make sure their young quarterback has a strong supporting cast.