For one bustling spring weekend, the overwhelming favorites for the NFC South title in 2021 weren’t favored by every pundit.
Many draft analysts didn’t give the Bucs’ seven-player class the division’s best grade.
Not that it matters for the short term. As I wrote over the weekend, the Bucs — who possess no glaring needs with every Super Bowl starter returning — nicely fulfilled their draft objectives by adding depth and fortifying their special teams. This was hardly the franchise’s most critical draft ever; it mostly sought to get deeper.
But some division rivals got better, adding potential offensive cornerstones or shut-down cornerbacks. With that in mind, we offer our post-draft grades for all four NFC South teams.
As the first Super Bowl champion in the salary cap era to return all 22 starters (not to mention all three primary specialists and several key backups), the Bucs’ draft priorities were far different from their peers. While they got faster and probably a little deeper, none of their seven picks are expected to contend for a starting job. And of course, deliberations will rage ceaselessly about whether Gators quarterback Kyle Trask can evolve into a suitable Tom Brady heir.
The Bucs, who don’t possess the NFL’s richest kick-return history, found an absolute burner in North Texas’ all-time leader in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38).
Baffling pick: Middle linebacker K.J. Britt, Auburn (fifth round)
Few seemed as stunned with the Bucs’ selection of Britt as Britt himself; the Tigers team captain said he spoke with Tampa Bay only during the Senior Bowl. While he’ll have to transition to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme, the dude’s a vicious hitter.
Evidently committed to quarterback Matt Ryan (who turns 36 this month) for the foreseeable future, the Falcons went about finding him some protectors and potent weapons. The selection of Gators tight end Kyle Pitts at No. 4 overall was a no-brainer, and the Falcons found some nice value on Day 3, but they sought no tailback to improve a run game that ranked 31st in the NFL in yards per attempt (3.7) in 2020.
Best pick: Tight end Kyle Pitts, Florida (first round)
Dude’s a generational talent capable of transforming the position even further. ESPN draft extraordinaire Mel Kiper Jr. said he gave Pitts the “highest grade of any tight end I’ve studied.”
Baffling pick: Cornerback Darren Hall, San Diego State (fourth round)
Some productive running backs (Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell) were still on the board when the Falcons made this pick.
Coach Matt Rhule addressed his feeble pass defense right out of the box (taking South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn with the No. 8 overall pick), and reunited a highly productive SEC pass catcher (LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr.) with his college coordinator (Panthers OC Joe Brady). A handful of the Panthers’ 11 draftees could have immediate impacts in Charlotte.
Best pick: Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, Iowa (fifth round)
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (13.5 tackles for loss in eight starts) was widely considered one of the draft’s steals. A potential plug-and-play run stuffer who should complement the back end nicely.
Baffling pick: Running back Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (fourth round)
ESPN reported Rhule’s wife convinced him to take this Cowboys standout, whose production tailed off last fall after a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2019. We saw him as a better fit in Atlanta than a roster that already includes Christian McCaffrey.
Sean Payton and Co. were forced to unload some prominent free agents to escape salary-cap purgatory, so their needs were diverse. Quarterback didn’t appear to be one of them (despite Drew Brees’ retirement), yet they snagged one (Notre Dame’s Ian Book) in the fourth round. Some pundits also believed their first-round selection (Houston 6-foot-6 defensive Payton Turner) was based more on physical upside. Moreover, cornerback — a glaring need — wasn’t addressed until the third round (Stanford’s Paulson Adebo).
Best pick: Linebacker Pete Werner, Ohio State (second round)
The Saints rarely employ more than two linebackers at once, but are being lauded for picking this all-Big Ten Buckeye who can dislodge bicuspids and drop back into coverage on tight ends when needed.
Baffling pick: Quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame (fourth round)
If the Saints wanted to bring in someone to compete with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston for the vacancy created by Brees, they could’ve gotten better value at this juncture of the draft. Kiper, for one, had a seventh-round grade on him.
• • •
Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.