The 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone, as each team in the NFC South took place in the most important part of the team-building process. Every single team added some young talent to their squad, but which unit made the biggest improvements? This installation of the 2021 NFL Draft Grades features an in-depth breakdown of every team in the NFC South.
2021 NFL Draft Grades: NFC South
Atlanta Falcons: C
After months of speculation regarding taking a quarterback or just trading the fourth-overall pick, the Atlanta Falcons decided to go all-in on the final years of the Matt Ryan Era. If all positions were equally important, Kyle Pitts would have been the first player off the board. The Florida tight end is simply a different breed of prospect, and combining him with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley will give Atlanta an unmatched trio of offensive weapons.
Of course, scoring on every drive won’t really matter if the other team scores just as much. This is probably the biggest mystery with Atlanta’s draft, as their defensive player taken before Day 3 was Richie Grant. Grant is a fine, versatile safety, but he’s not nearly enough to fix this entire defense. Jalen Mayfield is a solid tackle, but they could have really used someone like Joseph Ossai or Chauncey Golston to get after the quarterback.
The Falcons seemed to compensate for this by attacking defense on the third day of the draft. Four of their five final picks were on the defensive side of the ball, but it could have been too little, too late. We had Darren Hall, Ta’Quon Graham, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji as seventh-round prospects, but Avery Williams and his fourth-round projection could be something of a steal. Frank Darby, meanwhile, looks to make his living as a contested specialist. He’ll need to have a strong camp to earn a spot on Atlanta’s loaded receiver room.
Carolina Panthers: B-
Jaycee Horn is a phenomenal football player and, in my humble opinion, deserved to be the first cornerback off the board. However, can you really justify drafting him over Justin Fields? Sam Darnold might be in Carolina, but he’s anything but a sure bet to be the long-term answer under center. There is no more important position than quarterback, and teams should be doing everything in their power to get a franchise passer. If Fields even turns into a top-15 quarterback, then the Panthers are going to regret this decision for a very, very long time.
In Carolina’s defense, they are doing everything possible to see if Sam Darnold can succeed in a better situation. Terrace Marshall was an absolute steal at 59 and gives Carolina one of the best receiving trios in football. Brady Christensen should compete to start right out of the gate, while Tommy Tremble offers some interesting long-term upside at the position, although he probably won’t be anything more than a role player in the short term.
Don’t let his testing numbers fool you, Chuba Hubbard is an incredibly fast running back. He’s obviously no Christian McCaffrey, but he should be able to fill in at a Mike Davis level if the superstar running back suffers another injury. Daviyon Nixon has some potential as a situational interior rusher, but he’ll need to add some pounds to be a true three-down player. Keith Taylor is a very physical corner but is a little too raw and untested to see a major role for a season or two.
Shi Smith is one of my favorite Day 3 prospects in this class and should be a welcome addition as the fourth option in this offense. Thomas Fletcher is a long snapper, so there’s not too much to say about him. Phil Hoskins is built like a space-eater but plays like a speed rusher. If he can find a happy balance of playstyle and build, he could be a serviceable rotational lineman.
New Orleans Saints: C-
The New Orleans Saints always march to the beat of their own drummer, and that continued through to the 2021 NFL Draft. Payton Turner projects as a decent rotational lineman, but nobody had a first-round grade on this guy. He’s a very unrefined pass rusher and is probably a few years away from reaching his ceiling, if he ever even gets there. That said, the athleticism is there.
That's Payton Turner right there baby. Look at that speed SHEEESH pic.twitter.com/IMuCLyqbaO
— Jackson 🐻🏆⚜️🐯 (@jacko_boll) April 30, 2021
Paulson Adebo, meanwhile, could be the steal of the draft. The cornerback used to be considered one of the best prospects in the draft, but injury combined with missing the 2020 season caused scouts around the league to forget just how good he used to be. If he can recapture his old form, he could form a dangerous duo with Marshon Lattimore. Quinn Meienerz, meanwhile, is one of my favorite sleepers in this draft. He probably would’ve been a first- or second-round pick if he had gone to a bigger program and has a chance to be a Day 1 starter.
Nobody can fault the Saints for adding a quarterback to the room. However, it is fair to question why Ian Book was the choice. Book is basically just a poor mans’ Taysom Hill and isn’t going to develop into a competent passer any time soon. It looks like New Orleans’ hopes and dreams lie with Jameis Winston. Landon Young has the build for the position, but lacks all the fundamentals. He could turn into something down the line, but if he sees the field as a rookie, something has gone horribly wrong.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: B-
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrap up the NFC South draft grades with a solid performance. Tampa has the best roster in the league and no true needs at any position, so they were free to take the best player available and worry about fit later. That player ended up being Joe Tryon. Tryon has the athleticism to develop into one of better pass rushers in the league, but he’ll need time to hone up his skills. This makes Tampa Bay a perfect fit, as he can spend the 2021 season as a rotational player behind Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Tom Brady is only under contract for two more seasons, and he (probably) can’t play forever. Kyle Trask joins a long, long list of developmental Day 2 quarterbacks drafted to possibly take over for the seven-time Super Bowl champion. Trask has his physical limitations, but he was one of the more efficient passers in all of college football last year. With a few years to learn under Brady and Arians, there is a chance he turns into a decent starter down the road. Of course, Tampa hopes that Trask never sees the field in 2021, and Robert Hainsey should help with that goal. He’ll probably be the top backup along the interior and can provide adequate play if any one of the interior linemen suffer an injury.
The rich just keep getting richer, as the Buccaneers added Jaelon Darden to an already-stacked receiving room. While the explosive playmaker might be limited to return duties as a rookie, he could earn a larger share of the pie in 2022. Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are both set to hit free agency, after all. K.J. Britt wasn’t quite as good of a pick, as he can deliver nasty hits in the box but is an active liability when asked to do anything else. Crhis Wilcox and Grante Stuard were late seventh-round picks, and their film suggests that draft capital was justified.
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