NFC South draft grades: Bucs and Panthers continue makeovers

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Why provide instant grades on the selections of prospects who have yet to take an NFL snap? Well, you’re reading this, aren’t you? Considering the makeup of every roster and the factors surrounding each pick, Gennaro Filice and Dan Parr attempt a division-by-division assessment of the 2020 NFL Draft. Keep in mind that these grades are based on draft hauls alone — picks traded for veteran players were not taken into account. Below is Gennaro’s review of the NFC South.

NOTABLE SELECTIONS

BEST PICK: Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Round 1, No. 13 overall

As mentioned before in the NFC East installment of this series, over the long, daunting walk-up to the draft, NFL.com published 31 mock drafts by 11 different analysts. Of those analysts, only one projected Wirfs to Tampa Bay — and that man did so in all three of his mocks! Charley Casserly, I dub thee Wirfs Whisperer. The former Redskins/Texans general manager had the Bucs plucking Wirfs with the No. 14 overall pick in Mocks 1.0 and 2.0, and then he had Jason Licht jumping up to No. 9 in order to secure the athletic tackle’s services in Mock 3.0. Coincidentally, neither of those scenarios actually played out. Well, Licht did land Wirfs by trading up, but only by one slot. What was the motivation behind that rare mini-jump up the board? As chronicled by NBC Sports’ Peter King, Licht had caught wind that 49ers LT Joe Staley was going to retire — which he did two days later — and the Bucs GM was afraid San Francisco could select the last of the Big Four tackles at No. 13. So Licht switched spots with Niners GM John Lynch — swapping a fourth-round pick for a seventh-rounder in the process — and got his guy, shoring up the protection on Tom Brady’s front side. And that, boys and girls, is the anatomy of a first-round draft pick.

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MOST SURPRISING PICK: Cesar Ruiz, C/OG, Michigan
New Orleans Saints, Round 1, No. 24 overall

The Saints arguably entered this draft with the most complete roster in the NFL. Consequently, mock predix on the No. 24 pick were all over the place, setting up a scenario where any pick could be deemed a surprise. … Or no pick could be deemed a surprise?? I don’t know — barely made it through Philosophy 101. But I contend that Ruiz was indeed a surprise selection, because New Orleans was already set to return all five starters from an extraordinarily decorated group up front. LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat and RG Larry Warford made the Pro Bowl last season, RT Ryan Ramczyk was first-team All-Pro and C Erik McCoy nabbed a spot on PFWA’s All-Rookie Team. So, what’s the plan for next season? Immediately following the selection of Ruiz, who played center and guard at Michigan, all eyes went to Warford. The 28-year-old carries the second-largest cap hit on the team at $12.875 million, trailing only Drew Brees’ $23.650 million figure, and closer watchers of the Saints’ offensive line than me assert that the right guard’s play slipped a bit last year. With a first-rounder now entering the interior-OL fray, Warford seems like a prime cut candidate. If so, New Orleans will have to absorb just over $5 million in dead money, but that’d still free up nearly $8 million in cap space. And it would give the Saints’ offensive line an average age of about 24 years old, with everyone under contract through at least the next two seasons. Juicy.

BIGGEST SLEEPER: Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Round 5, No. 161 overall

With a pair of Pro Bowl wide receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) and a trio of talented tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and — for now — O.J. Howard), Tom Brady arrived in Tampa to quite a collection of pass catchers. Did the Bucs just nab the cherry on top: a refined slot receiver? Johnson rewrote the Minnesota record book last season, racking up 86 catches for 1,318 yards. And the bulk of that production — 67 catches and 1,086 yards, per Pro Football Focus — came in the slot. The 6-foot-1, 206-pounder is a different kind of player than the undersized, cat-quick slot machines Brady maximized in New England. Johnson doesn’t shake cornerbacks, he bullies them. Johnson lacks top-end juice and welcomes contact, excelling in contested-catch situations. But he does share one common trait with Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola: pristine route-running ability. If Johnson can clean up the drops, he could quickly become a useful weapon in TB12’s arsenal.

TEAM GRADES

NOTE: Draft classes are ranked from best to worst within the division.

RANK

1

BUCCANEERS: A-

» Round 1: (No. 13 overall) Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa.
» Round 2: (45) Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota.
» Round 3: (76) Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Vanderbilt.
» Round 5: (161) Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota.
» Round 6: (194) Khalil Davis, DT, Nebraska.
» Round 7: (241) Chapelle Russell, LB, Temple; (245) Raymond Calais, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette.

So, what’s it gonna be, Bucs fans: Tompa Bay or Tampa Brady? GM Jason Licht continues to do everything in his power to put the new franchise face in the best possible position to succeed, using three of his first four picks on offensive needs. Wirfs looks like a plug-and-play starter at right tackle, with supreme athleticism and the biggest lower body I’ve ever laid eyes on at the NFL Scouting Combine. (Seriously, this man is a far superior species to me.) Round 3 frankly felt a little rich for Vaughn — RB Zack Moss’ violent, all-around game seemed a lot more enticing at that point — but the Buccaneers needed another backfield presence to join Ronald Jones II, and apparently the one-cut Vandy product was their guy. Johnson could be the final piece to Tampa’s loaded pack of pass catchers, as a big slot who runs the kind of nuanced routes Brady will appreciate. The one defensive player Licht snatched in the first five rounds is a gem. A versatile safety who’s perfect for today’s game, Winfield hits like his dad and has the playmaking instincts you’d expect from someone who grew up in NFL locker rooms. "When I was younger my dad would lay in his bed with his laptop, and I would be sitting right next to him watching film," Winfield said at the combine. Todd Bowles is gonna have fun with this newbie.

RANK

2

PANTHERS: B+

» Round 1: (No. 7 overall) Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn.
» Round 2: (38) Yetur Gross-Matos, Edge, Penn State; (64) Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois.
» Round 4: (113) Troy Pride Jr., CB, Notre Dame.
» Round 5: (152) Kenny Robinson, S, West Virginia.
» Round 6: (184) Bravvion Roy, DT, Baylor.
» Round 7: (221) Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, CB, Florida International.

If you watched the 2020 NFL Draft for five minutes, you heard the phrase "Rhule Restoration" 10 times. So, what exactly is that, besides snappy alliteration? Well, in the first draft of the Matt Rhule era, Carolina’s Rhule Restoration consisted of carpet-bombing the defense with draftees — ALL THE DRAFTEES. The Panthers became the first team in the common-draft era to use all of their picks on defensive players. It’s actually not that surprising, either. Carolina finished 31st in scoring defense last season. … And then one of the very best players in franchise history — linebacker Luke Kuechly — abruptly retired. … And then the Panthers’ CB1 signed a mega-deal with the Giants. … And then they lost four experienced disruptors up front ( Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler), as well as Eric Reid in the back end. Long story short, Carolina came into this draft with serious needs on all three levels of the defense. In Round 1, the Panthers passed on do-everything playmaker Isaiah Simmons in favor of a stout anchor to build around (Brown). In Round 2, they snagged a toolsy edge rusher to hunt opposite last year’s first-round pick, Brian Burns, and then traded back into the round to score Chinn, an intriguing hybrid who feels like store-brand Simmons. The most notable Day 3 addition was Pride, who could push for early playing time in a cornerback rotation currently topped by the inconsistent Donte Jackson and the awesomely named/minimally proven Corn Elder. Rhule Restorers … MOUNT UP!

RANK

3

SAINTS: B

» Round 1: (No. 24 overall) Cesar Ruiz, C, Michigan.
» Round 3: (74) Zack Baun, LB, Wisconsin; (105) Adam Trautman, TE, Dayton.
» Round 7: (240) Tommy Stevens, QB, Mississippi State.

Heading into the draft, New Orleans didn’t have a single glaring need. With an NFL-best 37 wins over the past three regular seasons, the Saints boast as well-rounded — and battle-tested — a roster as there is in the NFL today. So it’s no wonder they chose to package picks in multiple trade-ups, leaving the draft with the league’s smallest prospect haul. How does the class grade out? Not too shabby. Spending a first-round pick on an interior offensive linemen isn’t exactly sexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s senseless. Ruiz was the top pivot in his recruiting class out of high school, started at guard and center during three fine years of play in Ann Arbor and hits the NFL ready to start on Day 1. (Incumbent right guard Larry Warford and his hefty cap hit appear to be on borrowed time.) Baun gives New Orleans a versatile linebacker in the Kyle Van Noy mold. He can provide pressure off the edge, but also has the athleticism and awareness to hold his own in coverage. And Trautman’s an intriguing developmental prospect as a true Y tight end. At 6-5 and 255 pounds, he’s equal parts receiver and blocker, but his transition from the FCS to the NFL is gonna take time. Small class, big potential.

RANK

4

FALCONS: B-

» Round 1: (No. 16 overall) A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson.
» Round 2: (47) Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn.
» Round 3: (78) Matt Hennessy, C, Temple.
» Round 4: (119) Mykal Walker, LB, Fresno State; (134) Jaylinn Hawkins, S, Cal.
» Round 7: (228) Sterling Hofrichter, P, Syracuse.

Over the course of the pre-draft process, Jeff Okudah was widely considered the top cornerback prospect, while C.J. Henderson established himself as CB2. But the third-best corner in this class? That was a hotly debated topic. When the Falcons weighed in with their decision — taking Terrell, an Atlanta native, at No. 16 overall — many disapproved, including ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., who said the team "reached for a need, plain and simple." I have a sneaking suspicion there’s some recency bias at play here. Terrell, after all, had a rough night at the office in his last game, the College Football Playoff National Championship. On the brightest stage of his playing career, Terrell was torched by LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. But let’s be honest: Who didn’t get torched by Ja’Marr Chase? The Biletnikoff Award winner caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns — with the latter two marks setting SEC records — and he’s poised to be a very highly selected player in the 2021 draft. Outside of that tough outing, Terrell acquitted himself pretty darn well on the island. He’s long (6-1) and fast (4.42 40), too. And with everyone screaming "REACH!!" upon his selection, the 21-year-old should enter the NFL with a pretty big chip on his shoulder. Very interested to see how his career plays out.

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.

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