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NFC South draft recap: Did Atlanta’s rivals get better?

An unsettled division got a shot of talent. Will it be enough to help these teams compete with Atlanta?

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2023 NFL Draft - Portraits Photo by Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images

The Falcons, I feel pretty confident saying, are better than they were before the 2023 NFL Draft. We have to see how Arthur Smith pieces together the offense, but Bijan Robinson certainly adds to the talent level and big play ability of this football team, and the Falcons likely added a starting guard as well plus pieces with starting upside. Paired with a strong free agency, the Falcons are ready to put five listless, largely cap-strapped years behind them and start winning again.

It’s easy to be confident in that outcome because Atlanta’s so improved on paper—an actual pass rush even if it’s not an elite one, a dramatically improved secondary with Jessie Bates joining up, an offense without a turnstile at left guard and with the addition of another big-time weapon—and the NFC South is so unsettled. That makes it a nice time to check in while we’re experiencing that glow of optimism and see what the other three teams in the division did in the draft, and whether it might be enough to think they’re going to have a legitimate shot to finish ahead of the Falcons in the NFC South in 2023.

Let’s do that now.

Carolina Panthers

Round 1, No. 1 - QB Bryce Young, Alabama

Round 2, No. 39 - WR Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss

Round 3, No. 80 - EDGE D.J. Johnson, Oregon

Round 4, No. 114 - OL Chandler Zavala, North Carolina State

Round 5, No. 145 - S Jammie Robinson, Florida State

The Panthers picked the best pure quarterback in this draft, and the one most ready to contribute right away. He’ll be the Week 1 starter for Carolina, and while his lack of size is legitimately a drawback, Bryce Young figures to be at least a good quarterback right out of the gate. Assuming he does hit the ground running, there’s a baseline level of competence for this Carolina team that should keep them in the divisional race.

The question is how good the offense will be year one. I’m no great fan of Miles Sanders at running back, and the receiving group is going to be heavily reliant on the intriguing Mingo and an aging Adam Thielen. I don’t personally think it’s going to be more than league average this year, but obviously if Young is great and Mingo develops it gives them a lot to build on.

The rest of their picks were immediate depth that could be interesting down the line. Johnson should figure in for the team’s already talented pass rush rotation, while Robinson is a safety with starter’s upside down the line. Zavala may push for a starting job himself down the line, though likely not in 2023.

The Carolina defense is good enough to keep them afloat and an improved offense should be on the way, however slightly improved it may be, which makes the Panthers one of the most dangerous teams in this division. I think I’m much more worried about them 2024 than I am in 2023, but they should be in the mix with Atlanta and New Orleans for the NFC South title nonetheless. Young is the key for them, obviously.

New Orleans Saints

Round 1, No. 29 - DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson

Round 2, No. 40 - EDGE Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame

Round 3, No. 71 - RB Kendre Miller, TCU

Round 4, No. 103 - OL Nick Saldiveri, Old Dominion

Round 4, No. 127 - QB Jake Haener, Fresno State

Round 5, No. 146 - S Jordan Howden, Minnesota

Round 6, No. 195 - WR A.T. Perry, Wake Forest

I’m inclined to be, but I’m underwhelmed by this class.

Bresee is an athletic freak who could be dominant if everything breaks right, and should be an asset for a New Orleans defensive line that bled talent, but right now he’s just a good player rather than a great one. Ditto Foskey, an interesting pass rusher who needs time and work to overcome some of his limitations in terms of toolkit and consistency. If both get better in the pros, New Orleans will consider this class a success based on those two alone, but they’re good-but-not-great picks until we see it.

Everyone else is depth. Clearly the team foresees Miller having a major role if they took him in the third round, but there were backs still available who felt like better bets to have major roles early. Saldiveri, Haener, and Howden are immediate reserves, with Saldiveri potentially having the upside to push his way into a starting line down the line. Perry’s size and speed make him a deeply intriguing flier that late, even if he is inconsistent when it comes to actually catching the ball.

This is a class that addressed the Saints’ glaring needs along the defensive line and provided them with some interesting upside later on, but I’m not sure it moved the needle for a team that is solid but not great. They have to hope that Derek Carr is stellar and picks like Bresee, Foskey, and Miller turn out to be major hits, or they’re probably rolling along in that seven-to-eight win purgatory for another year. In an NFC South where no team is proven, New Orleans is probably good enough to stay in it until the end of the season. Personally, I hope they stink, but we probably won’t get that lucky.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Round 1, No. 19 - DL Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh

Round 2, No. 48 - OL Cody Mauch, North Dakota State

Round 3, No. 82 - DL YaYa Diaby, Louisville

Round 5, No. 153 - LB SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh

Round 6, No. 181 - DB Josh Hayes, Kansas State

Round 6, No. 191 - WR Trey Palmer, Nebraska

Round 6, No. 196 - DL Jose Ramirez, Eastern Michigan

I like this class quite a bit, but it probably doesn’t move the needle that much in 2023 for a team widely expected to be at the bottom of the NFC South. That’s what Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask at quarterback and a fairly quiet free agency period will do for you.

Kancey doesn’t have the kind of size teams covet at defensive tackle, but as an active and disruptive presence who could play inside and outside for Tampa Bay, he’s a fun player who has the potential to be really good. Ditto Diaby, a hyper-athletic pass rusher the Falcons showed some predraft interest in, and Ramirez, a pass rusher who will need to improve against the run and improve but should at least earn his way into the team’s rotation. An already talented Tampa Bay defensive front seven improves with those three and Dennis, a useful backup right out of the gate.

Mauch should start immediately at guard for Tampa Bay, too, while Palmer is a player who should at least settle in as a quality reserve at wide receiver. The Bucs only added a couple of obvious immediate starters, but the talent infusion up front on both sides of the ball can only help them.

They certainly would seem to be the furthest behind in terms of talent on offense in particular, however, and they seem ticketed for third or fourth in the division even with a really intriguing defense. If these picks pan out and they improve at quarterback in 2024, they can be dangerous agian, but more than likely it’ll be a couple of years before Tampa Bay is a real threat again.

What did you think of these classes, and how do you think the division will shake out in 2023?