Breaking down the NFC South

This is the fourth in a series about the NFL Draft, which will be held April 26 and 27.<br> <br> <b>Today: The NFC South</b><br>

Atlanta

The Falcons did a good job re-signing their young players as they got linebacker Keith Brooking, wide receivers Brian Finneran and Trevor Gaylor, tight end Brian Kozlowski, tackle Michael Thompson, and defensive back Fred Weary - among others - to sign their names on new contracts. Atlanta has also been active signing other teams' free agents, as safety Cory Hall, tight end Lamont Hall, wide receiver MarTay Jenkins, cornerbacks Tod McBride and Tyrone Williams, linebacker Keith Newman, and defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina were signed as unrestricted free agents.

The Falcons also broke the bank to sign Buffalo franchise wide receiver Peerless Price, costing them a boatload of cash and their first round pick this year.

Have all of those moves made this a better team? Maybe. It's been proven, however, that you can't buy a Super Bowl in the NFL. And the Falcons might also find themselves in cap hell if they don't control their free-spending ways.

Even with the signings of Weary and Green Bay's McBride and Williams, the Falcons are still weak in the secondary. Atlanta could also use an outside linebacker. But with their first pick now belonging to Buffalo, the Falcons will have to settle for a second-tier defensive back or linebacking prospect.

If they go for a defensive back, cornerbacks Kevin Garrett, Nnamida Asomugha, or Dennis Weathersby could be the pick, with safeties Rasheen Mathis, Terrance Holt, or Ken Hamlin also being possibilities.

With their 3-4 defense, the Falcons will be looking at outside linebackers who fit the Steelers mold. That could mean a tweener like Antwaan Peak, or Clint Mitchell could be the guy.

Carolina

John Fox did a masterful job winning with this band of misfits last season. He rid the team of some excess baggage this offseason and has added valuable veterans like running back Stephen Davis, wide receivers Kevin Dyson and Ricky Proehl, guard Doug Brzezinski, and linebacker Greg Favors.

But the biggest move, and one that will be the most scrutinized, will be the signing of former New Orleans backup QB Jake Delhomme. Delhomme, who has very little experience, was brought in to compete with Rodney Peete, who was also re-signed for the starting job. If Delhomme works out, the Panthers may have finally solved the quarterback problems that have plagued them since Kerry Collins quit on the team. If not, it will be a long year in Charlotte.

Brezezinski will help solve the team's guard problems, but this team's offensive line situation is horrible. Corner help is also needed, as is defensive tackle.

Having given Delhomme a running back and pair of wide receivers to go with talented Muhsin Muhammad, the Panthers have to seriously consider taking another offensive lineman with their first pick to solidify their offense. And with the ninth-overall pick, they should get a shot at a good one. The Panthers will have to take a long hard look at corner Marcus Trufant if he's still available. More than likely, however, their pick will be offensive tackle Jordan Gross, considered the best prospect in this draft on the line.

New Orleans

The Saints are a tough team to gauge. They get rid of a good, young offensive tackle  in Kyle Turley and sign former former Steelers left tackle Wayne Gandy, who is on the downside of his career. They have also signed linebacker Orlando Ruff and cornerback Ashley Ambrose. Strong safety Sammy Knight exercised an escape clause in his contract, leaving New Orleans with a hole in its secondary, while linebacker Charlie Clemons also left. But with a pair of first-round picks in this year's draft - their own at 17, and Miami's at 18 thanks to the Ricky Williams' deal - the Saints are loaded to get two quality players or move up into the top 10 to grab one of this year's studs.

If the Saints move up, it will be to grab one of the top two corners in this draft -  Terrance Newman or Marcus Trufant. If they stay where they're at and don't deal one of the first rounders to New England for safety Tebucky Jones, New Orleans may take a chance on safeties Troy Polamalu or Mike Doss or cornerback Andre Woolfolk, and grab a defensive tackle with the other pick, with Miami's William Joseph, Texas A&M's Ty Warren, or Oklahoma State's Kevin Williams being possibilities. Current starting DTs Norman Hand and Grady Jackson aren't getting any younger.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs shipped their first rounder this season to the Oakland Raiders for head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden helped them to a Super Bowl, but the cost is great.

Free agency has also cost the team backup QB Rob Johnson  - no big loss - and safety Dexter Jackson and linebacker Al Singleton - losses which were more significant. Linebacker Dwayne Rudd was signed this week.

How this team won with the offensive line it put on the field in 2002 is amazing. The Steelers blitzed them to death in each of the past two seasons to expose just how bad a line it is. Upgrades are needed across the board. But Gruden will have to wait until the 64th pick to get any help there. By then, he'll be looking at players such as Iowa center Bruce Nelson, guards Vincent Manuwai and Montrae Holland, or tackles Jon Stinchcomb, Ben Johnson, or Derrick Dockery.

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com



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