Grading the 2014 NFL Draft: Wideouts taking over NFC South

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Grading an NFL Draft immediately after it occurs is akin to giving your compliments to the chef based on the menu rather than actually waiting to taste the food. It will take at least three years before we can truly assess how the 32 NFL teams fared over the weekend. But waiting is no fun. As such, let's take a take at which teams appear to have done the best job of filling needs and building for the future via the seven rounds of the 2014 draft.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons' primary goal in the off-season was to get bigger and tougher at the line of scrimmage and despite focusing on that during free agency, it was again the play throughout the draft, beginning with the safest player in the 2014 class, OT Jake Matthews. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman lacks Matthews' polish or consistency but he offers extraordinary athleticism for a 6-6, 310 pounder. The Falcons addressed two other significant areas of concern with free safety Dezmen Southward and one of the top backs in the draft in Devonta Freeman, a Ray Rice-clone who could spell (or eventually replace) Steven Jackson. Day Three linebackers Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr are interesting prospects who could find a niche in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's hybrid scheme. Grade: B

Was big receiver Kelvin Benjamin a reach at No. 28 overall? Maybe.  (USATSI)
Was big receiver Kelvin Benjamin a reach at No. 28 overall? Maybe. (USATSI)

Carolina Panthers

I projected the Panthers to select wideout Kelvin Benjamin (in the second round) so I understand the fit. At 6-5, 240 pounds, he offers incredible size, including a ridiculous catch-radius. He isn't particularly quick or a polished route-runner and therefore I believe he was a reach at No. 28 overall. Defensive lineman Kony Ealy offers intriguing athleticism, but like Benjamin, flashed rather than dominated at the collegiate level. I like the rest of Carolina's picks. Guard Trai Turner is a physical, athletic interior lineman with future starting ability and safety Tre Boston is a big hitter. Bene Benewikere is instinctive and quick to the ball but may not be a future starter in the NFL and cornerback was a concern. Given the talent already on the roster, running back shouldn't be, though the Panthers nabbed Tyler Gaffney in the sixth. I like the talent of the players made but this looked like a draft class in which GM Dave Gettleman took the best-player-available strategy. I, too, believe in the principle but for a club seemingly on the verge of a big jump, I would have liked more attention spent at receiver, offensive tackle and corner. Grade C-

New Orleans Saints

The surprising decision to trade Darren Sproles meant that the Saints needed to find playmakers and the club aggressively did just that in moving up to secure Brandin Cooks, a dynamic athlete with elusiveness and acceleration. Cooks is talented enough on his own but given his fit in this offense (and the fact that he has Drew Brees throwing him the ball), Cooks could be an immediate impact performer worthy of Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Not surprisingly, the Saints focused on the defensive side of the ball throughout most of the rest of the draft, gambling on the long, athletic athletes for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to mold with cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell. Each boasts the length, agility and speed to out-play their selections but were highly inconsistent throughout their college careers. Grade: C+

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lovie Smith may not have been the Chicago Bears head coach when the combination of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey truly took off a season ago but it was clear that his preference for huge receivers carried with him in his relocation to Tampa, nabbing 6-5, 231-pound wide receiver Mike Evans in the first round and 6-6, 258 pound tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second to complement incumbent star Vincent Jackson (6-5, 230). The strategy of landing similar players to the ones Smith coached in Chicago was even more clear a round later when he and new GM Jason Licht landed Charles Sims, an elite pass-catcher at running back very much in the mold of Matt Forte. Smith's struggles in Chicago didn't come so much in developing skill-position talent as they did with offensive linemen, and so Bucs' fans may be holding their breath to see how quickly talented but raw blockers Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile handle the jump to the pros. Speedy slot receiver Robert Herron, on the other hand, could surprise as a sixth round pick. Grade: B-

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