2020 NFL Draft fits for NFC South teams: Players to watch this college season who'd be ideal need-fillers
Here are the prospects fans of NFC South teams should fall in love with during the 2019 college season
As a primer for the college football season that ties in the NFL and the NFL Draft, we want to provide the top 2020 prospects who'd perfectly fill next year's needs for every professional team in division-by-division installments.
The NFC South is up today, and as usual, most of these clubs need defensive help. Ironically, the Saints, the most offensively dynamic club in the division, are likely to address the receiver position early in next year's draft.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest need: Receiver
The fit: Clemson WR Tee Higgins
Essentially, you want to see a team receiving-yard market share of 30% or higher from a top prospect in his final year in college. There's more leeway in the second-to-last season. As a 19-year-old sophomore in 2018 -- likely his second to last with the Tigers -- Higgins accounted for 22.3% of Clemson's receiving yards. For context, as a 19 year old at Texas A&M, Mike Evans had a 22.6% receiving-yard market share. DeAndre Hopkins, at the same age at Clemson in 2011, accounted for 24.7% of Clemson's receiving yards.
At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Higgins is an intimidating, angular presence on the outside. He glides down the field effortlessly, understands how to utilize his sizable frame to shield defensive backs in jump ball situations, and has impressive build-up speed.
For as reliable as he is making catches away from his frame and creating separation on possession-type routes near the sticks, Higgins is dangerous running the vertical route tree. This touchdown against NC State last season shows his ability to run away from off coverage:
Even after the Saints inevitably extend Michael Thomas to what'll likely be the largest contract at the receiver position, the team will need to make an early-draft investment at that spot with the future in mind.
Thomas garnered 147 targets and made 125 catches last year. Alvin Kamara was second on the team in both categories (105 targets and 81 receptions). Third highest? Veteran tight end Ben Watson who was targeted just 46 times and caught 35 passes.
The receiver position is decidedly thin in New Orleans. Higgins would provide New Orleans a young, Ted Ginn-esque deep threat with serious size.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest need: Edge rusher
The fit: Penn State EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos
Gross-Matos' size and length stand out on the football field. Listed at 6-5 and 265 pounds heading into his junior season at Penn State, he seemingly has tentacles for arms, and he knows how to use them.
In 2018, YGM had 54 total tackles, 20 tackles for loss along with eight sacks and two forced fumbles. While not the twitchiest, most explosive outside rusher, his long strides and loose hips allow him to close on the football in a hurry from the backside, and he covers a lot of ground quickly without taking many steps, which helps his speed around the corner as a pass rusher.
Look at this swipe move and the luxuries afford by his wingspan when nearing the quarterback on his play against Michigan State last season. Gross-Matos is No. 99 at the bottom portion of the defensive line:
Even with fourth-round edge rusher Anthony Nelson in the mix, the Buccaneers desperately need outside pass-rushing help. They finished 25th in defensive pressure rate last season (31.3%), and Nelson was the team's most substantial offseason addition at that spot.
Jason Pierre-Paul will be 31 in 2020 and would save Tampa Bay $12.5M if released without any dead cap. Carl Nassib, who's mainly been ineffective as a pass rusher, is set to hit free agency in 2020. So is Noah Spence, the Bucs' second-round selection in 2016 who enters this season with 6.5 sacks in his first three years in the NFL. He played a grand total of 45 defensive snaps in 2018.
Gross-Matos would give Tampa Bay a long, athletic, towering presence on the edge of their defensive line to pair with Nelson, another sizable, plus athlete at the position.
Biggest need: Defensive tackle
The fit: South Carolina DL Javon Kinlaw
You need to watch Kinlaw's film to understand how disruptive he was in 2018, because the stat sheet won't necessarily tell you. He had just nine tackles for loss and four sacks but generated gobs of pressure from his interior defensive line spot.
Interestingly built for a defensive tackle at 6-6 and 302 pounds, Kinlaw had five batted passes last year and demonstrated efficient pass-rushing moves to consistently beat guards and centers in the SEC.
Check the strength he put on display on this counter move against Ole Miss a season ago. He's No. 3 aligned at right defensive tackle:
Newly signed Gerald McCoy, first-round bust Vernon Butler, and rotational depth Kyle Love are all set to hit free agency in 2020, so even with star Kawaan Short locked up through the 2021 campaign, the Panthers, once loaded at the defensive tackle position, are in dire need of addressing that spot early in the 2020 Draft.
With his height and length, Kinlaw could kick out to end in some 3-4 looks of Carolina's new hybrid defense, but he's best on the inside using his burst, hand use, and power to create havoc in the backfield.
Biggest need: Edge rusher
The fit: Michigan State EDGE Kenny Willekes
Until he broke his left fibula in the third quarter of Michigan State's bowl game in late December, Willekes was leaning toward entering the 2019 Draft after a dazzling junior season for the Spartans.
Winner of the Big 10's defensive lineman of the year award for his efforts last year, the big, polished edge rusher is trending toward being a first-round pick in 2020. Willekes had eight sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss to go along with four batted passes, a forced fumble, and an interception.
He routinely wins with outstanding leverage -- that creates plenty of power -- speed, and a finely tuned collection of pass-rushing maneuvers.
This sack against Michigan embodies everything Willekes is all about on the outside. Note his acceleration off the ball to set up the inside power move:
The Falcons finished in 30th in defensive pressure rate last season. Atlanta's defense pressured the opposing quarterback on 29.6% of the drop backs it faced. Only the Lions and Raiders were less efficient getting after the quarterback.
On top of that, Vic Beasley is set to hit free agency after the season, as is Adrian Clayborn. Tak McKinley needs a running mate on the outside in the long term. The 6-4, 265-pound Willekes can be that guy, and he isn't a liability against the run, meaning he's an edge rusher who can stay on the field for 65% or more of the snaps per game in the NFL.
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