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NFL draft grades, NFC South: Saints and Buccaneers land SOLID hauls; Falcons make baffling pick at No. 8

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 Nick Shook attempt a division-by-division assessment of the 2024 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 NFC South report card.

New Orleans Saints
Draft picks: 7

Round 1: Taliese Fuaga, OT, Oregon State (No. 14 overall)

Round 2: Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama (41)

Round 5: Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina (150) | Bub Means, WR, Pittsburgh (170) | Jaylan Ford, LB, Texas (175)

Round 6: Khristian Boyd, DT, Northern Iowa (199)

Round 7: Josiah Ezirim, OT, Eastern Kentucky (239)

When New Orleans spent its first-round pick on a powerful offensive tackle with a nasty demeanor, I have to imagine more than a few Saints fans immediately broke into a cold sweat. But not to fret, y’all! Taliese Fuaga is a very different prospect than Trevor Penning, the 2022 first-round pick who has struggled mightily in his first two pro seasons. First of all, this Oregon State product started 25 games over the past two seasons in the Pac-12, earning all-conference honors in each, so his passage into the NFL won’t be nearly as daunting as Penning’s drastic transition from FCS program Northern Iowa. Secondly, Fuaga already has a reputation as a technician with great balance, whereas Penning was viewed as more of a raw prospect with upside. Not to mention, Fuaga has the kind of skill set that could work quite well at the guard position, which might be key if Penning ever lives up to his draft pedigree and/or Ryan Ramczyk’s body stops failing him. Long story short: Fuaga was a rock-solid pick -- just like New Orleans’ second-round selection. There are traitsier cornerbacks in this draft class, but Kool-Aid McKinstry offers the most complete résumé, combining pedigree with high-level experience and an extremely well-rounded game. No wonder Mickey Loomis jumped up a few spots when the CB remained on the board after the draft’s first 40 picks. A five-star recruit out of high school, McKinstry was a starter in each of his three seasons under noted DB guru Nick Saban. While his long speed could be a bit lacking, he’s a smart, smooth, scheme-versatile cover man. McKinstry’s selection fed into the simmering trade rumors around Marshon Lattimore, but the new guy might actually be an eventual replacement for New Orleans’ other corner. Fresh off a breakout campaign, Paulson Adebo is now in a contract year. Another boffo season could price him out of NOLA. (Unless, of course, the cap isn’t real -- amirite, Saints fans??)

After those two strong selections, New Orleans had to wait more than 100 picks before coming on the clock again. So, unsurprisingly, the rest of the draft class doesn’t exactly jump off the page. That said, Spencer Rattler is a talented thrower who could provide some good sports talk radio fodder -- alongside last year’s fourth-round quarterback, Jake Haener -- should Derek Carr struggle to meet his $150 million expectations. And Khristian Boyd -- who ironically comes from Penning’s old stomping grounds at Northern Iowa -- could provide nice early returns as a rotational player on the nose.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draft picks: 7

Round 1: Graham Barton, C, Duke (No. 26 overall)

Round 2: Chris Braswell, OLB, Alabama (57)

Round 3: Tykee Smith, S, Georgia (89) | Jalen McMillan, WR, Washington (92)

Round 4: Bucky Irving, RB, Oregon (125)

Round 6: Elijah Klein, OG, Texas-El Paso (220)

Round 7: Devin Culp, TE, Washington (246)

Jason Licht placed a substantial bet on 2022 fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum by trading Carlton Davis III to Detroit in March. Then the Tampa Bay GM doubled down by avoiding the position altogether in the draft. Bold strategy, Jason -- we’ll see if it pays off. But enough about the picks the Buccaneers didn’t make -- how about the cards they actually turned in?

The first-round selection of Graham Barton could have been sponsored by OSHA, seeing how universally it was lauded for safeness. Truthfully, the Duke left tackle does appear to have a versatile skill set that could fit in any environment. In Tampa, he’ll probably man the pivot, where he played as a true freshman in Durham. Unfortunately, he can’t simultaneously play left guard, which remains a soft spot on the depth chart. But that high-floor pick kind of set the tone for the rest of the draft, as the Bucs continually hit singles with exceedingly solid picks. Stuck behind a murderers’ row of pass rushers during his first three years at Alabama, Chris Braswell finally got his opportunity this past fall and took full advantage, leading the SEC with 56 pressures, per PFF. After turning heads at the Senior Bowl, Braswell enjoyed a nice workout at the NFL Scouting Combine. There could be some untapped potential here. In Round 3, Licht appeared to target the slot, offensively and defensively. Jalen McMillan struggled with injuries this past season, but in 2022, he actually led Washington in receptions and receiving touchdowns -- yes, over Rome Odunze. Tykee Smith’s a versatile safety/nickel who’s much more physical force defender than sticky cover man, but he could see significant snaps Year 1 in the slot.

One more pick I’d like to spotlight, as it underscores the radically decent feel of this draft haul: fourth-rounder Bucky Irving. The Oregon running back was a consistent vessel for “FORGET THE TESTING!” pleas from impassioned draftniks over the past couple months, and for good reason. On film, he’s a compact, shifty, generally fun mighty mite of a ball-carrier. But a slow 40 time and inexplosive jumps in Indy sunk his draft stock.

Carolina Panthers
Draft picks: 7

Round 1: Xavier Legette, WR, South Carolina (No. 32 overall)

Round 2: Jonathon Brooks, RB, Texas (46)

Round 3: Trevin Wallace, LB, Kentucky (72)

Round 4: Ja'Tavion Sanders, TE, Texas (101)

Round 5: Chau Smith-Wade, CB, Washington State (157)

Round 6: Jaden Crumedy, DT, Mississippi State (200)

Round 7: Michael Barrett, LB, Michigan (240)

Clearly, Carolina went into this draft with a simple plan: Help Bryce Young. And clearly, given the No. 1 overall pick’s struggles as a rookie, that was the right plan. I’m just not sure about the execution.

On the plus side, the Panthers spent three of their first four picks on offensive weapons. Wise, given that Young significantly suffered from a punchless supporting cast in Year 1. But how many of these newbies will be able to offer immediate help in the quarterback’s massive Year 2? Let’s start at the top. Xavier Legette, whose loose lips in the lead-up to the draft led to some comical awkwardness for new head coach Dave Canales, is quite a physical specimen, having blazed a 4.39 40-yard dash at a rocked-up 221 pounds. But he didn’t really produce at South Carolina until his fifth and final season. And the biggest knock on his game? Unrefined route-running. The upside here is enticing, but this feels like it could take some time. Second-round pick Jonathan Brooks -- a smooth runner with good vision and solid pass-catching chops -- very well could be the best back in this draft class. But he’s still just six months removed from tearing his ACL. Will he be fully ready to rock in the coming season? Fourth-round pick Ja'Tavion Sanders was considered by many, including colleagues Bucky Brooks and Eric Edholm, as the No. 2 tight end in this draft. But in that pecking order, there was a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between Sanders and unanimous TE1 Brock Bowers. Touted as an athletic mismatch weapon, Sanders ran a surprisingly slow 40-yard dash (4.69 seconds) at the combine. Young and the Panthers need this trio to hit the ground running, but a slow jog could be the more reasonable expectation.

On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina entered the draft with a pretty big need at cornerback, partially because Jaycee Horn’s health woes continue to undermine his promising play. Surprisingly, the Panthers didn’t address the position until midway through Round 5. Chau Smith-Wade had two interceptions in the Senior Bowl, including a highlight-reel pick that he nearly took 84 yards to the house, but he might be a nickel-only in the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons
Draft picks: 8

Round 1: Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington (No. 8 overall)

Round 2: Ruke Orhorhoro, DT, Clemson (35)

Round 3: Bralen Trice, OLB, Washington (74)

Round 4: Brandon Dorlus, DL, Oregon (109)

Round 5: JD Bertrand, LB, Notre Dame (143)

Round 6: Jase McClellan, RB, Alabama (186) | Casey Washington, WR, Illinois (187) | Zion Logue, DT, Georgia (197)

Through seven picks, this draft had an extraordinarily chalky feel. Then the Falcons dropped an atomic bomb on every mock in the known universe, selecting Michael Penix Jr. a month after giving Kirk Cousins a four-year, $180 million deal. I’ve spent a week searching for a tangible explanation of Atlanta’s process, but still feel lost. 

Here’s what we know about the principle parties involved:

Here are my four biggest issues:

  1. The NFC South is there for the taking right now. The Bucs held the throne with a 9-8 record last season and an 8-9 mark in 2022. When Cousins signed with the Falcons, they immediately vaulted to the top of divisional odds. Sure feels like it's GO TIME. If it’s not? Then Atlanta shouldn’t have given a soon-to-be 36-year-old quarterback $100 million guaranteed in the first place. If it is? Don’t you think this roster could use a closer off the edge? Well, on that front …
  2. The curse of John Abraham is alive and well. Since Atlanta released Abraham in March of 2013, exactly one Falcon has posted double-digit sacks (Vic Beasley in 2016). Fontenot and Co. had their pick of the pass-rushing litter in this draft, but they opted for a backup passer. Consequently, Atlanta’s edge-rushing unit is headlined by Arnold Ebiketie, Lorenzo Carter, Zach Harrison and rookie third-rounder Bralen Trice. Damn you, Abraham!!!
  3. This draft class does include some potential developmental quarterbacks -- SEE: 21-year-old J.J. McCarthy, selected two slots after Atlanta’s pick -- who could be well-served by a redshirt year or two. Penix … is not that. This man has 45 college starts under his belt and is days away from his 24th birthday. Even if the Flacons still view him as something of a developmental quarterback, spending the No. 8 overall selection on a developmental quarterback is the definition of a luxury pick, but Atlanta hasn't had the luxury of a winning season since 2017. So all comparisons to Green Bay’s approach with Jordan Love or Kansas City’s top-10 selection of Patrick Mahomes just ring hollow.
  4. This grade will make people think I’m disparaging Penix. I’m not. In college football’s national semifinals, he artfully cooked a loaded Texas team that just set a program record with 11 players drafted. I was in awe of that performance, just like everyone else. What I’m disparaging here is the process. I didn’t understand it on draft night, I don’t understand it today and I’m unlikely to understand it for at least a few years, if ever. When such a bold decision is made with SUCH a premium pick, it acutely trumps everything else in the draft class. Thus, in the admittedly shortsighted, unfair exercise of instant draft grading, I’m forced to hand out a D. And in this instance, the D is for dumbfounding.

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