As much as “don’t draft for need” gets mentioned with the NFL Draft, the truth is that teams do draft for need (and they should). That’s why I’m taking a top down approach in this column, spending far more time studying exact team needs than which prospects are actually good. I want to be specific about the exact position a team is looking for, so instead of listing “safety”, you’ll see “single-high free safety” or “two-high strong safety” when necessary. As for the mock draft part of the column, I’ll highlight each Round 1-3 pick in red and list their expected draft position (EDP) courtesy of Benjamin Robinson’s Grinding The Mocks. Consider everything here to be predictive rather than what I (a donkey) would do if I were calling the shots.
Atlanta Falcons Team Needs
1. Offensive Guard
The Falcons cut 32-year-old LG James Carpenter and are transitioning from Alex Mack to 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy at center. Coach Arthur Smith’s entire offensive is reliant on a quality play-action offense, so offensive line talent is needed.
1.04 Options: Penei Sewell (EDP: 5), Rashawn Slater (11)
2.35 Options: Alex Leatherwood (37), Landon Dickerson (49), Wyatt Davis (46)
3.68 Options: Quinn Meinerz (61), Trey Smith (63), Trey Hill (75)
Keanu Neal followed Dan Quinn to Dallas and Ricardo Allen went to Cincinnati, leaving Atlanta with 2020 fourth-round SS Jaylinn Hawkins and 31-year-old backup FS Erik Harris as starters in Dean Pees’ defense. It’s the worst safety duo on paper. Because Pees’ defense is so flexible, the Falcons can at least target single-high or two-high safeties in the draft.
1.04 Options: NA
2.35 Options: Trevon Moehrig (EDP: 27),
3.68 Options: Richie Grant (58), Andre Cisco (64), Hamsah Nasirildeen (83)
3. Edge Rusher
The Falcons were 23rd in adjusted sack rate in 2020 and desperately need Dante Fowler to rebound after a 4.0-sack season. He has a $18 million cap hit this season. Even if Fowler shows more under a new defensive coordinator, the Falcons need a second edge rusher with below-average end Steven Means heading to free agency and 2017 first-round bust Takk McKinley waived.
1.04 Options: NA
2.35 Options: Azeez Ojulari (EDP: 26), Jayson Oweh (36), Joseph Ossai (41)
3.68 Options: Patrick Jones (75), Ronnie Perkins (75), Rashad Weaver (85)
4. Off-Ball Linebacker
Deion Jones is an above-average linebacker with plenty of speed, but the Falcons need another body in the middle of the field, especially with Neal (100 tackles in 2020) leaving. Current starting LB Foyesade Oluokun is a 2018 sixth-rounder heading into the final season of his rookie contract.
1.04 Options: Micah Parsons (EDP: 13)
2.35 Options: Zaven Collins (EDP: 28), Jamin Davis (40), Nick Bolton (44)
3.68 Options: Jabril Cox (EDP: 56), Dylan Moses (67), Chazz Surratt (79)
Carolina Panthers Team Needs
Teddy Bridgewater is a low-end starter, and the Panthers are treating him as such. They were in on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes and will chase Deshaun Watson if he’s available. I’m a tad less convinced that Carolina is in love with any of the non-Lawrence/Wilson rookie quarterbacks, however, because their aggressive owner would’ve okayed a move up to No. 3 if they were set. With in-division rival holding the valuable No. 4 pick now, Carolina may have to wait until 2022 to find their guy. That wasn’t the plan going into the offseason.
2.39 Options: NA
3.73 Options: Kyle Trask (EDP: 53), Jamie Newman (95), Kellen Mond (107)
2. Offensive Tackle
The Panthers have about 400 versatile options on the offensive line right now, but none are true difference makers. That’s especially true at left tackle where 2019 second-rounder Greg Little (old regime) and ex-Cowboy Cameron Erving (two years, $10M) are set to compete. Both can kick inside if the Panthers find a franchise left tackle.
1.08 Options: Penei Sewell (EDP: 5), Rashawn Slater (11)
2.39 Options: Liam Eichenberg (EDP: 36), Alex Leatherwood (37), Dillon Radunz (55)
3.73 Options: James Hudson (EDP: 66), Walker Little (92), Brady Christensen (93)
3. Outside Corner
The Panthers are losing CB2 Rasul Douglas and slot CB Corn Elder to free agency, leaving CB1 Donte Jackson and little else at the position. 2020 fourth-rounder Troy Pride and 31-year-old COVID opt-out Rashaan Melvin are currently battling for a starting spot on the boundary. Carolina was 24th in passing EPA defense last year.
1.08 Options: Patrick Surtain (EDP: 11), Jaycee Horn (15), Caleb Farley (16)
2.39 Options: Greg Newsome (EDP: 32), Eric Stokes (42), Tyson Campbell (44)
3.73 Options: Ifeatu Melifonwu (EDP: 65), Kelvin Joseph (69), Paulson Adebo (75)
4. Slot Receiver
D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Christian McCaffrey soak up most of the targets in Carolina, but a Curtis Samuel replacement is needed. Ex-Seahawk David Moore (two-year, $4.75M) is currently starting.
1.08 Options: Jaylen Waddle (EDP: 10)
2.39 Options: Kadarius Toney (EDP: 31), Rondale Moore (48), Elijah Moore (57)
3.73 Options: Atwell (EDP: 63), Amon-Ra St. Brown (80), Marquez Stevenson (98)
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New Orleans Saints Team Needs
1. Outside Corner
Janoris Jenkins’ release shows how “the salary cap is a myth” is a myth. His direct replacement isn’t on the roster, and inconsistent CB1 Marshon Lattimore just had a run-in with the police last month. New Orleans led the NFL in Cover 2 man snaps in 2020.
1.28 Options: Caleb Farley (EDP: 16), Greg Newsome (32), Eric Stokes (42)
2.60 Options: Tyson Campbell (EDP: 44), Asante Samuel (49), Ifeatu Melifonwu (65)
3.98 Options: Paulson Adebo (75), Shaun Wade (79), RoDarius Williams (83)
3.105 Options: Israel Mukuamu (EDP: 97), Benjamin St-Juste (100), Camryn Bynum (102)
2. Outside Receiver
Michael Thomas is a stud underneath, but with 34-year-old Emmanuel Sanders cut, the rest of the depth chart is lacking. Tre’Quan Smith only has 80 receptions through three seasons and ranked 113th out of 140 qualifying receivers in yards per route run last year. Speedy 2020 UDFA Marquez Callaway could be a name to watch in 2021.
1.28 Options: Rashod Bateman (EDP: 30), Terrace Marshall (36)
2.60 Options: Dyami Brown (EDP: 73), Tylan Wallace (81)
3.98 Options: Seth Williams (EDP: 92), Nico Collins (97)
3.105 Options: Sage Surratt (EDP: 98), D’Wayne Eskridge (110)
Kwon Alexander was released ($13.1M in cap savings) following his Christmas-day Achilles tear, and the Saints don’t have his replacement on the roster as long as 2020 third-rounder Zach Baun stays as a situational edge rusher. 32-year-old stud Demario Davis needs a running mate.
1.28 Options: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (EDP: 25), Zaven Collins (28), Jamin Davis (40)
2.60 Options: Nick Bolton (EDP: 44), Jabril Cox (56), Dylan Moses (67)
3.98 Options: Chazz Surratt (EDP: 79), Baron Browning (80)
3.105 Options: Monty Rice (EDP: 115)
4. Nose Tackle
The Saints traded NT Malcom Brown for salary cap reasons. There are plenty of three-tech options on the depth chart, but none perfectly fit that run-stuffing nose tackle role that Brown had. He was sixth out of 129 defensive tackles in run stop percentage in 2020.
1.28 Options: NA
2.60 Options: Levi Onwuzurike (EDP: 48), Daviyon Nixon (50), Alim McNeill (74)
3.98 Options: Marlon Tuipulota (EDP: 89), Tommy Togiai (101)
3.105 Options: Tommy Togiai (101), Tyler Shelvin (107)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Team Needs
1. Edge Rusher(s)
The Bucs, who return all 22 starters and their coaching staff, don’t have a glaring need. So this is an impossible exercise. Shaq Barrett headlines the edge rushing depth chart and Jason Pierre-Paul is a quality two, but JPP is 32 years old and there’s little depth behind him.
1.32 Options: Kwity Paye (EDP: 18), Gregory Rousseau (21), Jaelan Phillips (23)
2.64 Options: Joe Tryon (EDP: 48), Carlos Basham (51), Patrick Jones (75)
3.95 Options: Rashad Weaver (EDP: 85), Dayo Odeyingbo (90), Payton Turner (100)
2. Defensive Tackle
1.32 Options: Christian Barmore (EDP: 28)
2.64 Options: Levi Onwuzurike (EDP: 48), Jay Tufele (EDP: 74), Marvin Wilson (75)
3.95 Options: Jaylen Twyman (EDP: 91), Milton Williams (95), Tommy Togiai (101)
3. Strong Safety
Jordan Whitehead is a former fourth-rounder heading into the final year of his contract. He’s been a fringe starter for two-plus seasons. Finding a quality starter alongside 2020 second-round Antoine Winfield on Day 2 this year would simply be unfair.
1.32 Options: Trevon Moehrig (EDP: 27)
2.64 Options: Richie Grant (EDP: 58), Andre Cisco (64)
3.95 Options: Hamsah Nasirildeen (EDP: 83), Talanoa Hufanga (91), Paris Ford (123)
4. Offensive Guard
2015 second-round LG Ali Marpet is a stud, and 2018 third-round RG Alex Cappa is a decent starter, too. But there really aren’t too many needs, and Cappa is coming off a January fractured ankle. With only one more year left on Cappa’s contract, a rookie would provide insurance both in 2021 and 2022.
1.32 Options: Alijah Vera-Tucker (EDP: 17), Alex Leatherwood (37)
2.64 Options: Wyatt Davis (EDP: 46), Quinn Meinerz (61), Trey Smith (63)
3.95 Options: Aaron Banks (EDP: 102), Deonte Brown (111)