Atlanta Falcons

Making The Grade?

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The NFL Draft is over and now we have an idea of what each team will look like next year.

Several players will surprise or disappoint fans as time goes on. Let’s take a look around the NFC South and see how each team did.

Atlanta: The Falcons did a good job on not reaching for a quarterback in the first round.

They selected USC wide receiver Drake London with the 8th pick. He’s a big target at 6’3 7/8 and 219 pounds. In 8 games last season he had 88 receptions for 1,084 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Calvin Ridley is suspended the entire season so he will be the #1 receiver. He should do well paired with tight end Kyle Pitts.

In the second round they drafted Edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State) and linebacker Troy Anderson (Montana State). In Anderson’s case I think they fell in love with measurables. He’s 6’3 ½, 243 lbs. and he ran a 4.42 40-yard dash.

Ebiketie played his first three seasons at Temple. In 2021 he had 62 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

They also drafted quarterback Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), edge rusher DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky), running back Tyler Allgeier (BYU), guard Justin Shaffer (UGA) and tight end John FitzPatrick (UGA).

Grade: B

Carolina: The Panthers selected tackle Ikem Ekwonu (NC State) with the 6th pick.

Ekwonu is a great combination of size (6’4, 310 lbs.), power and athletic ability.

Carolina had the 31st ranked offensive line last season so this helps address a serious need.

Trades for Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson left them light on picks.

Carolina also drafted QB Matt Corral (Ole Miss), linebacker Brandon Smith (Penn State), edge rusher Amare Barno (Va Tech), guard Cade Mays (Tennessee) and corner back Kalon Barnes (Baylor).

Getting Corral in the third round may be great value for a potential starting quarterback.

Smith should compete in the linebacker rotation.

Grade: A-

New Orleans: The Saints had two first round picks and they got WR Chris Olave (Ohio State) and tackle Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa). They should both be immediate contributors.

Trevor Penning is reminiscent of Terron Armstead as a prospect. He’s an uber-athletic tackle coming from a small school. He’ll now replace Armstead, who started 93 games for the Saints over the past nine seasons before signing with the Dolphins this offseason.

Olave was extremely productive in college and he might be the best route runner in this draft class.

The other picks were CB Alontae Taylor (Tennessee), LB D’Marco Jackson (Appalachian State) and defensive lineman Jordan Jackson (Air Force).

Grade: B+

Tampa Bay: The Bucs didn’t have a first-round pick. They had two second round picks and they got defensive lineman Logan Hall (Houston) and guard Luke Goedeke (Central Michigan).

Hall will probably begin his career as a defensive tackle but could develop into a pass-rusher. Goedeke might be the biggest sleeper among interior linemen.

They also selected RB Rachaad White (Arizona State), TE Cade Otton (Washington), kicker Jake Camarda (UGA), CB Zyon McCollum (Sam Houston State), TE Ko Kieft (Minnesota) and edge rusher Andre Anthony (LSU).

I don’t think there are any All-Pro players in this draft class. This draft is more about getting role players that can help them get back to the Super Bowl.

Grade: B

Needy NFC South

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The 2022 draft starts April 28th in Paradise, Nevada. I’m going to take a look at the NFC South and see who each team will draft in the first round.

#6 Carolina: The Panthers (5 – 12) have several positions they need to address. Quarterback is the biggest glaring weakness. They did trade for Sam Darnold last April. He started the season well but suffered fractured scapula during the game against New England and he missed seven games.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett would be a good pick if he’s still available. He had a breakout senior season, throwing for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns, 7 interceptions while completing 67% of his passes.

If they don’t get him NC State tackle Ikem Ekwonu would also be a good pick. He’s a very good run blocker but he still needs to get better in pass protection.

#8 Atlanta: The Falcons (7 – 10) announced they have no plans to move on from Matt Ryan. The number one receiver Calvin Ridley only played in five games before missing the rest of the season. Surprisingly, it was not due to injury but to deal with personal issues. Atlanta also needs to improve on the offensive and defensive lines.

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeux would be a great fit. The Falcons have struggled with getting pressure on the quarterback for a few seasons and he can change that. He had 7 sacks and 2 forced fumbles last season.

Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson could also fill a void if Ridley is traded. He had 70 catches for the Buckeyes with 1,058 yards and 12 scores.

#18 New Orleans: The Saints (9 – 8) had several injuries last season and started a few quarterbacks. They still wound up over .500. Sean Payton has resigned as head coach and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has replaced him.

Drew Brees retired after the 2020 season and Jameis Winston was supposed to replace him. He suffered a season ending injury so we do not know if they will resign him or move in a different direction. Star receiver Michael Thomas also missed all of last season.

If they pick a quarterback Matt Corral from Ole Miss will get selected.  He passed for 3,349 yards, 20 touchdowns, 5 picks and completed 68% of his passes. On paper he’s good but he struggles in big games.

Wide receiver Chris Olave from Ohio State could also be an option. He caught 63 passes for 936 yards and 13 TD’s.

#27 Tampa Bay: The Bucs (13 – 4) had a great season. They lost to the Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs. Tom Brady has retired after the season. I believe they will try to get a veteran QB to replace him as a free agent.  They could also lose Chris Godwin in free agency.

Boise State WR Khalil Shkir would be a good replacement. He primarily played in the slot last season. He only had 22% of his snaps were out wide in 2021. He caught 77 passes for 1,117 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Texas A&M offensive lineman Kenyon Green could also be an option. He is versatile and could play guard or right tackle. He has more than 35 starts in his three-year career so he has a lot of experience.

Gurley Reclamation

By: Jeff Doke

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

When Todd Gurley wrapped up his time between the hedges in 2015, he was expected to land somewhere between Herschel Walker and Terrell Davis in the pantheon of UGA alumni in the NFL.

For a while there, it looked like he was going to meet those lofty expectations. After a sophomore slump in 2016, Gurley followed up his 2015 Rookie of the Year Award with some serious hardware; two straight Pro Bowls in 2017 & 2018, 1st team All-Pro for both years and NFL leader in rushing touchdowns in those same years.

Then, the wheels started to come off.

The knee issues, that cost him 3 games in his already NCAA violation-shortened final campaign in Athens, raised their ugly head during the 2018 playoffs and the 2019 season as well.

Gurley saw a significant drop in every metric from 2018 to 2019, and it cost him his job just two years removed from a massive $60 million extension.

Those numbers fell even further during his one season with the Atlanta Falcons. The fewest yards, attempts, and touchdowns in his career – combined with some costly mental errors – meant his return to the Peach State was over before it really had a chance to get started.

The fall from grace is staggering when you look at it. To go from a league-leading multi-millionaire to an unsigned free agent in two years is almost unheard of.

The arthritic knee – which was the focus of great speculation leading up to Super Bowl LIII – seems to be more of a career-threatening issue than originally expected.

The situation in Atlanta seemed to have been tailor-made for the Tarboro, NC native, but the results simply weren’t there and the powers that be in Flowery Branch decided “one year is enough, thanks.”

So where does Gurley go now? Last month, it seemed like he was destined to join the Detroit Lions backfield, joining fellow Dawg D’Andre Swift and the former Packer Jamaal Williams.

Gurley made a visit to the Lions facility and talks progressed, but no contract. Last week, he made another unfruitful visit, this time with the Baltimore Ravens.

Between the two teams, the Ravens seem like the unlikelier choice. He’d be battling Justice “I’m Not Related to Tyreek” Hill for the third spot behind J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.

Plus, the Ravens only have a scant $11 million left in cap space – not exactly the wiggle room you need to get into a bidding war, and that’s exactly what it looks like Gurley is trying to force.

One must wonder, though, if that’s the best strategy for an injury-plagued back looking for his third team in three years. Granted, he could have a comeback season for the ages on tap for this year, but until we see him on the field it’s anybody’s guess.

Gurley will make a roster this year, of that I have no doubt. More than likely, it will be with the Lions, but there are some fairly intriguing options out there as well.

For example; the Miami Dolphins. Myles Gaskins is a serviceable if uninspiring starter.

The Fins signed Malcom Brown in the offseason and drafted Gerrid “that’s not how you spell that last name” Doaks in the 7th round, so there’s competition to be had if Gurley decides to head south.

The Buffalo Bills. The Mafia has had some workhorses in the backfield over the years; Thurman Thomas, Travis Henry, Marshawn Lynch. 2021, though? Not so much. The tandem of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss scream two things; “committee” and “training camp open competition.” Gurley would do well here.

The New England Patriots. Bill Belichek can’t seem to resist two things; UGA running backs and reclamation projects. Gurley would be a twofer, so don’t rule out a trip to Foxboro in his future.

Draft Board

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The 2021 NFL Draft will start April 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.

We have plenty of time to speculate how teams will address their needs leading up to that.

Let’s take a look around the NFC South and look at who these teams should select with their first-round pick.

Atlanta: The Falcons started the season with five losses and finished with a 4 – 12 record. Dan Quinn was fired after the slow start.

Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was hired as head coach once their season ended. As OC for the past two years in Nashville Smith showed us that he knows how to force feed Derrick Henry.

Atlanta has the 4th overall pick and they have a decision to make. Should they move on from Matt Ryan and draft a young quarterback? Or do they believe in the offense and select a player to help on the porous defense?

If they want to keep Ryan, then Alabama corner back Patrick Surtain II is the best pick. I feel old because I remember his dad from Madden 2003. He’s the best corner in the draft and he would instantly help the secondary.

If they decide to go with a quarterback, they will have to choose from Trey Lance (North Dakota St.), Mac Jones (Alabama) or Zach Wilson (BYU). I think Wilson is the best out of these three and should strongly be considered if he’s still on the board.

Carolina: The Panthers were 5 – 11 in 2020 and have the 8th pick.

All-World running back Christian McCaffrey missed the majority of the season. They don’t have many offensive weapons other than McCaffrey.

They did add quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and speedy receiver Robby Anderson in free agency last year. Anderson did have 95 receptions, 1,096 yards and 3 scores but he’s not a number one receiver.

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts would be a great addition. Pitts is 6’6, 246 pounds and a very good athlete. In 8 games he had 43 catches, 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. He could have an impact like Travis Kelce does for the Chiefs.

Quarterback could also be an option if they like the players that will still be available.

New Orleans: The Saints (12 – 4) have the 28th pick. First ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is expected to retire. They pick so late in the first round that quarterback is not an option.

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins would be a good pick. He’s 6’4, 260 pounds and versatile. He blocked two kicks on special teams. He had a career high 14 tackles against an SEC team (Arkansas).

South Carolina corner Jaycee Horn could also be an option. His father Joe was a receiver for the Saints.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs (11 – 5) won the Super Bowl in Tom Brady’s first season with the team. They are strong on offense so they will probably draft a defensive player.

Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai would be a good pick. In 9 games this season he had 54 tackles and 5 sacks.

Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon might also be considered. He had 45 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 8 games.

Making The Grade?

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Going into the season many experts thought the NFC South would be the toughest division. Now that we’re a little more than halfway through the season let’s take a look at how each team is doing and grade them on their midseason report card.

Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers (6-3) have a lot of hype surrounding them.

As you know they signed the greatest quarterback of all time Tom Brady in the off-season. They also traded to get his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski. They already had Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

They also signed running back Leonard Fournette and recently acquired future Hall of Fame receiver Antonio Brown.

They are stacked with talent, but the Saints are their kryptonite. They were swept by New Orleans and they did not play well in those games.

This past week they were pummeled 38 – 3 by them. The week before they barely beat the 1-7 New York Giants 25 – 23.

The defense is pretty good, ranked fourth in the league in total defense.

The Bucs are a playoff team but not as good as we expected. Grade: B-.

New Orleans: The Saints (6-2) are flying high. Their tied for the best record in the NFC.

They have the potential to be the top seed and have home field advantage in the playoffs. I will admit that with limited crowd sizes this season due to the pandemic it might not mean as much as it has previously.

Star wide receiver Michael Thomas has missed several games due to a suspension for a fight in practice and a hamstring injury.

In the two games he’s played in he has 8 catches and 68 yards. On the bright side he should be well rested.

The defense is 3rd in the league in total defense, allowing 312 yards and 25 points per game.

New Orleans is the total package. Grade: A.

Atlanta: The Falcons (3-6) got off to another slow start, losing the first five games of the season.

Head Coach Dan Quinn was fired, and Raheem Morris was named the interim head coach.

In those four games they are 3-1. I look at it as too little, too late. Quarterback Matt Ryan is leading the league in passing yards and he’s on his way to another Pro Bowl.

Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are both on pace to have over a thousand yards and they both have missed games.

Running back Todd Gurley was signed as a free agent and he’s having a decent season.

Gurley is fifth in rushing yards (584) and second in rushing touchdowns (9). The defense is 28th in total defense, allowing 410 YPG and 27.9 PPG.

Grade: D-.

Carolina: The Panthers (3-6) got rid of Cam Newton and signed Teddy Bridgewater to replace him.

The best running back in the NFL, Christian McCaffrey is their only real threat on offense.

McCaffrey injured his ankle Week 2 and missed 6 games before returning Week 9.

They signed former Jets receiver Robby Anderson as a free agent and that was a great move. Anderson is fourth in the league in receiving yards with 751. DJ Moore is also having a good season with 640 receiving yards and 3 TD’s.

The defense is average, ranking 17th in total defense. They give up 362 YPG and 25 PPG.

Grade: D.

Down South

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books. Let’s take a look at what happened around the NFC South after the first week of games.

Seattle 38, Atlanta 25: The Falcons defense looked just as bad as they have the last few seasons. Russell Wilson completed 31 of 35 passes for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns.

He also had three runs for a team-high 29 yards rushing. Atlanta sacked Wilson 3 times but that did not slow him down.

Matt Ryan threw for 450 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception.

Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage each had 9 receptions for over 100 yards.

In Todd Gurley’s first game as a Falcon he rushed 14 times for 56 yards and a TD.

Atlanta outgained Seattle 506 yards to 383 but came up short all four times they tried to convert on fourth down.

The one good thing for the Falcons is Ryan surpassed John Elway for ninth on the NFL career passing yardage list.

Las Vegas 34, Carolina 30: Matt Rhule made his coaching debut as the Panthers head coach.

They had the best defense in the NFL just a few seasons ago, now they need all the help they can get.

The Raiders offense did whatever they wanted.

Second year running back Josh Jacobs rushed for 93 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Derek Carr threw for 239 yards and a score.

This was the first game for the Raiders since moving from Oakland to Las Vegas. Gruden didn’t hold back on praising Jacobs.

“That was a little bit like Walter Payton used to play,” Gruden said. “It was hot as hell. He got beat up early. He insisted on coming back and he insisted on getting the ball as a runner and receiver. He is special. He deserves some national attention — and I hope you give it to him.”

This was Teddy Bridgewater’s first game as the Panthers QB.

He had a solid game, completing 22 of 34 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown.

Former New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson also made his Carolina debut and played well. He had 6 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown.

Of course, Christian McCaffrey had another great game. He ran for 96 yards and 2 touchdowns and he had 38 yards receiving.

New Orleans 34. Tampa Bay 23: This was the most anticipated game of the day. We all know Tom Brady left New England this offseason to become a Buccaneer.

He has a ton of offensive weapons. The Saints also feature a geriatric quarterback surrounded by playmakers.

This was the first game featuring two starting quarterbacks in their forties and they played like it.

The game started good for Brady. He rushed for a touchdown to give Tampa an early 7-0 lead.

It was downhill from there. He threw two picks and one of them was returned for a touchdown. Jameis Winston had to see himself in Brady as he watched from the Saints sideline.

“I made some just bad, terrible turnovers,” Brady said. “I obviously have got to do a lot better job.”

Drew Brees only threw for 160 yards and 2 TD’s. Alvin Kamara had a rushing and receiving score.

Surprisingly Michael Thomas only had 3 catches for 17 yards.

Throw Me The Ball

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The NFC South has some of the most talented players in the NFL. I think most people would agree the strength of the division is on offense.

Let’s take a look at the top five wide receivers in the division.

# 1 Michael Thomas (New Orleans): I have to admit I’m surprised at this ranking. I know he’s a very good player but he doesn’t wow you with athleticism.

In 2019 he led the league in receptions (149) and receiving yards (1,725). He was tied for second in receiving touchdowns with nine.

He’s so far ahead of the guys in second place.

Christian McCaffrey is second in receptions with 116. That’s extremely impressive considering he’s a running back but you get the point.

Thomas has been in the NFL since 2016 and his stats have gotten better every year. His worst season was his rookie year and he had 1,137 yards and 9 TD’s.

# 2 Julio Jones (Atlanta): Julio was sixth in the league in receptions (99) and second in yards (1,394).

Jones has the rare combination of size and speed. I think he’s a more talented player than Thomas but I’m basing this on numbers. He had 21 plays of 20+ yards.

Jones has been the model of consistency since entering the league in 2011. He’s been to the Pro Bowl seven times in his nine seasons.

He has two seasons with under a thousand yards and his season was cut short due to injury both times. Julio is an outstanding player but the Falcons normally have other weapons on offense so he’s not always the focal point.

# 3 Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay): Godwin had a breakout year in his third season in 2019.

In his first two years he had 93 catches, 1,367 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Last season he was third in receiving yards (1,333) and tied for second with Michael Thomas for receiving touchdowns with 9.

What makes it more impressive is he missed two games and he did this with only 86 catches. Godwin had 25 plays that were 20+ yards so he’s a big play threat.

# 4 Mike Evans (Tampa Bay): If this list were based on total career Evans would have been one spot higher.

What’s impressive is Evans has been performing well for the Buccaneers with Jameis Winston primarily at quarterback. He’s also had Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing him passes. Having very inconsistent quarterbacks is why he’s never had 100 receptions in a season. The closest he came was 96 catches in 2016.

In 2019 he only had 67 receptions but he had 1,157 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Evans is a big, 6’5 receiver so we don’t think of him as a big play threat, but he is. He averaged 17.3 yards per catch and he had 17 plays of 20 or more yards.

# 5 D.J. Moore (Carolina): He drastically improved in his second season.

As a rookie in 2018 he had 55 receptions, 788 yards and two TD’s.

In 2019 he had 87 catches, 1,175 yards and 4 touchdowns. The addition of Teddy Bridgewater should help him improve in 2020.

Down Here

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Free agency and the NFL Draft have already taken place so we have an idea of what each roster will look like.

The NFC South has received a lot of attention with the arrival of Tom Brady to Tampa. Let’s take a look around the division and make some predictions.

Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers made the biggest splash in free agency by signing Tom Brady. They also traded for his former retired tight end Rob Gronkowski.

They drafted Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs in the first round. Wirfs played 10 games at right tackle and three at left tackle last season. He was named an All-American and he should be able to help protect Brady.

Tampa Bay ranked 25th in total defense and they probably will struggle again in 2020.

The Bucs have received a lot of hype this off season. I don’t think they can live up to it. Brady will turn 43 in August and he’s going in to his 20th season.

Think back to Peyton Manning’s final season when his play drastically deteriorated. I think age and attrition will hamper Brady. The Bucs will win 8-9 games, but they will not be legitimate contenders.

Carolina: The Panthers got rid of their franchise quarterback Cam Newton and signed Teddy Bridgewater.

They are led by All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. He’s really the only weapon on offense and they lack a talented wide receiver.

Carolina used all seven draft picks on defensive players. They did struggle defensively in 2019, ranking 31st in total defense. They gave up 28.8 points per game.

The best-case scenario would be for three or four of the players they drafted to step in and contribute immediately. That would mean they have young players making mistakes but gaining experience. The Panthers will win 4-5 games.

Atlanta: They were a tough team to figure out last season. The Falcons were bad, but they beat New Orleans and San Francisco, two of the best teams in the NFC.

They drafted two offensive linemen in the first round of the 2019 draft but they both dealt with injuries. Protecting Matt Ryan has been a recurring issue. If that can get solved, they might have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. They still were fifth in total offense.

The running game struggled last year, and it was addressed by signing running back Todd Gurley. Gurley has dealt with a knee injury that has decreased his play significantly.

They ranked 20th in total defense. Dan Quinn’s job is on the line and I think he will be fired. Atlanta should win 7-8 games.

New Orleans: The Saints were 13-3 in 2019. They were one of the best teams in the league and they return many players from that team.

Future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees sustained a torn ligament to his right thumb that caused him to miss five weeks. He’s also 41 years old so his window to win another Super Bowl is closing.

The offense has playmakers like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas that defenses have to plan for. They ranked ninth in total offense and 15th in total defense.

They will win 10-11 games. New Orleans has to hope they don’t play the Vikings in the playoffs and they will have a chance to get to the Super Bowl.