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NFL Mock Draft: Carolina Panthers & NFC South

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(credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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By: Tony Meale

The 2012 NFL Draft is just one week away so we’ve pulled together a mock draft featuring the first and second rounds for the NFC East. Do you agree with the picks? Comment below.

NFC South

Panthers

The Panthers pick ninth and 40th overall; after that, they have just five remaining picks – none in the top 100.

While their picks are limited, there’s no debating which direction the Panthers will go. Last year, the defense finished 24th against the pass, 25th against the rush and 28th overall, while Carolina’s 31 sacks were tied for 25th in the league. Thus, the Panthers’ first pick will be defensive; top options include end Melvin Ingram, tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Luke Kuechly. After that, it’s all about taking the best available player and getting better at line, linebacker and cornerback.

Offensively, Cam Newton had arguably the most impressive rookie campaign in NFL history (from a statistical standpoint), and his playmaking ability is undeniable. He has a plethora of tailbacks to hand off and dump passes to – including DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert – and Steve Smith is one of the game’s elite game-breakers. Still, one must wonder what Cam could do with a true No. 2 – preferably a tall, lanky receiver who can go up and make plays.

The Panthers went 6-10 last year but lost six games by one possession. If a few things fall into place, look for Cam to get his playoff feet wet.

Buccaneers

It’s a foregone conclusion that Tampa will take either LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the fifth overall pick. Conventional wisdom says to take Claiborne for a number of reasons, including longevity. Even if Richardson turns out to be great, he’s only going to be great for five to seven years. Not that that’s a bad thing, but relative to potentially 10+ years for Claiborne. . .

Part of me says take Claiborne, but an increasingly bigger part of me says take Richardson. Tampa finished 30th in the league in rushing last year. Leading rusher LeGarrette Blount (781 yards, five touchdowns) can’t stay healthy and offers next to nothing in the passing game. After Blount, the Bucs’ leading rusher was Josh Freeman, who had 238 yards and four touchdowns – hardly inspiring numbers for a No. 2 rusher.

Then again, Freeman’s a quarterback.

Richardson looks absolutely beastly. He’s the perfect combination of strength and speed and has the ability to run between the tackles but also to scurry out of the backfield and catch passes. The Bucs can’t go wrong with Claiborne or Richardson, but Richardson might be the better way to go.

Besides, how much can a rookie cornerback improve the NFL’s worst rush defense from last season?

Falcons

We won’t be hearing from Atlanta a whole lot come draft day. The Falcons have just six picks – and only two within the first four rounds. They gave up their first-round pick to Cleveland in the trade for Julio Jones – and they would make the same move again in a heartbeat – but they find themselves with only two picks in the top 150 selections (55th and 84th overall).

Offensively, Atlanta’s biggest needs are at the skill positions – wide receiver and tight end, especially. The impact of rookie Julio Jones last year cannot be understated, but it still felt like the Falcons had one of the least explosive offenses in the league – among winning teams, anyway. And we all know Tony Gonzalez isn’t getting any younger.

Michael Turner, meanwhile, finished third in the league with 1,340 rushing yards and tied for sixth with 11 rushing touchdowns, but he slowed toward the end of the season; he had between 39 and 76 yards in each of the Falcons’ final five games, mustering just one touchdown in that span (which came at home against lowly Jacksonville). Turner turned 30 in February, so perhaps selecting Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead at 84 would be an investment for the future.

Defensively, Atlanta should aim to improve the back seven, particularly at linebacker. When you play in the same division as Drew Brees and Cam Newton, you need as many playmakers – and as much depth – as possible.

The Falcons are a good team that must fill several holes to become great. I’m just not sure they have enough draft picks to do it.

Saints

The Saints will be without Sean Payton all season, they still need to sign Drew Brees to a long-term deal and they have only five picks in the draft – and none in the first two rounds.

Yeesh.

That said, the Saints are not without hope in 2012. Far from it. If they wise up and give Brees what he wants, they should win the division. But how much they improve defensively will determine how far this team advances in the playoffs.

Bringing in Steve Spagnuolo automatically improves that side of the ball. When the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, they finished third in the NFC with a turnover margin of plus-11. They’ve been minus-6 and minus-3 each of the last two years, respectively. Improving the secondary is imperative, but don’t be surprised if the Saints take a best-player-available approach. Nebraska’s Jared Crick (DE/DT), Florida State’s Nigel Bradham (ILB) and Miami’s Sean Spence (OLB) would all be worthy late-second-round selections.

Offensively, the loss of Robert Meachem is a tad overrated. As long as Brees has Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham – and he does – the Saints will be formidable. But New Orleans may draft Wisconsin’s Nick Toon or Arkansas’s Greg Childs nevertheless.

>> more: Mock Draft AFC North | Mock Draft AFC South | Mock Draft AFC East | Mock Draft AFC West | Mock Draft NFC North | Mock Draft NFC East | Mock Draft NFC West

Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.

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