WR’s Dominate First-Round Selections of the NFC South
With three of four NFC South clubs selecting a wide receiver with their first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, the division is on the hunt for the league’s next dynamic play-maker. Though each club did pass on the opportunity to move up to grab the year’s top selection at wide-out, Sammy Watkins, who instead went to the Buffalo Bills at pick number four, the decisions clearly reflect that a bolstered passing game will be required to win this division dominated by a trio of Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
Here is a look at the first-round choices from the NFL South and a matching grade for each effort:
Round 1, Pick 6 — Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (Grade: A)
Though selecting an offensive lineman rarely makes a significant impact on draft day with fans, no team in the NFC South procured a safer bet with their first-round selection than the Atlanta Falcons. A four-year starter for Texas A&M, Matthews could easily have been the top overall choice in another draft year. In fact, many scouts rate him ahead of former teammate — and last year’s second overall selection — tackle Luke Joeckel.
Bringing pedigree with him into the NFL, the 22-year-old is the son of Hall-of-Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, and his cousin Clay Matthews is a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. Expect Jake to match that track-record, as he likely assumes the left spot on Atlanta’s 0-line in order to protect the beleaguered Matt Ryan. Now paired with Sam Baker at the other tackle, the Falcons improved protection should equally help a rushing attack that ranked dead-last in the league in 2013.
Round 1, Pick 7 — Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M (Grade: B+)
Like rivals in the division, the Tampa Bay Bucs possessed a glaring need at receiver entering the 2014 draft and new coach Lovie Smith did not miss the opportunity to address the problem. After trading the troubled Mike Williams to Buffalo, only the reliable Vincent Jackson projected as a guarantee at the position for 2014. That changes quickly with the selection of another Texas A&M product, who fittingly was selected well ahead of teammate Johnny Manziel.
Serving as the top option for both of Manziel’s flashy campaigns in College Station, Evans provides a huge target at 6’5″ who can reel in high passes against close coverage. With 17 touchdowns during his two-year college career, the 20-year-old can also find the end-zone and offensively challenged Tampa Bay desperately needed that ability from its first-rounder. Many thought Evans would be grabbed at number 5 by the Oakland Raiders, so credit the Bucs for not missing their man when he fell their way.
Round 1, Pick 20 — New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State (Grade: C)
Losing veteran wide-out Lance Moore and versatile play-maker Darren Sproles during the off-season, the New Orleans Saints obviously felt pressure to aid Drew Brees in the leader’s quest for a second championship in the Big Easy. Trading a third-round selection to the Arizona Cardinals to move up from pick 27 to the first round’s 20th spot, the club selected this speedster from Oregon State to add to an already-potent offense.
Regarded as one of the draft’s most athletic players, Cooks posted a Pac-12 record with 128 receptions for 1,730 yards in 2013. Though lacking a bit of size at 5’10″, his ability to run routes should fit the vertical offense of the Saints. At only 20-years-old, the rookie’s maturity will be tested quickly, and will go a long way in determining the merit of this selection. Other quality WR options (including Cooks?) would have been available at pick 27 and New Orleans did surrender a mid-round pick that could have provided needed depth for the defense.
Round 1, Pick 28 — Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State (Grade: B)
After losing each of their four top players at the position during free agency, including 13-year stalwart Steve Smith, no team needed a home run pick for its wide receiver corps more than the Carolina Panthers. Passing on the surprisingly available Marqise Lee of Southern California, the club instead selected this Florida State wide-out, who was last seen catching the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of last year’s National Championship game.
Benjamin has great size at 6’5″ and 240 pounds and has already proven that he can effectively use that big frame to get open in coverage. With only two seasons of play at the college level, the 23-year-old may require slow grooming, but the Florida native offers solid potential to serve as a bold target for Cam Newton, as the Panthers look to repeat as division champs and match 2013′s surprising 12-4 mark.
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