The 2021 NFL Draft is rapidly approaching, scheduled to be held in Cleveland beginning on Thursday, April 29. Rookies can oftentimes be overhyped in the fantasy world but the right landing spot can go a long way towards a rookie approaching those lofty expectations. This series of articles will focus on the most enticing positions for rookie production at the offensive skill positions for each NFL team. This article is aimed at those teams residing in the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons: WR3, RB
When healthy, Atlanta boasts one of the top WR duos in the NFL in Alabama alums Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and Matt Ryan is still playing near an elite level. The team somewhat surprisingly jettisoned Austin Hooper before the 2020 season but replaced him with Hayden Hurst in a mostly lateral move. Hurst produced numbers nearly identical to those posted by Hooper the year prior so the team seems content with the output from the TE position. Atlanta finished the 2020 campaign 4-12 but the losses generally were the result of a struggling defense as opposed to an anemic offense. Still, the Falcons have some opportunities on the offensive side of the ball for incoming rookies.
Russell Gage is a serviceable option as the team’s primary slot WR and stand-in for Jones or Ridley when they miss time, but he is more of a volume player than an explosive one. Gage is only signed through this season, so a promising rookie could lead to Gage’s exit after the season. Also, Jones has shown a propensity in recent seasons to miss time with nagging injuries, so another weapon for Ryan in the passing game couldn’t hurt.
The Todd Gurley era is over in Atlanta as the Falcons elected not to resign the veteran, instead the team poached an RB from a division rival in former Carolina Panther Mike Davis. Davis did an admirable job filling in for Christian McCaffrey last season, accumulating more than 1,000 total yards and scoring eight TDs. Davis was sparsely used from 2015 through 2019 as he bounced between four teams so there has to be some concern that Davis might be a bit of a one-year wonder. Ito Smith was released earlier this month, further emphasizing the need for a solid option alongside Davis. Expect the Atlanta defense to be the focus during the NFL Draft, but a second- or third-day RB could make an impact on this offense.
Carolina Panthers: TE, RB2, WR3
The Carolina Panthers struggled to a 5-11 season in 2020 but eight of those 11 losses were by eight points or less, so this team could be heading for a nice turnaround as Matt Rhule begins his second season as head coach. Carolina returns two top-quality WRs in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson and has arguably the best weapon in the NFL in RB Christian McCaffrey. In a bit of a surprise move, Carolina acquired Sam Darnold from the Jets for three draft picks (6th in 2021, 2nd and 4th in 2022) making the biggest cap hit on the team their backup QB in the form of Teddy Bridgewater. I doubt both QBs are on the roster by the start of the season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a draft-day trade by a team to acquire Bridgewater.
There may not be a team in the NFL that got less out of the TE position than the Panthers in 2020. Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz, and Colin Thompson combined for 27 receptions, 204 yards, and two TDs last season despite Bridgewater passing for 3,733 yards and 15 TDs. In response, Carolina went out and signed FA Dan Arnold from Arizona who crushed those totals by himself last season (31-438-4). I don’t know that Arnold is the answer at the position but the Panthers certainly could be in the right spot in the first round to grab one of the highest graded players at any position in the draft. Will they? Who knows, but an impact rookie TE could make a splash on this team sooner rather than later.
Despite rumors to the contrary during his first two seasons, McCaffrey is, indeed, human. McCaffrey missed all but three games last season and the offense struggled as a result. Mike Davis performed admirably in McCaffrey’s absence, but that showing earned him a starting job in Atlanta which means Carolina now has, checks notes, Trenton Cannon and Reggie Bonnafon as replacement options if McCaffrey were to miss time again. Carolina could certainly use more depth at the position and an upstart rookie could force his way into the #2 role given the competition on the roster right now. We’ve seen the value of Carolina’s #2 running back already, so that could be a nice opportunity for production.
Curtis Samuel, like Davis, is getting a fresh start this season as the newest member of the Washington Football Team. Samuel’s exit makes 77 receptions, 851 yards, and three TDs up for grabs from 2020 and I’d be hard-pressed to name another WR on the roster without the research for this article. Carolina did sign Seattle castoff David Moore during free agency, and Moore has shown potential in limited action with Seattle, but he’s primarily known as a vertical threat which is an area both Bridgewater and Darnold struggled in 2020. A rookie WR with something to prove could push for playing time in 2021 given the mostly lackluster options behind Moore and Anderson.
New Orleans Saints: WR2, QB, TE
The good news for Saints fans is that the team should be set at running back for at least one more season with the duo of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, and they still have superstar WR Michael Thomas to help them try to extend their streak of NFC South Championships to five. HC Sean Payton is returning for another run at the playoffs and the team looks like it will have its entire starting offensive line back after a good 2020 (#8 according to Pro Football Focus). The bad news? Since the loss to Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round of the 2020-21 NFL playoffs, the Saints have seen the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees, the release of Emmanuel Sanders (now with the Buffalo Bills), the release of Jared Cook (now with the L.A. Chargers), and the loss of assistant HC Dan Campbell (now HC of the Detroit Lions).
The Saints struggled all season with consistent production at the WR position, much of which can be attributed to the frequent absences of Thomas with various lower-body ailments. Sanders paced the WR room with 61 receptions for 726 yards and five TDs and his contribution to the offense will be sorely missed. The team still has holdovers Tre’Quan Smith (who projects as the #2 right now), Marquez Callaway, Juwan Johnson, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey but they didn’t make much of an impact given the opportunities last season as a result of injuries and COVID-related absences. A rookie with a high ceiling could push for playing time as early as this season, but they won’t be catching passes from Brees which brings us to…
The biggest loss perhaps in all of the NFL and Brees. Brees retired with, among others, NFL records in career passing yards (80,358), career completions (7,142), and career completion percentage (min. 2000 attempts – 67.7%). The third record is arguably the biggest one for sustained success for a QB in the NFL and is largely responsible for the success of those catching passes from him. Heading into the 2021 season, New Orleans looks to be handing the reins to the combination of Jameis Winston (61.4% career completion percentage) and Taysom Hill (134 career attempts). Brees and Hill were able to pilot the Saints to a 12-4 record but it remains to be seen if Winston can replicate that same success with Hill. Winston is only on a one-year deal and the team might look to the future with a rookie QB that could represent a nice opportunity if Winston struggles.
Cook has two of his best seasons as a member of the Saints and translated that into a one-year deal with the Chargers for $4.5M for the 2021 season. New Orleans tapped another AFC West team for Cook’s possible replacement as they signed former Denver Bronco Nick Vannett to a three-year, $8M deal. Vannett has had a mostly unremarkable NFL career as he has compiled 75 receptions for 686 yards and five TDs in five seasons with three different teams. New Orleans has a history of solid production from the TE position and Vannett may be the next in line to reap those rewards but his career to this point casts at least a little doubt on that. Vannett’s contract would indicate the team is going to give him every opportunity to prove his worth, but there is an opportunity for a young player to make an impression at the position for New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR3, QB
So, what do you get the team that has everything? The defending Super Bowl Champions will be returning almost their entire 2020 roster including Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scott Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, Leonard Fournette, and Ronald Jones. Well, I guess you could get them another accomplished RB in Giovani Bernard. That’d be nice. There’s also a chance the Buccaneers eliminate one of these needs if Antonio Brown elects to re-sign with the team. It truly is an embarrassment of riches, but they do have an area or two where opportunity could arise for a rookie.
As I mentioned above, as of this writing Brown and the team have not come to a mutually agreeable compromise to bring the enigmatic WR back to the team. Brown was productive in his first season with Tampa Bay as he had 45 receptions for 483 yards and four TDs in just eight games with the team. Miller racked up more yards than Brown but on fewer receptions and with fewer TDs. Tyler Johnson and Justin Watson made an appearance here and there but were mostly afterthoughts for much of the season. Perhaps one of those guys can step in for Brown but there is also a chance the Buccaneers land a promising WR in the draft and the potential is there in this offense to make some noise quickly.
If you look at Tampa Bay’s depth chart right now, you might think they honestly believe Brady is going to play forever and maintain the level of play we’re accustomed to seeing for all eternity because they have no other QB on the roster right now. I’m going to say that again in case you glossed over it. Tampa Bay has no other QB on its roster other than Tom Brady. Now, there is no doubt that the situation will change over the next few months but this is a prime opportunity for a rookie to not only learn the position from one of, if not THE, best to ever do it and step right into a starting gig if Brady were to miss time. This would be a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay but this article is about opportunities and there may be no better opportunity in the NFL than being behind Tom Brady as the only other option on the defending Super Bowl Champs.
Photos by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire, Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire, and Thor Alvis/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@Ethan Kaplan on Twitter)