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Carolina Panthers

Around the NFC South: Draft plans


The Panthers hope their soon-to-be draft class helps propel them deep into the playoffs, but first they've got to get back to the playoffs. The preferable path to the postseason is through the division, no easy task with the NFC South arguably standing as the NFL's toughest to win.

The division became the first in the NFC to produce three playoff teams since 2007, and those teams are set to pick in rapid-fire order late in the first round – the Panthers at 24, Falcons at 26 and Saints at 27. We've offered countless takes over the past few months about the Panthers' plans for the draft, but what of their division rivals? Here's a look at what Carolina's neighbors could be aiming to accomplish with their draft haul.

SAINTS: How quickly things can change in this league. This time last year, New Orleans was a franchise starving for a shred of success on the defensive side of the ball. This year, their focus could fall on shoring up the offense after both sides enjoyed a productive season. The wide receiver group could look for a consistent complement to No. 1 Michael Thomas (himself a 2016 draft choice), and the top tight end on the roster is 37-year-old journeyman Ben Watson. Drew Brees will be 41 when his two-year contract expires, and backup Chase Daniel is now with the Bears.

That's not to say the defense doesn't have needs. The defensive back group is deep, but the defensive line could use a boost.

FALCONS: Interestingly, the already offensively efficient outfit in Atlanta also could use some reinforcements capable of catching passes (more on that in a minute). But there is a glaring need on a rapidly developing defense, a hole created by Dontari Poe's decision to sign with the Panthers. The Falcons need a man in the middle of the defense to support Grady Jarrett, who is in a contract year. They probably could benefit from a player on the edge as well with the departure of Adrian Clayborn to New England.

Back on offense, the Falcons have soared for a while now without a big-time tight end, but maybe this is the year they aim to upgrade. You can't do much better than Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu at receiver, but Taylor Gabriel's move to Chicago could put Atlanta in the market for a new No. 3.

BUCCANEERS: Not surprisingly the one division team that didn't make the playoffs last season has more holes to fill, though Tampa aggressively acted to shore up a stagnant defensive line via free agency. The Buccaneers would welcome the chance to add an elite defensive back prospect with the No. 7 pick that would almost surely be a Day One starter, but the same could be said of striking early on the offensive side of the ball.

There are scenarios where universally beloved running back Saquon Barkley hangs around until the Bucs are on the clock, and that would be a boon for an offense that lost Doug Martin in the offseason but hadn't gotten much out of him of late anyway. The offensive line bears some of the blame, and Tampa could opt to snag tempting tackle prospect Mike McGlinchey to kick off the NFC South portion of the draft.

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