September 21, 2021

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Saints Need Receivers, Falcons Need Edge Rushers,…

6 min read
Saints Need Receivers, Falcons Need Edge Rushers,...

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team’s biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.


Biggest Need: Edge rusher

The Falcons entered the offseason with a glaring hole at safety, but between incoming free agents Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, second-round pick Richie Grant, and the returning Jaylinn Hawkins, they now at least have an actual depth chart at that position. Whereas at edge rusher, they currently have Dante Fowler’s 30.0 career sacks on one side, Barkevious Mingo’s 12.5 (in eight seasons!) on the other, then pretty much crickets.

None of Atlanta’s other veteran edge rushers has averaged more than one sack per season as a professional, and their only draft investment was developmental fifth-round pick Adetokunbo Ogundeji of Notre Dame. This would be a great spot to sign one of the remaining veteran free agents—top option Melvin Ingram may be out of their price range, but Justin Houston, Olivier Vernon, or even a third stint for Adrian Clayborn would at least provide a modicum of depth, and perhaps help the unit resemble an actual rotation.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Feleipe Franks (Arkansas) is a developmental quarterback with NFL size and arm strength, good speed, and a clear path to at least the practice squad if not the actual backup job ahead of AJ McCarron. Javian Hawkins (Louisville) has a strong chance to earn playing time as a prototypical undrafted scatback: very quick and elusive, with the speed to score from anywhere, but smaller than teams prefer for a primary tailback. Austin Trammell is a lightning-quick potential slot receiver whose most likely path to the active roster is kick returns. In his 11 college starts in 2019, edge rusher Alani Pututau (Adams State) had 13.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for a loss, both third-most in Division II, but his school did not play in 2020 due to COVID. He has a chance to make the roster at a thin position.


Biggest Need: Safety

Unlike their division rivals, the Panthers did basically nothing to address a similar, albeit more specific hole in their own last line of defense. Tre Boston’s release leaves Juston Burris and, presumably, safety/linebacker tweener Jeremy Chinn as the projected starters, and very little behind them. Burris is more of a journeyman backup or rotational strong safety than an ideal starter, and the Panthers themselves listed Chinn at outside linebacker for the Pro Bowl ballot last year. Both are more comfortable playing closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving no obvious deep safety option.

There are a couple of approaches Carolina could take to fill the hole. One is to use some of their roughly $16 million in projected cap room on a free agent such as Malik Hooker, assuming a return for Boston himself is not an option. Another is to look at their suddenly cramped cornerback depth chart and see if they can convince a veteran such as A.J. Bouye or Rashaan Melvin to move back deep. The rest of the defense looks stronger now than last season, with the possible exception of edge rusher, so filling the hole at deep safety could help the Panthers be significantly better than their No. 24 finish in DVOA in 2020.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Paddy Fisher racked up 401 tackles and 24.5 tackles for a loss over a four-year starting career at Northwestern primarily as a run-stuffing linebacker. Offensive lineman David Moore (Grambling) is shorter than teams prefer, but the Panthers coaching staff loves him and he should at least stick on the practice squad as depth at guard. Fullback Mason Stokke (Wisconsin) could become the natural replacement for Alex Armah, though he will have to beat out third-round tight end Tommy Tremble for reps. Punter Oscar Draguicevich (Washington State) is probably just a camp leg after Joseph Charlton’s solid rookie year, but never say never when it comes to specialists making the roster.


Biggest Need: Receiver

There may be no position in football with a higher chance of an undrafted free agent breaking out this season than wide receiver on the Saints. Behind starters Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith, almost the entire rest of the group is undrafted players from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 draft pools; seventh-round rookie Kawaan Baker is the only other player who was drafted into the NFL. Given the usual shallowness of the Saints depth chart, Smith has been a popular breakout pick for every season of this three-year career, but his career-high total last season was just 448 yards. Meanwhile, the four players behind Thomas and Smith have 508 career receiving yards and two touchdowns combined. Thomas struggled last year to overcome a nasty high-ankle sprain, but the team had Emmanuel Sanders to pick up the slack. This year, even if Thomas is healthy, they’ll need somebody to break out from what is a very inexperienced group.

Should they decide they need some veteran help, Golden Tate and Marqise Lee appear to be the most proven options available. Tate tailed off last year in a bad Giants offense, but previously had nine straight seasons with more yards than any current Saints receiver other than Thomas has ever recorded. Lee had two very productive seasons catching passes from Blake Bortles before tearing his ACL in 2018. However, between the knee injury, a 2019 shoulder injury, and his COVID-19 opt-out, the 29-year-old has only caught three passes since the end of the 2017 season. Neither is a great option, which is why both are still available at the end of May.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Powerful defensive tackle Josiah Bronson received a $165,000 signing bonus after going undrafted out of Washington and arrives at a position where the Saints have a strong track record with undrafted players. Dylan Soehner (Iowa State) is a versatile tight end who could contribute in some of Sean Payton’s more unusual formations and sets. Punter Nolan Cooney (Syracuse) will compete with Blake Gillikin to replace offseason cap casualty Thomas Morstead. Offensive lineman Alex Hoffman (Carroll College) looked like a good prospect to make the roster as depth, but he retired from football in mid-May after being accepted to the St. Louis University medical school.


Biggest Need: Depth

What do you get for the roster that has everything? The Buccaneers entered April’s draft in search of a backup quarterback; they picked Kyle Trask out of Florida in the second round. They needed some youth at edge rusher; they picked Joe Tryon of Washington in the first. They could have done with some depth at linebacker, so they spent a couple of Day 3 picks at the spot. Add a backup tackle to replace the outgoing Joe Haeg and a Day 3 wideout for some depth at the one spot where they had injuries last year, and there really don’t appear to be any obvious flaws in the Buccaneers roster.

One point worth making here is that the Buccaneers are likely to need their depth more this season than they did last time out. Despite those midseason pains at wide receiver, they lost the fewest overall games to injuries of any team in the league. Depth is likely to be tested more in 2021, meaning their backups are likely to be more important. Fortunately, absent a shocking reversal of fortune, the team appears well-placed to handle that at just about every position.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Guard Sadarius Hutcherson (South Carolina) was widely expected to be a Day 3 draft pick as a versatile backup offensive lineman, and he has a strong chance to at least make the practice squad. Venezuelan placekicker Jose Borregales (Miami) won the Lou Groza Award as college football’s top kicker in 2020 but faces a struggle to beat out incumbent Ryan Succop. Edge rusher Leighton McCarthy had nine sacks for Florida Atlantic in 2020, but he is both undersized and slower than teams prefer for an edge rusher. Defensive lineman Elijah Ponder (Cincinnati) was a first-team all-conference pick as a junior, but was less impressive as a senior and is a very long shot to make even the practice squad at a loaded position for the Bucs.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.