It’s time to take a midseason look at this year’s NFC South draft classes, and how they’ve performed through eight weeks. Any low grades are far from an indictment of any draft class, as our sample size is still too small to draw any definite conclusions. These grades are based only off of what has occurred in the season’s first eight weeks, not anything that might happen in the future.
New Orleans Saints Grade: D
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I was a fan of the Saints’ 2020 draft class, but through eight games we’ve seen little evidence of its’ legitimacy. Of the Saints’ four draft picks, just one is starting in Michigan interior offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, who mans the right guard spot for New Orleans. Ruiz has been solid in the run game, but his struggles in pass protection have been a concern on an offensive line with very few holes. He’s still remarkably young (just turned 21) and will almost certainly get better, but it’s been a slow start for the 24th overall pick.
Saints HC Sean Payton – Photo by: USA Today
New Orleans’ pair of third-round picks, EDGE Zack Baun and TE Adam Trautman, have barely played or produced, but I liked both pre-draft and still believe they’ll be fine players in time. Perhaps the most impressive rookie for the Saints has been undrafted free agent wide receiver Marquez Callaway, who has helped pick up some slack with Michael Thomas out of the lineup. Callaway caught eight passes for 75 yards in the Saints big overtime win over the Bears last week.
Atlanta Falcons Grade: C+
Widely ridiculed for their 2020 draft class back in April/May, the Falcons’ rookie class has actually been a bit better than expected through eight weeks. First-round cornerback A.J. Terrell has certainly had some ugly reps on tape, but he hasn’t looked out of place at all, competing at a high level and posting his fair share of impressive plays as well. Second-round pick Marlon Davidson and third-round pick Matt Hennessy have barely played, but it’s already apparent the latter’s lack of size, length and power in pass protection could be a concern moving forward.
Falcons CB A.J. Terrell – Photo courtesy of Clemson
Both of Atlanta’s fourth round selections, linebacker Mykal Walker and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, were huge reaches compared to the consensus big board rankings of a plethora of NFL draft analysts, but early results haven’t been disastrous for either player. Walker is a coverage asset for the Falcons on long and late downs, while his full skill set remains a work in progress.
I’m more optimistic about the long-term outlook of the Saints class than I am Atlanta’s, but through eight games of the 2020 season, the Falcons group hasn’t been bad.
Carolina Panthers: B+
Probably more than any other team in the NFC South, Carolina absolutely needs its 2020 rookie class to be a huge part of the team’s long-term rebuild of a currently depleted roster, especially on defense. That’s the side of the ball the Panthers spent all of their draft resources on, using all seven of their selections on defensive prospects.
The early returns are encouraging, but not overwhelmingly positive yet. Seventh overall pick Derrick Brown has been solid, especially as a run defender, but hasn’t flashed the athletic traits of a future star at the position. At the very least the power and pop in his hands will secure him a strong starter for years to come, but the Panthers could really use an elite player on their defensive interior.
Panthers DE Yetur Gross-Matos – Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics
Both of Carolina’s second-round picks have improved as the season has gone on. Safety Jeremy Chinn has played all over Carolina’s defense, already posting over 100 snaps in the box, in the slot and at free safety. His athleticism and physicality already stand out, but the finer points of the game still need to be refined. Chinn’s splash plays have the fan base excited, while fellow second rounder Yetur Gross-Matos’ flashes in four games have done the same.
None of Carolina’s Day 3 picks have stood out positively so far this season, with fourth-round cornerback Troy Pride Jr. really struggling in coverage. The Panthers hope they’ve found something in undrafted free agent safety Sam Franklin, but just 146 snaps into his career, it’s still too early to say.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A+
When three of a team’s first four picks are playing at a high level during a year with very little offseason and no preseason action, it has probably hit a home run with its draft class. Bucs’ first-round pick Tristan Wirfs is already in the conversation for the best right tackle in the NFL, just eight games into his career! He’s allowed one sack – against All-Pro Khalil Mack – despite facing a murderer’s row of pass rushers by midseason.
Second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. has been almost as good, consistently locking down the deep middle of the field and even starting to flash some ball skills over the past few weeks. He made the game-saving play in coverage against the Giants on Monday Night Football, and has been equally as impressive as a blitzer, tackler and run defender too. Winfield is making an impressive case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with 44 tackles, four pass breakups, two sacks, one forced fumble and one interception so far.
Bucs S Antoine Winfield, Jr.- Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
If there’s a selection to be disappointed in, it’s obviously third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Drafted to at least be the team’s top option in pass-obvious situations, Vaughn has been targeted seven times, dropping three and fumbling one of his four catches. He does have eight carries for 46 yards however, and caught a touchdown in his first NFL action. We need a larger sample size to determine his value, which we could see if the Bucs would play him over LeSean McCoy moving forward. Fingers crossed.
Without either of their fourth-round picks after trading one for Rob Gronkowski and the other to move up one spot for Wirfs, the Bucs had to sweat it out until their fifth-round selection to grab Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who I had a third-round grade on. Johnson has only caught nine passes on 11 targets this season, but almost every one has been a huge play, a couple of them of the highlight reel variety. His knack for getting open and finishing on the ball for tough catches is a huge asset to the Bucs offense, especially with the injuries they’ve endured at wide receiver this year.
Bucs’ sixth round pick Khalil Davis hasn’t had a chance to contribute just yet, but coaches and teammates have raved about him in practice. Even if Tampa Bay gets nothing out of its late final three picks in the draft, its 2020 haul is shaping up to be a memorable one for general manager Jason Licht. In three years you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find a better class from this year’s draft in the entire NFL. Yes, it’s that good from top to bottom.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft