Scouting the NFL: NFC South Players to Watch in 2015

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current ScoutingAcademy.com director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here he identifies which NFC South players to watch in 2015.

Atlanta Falcons

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Vic Beasley Jake Matthews / Ra’Shede Hageman Roddy White Desmond Trufant Devonta Freeman


The Falcons were bad in 2014, mostly due to injuries and poor defense. New head coach Dan Quinn, formerly the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, was brought in largely to overhaul a defense that yielded a league worst
7.6 Yards Per Attempt and generated just 22 sacks. The pass rush was anemic, and Quinn wasted no time making Vic Beasley his Rookie Who Is Needed Early with the 8th overall pick in last May’s draft. The pass rusher has the tools and talent to be a success in the LEO role for the new scheme.

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Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith also need 2014 2nd round pick Ra’Shede Hageman to Develop Quickly after a lost rookie campaign that saw him record just one sack and twelve tackles in sixteen games. Hageman shows flashes of ability on tape but concerns about an inconsistent motor have followed him from college. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox certainly knows how to motivate, and Hageman’s development is his top priority.

Watch any defensive film from last season and cornerback Desmond Trufant becomes the Most Intriguing To Study in 2015. The third-year corner was a bright spot, hauling in three interceptions and 16 passes defensed, while showing refined technique and understanding of how to succeed in single coverage. The change in scheme will be a challenge for Trufant, but with the guidance of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, another step forward is anticipated. The cornerback must perform well for the Falcons to get off the field on 3rd down this season.

Offensively, the priority is giving quarterback Matt Ryan more time in the pocket. Jake Matthews, drafted 6th overall in 2014, needs to Develop Quickly and seize control of the left tackle position. The former Texas A&M Aggie struggled to adapt to the NFL in his first season, often looking nothing like the player on film from his college days. The big lineman has all the skills to succeed, but must improve his consistency and technique to protect Ryan’s blindside. New offensive line coach Chris Morgan is from the Tom Cable school of offensive linemen, a significant departure from the old Mike Tice/Pat Hill system, and Matthews should benefit as a result.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Roddy White may be the Veteran Ready To Decline, after fighting through a 2014 campaign that was affected by an ankle injury he played through. The franchise stalwart will turn 34 in November and has lost a step from his prime. He is still a canny route runner, and trusted by Ryan, but he needs every bit of guile and technique to get open – and then he must hold onto the ball. White has matured into a reliable second option opposite Julio Jones, and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will need the veteran to embrace the Z role and work the intermediate areas of the field.

Devonta Freeman, last year’s 4th round pick, got a taste of NFL action as Steven Jackson’s understudy but with the veteran departing. He is the Falcons player to be most Excited About In An Expanded Role. As a rookie he posted acceptable numbers, especially considering the offensive line issues, but he will be counted on for much more in 2015. Morgan’s zone blocking scheme is a good fit for Freeman’s skill set, and he should find more running room with the improved line play. The Falcons also drafted Tevin Coleman in this year’s draft, providing some legitimate competition, but it will be a surprise if Freeman doesn’t grab hold of the job and run away with it.

Carolina Panthers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Daryl Williams Kony Ealy / Kevin Norwood Ryan Kalil Josh Norman Jonathan Stewart


Despite a playoff loss, the Panthers ended 2014 on a high note because Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin had forged a solid connection, and Jonathan Stewart asserted himself as the primary running back. Unfortunately for Carolina, Benjamin tore his ACL and will miss the 2015 season, putting pressure on Kevin Norwood to step up and fill the void. The player who goes by @MrClutch_83 was a 4th round pick in 2014 by the Seattle Seahawks and traded to Carolina after Benjamin’s injury. The tall wideout possesses good hands and very good speed, creating separation from coverage adeptly. However, his short arms and difficulty beating press coverage are an issue he will need to overcome if he is to
Develop Quickly and be a factor for the Panthers in the passing game.

Stewart is finally the unquestioned top running back on the depth chart, and the player most Excited About An Expanded Role. The 28 year old runner had his most productive, and healthy, season since 2009 and finished last season strongly. A powerful back with surprising speed, Stewart has far less mileage on his tires than most running backs with eight years in the league because of the time-share with DeAngelo Williams. But Williams is gone and while Fozzy Whittaker and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne are around to keep Stewart from becoming complacent, the big back is primed to get a majority of the carries for the first time in his career.

Whether Stewart will be able to find running lanes is the responsibility of center Ryan Kalil, the Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The former All-Pro turned 30 in the offseason and showed signs on film that his formidable skills as a drive blocker may be eroding. As tough as they come, Kalil has missed most of the preseason with a minor knee injury, which is a smart management decision by head coach Ron Rivera, offensive line coach John Matsko and OL assistant Ray Brown. No use wasting snaps in the preseason for such a key player to the Panthers line cohesion.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were apparently serious about committing to Michael Oher as a starting tackle, not nabbing Daryl Williams until the fourth round. The Rookie Who Is Needed Early has terrific size for the position but whether he possesses the skill and technique remains to be seen. He has yet to seize the starting job from either Oher or right tackle Mike Remmers this summer, but most observers think it is just a matter of time for the former Oklahoma Sooner to find the field.

On the defensive side of the ball, 2014 2nd round pick Kony Ealy is the Player Who Needs To Develop Quickly. The Panthers desperately need Ealy to capitalize on the attention opposing teams give to Charles Johnson, the other defensive end. The second year player must improve upon his four sacks from a year ago and take advantage of the one-on-one matchups he is given each week. Ealy showed at Missouri that he has the tools and instincts to be an impact pass rusher and Carolina needs him to show it on the field this season.

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Third year cornerback Josh Norman is the Most Intriguing To Study after earning a starting role with solid, but unspectacular play. On film, Norman has shown improvements from a disastrous 2013, when he was relegated to a reserve role before his season ended early because of injury. However, he still has a long way to go in refining his technique and making plays on the ball, making him a player to watch as the season progresses.

New Orleans Saints

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Hau’oli Kikaha Akiem Hicks / Tim Lelito Drew Brees Brandon Browner Brandin Cooks


Drew Brees
is 36, and while that doesn’t seem old by great quarterback standards, it is the age where
Veterans May Be Ready To Decline. Leading the NFL in attempts, completions and yards once again may obscure a three year decline in TD passes and, more importantly, Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt, which has fallen from otherwordly to above-average. Brees undoubtedly has more great games in him, but signs are creeping into the film that suggest the Saints decision to select Garrett Grayson in the third round of the the 2015 draft might prove prescient two years from now.

Of course, having a receiver like Brandin Cooks in an Expanded Role is exciting for Brees and Saints fans. The dynamic playmaker has elite acceleration and tracks the ball extremely well, making him very hard to cover for opposing defenses. New receivers coach John Morton will help Cooks refine his technique and route running, hopefully making him even more effective at beating the tight coverage he will see as the #1 option in the passing game. With Kenny Stills off to Miami and Jimmy Graham in Seattle, Cooks will see many more targets this season – and opportunities to make big plays.

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Third-year guard Tim Lelito is a Player Who Needs To Develop Quickly, as too often last season Brees had trouble finding passing lanes and enough time in the pocket. The departure of Ben Grubbs and arrival of Max Unger at center means the interior of the line will have had just a few months of time working together as a group. The Saints are looking to ease Brees’ load, and run the ball more effectively – and often – with Mark Ingram. Lelito’s development is key to making that happen. With no competition behind him, the third year guard is going to be a major factor in the cohesion, trust, and communication of the line.

Brandon Browner arrives in New Orleans having won two Super Bowl rings in two seasons, going from Seattle’s Legion of Boom to New England’s Do Your Job defense and performing capably for both teams. However, he is with his third team in three years for a reason – he is a big, physical press man corner who struggles with smaller, quicker receivers and zone concepts. Despite a reasonable cap number, the Patriots let him depart in free agency, looking for more versatile performers. The Seahawks also found replacements for Browner quickly, and didn’t miss a beat without him. The good news is defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and new defensive assistant Dennis Allen are likely to know what Browner is, and to use him in schemes that hide his weaknesses, making him the Most Intriguing Player to Study on the Saints. But despite the jewelry, Browner is not a savior for a Saints pass defense that needs improving.  

Up front, the Saints are hoping rookie pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha can adapt to the NFL quickly because he is Needed Early. The 2015 second round pick will be Ryan’s new favorite player if he can help address an anemic Saints pass rush that also shed Junior Galette in the offseason. The former Washington Huskie has great size and college tape, and it will be interesting see how quickly he picks up the tools of the NFL trade.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking loudly on fourth year defensive end Akiem Hicks who has logged thirty starts and just 6.5 sacks in his NFL career thus far. A project when tabbed in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, Hicks hasn’t yet had the impact his physical tools suggest is possible – if he ever masters the technical requirements of the position. He is still too easily overwhelmed by double teams for a player with his obvious strength. He needs to Develop Quickly if he is going to earn a second contract with the club, and he will need to show his physical talents have been augmented with increased proficiency in his footwork, hand positioning, and pass rush moves.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Jameis Winston Jacquies Smith / Brad McDougald Vincent Jackson Donovan Smith Sterling Moore


When you have the #1 overall pick, the selection is always the
Rookie Who Is Needed Early. Jameis Winston thrived in a system like the one used by Bucs new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter when he was winning the Heisman and a National Championship. Koetter, and new quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, formerly of the University of Tennessee, have extensive experience working with, and developing young quarterbacks. Winston will need to prove he can process information at NFL game speed, improve his ability to read defenses and make good decisions. The Bucs drafted heavily on offense, including potential upgrades on the offensive line, and have solid, professional leadership from Logan Mankins to help mold the offensive unit around Winston and give him the best chance to succeed.

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One of those potential upgrades is second round pick Donovan Smith, the Most Intriguing to Study player at the most intriguing position on the roster. It has been a revolving door at left tackle recently – Donald Penn is long gone and last year’s big money free agent Anthony Collins was cut. Smith, a big, powerful lad, was thought by some draft analysts to be too stiff and unathletic to survive at LT. His strength and good fundamental technique are countered with his shaky footwork and slow reads of opponent stunts and blitzes. With Gosder Cherilus needed at RT because incumbent Demar Dotson suffered an injury that will keep him out most, if not all of the season, Smith is operating without a net in his rookie year.

Tampa Bay is also hoping Vincent Jackson isn’t the Veteran Ready To Decline. The 32 year old is headed into his 10th season and has seen his yards per reception decline for three consecutive seasons. The emergence of Mike Evans may mean fewer targets or different routes. Jackson’s edge has always been his ability to separate from coverage and there are hints on film that his acceleration and speed maybe be eroding.

The Bucs added little to the defense, putting trust in another year of familiarity with Lovie Smith’s schemes and the development of their young, undrafted free agents and practice squads poaches. Jacquies Smith and Bradley McDougald are players who Need To Develop Quickly. Smith has found a home in Tampa, after short stints with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. He started in seven games, and recorded 6.5 sacks in his 15 total appearances. A prototypical 4-3 defensive end in the mold of former Smith favorite Adewale Ogunleye, Smith will not surprise the opposition this season, and will need to have improved his technique as blockers pay more attention to him.

McDougald is another youngster imported by Smith, this time from Kansas City, who found a role and success in his first NFL action. The safety fits the Tampa 2 scheme developed by Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy in the 1990s well, with good field awareness and tackling ability. However, he too has areas in which he must improve, including his ability to anticipate throws and close on receivers.

The Bucs also look set to feature cornerback Sterling Moore in an Expanded Role, as the veteran role player has carved out space in the nickel package and slot. He is a determined player who makes up for lack of top end skill with hard work and awareness, working to take away what his opponent does best on each snap. He is a player you can win with, and has a history of making big plays in big spots.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind

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