One of the more interesting divisions in the NFL next year will be the NFC South. In this week’s NFL Draft Notebook, we take a look at the NFC South and predict ten things that will happen in this division in 2023. This week’s article also looks at the top tight ends in the 2024 NFL Draft, reviews the 2020 tight end class, and much more.
NFC South Predictions
1. Carolina Panthers’ No. 1 pick, Bryce Young, will miss at least five games this year
One of the biggest concerns with Bryce Young going into the 2023 NFL Draft was whether he will be able to take the pounding on Sundays. The fact he battled injuries last year at Alabama — and will likely have a playing weight under 200 pounds — makes it hard to believe he will evade injuries throughout Year 1.
2. Tampa Bay will see several quarterbacks line up behind center in the NFC South
Perhaps no team has a worse quarterback situation than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The two players who are currently competing for the starting job are Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask; neither of these two are anywhere close to the level of last year’s starter, Tom Brady. Due to this, look for the team to cycle between these two underwhelming options in 2023. It also would not be a surprise if the team added another veteran like Carson Wentz before the start of the season.
3. Desmond Ridder will prove he is not the long-term answer for the Atlanta Falcons
While expectations are high for Desmond Ridder going into the season, by the end of the year it will be evident he is not the long-term answer at quarterback. The main reason for this is his lack of accuracy, which too often sees him miss open receivers. He also will be hurt by the fact he doesn’t throw many passes downfield, averaging just 6.2 yards per throw, which ranked 33rd in the NFL.
4. Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson will win Rookie of the Year
Former Texas running back Bijan Robinson went into a great situation when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him with the eighth overall pick. Last season, the Falcons finished second in the NFL in rushing attempts per game, so he will get plenty of carries in Arthur Smith’s system. He also was the most talented player in the 2023 NFL Draft, so he should be able to capitalize on this opportunity in a wide open NFC South.
5. New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olave will have at least 100 catches this season
One of the top rookies in the NFL last year was Chris Olave who finished with 72 catches for 1,042 yards. This year, look for Olave to be one of the more productive receivers not only in the NFC South, but the entire NFL as a whole. The main reason for this is he will be playing with a much better quarterback in Derek Carr.
6. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will finish fourth in the NFC South
After winning the division last season, look for the Buccaneers to finish last in the NFC South. The main reason for this is uncertainty at the quarterback position, but it is also not helped by the fact that the team has the hardest schedule in the NFC South.
7. The Carolina Panthers will finish with a winning record
After a slow start under former coach Matt Rhule, going just 1-4, the team improved under interim coach Steve Wilks by going 6-6 in the last 12 games of the year. This offseason, the team improved significantly with the hiring of Frank Reich as head coach, and by taking Bryce Young with the No. 1 pick. With these additions, and having the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL, Panthers should have enough to finish with a winning record next year.
8. The New Orleans Saints will win the NFC South
While the Buccaneers will finish last in the NFC South, the team that will win it are the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans easily has the best quarterback in the division and also has plenty of weapons for him to throw to. The Saints’ defense will be improved with several new additions brought in via free agency this offseason. One other factor the team has working in its favor is the easiest schedule in the NFL next season.
9. North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye will be playing in the NFC South next year
While I don’t see any of the teams in the NFC South having the top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, both the Falcons and Buccaneers have a good shot at having the second pick in the draft. Both of these teams will also likely be looking for a franchise quarterback. The possible answer for both of these teams could be Drake Maye, who is the second-best quarterback in next year’s NFL Draft.
10. New Orleans’ first-round pick in 2024 will be an offensive lineman
While the Saints have a solid offensive line for the 2023 season, they could be looking to rebuild this spot next year. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is scheduled to make $27 million next year, which makes him a possible cap cut if they can’t restructure his contract. The team’s top three offensive guards are also scheduled to be free agents next season. New Orleans is surrounded with questions in the NFC South.
2024 NFL Draft Tight End Class Preview
Top Player: Brock Bowers, Georgia
Brock Bowers has been a dominant force from day one at Georgia. As a true freshman, he caught 13 touchdown passes and was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. He followed that up by winning the John Mackey Award after he caught 63 passes for 942 yards and seven touchdowns last season. When looking at how his game transitions to the NFL, he has all the tools to be one of the best tight ends in NFL history. His top trait, and why he is worth a top-ten pick next April, is his well-rounded game. As a blocker, he is one of the most tenacious players in the class and has the strength to block linebackers in-line and the agility to block defensive backs out in space. As a receiver, he has some of the best hands we have seen in a tight end. He possesses the strong hands to catch in traffic and enough body control to make the tough catch. Look for Bowers to be one of the top players in the NFL in three or four years.
Guy I Would Stand on the Table for: Luke Lachey, Iowa
Last year, Iowa had a tight end drafted in the second round when the Detroit Lions took Sam LaPorta with the 34th overall pick. This year they have a tight end who could also go on day two of the draft in Luke Lachey. Lachey is a natural receiver who does a terrific job of snagging the ball with his hands. He also shows the speed to challenge a defense, which is a good combination to go along with his 6-foot-5, 252-pound size. One more positive with him is his overall strength, whether it is breaking tackles after the catch or controlling his man as a blocker.
Overrated: Cade Stover, Ohio State
While Ohio State’s Cade Stover had a strong season last year hauling in five touchdown passes — which is the most from a Buckeye tight end in 11 years — he lacks the upside you want to see from a player graded as a day-two pick by some media members. The biggest concern with him is his lack of flexibility. In this area, he has trouble breaking down while running his routes and also has a limited catch radius. Another issue is that he is not the most explosive player in this tight end class. Last season, he only averaged 11.3 yards per catch and didn’t display the speed to challenge a defense. On the positive side, he is a good blocker and has a defensive background, which should help him on special teams.
Sleeper: Benjamin Yurosek, Stanford
One of the best receivers in this year’s tight end class is Benjamin Yurosek of Stanford. He does a terrific job of consistently bringing in the catch and can also make the tough reception in coverage. In addition to his sure hands, he has the speed to stretch a defense and is one of the more athletic tight ends in the class. As a blocker, he shows good technique but doesn’t have the pop some prospects have. Despite this, he deserves a higher grade than the current free agent grade he is receiving from most draftniks.
Biggest Risk: Erick All, Iowa
A player scouts will have to look closely at when it comes time for medical checks is Iowa tight end Erick All. The reason for this is the back injury that cut short his season last year. This will be a big red flag due to the fact that most people with serious back injuries usually never fully recover from them. If he can pass the medical tests though, All is someone who should hear his name called in the 2024 NFL Draft. The reason for this is his reliability as a receiver, as he consistently finds soft spots in coverage. He also gives 100 percent effort as a blocker and his technique will likely improve this season now that he will be playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Breakout Player: Michael Trigg, Ole Miss
A player who has shown the potential to be a high-level prospect, yet has only had average production so far, is Michael Trigg of Ole Miss. Trigg who started his career off at USC only caught seven passes in 2021 but was able to average 15.6 yards per catch. He then decided to transfer to Ole Miss where he was off to a good start, with his best game being against Arkansas State when he caught three touchdown passes on the day. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken collar bone in the sixth game of the season which cost him the rest of the year. Now that he is healthy, look for him to be one of the better tight ends in the SEC this season.
Top Five Tight Ends from the 2020 NFL Draft
It usually takes three years to evaluate a draft class, so over the next few months NFL Draft Notebook will be looking back at the 2020 draft class. This week we look at the tight end position.
1. Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
The first tight end taken in the 2020 NFL Draft has turned out to be the best tight end from this group. The Chicago Bears took Cole Kmet with the 43rd overall pick in this draft, and all he has done is become one of the Chicago Bears’ top offensive weapons. This past season he led the team in receptions (50), receiving yards (544), and receiving touchdowns (7). Look for Chicago to try and extend his contract before training camp so he doesn’t become a free agent next year.
2. Harrison Bryant, Cleveland Browns
There is definitely a big drop-off between the top tight end and the second-best tight end in the 2020 draft class. The second-best tight end in this class is Harrison Bryant, who Cleveland took in the fourth round. Last season Bryant caught 31 passes for 279 yards, but this year he will likely be third on the depth chart behind David Njoku and Jordan Akins.
3. Colby Parkinson, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle tight end Colby Parkinson’s career was off to a slow start, only catching seven passes his first two seasons in the NFL. However, last season was a breakout year for the former Stanford Cardinal. He finished the year with three regular season games where he had over 40 receiving yards and averaged at least 15 yards per catch in two of those games. Going into the 2023 season, Parkinson is listed as the third-string tight end, but if he can produce like he did last season, look for him to get more playing time.
4. Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
An NFC South player who could be primed for a strong season is Adam Trautman. The main reason for this is a reunion with Sean Payton, who drafted him in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The reason Payton traded for Trautman is his well-rounded game, which should make him a valuable backup this season.
5. Josiah Deguara, Green Bay
In the 2023 NFL Draft the Green Bay Packers spent high picks on Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave, which raises the question of where Deguara fits in. He will more than likely see most of his playing time at H-back and could see significant time early in the season while the rookies learn the offense.
— A versatile player in the 2024 NFL Draft class is Florida State’s Jaheim Bell. Bell, who started his career off at South Carolina before transferring to Florida State, played tight end, H-back, wide receiver, and running back for the Gamecocks. While his ability to play multiple positions is impressive, the question becomes: Where do you play him in the NFL? One spot where he might be a natural fit is at fullback. This might be his best position since he lacks the size to be an in-line tight end at only 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds. He could be a good fit in this role because Bell is a natural runner with the ball in his hands and also shows the receiving skills to be a reliable target out of the backfield. Teams could also line him up at fullback, and motion him into an H-back alignment, where he would be able to stretch a defense vertically in the passing game.
— Despite being listed as a tight end by Syracuse, expect NFL scouts to view Oronde Gadsden II as a wide receiver prospect. The main reason for this is how he is used at Syracuse, which is more of as a big slot receiver than as a tight end. He also lacks the size and strength to lineup at tight end, coming in at only 216 pounds and not showing much pop as a blocker. In order to be anything more than a day-three prospect, the Syracuse star will need to prove he can gain separation against NFL-level cornerbacks.
— It sounds like Chicago Bears first-round pick Darnell Wright will be a day-one starter for the Chicago Bears. This should not come as a surprise, as the team used the tenth overall pick on him, and he was widely considered the top right tackle in the 2023 NFL Draft. One trait he has already impressed teammates with is how well he moves for a player who is 330 pounds.
— While Wright is excelling with the Bears, one rookie who has struggled some is Jalin Hyatt. He has been taking most of his reps with the third team, and it looks like he might not make a big impact this season. The main reason for this is likely due to the fact he ran a limited route tree at Tennessee. Another reason is the Giants added several wide receivers this offseason, which pushes Hyatt down the depth chart.
— One of the more explosive players in the FCS last year was Xavier Gipson of Stephen F. Austin. In 2022, he averaged 17.9 yards per catch and was also a threat as a return man. Gipson now with the New York Jets is using that same playmaking ability to open eyes in OTAs, including that of Aaron Rodgers, who singled him out as someone who has impressed him. If he can continue to play well in training camp, look for him to make the team and be used as a gadget-type player.
— Yesterday, ESPN came out with their surprise offseason standouts for each team, and the pick for the Miami Dolphins was rookie running back Devon Achane. The reason he was selected is his playmaking ability, and how well he has looked at catching the ball out of the backfield. This should not come as a surprise since he caught 36 passes last season, and in 2021, he led the SEC in yards per carry with a 7-yard average. He also ran a blistering 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
— For all the latest NFL Draft news make sure to check out The Notebook.
Prediction of the Week
While Drake Maye will be playing in the NFC South, we will see Caleb Williams suiting up for the Arizona Cardinals in 2024.