Free agency and NFC South draft needs

The initial frenzy of the free agency has helped teams fill plenty of glaring holes, which in turn helps bring their draft boards into clearer focus.

With big needs taken care of, scouts and front-office staff are now able to hone in on prospects who solve remaining issues and where they can find the best values on draft weekend.

For teams in the NFC South, that includes along the defensive front seven, in the secondary and at tight end. Here's a look at how all four teams in the division might approach the draft now that free agency has helped address some of their roster holes.

Atlanta Falcons

The signing of former Rams RB Steven Jackson took care of the offensive backfield, the return of OT Sam Baker will help keep franchise QB Matt Ryan upright, and re-signing S William Moore shores up the secondary.

However, tight end remains a need despite the Falcons talking Tony Gonzalez into putting retirement off for another year. Atlanta needs an heir apparent to Gonzalez, and a player who can contribute in the multiple-tight end sets that are so prevalent in the NFL right now. Michael Palmer and Chase Coffman are still on the roster, but they caught only seven combined passes last season.

To that end, the Falcons could opt for Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert with the 30th overall pick. Eifert has good size (6-foot-5.5, 250 pounds) and tested well at the NFL combine, and he can stretch the field and win one-on-one matchups with the ball in the air. Getting a player like Eifert was assure the continued presence of a safety blanket down the middle after Gonzalez retires.

If Eifert is off the board, Stanford's Zach Ertz is another option late in the first round. Ertz (6-foot-5, 249 pounds) isn't as athletic as Eifert, but on tape is a better route-runner and offers the same versatility when flexing out of the formation to create mismatches. If the Falcons look for a tight end later in the draft, keep an eye on Cincinnati's Travis Kelce, Rice's Vance McDonald and San Diego State's Gavin Escobar on Day 2.

On defense, Atlanta needs to find a pass-rusher after the release of John Abraham, and a pair of Florida State defensive ends could be fits late in the first. Some scouts are a little down on Bjoern Werner right now because he doesn't have prototypical size or athleticism, but Werner is one of the cleanest prospects I've studied in this class.

He uses his hands well, plays with his eyes, and has a wide variety of pass-rush moves. And while Werner (6-3¼, 266) lacks ideal length, he has one of the quickest first steps in the class and good overall instincts. Should he fall to the late first it would be a no-brainer to pull the trigger.

Teammate Tank Carradine might also be worth a look, despite a torn ACL suffered late in the 2012 season. Carradine (6-4⅛, 276) comes with some risk, but in my opinion would be a potential top-15 pick without the injury. He has an ideal frame and plays with a nonstop motor. Carradine consistently sets the edge against the run, and while he needs polish as a pass-rusher, his length, heavy hands, bend around the edge and closing burst give him a high ceiling in that area.

Finally, the Falcons could be in the market for a cornerback if free agent Brent Grimes signs elsewhere. In the late first that could mean an instinctive, athletic corner like Washington's Desmond Trufant, or a bigger, more physical corner like Connecticut's Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Either would be a nice complement to Asante Samuel on the other side.

And in a very deep corner class, Atlanta could opt to look further down the line with Day 2 prospects like Boise State's Jamar Taylor, Southeast Louisiana's Robert Alford or Houston's D.J. Hayden. Later-round prospects I am high on like Sam Houston State's Daxton Swanson and South Florida's Kayvon Webster could also be fits for the Falcons.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers haven't been extremely active in free agency, with former Lions CB Drayton Florence being their biggest signing. Florence adds depth, but he's not the final answer for a secondary that lacks playmakers, and the recent release of longtime CB Chris Gamble creates even more of a need for youth in the secondary.

All that means versatile Texas S Kenny Vaccaro could make sense with the 14th overall pick.

Vaccaro (6-foot, 214) didn't run particularly well at the combine, but his tape shows a fluid overall athlete who can play the point in zone coverage, drop down over slot receivers in man-to-man, and who I believe has enough movement skills to bump outside to cornerback on occasion. Just look at the tape of his matchup with first-round West Virginia WR Tavon Austin for proof of Vaccaro's coverage ability.

He's also strong in run support. Vaccaro is not afraid to come into the box and deliver blows on ball carriers, something Kansas State QB Collin Klein found out the hard way last season. He's one of the better pure football players I've studied on tape, and should he drop a bit in the first round because of his 4.63-second 40 time, the Panthers could get a good value.

The safety class is also deep this year, and FIU's John Cyprien, South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, and Florida's Matt Elam could be a good fit if Carolina looks for a safety on Day 2. Nevada's Duke Williams is an option earlier on Day 3, and Rutgers' Duron Harmon is a possibility in the later rounds.

Up front, Carolina has its pass-rushers in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (who combined for 23.5 of the team's 39 sacks last season), but the Panthers could stand to add some size in the middle. Should a heart condition flagged at the combine drop Utah DT Star Lotulelei down the board, he would be a nice fit.

Assuming he is cleared medically, Lotulelei (6-2.5, 311) is a powerful run-stuffer who could occupy blockers and protect outstanding young MLB Luke Kuechly. In addition, Lotulelei is a good scheme fit with the Panthers looking to incorporate more three-man fronts into their game plan, with the ability to slide outside to the 5-technique.

If not Lotulelei, then Missouri's Sheldon Richardson could be attractive. Richardson (6-foot-2.5, 294) is a one-gap penetrator with even more upside as a pass-rusher, and has exceptional athleticism and wide range. And don't rule out North Carolina's Sylvester Williams, who has quick feet and violent hands, in the first round.

Williams (6-2⅝, 313) was bothered by an ankle injury for much of 2012, but you only need to look as far as his game tape against Virginia -- one of the most complete of any prospect in the class -- to see the impact he can have when fully healthy.

Further down the line, massive Missouri Southern two-gapper Brandon Williams (6-foot-1¼, 335) is a second-round option, as is Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins. And while Tennessee-Martin's Montori Hughes (6-foot-4, 329) brings some character baggage, he has the size, power and athleticism to be a good value early on Day 3.

Elsewhere, the Panthers could add depth at offensive tackle or outside linebacker.

Florida State OT Menelik Watson (6-5⅛, 310) is raw but very athletic, while Arkansas-Pine Bluff's Terron Armstead nailed the pre-draft process with impressive all-star performances and off-the-charts testing at the combine. Either one could be available in the second round as an heir apparent to longtime Carolina OT Jordan Gross, whose play has dipped a bit in recent years.

At linebacker, under-the-radar prospect Ty Powell of Harding would bring plenty of versatility and athleticism to defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's scheme. Powell (6-foot-2⅛, 249) is a former safety with just one year of experience at linebacker but has natural athleticism to hold up in space, strength to hold the point of attack and upside as a pass-rusher. He also has the ability to line up on the strong side in a 4-3 or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4.

A big-body receiver who can make plays downfield and take advantage of QB Cam Newton's strong arm could also be in play after the first round. That could include a Day 2 prospect like Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins, or Day 3 options such as Washington State's Marquess Wilson, Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton or Georgia's Tavarres King.

Finally, don't rule out the Panthers pulling the trigger on Austin in the first round. It could be a little early, but I believe Austin is the biggest offensive weapon in this class and would provide Carolina with the quickness, explosiveness and vision to generate a big play at any point on both offense and special teams.

New Orleans Saints

With the Saints hoping to incorporate more 3-4 looks into their defense, an impact pass-rusher is a top priority. However, with defensive ends like BYU's Ezekiel Ansah, Oregon's Dion Jordan and LSU's Barkevious Mingo likely to be gone with the Saints' pick at No. 15 overall, the value might not be there.

Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones (6-foot-2, 245) could be an option, and Jones certainly has production and instincts on his side. However, I'm not as high on Jones as others and the mid-first round is a bit early for my taste. Werner might also be a consideration here, with his ability to play from a two-point stance at times and provide a pass-rush upgrade.

New Orleans doesn't have a second-round pick because of bounty-related penalties, but if the Saints look for a pass-rusher in the third round then Auburn's Corey Lemonier, Stanford's Chase Thomas or Southern Miss's Jamie Collins could fit.

And keep an eye on Connecticut's Trevardo Williams on Day 3. Williams (6-foot-1¼, 241) is undersized, but he has an explosive get-off and can be a disruptive presence. Just ask N.C. State QB Mike Glennon, who was terrorized by Williams during the regular season.

Elsewhere on defense, the Saints could add a young safety to develop behind Keenan Lewis and Roman Harper, both of whom are on the back ends of their contracts, and Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse could be a steal in the third round.

Thomas (5-foot-8⅞, 213) is a compact, explosive player with a violent edge to his game who is strong against the run, as a blitzer and in coverage. Georgia safeties Sean Williams and Bacarri Rambo might also be considerations in the third round.

On the other side of the ball, a tight end to complement Jimmy Graham in two-TE sets might not be a first-round option, but McDonald and Kelce might be pass-catching options in the third round. Michigan State's Dion Sims could also add some blocking help (which is not Graham's strong suit) in the third or fourth, while Stanford's Levine Toilolo might bring good returns in the later rounds.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bringing in former 49ers S Dashon Goldson to play alongside Mark Barron firmed things up at that position, but corner is still a glaring need for the Bucs. There's no chance Alabama's Dee Milliner will be on the board when Tampa Bay picks at No. 13, and for all the talk about how well Florida State's Xavier Rhodes (6-foot-1.5, 210) would fit in the Tampa system, I'm in the minority in that I just don't think Rhodes' game tape matches up with his measurables in a way that justifies taking him that high.

The Bucs would be better off waiting until the second round and looking to get better value with someone like Wreh-Wilson, Taylor, or even Hayden if they feel comfortable with the status if a freak upper-body injury he suffered in 2012. They could even opt for a bigger corner like Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks in the third round or N.C. State's David Amerson on Day 3.

You could also make the case that the defensive line is a primary need for Tampa Bay, despite the young talent already there. The Bucs could use a penetrating tackle like Richardson or Sylvester Williams to plug in alongside Gerald McCoy, or perhaps Purdue's Kawann Short or Alabama's Jesse Williams in the second round.

End is also looking like a need area all of a sudden, with Tampa losing Michael Bennett to the Seahawks and DaQuan Bowers is facing legal issues after bringing a gun to an airport. Adrian Clayborn is solid, but more pieces are needed at the position. Sam Montgomery doesn't have the athleticism of former LSU teammate Mingo, but Montgomery is strong and has a relentless motor. He would be a viable option in the second round to line up at left end.

UCLA's Datone Jones could be a solid option in the second round with his versatility and motor. Texas A&M's Damontre Moore and Alex Okafor of Texas are other possibilities in the second, although I value them more towards the third round. And don't rule out Georgia's Cornelius Washington, who is also in the third-round mix after an impressive combine workout.

Lastly, the Bucs signed WR Kevin Ogletree to add some depth but the team could continue to bolster the position in the early-to-mid rounds with players like West Virginia's Stedman Bailey, Marshall's Aaron Dobson, Oregon State's Markus Wheaton or TCU's Josh Boyce.