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NFL draft preview: AFC and NFC South team needs

NFC and AFC South team needs going into Thursday's NFL draft

The NFL draft will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Chicago. Times NFL writer Sam Farmer examines team needs by division. Today, the South divisions:

NFC SOUTH

Even though they picked up a pair of offensive tackles in free agency, the Carolina Panthers still need someone to lock down the left side of the line. If there is an early run on tackles, the Panthers would miss the first wave at No. 25. Finding a replacement for the pass-rushing prowess of Greg Hardy is a priority, as is upgrading the secondary, which always seems to be an issue in Carolina.

Like Cleveland, the New Orleans Saints have two first-round picks, and Sean Payton won’t be shy about moving up or down if it suits his needs. The Saints want to fortify their defensive front, and they should be able to pick up a pass rusher or defensive tackle at No. 13. With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills departed, the Saints also want to collect more receiving targets for Drew Brees.

It has been 27 years since Tampa Bay has had the first pick in the draft. The Buccaneers took Vinny Testaverde back then, and it looks like they will grab another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Florida State's Jameis Winston, although Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is still an outside possibility. After that, Tampa Bay needs to turn its attention to an offensive line that surrendered 52 sacks last season.

First-year Coach Dan Quinn is likely to kick off his career with the Atlanta Falcons by picking an edge rusher at No. 8, and there are a lot of good ones in this draft. He’s looking for a guy like Bruce Irvin, whom he had as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Falcons need a slot receiver who can work the middle of the field. Of course, protecting Matt Ryan is always an issue, so the Falcons will be bulking up on the offensive line, too.

AFC SOUTH

Yes, the Houston Texans used their top pick on a pass rusher in three of the past four drafts, but they could go that way again with pick 16. They can’t ignore receiver, having lost Andre Johnson to Indianapolis, and needing someone to draw attention away from DeAndre Hopkins. They are good for the moment at cornerback, but there are a lot of good ones in this class, so that’s a possibility.

Indianapolis made its move to take a big step forward this off-season by spending a ton in free agency. The Colts still could use a safety, but could go that direction with the No. 29 pick. The offensive line is still an issue, so upgrading there is a priority; they have to do a better job protecting franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. This could be their year, but only if they can keep Luck upright.

Even though the Tennessee Titans would love a dominant defensive lineman, they’re going to be hard pressed to pass on Mariota, if he’s there at No. 2. Unless someone trades up into that spot, don’t be surprised if the Titans to go that direction — odds are, Zach Mettenberger isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback. Alternatively, they could take USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who is also highly coveted.

Once again, the Jacksonville Jaguars are near the top of the draft. They aren’t looking for a quarterback with the No. 3 pick — Blake Bortles will get the chance to prove he’s the man there — but the club will be able to grab a premier pass rusher. That could be Florida outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. This team has gone offense in its past five first rounds. This time it’s about defense.

NEXT: WEST DIVISIONS

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