NFC South free agency grades; NFL approves 17-game season; 49ers select Justin Fields in latest mock draft – CBS Sports

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Welcome to the end of March. And welcome to the kickoff of Draft Month (almost). Are you excited? I know I am. Who am I, by the way? Glad you asked. Because it’s Wednesday, and John Breech needs another day off to shop for Andy Dalton Bears jerseys, I — Cody Benjamin, the man with two first names — will be guiding you through all the latest from around the NFL.

This is the Pick Six Newsletter. Now let’s get to it. (And please, do yourself a favor and make sure you’re signed up to receive this newsletter every day! You don’t want to miss our daily offerings of everything you need to know around the NFL.)

We’ve got NFC South free agency grades, draft projections and all the buzz on the NFL’s move to 17 games:

  1. Today’s show: Buccaneers reign supreme in NFC South free agency grades

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The big waves of 2021 free agency are past us, so which teams hit home runs and which teams swung and missed? Cody Benjamin joined Will Brinson on Wednesday’s Pick Six NFL Podcast (listen and subscribe right here) to continue a series of mini pods with offseason grades for all 32 NFL teams, sorted by division. This time, the NFC South was up for debate, and Benjamin pegged the reigning champion Buccaneers as the clear winner, not only in their division but among the best of the NFL:

“The idea of running it back, I think sometimes we overrate that,” Benjamin said. “I think it really does get overrated. Because ‘running it back’ rarely works out. But in this case, you rarely see it when it truly is such a run-back. The best part about it is, a handful of those guys, they’re not just one-year fixes. Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, those guys should be around beyond Tom Brady’s tenure. I think the Buccaneers did a fantastic job. I think they get an ‘A’, if not an ‘A+.’ Yeah, it would be nice to see some fresh guys in there … but if you would’ve told Bucs fans going into the offseason that you’re coming back with the same starting lineups on offense and defense, you would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.”

The grades for the Bucs’ NFC South rivals were not as glowing, with the Panthers (C+), Falcons (C) and Saints (C-) all struggling to get passing grades for their uneven free agency activity.

2. NFL expanding regular season to 17 games starting in 2021

The NFL has been prepared to expand its regular season from 16 to 17 games ever since agreeing to a new CBA with the NFL Players Association prior to 2020, but now the move is official. League owners on Tuesday ratified the expansion, meaning the 2021 season will mark the first time a regular season goes 17 games. Catch up on all the latest around the schedule change:

3. Insider notes: Central Missouri draft prospect could be future NFL hybrid

Zach Davidson University of Central Missouri

A lot of the 2021 draft talk has centered on the quarterbacks: Which one will go after Trevor Lawrence? Which one will the 49ers take at No. 3? Which teams will be left out of the rookie QB sweepstakes? CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora has his eyes on an under-the-radar phenom, however: 6-foot-7 prospect Zach Davidson, a tight end out of Division II Central Missouri who was originally recruited as a punter but is now on track to be a Day Two pick.

Despite being stripped of his entire senior season due to the pandemic, Davidson more than held his own at a premier pre-draft training center in South Florida with some of the best receivers, tight ends and running backs from the ACC this winter … Oh yeah, and he still hones his punting three days a week — booming balls with ease — and is teaching himself to long snap (he is a self-taught punter) and maybe to place hold, too. He could be one of the rarest breeds of hybrid player in the NFL ever (oh yeah, he’s worked out as an H-back, as well) … He’s gone from an unknown D-II punter to perhaps an undrafted free agent to someone now projected by many teams to go possibly as high as the end of Day Two of the draft (late fourth round).

4. Updated playoff projections with 17-game season: Eagles, Falcons get a boost

The NFL’s move to 17 games doesn’t just mean longer schedules. It also means different paths to the playoffs. Immediately after the league’s regular-season expansion, SportsLine’s Stephen Oh compared simulations for the 16-game schedule to the new 17-game schedule to identify which teams benefit the most (and least) from having an additional game. Most of the changes have to do with the strength of the 17th opponent; for instance, you’re more likely to get a bump in playoff chances if you’re closing the year against the Jets than, say, the Chiefs. Here’s a glimpse at which clubs saw their postseason odds increase and decrease:

Winners:

  • Eagles (+2.5%)
  • Falcons (+4%)
  • 49ers (+2.5%)

Losers:

5. Mock draft: 49ers take QB Justin Fields after trading up to No. 3

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Now that the 49ers are in range of a top three QB prospect in the 2021 draft, which one will it be? Chris Trapasso is going against the grain in his latest mock draft, overlooking the buzz about Alabama’s Mac Jones being the apple of coach Kyle Shanahan’s eye and forecasting Ohio State’s Justin Fields as the No. 3 pick. Here’s what else Trapasso has going down in the top 10 of his two-round mock:

  1. Jaguars: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
  2. Jets: BYU QB Zach Wilson
  3. 49ers: Ohio State QB Justin Fields
  4. Falcons: Florida TE Kyle Pitts
  5. Bengals: LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase
  6. Dolphins: Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
  7. Lions: Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle
  8. Panthers: NDSU QB Trey Lance
  9. Broncos: Oregon OL Penei Sewell
  10. Cowboys: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

6. NFL expects full attendance at every stadium for 2021 season

This is a big week for the NFL, apparently. Not only will the league be increasing its schedule to 17 games, but commissioner Roger Goodell had a bold proclamation for reporters after this week’s meeting with NFL executives: The league expects every single stadium to be at full capacity when the 2021 season begins Sept. 9. This marks a distinctly different tone than last offseason, when the NFL was cautious about projecting much of anything amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s takeover. But with vaccines increasingly available nationwide, it’s clear the NFL is anticipating more of a normal schedule come fall.

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