The NFL offseason has seen lots of movement in free agency, and now the draft approaches. On Monday, we looked at the needs of half of the league; now it’s on to Part 2.
Biggest Need: Linebacker
Other Needs: CB, WR, S
I wrote about Miami’s depth issues on defense in light of the Ndamukong Suh signing, and they haven’t been able to do much to alleviate those concerns over the ensuing weeks. They re-signed Louis Delmas to start at safety, but their other additions were replacement-level talents like Spencer Paysinger and Brice McCain. For the stars they have at some positions, Miami has replacement-level talent expected to start at cornerback and linebacker.
That’s where the Dolphins will need to invest in this year’s draft. Miami has one guaranteed starter, Koa Misi, who will probably end up slotting in at middle linebacker. Everything else is up for grabs. Jelani Jenkins and Kelvin Sheppard will be in the running, but Miami has to at least consider adding a coverage linebacker like UCLA’s Eric Kendricks if he’s there at 47. Their first-round pick seems more likely to head toward one of the draft’s wide receivers, even after trading for Kenny Stills. In need of a bigger target after cutting Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, they could be a landing spot for the 6-foot-2 Jaelen Strong out of Arizona State.
Biggest Need: Middle linebacker
Other Needs: RB, G, CB
Like the Jaguars, the Vikings have a huge hole at left tackle that they can’t really fix; Matt Kalil was a disaster last season, but the Vikings are committed to him and can’t move the former Pro Bowler to right tackle with Phil Loadholt in the middle of a long-term deal. The Vikings could draft a tackle, move Kalil to the right side, and push Loadholt inside to guard, but in the final year of Kalil’s rookie deal, it seems like Minnesota will give him one final crack at reexhibiting his 2012 form.
Otherwise, it’s felt like Minnesota has been in a holding pattern waiting to figure out what it’s going to do with Adrian Peterson. It would have been nice to repurpose the $13 million the Vikings would save by trading or cutting Peterson this season, but with free agency all but finished, there’s really not much they can do with the money, even if a trade does happen. Peterson is the most prominent of several veterans who will likely be shopped heavily during the middle rounds of the draft, and if the Vikings do trade him, they could justify using a midround pick on a running back to compete with Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon for reps.
Middle linebacker has loomed as an issue for Minnesota for several years now, with the Vikings having rotated outside linebackers inside as part of various half-measures since E.J. Henderson left town in 2012. Mike Zimmer went steady with Rey Maualuga as his defense rose to prominence in Cincinnati, so it would make sense that he might pursue some semblance of stability at the position in the second or third round of this year’s draft.
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Other Needs: G, DT, RB
It would have been hard to argue that any team in football was deeper at cornerback last season than the Patriots. That depth isn’t quite as impressive now, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner both leaving after winning a Super Bowl in their only season with the team. New England will return Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and the slot corner he replaced, Kyle Arrington, but all Bill Belichick has done to patch over his cornerback holes this offseason is add replacement-level pieces like Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher. It seems virtually guaranteed that he’ll add a cornerback or two in this year’s draft.
That hasn’t always gone well for the Patriots. While they’ve managed to come away with impact contributors in 2003 fourth-rounder Asante Samuel and 2010 first-rounder Devin McCourty (albeit eventually as a safety), Belichick’s draft history in New England is littered with second- and third-round picks spent on cornerbacks who failed to make an impact. Ras-I Dowling. Darius Butler. Terrence Wheatley. Brock Williams. Logan Ryan is already eyeing this list warily. Nobody manipulates the draft board like Belichick, and I would bet he trades down at 32, but the Patriots will have to overcome their recent history to find a useful cornerback in the middle rounds.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Need: Defensive line
Other Needs: LB, CB, OL
The Saints traded Jimmy Graham, Ben Grubbs, and Kenny Stills as part of a concerted effort to acquire draft picks. Everyone expects them to use those picks to rebuild a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA last season, and while they’ve already added Brandon Browner and Dannell Ellerbe to that group, Mickey Loomis has to be targeting defensive pieces with at least a few of his five top-80 picks.
While they could justify adding defensive players at any position short of safety, the Saints will likely focus on improving their front seven. While Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks can be an above-average tandem if things break right, the Saints should consider an upgrade on nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who anchored the league’s worst run defense last season. If 339-pound Washington product Danny Shelton is still available at 13, the Saints would be an obvious landing point.
New York Giants
Biggest Need: Safety
Other Needs: OL, TE, LB
Having cycled through Stevie Brown, Will Hill, and Antrel Rolle for various reasons over the past couple of years, the Giants are basically left with an enormous question mark at safety at the moment. They struck out in their attempt to sign Devin McCourty, and while general manager Jerry Reese made some questionable decisions elsewhere in free agency, he didn’t overpay for one of the second-tier targets.
That leaves the Giants in a bind; when Tom Coughlin is talking about special-teamer Nat Berhe and cornerback Bennett Jackson as possible contributors, it’s a serious problem. The Giants won’t take a safety at nine — every single mock draft on the planet has linked them to Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff — but they’ll need to draft at least one safety (likely two) in the middle rounds. Big Blue will also need them to start contributing fast.
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Other Needs: OLB, RB, S
Suddenly flush with talent after spending heavily in free agency, the Jets’ rebuild may still require a quarterback. Geno Smith hasn’t exactly inspired confidence with his play over two seasons, and while he would have more to work with in 2015, the Jets have to at least be considered serious contenders for Marcus Mariota if he gets near them at six.
If they pass on Mariota, the Jets could target an edge rusher to take over from Calvin Pace. Todd Bowles is crafty and managed to create pressure in Arizona without a pass-rusher of note last season, and the Jets do have one promising option outside in Quinton Coples, but the Jets have been overdue on an upgrade from Pace for years now. They’ll be one of the teams in the top 10 sorting through the draft’s various top-tier pass-rushers, a group that includes Shane Ray (Missouri), Dante Fowler (Florida), Randy Gregory (Nebraska), and Vic Beasley (Clemson). New general manager Mike Maccagnan, who has an incredible AP head shot, will be at the helm for the first time.
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
Other Needs: CB, S, DE
Reggie McKenzie has rightly taken some flak for the pace of Oakland’s rebuild, but you can’t argue with his 2014 draft. After one year, Khalil Mack and Derek Carr look like possible franchise cornerstones on either side of the football. The Raiders have emphasized protecting their young quarterback, having added to an expensive offensive line by signing Chiefs center Rodney Hudson to a five-year, $44.5 million deal this offseason. Only the Jets and Washington have more money committed to their offensive line next year than Oakland’s $31.5 million.
Now, it’s time to find Carr some receivers. No young quarterback should have to rely on projects like Andre Holmes and aging veterans like James Jones as his top targets. The Raiders signed Michael Crabtree on Monday, but the former 49ers star hasn’t looked like a game-changing wideout since tearing his Achilles in 2013. The Raiders need a no. 1 receiver, and in a wideout-heavy class, they should have their pick of the litter at four. Barring an unlikely trade up or a stunning move by one of the first three teams in the draft, Oakland will get to choose between Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White with its first-round pick. The Raiders still have major question marks on defense, but after using his last two first-round picks on defensive players, McKenzie should target an offensive weapon, both to give Carr an outlet and help accelerate the evaluation process.
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
Other Needs: G, S, QB
Finally, a chance to write about the Eagles this offseason! Philadelphia’s dramatic roster turnover under Chip Kelly has left new quarterback Sam Bradford with little in the way of receiving options. The Eagles can expect more out of Zach Ertz, Jordan Matthews, and Josh Huff as they mature, but unless Kelly is counting on a bounce-back season from Riley Cooper or Miles Austin, the Eagles will need to add a wideout early in this year’s draft.
After these last couple of months, it seems silly to even guess at what Kelly might be planning. Given his previous predilection for tall players out of the Pac-12, though, Jaelen Strong looms as a possible fit for Kelly’s downfield passing attack. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Strong was born and raised in Philly. If the Eagles do find a trade partner for guard Evan Mathis, they could also look for an interior lineman as early as the second round.
Biggest Need: Outside linebacker
Other Needs: S, CB, TE
The team that never needs linebackers needs linebackers. Having shipped off LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds over the past two offseasons, the cap-strapped Steelers simply couldn’t make a meaningful dent in their pass-rush problem during free agency. Last year’s re-signing of James Harrison may help, but Harrison is a situational player at 36, and 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones has missed 11 games while recording just three sacks over his first two seasons. Pittsburgh needs an edge rusher.
At 22, though, the Steelers are unlikely to end up with Gregory or Ray, even after the former’s positive test for marijuana at the combine. A more plausible candidate would be Beasley, who recorded 33 sacks during his final three seasons at school. Beasley also stayed healthy during his time at Clemson, and in light of how Jones’s medical concerns have translated into professional injury woes, the Steelers might place more value on Beasley’s reliability than they would have several years ago.
San Diego Chargers
Biggest Need: Outside linebacker
Other Needs: WR, G, DL
If you’ve bought a fixer-upper house, you know how exhausting it can be to move from project to project. When the new San Diego regime of Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy arrived into town, they had to rebuild Philip Rivers’s confidence and improve his offensive line. Problem solved. Next, they had to patch up a leaky secondary. By adding Brandon Flowers and drafting Jason Verrett in the first round last year, Telesco quelled those concerns.
Now he needs to find a pass rush. Over the last two seasons, the Chargers have sacked opposing quarterbacks a mere 61 times. Only the Raiders and Falcons have had less impactful pass rushes during that time frame. 2012 first-rounder Melvin Ingram has missed 19 of 48 possible games with various injuries and has recorded just six sacks in three seasons, so it would be brave to count on him. While the Chargers did spend a second-round pick on Jeremiah Attaochu last season, it wouldn’t be hard to justify a move for somebody like Beasley with the 17th pick. (Sorry, Steelers fans who read down to this paragraph.)
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Other Needs: G, DL, ILB
While the 49ers would have been a very reasonable candidate for football’s deepest roster as recently as the beginning of the 2013 campaign, they’ve shed a staggering amount of talent over the past 12 months. That’s most obvious at cornerback, where they let starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown leave last April, didn’t bother to replace them, and then let backups-turned-starters Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox leave this past offseason. The 49ers signed Shareece Wright to a one-year deal, but the former Chargers corner didn’t exactly turn heads in San Diego.
Trent Baalke spent first-round picks in 2013 (Eric Reid) and 2014 (Jimmie Ward) on safeties, so it might be tough for him to spend a third consecutive first-round pick in the secondary, especially with needs in the front seven, given the retirements of Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and possibly Justin Smith.1 Baalke, who almost always finds a way to trade down and acquire more picks, should be able to find a cornerback or two before the end of the third round.
Who still hasn’t announced whether he’s retiring or not.
Biggest Need: Interior offensive line
Other Needs: WR, CB
What do you get for the team that has almost everything? The Seahawks had a hole at receiver heading into the offseason, but their stunning trade to acquire Jimmy Graham from New Orleans upgraded Seattle’s weakest point. They could still add a wide receiver, given that 2014 second-rounder Paul Richardson tore his ACL in January and is unlikely to be 100 percent before the 2016 season, but that’s likely to come with one of Seattle’s five selections in the fourth and fifth rounds.
Instead, the Seahawks will need to find interior linemen to help create holes for the newly re-signed Marshawn Lynch, having lost left guard James Carpenter to the Jets and traded center Max Unger to the Saints in the Graham deal without acquiring a replacement. Seattle doesn’t pick until 63, so unless the Seahawks trade up, general manager John Schneider will have to hope that somebody like Florida State’s Cameron Erving or South Carolina’s A.J. Cann falls to the bottom of the second round.
And while it seems strange to say, the Super Bowl injury to Jeremy Lane and the departure of Byron Maxwell puts Seattle back in the market for cornerback help. They won’t need an immediate starter, having signed Cary Williams, but it would be a surprise if Seattle didn’t come away with a cornerback to stash away for 2016 or 2017. Pete Carroll has been incredible with developing late-round picks like Maxwell (a 2011 sixth-rounder) and Richard Sherman (taken one round earlier) into stars, but that was before Seattle assistants started spreading around the league and taking Carroll’s emphasis on big cornerbacks with them. Seattle may have been able to get a guy like 6-foot-2 Oklahoma corner Julian Wilson in the fifth or sixth round a few years ago; now, it may have to reach for him a round or two earlier.
St. Louis Rams
Biggest Need: Offensive line
Other Needs: CB, LB, QB
Perennially in the market for linemen, the Rams moved on from a pair of free-agent disappointments this offseason by cutting Jake Long and Scott Wells. 2014 second overall pick Greg Robinson will take over the critical left tackle hole on Nick Foles’s blind side, and Rodger Saffold will stay next to him at guard, but the other three starting spots remain up for grabs. St. Louis could choose to re-sign right tackle Joe Barksdale, who has yet to attract any interest in free agency, but Tim Barnes, Barrett Jones, and Garrett Reynolds don’t inspire a ton of confidence.
With the extra picks from the RG3 trade all exhausted, the Rams will need to use several of their six selections in this year’s draft to rebuild their line. They would likely love it if Iowa’s Brandon Scherff fell to them at 10, but if he doesn’t, they could invest in top guard La’el Collins (LSU) at 11. Fast-rising Pittsburgh tackle T.J. Clemmings could also complete his move up the board here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Other Needs: T, DE, S
Well, this one is easy. Assuming that the Buccaneers draft Jameis Winston first, they can move on and worry about the other holes on their roster. It’s not uncommon for a team to draft a quarterback early in Round 1 and follow that pick by adding receivers in the subsequent rounds, as the Colts and Jaguars have done in recent years. Here, the Buccaneers will likely emulate their division brethren in Atlanta, who drafted Matt Ryan third overall in 2008 and traded up to grab left tackle Sam Baker 18 picks later.
Demar Dotson is not a viable NFL left tackle, and with Patrick Omameh and Kevin Pamphile, Tampa is projected to have the weakest right side in all of football. As sure as the Bucs are to grab Winston at one, the chances of them adding an offensive lineman to protect him with the 34th pick aren’t all that far off.
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Other Needs: T, WR, RB
I wrote at length about what the Titans could and should do with the second overall pick in a column last week. Regardless of what they do in the first round, the Titans should look for a right tackle to replace the departed Michael Oher. Unlike the Buccaneers, they should already be set on the left side after drafting Taylor Lewan with their first-round pick last year.
Biggest Need: Safety
Other Needs: ILB, T, CB
New general manager Scot McCloughan inherited a disastrous safety position, and while he was correct to move on from Brandon Meriweather, there just isn’t a lot of talent left at safety on the roster. Washington just sent a 2016 sixth-rounder to the Buccaneers to acquire free-agent bust Dashon Goldson, but even if new defensive backs coach Perry Fewell can coax Goldson into producing, Washington could still stand to add a second safety in the draft.
That safety won’t come at five, but I would be surprised if Washington held on to its pick. McCloughan surely realizes how thin the Washington roster looks on paper, thanks to years of neglect and the absent draft picks sent to St. Louis in the RG3 trade. With wide receivers and pass-rushers — positions of relative strength for Washington — likely to be the top choices at five, it would be smart for McCloughan to trade down, even if Marcus Mariota falls to the fifth pick.