The NFL’s Haves and Have-Nots by Position

Dave Gettleman did his best to sound convincing. Standing at the podium at the NFL combine, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager stood his ground as he argued that his draft strategy was to take the best player available. Unfortunately, his picks from last year betray that stance a bit. Heading into the draft, the weakest spot on the Carolina roster was the interior of the team’s defensive line. And by the end of Round 2, the Panthers had come away with not one but two shiny new tackles. It made all the difference in Carolina turning into one of the three best defenses in football.

Drafting strictly by need is never the best idea. Thanks to injuries and free agency, the very idea of “need” is always fluid, but there’s no denying that at a certain point, it plays into how teams have to make their draft decisions.

With the draft set to start in a few hours, we decided to break down not only what teams are most lacking at certain positions, but also what teams are strongest. Part of deciding which direction teams want to go is knowing which direction they don’t need to go.

Click here to read all of Grantland’s 2014 NFL draft coverage.

Wide Receiver

STRONGEST

Bears: I’ll admit there’s a bit of homerism creeping in here, but is there really a better option? Some people would probably say Denver, and a healthy Atlanta group might have a claim, but Atlanta hasn’t been healthy. The Bears could use a speed complement to their massive pair (they worked out De’Anthony Thomas last month), but I don’t think there’s a better 1-2 combination in football right now than Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

WEAKEST

Panthers: This might be the easiest of the bunch. Everyone from the media to fans to their own players has trashed the Panthers’ receiving corps since the end of last season. And with good reason. As of today, Cam Newton’s top two receivers are Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery. That is a problem. There will probably be some options when the Panthers pick at 28 (Cody Latimer, Kelvin Benjamin, and others). The complicated part is that wide receiver may not even be Carolina’s biggest need. We’ll get to that.

New Orleans Saints  v Philadephia Eagles

Running Back

STRONGEST

Eagles: Having last year’s rushing king helps, but Philly’s backfield supremacy has as much to do with what it did this offseason. LeSean McCoy is a very capable pass-catcher, but newly acquired Darren Sproles lets the Eagles add an entirely different dimension to their throwing game. Chip Kelly’s offense was already crazy (and pretty great); imagine what it’s going to look like with Sproles and another year of development from Zach Ertz.

WEAKEST

Titans: There’s no way Tennessee could have rationalized footing the Chris Johnson bill this season, but man, is its backfield bad. If the season started tomorrow, Shonn Greene would be the starting running back for Ken Whisenhunt’s team. The Titans’ offensive line should be better next year, with Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack both in Year 2, but the Larry Allen–Nate Newton Cowboys couldn’t even make this a passable running game. It would be surprising if Tennessee didn’t spend at least a midround pick on a back.

Quarterback

STRONGEST

Broncos: The king stay the king, and Denver is one of the few teams with a great quarterback that has recently spent actual resources on a backup in Brock Osweiler.

WEAKEST

Texans: This one is tough. By some weird logic, we could probably go with Oakland, considering the Raiders’ starting quarterback is a guy the Texans discarded. The reason I’d put Houston here is that I think the Texans are more desperate for a fix. The Raiders don’t need to press for a quarterback because the rest of their roster is so far away that there’s no incentive to hurry. Houston (especially with Jadeveon Clowney) is a roster fit for the playoffs. Also, I still wouldn’t mind seeing Brian Hoyer get his chance in Cleveland. A wide receiver–cornerback first round for the Browns could actually legitimize that entire team.

Guard

STRONGEST

Saints: Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang (thanks mostly to Sitton) make a great pair in Green Bay, but taking into account talent and price tag, New Orleans has the highest-profile guard duo in the league. Jahri Evans isn’t the player he was three years ago, but he’s still far above average, and Ben Grubbs was deserving of his first trip to the Pro Bowl last year. If the Saints are thinking about a future at guard, it’s only because they want to save some money next offseason by cutting loose Evans and his league-high $11 million cap hit.

WEAKEST

Seahawks: And there it is, the only part of Seattle’s roster not manned by T-1000s. The Seahawks could probably use a right tackle upgrade with Breno Giacomini gone, but some combination of James Carpenter, Michael Bowie, and J.R. Sweezy is their most significant concern. A player like UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo might be there when Seattle drafts at 32; there’s also a chance the Seahawks add a piece to that defense and try to win every game with five or six safeties.

Center

STRONGEST

Browns: Cleveland just forked over the biggest center contract in the league for a reason: Alex Mack is 28 and can really play.

WEAKEST

Colts: There’s really no way to say if Khaled Holmes, currently penciled in as Indy’s starter, is a viable NFL center, because we’ve never had the chance to see. Holmes was a fourth-round pick a year ago, and right now, he looks like the Colts’ only in-house option. Indy doesn’t have a pick until the second round, but with how well the team has plugged some of its other holes in free agency (Arthur Jones, D’Qwell Jackson, Hakeem Nicks), the Colts could afford to go with a player like USC’s Marcus Martin if he’s still around at 59.

Tackle

STRONGEST

Patriots: I could just as easily go with the Bengals for this spot, but New England’s guys are just younger. Nate Solder has been very solid on the left side, and Sebastian Vollmer almost — almost — makes up for the slew of second-round disasters from the Patriots in the past five years. Where the Pats could use some long-term planning is actually on the interior of their offensive line, where I think Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have played since the NFL’s inception.

WEAKEST

Panthers: This is why Carolina’s wide receiver problem isn’t as pressing as some people might think. Jordan Gross’s retirement was a deathblow for the Panthers’ offense; their options at left tackle right now are Nate Chandler and Byron Bell. Neither of those inspires much confidence. A player like Nevada’s Joel Bitonio might be around at 28, which is when the Panthers may have to decide between offensive tackle and receiver. Again, drafting solely for need is never fun, but Carolina is probably the team with the most pressure to go that route.

Interior Defensive Line

STRONGEST

Jets: Rex Ryan’s team finished second to the Cardinals in run-defense DVOA last season, but Arizona put up its numbers with arguably one of the best inside-linebacker pairings in the league. The Jets did most of their damage thanks to the combination of Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson, and Muhammad Wilkerson. Harrison was a fantastic run stuffer in the middle of the Jets’ defense, and Richardson was more than deserving of his defensive rookie of the year win. That Muhammad Wilkerson is the third player listed here says everything you need to know about this crew.

WEAKEST

Bears: On the other end of that DVOA spectrum is Chicago, whose failings in the run game produced some stats that border on the impossible. In their past 11 games, the best performance by the Bears’ run defense was giving up 93 yards to Cleveland. The other games: 123, 209, 199, 145, 174, 258, 246, 198, 289, and 160. Seriously. The Bears made some additions to their defensive line in free agency, but most of those were at defensive end (with the idea that Lamarr Houston could bump inside at times). Aaron Donald would be the ultimate prize for the Bears at 14, but if they miss out, it would be a surprise to see them leave the second round without a defensive tackle.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v St Louis Rams

Edge Rushers

STRONGEST

Chiefs: St. Louis has a case here — a case so strong that its current pair of defensive ends would probably preclude the Rams from taking Jadeveon Clowney if he fell to no. 2. But their Missouri counterparts are still probably the best pass-rushing combination in the NFL. The downfall of Kansas City’s defense last year can be directly traced to injuries suffered by both Justin Houston and Tamba Hali; when healthy, they’re as good as anyone.

WEAKEST

Falcons: Like the Bears, Atlanta added some pieces to its defensive line this spring, but what the Falcons are still lacking is a real NFL pass-rusher. Osi Umenyiora hasn’t scared anyone for a while. The Falcons’ connection to a trade for Clowney is partly due to their track record and partly due to a desperate need for someone who can get after the quarterback. Atlanta’s transition to a more multiple-front defense should open some more options in the second round (Dee Ford, Jerry Attaochu) if they miss out on both Mack and Clowney in the top six.

Linebackers

STRONGEST

49ers: This one doesn’t need much explanation.

WEAKEST

Broncos: Denver may be able to put together the pieces on its roster, with some combination of Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving playing the Will and Mike linebackers, but right now, the middle of the Broncos’ defense is empty after losing Paris Lenon and Wesley Woodyard. The good news for the Broncos is that it’s a position that can be filled with late-round options, and it’s really the only glaring hole on the entire team.

NFL: Cardinals v Seahawks

Cornerback

STRONGEST

Seahawks: An argument could be made for a few teams here, but after Richard Sherman’s massive payday and Seattle’s proven track record of developing corners, the Seahawks probably deserve the title. With Walter Thurmond gone, Seattle could use someone to step into the role as its slot corner, but my guess is this would still be the team any trio of receivers wants to see least.

WEAKEST

49ers: The Panthers have yet another claim for a worst group, at corner, but that would start to border on cruel. San Francisco has been linked to wide receivers throughout the run-up to the draft, but cornerback is probably its most pressing need. Right now, Chris Culliver and Eric Wright are slated to start at corner; considering the Niners’ pass defense was great with two better options last year, they should probably look to right that this weekend. On the bright side, this is a cornerback class that supposedly has starters as late as the third round, and San Francisco has approximately 47 picks.

Safety

STRONGEST

Saints: OK, so it’s probably Seattle, but we’d be getting a little repetitive with that. Kenny Vaccaro is on his way to being a real star, the type of safety who can do a host of things all over the field. He’ll be allowed to do plenty of roaming with Jairus Byrd holding down the middle. The Saints have a chance to taken even another step forward defensively this year.

WEAKEST

Packers: There’s a claim to be made for their rivals to the south (Major Wright is gone, but the Bears would still have to rely on either Chris Conte or Green Bay castoff M.D. Jennings if the season started tomorrow), but the Packers aren’t doing any better. Morgan Burnett is tolerable, but right now, his counterpart is set to be Sean Richardson or a converted Micah Hyde. Neither of the draft’s top safeties will probably be around in the 20s, but a player like Jimmie Ward could be an option in the second round.

Filed Under: NFL Draft, NFL

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays