NFL Draft Wish List, Part 1Elias Stein
The first half of the offseason’s roster building is over. Sure, there are a few scattered free agents who will sneak onto rosters mostly undetected over the next several weeks, but those deals will be more about value than they will be about need. In terms of teams going out into the market and trying to fill the holes on their roster, the capital commitment period is finished. The Jets needed cornerbacks and bought a bunch. The Eagles didn’t need a running back, then they needed a running back, and then they had all the running backs. Problem solved.
That leaves the second portion of the offseason. The NFL draft, which begins on April 30, is also about value, of course, but each organization has surely identified a need or two it will hope to fill. Even teams that adhere closely to the Best Player Available approach will hope that the best player available happens to be at a position where they aren’t so heavily stocked. Let’s take a look at the biggest need(s) remaining on each team’s roster and how likely it is to find a solution to that spot in the upcoming draft.
That search starts in Arizona, where the Cardinals have had the same part missing for the entirety of the Bruce Arians era …
Biggest Need: Pass-rusher
Other Needs: RB, C, NT
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest the Cardinals should have been in pursuit of a pass-rusher during each of the last three offseasons. They’ve managed to succeed without one, but the people who helped them do so aren’t around anymore. In 2013, they got a final gasp from John Abraham, who delivered 11.5 sacks at the age of 35. In 2014, with Abraham missing virtually the entire season, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles went with a defensive-back-heavy approach and blitzed on 43.1 percent of opposing dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the league. The creative Bowles left in January to take over as head coach of the Jets, leaving Arizona back in the pass-rushing weeds.
Arians and general manager Steve Keim chose to mostly stay the course in free agency, taking a flier on former Steelers star LaMarr Woodley, who is now three years removed from his last season as an above-average performer. Otherwise, the Cardinals are hoping to continue developing Alex Okafor, who led the team with eight sacks last season. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher, formerly the team’s outside linebackers coach, is expected to continue in Bowles’s image of creating pressure with heavy blitzes.
After two years of success, you can’t blame Arians and Keim for betting on themselves, but it would seem logical for Arizona to go after an edge rusher, even in the hopes of having someone to rotate with Woodley, Okafor, and Matt Shaughnessy. Having found Okafor in the fourth round two years ago, Keim may look for another pass-rusher in the middle rounds and use the 24th pick on offensive help. Given that the Cardinals averaged a league-low 3.3 yards per carry last season, that help could come in the form of a running back like Georgia’s Todd Gurley or Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
Biggest Need: Pass-rusher
Other Needs: RB, OL, S
Don’t worry about this getting repetitive: The Ravens are next, and they definitely don’t need any help getting after opposing quarterbacks. The Falcons also went into last offseason with a desperate need to add a pass-rusher (ironically, after letting Abraham go the previous year), but the only addition they made was washed-up Giants end Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora was second on the team in sacks … with 2.5, and that was only two sacks behind team leader Kroy Biermann.
New head coach Dan Quinn will be installing the same defense he ran under Pete Carroll in Seattle, and his first priority will be finding a Leo defensive end to serve as his primary pass-rusher. While the Falcons imported O’Brien Schofield alongside Quinn, a long-standing knee injury prevents Schofield from playing a significant number of snaps. Picking eighth, it would be shocking to see the Falcons pass on one of the bevy of pass-rushers lurking at the top of this year’s draft class. Dante Fowler (Florida), Shane Ray (Missouri), Vic Beasley (Clemson), and Randy Gregory (Nebraska) are among the Leo candidates Atlanta will be choosing from at no. 8.
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
Other Needs: TE, DE, CB
Cap constraints forced the Ravens to let Torrey Smith go this offseason, and while his 49-catch, 767-yard line might seem pedestrian, remember that the 2011 second-rounder drew 11 pass interference penalties for another 229 yards, which was a full 100 yards more than any other wideout in football. The Ravens got a useful debut season out of Steve Smith, but the 35-year-old’s production rapidly faded as the season went along:
I value my life, so I don’t want to suggest that no. 89 is cooked. But given that Dennis Pitta may never return from his refractured hip and the second wide receiver on Baltimore’s depth chart is Marlon Brown, another weapon for Joe Flacco seems like an obvious place to head.
The good news for Ravens fans is that the top of this draft class is wideout-heavy, as Todd McShay’s most recent top 32 includes no fewer than five. I just wonder if Ozzie Newsome will go in that direction. During his 13 years as Baltimore’s general manager, the Ravens have taken just four wideouts among their 40 picks during the first three rounds of the draft, and that group — Torrey Smith, first-rounder Mark Clayton, and third-rounders Yamon Figurs and Devard Darling — didn’t deliver Baltimore a star wideout. If Newsome is ever going to take a shot in the first round, this is the year.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
Other Needs: QB, ILB, S
Well, that’s not entirely true. Buffalo’s biggest need is clearly at signal-caller, but with its first-rounder shipped off to Cleveland and little buzz about midround quarterback options like Bryce Petty and Brett Hundley, the Bills are unlikely to solve their quarterback quandary in the draft.
In thinking more realistically, the Bills have two selections before the fifth round, at 50 and 81. After surrounding their middling quarterback options with weapons like LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, and Percy Harvin this offseason, Buffalo might try to improve what was one of the league’s worst offensive lines from a year ago. Adding Richie Incognito, who was subpar in Miami even before his bullying case went public, is a stopgap solution at best. Buffalo should be considering athletic interior linemen like South Carolina’s A.J. Cann and Hobart’s Ali Marpet to try to create holes for McCoy in 2015.
Biggest Need: Offensive tackle
Other Needs: CB, WR, DE, S
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman excitedly announced he wouldn’t have to shop at the dollar store this offseason, but with Carolina still recovering from its trip to cap hell, Gettleman only managed to upgrade to the thrift store. Additions like Ted Ginn and Jason Trusnik aren’t going to light the world on fire, and while Gettleman has been able to find useful players at bargain-basement prices the last couple of years, he’ll have to really make magic happen to upgrade his offensive line.
Having allowed still-unsigned incumbent left tackle Byron Bell to hit the market this offseason, Gettleman signed two of the worst tackles in football to compete for starting jobs. Both Jonathan Martin and Michael Oher have names that grossly outstrip their production, and they’ll be in the running with Nate Chandler for meaningful snaps in front of Cam Newton. Chandler is no. 78 in the below attempt to murder Newton:
A tackle, any tackle. Do it for Cam.
Biggest Need: Defensive line
Other Needs: LB, CB, S, WR
With their defense having collapsed to 25th and then 28th in DVOA over the past two seasons, the Bears needed to find new defensive pieces whose jerseys hadn’t been burned, either on the field by opposing receivers or in effigy in the parking lot. New general manager Ryan Pace took steps in that direction by adding Pernell McPhee, Mason Foster, and Antrel Rolle during free agency.
Pace can continue that push by adding depth up front in this year’s draft. He inherits a pair of relatively high 2014 picks in second-rounder Ego Ferguson and third-rounder Will Sutton, but the Bears are otherwise relying on veteran question marks like Jay Ratliff and Ray McDonald. USC’s Leonard Williams won’t be waiting at no. 7, but the Bears could be in the running for 5-technique Oregon end Arik Armstead or 339-pound Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton.
Biggest Need: Outside linebacker
Other Needs: QB, DE
The Bengals headed into the offseason with a gaping hole in their pass rush, having posted the league’s second-worst sack rate in 2014. They indirectly solved that problem by bringing Michael Johnson back into the fold after the former Bengals end washed out as a free agent in Tampa. Johnson isn’t a great pass-rusher in his own right, but his presence should allow Wallace Gilberry to return to a situational pass-rushing role.
That leaves Cincinnati looking for help at outside linebacker, where 2013 breakout contributor Vontaze Burfict is a question mark after microfracture surgery on his knee. Marvin Lewis doesn’t traditionally value his outside linebackers very highly, so it’s unlikely the Bengals would spend a first-round pick on a player there, but they should consider adding an athletic option like Washington’s Shaq Thompson in the middle rounds.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Other Needs: WR, TE, DE
Unlike the Bills, the Browns could put together a feasible trade offer to grab Marcus Mariota with the second pick if they were so inclined, thanks to their pair of first-rounders. It would be disappointing to give up on Johnny Manziel so quickly, but the Manziel first-round pick is a sunk cost at this point; if the Browns really believe in Mariota (or can somehow convince the Buccaneers to pass on Jameis Winston), Manziel’s presence on/near the roster shouldn’t get in the way.
If they don’t trade up, the Browns should target their other concerns. Having lost Josh Gordon to another suspension and Jordan Cameron to free agency, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer has assembled a group of receivers exclusively out of players who were available on your fantasy league’s waiver wire last season. Dwayne Bowe! Brian Hartline! Andrew Hawkins! Smells like auto-draft! With Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray at tight end, the Browns could add a wideout in the first round and follow that up with Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, the draft’s top tight end, at no. 43.
Biggest Need: Defensive line
Other Needs: CB, S, RB
As tempting as it might be for the Cowboys to replace DeMarco Murray with one of the draft’s top running backs, one of the benefits of spending three first-round picks on offensive linemen was supposed to be that the Cowboys could plug any ol’ running back into their backfield and succeed. Dallas should draft a running back to compete with Darren McFadden & Co., but it would be healthier to wait for somebody like Indiana’s Tevin Coleman or Miami’s Duke Johnson in the second or third round.
Instead, the Cowboys should try to give Rod Marinelli something to work with up front. While Marinelli was able to get competency out of retreads like Jeremy Mincey and George Selvie last year, the Dallas defensive line desperately needs an infusion of young talent. 2014 second-rounder Demarcus Lawrence will be back after missing most of his rookie season with a broken foot, but the Cowboys could sorely use an interior pass-rusher to prevent opposing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket, especially with Henry Melton having left for Tampa Bay in free agency. If they do go after a running back or a defensive back in Round 1, Ohio State’s Mike Bennett would be a very viable option at 60.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
Other Needs: ILB, S, TE
Where Gary Kubiak goes, a zone-blocking scheme follows. Kubiak cut his teeth as the Denver offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the glory days of the late ’90s, when the Broncos could have turned you or me into a 1,000-yard back. He built a dominant rushing game around Arian Foster in Houston, and last season he quickly turned around one of the league’s worst rushing attacks in Baltimore. He’s already making noise about wanting a fullback, so while the Broncos will still throw the ball plenty of times with Peyton Manning at quarterback, don’t believe for a second that Kubiak is leaving the Denver offense unchanged.
He’ll need some offensive linemen to help the process along. Having let Orlando Franklin leave for San Diego, the Broncos could realistically target an upgrade at left guard, center, or right tackle, depending on how Kubiak wants to employ Manny Ramirez. The recent trade for backup Ravens center Gino Gradkowski shouldn’t dramatically affect Denver’s draft plans; it could find room for Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings or LSU’s La’el Collins in the starting lineup with the 28th pick.
Biggest Need: Defensive tackle
Other Needs: RB, OL, CB
Knowing they were likely losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in free agency, the Lions were surely delighted to trade two midround picks to the Ravens to acquire Haloti Ngata. Ngata should help cover for Detroit’s losses on the interior, but he’s also 31 and in the final year of his contract. There’s no guarantee the Lions will have Ngata after this season.
With primary backup C.J. Mosley also a free agent, the Lions still need to add interior linemen to keep their run defense afloat, both in 2015 and the years to come. The ideal pick for the Lions would be Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown, a bruising run defender who would allow Ngata to penetrate into the backfield and attack opposing quarterbacks. McShay has the Lions taking Brown at no. 23 in his most recent mock draft, but it would be a surprise to see him fall that far. Detroit might prefer to attack the problem with multiple picks, but having dealt its fourth- and fifth-round picks to acquire Ngata, that’s a luxury it probably can’t afford.
Green Bay Packers
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Other Needs: ILB, TE
Need is a relative term; the Packers have one of the deepest rosters in football and could do just fine in 2015 if they happened to forget about the draft and failed to show up altogether. Assuming that Ted Thompson & Co. don’t oversleep for three days, they have enough flexibility to justify doing whatever they want with their picks. They got by at inside linebacker last year with Sam Barrington and a dose of Clay Matthews, but the Packers would surely prefer to move Matthews back to his natural position at outside linebacker in the long term, even if he does move inside at times to terrorize guards in pass protection.
Given how the draft regards inside linebackers as lower-value propositions,1 it’s more likely Thompson will target a cornerback at the bottom of the first round. The Packers are thin outside after losing Davon House and Tramon Williams in free agency, while slot corner Casey Hayward is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Even if Thompson thinks he can re-sign Hayward, the Packers will likely look at Washington’s Marcus Peters or LSU’s Jalen Collins with the 30th overall pick. And regardless of what they do, chances are it will work.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Biggest Need: Inside linebacker
Other Needs: WR, OLB, QB
Another team with question marks at quarterback and no way to answer them, the Texans will probably avoid the position altogether, given that they spent a fourth-round pick on Tom Savage last year. They’ll want to surround Savage, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Mallett with weapons, but GM Rick Smith spent a first-round pick on breakout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins two years ago and went after veterans Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts as buy-low replacements for Andre Johnson. The Texans could still add a wide receiver with one of their first two picks, but they’re more likely to go after a speedy project like Auburn’s Sammie Coates in the third or fourth round.
They might be better off focusing at inside linebacker, where Brian Cushing is a perennial injury concern who looked like a shell of his former self during the first half of the 2014 campaign. Houston upgraded its run defense by adding Vince Wilfork up front, but if Cushing isn’t healthy, the Texans don’t have the sort of rangy coverage linebacker they’ll need against Coby Fleener and Julius Thomas in the years to come. The 16th pick is too early for UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, but that’s the exact sort of player the Texans will want to target if they trade down. Bill O’Brien might also look back to his Penn State days and draft Mike Hull, who called O’Brien the best coach he ever had.
Biggest Need: Safety
Other Needs: C, RB, OLB
Andre Johnson’s new home is Indianapolis, where general manager Ryan Grigson has gone on a shopping spree this offseason in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl. The Colts are deeper than they’ve ever been during the Andrew Luck era, especially on defense, but they still need a starter to play alongside Mike Adams, who is versatile enough to play either free or strong safety. LaRon Landry wasn’t the answer, if only because the question wasn’t, “Who is someone who has arms that don’t fit into T-shirts?”
Grigson did just sign Dwight Lowery, an intriguing low-cost option, but that shouldn’t stop them from pursuing a safety in the draft. Indy can’t go get longtime stalwart Antoine Bethea back from San Francisco, but it could very well consider Alabama’s Landon Collins with its first-round pick if he falls to no. 29. The Colts could also be in the running for Gurley or Gordon as part of a running back rotation with new starter Frank Gore.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Other Needs: RB, C, DE, S
The Jaguars also invested heavily in free agency this offseason, but it’s fair to say they weren’t quite as ambitious as Grigson’s Colts. One of the problems with their roster construction is that they’re locked into players who haven’t yet proved themselves. Luke Joeckel has been a mess during his first two seasons, but the Jags just gave Jermey Parnell a five-year deal that basically locks Joeckel in at left tackle for the next two years. Blake Bortles wasn’t as effective as Teddy Bridgewater or even Derek Carr as a rookie, but we’re still a couple of years away from coming to any conclusion about his long-term future. The Jaguars need better play out of those spots, but directly improving them in the draft is unlikely.
Dave Caldwell will likely instead use his first-rounder, the third overall pick, on a defensive piece. While the Jags remain thin at best at cornerback, that selection will probably fall up front, where Jacksonville could take Leonard Williams if Winston and Mariota come off the board 1-2. Their pass rush was quietly excellent last year, but if Williams is off the board, the Jags could instead head for their Leo of the future and take their pick of the draft’s many pass-rushers. Fowler has publicly suggested he would be stunned if the Jags don’t take him third, but I’m not so sure they will. Remember that Jacksonville managed to keep its interest in selecting Bortles quiet during the entire draft process last season; if it does want Fowler, it won’t be happy he spilled the beans.
Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Need: Defensive end
Other Needs: WR, C, ILB
It’s scary to look at the Kansas City depth chart at wide receiver after new arrival Jeremy Maclin, given that it hints at serious roles for De’Anthony Thomas, Jason Avant, and Junior Hemingway. The Chiefs will surely add a wide receiver of some nature in the draft, and it will help that they finally have their full complement of picks after making it through the compensation from the Alex Smith trade. With more draft value from compensatory picks than anybody else in the draft, the Chiefs can afford to take a couple of wide receivers in the middle rounds.
As thin as they are at wide receiver, though, they desperately need depth on their defensive line. While nose tackle Dontari Poe is a freak of nature who somehow manages to play nearly 90 percent of Kansas City’s snaps, the ends around him include question marks like Jerel Worthy, Vaughn Martin, and Mike DeVito, who snapped his Achilles last year. The Chiefs badly need an athletic end who can hold up against the run, and they would likely be thrilled if Armstead fell to them at no. 17.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2!
This article has been updated to correct the name of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Filed Under: NFL, 2015 NFL Draft, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs