Every NFL Team's Biggest Draft Need
Disclaimer from Andy: There are many teams that need a quarterback, and if a team needs a quarterback that is their biggest need. But because there are so many questions about this quarterback class, and because we have already gone over it anyway, we’ll shift the conversation to “biggest non-quarterback” need.
Biggest Need: Safety
Andy: It’s simple: If the Browns play with the safeties they did last year, they’ll clinch fourth place in the AFC North before Thanksgiving. Missed tackles were a major problem for Ed Reynolds and especially Ibraheim Campbell, and neither has shown the necessary range and awareness in coverage. The Browns have myriad other needs, so don’t be outraged if this is not addressed somewhere in Round 1. But also, don’t be outraged if it is.
Emily: It’s a deep year for safeties so I’ll give the draft capital-rich Browns some options. Either LSU’s Jamal Adams or Ohio State’s Malik Hooker would make an immediate impact. Should Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu, an athletic wonder, fall out of the first round, he would be a great get at No. 33. Florida’s Marcus Maye is versatile (something defensive coordinator Gregg Williams covets) and would be a good get in the third or fourth round. As for a mid- to late-round sleeper? I like John Johnson of Boston College.
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Biggest Need: Pass-Catching Running Back
Andy: Right now the NFL has no better offensive innovator than Kyle Shanahan. He’s brilliant with unconventional formations out of two-receiver personnel groupings. This puts extra running backs and tight ends on the field, making defenses fear the run and match up with less athletic pass defenders. From these groupings, Shanahan will spread out and throw. Having a dynamic receiving back, like he had in Atlanta in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, does wonders. The Niners currently have only a bell cow ballcarrier at tailback: Carlos Hyde. They need one who can flex out and catch passes.
Emily: The top two players who fit that bill are Dalvin Cook of Florida State and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford Cook had 33 receptions for 488 yards in 2016 and McCaffrey crushed the wide receiver workouts at his pro day; Cook is the more talented runner of the two. One (slight) tier below is Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara, who the Volunteers sometimes lined up at slot receiver. Toledo’s Kareem Hunt could offer mid-round value.
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Biggest Need: Three-Down Linebacker
Andy: Chicago’s defense is more talented than people think. And, over the years, few defensive coordinators have been better at capitalizing on talent than Vic Fangio. Fangio’s best days were under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. There he had two All-World linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, which afforded him tremendous freedom in how he deployed his safeties. Herein lies the difference with the Bears. They’re stellar up front and improving in the secondary. But in the middle, questions abound, especially with Danny Trevathan coming off a torn patellar tendon from November.
Emily: Alabama’s Reuben Foster is fast and athletic, but he might not be around by the Bears’ second pick at No. 36. Scouts rave about Florida’s Jarrad Davis as a competitor—he’s an eager tackler, and can also cover sideline to sideline. Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan would win over a lot of fans in Chicago with his grit as a run-stuffer inside, but he might take a year or two to develop into a three-down starter; is Ryan Pace willing to exercise patience?
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Biggest Need: Flexible Tight End
Andy: Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett loves to play with two tight ends—especially when he can align one on each side of the formation in wing positions. Just one problem: with the underachieving Julius Thomas now a Dolphin, the Jaguars don’t have a true dynamic receiving threat here. Maybe ex-Raider Mychal Rivera can become that. He’s very good on seam routes and can catch balls away from his body. But Rivera is not a sure bet, and in addition, a replacement will soon be needed for Marcedes Lewis, who turns 33 in May and has a club-option on his contract in 2018. An athletic weapon who can move all over the formation but—and here’s the difference from Thomas—can also block would do a lot for what’s likely to be a cautious and controlled Jags offense.
Emily: The Jaguars are in luck. If you need a tight end, this is the year. Alabama’s O.J. Howard is the surest prospect, but No. 4 might be too high, especially with a plethora of later options. Mississippi’s Evan Engram impressed me at the Senior Bowl, and is an excellent second-round target. In the mid-rounds, I like Adam Shaheen of Ashland. The Division II former walk-on (and basketball transfer from Division II Pittsburgh-Johnstown) gained nearly 80 pounds in college by gorging on Chipotle burritos. Now 6' 6" and 278 pounds, he’s getting on-field comparisons to Rob Gronkowski.
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Biggest Need: Man Coverage Cornerback
Andy: Jason McCourty was just released, leaving the Titans with only one proven corner: Patriots free agent Logan Ryan. He’s a physical No. 2 cover guy or slot defender. The Titans still need a true No. 1. And it’s more important than ever because last season, long-time zone coverage scientist Dick LeBeau played increasingly more man-to-man. That was partly because the Titans’ young corners couldn’t handle the myriad reads in LeBeau’s zone coverages. But more than that, LeBeau felt that man coverage better accommodated his five-man blitz concepts. LeBeau is a blitz designer first and foremost; if he feels man coverage improves his pressure tactics, then man coverage will become the Titans’ foundation. Now they must find guys who can play it.
Emily: Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore is going to be a stud—should he stay healthy (he’s had extensive issues with his hamstrings). Lattimore is versatile enough to play man press or in zone, and he’d certainly fit the Titans’ needs here. There’s also Washington’s Sidney Jones, who many scouts regard as the best lockdown corner in this draft. The comparison for Jones is not too shabby: fellow Husky Marcus Peters. Of course, Jones tore his Achilles tendon at his pro day and it could take months to rehab. This drops the potential first-rounder into the second or third round, but also means a team could get a steal, if the GM is willing to exercise patience.
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Biggest Need: Speedy Wide Receiver
Andy: Other than work-in-progress backup Robby Anderson, the Jets don’t have any receivers who can run 40 yards faster than you can read this paragraph. Tactically, that makes them much too easy to defend. If Eric Decker is to remain viable as an intermediate possession target, and if big man Quincy Enunwa is to continue producing in the slot, the Jets need someone who can threaten defenses deep. The closest they have is 2015 second-rounder Devin Smith, who must get better at maintaining speed at the top of routes.
Emily: The obvious choice here is John Ross of Washington—he of the record-breaking 4.22 40-yard dash fame—and he should be available when the Jets pick at No. 6. Ross models his game after DeSean Jackson, and Jackson has adopted the role of mentor, using private sessions to teach Ross how to harness his speed to be a more effective route-runner. Other speedy options for New York include Chris Godwin of Penn State, Curtis Samuel of Ohio State and Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, who has a slight frame but top-end speed and quickness to separate.
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Biggest Need: Outside Man Coverage Cornerback
Andy: It will be interesting to watch the Chargers defense under new coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley comes from the Pete Carroll tree of Cover 3 zone. He’ll press with his outside corners but prefers to play zone with his inside defenders. In Los Angeles, however, Bradley will have two superb man coverage artists: Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward. Both can travel with receivers all over the formation, including inside (Hayward especially; early in his career, he was highly effective in the slot for Green Bay). Bradley also has two of the most uniquely flexible pass rushers in football: Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. No pairing has better lateral explosiveness. It’d be wasteful to just line up each man on the edge and have him rush with speed. Bosa and Ingram should be moved around and stressing offenses together. Their skill sets translate extremely well to stunts and other designer rush tactics. When you put the corners and pass rushers together, it’s clear: Bradley would be best served running a disguised-based, pressure-oriented scheme, not a vanilla Cover 3 zone. If the Chargers are to commit fully to pressure and man coverage, they need a third quality corner.
Emily: Marlon Humphrey seems like a great fit. The Alabama product has a great combination of size (6-foot, 197 pounds) and speed (a state championship sprinter) to match up with anybody. He’s a first-round candidate whose technique might need some refinement, but should thrive in Bradley’s system. Florida’s Quincy Wilson has length (6' 1", 211 pounds), is a physical and willing tackler, plus has strong ball skills.
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Biggest Need: Power-Oriented Running Back
Andy: Cam Newton is talented but erratic. The more the Panthers rely on their ground game, the better. That ensures the best version of Newton. You have to understand the soon-to-be 28-year-old quarterback’s style of play. He’s a deep dropback pocket passer, not a precise, anticipatory quick-strike thrower like so many QBs these days. Deep dropback pocket passing derives from your running concepts. Many of those passes come out of your run formation and involve play-action. The better you are at actually running the ball, the easier life is for your quarterback. Also, Ron Rivera has said they want Newton running less. If that’s the case—and, frankly, it shouldn’t be; Newton’s running makes him special—then find a thumper to complement, and eventually replace, veteran back Jonathan Stewart.
Emily: Leonard Fournette makes sense here. Too much sense. You’ve heard about what a deep year this is for running backs, but most of the top tier runners are coveted because of their versatility and ability to contribute as a receiver (see: Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon). By now, Fournette needs little introduction. Like projected No. 1 pick Myles Garrett, the descriptor for Fournette is usually “rare blend of power and speed.” Should the Panthers wait until Day 2 or 3, BYU’s Jamaal Williams is a powerful runner with yards-after-contact potential. Also, James Conner of Pittsburgh is resilient on and off the field.
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Biggest Need: Front-Seven Playmaker
Andy: Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther can be creative with his pressure designs, but most often last season Cincy’s defense just played straight two-deep zone coverage. That’s fine, but to prosper this way you must be more talented than your opponent. That starts in the front seven, where Cincy’s issues arise. Right defensive end Michael Johnson was invisible in 2016; someone else needs to start in his spot opposite the inconsistent Carlos Dunlap. The depth at D-tackle, which has not been an issue for years thanks to Cincy’s commitment in investing second- and third-round picks here, has suddenly dried up. And with Pat Sims in the final year of his contract, one of the starting spots could soon be open. Then there’s the linebacker situation. Vontaze Burfict is ferocious but has missed 22 of the last 48 games with injuries or suspensions. If that continues in ’17, his expiring contract won’t be renewed. And Burfict’s isn’t the only contract that’s expiring; Newcomer Kevin Minter, from the Cardinals, is on a one-year deal. The only other proven linebacker signed for 2018 is utility backup Vincent Rey.
Emily: There are three players I like that should be available when he Bengals pick at No. 9. The first is Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. Up front, Foster’s Alabama teammate Jonathan Allen is a productive pass-rusher who ticks all of the leadership boxes—though teams are monitoring his arthritic shoulder, which Allen has said won’t be a problem throughout his playing career. Finally, there’s Derek Barnett, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee. That’s a résumé nugget NFL evaluators do not take lightly.
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Biggest Need: Wide Receiver (Any Style)
Andy: Whatever’s the opposite of an anticipation passer, that’s Tyrod Taylor, times 10. Because of this, new Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is limited in how he can intertwine his receivers’ routes. These, often called “route combinations,” are tied tightly to timing and coverage reads. Which means the Bills need receivers who can win in isolation. They have one—but only one—in Sammy Watkins. No one else can consistently win one-on-one. It wouldn’t be crazy for the Bills to go wideout with their first two picks.
Emily: Buffalo might have its pick of the draft’s big three: Corey Davis of Western Michigan, John Ross of Washington and Mike Williams of Clemson. Earlier I mentioned Ross’s speed as a way to create separation. Davis is a smooth route-runner with exceptional yards-after-catch potential while Williams can stretch vertically and make contested catches. If the Bills want to wait until later, Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington was the darling of the Senior Bowl. A fun tidbit about Kupp: He has been a mainstay at the Manning Passing Academy because his grandfather, Jake, was Archie Manning’s left guard for his first five seasons with the Saints.
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Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Andy: A big reason New Orleans’s defense is perpetually miles behind its offense is that the defense lacks a true edge presence. Artful technician Cameron Jordan is proficient and can certainly thrive as a defensive end on base downs, but he doesn’t quite have the upfield explosiveness to dictate opponents’ protection concepts on passing downs. In nickel, Jordan would probably be best suited inside, where he could use his refined technique to beat less athletic guards in tight quarters. The Saints can’t experiment here without finding a player to fill Jordan’s shoes on the left edge. In fact, make that two players, since the Saints have no one opposite Jordan on the right edge, either.
Emily: If Tennessee’s Derek Barnett is still available, New Orleans should pounce. Besides his 32 career sacks—including 13 last year—Barnett accumulated 52 tackles for loss in just three years at Tennessee. His proficiency against the run makes him a good candidate to play three downs as a rookie. Meanwhile, Charles Harris is the latest Missouri pass-rusher who projects to make an impact in the NFL.
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12. Cleveland Browns (acquired from Eagles), see No. 1
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Biggest Need: No. 2 Man-to-Man Cornerback
Andy: In the NFL, you can’t be glaringly weak at one cornerback spot because that gives offenses a defined method to attack you. With this in mind, it would be the mother of all upsets if the Cardinals didn’t draft a corner to play opposite Patrick Peterson. Currently all they have is Brandon Williams, who has only played the position for two years. Being much too raw, he was benched early last season as a third-round rookie. The only other option is Justin Bethel, whom Bruce Arians has publicly deemed a “failure in progress.”
Emily: Gareon Conley of Ohio State might entice Arizona at No. 13. After starting every game for the past two seasons—including a stellar 2016, allowing just 14 receptions for 159 yards—most evaluators believe Conley is polished enough to start right away. I mentioned Marlon Humphrey of Alabama as a match for the Chargers, and he’d certainly work here as well. Also, Humphrey is one of the youngest players in this draft—he turns 21 in July—and many scouts believe his body could get bigger and stronger, adding to already impressive traits.
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Biggest Need: Wide Receiver
Andy: If a cornerback that the Eagles love is sitting on the board, they should pounce. Last year’s seventh-round pick Jalen Mills is their only quality starter outside, and he hasn’t blossomed into a true every-down player yet. But with Jim Schwartz running a zone scheme, corners aren’t vital. Which is why wide receiver could still be the Eagles’ top priority. Their two free agent additions may not even be here in 2018. Alshon Jeffery is on a one-year deal; Torrey Smith is stiff and may not work in Doug Pederson’s intricate scheme. A young QB as talented as Carson Wentz shouldn’t be plagued by questions at receiver.
Emily: Wentz needs a playmaker he can grow with; how about looking in-state at Penn State’s Chris Godwin? He has deceptive speed and can make contested catches (besides his breakout performance against USC in the Rose Bowl, check out his tape against Ohio State when he went up against Gareon Conley). Godwin could use a year of learning under vets like Jeffrey or Smith. Also in the tier-two receiver crop: Chad Hansen, from Cal, who has great hands. His ceiling might be WR2 though.
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Biggest Need: Defensive Player
Andy: Sorry to generalize, but sometimes it’s this simple. The Colts should take the best defensive player available with their first-round pick. And their second-rounder. And third-rounder. And probably two of their three picks in the fourth round. This is the NFL’s least talented defense. The fastest way to mask a deficient lineup is to find a dominant edge rusher. The Colts signed Jabaal Sheard, who is now their best defensive lineman. But Sheard is better against the run than the pass. Another way to mask an iffy lineup is to add a lockdown man coverage corner. One of Indy’s few solid starters is Vontae Davis, who can travel with No. 1 receivers outside. If they found a cover artist similar to Davis, they could at least trust their secondary in single coverage, which would expand the blitz packages that Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino like.
Emily: If Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster falls to No. 15, he could be Indianapolis’ first-round guy. Another potential match would be Takkarist McKinley of UCLA. A scout first alerted me to McKinley in October: “Perfect for a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. Could be the next DeMarcus Ware. Freak athlete.” If the Colts need to build a defense, “the next DeMarcus Ware” isn’t a bad place to start.
• 24 HOURS WITH PATRICK MAHOMES: In a draft that lacks a surefire franchise quarterback, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes has a chance to emerge as 2017’s prize passer. We went behind the scenes with the QB as he prepared for the audition of his life: his pro day.
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Biggest Need: Possession Wide Receiver
Andy: Mike Wallace is a burner whose career has been revitalized by the catch-and-run opportunities presented on shallow crossing routes in Baltimore’s offense. But those will only stay open if the Ravens have a receiver who can threaten linebackers and safeties on in-breaking routes (think slants, skinny posts and digs). Steve Smith, who recently retired, had been that guy. Breshad Perriman, a first-rounder in ’15, will get a look but probably lacks the necessary twitchiness to separate at the 10-to-14-yard range. His strong suite is 15-25-yard routes on the perimeter.
Emily: Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Clemson’s Mike Williams are being discussed as first-round options. If Ozzie Smith opts to wait, USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. He’s a big (6' 2", 215 pounds) target in the middle of the field, though he’s not known for his separation or speed. (I’ve heard Laquon Treadwell as a comparison.) In the mid-rounds, Josh Reynolds of Texas A&M is one of my favorites. Lightly-recruited as a wide receiver out of high school (though he was offered track scholarship to Texas A&M for hurdling and was apparently a very proficient punter) Reynolds spent a year at JUCO until he got noticed.
• HOW COREY DAVIS BECAME THE DRAFT’S MYSTERY MAN: He had been on a trajectory to be a high first-round pick, but an injury-filled draft season (including an absence of a 40 time) will test teams interested in him.
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Biggest Need: True Free Safety
Andy: It’s a tossup whether 33-year-old DeAngelo Hall, coming off a season-ending ACL injury from last September, can still play. If he can’t, Washington’s options at free safety are converted corner Will Blackmon and ex-Eagles backup Earl Wolff. Blackmon’s inexperience at safety showed last year, plus in obvious passing situations Washington liked to have him play man coverage against slot receivers or tight ends. If that remains the case, they’d need someone else to take over at free safety on those passing downs. Talent-wise, Su’a Cravens and free agent pickup D.J. Swearinger are worthy starters, but both are better suited for the box.
Emily: The prize of this class is Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. Even though he was essentially a one-year starter for the Buckeyes, Hooker has drawn comparisons to Ed Reed and Sean Taylor; the latter should rile up Washington fans. But alas, Hooker might be gone by 17. UConn’s Obi Melifonwu is another high-ceiling player. Scouts fell in love with his traits at the Senior Bowl and combine but he may need time to groom. Washington’s Budda Baker is a bit undersized but has plenty of range and loves to hit.
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18. Tennessee Titans, see No. 5
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Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Andy: Meet everyone’s predicted breakout team for 2017. The Bucs are trendy because, after the arrival of speed-burning wideout DeSean Jackson, their depth chart has no major holes. They can afford to select the best player available. Typically, for teams in this position, and especially ones that play as much zone coverage as Tampa Bay does, that means taking the best pass rusher available. You can never have too many. And even if Noah Spence, last year’s second-round pick, keeps developing (there’s no indication he won’t), the Bucs will need a new source of edge speed up front. An outside pass rusher could prove more than just a fancy insurance policy.
Emily: Taco Charlton (6' 6", 277 pounds) had decent production at Michigan, and scouts project it will only get better from here. He has length, but he’s twitchy and flexible. Once he polishes his handwork, he could terrorize quarterbacks of the NFC South for many years. UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, who I had linked to the Colts, could also work here.
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Biggest Need: Possession Receiver
Andy: Whether it’s Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, the Broncos will likely ask their QB to run a controlled scheme. That puts an emphasis on possession targets. The big-bodied Demaryius Thomas can go over the middle, but the rest of the roster presents questions. Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler haven’t panned out. Jordan Taylor showed glimpses last season but would probably lose out to a high-drafted receiver. It doesn’t have to be a receiver, either. This draft is rich in tight ends. John Elway could pull the trigger there, giving 2015 third-rounder Jeff Heuerman some competition and finding a replacement for agile blocking specialist Virgil Green, whose contract expires after this season. In whatever form, the Broncos need someone who can catch intermediate passes inside.
Emily: East Carolina’s Zay Jones is FBS’s all time receptions leader (399), including setting the single-season record last year with 158 catches. He’s played outside and in the slot, and though he might not see the same volume as in college, you don’t catch all of those passes without some skill. Evaluators also love Jones for his high character and NFL bloodlines—his father, Robert, was a linebacker for the Cowboys in the 1990s, and his uncle, Jeff Blake, was an NFL quarterback for 14 years.
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Biggest Need: Big Outside Wide Receiver
Andy: This isn’t to say the offense misses Calvin Johnson. Obviously, there’s an impact when you lose a player like that. But Matthew Stafford, you could argue, has become a more disciplined quarterback now that he doesn’t have Johnson’s mile-long catching radius to heave passes toward. That said, Stafford needs another weapon. Acrobatic ex-Bengal Marvin Jones is a classic No. 2 receiver. Golden Tate is a gadget player. The Lions lack a true slot man and, more importantly, they lack a downfield outside threat who can influence safeties. This is a straightforward, line-up-and-play style of offense. To be that, you must have superior talent.
Emily: Either Western Michigan’s Corey Davis or Clemson’s Mike Williams would instantly become Stafford’s go-to guy. Malachi Dupre is yet another LSU wide receiver whose talent was muffled by LSU’s perpetual ineptitude at quarterback. Evaluators might have preferred Ohio State’s Noah Brown to stay in school, and his draft status will reflect that. But what the 6' 2", 222-pound wideout lacks in experience (only 52 targets in his college career) he makes up for in physicality and big-play potential.
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Biggest Need: Thumping Linebacker
Andy: New defensive coordinator Matt Burke hails from the Jim Schwartz school and believes in a traditional zone defense. That means fundamentally sound football. Burke has the defensive line for this, and Miami’s secondary is better than people think. The questions are at linebacker. Their only solid piece, Kiko Alonso, is finesse-based and takes a while to identify plays. (But once he does, he can explode.) The Dolphins need a field general to take over their Mike duties.
Emily: Temple’s Haason Reddick is one of the best underdog stories in this draft, and his potential as a pro is tremendous. With no scholarship offers coming out of high school, Reddick enrolled at Temple and walked on. His mother took out a loan to pay for his meal plan. He eventually earned a scholarship, playing everything from defensive back to defensive end, but his speed and athleticism will make him a fine NFL linebacker.
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Biggest Need: Offensive Tackle
Andy: It’s only a matter of time before the Giants meet left tackle Ereck Flowers at a diner and begin the conversation with, “Look, you’re a great guy, but….” Yes, the 2015 first-round pick has just 31 NFL starts, but he’s made few strides with his grossly flawed fundamentals. At best, Flowers can survive, not thrive. Maybe a move to right tackle would help—not because it’s an easier position (in many ways, it’s more difficult) but because it would give Flowers a chance to overhaul his mechanics. In the Giants’ quick-strike passing game, high-priced offensive linemen shouldn’t be a priority. But in their very basic north/south ground game, which wasn’t close to good enough last year, they should be.
Emily: Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk is generally regarded as the draft’s top left tackle. The downside? He’s still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on a torn labrum in his hip. If New York opts to be risk-averse, Alabama’s Cam Robinson was a five-star high school recruit who lived up to the billing. Utah’s Garett Bolles is one of the best stories of the draft; he was suspended or kicked out of five different schools growing up, briefly sent to jail for vandalizing another school, and kicked out of his home by his father, after which he was taken in by his lacrosse coach. He’ll turn 25 next month, but scouts say he’s the most athletic offensive lineman available.
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Biggest Need: Wide receiver
Andy: A little secret about Amari Cooper: He hasn’t been great against press coverage. This was evident in the second half of last season. Give Cooper free access off the line and his route running is second to none. He can also beat you deep. But jam Cooper at the snap and he’s liable to disappear. Instead of relying solely on Cooper to hone his strength and technique, how about pairing him with another big-time receiver? That would discourage defenses from rolling a safety over the top of Cooper. No longer aided by the safety’s help-coverage, Cooper’s defender would play softer and be less inclined to jam. Adding another receiver could also move Michael Crabtree to the slot, where his playing style fits well.
Emily: The Raiders aren’t likely to address this with their-first round pick, so let’s assess some options for later. Cooper could be reunited with fellow Alabama wideout ArDarius Stewart. He has flown a bit under the radar this draft season, but he’s a complete wide receiver with strong experience blocking. Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor has generated some buzz, though he’s best suited for the slot.
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Biggest Need: Guard
Andy: No quarterback in this draft appears ready to step in and run Bill O’Brien’s complex, option-route intensive offense. The Texans, in full-fledged “win now” mode, would be better off riding Tom Savage or a veteran free agent (Jay Cutler?). And so the focus shifts to their need at guard. The guy they infamously took instead of Derek Carr in 2014, Xavier Su’a-Filo, hasn’t panned out. Su’a-Filo is not nimble enough to compensate for his lack of raw power. His contract is up after ’17, and a refined rookie could probably wedge him out now. Or, that rookie could maybe challenge Jeff Allen at right guard. Whoever is under center for Houston will be a less-than-ideal option. Shoring up their protection inside would help a lot.
Emily: It’s not a great year for offensive linemen in general, but the Texans could have their pick of the crop at No. 25. Forrest Lamp was one of the Senior Bowl darlings before he was sidelined by an ankle injury. Teams are high on the Western Kentucky product, especially for his versatility. Temple’s Dion Dawkins and Taylor Moton of Western Michigan are other tackle/guard options. In the mid-rounds, Utah’s Isaac Asiata is undeniably strong, but needs to improve in pass protection.
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Draft Needs: Boundary Cornerback
Andy: With the Richard Sherman drama and DeShawn Shead’s injuries, cornerback is suddenly Seattle’s top need. The beauty of Pete Carroll’s system is the way it creates help coverage opportunities for outside corners via either the sideline, or fast linebackers and safeties helping inside. Because of this, the Seahawks, unlike most teams, don’t require as much athleticism at corner. Instead, they need size, physicality and ball-tracking ability. Athletes must be drafted in the early rounds. But physical ball-tracking corners can usually be found in the middle and later rounds. Last season the Seahawks played less zone and more man on passing downs, which may change the traits they desire in corners. There’s no question they need new blood at this position. In what round they acquire that new blood will speak volumes about where they envision their scheme going.
Emily: The Seahawks may stay local with their first-round pick, selecting Washington cornerback Kevin King. The first thing you notice about King is his height (6' 3") so he looks the part of the lengthy, physical press corners the Seahawks covet. King is athletic, and played just about every position in the secondary at UW. Florida’s Quincy Wilson is also a match, and perhaps a bit more physical than King. If the Seahawks want a project later in the draft? Check out West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas.
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Biggest Need: Passing Down Linebacker
Andy: Practice caution when doubting Derrick Johnson. The 34-year-old veteran recovered nicely from an Achilles injury in 2014 and has only gotten better with age. That said… Johnson is a 34-year-old now coming off a second Achilles injury. (And this Achilles he tore in December. The one in 2014 he suffered in Week 1.) Johnson is integral because of his play recognition and swift, rangy movement in space. He allows the Chiefs to stay viable in run defense when they go to their lighter but preferred six-DB packages. Even if Johnson miraculously bounces back again, the Chiefs could afford to find competition for Ramik Wilson, who improved in pass D by playoff time but is not yet a true nickel ‘backer.
Emily: Zach Cunningham of Vanderbilt could work as Johnson’s heir apparent. Though he played for one of the SEC’s weaker programs, he topped the conference with 125 tackles in 2016. This is what a scout told me about Cunningham in October: “Long arms. Explosive with sideline-to-sideline speed. Natural when he drops into coverage. Converts speed into power as a tackler, but could use some improvement in finishing tackles.” Later round options for Kansas City: Northwestern’s Anthony Walker or LSU’s Kendall Beckwith.
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Biggest Need: Pass Rusher (DT or DE)
Andy: There are two reasons the Cowboys employ so many slants and stunts along their defensive line. One is that coordinator Rod Marinelli, a revered teacher of D-line technique, likes them. The other is that they’re a way to help players who lack top-level talent. The less reliant a defense is on schemed pass rushing concepts, the more freedom it has. The Cowboys, who play a mostly straight, coverage-based scheme, could use a pass-rushing upgrade anywhere along their front four.
Emily: Should the Cowboys opt for an interior lineman, Michigan State’s Malik McDowell, Auburn’s Montravius Adams and Clemson’s Carlos Watkins all have potential to generate pressure. Chris Wormley of Michigan’s NFL position is unclear (some see DE, others DT) but he was a star of team interviews during the draft process. At defensive end, Wormley’s Wolverine teammate, Taco Charlton is an athletic stud. Day 2 targets should include Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon and Derek Rivers of Youngstown State.
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Biggest Need: Edge Defender
Andy: Clay Matthews will be one of the most interesting players to watch in 2017. He was not himself last season. The question is: Was this due to various injuries (including a shoulder)? Or, at 30, has age started to set in? It might not matter. Even if Matthews, who turns 31 in May, recaptures his explosive bendability, Green Bay still lacks depth up front. They’re not used to that. GM Ted Thompson often keeps his crop of D-linemen and outside linebackers stocked with high-drafted, developmental talent. With the questions about Matthews and the departure of Datone Jones and Julius Peppers in free agency, it makes perfect sense to do that again.
Emily: How about the local guy? Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt, brother of J.J., has been compared to Clay Matthews by a few scouts. T.J. has only been playing linebacker for one year (he switched over from tight end, sound familiar?) but from a personality standpoint, he’s a clone of J.J., meaning his devotion to training is bar none.
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Biggest Need: Slot CB With Blitz Ability
Andy: William Gay has been a smart, reliable piece for this defense for the better part of 10 years, but in 2016 he lost a step. In the Steelers’ scheme, slot corner is a difficult position because of the various matchup zone reads their coverage rules involve. Whoever fills this role must have a high football IQ. He also must be a deft blitzer. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes in ambushing an offense off the edges, especially out of two-deep safety looks.
Emily: USC’s Adoree’ Jackson might be the best slot corner in this draft, and he adds incredible value as a return man, but I’m not sure how effective he’d be in the blitz. The best fit here would be Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie, who had seven sacks over the last two seasons and in 2016 ranked second on the Buffaloes with 90 tackles. He’s Pittsburgh tough, but has the IQ and instincts Butler covets.
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Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Andy: Maybe the most overlooked story from Super Bowl 51 was how destructive Dwight Freeney was. Without him, the Falcons may not have had a 28-3 lead to begin with. The 37-year-old is unsigned now. The Falcons need a long-term solution opposite Vic Beasley anyway. Dan Quinn is happy to rotate players along his D-line; it’s not uncommon for eight guys to play meaningful snaps in the same game. With such a variety of players to pick from, the Falcons can be choosy and take whichever end best fills their single most important need up front. That almost certainly means the best pure edge rusher.
Emily: Charles Harris of Missouri could be available here, and it seems like a natural fit. His spin move is already very advanced. I profiled Jordan Willis from Kansas State a few weeks ago, and was impressed by how his unwavering personality matched his steady on-field production. Willis is a high-effort player Quinn would love to work with.
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32. New Orleans Saints (acquired from Patriots), see No. 11
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Teams that do not have a first-round pick…
Biggest Need: Outside Wide Receiver
Andy: New head coach Sean McVay is one of the best route-combination designers in football, but he can’t do what he did in Washington with Los Angeles’s current receiving corps. Newcomer Robert Woods is a short area inside receiver. Tavon Austin is a gadget player who lacks the necessary patience to consistently play the slot. Youngsters Pharoh Cooper, Mike Thomas and Bradley Marquez all saw scant playing time behind a bad receiving corps last season. In Washington McVay had an diverse array of receivers: DeSean Jackson, speedster; Pierre Garcon, possession guy; Jamison Crowder, slot maestro; Jordan Reed, flex tight end. These all, save for maybe the slot (which Woods can fill), are gaping holes for the Rams right now.
Emily: Amara Darboh was one of Jim Harbaugh’s favorites at Michigan. His backstory is incredible—born in Sierra Leone, orphaned by civil war, settled in Iowa—and he’s a competitor with an NFL frame (6' 2", 214 pounds). Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford could be an intriguing project. His speed is enticing, and he could be a deep-ball threat, but he may take a year or two to come along.
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Biggest Need: Pass-Rushing Defensive Tackle
Andy: Aside from a few spots along the interior offensive line, the Vikings don’t have any glaring weaknesses. And those O-line spots can be filled by middle-tier players because Minnesota is likely to employ a quick-strike passing game and inside zone running game (which means double-team blocks up front). Both tactics relieve stress off an O-linemen. So another idea for how to use their first pick: nickel defensive tackle. There are reports that Sharrif Floyd’s knee injury could be career-ending. Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen are both in contract years. Ex-Packer Datone Jones signed for only one season. Brian Robison, who moves inside from defensive end on passing downs, is likely on his last leg. A gap-penetrating defensive tackle, preferably one with power (think Geno Atkins), would help keep this defense near the top of the league.
Emily: Auburn’s Montravius Adams and Clemson’s Carlos Watkins are Day 2 prospects the Vikings should consider. Adams hasn’t been the most consistent in college, but when he’s on, he’s a first-round-caliber defensive tackle (unfortunately, too often during his junior season, he was off). The Vikings love UCLA—they’ve selected a Bruin in each of the last four drafts—so how about Eddie Vanderdoes? He’s 6' 3", 305 pounds with the potential to be disruptive. During the 2016 season, it felt like Vanderdoes was still recovering from the ACL surgery that sidelined him for almost all of 2015.
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Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Andy: Searching New England’s depth chart for a “need” feels a little like searching Giorgio Armani for a neon windbreaker. But when you look closely, you can identify one area of question: the pass rush. Specifically, the edge rush. The Patriots might be the only defense in history that runs a coverage-based scheme but isn’t willing to pay top dollar for defensive ends. (Instead, they invest at the cheaper defensive tackle position.) Consequently, other than scantly used third-year pro Geneo Grissom, they have no true speedsters off the edge. Maybe Kony Ealy, whom they obtained by giving Carolina a second-round pick in exchange for a third-rounder, can become that. But the better bet would be to draft one. You’d get him on the cheap for four years, plus it would ensure that master technician Trey Flowers could rush the passer fulltime inside.
Emily: Derek Barnett (Tennesee), Charles Harris (Missouri) or Takkarist McKinley (UCLA) would have been prime late first-round targets, but alas, New England doesn’t pick until the top of the third. Tim Williams of Alabama almost feels like too much of a match. A twitchy edge rusher, Williams is a first-round talent who will slip because of off-field concerns (tell me this doesn’t sound like Bill Belichick’s M.O.). Dawuane Smoot of Illinois was supposed to build off his breakout campaign in 2015 and fell a bit flat, but remains an intriguing mid-round project.
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