2019 NFL Draft: Biggest Need, Hidden Need and Top Targets for all 32 Teams
The NFL draft is almost here! There's still plenty we don't know, but one thing we can do is assess the state of each team's current roster. Below we've compiled top needs, hidden needs and likely targets for all 32 teams. You can also check out our latest mock draft and catch all of our 2019 draft coverage in one spot here. Check back daily for features, notes, our QB panel and more.
Biggest Need: Wide Receiver. The additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley, plus the expected continued emergence of burner Robert Foster, puts Buffalo’s receiving corps in a much better position than it was in last April. Still, there’s no top guy to build around, which explains why the Bills went after Antonio Brown. A big target with a wide catch radius (i.e. what they hoped to get but never did in Kelvin Benjamin two years ago) would best fit Josh Allen, who has abundant arm strength but spotty accuracy.
Hidden Need: Edge Rusher. Lorenzo Alexander continues to show more burst off the edge than you’d guess, but he’s still not a pure bender, plus 2019 will likely be his last season. Overpriced 2018 free agent acquisition Trent Murphy is just a poor man’s Alexander and may not be here in 2020, considering his cap hit will be $8.95M and his dead money hit just $1.75M. 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson is a suitable run defender outside, but with minimal pliability and an only so-so first step; his best long-term hope as a pass rusher is as a technically sound 3-technique. Buffalo needs a force opposite Jerry Hughes (who, by the way, turns 31 in August and is in the final year of is deal).
Also Looking For: Tight End. Ex-Bengal Tyler Kroft, whom the Bills signed in free agency for just over $9 million guaranteed, is serviceable, and 2017 undrafted signee Jason Croom has enough athleticism to warrant a closer look. But the Bills have surprisingly decent depth and few glaring needs across their roster. Investing in more multiplicity at tight end (a position offensive coordinator Brian Daboll coached from 2014-16 in New England) would be prudent.
Who They Can Get: Ole Miss WR D.K. Metcalf is not only a fit in terms of need, but also in terms of the culture Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott have built in Buffalo. The choice becomes interesting if, say, Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat slips to them. If Sweat is off the board and they decide Metcalf is a reach at 9 (or they don't like the medicals), they'll potentially have a choice between the high-risk/high-reward Rashan Gary of Michigan (who probably reduces inside as a pass-rusher anyway, at which point Houston's Ed Oliver probably makes more sense) or undersized edge-burner Brian Burns of Florida State. Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson would also not only upgrade the running game, but upgrade those two-tight end looks.
Biggest Need: Edge. The departure of free agent Cameron Wake (Titans) and trade of Robert Quinn to Dallas leaves the Dolphins bereft of natural edge rushers. Charles Harris gets a chance to step up and prove he was worth a first-round pick in 2017, but through two injury-disrupted NFL seasons, Harris has shown he might be a better nickel D-tackle than edge rusher (the jury is still deliberating). The good news is rookie head coach Brian Flores’s Patriots-style scheme does not demand dominant edge rushers. It does, however, demand, technically sound, plus-sized edge-setters—which this current roster also does not have. Don’t be surprised if Miami drafts two edge defenders before Saturday.
Hidden Need: Offensive Line. There’s a vacancy at right tackle after the free agency departure of (the albeit inconsistent) Ja’Wuan James (Broncos). There’s also a concern with 2017 fifth-rounder Isaac Asiata and former Jaguars backup Chris Reed vying for starting left guard duties. New offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea will almost certainly run the system he learned in New England, where he was wide receivers coach for 10 years, which means a lot of solo man-to-man blocking designs, both on the ground and in play-action. That approach requires the right blend of size and mobility, particularly at left guard, whom this scheme most often puts on the move.
Also Looking For: Quarterback. For about the 12th year in a row, Ryan Fitzpatrick is serving as some team’s bridge guy. This roster is in poor enough shape that the Dolphins don’t need to lunge for a QB this year; if there’s one they think they’ll like more in 2020, they can afford to wait.
Who They Can Get: There’s an outside chance Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat makes it to them, though Michigan’s Rashan Gary is bigger and, in theory, gives Flores a little more versatility up front. Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell is also the kind of polished technician who should appeal to Flores. If they go offensive line, Alabama’s Jonah Williams or Oklahoma’s Cody Ford are collegiate tackles who could transition to that left guard spot. If Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins slips, he should be enticing to the Dolphins.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Biggest Need: Tight End. You may have heard that Rob Gronkowski retired. Even as he started to decline last year (and the decline was much more minor than people perceived), he was invaluable because his versatility gave the offense its daunting flexibility. Gronk allowed the Patriots to align in any formation out of any personnel package. New England doesn’t need to find the next generational tight end to replace Gronk, but they do need one who can catch passes from any receiver location and block effectively in all facets. A tight end like that who is also ready to contribute right away (the Patriots, being built around a soon-to-be 42-year-old quarterback, need him to be) can only be found in Round 1.
Hidden Need: Defensive Tackle. The Patriots won Super Bowl LIII by hammering L.A.’s high-powered offense up front. Unsung stud defensive tackle Malcom Brown was a big part of that. With Brown now a Saint, the Patriots need a new plus-sized “dirty work” guy to pair with incumbent plus-sized dirty work guy Lawrence Guy.
Also Looking For: Wide Receiver. All of New England’s wideouts are playing on expiring contracts. Plus, aside from Julian Edelman and maybe—but only maybe—Phillip Dorsett, none are of starting caliber (assuming Josh Gordon remains unavailable).
Who They Can Get: Iowa's T.J. Hockenson is the best-case scenario for replacing Gronk in 2019, but New England would almost surely have to trade up to get him. If they stay at 32, Hockenson's Iowa teammate Noah Fant is a dynamic receiver, though considering Fant butted heads with a Hawkeyes coaching staff led by Belichick friend Kirk Ferentz (not to mention his underwhelming blocking), Fant might not be their guy. Alabama's Irv Smith Jr. (from a program run by another Belichick friend) will never match Gronk receiving prowess but does have a well-rounded game. Dawson Knox of Ole Miss is also a name to watch—he's overlooked due to a lack of production playing in an offense with three draftable wide receivers, but Knox is a chess piece as far as formationing and will mix it up as a blocker. They could also opt for a big receiver who blocks well on the perimeter, making A.J. Brown of Ole Miss, N'Keal Harry of Arizona State, and Iowa State's Hakeem Butler potential targets. Massive Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence might also make it to the end of Round 1 due to his underwhelming pass-rush skills, but he's a Patriots-style interior lineman.
NEW YORK JETS
Biggest Need: Perimeter Cornerback. Most would say edge-rusher, and maybe that’s valid, especially since defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to employ different versions of Cover 2—a coverage that’s dependent on getting quick pressure from a four-man rush. But more than that, Williams loves to blitz. He can’t help himself. If you’re going to play an attack-minded defense, you need corners who can win one-on-one outside. The Jets have only one: 2018 mega-free agent Trumaine Johnson (and that might be just in theory, given that Johnson so often did not win one-on-one outside last year). New corner Brian Poole is built for the slot, while Darryl Roberts is best served as a utility backup.
Hidden Need: Big Wide Receiver. Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder form a solid trio, especially in an Adam Gase scheme that puts a premium on short-to-intermediate catch-and-run opportunities. But with a young, playmaking style QB like Sam Darnold, Gase could tinker with more one-read pass designs in 2019. Enunwa and Crowder are built for interior reads, while the speedy Anderson answers on downfield reads. What New York doesn’t have is a sizeable target who can win on simple outside reads.
Also Looking For: Edge Rusher. Edge rusher is not as vital in a blitz-intensive scheme, but it will give Williams more comfort to fall back on Cover-2 calls.
Who They Can Get: For cornerback, you're talking about a trade down (a possibility since the Jets traded their second-rounder to Indianapolis to get Sam Darnold last spring). LSU's Greedy Williams could potentially be had in the mid-first, with Georgia's Deandre Baker another option as a versatile, competitive perimeter cover artist. Your big receivers are the Ole Miss guys—D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown—along with competitive-catch specialist N'Keal Harry of Arizona State and Iowa State's Hakeem Butler. But if the Jets stay put, you're probably looking at Kentucky's Josh Allen as the third overall pick (assuming Kyler-Bosa go 1-2).
Biggest Need: Wide Receiver. The plan is to build a diverse run-first offense around Lamar Jackson, but you still need pass-catchers. The Ravens, who seem to have a glaring need here every other year, can cite Willie Snead or Seth Roberts as their best options right now. Each would be a No. 3 at best on most teams; plus, each are playing on an expiring contracts. Determining the right style of receivers (and that’s receivers, plural—at least two are needed) could be difficult given that Jackson as an NFL passer is still an unknown entity. Whoever they find must have enough girth and toughness to block; offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s creative run designs can’t flourish unless defenders are handled on the perimeter. This doesn’t mean the Ravens need big receivers, per se, but they could shy away from small receivers.
Hidden Need: Stack Linebacker. With C.J. Mosely getting away this need barely counts as hidden, but it’s less obvious than the gaping holes at wideout (see above) and defensive edge (see below). Patrick Onwuasor came on strong down the stretch last year, particularly as a blitzer, and can pick up some of the slack following Mosley’s departure. The question is 2018 fourth-rounder Kenny Young. He’s an explosive downhill mover, but the fact that in December he lost snaps to the man he was drafted to replace—Onwuasor—suggests he has weaknesses to correct. Can he move laterally? Can he read the field? Is he comfortable in Baltimore’s myriad pressure packages? The answer could well be yes, but the Ravens need insurance in case it’s no. And even if Young improves, they need depth behind him.
Also Looking For: Edge Defenders. The Ravens likely knew they’d lose Za’Darius Smith in free agency but probably didn’t anticipate Terrell Suggs leaving. Plus, they’ll have a tough decision to make next year when Matt Judon’s contract expires (he's not quite worth a franchise tag, but Judon fits the classic profile of a player destined to be overpaid in free agency). With Tim Williams’s and Tyus Bowser’s development so far being disappointing, the Ravens have multiple needs on the outside up front.
Who They Can Get: The Ravens will have a shot at a big receiver, whether it's super-sized slot receiver A.J. Brown of Ole Miss, contested-catch artist N'Keal Harry of Arizona State, or the hulking Hakeem Butler of Iowa State. All of them will be assets blocking in the run game. They could hop on the second-tier edge rushers as well, where Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson and Clemson's Clelin Ferrell. If they don't trade down, the 22nd overall pick might be Baltimore's only chance to get immediate help since they're not slated to pick again until Pick 85.
Biggest Need: Box Defender. Linebackers Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans and especially Preston Brown are as average as the day is long. Strong safety Shawn Williams is coming off a year of highs and lows; he regularly got near the ball in coverage but did not always tackle with aggression or aplomb. In the very least, the Bengals could use depth at his box safety position. Overall, the second level of this defense is too mediocre to consistently make big plays in what’s expected to be an execution-based scheme. New defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is unknown as a play-caller but is most familiar from his days serving as coordinator Kevin Coyle’s secondary coach in Miami. (It should be noted that Coyle was the secondary coach in Cincy from 2016-17.) If Anarumo employs Coyle’s foundation, the Bengals will play mostly traditional coverages. That requires defenders who make plays in the middle of the field.
Hidden Need: Quarterback. New head coach Zac Taylor might be genuine in his praise of Andy Dalton. Indeed, Dalton’s sharp pre-snap IQ and comfort on timing-based throws between the field numbers make him a strong stylistic fit in Taylor’s scheme, which is expected to be similar to that of Taylor’s previous boss, Sean McVay. That said... after eight seasons, Dalton remains inconsistent in muddy pockets, which is why he’s been inconsistent overall. That puts a ceiling on what he can do. With that ceiling, we’ve seen that a team can get to the wild-card round, but not further. If a QB the Bengals love is still on the board, they should take the plunge.
Also Looking For: Offensive Line Depth. The starting five spots are adequate (though, at guard, just barely), but this O-line is one falling domino away from having problems.
Who They Can Get: At 11, it’s more likely to be a linebacker than a safety. LSU’s Devin White is a legitimate top-10 prospect, and Michigan’s Devin Bush isn’t far behind, but it’s a top-heavy LB class with a fall-off after those two. (Conversely, there’s depth at safety but no top-10 talent.) If it’s a quarterback, there’s a real chance Missouri’s Drew Lock and/or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins will still be on the board (if nothing else, Haskins should appeal to Brown due to the savings on travel expenses).
Biggest Need: Strong Safety. Trading Jabrill Peppers in the Odell Beckham Jr. deal and waiving Derrick Kindred (who was picked up by the Colts) leaves the Browns with three former Packers at safety: Morgan Burnett, journeyman Jermaine Whitehead, and Damarious Randall (a converted corner who is strictly a centerfielder). They also acquired ex-Chief Eric Murray (a fringe starter). Those are enough pieces to play with, but none are clear starting box safeties at this point. Whitehead is strictly a backup, Burnett is still capable but was deemed injury prone last year by the Steelers and Murray, talent-wise, is a good-but-not-great on his best day. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’s scheme is built on six-defender zone coverages behind a five-man rush (aka “fire zones”—many of Wilks’s employ a slot blitzer as the fifth rusher). This approach often requires zone defenders to convert their coverage into man. The more athletic Cleveland can be at strong safety, the better.
Hidden Need: Offensive Line. Left tackle Greg Robinson played surprisingly well last season—and just about anyone who coached Robinson on the Rams or Lions would tell you that counting on that again in 2019 from the former No. 2 overall pick would be, at best, a significant gamble. Then there’s the matter of replacing traded right guard Kevin Zeitler. Austin Corbett, the 33rd overall pick last year, is slated to, but some O-line evaluators are skeptical about how well Corbett’s game will translate to the pros. (We don’t know yet because Corbett played just 14 snaps over 11 contests last year.) Some of Corbett’s backers believed he could play guard or tackle, though the previous staff did not give him much consideration at tackle, despite searching far and wide for answers prior to acquiring Robinson. Corbett will likely sink or swim only at guard.
Also Looking For: D-Line Depth. Lost amidst the screaming and gushing over Cleveland’s suddenly sexy offense are the Browns’ improvements up front on defense. The trade for Olivier Vernon gives them a terrific run-stopper opposite rising star Myles Garrett, and pairing free agent Sheldon Richardson with Larry Ogunjobi should result in 8-10 explosive plays a game. All that’s still needed is a 20-snaps-a-game backup who can fill the rotational void left by Emmanuel Ogbah’s trade to the Chiefs. Cleveland’s D-line depth is decent enough that GM John Dorsey can take the most talented tackle or end available. All things equal, he’ll lean towards defensive end since Vernon, with a $15.5 million cap number in 2020, is unlikely to be here for more than one year.
Who They Can Get: The Browns don’t have a selection until No. 49, making it difficult to project which safeties will be left on the board. If Washington’s Taylor Rapp (whose athletic testing disappointed but whose tape shows a potential first-rounder) or Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram (a box safety who might not appeal to everyone) fall to the middle of the second, Cleveland should pounce. If looking for their next left tackle, there are some risk/reward developmental prospects—Alabama State’s Tytus Howard, USC’s Chuma Edoga and West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste—that could pique their interest.
Biggest Need: Pass-Catcher. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, though far from Le’Veon Bell as receiving threats, can be productive enough in Pittsburgh’s spread passing game. At tight end, battering ram Vance McDonald remains the No. 1 and Xavier Grimble brings athleticism to No. 2, making the departure of Jesse James survivable. The freshly vacant spot that Pittsburgh is not equipped to readily fill in-house is Antonio Brown’s. Or, more accurately, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s, since Smith-Schuster himself appears ready to assume Brown’s role. The hope was 2018 second-rounder James Washignton could step into Smith-Schuster’s No. 2 spot, but aside from a flash or two down the stretch (the win over New England comes to mind), Washington had a depressing rookie season. Donte Moncrief was signed as insurance, but Moncrief is the Kit-Kat bar of receivers: average to the degree of disappointing. With Ryan Switzer purely a slot weapon, Pittsburgh needs a receiver who can win on the perimeter.
Hidden Need: Free Safety. Sean Davis has improved since moving to centerfield, but whether he’s worth re-signing long-term when his contract expires at the end of this season will be almost strictly a function of price. The Steelers can give themselves leverage by having a future starter already on the roster. Plus, they could use a contributing No. 3 safety for 2019 anyway. Depth behind Davis and last year’s first-rounder, Terrell Edmunds, is iffy, and the coaching staff wouldn’t mind having a safety to play in dime (Morgan Burnett did last year but, plagued by injuries, was released). The signing of former Rams linebacker Mark Barron (who, remember, was drafted in 2012 as a high first-round safety by the Bucs) could allow Pittsburgh to go back to playing nickel on third downs, but that would mean also relying on thumping blitzer Vince Williams, who can only be trusted as a downhill attacker, not a reactor in space. Plus, in L.A. Barron was not as sound in coverage as you’d expect a former safety to be.
Also Looking For: Outside Cornerback. Ex-Chief Steven Nelson was signed to stabilize Artie Burns’s rickety No. 2 corner spot. But Nelson himself has always been an up-and-down perimeter matchup corner (not to the degree of Burns, though). Burns, if he makes this team, will almost certainly be allowed to leave as a free agent when his rookie deal expires at the end of this season. And so in the very least, more depth is needed at outside corner.
Who They Can Get: Assuming D.K. Metcalf is off the board and they’re unlikely to tab Antonio Brown’s cousin—Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown—as his replacement, that leaves big-bodies catch-and-run threat A.J. Brown of Ole Miss and contested-catch specialist N’Keal Harry of Arizona State as the most likely targets in Round 1. The free safeties—Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, all fringe first-rounders, are probably the best fits—are probably a reach at Pick 20, though many felt the same way about Edmunds last spring. If it’s an outside cornerback, LSU’s Greedy Williams might be tough to pass up at this spot (though his less-than-enthusiastic tackling might not play well with Mike Tomlin), and Georgia’s Deandre Baker seems like the kind of competitive and versatile corner who would appeal to the Steelers.
Biggest Need: Offensive tackle. Deshaun Watson took far, far too many hits and sacks (62) last season. The problem stemmed from up front—specifically, the edges. Bill O’Brien didn’t trust his offensive tackles, even after the line stabilized a bit once coaches settled on Julie’n Davenport at left tackle and Kendall Lamm at right tackle. (The original starting right tackle, Seantrel Henderson, broke his ankle on the 12th snap of the season. Henderson is back now and Lamm is gone, but that represents only a mild upgrade at best.) So, O’Brien’s response was to keep backs and tight ends in to help pass protect. This, however, removed options for Watson downfield and invited defenses to blitz. And because play designs with six- and seven-man protections have deeper routes, Watson had to wait on Houston’s receiving corps, which lacked speed after Will Fuller’s October ACL injury. It was a bad formula, and a discussion could be had about whether the Texans would have been wiser to hide their offensive tackles with quick throws and misdirection designs, rather than help them with extra bodies. Even better than having that difficult discussion would be to avoid it altogether by bringing in some offensive tackles who can be trusted one-on-one. They’re hoping Matt Kalil can, but he was never trustworthy one-on-one even before last season’s knee injury.
Hidden Need: Edge. Jadeveon Clowney’s athletic combustibility and instincts are greatly admired within that building, but there have been whispered questions about his work ethic and obvious questions about his durability. Hence, his being franchise-tagged instead of inked to a long-term deal. Even if the Texans decide after this season to sign Clowney long-term, they might need a replacement for Whitney Mercilus, who is in a contract year and, after being relegated to less glamorous duties, was invisible on film last season. If the Texans weren’t flush with cap space, they probably would have taken the $6.25 million savings and cut Mercilus this spring.
Also Looking For: Cornerback. 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby was signed, but to a lesser deal (one year, $10 million) than what his predecessor, Kareem Jackson, got from Roby’s former team in Denver (three years, $33 million). Which means many expect this move to downgrade Houston’s right corner spot. The Texans might not, since they chose to let Jackson leave, but Roby for sure is a downgrade as a tackler (Jackson is one of football’s best) and Roby had even more extreme highs and lows in coverage last year than Jackson did. Houston’s big 2018 free agent corner acquisition, Aaron Colvin, was perplexingly absent from many personnel packages, and incumbent Johnathan Joseph, 35 years old and shrewd, can barely run (though that’s been true for years now). The point: Houston has a lot of questions at cornerback, both this year and moving forward.
Who They Can Get: Washington State OT Andre Dillard is the best pure left tackle prospect in this class, and there's a chance he's on the board at 23 (the Texans, with two second-round picks, also have the ammo to move up and ensure they get him). Otherwise, they might be looking at the likes of Kansas State's Dalton Risner, Oklahoma's Cody Ford or possibly Alabama's Jonah Williams, all of whom probably translate better inside. The cornerback options would be interesting, as both Georgia's Deandre Baker and Washington's Byron Murphy would seem to fit well in Houston's Cover-4 scheme.
Biggest Need: Defensive Line. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus featured a strong package of fire zone blitzes last year, many involving unheralded star corner Kenny Moore from the slot. Eberflus also drew raves for some of his zone coverage disguises. Still, the Colts’ main identity is simple, straightforward zone coverage, with an emphasis on sound execution. It’s remarkable they were able to establish and build on this style in 2018 considering they had no fearsome pass rushers. They can’t count on getting away with that again. Adding ex-Chief Justin Houston in what’s likely a 30-snaps-a-game role was a good first step, but they still must fill the rotation around him. The jury is still out on last year’s second-round defensive ends, Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis. At defensive tackle, aside from Denico Autry, the Colts don’t have a natural 3-technique. (And they might not even view Autry in this light given that they aligned him at one of their two nose-shade positions on base downs last year.) When the Colts are on the clock, they must take whichever remaining defensive lineman has the best initial step. That’s key in their four-man rush concepts, which are based on penetration, stunting and slanting.
Hidden Need: Wide Receiver. Signing Devin Funchess to a one-year, incentives-laden contract doesn’t fully address Indy’s bereft wide receiver position. Besides the fact that Funchess, who is a favorite of head coach Frank Reich’s and got paid more than double what many expected, might not work out (he didn’t in Carolina), you still need depth behind him and options should you be unable to re-sign him after this season. It’s borderline shocking the Colts didn’t find a way to retain Dontrelle Inman, a razor-sharp route runner who showed excellent chemistry with Andrew Luck. Maybe they feel they can find a younger version of Inman in this draft.
Also Looking For: Defensive Back. The starting unit is fine, but No. 4 corner is a position of concern—especially considering that you’re one injury away from that player seeing 65 percent of the snaps as your No. 3. And it wouldn’t hurt to find a replacement for departed dime safety Mike Mitchell.
Who They Can Get: Could Clemson DT Christian Wilkins slip to the late first round? He'd be an ideal fit in Indy, and if the Colts are in love they have the ammo to move up considering they own the No. 34 pick from the Jets. This is also a potential landing spot for Mississippi State DT Jeffery Simmons, a top-five talent in this draft who will miss all of 2019 after tearing his ACL. The edge players who would still be on the board are pure edge rusher Brian Burns of Florida State, as well as solid but less dynamic options like Clemson's Clelin Ferrell and Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson. They'll also have their choice of big-bodied wideouts to push Funchess, with A.J. Brown of Ole Miss, N'Keal Harry of Arizona State, and/or Hakeem Butler of Iowa State likely to be on the board in the late first/early second. You wonder if a long corner like Kentucky's Lonnie Johnson will appeal to them due to his long-term ceiling.
Biggest Need: Right Tackle. Jermey Parnell, nearing decline, was released. In his stead could be Bengals 2015 first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi, who never climbed high enough to have anywhere to decline from. Or, it could be last year’s fourth-round pick Will Richardson, who spent most of his rookie season on I.R. The decision to build a smashmouth offense around uninspiring third-year tailback Leonard Fournette is about 20 years out of date, but if that’s the way this franchise insists on going, then a mauling right tackle is especially in order.
Hidden Need: Tight End. Just because free agent ex-Cowboy Geoff Swaim was signed doesn’t mean the Jags have fully addressed this position. Swaim, like incumbent Jags tight ends Ben Koyack and James O’Shaugnessy, is a No. 2 at best. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wants to feature tight ends in his scheme, which is built on multi-level play-action route combinations. Give DeFilippo someone to scheme around.
Also Looking For: Safety. As a rookie last year, third-rounder Ronnie Harrison played well enough as the big nickel corner/third linebacker in base situations to warrant a look at strong safety. And at free safety, replacing the released Tashaun Gipson with veteran backup Jarrod Wilson is a downgrade, but not the end of the world. Still, Harrison and Wilson are unproven as full-time starters, and Jacksonville’s Seahawks-style Cover 3 scheme is dependent on quality safeties. Talent-wise, this Jags D is on par with that mid-2010s Seahawks D... if that D hadn’t had Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
Who They Can Get: Florida OT Jawaan Taylor fits what the Jaguars are trying to do offensively. Though Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson, a physical blocker and the most well-rounded tight end in this class, will likely interest them as well with the seventh pick. If they wait until Round 2 (they have the 38th pick) to get their tight end, the options will be along the lines of Ole Miss's Dawson Knox and Texas Tech's Jace Sternberger, though it wouldn't be a shock if Iowa's Noah Fant was still on the board. As far as safeties who could be available in Round 2, Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Alabama's Deionte Thompson and Delaware's Nasir Adderley would all pair nicely with Ronnie Harrison.
Biggest Need: Tight End. Delanie Walker is 34 and coming off a serious leg injury. This isn’t to say he can’t continue being an excellent intermediate flex receiver in 2019, but barring a Pro Bowl-caliber performance, it’s unlikely the Titans will eschew a $6.7 million cap savings to keep him in 2020. And besides, with surprisingly few needs for a team that’s gone a good-but-not-great 9-7 three straight years, the Titans have the luxury of seeking depth and versatility at tight end. That’s a big position in their Rams-style scheme, which features condensed formations and misdirection plays out of zone-blocking looks. (The Rams play with one TE, three WR, but most of their designs stem from two-TE concepts.) The more options and athleticism at tight end, the more dangerous these tactics become. And playing with multiple tight ends is optimal with Marcus Mariota, as it makes defenses more passive and predictable.
Hidden Need: Running Back. This might seem absurd given that Derrick Henry rushed for 585 yards over the final quarter of last season, but nothing about Henry’s profile has changed. He’s still a buildup-speed downhill runner who must be afforded time and space early in the run. In Weeks 14-17, he got that and capitalized. But slow-developing buildup runners like Henry are heavily dependent on the blocking in front of them. If the Titans feel their O-line and tight ends can deliver, especially on outside runs, where Henry’s downhill momentum is most striking, fine. But re-upping Henry’s expiring contract after this season will be several times more expensive than drafting his replacement. And almost any replacement Tennessee examines will be at least a solid runner behind good blocking (because any NFL runner would be). It could be hard to justify paying Henry, especially considering that, unlike his running mate Dion Lewis, he brings nothing to the passing game.
Also Looking For: Safety. Kevin Byard is the NFL’s best all-around safety and Kenny Vaccaro, who can play anywhere including the slot, is more than serviceable, but there’s no proven entity behind them. That’s unsettling given that Vaccaro missed five games in 2016, four games in 2017 and three games in 2018. (But hey, at least the pattern suggests he’ll only miss two games in 2019.) The Titans are deep and diverse at inside linebacker, so in passing situations they can play nickel instead of dime. Still, even if they’re not employing a third safety on passing downs, a utility safety would insure all of their defensive packages.
Who They Can Get: Assuming Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson is off the board, the Titans could be facing a fascinating choice between Noah Fant, Hockenson’s ultra-athletic former Iowa teammate, and Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr.. The Iowa coaching staff seemed lukewarm-at-best on Fant, and Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz is well-respected by the NFL. Fant might have higher upside in the passing game than Smith, but Smith is a quality all-around prospect who could easily develop into a weapon in the Delanie Walker mold.
Biggest Need: Interior O-line. 2016 fifth-rounder Connor McGovern, who struggled a few times in one-on-one scenarios at guards last year, is the new center, with Matt Paradis not being re-signed. That’s a downgrade. So is undrafted third-year pro Elijah Wilkinson in McGovern’s old right guard spot. And at left guard, Ronald Leary is coming off an Achilles injury and can be cut in 2020 for a cap savings of $8.5M. New QB Joe Flacco, at this point, is only comfortable playing from a clean pocket. Denver needs at least two new blockers inside.
Hidden Need: Linebacker. Run thumper Todd Davis has improved to become adequate in pass defense, and 2018 fourth-rounder Josey Jewell, while not the greatest reactor in coverage, showed flashes as a downhill attacker last year. Neither of these men, however, are pure passing-down linebackers. And remember, even on third down, new defensive play-caller Vic Fangio prefers to keep two linebackers on the field. It’s an important position in Fangio’s nuanced scheme, which is why Fangio’s 2018 Bears addressed it with the eighth overall pick (Roquan Smith).
Also Looking For: Quarterback. Flacco will almost certainly be The Guy on opening day; the fact that he’s here, and that he’s playing for a new 60-year-old head coach, tells you GM John Elway believes his club is a contender right now. But Elway also understands that you can’t be a contender long-term if you’re not set under center. Flacco, 34 and with a history of injuries, is not a long-term solution.
Who They Can Get: If they go offensive line, Denver might have their choice of the top OL prospects, many of whom are collegiate tackles who profile as NFL guards. Alabama's Jonah Williams and Oklahoma's Cody Ford are a bit of a reach at 10. If they wait until 41, they can cross their fingers that Kansas State's Dalton Risner is still on the board. And while he'd be a bit of a reach in the top 50, Boston College's Chris Lindstrom would be a perfect fit in Rich Scangarello's outside-zone scheme. Linebacker would be easier, where both LSU's Devin White and Michigan's Devin Bush bring the kind of three-down skillset Fangio needs. Missouri QB Drew Lock—something of a young Joe Flacco—would be an excellent fit in their offense.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Biggest Need: Cornerback. Bob Sutton blitzed less than any defensive coordinator in football the last few years and was fired after the playoffs. Replacing him is Andy Reid’s old friend Steve Spagnuolo, one of the game’s most aggressive blitzers. Spagnuolo may soon learn that one reason Sutton didn’t blitz was Kansas City’s corners can’t all be trusted in iso coverage. But while most blitzes involve man coverage with one deep safety, Spagnuolo, at least when we last saw him (2017 with the Giants), employs a lot of two-deep, matchup zone coverages behind his blitzes. That puts slightly less demand on a corner. Still, the Chiefs would be wise to find someone who can immediately push intriguing-but-still-unknown undrafted second-year corner Charvarius Ward, or who can compete with the newly acquired Bashaud Breeland (historically an up-and-down player).
Hidden Need: Edge Rusher. Teams tell you how they really feel about a player by the moves they make. But how do we interpret Kansas City’s in regards to Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon? They were drafted in the second round in 2018 and 2017 respectively, almost certainly with the Chiefs realizing the team could well be moving on from Justin Houston and Dee Ford by 2019 (which they have). That shows confidence in Speaks and Kpassagnon. But if it were a rich confidence, wouldn’t Speaks have played more than just 23.5% of the snaps a game when Houston and Ford were both healthy. And wouldn’t Kpassagnon have averaged more than 8.5 snaps per game for the year? Houston and Ford both have injury history—they’re players you’d want to rotate out regularly. When Speaks has played, he has looked mildly lethargic. Kpassagnon has shown more encouraging flashes, but doesn’t have a large enough body of work to fully evaluate. But then again, if the Chiefs weren’t genuinely optimistic about Speaks and Kpassagnon, would they have dumped Houston and especially Ford in a year where it’s Super Bowl or bust?
There’s evidence that the Chiefs believe in Speaks and Kpassagnon—and there is evidence that they don’t. But from a 30,000-foot view, there’s a rule of thumb with back-and-forth questions like this: the fact that we’re even exploring these questions suggests things aren’t sound with Speaks and Kpassagnon. The Chiefs need more options off the edge. They added ex-Saint Alex Okafor and acquired Emmanuel Ogbah from Cleveland, but at least one more is needed. (UPDATE: The Chiefs' trade for Frank Clark addresses a need here.)
Also Looking For: Defensive Line. Poor run defense has plagued Kansas City for years. Correct that by finding more depth (and, ideally, better talent) up front.
Who They Can Get: It's not a top-heavy cornerback class, but it is fairly deep. Georgia's Deandre Baker and Washington's Byron Murphy, both undersized cover artists, could make it to the end of Round 1, and if the Chiefs would prefer a big press corner Kentucky's Lonnie Johnson or Clemson's Trayvon Mullen are options. If he's still on the board, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell could fill an edge spot and upgrade the run defense.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle. Nose-shade tackle Brandon Mebane still plays at a high level, but next year he’ll be 35 and on a contract that could be nullified for a $4.25 million cap savings. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have depth, especially after losing Damion Square, Corey Liuget and Darius Philon this offseason. Ideally, the Chargers would find a nimble 320-pounder who could replace Mebane on base downs and rush the passer from Liuget’s and Philon’s old 3-technique spots on passing downs. That type of specimen, however, is rare and would have to be plucked with a first-or maybe—maybe, if the Chargers are lucky—second-round pick.
Hidden Need: Guard. Left guard Dan Feeney and right guard Michael Schofield are both suitable for the man-to-man run-blocking designs that fit Melvin Gordon, but they struggled mightily against quality pass rushers last season.
Also Looking For: Linebacker. This offseason Denzel Perryman was re-signed to a new two-year, $12 million deal and longtime Panther Thomas Davis was signed for two years, $10.5 million. Add in Jatavis Brown and the Chargers have three linebackers who can compete in nickel (Davis and Brown would be the leading contenders to play third downs). And remember, last year this team in passing situations almost always played dime with safety Adrian Phillips in the box. That, however, could have been due to a lack of comfort with their linebacker situation. That lack of comfort should remain, at least in GM Tom Telesco’s mind. Good as Perryman and Davis are, neither is the perfect stabilizer. Perryman has missed 16 games over the last two years and, overall, 22 games in his four-year career. Davis is 36. Finding a reliable long-term source for fast, decisive linebacking is crucial in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s pure Cover 3 scheme.
Who They Can Get: There is a nimble 300-pounder who could probably hold his own on base downs and potentially dominate on passing downs, a top-five talent in this draft. And Mississippi State DT Jeffery Simmons could very well be available late in the first—but, of course, the team drafting him won't get a contribution in 2019 after Simmons tore his ACL in February. If they're looking solely for a Mebane heir apparent, that would be Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence, a 340-pound dominating run defender and someone who has flashed potential as a pass-rusher, but not a player you would confidently project into that role. They could solidify the interior of the offensive line with someone like Kansas State's Dalton Risner or, if one of them slips, Alabama's Jonah Williams or Oklahoma's Cody Ford.
Biggest Need: Defensive End. This one is obvious to anyone who watched Oakland’s (lack of) pass rush in 2018. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is known for his double-A-gap and odd front nickel blitzes, but he chooses those selectively and often plays two-deep coverage. You simply cannot prosper there unless your four-man rush gets home.
Hidden Need: Receiving Tight End. O.K., this one isn’t so hidden. Jared Cook is gone, last year’s No. 2 tight end Lee Smith is a bona fide sixth offensive lineman, Luke Willson is a rotational player, and while Darren Waller has receiving prowess he spent last year on the practice squad after being suspended for all of 2017 (substance abuse). Anyone can see the Raiders need a tight end. But it’s important to note: not just any tight end, a receiving tight end. Gruden enjoyed splitting Cook out wide by himself on the weak side, putting all three wide receivers on the other side. That’s a QB-friendly formation because it undresses the defense prior to the snap. It’d be great to find another tight end who can operate alone out wide.
Also Looking For: Left Guard. With Kelechi Osemele traded to the Jets, and 2018 first-rounder Kolton Miller’s height (6' 8") making him more naturally fit to play outside, the Raiders have a hole to fill between prized free agent left tackle Trent Brown and nimble veteran center Rodney Hudson. Who fills it could determine Jon Gruden’s ground game approach. A mobile guard would mean more outside zone runs (which connects to Gruden’s play-action game). A mauling guard, like what Oakland has on the right side in Gabe Jackson, would mean more inside zone runs.
Who They Can Get: They'll probably miss out on Ohio State's Nick Bosa, but Kentucky's Josh Allen should make Guenther just as happy. There will be tight ends available late in the first—Alabama's Irv Smith Jr. might rank higher on some boards, but as far as a Y-iso chess piece Iowa's Noah Fant and first-round darkhorse Dawson Knox of Ole Miss are probably better fits. At guard, it's usually converted collegiate tackles. In the late first, Oklahoma's Cody Ford might still be on the board, and Kansas State's Dalton Risner is a candidate to kick inside.
Biggest Need: Tight End. Jason Witten is back, but he turns 37 in May and is playing on a one-year deal. The Cowboys, being a run-first offense, would be very dangerous with more guys to throw to out of running formations. That starts with a potent receiving tight end. Presumably, new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will, like many young offensive architects, be creative and diverse with his formationing. An athletic, flexible tight end is mandatory for maximizing those possibilities.
Hidden Need: Defensive Back. It’s unimaginable that Byron Jones would not be signed to a lucrative long-term contract when his rookie deal expires at the end of this season. (The question is whether it comes right away or after Jones plays a year on the franchise tag.) Retaining the defensive backfield’s other 2020 free agents—slot corner Anthony Brown and safeties Jeff Heath, George Iloka and Kavon Frazier—could prove more difficult. Technically, Jones can fill any of their positions (he’s played them all), giving Dallas the option to draft a perimeter corner. But that’s a distant fallback option at best, given that Jones’s value derives mainly from the aptitude he’s shown since moving to right outside corner.
Also Looking For: Defensive End. Even after Demarcus Lawrence signed his long-term deal, you can never have too many defensive ends in Dallas’s scheme, which is predicated on stunts and twists from a four-man front. And Dallas still has questions about the oft-suspended Randy Gregory and the newly acquired Robert Quinn, whose style is better suited to attack deep dropback passing games, not the quick-strike games that are common today.
Who They Can Get: The tight end class is raw but deep, and even sitting at 58 for their first selection, the Cowboys will have some intriguing choices. Dawson Knox was an afterthought at Ole Miss but there's no doubting the raw talent, while Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger isn't an elite athlete, but was highly productive and would bring plenty of dimension to the Cowboys' passing game. If they go defensive back, it seems like safety would be the spot, where Maryland's Darnell Savage, undersized but athletic, lengthy ballhawk Juan Thornhill of Virginia and the heady and instinctive Amani Hooker of Iowa could all make it to the late second round. Edge players at that spot include Miami's Joe Jackson, Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines, Michigan's Chase Winovich and Alabama's Christian Miller. Considering their willingness to roll the dice in the past, draft season faller Jachai Polite of Florida can't be ruled out here.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Biggest Need: Left Corner. Rumor has it the Giants are taking an edge rusher, which makes sense. Their best one, recently signed ex-Cardinal Markus Golden, has not fully recaptured the explosiveness he showed prior to his October 2017 ACL injury, and 2018 third-rounder Lorenzo Carter had a quiet rookie season. Plus, GM Dave Gettleman prefers to build his defense from front to back. That said… if we’re talking about biggest need, Gettleman must address his left corner spot. It would currently go to fringe backup Tony Lippett, who has played in only three games since tearing his Achilles in training camp of 2017, or Sam Beal, a third-round pick in last year’s supplemental draft who missed his entire rookie year with a shoulder injury. It’s not just that New York is weak at left corner (and, after this year, could be weak at right corner, since Janoris Jenkins could well be a cap casualty in 2020), it’s that defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme puts strong demands on this position. Bettcher believes in blitzing, either through the A gaps or off the slot (depending on his personnel). You can’t readily do that without playing one-on-one coverage outside. Bettcher’s pressure-heavy approach puts him in that quarter of NFL defensive schemers for whom a corner is a necessity while an edge rusher is almost just a luxury. If the Giants feel that the bang-for-buck with their No. 6 overall pick is better at edge rusher, fine. But leaving this draft without a new starting caliber corner would be a failure.
Hidden Need: Slot Corner. This is a totally different position than “outside corner”—and for the Giants, it’s bereft of talent. Their option in the slot right now is either 2018 undrafted man Grant Haley or veteran special teams ace and backup safety Michael Thomas. Bettcher employed safeties in the slot as the D coordinator in Arizona, but that was with Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker, both of whom have the compact bodies and athletic burst that are ideal for the job. New York’s current roster has no one like that. If Bettcher feels that new safety Jabrill Peppers can fill this void, then the Giants could look to draft a safety to come off the bench and play in Peppers’s spot on third down.
Also Looking For: Wide Receiver. The signing of Golden Tate suggests the Giants don’t believe they’re in the tear-down-and-rebuild phase that people assume. But with Sterling Shepard, Corey Coleman, Bennie Fowler and Cody Latimer in the final year of their contracts, vacancies at wideout are inevitable—especially given that Shepard is the only one who is sure to be worth re-signing. Tate is best in the slot, but his most productive season—2014, his first year in Detroit—he aligned outside on nearly half his snaps. With Tate able to align anywhere, New York can make room for any type of receiver. Ideally, they’d find a bigger-bodied one to play the “X.”
Who They Can Get: If the Giants stay put at picks 6 and 17, the corner will likely come with the later pick. LSU's Greedy Williams is the best cover man in this draft, but can the Giants live with his questionable play against the run? Georgia's Deandre Baker brings a little less size but a little more feistiness, while Washington's Byron Murphy might be better suited to the slot in the NFL but played very well on the perimeter in college. Murphy and Notre Dame's Julian Love might be the best slot corner candidates in this draft. As for receiver, maybe some size with A.J. Brown of Ole Miss or N'Keal Harry or Arizona State. But as far as that No. 6 pick goes, the value will be at quarterback (Dwayne Haskins? Drew Lock?) and the defensive line (Montez Sweat on the edge, or make room for Ed Oliver or—if he falls to them—Quinnen Williams as interior disruptors).
Biggest Need: Linebacker. They took a close look at this position in last year’s draft, knowing they’d need to restock in 2019. Signing Steelers dime linebacker L.J. Fort to a three-year, $5.5 million contract does not constitute a restocking. With Fort being a passing down specialist, the Eagles need someone on base downs to align alongside Nigel Bradham. Fort’s and Bradham’s ability to take the running back in man coverage means the Eagles can afford to draft an old school thumper if they so desire.
Hidden Need: Cornerback. Starters Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby will be free agents in 2020. Neither is worth breaking the bank for, so re-signing them will come down to a matter of price. Rasul Douglas has played well at times but looks more like a long-term backup than future starter. Having cheap young depth at outside corner gives Philly leverage in future negotiations with Mills and Darby, if not a more appealing player to turn to altogether. The Eagles predominantly play zone coverage, but many of their zones have man-to-man duties for corners outside.
Also Looking For: Offensive Tackle. Preferably a left tackle, so when 37-year-old Jason Peters does finally walk away, Lane Johnson can stay at his familiar right tackle spot (where he faces better pass rushers anyway). Halapoulivaati Vaitai has filled in admirably when Peters has been out but is better suited to remain in that sixth man role long-term.
Who They Can Get: The linebacker class has two first-rounders then a dropoff. LSU's Devin White probably won't get close to them. The Eagles might have to trade up to get Michigan's Devin Bush, who's less of a thumper but a dynamic three-down player. Or they can settle for the steady Mack Wilson of Alabama. At offensive tackle, Washington State's Andre Dillard is the best left tackle prospect in the draft, though someone like Kansas State's Dalton Risner, who has the requisite length but fringy athleticism, might appeal to them in that spot. Georgia's Deandre Baker and Washington's Byron Murphy could contribute in a cornerbacking group that's deep for 2019, or local product Rock Ya-Sin of Temple could give them a longer-term developmental option.
Biggest Need: Quarterback. You hope Alex Smith can play again, but you can’t count on it. And with Case Keenum being a bridge guy, we’ll take this opportunity to once again shout from the mountain tops that WASHINGTON SHOULD TRADE FOR JOSH ROSEN—even if it means giving up their No. 15 overall pick. Besides being a perfect stylistic fit for Jay Gruden’s system, Rosen coming out of UCLA was, on many boards, a higher-rated prospect than any of this year’s QBs. If he were coming out now, the debate would be whether to take him or Kyler Murray; there’s no way would Rosen slip to 15th in this draft. So not only are we talking about a quality QB prospect, but one who is, again, PERFECT FOR JAY GRUDEN’S OFFENSE!
Hidden Need: Cornerback. Quinton Dunbar is a physical, underrated No. 2 stopper outside, and Fabian Moreau is serviceable outside or in the slot. The question is at the No. 1 corner spot. Josh Norman has been good but not great since arriving in 2016, and next year Washington can save $12.5 million in cap space by cutting him. They have been a predominantly zone-based D over the years, but they mix in plenty of man coverage; plus, many of their zones demand man-to-man principles from corners outside. They need talented cover guys who can match up.
Also Looking For: Left Guard. Just in case Ereck Flowers doesn’t work out. (This, by the way, is meant to be only about half as snarky as it appears—if any O-line coach can salvage Flowers, it’s Washington’s Bill Callahan.)
Who They Can Get: If Rosen doesn’t become available—or if Washington doesn’t win the bidding—it’s conceivable Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins or Missouri’s Drew Lock would make it to 15. Duke’s Daniel Jones is very likely to be here, and he seems like the kind of high-floor, low-ceiling prospect an organization that went out of their way to acquire the ultra-conservative Alex Smith a year ago would covet. If they go corner, LSU’s Greedy Williams is a possibility, though Georgia’s Deandre Baker seems like an ideal fit for Greg Manusky.
Biggest Need: Safety. Chicago is in the enviable position of having no glaring needs and being able to draft for depth and for the future. Looking to 2020, a hole could form at safety, as recent free agent acquisition Ha Ha Clinton-Dix signed only a one-year deal to replace the departed Adrian Amos (Packers). Clinton-Dix is not always disciplined, and it could take a mega deal down the road to hold onto third-year star safety Eddie Jackson. Drafting a safety who could replace Clinton-Dix as the starter in Year 2 and play on a rookie deal alongside Jackson would be prudent.
Hidden Need: Cornerback. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will presumably employ more single-high coverages and outside matchup concepts than predecessor Vic Fangio. That puts more stress on corners Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who had developed into excellent pieces in Chicago’s old scheme. Fuller is coming off an All-Pro season and has a new contract that can’t be cost-effectively dumped until 2021. So if—if—the Bears did make changes at corner after this season, it would involve releasing Amukamara (which would bring $9 million in cap savings). This is pure speculation, though, and maybe even wild speculation. Chicago’s starting corners are sound. But with more man coverage on the horizon and no major needs to address, GM Ryan Pace can afford to take an athletic corner if one he likes is sitting there at Pick 87.
Also Looking For: Offensive Line Depth. Starting center Cody Whitehair is in a contract year, as are top veteran backups Ted Larsen (guard) and Bradley Sowell (tackle).
Who They Can Get: Assuming the Bears stay at Pick 87 as their first selection of the draft, they're looking at safeties along the line of Utah's Marquise Blair, undersized but instinctive, aggressive and physical. This is also the range for some developmental offensive linemen, like Wisconsin's David Edwards, West Virginia's Yodny Cajuste and Oklahoma's Bobby Evans.
Biggest Need: Pass Rusher. Disclaimer: pass rushers are not as crucial in Matt Patricia’s scheme as they are in other schemes. Above all else, Patricia wants defensive linemen who play with disciplined technique, especially on early downs. On third down, he’ll rely on his coverage. That said, you can’t play with zero pass rush, which is why the Lions broke the bank for free agent Trey Flowers. He’s not a pure pass rusher, but as perhaps football’s mechanically sharpest D-lineman, he perfectly fits the scheme. But he’d be even better if he were his team’s second most threatening pass rusher. An active free agency period has left the Lions with surprisingly few needs on offense or defense; they can afford to spend a high pick on a pass rushing specialist.
Hidden Need: Defensive Back. Some might say corner is an obvious need, given that up-and-down 2017 second-rounder Teez Tabor, who played just 28 percent of the snaps last year, has not exactly been a picture of stability opposite Darius Slay. But if the Lions were truly down on Tabor, they likely would not have let free agent Nevin Lawson leave for a mere one-year, $3 million deal with the Raiders. Lawson’s spot was filled by the man he’s replacing in Oakland, Rashaan Melvin, who is a streaky perimeter corner. So yes, this team has some questions at corner, but it might not need reinforcements as badly as outsiders believe.
In fact, the Lions could even address the safety position first. Last year’s third-rounder Tracy Walker is ready for a bigger role in centerfield, which would keep the wildly underrated Quandre Diggs down in the box. But the depth at safety is not as strong as it looks; ex-Patriot Tavon Wilson last year could not even supplant a declining Glover Quin, while Miles Killebrew’s football IQ is dubious. Secondary depth is crucial given that Matt Patricia plays a lot of dime and more “dollar” (seven DBs) than any NFC defensive schemer.
Also Looking For: Tight End. They just signed ex-Steeler Jesse James for $10.5M guaranteed, making this need much less pressing. But if there is a multidimensional tight end they love, it would make sense to pounce. Patricia and GM Bob Quinn know from their days in New England how difficult it can be to defend a two-tight end offense.
Who They Can Get: Sitting at 8, the Lions are probably out of range for Kentucky's Josh Allen and certainly out of Nick Bosa range. That leaves Mississippi State's Montez Sweat or, if they think they can unlock his potential, Michigan's Rashan Gary. (An interior pass-rusher, say Houston's Ed Oliver, should also be considered.) A No. 2 corner becomes more of a reach in the top 10, but if they go in that direction LSU's Greedy Williams is probably the fit. If it's a tight end, T.J. Hockenson comes from a Belichick-approved (and therefore, presumably, Patricia-approved) college coach in Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, and Hockenson's physicality in the run game certainly fits with Patricia's preference for a conservative approach on offense.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Biggest Need: Offensive Tackle. The Packers are in the unusual position of drafting 12th but having no major holes. GM Brian Gutekunst can afford to look to next year, when the contracts of right tackle Bryan Bulaga and swing tackle Jason Spriggs will expire. Given Bulaga’s extensive history of injuries and Spriggs’s underwhelming development, neither is likely to be retained. First-time head coach Matt LaFleur is here to presumably provide a system that will make Aaron Rodgers a more disciplined on-schedule passer. For that to work, Rodgers must trust the edges of his pass protection.
Hidden Need: Safety. Josh Jones is ready for a bigger role after playing 47 percent of the snaps as an NFL sophomore last year. That bigger role will likely include dime linebacker duties, keeping newly signed ex-Bear Adrian Amos at strong safety. What’s needed is a free safety—a job currently filled by 36-year-old corner Tramon Williams. The Packers can get by for one more year with Williams, but it wouldn’t hurt to develop a replacement now given defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s predilection for DB-heavy packages makes depth at this spot a priority.
Also Looking For: Tight End. Jimmy Graham’s $12.6M cap number was unavoidable this year, and his receiving prowess in LaFleur’s scheme could prove valuable, so keeping the 32-year-old made sense. Next year, however, the final year of Graham’s deal can be axed for a cap savings of $8 million. That’s also when No. 2 tight end, Marcedes Lewis, who is almost 35, will see his contract expire.
Who They Can Get: The Packers have the 12th pick as well as No. 30 from the Saints (who came up to get Marcus Davenport last spring). It’s a draft with plenty of right tackle candidates in the mid- to late-first, from Florida’s Jawaan Taylor to Alabama’s Jonah Williams to Oklahoma’s Cody Ford to Kansas State’s Dalton Risner. Each of them are candidates to play right guard in 2019. Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, Delaware’s Nasir Adderley (cousin of Hall of Fame ex-Packer Herb Adderley) and Maryland’s Darnell Savage could fill that centerfield spot, while the two Iowa prospects—T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant—Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. and Ole Miss’s Dawson Knox are all viable first-round options at tight end.
Biggest Need: Guard. Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball and last year’s fired offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, felt they couldn’t because of ineptitude at guard. Those guards, Mike Remmers and Tom Compton, are gone, but their replacements, Danny Isidora and Josh Kline, are not much better. New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has been exposed to several systems over the years and will know how to shape the ground game to his personnel—the hope is the Vikings can be an outside-zone blocking team. That’s the style Kirk Cousins played in Washington, and Stefanski is a shrewd multi-level play-action route designer. Those throws usually come off outside zone looks. The addition of senior offensive assistant Gary Kubiak gives this coaching staff an even deeper wisdom in the depths of an outside-zone approach. That approach, however, requires mobile guards. Minnesota must find at least one, and probably two.
Hidden Need: Flexible Receiving Tight End. Kyle Rudolph is a quality starter, but he doesn’t have the burst or agility to be a threatening receiver in space. Backup David Morgan is, like many backup Viking tight ends before him, more of a blocker than receiver. A suave pass-catching tight end off the bench, like what the Eagles had two years ago in Trey Burton, would add a nice dimension to this offense for 10-12 snaps a game.
Also Looking For: Safety Depth. Anthony Harris has emerged as a veritable starter opposite Harrison Smith, but with an injury-marred Andrew Sendejo released and George Iloka now a Cowboy, there’s no genuine safety depth to speak of. Jayron Kearse is technically the No. 3, but his NFL experience is more as a big nickel slot corner, not a half-field deep defender. The Vikings, who often play an aggressive matchup zone out of two-deep looks, want assertive players at this spot.
Who They Can Get: Picking at 18, the Vikings have a good shot to grab either Alabama’s Jonah Williams or Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, both collegiate tackles who probably project better inside in the pros. Kansas State’s Dalton Risner is similar to those two in the event they’re both off the board.
Biggest Need: Defensive End. Vic Beasley is a one-trick pony (or, actually, two tricks: rushing with pure speed outside, and looping inside on long stunts, where he’s dependent on a defensive tackle creating space for him). If he doesn’t yield 12 sacks in a rotational role this year, he’ll likely be allowed to walk next year in free agency. Third-year pro Takk McKinley aligns opposite Beasley, though on film McKinley’s initial burst and startling power look more destructive inside. Putting him at nickel defensive tackle alongside star Grady Jarrett and finding another speed rusher on the edge would be the best way for Atlanta’s four-man rush to generate the pressure that their single-high coverage-based scheme demands.
Hidden Need: Interior O-line. The Falcons signed James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency, but unless the offense under returned coordinator Dirk Koetter is transitioning from an outside-zone running scheme to an inside-zone scheme, these moves are ill-fitting. Carpenter and Brown are experienced moving east-west in outside zone schemes, but both are better suited for north-south movement (Carpenter especially). If the Falcons are sticking with outside zone, they need more athletic guards. If they are indeed going to more inside runs, they could soon need a new center. Alex Mack, 33, is still elite in an outside-zone scheme, but his $10.5M cap number in 2020 might be too much in a different system.
Also Looking For: Linebacker. Deion Jones will almost certainly be signed to a lucrative long-term deal when his rookie contract expires after this season. That, however, likely means De’Vondre Campbell, whose contract also expires at the end of the year, will get away. The Falcons snuck 2018 sixth-rounder Foyesade Oluokun into their rotation more and more as last season progressed, plus 2017 third-rounder Duke Riley, though inconsistent, has the raw speed that Dan Quinn’s run-and-chase scheme demands. But even if those two ascend (and that’s a big if), depth at linebacker will soon need to be replenished.
Who They Can Get: In the middle of the first, Alabama’s Jonah Williams and Oklahoma’s Cody Ford could both get consideration as collegiate tackle who could kick inside, but Atlanta could also wait until Day 2 and grab someone like Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom for their outside-zone scheme. If it’s an edge rusher, Florida State’s Brian Burns fits the bill. Michigan LB Devin Bush (whose father and namesake was drafted by the Falcons with the 26th pick of the 1995 draft), would fit perfectly in Dan Quinn’s defense as De’Vondre Campbell’s heir apparent.
Biggest Need: Defensive Line. Carolina’s zone-based 4-3 defense is predicated on having a dominant four-man rush. Inside, the personnel is decent: Kawann Short remains elite and Dontari Poe still moves well for a 345-pounder. However, Poe can be cut for a $10 million in cap savings next year, which might prove tempting. And his backup, 2016 first-rounder Vernon Butler, though worth examining one more year, has teased but not come close to fully delivering on his draft status. Outside, there are more questions, both short-and long-term. Mario Addison is in a contract year and will cost a lot to retain. Expect GM Marty Hurney to pony up. But opposite Addison, Bruce Irvin is playing on a one-year deal and would probably be best served in a rotational role.
Hidden Need: Defensive Back. Re-signing Eric Reid for $22M over three years back in February was smart, as this year safeties wound up costing gobs on the open market. But who will play alongside Reid? Concussions kept Da’Norris Searcy out of all but two games last season, and before that he was merely somewhere between a high-level backup and low-level starter in Tennessee. 2018 third-round pick Rashaan Gaulden, who is more athletic than veteran backup Colin Jones, was the No. 3 safety last year and could get a look as a starter. That, however, would leave a void in the slot, where Gaulden, an inside corner in college, has been floated as a possible replacement for released veteran Captain Munnerlyn. With the strong safety and slot corner having somewhat similar responsibilities in Carolina’s first and second down zone coverages, and with Reid capable of aligning anywhere, deciding which secondary position to fill could come down to simply choosing the best player from a pool of free safeties, strong safeties and slot corners.
Also Looking For: Wide Receiver. Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess did not work out, but the logic behind selecting them early in the 2014 and 2015 drafts made sense: they were big-bodied targets for Cam Newton, a hot-and-cold fastball thrower who tends to miss high and wide. The Panthers are not particularly deep at receiver and need another perimeter target with a large catch-radius.
Who They Can Get: The can certainly fortify the front four. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins is an option, though would he be redundant with Short? Clemson teammate Dexter Lawrence would give them a Poe replacement. The immediate value is on the edge, where they might be choosing between an edge burner in Florida State’s Brian Burns, an edge-setting complementary pass-rusher in Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell or perhaps undersized, high-motor sack artist Jaylon Ferguson of Louisiana Tech. They might have to make a move from the middle of the second round to get one of the top centerfield prospects—Delaware’s Nasir Adderley, Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, all fringe first-rounders, are probably the best fits.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Biggest Need: Center. Max Unger’s unexpected retirement hurts, but fortunately, with Drew Brees’s pre-snap command, the Saints are not dependent on their center to set protections. Also, Unger’s replacement, Nick Easton, has underrated athleticism. He can be just fine alongside quality plus-sized guards like Andrus Peat and Larry Warford. That said, the Saints have always invested heavily in an interior O-line to keep the pocket clean for their 6-foot QB. With no other glaring needs to speak of, they can afford to trade up again this year if there’s a center they love.
Hidden Need: Strong Safety. Vonn Bell is in the final year of his rookie deal. He’s not worth franchise-tagging, which means the Saints, who don’t have the best financial situation, will likely have to bid against 31 other teams to keep him. And the only depth behind Bell and free safety Marcus Williams right now is career-long backup Chris Banjo.
Also Looking For: Defensive End. The Saints only activate three defensive ends on game day, so depth at this position is not crucial. But with Alex Okafor now in Kansas City, their current rotation has questions. Marcus Davenport is coming off a late-season Achilles injury. Mario Edwards Jr. is not an explosive edge bender and has looked more comfortable when playing inside. And being a healthy scratch in several contests last year, 2017 third-rounder Trey Hendrickson did not take a significant step forward. The only stable defensive end on the roster is Cameron Jordan.
Who They Can Get: The Saints spent their first-rounder in a trade-up to get Davenport last year, so their first scheduled selection of the 2019 draft is Pick 62. While top center Garrett Bradbury should be long gone at that point, there's a chance they can get Texas A&M's Erik McCoy or Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins there. There's some depth at safety, and perhaps Washington's Taylor Rapp, who tested poorly but should still be considered a top-50 prospect, will make it deep into the second. If not Rapp, Iowa's Amani Hooker would provide a nice complement to Williams. The late second is a good range for a couple guys who profile as quality complementary pass rushers, such as Michigan's Chase Winovich, Miami's Joe Jackson, Old Dominion's Oshane Ximines or Iowa's Anthony Nelson.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Biggest Need: Safety. The Bucs are young and average here, and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s scheme is built on disguising and bringing interior pressure via second-and third-level blitzes. Ideally Bowles wants long-bodied blitzers so that, if they don’t get home, they at least still obstruct the quarterback’s vision. But more important than length is speed, as that accentuates disguise capabilities and gives the pressure a more disruptive tenor. Recall that the Jets, with Bowles as their head coach, drafted safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye with their first two picks in 2017. That’s how much Bowles values the position. Adams and Maye never quite became interchangeable (Adams played the box, Maye played deep); in a perfect world, the Bucs would find a safety who can align anywhere.
Hidden Need: Outside Corner. They have an ascending one in second-year man Carlton Davis, but fourth-year pro Vernon Hargreaves has been wildly up and down and might be better off playing full-time in the slot, where he’s more confident. Yes, 2018 second-round pick M.J. Stewart can align opposite Davis, but some on the previous Bucs staff felt Stewart’s best long-term role might actually be as a coverage safety. In the very least, finding a corner would give Tampa Bay’s secondary depth, which is important in Bowles’s schemes given its emphasis on man-to-man coverage.
Also Looking For: Edge Defender. Jason Pierre-Paul will get a crack at the edge job opposite Carl Nassib, but Pierre-Paul has always been best served as a tightly aligned defensive end. That particular role, and the way Pierre-Paul fills it, might not cross over well from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme (even though the two schemes in today’s NFL are very similar). This isn’t to say Pierre-Paul can’t contribute positively; he’s still a good player. But he may not be a strong enough fit to justify his $12.5M cap number in 2020. The Bucs can cut him then with no dead money repercussions.
Who They Can Get: It's an interesting crop of safeties, but none of them are worthy of a top-five pick. They do have the 39th overall pick, where multi-dimensional safeties like Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Washington's Taylor Rapp could be available. (Delaware's Nasir Adderley might also fit the bill, though he didn't do much blitzing in college.) As for that No. 5 pick though, the Bucs are more likely to find proper value in an edge rusher. If Kentucky's Josh Allen isn't on the board, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat brings a similar fit.
Biggest Need: Shifty Wide Receiver. Look, if the Cardinals are head over heels for Kyler Murray, fine—take him. But with Josh Rosen aboard we can’t pretend “quarterback” is their biggest need, or even a need at all.
No one knows exactly how Kliff Kingsbury’s system will look in the NFL, but it presumably will involve a quick-strike passing game. That minimizes the demands on Arizona’s much-maligned offensive line. (A line that, it should be noted, can improve dramatically in 2019 with everyone healthy, center Mason Cole entering Year Two and ex-Steeler Marcus Gilbert stabilizing the right tackle spot.)
If you’re throwing the ball before your protection even has a chance to break down, you need quick, shifty receivers who can get open early in the down and produce yards after catch. Second-year man Christian Kirk appears to be one (though technically the jury is still out because so much of his production last year on highly schemed downfield designs, not one-on-one scenarios). Injury-prone ex-Bear Kevin White is not a quick, shifty weapon, and neither is Larry Fitzgerald (not to say the savvy future first ballot Hall of Famer won’t still find a way to prosper under Kingsbury). The Cards need a movable lightning bug receiver who can win from spread formations.
Hidden Need: Offensive Tackle. D.J. Humphries on the left side and Marcus Gilbert on the right are suitable for 2019, but it may be difficult to re-sign both men after this season (if the Cards will even want to, that is). Humphries has played just 27 games in four years, thanks largely to injuries; Gilbert is 31 and has battled injuries, as well.
Also Looking For: Interior Pass Rusher. About three times a game, Robert Nkemdiche (when he’s on the active roster, that is) gets off the ball with as strong a burst as anyone not named Aaron Donald. Unfortunately, that leaves about 62 other snaps in question. The Cards should keep an eye out for a consistent interior gap-shooter to pair with underrated veteran Corey Peters.
Who They Can Get: Even if Arizona goes with Kyler Murray at 1, they still have a de facto first-rounder with Pick 33 and will likely scoop up another top-50 pick (if not a first-rounder) when they deal Josh Rosen. In other words, they'll have options. Oklahoma WR Marquise Brown, diminutive but shifty and fast, could still be on the board at No. 33. South Carolina's Deebo Samuel is an option if he's not, and Day 2 will be rich with shifty receivers (Georgia's Mecole Hardman and Umass's Andy Isabella, to name two). This is also the range for Kansas State OL Dalton Risner, who has enough length to get by at tackle but could also play inside while things shake out with Humphries and Gilbert. If they deal the No. 1 pick (Raiders? Giants?) they could conceivably stay in the top 10 and get their hands on Houston's Ed Oliver or Clemson's Christian Wilkins to create interior pressure. Even better if they stay top five, in which case Alabama's Quinnen Williams is within reach.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Biggest Need: Interior O-line. Rodger Saffold must be replaced at left guard. And at center, savvy veteran John Sullivan’s football IQ has been so integral to this offense that you wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rams call the 34-year-old around Labor Day to lure him back for one more year. (They chose not to exercise his contract option in March, but that was to save $6.25 million in cap space.) Even if the idea of milking one more year out of Sullivan is floating in the back of Sean McVay’s and GM Les Snead’s minds—and it’s just a guess that it even is—the Rams still needs long-term insurance at center or guard. They used their second pick last year on Brian Allen, but that came in the fourth round. Their first pick, third-rounder Joseph Noteboom, will get a chance to start inside, but the hope is he can one day assume 37-year-old Andrew Whitworth’s left tackle spot. With one of the league’s best O-line coaches (Aaron Kromer), the Rams, theoretically, can trust in their ability to develop a project player. But being in full-fledged win-now mode, they’d almost certainly prefer to find a reliable plug-and-play guy.
Hidden Need: Cornerback. Depth is already a concern for this season, plus every corner on the roster, including starters Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, is in the final year of his contract. Locking up Peters is the top priority, but given his locker room reputation in college and at Kansas City, plus his inconsistent technique and boom-or-bust style of play, you want to wait until the last possible minute to make that long-term commitment. Which means Peters could well play out this season and then the 2020 season on the franchise tag before getting his deal. A lot can happen during that time. The Rams need options at his position.
Also Looking For: Pass Rusher. The Rams signed the soon-to-be 33-year-old Clay Matthews, not the 25-year-old Clay Matthews. And with Ndamukong Suh gone, they’re down a penetrator inside.
Who They Can Get: There's maybe a 50/50 chance the Rams can stay where they are and grab NC State's Garrett Bradbury, an athletic pivot who is NFL-ready. If they're prepared to go with Allen and look toward the corners and pass rushers, Washington's Byron Murphy, who thrived playing off-coverage in college, is a natural fit. Temple's Rock Ya-Sin would also be an interesting developmental prospect. Among the pass-rushers, they could be in the right range for Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson on the edge, or perhaps they go with Notre Dame DL Jerry Tillery and worry about how he fits next to Aaron Donald later.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Biggest Need: Edge Rusher. Before trading for Kansas City’s Dee Ford, edge-rusher was a humongous need. Now, it’s just simply a regular old “biggest” need. The Niners run a more diverse variation of a Seahawks-style, single-high zone scheme. As the game progresses, they settle deeper and deeper into that scheme, which means they become more and more dependent on their four-man rush. Inside, that rush is strong, with long-armed dynamo DeForest Buckner at one 3-technique spot and 2017 No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas at the other. (Though it’s time for Thomas to take that quantum leap...his first two seasons have been underwhelming.) Outside, in recent years, there’s been nothing. Ford, a limber multidirectional mover who plays with leverage and flexibility, changes that, but only on one side. Add a force on the other and this D can suddenly be great.
Hidden Need: Cornerback. Signing ex-Charger Jason Verrett for $3.6 million in 2019 was a great gamble. Verrett was a top-five corner in 2015 before losing essentially the next three seasons to major lower-body injuries. Ideally, he’ll beat out incumbent Jimmie Ward (who, versatile perhaps to the point of “positionless,” is also on a one-year deal) and Ahkello Witherspoon, who has been too vulnerable in one-on-one scenarios. That’s three players vying for the right corner spot, but come 2020, the Niners could well have zero players here. Plus, at left corner, Richard Sherman is coming off an outstanding season, but now 31 and with knee and Achilles problems on his record, it doesn’t hurt to find insurance behind him.
Also Looking For: Free Safety. 2017 seventh-rounder Adrian Colbert has been up and down and 2018 fifth-rounder D.J. Reed is best suited for slot corner. A rangy safety can do wonders in a single-high coverage scheme.
Who They Can Get: Don't you dare trade out of this spot. If Kyler Murray is indeed the first pick (whether it's Arizona or not), Ohio State's Nick Bosa is an ideal pairing with Ford. If Bosa ends up going No. 1, the Niners get a nice consolation prize in Kentucky's Josh Allen—not ideal considering he and Ford are a little light setting the respective edges, but as the kids say, it's a pass-first league. Just as nice for the Niners, there's good depth at cornerback (especially the "Seattle-style" long corners DC Robert Saleh prefers), so they should be able to nab a decent one with the 36th pick. Temple's Rock Ya-Sin, Kentucky's Lonnie Johnson and Michigan State's Justin Layne fit the Cover 3 mold, while Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Delaware's Nasir Adderley and Alabama's Deionte Thompson will be on the board if they're looking for a centerfielder.
Biggest Need: Defensive End. If franchise-tagged fifth-year pro Frank Clark plays well, he’ll almost certainly get a long-term deal in 2020. So will defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who has a rare combination of agility and strength. A quality D-line is critical to Seattle’s straightforward 4-3 single-high scheme; assuming Clark and Reed are the line’s cornerstones moving forward, salary cap constrictions will force Seattle to build around them via the draft. Immediate help is required, anyway. This front overachieved in 2018 (a nice reflection on D-line coach Clint Hurtt) but is stocked with mostly mid-round talent. More penetrators are needed, especially at defensive end.
Hidden Need: Wide Receiver. Doug Baldwin has battled copious injuries and, with a lot of interests outside of football, some believe he could leave the sport sooner than later. Even if Baldwin sticks around, the Seahawks need a big-bodied target to challenge David Moore for the third-receiver duties opposite Tyler Lockett.
Also Looking For: Slot Corner. Someone must replace Justin Coleman, who signed with Detroit in free agency. Seattle need not invest super heavily at this position; their scheme’s foundation often calls for landmark zone coverage from slot corners, which takes less athleticism than matchup-zone coverage. A sound-tackling mid-round pick will do.
Who They Can Get: Skinny edge burner Brian Burns of Florida State might make it to Seattle at 21, but if he isn't available the Seahawks are probably looking at well-rounded but less-than-dynamic Clelin Ferrell of Clemson or undersized, high-effort rusher Jaylon Ferguson of Louisiana Tech. There will be some big-bodied receivers available late in the first, most likely A.J. Brown or Ole Miss, Hakeem Butler of Iowa State and Arizona State's N'Keal Harry. They could also stay local for that slot corner with Washington's Byron Murphy.
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