While free agency has received most of the play during NFL’s offseason, that’s not necessary the most-important route to team-building around the league.
Instead, an argument could be made that success in the NFL draft is about 80 percent of what it takes to actually be successful on the football field.
Just look at the Dallas Cowboys as a case study. Here’s a team that turned a 4-12 record the previous season into a 13-win campaign that ultimately led to them earning the NFC East title last year. The two primary components here were rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
Even when looking at others who contributed big time for Dallas, they were pretty much all acquired via the draft. Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin along the league’s best offensive line were all original picks of the Cowboys. The same can be said for wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and stud linebacker Sean Lee.
We can pretty much repeat this same scenario with other successful teams, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers included.
So while it’s a big deal to fans that their teams ace free agency, the draft itself is what helps build successful rosters. The following teams were either extremely inactive or lost a few key players in free agency. They didn’t go after the big names, but tended to lose the first part of the NFL offseason.
Here are NFL teams that must ace the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft in order to salvage what have been disappointing offseasons up to this point.
Think about this for a second. Arizona let Pro Bowl caliber safety Tony Jefferson walk in free agency. That’s not necessarily a big deal in a vacuum. After all, Jefferson received a four-year, $34 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens (more on that here).
The issue here is that Arizona then used some of that financial capital to re-sign tight end Jermaine Gresham to a four-year, $28 million deal with just $2.5 million less guaranteed than what Jefferson received. That’s absolutely insane, especially considering Gresham himself is coming off a two-year span in Arizona that saw him catch a combined 55 passes. Welp.
In addition to this, the Cardinals lost Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback Marcus Cooper and tight end Darren Fells.
Remember, Arizona finished last season with just seven wins after entering the year with Super Bowl aspirations. There were widespread issues on both sides of the ball, some that have only been magnified thus far in free agency. Add in the issues at wide receiver, and there’s a ton of needs here for the Cardinals.
Technically speaking, Bruce Arians’ squad could stand to acquire upgrades at center, guard, wide receiver, defensive tackle and cornerback. That’s a whole heck of a lot of needs heading into draft season. This also makes it imperative that general manager Steve Keim and Co. absolutely ace the upcoming draft.
Green Bay Packers
Where to even begin here? Well, let’s start with the good news. General manager Ted Thompson shocked the football world by showing some activity in free agency. It started with the signing of Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett from the defending champion New England Patriots. Green Bay later doubled down at that position by adding Lance Kendricks. It then brought former draft pick Davon House back after he failed miserably as a high-priced free agent in Jacksonville. Not bad at all, right?
That’s until we run down the list of impact players Green Bay lost in free agency. Running back Eddie Lacy signed with the Seattle Seahawks on what amounts to as nothing more than a prove-it deal.
This leaves wide receiver turned running back Ty Montgomery as the only real player at that position capable of even coming close to shouldering the load in Green Bay. Sure Lacy was a mess his final two seasons with the Packers, but they have not done a darn thing to get Montgomery help at running back. That’s an issue.
Remaining on offense, the Packers also lost stalwart guard T.J. Lang and starting center J.C. Tretter — creating two big holes on the line in front of annual MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers.
Then on defense, the Packers lost strong safety Micah Hyde, EDGE pass rusher Julius Peppers and former first-round pick Datone Jones. This adds even more holes to a defense that was well below average a season ago. Who is going to rush the passer? Can the Packers find any inside linebackers worth a hill of beans so that Clay Matthews can move back outside?
Green Bay has a history of focusing primarily on the draft. It’s a history that has worked out for the team for the most part, but that simply has not been the case recently.
It started with offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Then in 2012, Green Bay wasted a pick on defensive tackle Jerel Worthy in the second round. The team’s top-two picks from the 2013 draft, Datone Jones and Eddie Lacy, also departed in free agency this month. There’s surely some young talent that’s been added since. But it’s talent that has not necessarily proven itself as of right now.
This leads us to believe the Packers need immediate fixes in the early rounds come April. Maybe that includes trading out of the first round to pick up a couple Day 2 picks. It could also mean trading up in the first round to target an elite prospect at a position of need. Either way, the Packers are again left focusing on the draft as a way to overcome another less-than-stellar free agency period. Whether it’s sustainable remains to be seen.
The addition of all-everything safety Micah Hyde should go a long way in helping Buffalo improve its safety play. He has a wide range of coverage and can play corner (his original position) on a whim. Retaining 2016 sack leader Lorenzo Alexander helped on that side of the ball as well.
Unfortunately, Buffalo lost its top cover corner in Stephon Gilmore to the division-rival Patriots while cutting slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was among the best at his position in the NFL last season. That certainly was a strange move for general manager Doug Whaley and Co.
On offense, Buffalo saw No. 2 receiver Robert Woods move on to the Los Angeles Rams. It then replaced him with the likes of Jeremy Butler and Corey Brown. That’s not necessarily a recipe for success.
Without a playoff appearance since the Bill Clinton Administration, Buffalo’s inability to do much of anything in the draft has hurt big time. Of the team’s last 10 first or second-round picks, four are no longer with the Bills. Out of the other six, only three saw regular starting action last season. Again, that’s not a recipe for success.
Add in the Bills’ complete lack of success during free agency, and this is magnified even further following yet another disappointing season.
There’s been some talk that Buffalo may look to find an eventual replacement for Tyrod Taylor with the 10th pick in April’s draft. That would be utterly foolish, especially after Taylor restructured his contract to remain with the team. Instead, the Bills need to either trade down to refill their stock or take an impact player in the top 10. They simply can’t waste an asset like this on a quarterback that won’t be making an impact over the next couple seasons. That would be utterly foolish.
Maybe, Seattle decides to shock the football world and trade Richard Sherman for a bounty of picks. That would surely fill holes on a roster that’s quickly becoming relatively thin. Then again, Sherman himself is a generational talent and a leader of Seattle’s Legion of Boom. Despite rumors to the contrary, this is a highly unlikely scenario.
Assuming the Seahawks stand pat here, their primary focus has to be on the offensive line again. Former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round bust Luke Joeckel surely isn’t the answer to Seattle’s offensive line woes. And after losing out on then free agent T.J. Lang to Detroit, Pete Carroll and Co. don’t have many options remaining on the veteran market.
As of right now, Seattle would be starting George Fant and Garry Gilliam at the tackle positions. That’s about as gross as it gets. Even if the team were to move Joeckel to left tackle, his stint with Jacksonville proved he’s incapable of performing well in that area.
Needless to say, the Seahawks must draft an immediate starter along the offensive line in the first round. No, that doesn’t include the repeat of this team reaching on offensive linemen early in drafts recently. Remember, the James Carpenter selection back in 2011? How did that turn out? What about Germain Ifedi last season? That’s still an open question. This is where someone like Alabama’s Cam Robinson could come into play this year.
Outside of the offensive line, there’s surely major depth issues for a Seahawks team that won a disappointing 10 games last season. Is Eddie Lacy ready to put his weight issues behind him after signing an incentive-laden deal this month? If not, can Thomas Rawls once again prove himself to be healthy? That’s two major questions on an offense that relies heavily for production from the ground.
Defensively, the Seahawks have struggled putting anyone worth a hill of beans opposite Richard Sherman at corner since Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell departed the Pacific Northwest. Maybe that should be a focus here. In addition to this, we’re not too sure how Earl Thomas will respond after suffering a serious leg injury last season.
Unlike previous years, John Schneider and Co. have specific areas they need to address. They also must find immediate-impact players. That’s much easier said than done, especially with how this team has drafted in recent years.
New York Jets
Pretty much of their own doing, the Jets have cleared themselves of a ton of veteran talent during the offseason. It’s the start of what promises to be a rather lengthy rebuild for the team. Over the course of the past month, this team has released the likes of Nick Mangold, Brandon Marshall and Darrelle Revis. That’s a combined 20 Pro Bowl appearances right there. Also gone are: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Clady and Breno Giacomini.
These were core pieces on the team that won 10 games back in 2015. Each one of them also regressed a great deal last season. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that New York has moved on from them. Though, the team simply doesn’t have much young talent to replace these veterans. That’s what will make for a lengthy rebuild, which must start during the 2017 NFL Draft.
A ton of the focus here will be on what New York does at quarterback. As of now, the team only has Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty on the roster. Even if it were to add Jay Cutler (as rumored), there’s still a need for a franchise signal caller. Is that the route New York goes at six? Will the team have to trade up (to say San Francisco at two) in order to pick that quarterback? Are any of these quarterbacks worth a top pick?
These are questions the Jets’ brass has to answer here in the next month-plus. They also have to find a way not to go into tunnel vision looking for a quarterback. There’s a need for young talent at pretty much every position on the roster here. That’s what makes it a necessity the Jets ace this draft.
At least one member of the Bengals was not happy that this squad lost two of its best offensive linemen in free agency. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth signed a team-friendly deal with the Los Angeles Rams after being a mainstay on Cincinnati’s offensive line for the past 11 seasons.
Meanwhile, former first-round pick Kevin Zeitler signed a massive contract with the division-rival Cleveland Browns. In reality, these are two huge losses.
Cincinnati did plan accordingly during the 2015 NFL Draft when it added tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher with its first two picks. Considering how inexplicably cheap the Bengals have been in retaining their own free agents, this is what they have to do in order to remain competitive.
Outside of the offensive line, there are surely other holes that also need to be filled here. Jeremy Hill has proven to be nothing more than a bust after two consecutive down seasons. Meanwhile, Giovani Bernard is coming off an injury-plagued 2016 campaign. Is either the answer at running back? Who will fill in as the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver behind A.J. Green? Surely, Tyler Boyd played well as a rookie. But can the team rely on him taking the next step in 2017?
On defense, there’s a talent vacuum that must be filled at linebacker. Rey Maualuga isn’t getting any younger in the middle and Marquis Flowers is a liability at the weak-side linebacker position.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they have done a tremendous job replenishing their roster through the draft. Despite last season’s substandard on-field performance, this hasn’t changed. It’s now just magnified a bit further considering the team’s struggles in 2016.
Let’s get this out of the way. The losses of starting cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr really isn’t that big of a deal. This was not a position of strength for a Cowboys defense that yielded the seventh-most passing yards in the NFL and a 94.1 quarterback rating last year.
Dallas can stand to replenish its stock with younger talent in the draft, something the team will surely do early and often in April.
That’s not really the largest concern here. Dallas also lost two veteran safeties in J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church. Byron Jones is surely the team’s free safety of the future, so that’s not a huge issue either. Considering the 2017 NFL Draft is filled with strong safety talent, the Cowboys can target this position as well.
Unfortunately, Jerry Jones an Co. don’t have enough picks to acquire rookies that can make immediate impacts at all the positions Dallas needs help. This also includes a pass rush that was non-existent last season. With Randy Gregory continuing to find himself in major off-field trouble and Jack Crawford departing in free agency, that’s taken to a whole new level.
For a team that won 13 games last season, there’s so many unanswered questions. What will the Cowboys’ starting defensive line look like? Who will be starting opposite Orlando Scandrick at cornerback? Can the team find a running partner for Jones at safety?
If the Cowboys don’t answer a majority of these questions, they could potentially take a major step back form last season’s surprising performance.