Every team around the league is reliant on the NFL Draft to supply their rosters with sustainable talent, but some teams are more desperate than others.
We’re not just referring to the bottom feeders here, either. Some teams that have recently experienced success are in a perplexing bind needing a fresh infusion of starting-quality talent in order to extend it into the future.
From last year’s NFC East champs to a team that won a Super Bowl just a few years back, the following teams absolutely must strike it rich in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Cowboys desperate for defensive backs
The Dallas Cowboys won 13 games last year. And while a lot of the team’s success revolved around the rookies on offense — Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, not to mention the offensive line — defensively the ‘Boys were much better than people expected.
It’s going to be much more difficult to replicate that kind of success in 2017 without nailing the draft. Dallas watched four defensive backs who logged considerable time last year walk out the door in free agency. Safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. Cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr signed with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, respectively.
These four players were absolutely key to Dallas’ defense last year.
In losing Carr, Church, Wilcox and Claiborne, the Cowboys have to replace 2,679 snaps from 2016.
— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) March 16, 2017
Needless to say, defensive woes could lead to a down year for the ‘Boys, which is something we explored in detail here.
But if Jerry Jones and Co. can find some starting-caliber defensive backs and impact pass rushers in the upcoming draft — one that’s loaded with potential stars on the defensive side of the ball — then perhaps this team won’t skip a beat.
Steelers still searching for dominant pass rushers
You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a double-digit sack master that wore a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. Since then, the quality of play on the edge has been on a decline, and that’s a death knell for NFL defenses these days.
— Jesse Reed (@JesseReed78) March 20, 2017
Pressure creates havoc and causes even the best quarterbacks to turn the ball over. Pittsburgh wasn’t particularly bad at this last year, recording 13 interceptions. And overall the team did manage to scrounge up 38 sacks last year. Given the fact James Harrison led the team with five sacks, this means the Steelers got production from many different sources as it relates to getting pressure on the quarterback.
But there is no doubt the Steelers are in dire need of finding a dominant pass rusher to have a shot at beating the team that embarrassed in the AFC Championship Game. A team that features some dominant players on offense, it falls well short defensively when put up against the best team in the league.
And as a side note, despite still possessing super human strength, James Harrison isn’t going to play forever. And he’d honestly be retired already if Pittsburgh had enough talent on the edge.
Panthers searching for Cam Newton protection
As it stands right now, the Carolina Panthers are heading into the 2017 season with Matt Kalil penciled in as the starting left tackle to protect Cam Newton’s blind side.
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) March 20, 2017
Newton was sacked 33 times in 2016 and 39 times last year, even though he missed a game with a concussion.
The increase in pressure had a lot to do with starting left tackle Michael Oher missing all but three games with a concussion — one that he was still not cleared from as recently as this month. At this point the Panthers are “cautiously optimistic” he can continue his career, but really retirement should absolutely be on the table.
Kalil is not a good replacement for Oher. In fact, one could say that he’s exactly what Newton doesn’t need on the blind side — something we believe to be absolutely true.
This is a bad year to be searching for offensive tackles in the draft. But Carolina desperately needs to find diamond in the rough or make a bold play for a top tackle by trading up in the first round.
Alabama's Cam Robinson, considered the top offensive tackle in the draft, is visiting with the Panthers today,… https://t.co/tvPCDwfyAj
— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) March 20, 2017
If the Panthers don’t upgrade the talent at offensive tackle, then Newton will continue to take a pounding and the offense will continue to struggle.
Browns must not waste all those draft picks
The Cleveland Browns have plenty of work ahead of them to fill holes on their roster. But boy, do they have the draft currency with which to make it happen.
We hold 1️⃣1️⃣ picks in the 2017 #NFLDraft
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) March 13, 2017
With five of the first 65 overall picks and three of the first 33, Cleveland is loaded heading into the 2017 NFL Draft — one that is incredibly deep with defensive talent and some dynamic offensive weapons.
Obviously the key element missing in Cleveland is the quarterback spot, and this year’s draft is remarkably dry at that critical position. But like the San Francisco 49ers, who are content to potentially wait until 2018 to land their quarterback, the Browns could build up the rest of their roster if they aren’t sold on the top quarterbacks in 2017.
For years, the Browns have botched their chances of building up a sustainable, competitive roster. This year is going to be a pivotal one for Sashi Brown, who might just be one of the NFL’s best general managers already.
Smart draft picks will change the fortunes of this Factory of Sadness. Conversely, a failed approach will doom the Moneyball crew and the Browns to remain in NFL purgatory for years to come.
Cardinals’ championship window closing fast
Around this time last year, many top NFL writers were picking the Arizona Cardinals to claim the top spot as the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl LI. Obviously, that did not happen. The Cardinals were lucky to win seven games, and the offense — minus running back David Johnson — took a significant step backwards.
Carson Palmer took 40 sacks, watched his touchdown total plummet from 35 to 26, threw three more interceptions and fumbled five more times when comparing his 2015 and 2016 seasons. At the same time, aside from Larry Fitzgerald and Johnson, Arizona’s receivers were largely disappointing.
The Cardinals must draft offensive linemen to protect Palmer and help further Johnson’s development. They also need to draft Palmer’s successor, because retirement is definitely on the horizon and there isn’t another starting-caliber quarterback on the roster at this time.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the Cardinals lost two key starters on defense during free agency. Calais Campbell signed a mega-deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars (details here) and safety Tony Jefferson joined forces with Eric Weddle in Baltimore.
Arizona did bring in Antoine Bethea to replace Jefferson, but he’s in the twilight of his career. Frostree Rucker was brought back for defensive line support and the Cardinals did sign Chandler Jones to a long-term deal. But by and large, this isn’t a team that got better in the offseason.
If they don’t play their cards right in April during the draft, then there is no chance the Cardinals will make Fitzgerald and Palmer champions before they retire.
Colts must build up trenches
Though he’s still just 27 years old, it’s hard to make the argument that Andrew Luck is still one of the NFL’s “young” quarterbacks any more. He’s entering the prime of his career and has already put in five seasons as a pro.
One of the biggest reasons Ryan Grigson got fired as the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts is that he failed to protect Luck, who suffered injuries the past two seasons.
Anthony Castonzo could potentially be the answer at left tackle, but the verdict is still out on him. Jack Mewhort is a solid guard, and center Ryan Kelly could end up being a very good anchor. But Indy’s offensive line is far from serviceable as a unit.
The Colts also must shore up a defensive front that was bullied an awful lot last year. Landing Jabaal Sheard and Arthur Jones could be steps in the right direction, but the defensive line needs reinforcements at every position.
Drafting trench-warfare specialists should be the biggest priority for rookie general manager Chris Ballard, who has some serious work ahead of him to fix Grigson’s mess.
Seahawks must shore up their offensive line
Russell Wilson was beat the heck up last year. Honestly, he’s been beat up an awful lot the past three seasons, enduring a grand total of 128 sacks during the regular season and another 23 times during playoff games.
As tremendous a job as general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have done assembling talent on defense, they’ve utterly failed Wilson in this regard. Heck, this past season, one of their starting offensive linemen, George Fant, literally hadn’t started in a single football game since pee-wee league before being thrust into the line of fire.
The Seahawks thought they had landed one of the top free agents this year in guard T.J. Lang. Ultimately, however, he chose to sign with the Detroit Lions, leaving Seattle to settle for first-round bust Luke Joeckel.
Upgrading the offensive line is clearly a critical aspect that must be addressed by Seattle in this year’s draft.
Bengals falling well behind AFC’s best in overall talent
Last year was a huge wake-up call for the Cincinnati Bengals, who won just six games and missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
The Bengals were terribly impotent on offense, scoring just over 20 points per game while A.J. Green sat out much of the season with a knee injury. One of the big reasons for this is that they lost two of their top receivers in free agency heading into the season. The Bengals then lost two key starters on the offensive line this past month, as Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth both bolted in free agency.
Cincinnati also saw diminishing returns from a defense that once thrived under the leadership of Mike Zimmer, who is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Pretty much everywhere you look on their roster, the Bengals are a step behind the top teams in the AFC. The offensive line needs a new infusion of talent — heck, they brought back Andre Smith, as if that will help much — the defensive line needs more depth and the secondary is aging. And we all saw what happened when Green wasn’t available. The Bengals’ receiving corps is understaffed and without impact players outside of the All-Pro.
The Bengals absolutely must ace the upcoming draft to have a chance at remaining competitive in the AFC North, let alone the AFC as a whole.
Packers have more problems than anyone wants to admit
Because Aaron Rodgers is who he is, the Green Bay Packers have made the playoffs eight seasons in a row. The only season in which they did not make the playoffs since he took over for Brett Favre was his first as a starter.
Despite Rodgers’ continued brilliance, the Packers are not in good shape on either side of the ball.
Last year they featured the NFL’s No. 31-ranked pass defense, Rodgers was sacked 35 times — five less than his 40 touchdowns, for what it’s worth — and the team’s best running back was a receiver.
Making matters worse is that Green Bay lost its best offensive lineman, T.J. Lang, in free agency and a very good backup who started at center before being injured last year, J.C. Tretter. Landing Martellus Bennett might make the passing game more dangerous, but none of that matters if Rodgers ends up getting injured because of a lack of protection.
And the Packers cannot continue to feature one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses if they have any hope of seriously competing for an NFL title.
General manager Ted Thompson says every year that Green Bay will be aggressive in free agency. And every year he leaves Packers fans gnashing their teeth as he fails to aggressively pursue team needs in free agency. Unfortunately, he’s also failed to make up for that via the draft in recent years. Now the roster has significant holes on both sides of the ball.
That cannot continue to happen. If it does, then the Packers will end up wasting the best years of Rodgers’ career.
Buffalo under new management, still faces same old problems
It’s been 17 seasons since the Buffalo Bills made it to the playoffs. And based on the key players from last year’s squad and the team’s lack of activity in free agency, that streak isn’t likely to stop in 2017 even if new head coach Sean McDermott’s plan to reshape the culture hits home in a big way.
Gone is leading tackler Zach Brown, leading interceptions man Stephon Gilmore, the team’s next-best cover man, Nickell Robey-Coleman and safety Aaron Williams. Gone also is the team’s most reliable receiver the past few years, Robert Woods.
The one big move the Bills made was signing safety Micah Hyde to a five-year deal worth up to $30.5 million. But in no way, shape or form will that move get Buffalo over the hump, especially in light of the players they lost or released.
General manager Doug Whaley did make a smart decision, aided by the new coaching staff, to retain quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
But there is so much work left to do on the rest of the roster, mostly to stock the offensive skill positions and make the defense into a unit capable of at least slowing down Tom Brady. And given the team’s salary-cap situation, it must be done via the draft, which has been extremely sketchy for the Bills many years running.