Now that the 2017 NFL Draft is in the books, pretty much all the big off-season moves around the league have already been made. Sure there will be some moves here and there throughout the summer, but most of the teams have their rosters set to an extent following the draft.
It’s in this that we have a pretty good idea of which squads will be in contention for the Super Bowl. Those names remain the same. After a whole host of improvements on both sides of the ball, the New England Patriots remain odds-on favorites. Over in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys look to be in good standing.
However, there are a ton of teams out there who improved at a great clip during the offseason. These teams aced last week’s NFL Draft, pretty much indicating that they will be much more competitive than last season.
The focus here is on under-the-radar teams. Some cellar-dwellers. Others who simply don’t seem to be legitimate playoff contenders. These are the teams that saw their stocks rise during the recent draft and could be in line for playoff contention in 2017.
For the purpose of clarity, we’re not going to include obvious up-and-coming teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans. That’s already known.
Instead, we’re looking at a Colts team that addressed major needs on defense and a Los Angeles Chargers squad that went for immediate impact players in the draft. These are among the five teams that we can call surprise playoff contenders following the 2017 NFL Draft.
First-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard absolutely aced his initial draft in that capacity. He made sure to address immediate needs out of the gate, acquiring value in the process.
It started with former Ohio State safety Malik Hooker dropping all the way to the 15th pick in the first round. Hooker’s range in center field has drawn comparisons to what Earl Thomas brings for the Legion of Boom in Seattle. And really, that’s not hyperbole.
A player of Hooker’s ilk makes his defense that much better across the board. His range enables corners to worry solely about their side of the field. That will surely help out Vontae Davis after the two-time Pro Bowler struggled to an extent this past season.
The comparison here has to be how Thomas makes up for some of the shortcomings Richard Sherman brings to the table in Seattle, helping Sherman himself look like the best corner in football.
Indy then got a running partner for Davis in the form of former Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson, who will likely be a Day 1 starter. Wilson was actually Bleacher Report Matt Miller’s ninth-ranked overall prospect in the draft. His size and physicality alone should work well in the Colts’ secondary. Add in the fact that Wilson allowed a sub 40 percent completion mark in the SEC last season, and that’s magnified even further.
Indianapolis has been bordering on mediocrity for too long. It’s unfortunate with Andrew Luck supposedly set to hit his prime. But with some solid pieces on offense in Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Frank Gore and Jack Doyle, that really wasn’t the biggest concern last season.
Instead, Ballard set out to fix his team’s issues on defense. When we add in the free-agent pickups of talented defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and EDGE rusher Jabaal Sheard, the Colts really did make sure to address these problems. It should lead to contention in what promises to be a competitive AFC South this season.
New Orleans Saints
As with Indianapolis, it was all about addressing needs here. Amid rumors that they might trade up from the 11th pick to add an elite-level defender, the Saints played it out on Thursday night. They ended up acquiring the consensus top corner in the draft, Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State.
Lattimore only has one year of high-level college starting experience, but he boasts the traits teams covet in a potential shutdown cornerback.
“I’m amazed that he fell to No. 11. His upside is amazing. His ball skills are a true reality,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said during the draft. “Rarely gets called for pass interference even though he’s a one-year guy. I think that he could be Aqib Talib some years down the road.”
Is Lattimore a Year 1 starter? His inexperience seems to suggest New Orleans might want to take it slow with the former Buckeye. But here’s a defense that has finished in the bottom three of the NFL against the pass each of the past two seasons. Lattimore will likely be thrown into a starter role immediately. Considering he already boasts plus-level ball skills, that’s going to be a huge improvement for the Saints.
New Orleans then decided to double down on the secondary with safety Marcus Williams in the second round. He was one of this scribe’s favorite free safeties when watching tape prior to the draft.
Maybe not up to the level of Malik Hooker in this aspect, Williams still has a strong range in center field. He can act as a single-high safety, a last line of defense for a Saints defense that has been missing this in recent years.
There’s little doubt the Saints’ offense was playoff-caliber last season. Drew Brees remains one of the top quarterbacks in the game. And even after the team traded Brandin Cooks, the likes of Willie Snead and Michael Thomas are more than capable of picking up the slack.
Add in the signing of future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson and top-level guard Larry Warfard to an already strong offensive line, and the writing is on the wall here. New Orleans is hellbent on competing for a playoff spot and a potential title during the twilight of Brees’ career. While the team is still ways away from that ultimate goal, it would not be a shock to see New Orleans vie for the NFC South title in 2017.
The same thing was pretty much said last year after Jacksonville added defenders Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack in the draft. That was only magnified with the return of 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. after he missed his entire rookie season to injury.
What people weren’t banking on was a Jaguars offense set for major regression from the previous season. Blake Bortles continued his turnover-prone ways, throwing another 16 interceptions while turning the ball over 20 times. Meanwhile, wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns struggled after putting up 1,000-plus yard performances the previous season.
While Jacksonville’s defense was improved, its offense took a major step back. Adding to the issues here was a running back tandem in Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon leading a bottom-10 rushing attack.
After setting out to improve their defense even more in free agency with the additions of veterans Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church, Jacksonville figured going offense early in last week’s draft made a ton of sense.
In this, Jacksonville added the consensus No. 1 skill-position player in the draft in the form of LSU running back Leonard Fournette. By all possible standards, Fournette is a three-down back with the potential of putting up 1,500-plus yards as a rookie.
This pick does two things. First off, it gives the Jaguars a reliable running back to depend on. That will create balance on an offense in desperate need of it. Secondly, it takes the onus off Blake Bortles to toss the rock 40-plus times on a consistent basis. This is one of the reasons Bortles has struggled with turnovers in his first three seasons as the Jaguars’ starter. That likely won’t be the case in 2017.
Now add in the fact that Jacksonville traded up for former Alabama All-American tackle Cam Robinson in the second round, and that weakness was addressed as well. Robinson will likely slide in as the starting right tackle, creating a much better book end tandem to go with the recently acquired Branden Albert.
All this seems to be a clear indication that Jacksonville will indeed find a way to compete with Tennessee, Houston and Indianapolis in what promises to be an improved AFC South this upcoming season.
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles made sure to draft for the immediate future rather than the long term. That’s the commitment the team made to Philip Rivers when he decided to follow it from San Diego. It will also likely push the Chargers into playoff contention this upcoming season.
We weren’t too fond of the pick of Mike Williams seventh overall. With Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin already on the roster at receiver, there seemed to be more pressing needs for Los Angeles. That’s until we realize Allen himself has missed 23 games to injury over the past two seasons.
Outside of missing all but one game of the 2015 season to injury, the 6-foot-4 Williams gained valuable experience as Deshaun Watson’s favorite target with the Tigers. He also has the looks of a true No. 1 receiver.
“Mike Williams is all about separating with length, power and catch radius,” NFL Media’s Mike Mayock said about Williams during the draft. “He’s a dominating, physical presence. He’s a back-shoulder guy. You’ll love him in the red zone.”
That will be absolutely huge for Rivers. It gives him three reliable targets at receiver to work with. Add in the presence of a dynamic young running back in Melvin Gordon, and the Chargers seem set at the skill positions.
General manager Tom Telesco wasn’t done there. He added the two-best interior linemen in the class with the team’s next two picks. San Diego nabbed former Western Kentucky standout Forrest Lamp in the second round before doubling down at guard with Dan Feeney in the third round.
Lamp was considered a top-20 pick by most experts, while the Chargers picked up Feeney about a round later than he should have gone. Both are considered Day 1 starters and should help improve what was a questionable offensive line last season.
Interestingly enough, Los Angeles’ best pick might have come in the fifth round when it added former Iowa cornerback Desmond King. Considered by most a Day 2 pick, King will likely translate over to free safety in the NFL. A three-year starter with the Hawkeyes, he might actually earn a starting gig as a rookie.
These were key areas for Los Angeles to address. And in the end, the team added four likely Day 1 starters at areas of utmost concern. With the talent returning from this roster, it would not be a surprise to see the Chargers rebound from last season’s disastrous performance to contend in the AFC West.
San Francisco 49ers
John Lynch absolutely aced his first draft as a general manager in the NFL. Fear of inexperience gave in relatively quickly to the idea that Lynch knew exactly what he was doing in the 49ers’ war room.
It started when San Francisco fleeced the Chicago Bears for two third-round picks and a fourth-round pick for the Bears to move up just one spot near the top of the draft. San Francisco came out of that deal with the player it was going to take all along, former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas.
Then, the 49ers would later use the fourth they acquired from Chicago to move from the top of the second round to the end of the first for linebacker Reuben Foster. This enabled San Francisco to end Day 1 with two of the top-three players on its board. Heck, if you ask experts around the NFL world, the team landed two of the best players in the draft.
This came after a free agency period in which San Francisco was able to add talent to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Brian Hoyer brings experience and stability as a stopgap option at quarterback. Here’s a dude that’s thrown 25 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in his past 14 starts.
He’ll get to work under new head coach Kyle Shanahan after the latter earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors en route to leading the top offense in the NFL with Atlanta last season. If that weren’t enough, the 49ers added a No. 1 receiving option in Pierre Garçon who led the league in receptions under Shanahan with Washington three seasons ago and is coming off another 1,000-yard campaign.
San Francisco has a solid foundation upfront with Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley and and up-and-coming right tackle in Trent Brown. It also has a uber-talented, yet injury-plagued Carlos Hyde in the backfield.
While the 49ers’ offense likely won’t even come close to ranking in the top half of the NFL this upcoming season, it will be vastly improved from the disastrous units thrown out there since Jim Harbaugh departed for Michigan. That much isn’t really up for debate.
Add in Marquise Goodwin at receiver, Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk and fellow Pro Bowler Jeremy Zuttah at center, and this is a vastly improved offense.
Though, it’s surely on defense where the 49ers will be more competitive than last season. Thomas and Foster join a front seven that already includes young studs DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead as well as All Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman. It could be a downright dominating group, especially against what has to be considered terrible offensive lines in the NFC West.
Listen, there are still major holes here. Will rookie mid-round pick George Kittle provide enough at tight end? Can Hyde stay healthy in the backfield? Will the 49ers’ inexperienced, yet talented secondary step up? Such is the nature of the beast with a new regime taking over a two-win team.
In no way does this mean the 49ers can’t be competitive in a division that has regressed in recent seasons. Look for rapid improvement here. It might not lead to a playoff spot, but .500 isn’t completely out of the question. After that, who knows?