The first wave of NFL free agency is in the rear-view mirror. It was filled with a ton of excitement, a whole heck of a lot of cash being thrown around and some surprising movement. Certain teams absolutely aced this period. Working with very little, the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles were actually able to add even more talent to their roster. Meanwhile, the surprising New Orleans Saints also found a way to improve.
Some of the teams listed in this article also improved leaps and bounds. Here’s to you, Green Bay and San Francisco. In no way does it mean either team can expect to take that next step without dominating the 2018 NFL Draft. On the other hand, some teams simply didn’t have the cap room to add high-impact players. They, too, must come up big in April. Here’s a look at 10 NFL teams that must ace the draft following the first wave of free agency.
The struggles of this team’s prior front office came back to bite it in a big way in the lead-up to free agency. Up against the cap, Miami had to move on from three of its best players. It started with the trade of Jarvis Landry and continued with the Dolphins releasing Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey. For a squad that finished last season 5-11, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Bringing in center Daniel Kilgore to replace Pouncey as well as overpaying for wide receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson isn’t going to change the dynamic here. If Miami isn’t going into full-scale rebuild mode, it must find immediate contributors in next month’s draft. On the other hand, maybe the Dolphins decide to blow it up completely. If so, finding that franchise quarterback to eventually replace Ryan Tannehill could be in the cards. Either way, Miami must ace the 2018 NFL Draft.
Much like the Dolphins, this squad is coming off a disappointing 2017 campaign after earning a playoff appearance the previous season. Dallas also finds itself in one of the worst cap positions in the NFL. That’s what happens when you continue to kick the issue down the road by restructuring your highest-paid players on an annual basis. But we digress.
While the Cowboys were able to retain Pro Bowl defensive end Demarcus Lawrence under the franchise tag, there’s still a whole heck of a lot of work to be done there. Unfortunately, said work must be conducted through the draft due to the team’s horrendous cap situation. That’s where adding starter-caliber players on all levels of the defense comes into play. With Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott still doing their thing, the focus here needs to be on the defense. If Dallas doesn’t absolutely ace the draft on that side of the ball, a growing talent gap between this team and the defending champion Eagles will continue to be an issue.
This has everything to do with general manager Brandon Beane putting himself in position to make a huge impact in the coming draft. Multiple trades over the past year-plus have netted the Bills six picks in the first three rounds of next month’s draft. That includes the 12th and 21st selections in the first round after the trade of Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati and the top pick in the third round following the deal that sent Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland.
Considering that Buffalo went out there and handed A.J. McCarron backup money to start over the short term, it’s not a secret that the Bills are angling to move up into the top five for a quarterback. They have been linked to both Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen recently. Even then, it’s not all about the quarterback position. Despite earning its first playoff spot since 1999 last season, the Bills have a ton of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. That starts at quarterback but it doesn’t even come close to ending there.
Green Bay Packers
First-year GM Brian Gutekunst was true to his word. During his intro press conference after replacing Ted Thompson in that role, the longtime Packers executive made clear that the team would be more active in free agency. And boy, he hasn’t shied away from that. It started with the signing of Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and subsequent release of wide receiver Jordy Nelson. The Packers were then able to bring in another former Pro Bowler in that of defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to help with their pass rush.
We fully expect Green Bay to find more pieces via free agency and the trade block. But the team now needs to turn its attention to the coming draft. It’s an area Thompson struggled in mightily towards the latter part of his tenure as GM. Should Gutekunst find a way to ace his initial draft in that role, the talent disparity between Green Bay and the defending NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings won’t be seen as so vast.
We have to give first-year GM John Dorsey credit. He’s actually out here getting real football players. Obviously, that included trades for the Pro Bowl battery of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Cleveland was also able to add a talented young defensive back in Damarious Randall from the above-mentioned Packers for 2017 second-round pick DeShone Kizer. In free agency, the Browns did well to add talent to both sides of the ball as way to help fill out a roster that went 0-16 last season and is 1-31 since the start of the 2016 campaign.
That’s all great. It really is a step in the right direction. With that said, former executive Sashi Brown built up a ton of draft capital for this new regime to absolutely dominate the landscape come April. We’re talking the first and fourth picks in the first round as well as three second-round picks. Quarterback will be the primary target here, as it should be. And even after adding Carlos Hyde in free agency, there’s an expectation that Cleveland will target Saquon Barkley early on in the draft. Either way, the Browns’ road back to relevance will be paved through the draft much more than free agency. That time starts now. Use these picks. Don’t trade them away. And finally, give the fans something to cheer about.
This offseason has taken a turn for the Seahawks. And it’s not of the good variety. Fresh off their first season without a playoff appearance since 2011, all heck has broken loose in the Pacific Northwest. It started with head coach Pete Carroll moving on from both of his coordinators as well as trusted assistant Tom Cable. Then, in a complete turn of fortune, Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman landed with the division-rival San Francisco 49ers after Seattle released him. That followed the trade of Michael Bennett to the defending champion Eagles. Not to be outdone, Seattle also lost starters Jimmy Graham, Sheldon Richardson and Paul Richardson in free agency. Now, with Earl Thomas on the trade block and the future of both Cliff Avril and Kam Chanellor up in the air, things are getting a bit sticky in Seattle.
The backdrop here is a 2018 NFL Draft in which the Seahawks don’t have a second or third-round pick. This means that GM John Schneider and Co. are going to have to magically pull together a solid draft class. Given the team’s struggles in this area recently, fans in the Pacific Northwest have to be weary. That’s only magnified by the fact that both Los Angeles and San Francisco have overtaken Seattle in the NFC West.
When did this team become so bad at actually giving the struggling Joe Flacco reliable targets in the passing game? We ask, because Baltimore agreed to sign former Washington wide receiver Ryan Grant to a four-year, $29 million contract while releasing veteran Jeremy Maclin. Grant tallied a total of 985 receiving yards in four seasons with the Skins. The team then pulled out of that contract after Grant failed a physical, only to go chasing after Michael Crabtree. This all came after better options such as Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson were landing with other teams.
More so than simply wide receiver, Baltimore needs to absolutely ace the 2018 NFL Draft with skill position players across the board. We’re talking a running back, tight end and multiple wide receivers. If that doesn’t happen, an already mediocre team will ultimately find itself battling with Cleveland for the bottom spot in the AFC North. Heck, that’s if the Browns aren’t already more talented.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco has used its excess of cap room to upgrade at multiple positions on both sides of the ball. Obviously, it started with the signing of four-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman to anchor what is a talented young defense. And while the team might have overpaid on offense, the additions of running back Jerick McKinnon and center Weston Richburg represent tremendous upgrades over what we saw last season. In particular, we’re excited to see what McKinnon might be able to do in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
With that said, the feeling of promise surrounding this up-and-coming team has to be somewhat muted given that it’s still ways away from being a legitimate division title contender. Getting franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo locked up long-term helps, as does upgrading at multiple positions in free agency. This doesn’t mean upgrades along the offensive line and from a pass-rush perspective aren’t needed to make the 49ers one of the teams to watch in 2018. Following a tremendous initial draft, it’s time for Shanahan and GM John Lynch to ace it once again this coming April. Should that happen, they could very well be seeing postseason football in Santa Clara next year.
New England Patriots
Unlike in previous offseasons, there’s been a lot more subtractions than additions for the two-time defending AFC champs. Among those, New England has lost starters Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Butler. In keeping with a theme that has helped this team remain in contention for the past near two decades, Bill Belichick and Co. obviously have some internal replacements in mind. This doesn’t mean that a Patriots team we’ve seen move draft assets like they’re liquid currency can afford to struggle come April.
At this point, the Patriots have to focus on young talent pretty much across the board. But to maintain their status as top-end contenders, this year’s draft must include immediate impact performers not only at running back, but along the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. This makes the 2018 NFL Draft extremely important for the Patriots and their ability to continue being called the class of the NFL. The margin for error is no longer there. Jacksonville proved that in January’s AFC Championship Game, as did the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
The primary key here is for Detroit to add a running game to its offense. The team has not seen a 100-yard rusher since Reggie Bush back in 2013. Expect the Lions to address this position with a veteran in free agency. Even then, that’s not going to solve the long-term issue for a squad that has not had a reliable running game in a good five years. Picking 20th overall, Detroit should be in a position to land either Ronald Jones or Sony Michel. Though, it might be best served even looking to trade up for Derrius Guice in the first round.
Outside of that, Matt Patricia’s squad needs help at tight end after releasing Eric Ebron and must find upgrades along the defense line as well as the secondary. Simply put, the gap between Detroit and the top two teams in the NFC North (Minnesota and Green Bay) has grown considerably this offseason. Without a whole lot of capital to spend in free agency, the time is now for GM Bob Quinn and Co. to actually use the draft as an outlet to build. It happened with him playing a key role in New England’s front office before. Maybe he can bring this to Detroit with Patricia now at the helm.