A stigma of building a successful franchise in the NFL is that, while signing a given year’s most-touted free agent is all good and fun, real contending teams build through the draft. The 2015 draft is no different, as the league’s 32 franchises all seek that sixth-round quarterback that winds up winning four super bowls—a rare situation that requires both luck and skill. Some teams are destined to miss out on the top talent each year, but this season certain teams are more at risk than others heading into the draft.
From playoff contenders missing a piece or two to reach full potential to teams restarting with new management, the NFL draft can help lead a team into a season of either agony or exaltation. So which teams are under the most pressure to ace the draft in 2015?
1. Denver Broncos
After mortgaging the near-future of the franchise by hitching its wagon to star quarterback Peyton Manning, Denver is certainly in Super Bowl or bust mode heading into the 2015 season. After losing Julius Thomas, Orlando Franklin and Rahim Moore in free agency, Denver must retool via the draft or risk wasting what could be Manning’s last season in the league.
Denver could well add another target to Manning’s arsenal, as the quarterback lost Thomas this year and Eric Decker last season. Sure Cody Latimer is an up and comer, but the rookie played next to nothing last year. Can he really be depended on to make an impact this season? Furthermore, Denver’s offensive line is in shambles, and did not improve with the loss of stud guard Orlando Franklin. The team must keep defensive pressure off of Manning, either by boosting the offensive line or running game via the draft. Finally, Denver’s pass rush was abysmal in the playoffs, so this is an area the team will look to improve via the draft as well. Should the Broncos not deliver on three years worth of expectations, the winds of change will certainly arrive at Mile High.
2. Chicago Bears
The Bears were quite the conundrum last season. Poised as a contender heading into 2014, the team faltered, firing head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery in the aftermath. With Jay Cutler’s albatross of a contract still immobile on the roster, a 29-year-old running back leading the way on offense, and no Brandon Marshall to bail a declining team out, this may be the most important draft for the Bears’ in nearly a decade.
First and foremost the team needs defensive help in virtually every area. The Bears’ defense ranked 30th in yards allowed and 31st in points surrendered, so perhaps the list of things they did right is shorter than the alternative. Still, revamping one of the league’s worst defenses will mean little if the team’s offense continues to sputter. Alshon Jeffery is alone in the Bears’ receiving corps, a fact that will do little to help Cutler regain his form following two disastrous seasons. Chicago needs impact players on both sides of the ball or it will be in the NFC North’s cellar at year’s end.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
No team did more this offseason to nauseate its own fan base than the Philadelphia Eagles. From trading for a quarterback with multiple severe knee injuries to dealing its own star running back and missing out on its top wide receiver, Chip Kelly had best deliver a winning product in Philadelphia this fall. Yet, despite recreating a roster, the Eagles did little to ensure fans that they would be back atop the NFC East after the 2015 season.
After cutting aging Pro Bowler Todd Herremans, the team’s situation at right guard resembles that of a blind archery team. Furthermore, with Nate Allen signing in Oakland, there is no viable starter opposite Malcolm Jenkins at safety. It is never a good idea to head into the draft in need of a day one starter, and the Eagles need two if not three. The 2015 draft could be the most important few days of Chip Kelly’s professional career, as his team seeks impact players at quarterback, guard, and safety.
4. Baltimore Ravens
A few seasons removed from a Super Bowl title, the Ravens are a mess. After losing Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith to free agency, in addition to facing uncertainty in the running game, Baltimore’s offense isn’t in an ideal situation. On the other side of the ball, Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions, leaving a gaping hole on the defensive line. To make matters worse, the team ranked 23rd in pass defense last season, signaling an upgrade at defensive back is long overdue.
Joe Flacco earned his Super Bowl ring, but will not get a shot at another if the right pieces do not fall in around him. The 2015 NFL draft is crucial to the Ravens, as they are in need of a defensive end, wide receiver, safety and a cornerback to step up from day one. While the team will count on 29-year-old Justin Forsett to shoulder the load in the backfield again in 2015, the rest of the offense must be upgraded if the Ravens hope to stay in the hunt for an AFC North title this season.
5. San Francisco 49ers
A team already in turmoil after the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers were shocked to learn that half of their starting linebacking corps had decided to retire. Patrick Willis and Chris Borland were the heart of the San Francisco defense in the absence of NaVorro Bowman last season.
San Francisco is on the verge of a rebuild on the defensive side of the ball, and only a career year from Colin Kaepernick can keep this team out of the cellar in the NFC West. While the team’s offense looks solid with Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and second-year rusher Carlos Hyde shouldering the rock alongside Reggie Bush, the other side of the ball is a coach’s nightmare. The strength of a team for nearly half of a decade, the 49ers must find help in the draft or risk taking a massive step back in their quest for a Super Bowl. Cornerback, two linebacking positions, and at least one spot on the defensive line must be upgraded via the draft or San Francisco’s playoff hopes will be merely a pipe dream.
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