Super Bowl contenders and cellar dwellers alike are looking to improve their rosters when the 2014 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday. Each team, no matter their situation, has needs they must address before they can even think about taking the field to prepare for the upcoming season.
Here’s a look at the biggest questions surrounding each team heading into draft day.
Arizona Cardinals: Is ‘Quarterback’ in Their Day 1 Plans?
Carson Palmer’s 2013 stat line in Arizona (4,274 yards, 24 TDs, 22 INTs, 83.9 rating) represented little change from his 2012 numbers with the Raiders (4,018 yards, 22 TDs, 14 INTs, 85.3 rating). In fact, the uptick in interceptions should be a bad sign. But Palmer’s season in the desert was deemed successful after the team returned to contention thanks largely to his play. His days as a starter in the NFL, however, are numbered. Palmer isn’t very mobile and his penchant for interceptions turns a lot of people off.
Arizona’s window, however, remains very open for the time being. Larry Fitzgerald still has some good years left (954 yards, 10 TDs in 2013), Andre Ellington (652 yards, 5.5 yards per carry) is the first useful running back in the desert in years and the defense was stout through much of 2014 (6th in the NFL overall and first against the run).
The question is which of the above is most important to Bruce Arians and Steve Keim when they sit in the draft room pondering the 20th overall pick this Thursday. If it’s the future, the Cardinals might go with Derek Carr or another quarterback available. If they want to make another run immediately without concern for what awaits them down the road, they could look for defense or for another offensive weapon for Palmer to use immediately.
They could also just as easily trade down, use the extra picks to fill out a future roster and nab a rising quarterback like Pitt’s Tom Savage early on the second day.
Atlanta Falcons: How Much Do They Love Jadeveon Clowney?
More specifically, how much are they willing to pay for the right to draft him?
Once the consensus top pick in a draft class that looks to be the deepest in years, Clowney’s fallen from grace due to character questions, worries over his work ethic and concerns about how his game will translate at the next level.
Atlanta has been the most ardent of his realistic suitors to the point that there’s a sentiment that they’d pay for the right to take him first overall and skip over the competition. Houston, to make things more interesting, has seemed very open to getting out of the top spot in this draft.
But how much do the Falcons love Clowney? If they love him enough to mortgage the future, they’ll trade up. If they don’t, they’d be wise staying put and seeing if Khalil Mack, the new top dog for defensive line prospects, goes first and allows Clowney to fall a bit.
This could be the most interesting story line in the top ten and it seems to be far from over.
Baltimore Ravens: How Much Did 2013’s Lack of Offensive Production Worry The Ravens’ Brass?
Ray Rice had another down year under a different coordinator. Joe Flacco’s big contract extension brought forth a forgettable 2013 campaign that brought back some of the old concerns about his game. The defense doesn’t grow up quickly after an infusion of youth.
The general response by the Ravens to winning a Super Bowl was ho-hum.
Flacco (19 TDs, 22 INTs, 73.1 rating in 2013) is the most concerning of the group. Running backs are replaceable parts in today’s NFL. None will likely go in the first round on Thursday night. But franchise quarterbacks, especially those so financially tied to the team, aren’t so easily replaced. Looking at Flacco’s career totals year by year. Last season seems like more consistency than aberration. That’s scary for Ravens coaches and executives.
Baltimore under John Harbaugh has gotten used to winning. Harbaugh has helped even things up with Pittsburgh in what had gradually become a lopsided rivalry. He’s also brought Baltimore a second championship.
All of that will matter little if the Ravens regress instead of getting back into contention. How much 2013 worries the front office will dictate exactly how they approach this draft. A grab at a key position like quarterback, wide receiver or linebacker over a more needy position like tight end could indicate trouble brewing in Maryland.
Buffalo Bills: Will the Bills be in Buffalo much longer?
No question is on the minds of fans in western New York more than whether their beloved Bills will remain with them in Buffalo now that owner Ralph Wilson has passed. No draft issue or free agent visitor holds meaning until this question is answered.
The Bills looked to be headed in the right direction on the field last year under Doug Marrone. E.J. Manuel will have to prove he can stay healthy and remain on the field after managing only 10 games in 2013 due to nagging injuries. When he was on the field, he provided some flashes of the talent that made Buffalo trade up to the 16th spot last season.
There are still holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Buffalo lacks depth at wide receiver and in the secondary.
Still, none of that will matter to the fans filling the stands in Orchard Park this fall if they can’t be sure they’ll have many more seasons to circle the wagons and cheer on their team.
Carolina Panthers: Who will be Cam Newton’s new favorite target?
The additions of Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery are nice, but those two players combined aren’t equal to what Carolina lost when Steve Smith was let go after the season. How they replace him will say a lot about whether the Panthers can return to a deep playoff run or sink back into mediocrity.
Cam Newton took a giant step forward in 2013 as both a leader and a quarterback. A big part of his success, however, came from the still-dynamic Smith.
Carolina doesn’t pick until late in the first round, but they should still get good receiver value there. They have to be careful not to reach and hamstring themselves for the future, but Marqise Lee seems like a good target late in the first and would pair up well with the team’s current options as well as another addition or two later in the draft. With the depth at wide receiver in this draft, the Panthers should have no issue finding a new group to work with Newton.
Chicago Bears: Can They Fix Their Secondary?
Chicago’s secondary, still talented in some ways but eroding with age, is their biggest area of need. If they’re able to add someone early that can step in immediately and start reversing the aging process, they could up their win total enough to get into the post season.
With the rest of the NFC North in a holding pattern, Chicago’s window of opportunity is right now. Only the Packers seem to be viable contenders and played with similar results to Chicago last year. Perhaps a pick or two to neutralize Aaron Rodgers would do the trick.
Calvin Pryor from Louisville seems likely. His physical style is perfect for the way the Bears run their defense. He should be available at the 14th slot in the first round and would instantly give the Bears a credible safety to trot out immediately. If that doesn’t happen, they could elect to go with a corner like Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard or Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert. Either could step in and start right away.
Cincinnati Bengals: Is Andy Dalton the Answer Under Center?
After yet another one-and-done playoff exit that was embarrassing to a franchise looking for a playoff victory for the first time since 1990, the Bengals and their fans have been asking questions about Andy Dalton, who turned in a middling season (33 TDs, 20 INTs, 88.8 rating) and followed it up with a playoff game disaster (1 TD, 2 INTs, 2 fumbles).
Rumors that the Bengals might look into Michael Vick circulated before he signed in New York say everything that needs to be said about the confidence level of the organization in their franchise quarterback. Rumors of a contract extension for the 4th year quarterback have come in fits and starts, but nothing concrete has emerged.
There’s a plethora of passers available in the draft this year. None of them have the polish to step in and rescue the Bengals right away, but several of them could be quite successful after a year or two of preparation. If the Bengals were truly looking at Vick, they could be interested in someone athletic like Teddy Bridgewater rather than pocket passers like Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.
How the Bengals handle this thorny issue will determine if Marvin Lewis’ long stay in the Queen City lasts much longer.
Cleveland Browns: Who Will Be the Next Quarterback of the Future?
Will it be Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr or someone else?
Take your pick. Cleveland will take a quarterback in the 2014 draft. They have to after missing out on Michael Vick and Matt Schaub and cutting Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden. They have Brian Hoyer coming off of an ACL injury and he was playing well before it happened, but he’s not the future of a franchise thirsting for something better than punch line status. Vince Young, signed recently, also isn’t a permanent solution and his signing is questionable at best after he’s failed at multiple stops.
The problem is that none of the quarterbacks listed above have a “can’t miss” feeling about them. They all come with concerns and serious questions.
Cleveland hasn’t seemed particularly hot on any particular guy, but one of them will become the next great hope for a team searching for relevance in a tough AFC North.
The guy chosen by the front office and coaching staff du jour will have the weight of the city placed on his shoulders. Fair or not, whichever passer ends up by Lake Erie will face the most pressure of any signal caller drafted this year.
The smart money is on Bortles if he lasts to the fourth overall pick. If not, Carr could be the player they look at next at the 26th pick. A guy like Tom Savage would be a trendy pick for early on Day 2 if he slips past Houston and Jacksonville.
Dallas Cowboys: Does Dallas Still Need Cornerback Help?
The Cowboys handed Brandon Carr a $50.1 million contract in 2012. They drafted Morris Claiborne with the 6th overall pick in 2012. They have Orlando Scandrick on the roster as well.
Why does it still seem like they need help in the secondary?
Start with the fact that Claiborne hasn’t met expectations. He missed games in 2013 due to an injured shoulder and there are no guarantees that he’ll ever become the shutdown corner Dallas thought it was getting when they traded up to get him. His play when healthy also hasn’t matched expectations and he’s recorded only 81 tackles and two interceptions in his brief career.
Carr is solid but he isn’t a star. He does everything well but nothing at a spectacular level. He’s Dallas’ version of Ike Taylor in his prime for the Steelers. He goes about his work quietly without any fanfare but still seems like a guy who could use a star partner on the other side of the field.
The Cowboys can’t seem to get over the hump despite having a very talented roster. With cornerbacks aplenty in this year’s draft class, they should be able to tab someone to slot in if Claiborne can’t be the player they need. Even if he can, there’s no such thing as too many talented corners in a league that puts a premium on passing.
Denver Broncos: How many years does Peyton Manning have left?
With Brock Osweiler on the roster already, Peyton Manning’s status, on the surface, may not seem to portend much when it comes to this year’s draft class.
But John Elway knows better than anyone what happens when a legend hangs up their cleats. When he left the Broncos to Brian Griese after Super Bowl XXXIII, the franchise took forever to get back on track again. Now that Elway is calling the shots in the front office, he’ll look to be better prepared for the day when Manning stops shouting “Omaha” and settles into his life after football.
Osweiler has had virtually no shot to show his skills because Manning simply doesn’t leave the field. He’s thrown exactly 20 passes in his two-year NFL career and amassed no TDs and only 107 yards on 13 completions. The small sample size says nothing about what will happen if he takes over full-time.
This organization has failed to draft successors before. Griese was serviceable but never good enough to get Denver back to prominence. Over ten years earlier, Tommy Maddox was drafted in the first round of the 1992 draft to be the eventual answer. He didn’t pan out until he was with the Steelers in 2002 and 2003.
While there’s no pressing need to take a quarterback this year, it would be of great benefit to Denver to get an early jump on life without Manning. Selecting a guy like Derek Carr would be a huge boost and would give the Broncos one of this year’s best sleepers.
Detroit Lions: When Will This Team Get Over the Hump?
Every year it seems like Detroit might figure it out and become a perennial contender. Every year they find a way to disappoint. They start slow only to finish well or the they start fast only to fall apart. Either way, Jim Schwartz lost his job because he couldn’t push the Lions, for all their talent, across the finish line.
They have a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a star receiver in Calvin Johnson, defensive stars in Ndamukong Suh and the emerging Ezekiel Ansah, and plenty of complimentary parts.
What they don’t seem to have is consistency. That’s not something that can be drafted. Jim Caldwell, with his calm, soft-spoken ways, is the next person to try to bring it to the Motor City.
What might help is better defense. The Lions were burned last year frequently and got into far too many shootouts with other teams (list games that ended that way). With a stable of talented corners coming out in this year’s draft, this could be a good time to upgrade a secondary that features no stars and the bulk of the team’s inconsistency.
Detroit picks 10th in the first round. That’s a perfect spot to pick up a guy like Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett or Kyle Fuller to upgrade their secondary.
Green Bay Packers: Can the Packers’ Offensive Line Keep Aaron Rodgers Upright?
Nothing was more frustrating for Packers fans last season than watching their quarterbacks—first Rodgers, then Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien, and Matt Flynn—get pummeled behind an offensive line that couldn’t seem to slow the pass rush. Packers quarterbacks were sacked 44 times last year. Rodgers missed most of 8 games (during which the team went 2-5-1) after a hit that broke his collarbone.
Offensive linemen are not glamour picks in the first round of the draft, but some teams are loaded in most spots and can afford to take a player they absolutely need.
Green Bay needs offensive line help and it doesn’t really matter which area of the line they want to focus on. Any upgrade would be a welcomed improvement for a team that’s playoff aspirations and seeding last year directly correlated with their inability to protect their passers.
If the Packers don’t like their offensive line options early, they could choose to upgrade a defense that still leaks way too much. But protecting their investment in Rodgers is more important for a team that believes it can be a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Houston Texans: What Will the Texans Do with the First Overall Pick?
Bill O’Brien needs a quarterback. Case Keenum is the presumptive starter at this point, but he didn’t look like more than an above average backup with his 9-touchdown, 6-interception performance over eight games (all starts) in 2013. That was good for an 78.2 passer rating, far below what Houston needs or O’Brien will tolerate.
The Texans aren’t your garden variety team picking in the top 10. Usually those teams, save for ones that have traded into those slots, are a few years away from competing (see Jacksonville) or perennial failures (see Cleveland). Houston is a year removed from a playoff appearance and has most of that cast still on the roster.
With no solid quarterback prospect on the draft board, there’s a sentiment that Houston will go with a defensive guy like Jadeveon Clowney, but the greatest likelihood is that O’Brien takes the extra time before this year’s draft to figure out which quarterback he wants to groom.
For O’Brien, it’s not an easy decision. He’s developed a reputation as a quarterback guru, but this choice will define, for better or worse, his tenure in Houston.
Indianapolis Colts: Does Reggie Wayne Have Anything Left?
T.Y. Hilton emerged last season as potentially the next great Colts receiver, but it’s the last great one that brings the questions this offseason.
Hilton was excellent, but a Hilton/Wayne pairing would be deadly if Wayne regains his health and his form.
Only the Colts have a good handle on Wayne at this point and whether or not he can return to the field and be something close to the receiver he’s been since Marvin Harrison departed the scene. If they’re confident that he will be ready to take the field in 2014, they can focus on their defense and their running game in the early rounds of the draft.
If they don’t believe Wayne can make it back, it would be wise for them to go after a receiver or two in this draft that can keep the heat off of Hilton, who won’t escape notice in 2014 the way he did at times last season. While they don’t pick early enough to snag one of the top tier receivers, there are plenty of talented pass catchers in this class that could make the Colts better and make Andrew Luck even more dangerous.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will the Jags Upgrade Their Passing Game at QB or WR?
The Jaguars took a step forward last season under first-year coach Gus Bradley. The improvement from 2 wins in 2012 to 4 in 2013 wouldn’t be much for most teams, but for Jacksonville it was a huge step in the right direction.
Jacksonville won’t go further, however, until they solve the problem of their offense. They’ve been looking for a permanent replacement under center since the days of Mark Brunell and David Garrard. Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne were their options last season, but Gabbert has now moved on to San Francisco and Henne (13 TDs, 14 INTs, 76.5 rating) doesn’t inspire much confidence as more than a stopgap.
Like every other team evaluating passers this year, the Jaguars don’t seem to be particularly fond of anyone in particular. They could wait until round two or three to address the position with a Tom Savage or Jimmy Garoppolo and groom them behind Henne. That would free them up for Sammy Watkins or another pass catcher early Thursday to help address the void left after the failed Justin Blackmon experiment.
As with the situation in Houston, how Bradley and his staff handle this decision will dictate what happens to them in the long run.
Kansas City Chiefs: Are Alex Smith’s Days in Kansas City Numbered?
Alex Smith has had quite the career when you consider that he was once selected first in the 2005 draft and was picked ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Smith first bounced in and out of favor with various coaching staffs in San Francisco. Then he settled in under Jim Harbaugh. Then he got hurt and opened the door for Colin Kaepernick.
Now he’s in Kansas City and might just be getting ready to hold the door for another young quarterback.
Buzz this week that an extension for Smith wasn’t working out too well could be the harbinger of things to come. The Chiefs, coached by noted quarterback collector Andy Reid, could choose to forgo a long-term pact with Smith in order to replace him with a younger option from this year’s menu of prospects.
A first-round guy doesn’t make much sense for Kansas City unless someone drops, but the plethora of second-round options headlined by fast-rising Tom Savage or Jimmy Garoppolo could contain the perfect match.
While Kansas City has other needs, nothing is obviously glaring. This should allow them to be very open to whatever surprises the draft kicks in their direction. That could mean more bad news for the seemingly snake-bit Smith.
Miami Dolphins: How Much Does the Team Regret the Mike Wallace Deal?
One thing became painfully clear during the 2013 season. There was a reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed willing to part ways with a speedy receiver that had been a huge part of their offense since he was drafted.
Mike Wallace’s $60 million contract with the Dolphins looks terrible in hindsight. Wallace didn’t produce the way the team hoped and didn’t help Ryan Tannehill take a marked step forward in his development. Instead, Wallace brought his issues (lack of effort on balls not exactly on target, lack of skills beyond deep speed) with him to South Beach.
The contract makes Wallace virtually impossible to trade or release, but it doesn’t mean the Dolphins have to trot him out as the primary receiver. With several talented receivers at the top of this draft and one of the deepest receiver classes in a long time, Miami could pick up some new options and push Wallace into a specific role for the time being.
If the Dolphins still think they can get something big out of Wallace or that they can coach up his game, they might stand pat and focus somewhere else. If they’re smart and look at the history, they’ll begin moving on this week.
Minnesota Vikings: Can GM Rick Spielman Pick the Right QB?
Perhaps nowhere else in the league does the future tenure of a general manager rest on one draft-day decision. For the Vikings, this draft has to be about getting the quarterback of the future.
Consider that fans have little reason to get excited right now. The team is not a contender even though it boasts one of the most talented players ever to step onto a field in Adrian Peterson. They’ll be playing two years outdoors in frigid Minnesota weather. They’re employing both Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder as their current quarterbacks.
Add a Johnny Manziel or a Blake Bortles and there may be reason to hope (and to show up to games).
Even if the next two years are solely about survival in the worst outdoor climate in the NFL, having a quarterback of the future would cure a lot of ills for a franchise still searching for its first Super Bowl win.
And for GM Rick Spielman, who has watched Ponder fail to become the solution, this will be his last chance to get things right before he’s shown the door.
New England Patriots: Is Ryan Mallett life after Tom Brady?
Tom Brady, save for a 2008 season in which he was lost during the first game to a torn ACL, has chugged along since taking the starting job from an injured Drew Bledsoe during the 2001 campaign. Perhaps the greatest late-round draft pick in history, Brady has had a career that will enshrine him in Canton someday.
But when he leaves the Patriots behind, who will replace him?
On the roster right now, Ryan Mallett is the only acceptable option. The organization seemed high on him when he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2011. Since then, however, he’s been basically a non-entity. Like the situation in Denver, Brady rarely takes time off.
Mallett has compiled 0 touchdowns, 1 interceptions, and an 5.2 rating in nothing more than mop-up duty. Those numbers aren’t a mistake. He really has played that little.
While the genius of head coach Bill Belichick is unquestioned after three Super Bowl victories and unparalleled success, even the greatest of coaches have been undone by being separated from their star quarterbacks. If Mallett isn’t the answer, this might be the year to start finding one. Zach Mettenberger and Jimmy Garoppolo are good options: pocket quarterbacks with mobility that have strong arms. That’s the Brady style.
Brady, at 36, isn’t getting younger. While he could feasibly play another two or three years effectively, at some point the wheels will come off and it’ll be time to move on. For a perennial contender like New England, being ready for change is the key.
New Orleans Saints: Is It Time To Think About Life After Brees?
Drew Brees has shown no sign of slowing down since coming to the Saints before the 2006 season, but at 35 and with a frame that doesn’t exactly lend itself to taking crushing hits, the Saints have to be thinking about what happens when Brees hangs up his cleats.
As many teams have learned the hard way, its never too early to think about a successor for a franchise quarterback. Green Bay successfully and seamlessly went from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers by preparing for the former’s departure years in advance.
New Orleans is loaded with talent and has only a few needs heading into this draft. They can afford to be conscious of their future fortunes. While not a first-round priority or a pick that would need to pay immediate dividends, taking a quarterback should be part of their plan.
A developmental guy like A.J. McCarron or Aaron Murray could be the answer in the middle of the draft for the team.
New York Giants: How Does This Team Rebound and Reload?
Eli Manning won’t be around forever.
While there’s no indication that retirement is imminent and the wheels aren’t really falling off yet, the team needs to face the fact that their window won’t be open much longer. If Manning and coach Tom Coughlin want to add a third Super Bowl to their trophy case, they’ll have to reload a team that seems to have spent a couple of years stuck in neutral.
A logical place to start on offense is at running back. While no longer a first-round priority for teams, the Giants haven’t been able to replicate the rushing attacks of the days of Tiki Barber, Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs.
When teams get one-dimensional, even in today’s era of pass-first offense, they become easy to defend. Since Manning isn’t much of a runner, the lack of a running back allows teams to blanket his receivers while they harass him in the pocket.
While they may want to load up somewhere else in round one, the Giants have to upgrade a ground game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season. If they fail to do that, expect more years like last year with Manning throwing 27 INTs and struggling to find openings in coverage.
New York Jets: What’s the next step in John Idzik’s rebuilding process?
Mark Sanchez is gone. Michael Vick is his replacement. Geno Smith was drafted last year in the second round as a potential future starter and performed reasonably well in 2013 (12 TDs, 21 INTs, 66.5 rating starting all 16 games). Quarterback, for once, may not be the biggest area of need.
Where will Rex Ryan’s team go in the draft? The answer is just about anywhere but quarterback.
The wide receivers, purged of troublesome Santonio Holmes, are thin. Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill are the presumptive starters at this point and neither inspires confidence. Regardless of how the Jets feel about their quarterbacks, the receivers have done little to help them out in recent seasons.
The Jets pick 18th in the first round. A wise choice there would be Marqise Lee if he’s still available. He would immediately upgrade the passing game and give Smith someone to throw to next season.
The Jets haven’t been able to find a star receiver since Santana Moss was in town. The lack of one has hurt them more than anything. With plenty of roster space for new additions, the team has to overhaul the position before they even think about being a contender in a division with the high-scoring New England Patriots.
Oakland Raiders: What is the team’s biggest area of need?
The Raiders stated recently that they will not go after a quarterback in the first round of the draft. Given Matt Schaub’s presence on the roster, that may be just fine. Schaub had a down year and has never been a paragon of health, but he should rebound considerably from what seemed like bad luck last season.
What the Raiders could use is a true star receiver. They’ve swung and missed before (remember Darrius Heyward-Bey) with a first-round pass catcher, but the depth in this year’s class makes it more likely that they will find someone without reaching for them.
They should have their pick of options with the 5th overall pick. Only Sammy Watkins figures to be off the board by then. They could go LB, QB or WR.
The Raiders will likely look for a quarterback in this draft at some point as well. Matt McGloin is the only other quarterback on the roster and he doesn’t seem like a future star despite a decent showing (8 TDs, 8 INTs, 76.1 rating) in his rookie year. After dealing Terrelle Pryor to Seattle, it seems that Oakland will look to get a strong-armed pocket passer to develop.
Tom Savage could be a great second-day option and his style would fit Oakland’s perfectly.
Philadelphia Eagles: Does Chip Kelly Still Want to Draft a Quarterback?
The emergence of Nick Foles, with his 27 TD, 2 INT performance in 2013, took away one of the glaring needs for the Eagles. He doesn’t fit the style of play that Chip Kelly usually prefers. While Kelly proved adept at adapting schemes his first year, it seems likely that Kelly would like his own passer moving forward.
The problem for the Eagles is that there isn’t a clear target for them in this draft. Johnny Manziel could theoretically operate the Kelly system, but he isn’t likely to fall to Philadelphia at 22nd overall. If he does, there’s no reason not to pull the trigger.
Beyond Manziel, the next likely prospect would be Logan Thomas from Virginia Tech. He could be had in the 4th round, but there are no guarantees that he’ll develop into the kind of quarterback that succeeds at the NFL level.
Kelly has a tough decision to make. He can keep adapting his game to what Foles does well or he can take a quarterback to develop this season that can run his preferred offense. How this draft goes will dictate what happens to Foles—and to Kelly—down the road.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Will the Steelers finally take a cornerback in the first round?
Chad Scott in 1997 was the last time Pittsburgh took a corner in the first round of the NFL draft. Over a decade later, they have to be looking in that direction again.
A rare but still bargain-basement free agency binge has shored up some of the team’s glaring weaknesses and set them up to be competitive if not contending in 2014. But without coverage in the secondary, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense will have to do all of the heavy lifting.
Ike Taylor is nearing the end of his career. Cortez Allen still hasn’t proven he’s the answer. William Gay fits as a nickel corner much better than as a starter. No one else on the roster is capable of starting outside. Taylor took a pay cut to play out his career with his only team, but his starting days are already behind him.
The draft is the answer. Headlined by Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard, this is a deep cornerback draft. Pittsburgh can get a great player with the 15th overall pick. They can add quality depth options later too. With nine picks in this year’s draft, they have plenty of options.
The overhaul of the team has taken a step forward this year, but the next step has to be with a solid cornerback who can be ready to start, at the latest, in 2015. Dennard is my pick to be that guy and the first round is where to get him.
San Diego Chargers: Can the Chargers Overhaul Their Linebacker Corps?
San Diego currently has a nice stable of linebackers in Manti Te’o, Dwight Freeney, Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. The problem is that Te’o isn’t a sure thing yet, Ingram is removed from an ACL injury, and Johnson and Freeney are getting near the end of their careers.
If San Diego is smart they’ll use this year’s draft and their lack of glaring weaknesses to fill out their depth chart for the future. Linebacker, particularly on the outside, is where they need the most immediate help.
This draft isn’t as deep at linebacker as previous years, but there is still a lot of talent to be had. The Chargers did a good job of bringing Te’o along quickly last year and would have a little more time with anyone coming in this year.
San Francisco 49ers: Does the Team Trust Colin Kaepernick For the Future?
When Kaepernick took the starting job away from Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season, it seemed a sure thing that he was there to stay. His play was a huge reason that the 49ers reached the Super Bowl that year and the NFC Championship Game in 2013.
But Kaepernick is still raw as a passer and relies far too much on his legs to get the job done. Teams that have been able to scheme against him have found success (see Seattle’s work in the NFC Championship). When forced to throw from the pocket, Kaepernick’s work is a mixed bag.
The 49ers are still primed for success and should be a contender this year as well. But after Alex Smith led them to the NFC Championship Game in 2011 in much the same way as Kaepernick did the next two seasons, the question is whether or not it matters who is under center.
If the 49ers don’t need a scrambling quarterback to win games, they might be better off maximizing the talents of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree with more of a pure passer. This draft is chock full of options for development.
San Francisco was able to load up on talent last year and seemed to be a good quarterback performance away from a second trip to the Super Bowl. Maybe Kaepernick, for all his talent, isn’t the answer in the Bay Area after all.
Seattle Seahawks: Can the Seahawks reload and then repeat?
All of the pieces are still in place. Richard Sherman will still be chatting it up from the secondary and making plays that make opposing quarterbacks cringe. Russell Wilson, focused on being the best quarterback ever, is under center and only getting better. Marshawn Lynch is in the backfield.
Still, there’s the history. Teams that win the Super Bowl just don’t repeat anymore. The last team to repeat as champions in consecutive years was the Patriots, who did it way back in 2003 and 2004. Ten years later, it’s rarely even been close to happening.
Seattle looks like the team that can buck that trend. Like them or hate them, they have the best defense in football and an offense that consistently moves the chains and gets the job done.
What they could use more than anything is a star wideout. Their current receiving corps is solid across the board, but Russell Wilson could benefit from a true star in the passing game. No other area seems to be particularly needy, so Seattle can afford to make a luxury pick or two in this draft.
St. Louis Rams: Should They Nab Johnny Manziel at No. 13 If He’s Available?
Johnny Manziel is the most-discussed quarterback prospect this year. The opinions of scouts differ wildly from sure he will succeed to sure he will fail. Teams, likewise, have been very hesitant about him for the most part. Size and other questions will plague him probably until he takes snaps in a meaningful NFL contest.
One team, however, seems to be very ardent in their pursuit of the Texas A&M star. St. Louis has done their homework and met with him recently and seems to be very comfortable with the idea of taking him in the first round.
They aren’t likely to look that way with the second overall pick, but if he lasts until the 13th pick, St. Louis might pull the trigger.
While nothing leading up to the draft can be viewed as better than rumors, it seems pretty clear that St. Louis is willing to move on from Sam Bradford if they get the chance to draft the electrifying Manziel. Bradford could be a useful trade chip during the draft with teams like Minnesota in desperate need of a franchise passer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What’s Wrong With Mike Glennon?
One of the most baffling stories coming out of the weeks before the draft has been the attitude of the new bosses in Tampa Bay when it comes to the guy who started most of the games for the Buccaneers under center in 2013.
There’s a lot to like about Mike Glennon’s game and his future, but coach Lovie Smith and company don’t seem to be able to find it.
Despite throwing for 19 TDs, 9 INTs, and compiling a 83.9 rating as a rookie drafted in the 3rd round, Glennon seems destined to be cast off after the team signed Josh McCown and has made noises about Glennon’s availability in a trade.
Reading the tea leaves gives the distinct impression that Tampa Bay will select someone to groom behind McCown rather than continue the process with Glennon. That seems odd for a coach who was able to reach the Super Bowl by getting the best out of Rex Grossman.
Tennessee Titans: Is Jake Locker Ken Whisenhunt’s quarterback?
New coaches usually mean big changes, but new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has played it very low key beyond casting off the troublesome Chris Johnson.
But the true test of Whisenhunt’s early tenure will be in this draft. The knock on Tennessee’s new leading man is that he can’t develop a quarterback despite having a starring role in turning Ben Roethlisberger into an elite passer and reviving Kurt Warner.
There’s little doubt that the Titans will look for a quarterback at some point. The question is where. How much Whisenhunt trusts incumbent Jake Locker will dictate that. If the Titans look for a quarterback with the 11th pick, it would be a clear sign that Locker is on the way out.
If the Titans wait, they might believe they can still replace their first-round choice from 2011. Whisenhunt has been very careful to praise Locker while not guaranteeing anything about the future, but we’ll know for sure what his plans are once the draft ends.
Washington Redskins: Will Robert Griffin III Return to Dynamic Form?
The soap opera of Mike Shanahan versus Robert Griffin III played out all of last season and ended badly for everyone involved. Shanahan and his staff were shown the door and Griffin looked like a player that had lost his electric football skills to a knee injury.
Enter Jay Gruden, brother of quarterback guru and former Tampa Bay head coach Jon, and his new staff. Will a younger coach with an offensive mind geared more toward Griffin’s skills be the right match? That much remains to be seen.
Griffin, however, won’t be able to do much in the passing game if the team doesn’t upgrade his targets. Pierre Garcon has done an excellent job when healthy and Santana Moss is still a possession receiver, but the Redskins lack a true star receiver to go with their franchise quarterback.
The trouble for Washington is that they don’t have a ton of chances to get it right this year. With only six draft choices (the first being the 34th overall pick), they have to be spot on at wide receiver and still fill needs on a defense which ranked 31st in points allowed last year.
How well they balance their low number of draft choices with the talent available will dictate whether 2014 is a return to contention or another step on the road to mediocrity.