- For fans looking beyond the 2018 season, the biggest needs for the 16 teams comprising the bottom half of the NFL through 11 weeks, and the 2019 draft prospects who could fit the bill for each.
Potential targets written by Gary Gramling, order is based on standings after Week 11 games…
1. San Francisco 49ers
Before Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury, this team was projected to contend in the NFC West because it didn’t have many glaring needs—at least not on offense. On defense, coordinator Robert Saleh has continued to selectively increase his blitzing and coverage diversification, but at his core, he still prefers a straight 4-3, single-high-safety zone scheme. Reuben Foster and Fred Warner provide the linebacking athleticism for this, but around them is a problematic lack of depth at corner and, even more disconcertingly, futility at defensive end. Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick of the 2017 draft, was supposed to fortify the defensive end position, but he’s been slow to develop and is more equipped to play inside on passing downs anyway. The Niners need a dynamo who can bend the edge.
Potential Targets: Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa is an ideal fit and would be the front-runner to go No. 1 overall if the 49ers end up with the pick. If they end up drafting lower, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Kentucky’s Josh Allen make sense fit-wise considering the team’s surplus of interior disruptors, though DTs like Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, and Michigan’s Rashan Gary are versatile, monster talents.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The secondary is this roster’s most bereft spot, but head coach Steve Wilks’s zone-based scheme doesn’t necessarily ask a ton of defensive backs. (That’s why, for the right price, trading man-to-man extraordinaire Patrick Peterson would make sense.) The quickest path to resurgence is on offense. The front five needs a boost, particularly inside. Left guard Mike Iupati will be a free agent who’s not worth re-signing. If the Cards don’t draft a guard, they could go tackle and slide current right-side starter Andre Smith inside, where he’s probably better suited anyway. The other position to consider is wide receiver. Will Larry Fitzgerald want to delay retirement another year now that he knows the extent of this franchise’s impending rebuilding job? Will the Cards want to pay Fitzgerald eight figures given that his numbers are down and this year’s second-round pick, Christian Kirk, is stylistically similar to the future Hall of Famer? Even if Fitzgerald returns, with J.J. Nelson having a minuscule No. 4 role and facing free agency, Arizona’s receiving corps could use some sheer speed to stretch the field.
Potential Targets: There simply isn’t a lot of offensive talent in this draft—aside from the annual inflation of the QBs, there might not be an offensive player considered with a top-five pick. Alabama OL Jonah Williams is the only O-lineman on our initial top-20 big board, which was vetted by evaluators from around the league. He’s a collegiate left tackle who could find stardom as a right tackle or at guard in the pros. Ole Miss OT Greg Little is more of a classic left tackle prospect if they want help on the edge. Among receivers, if it’s speed they’re looking for Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, small at 5' 9" but a big-play burner, is their man, though he’s done a lot of his work out of the slot in Norman.
3. Oakland Raiders
What most people hated about the Khalil Mack trade was it left the Raiders with a dire need at defensive end. And so they’re hoping that one of those two first-round picks they got from Chicago can land them a superstar defensive end—or, in other words, something close to what they already had in Mack. It’s a classic case of giving up a bird in the hand for two in the bush. (Jon Gruden’s rebuttal, of course, is that even with that bird in hand, Oakland’s defense has been no better than average for several years because it has so many other needs. Hence Gruden chasing the birds in the bushes.) Those needs, listed in order of severity, would be: safety, linebacker, defensive tackle and backup cornerback. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther runs a two-deep zone based-scheme, which would suggest the front seven takes priority over the secondary. But recall that the defenses Guenther ran in Cincinnati always had a reserve of first-round corners. Most likely, with so many draft picks and so many needs, the Raiders will take a “best defensive player available” approach to the 2019 offseason. NOTE: Oakland also owns the first-round picks of Dallas (currently No. 17) and Chicago (No. 26).
Potential Targets: If you need to rebuild a front seven, you’re in luck this year. Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa has the best chance to replicate what the Raiders lost when they dealt Khalil Mack, though Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Michigan’s Rashan Gary are all versatile and disruptive, capable of being molded a number of ways on the defensive line. While it’s too early to project with any confidence, if Dallas misses the playoffs that mid-first-rounder could net them a rangy, playmaking free safety in Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, or one of the top linebackers. LSU’s Devin White has the higher ceiling, but the undersized, instinctive and productive Devin Bush of Michigan is rising fast and should have coaches falling in love. With the Bears pick, likely in the late-first, massive Auburn DT Derrick Brown might fit nicely next to Maurice Hurst, and there are a number of big corners who should be on the board, Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen and Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye among them.
NFL DRAFT BIG BOARD: Bosa No. 1, only one QB cracks top 20
4. New York Jets
The Jets’ interior defensive line has been so explosive for so long that few noticed its diminishment entering this season. They haven’t had a pure edge rusher since the John Abraham days, but they’d survived thanks to potent interior players. Entering this year, however, the only difference-maker was Leonard Williams. Next to Williams, run-clogger Steve McLendon has been his usual solid self, and ex-Colt Henry Anderson, who was signed before the season, has been surprisingly stellar within the context of Todd Bowles’s scheme. But McLendon and Anderson both have expiring contracts (and, of course, it may not be Bowles’s scheme next year anyway). Jets management, seeing the success of Jared Goff with Sean McVay, Patrick Mahomes with Andy Reid and Matt Nagy with Mitchell Trubisky, will be tempted to pair an innovative offensive head coach with Sam Darnold. Still, even with a new head coach, the Jets will need upgrades along the defensive front.
Potential Targets: Without projecting the scheme, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams has been overwhelming offensive linemen all season and requires constant double teams. The consensus among evaluators we polled for our first big board was that Williams has edged out Houston’s Ed Oliver (for now).
NFL DRAFT NOTES: Ed Oliver’s Attitude, Will Grier Impresses on Saturday
5. New York Giants
If we’re talking biggest need just in a vacuum, it’s the offensive line. In free agency Nate Solder was paid like a great left tackle, but in reality, he’s simply an above average one. And yet, until second-round rookie guard Will Hernandez blossoms, Solder will be New York’s best blocker. Help is needed at center and on the right side. Don’t be surprised if Giants GM Dave Gettleman determines that improvements here would stabilize quarterback Eli Manning, who has been poor when playing from muddy pockets this season. A mediocre class of draft-eligible quarterbacks and dearth of QB options in free agency will make it easier for the Giants to prioritize their O-line.
Potential Targets: Among the quarterbacks, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and fast-rising Daniel Jones of Duke—the latest David Cutcliffe product who made a stunningly fast return from a broken collarbone—are the most likely candidates to work their way into the top 10 (if they enter the draft, that is), though both are projects. If none of the QBs strike Gettleman’s fancy, Alabama OL Jonah Williams makes sense. Solder is locked in at left tackle, but Williams is a candidate to play the right side or inside, and would be an immediate upgrade at right tackle or right guard.
6. Buffalo Bills
Rookie quarterback Josh Allen never had a chance playing with an unathletic Bills O-line and inept receiving corps. Without question, Buffalo should go after the best blocker or pass-catcher in free agency, then do it again (and again) in the draft. Up front, second-year left tackle Dion Dawkins is adequate, but every other spot will either be vacant (right tackle Jordan Mills and right guard John Miller are both free agents) or open to competition (center Russell Bodine was already in a battle with Ryan Groy this offseason, and left guard Vladimir Ducasse has been in job battles throughout his career, which, amazingly, is in its ninth year). Out wide, Buffalo has learned that Kelvin Benjamin lacks the refinement and twitch to be anything close to a No. 1 receiver. He almost certainly won’t be re-signed. In fact, the only wideout sure to be back in 2019 is young possession guy Zay Jones.
Potential Targets: Alabama OL Jonah Williams, a collegiate left tackle who will probably play elsewhere in the pros, can bookend Dion Dawkins or move to either guard spot. Taking Ole Miss OT Greg Little would suggest a move for Dawkins. A receiver would be a stretch here, though the candidates in the event of a trade back would be Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown if they want speed, though Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry would provide the kind of oversized catch radius that would make sense for Josh Allen.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s easy to say the Bucs need a new QB—and they probably do. But one must actually be available. It’s not a particularly enticing quarterback draft class. And, in free agency, the most enticing passer will be, well, Jameis Winston, assuming the Bucs eschew his fifth-year option. Head coach Dirk Koetter, who was hired to continue his work with Winston, will likely be canned after this season. But it’s a little less likely that Winston will. If he’s retained, we’re once again talking about the Bucs needing defensive pass-rush help. They tried to get it this past offseason, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul and signing ex-Eagle Vinny Curry. But Pierre-Paul has been what he was in New York: an effective lateral mover but underwhelming edge-bender. Curry, unfortunately, has been nothing like he was in Philadelphia. Or really, just nothing at all, given that he was invisible on film the first six weeks and has missed four of the last five weeks with an ankle injury.
Potential Targets: Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Duke’s Daniel Jones wrap up the college football regular season as the top quarterback prospects, though both are raw and neither is guaranteed to enter the draft. If the (likely) new regime doesn’t like the quarterbacks, there’s no shortage of pass-rush help. With Gerald McCoy and 2018 first-rounder Vita Vea anchoring the middle of the line, a pure edge guy like Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Kentucky’s Josh Allen or Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat fit the bill.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Because trashing Blake Bortles has become ubiquitous almost to the point of lazy, let’s focus on how the Jags might build around Bortles—which, by the way, given the QB's affordable contract, could very well be their approach in 2019. The team has invested well along the O-line and should be fine when IR’d left tackle Cam Robinson and center Brandon Linder return healthy. The backfield and receiving corps is like a Chessecake Factory menu, with no headliner but enough serviceable options to satisfy most desires. What’s lacking is the position located between those backs and receivers: tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins (who is on IR) is a No. 2 at best. More agile fill-in starter James O’Shaugnessy will be a free agent. Imagine what a steady, Jason Witten-style security blanket could do for the run-based Jaguars and their quarterback.
Potential Targets: We’ll suspend disbelief and take the quarterbacks, headlined by Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Duke’s Daniel Jones out of the equation. (And, truthfully, considering how green they are it could be argued Bortles would be the superior option in 2019.) It’s not a strong tight end class, with Iowa’s Noah Fant likely to be the first one off the board. He’s a long, explosive flex tight end who needs to add some polish as a receiver and improve as a blocker (the latter far from a rarity among TE prospects).
9. Cleveland Browns
It’s surprising that the Browns have turned to Greg Robinson at left tackle rather than continue the Desmond Harrison experiment. Harrison went undrafted this year because of character concerns, not talent. He has the nimble feet and smooth hands to protect Baker Mayfield’s blindside, it’s just a matter of putting those traits together more consistently. The Browns could have followed with Mayfield the plan New Orleans has long followed with Drew Brees: invest in a stout interior O-line so your 6-foot QB can see downfield, and develop a raw but athletic left tackle who can one day protect the QB’s blind side without any help. (For the Saints, Terron Armstead has more than answered that call.) Sitting Harrison for the perpetually disappointing Robinson suggests the Browns are bailing on that approach. And the fact that high second-round rookie Austin Corbett has remained on the bench while Robinson starts suggests the Browns have accepted that their No. 33 pick won’t be playing left tackle, is collegiate position. And so it looks like left tackle will be this team’s priority in 2019, as the franchise goes all-in on building around Mayfield. If the Browns rediscover their patience and are willing to give Harrison another try, their sights will shift to edge rusher. Right defensive end Myles Garrett is on course to fulfill his billing as a No. 1 overall pick, but a force is needed on the left side.
Potential Targets: Ole Miss OT Greg Little (yes, heartburn for Browns fans who remember the disappointing receiver of the same name) is the closest thing to a prototypical left tackle in this O-line class—Alabama’s Jonah Williams, the draft’s top offensive lineman, is ticketed for the right side or a switch to guard. Among pure edge guys, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat all have a chance to break into the top 10, while Michigan’s Rashan Gary would fit as an early-down left end who can reduce inside on passing downs.
10. Detroit Lions
It feels lazy to keep saying “edge rusher” as so many teams’ top need, but better to be lazy than stupid. Saying Detroit needs anything more desperately than an edge rusher would be stupid. Injury-plagued Ziggy Ansah will hit free agency after a disappointing season under the franchise tag. Stepping up to fill Ansah’s place will be… whomever the Lions sign or draft. The current roster has zero edge-rushing options to call upon. Head coach Matt Patricia is one of the few defensive schemers who can work around a dearth of edge-rushing talent, and he might be the only schemer who can do so without blitzing. Patricia did this in his last few years with the Patriots. But those Patriots at least had rising technician Trey Flowers and a cast of lanky raw talents drafted in the middle rounds. The Lions have injury-plagued Kerry Hyder, who is better suited for defensive tackle, and Eli Harold, who is better suited for an early-down backup linebacking role.
Potential Targets: While it’s highly unlikely they’ll get a shot at Nick Bosa, the Lions will likely have options even if they’re picking outside the top 10. Kentucky’s Josh Allen would fit the bill in a Patricia system, capable of rushing the passer from a two- or three-point stance, with Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, and Florida’s Jachai Polite names to remember as well.
11. Atlanta Falcons
Rarely does a team draft this high with no major needs (which is why the Falcons, though 4-6 now, probably won't draft this high.) The defense has raw talent along the front four, depth and decent versatility at linebacker and defensive backs who can play man or zone coverage. The offense is set at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and has a sturdy O-line. Just like last year with the Calvin Ridley selection, Atlanta can afford to go “best player available.” If forced to prioritize one position, you could say guard. Last year’s free agent pickup Brandon Fusco, once he comes back healthy from his season-ending ankle injury, will lock down the right side. But on the left, 32-year-old Andy Levitre, after a two-year rash of injuries, almost certainly won’t be re-signed. Wes Schweitzer has been better this year filling in but could still be pushed.
Potential Targets: Alabama OL Jonah Williams will likely be pushed up boards in another O-line-starved draft class, but he’s a collegiate left tackle who profiles as the best guard prospect in this year’s draft. Picking here, they'd have their choice of defensive players, though a massive DT like Clemson's Dexter Lawrence could fit alongside Grady Jarrett up front.
12. Philadelphia Eagles
Cornerbacks Ronald Darby and especially Jalen Mills have been susceptible to double moves and giving big plays over the top. Now, both are nearing the end of their contracts. Darby’s is up after this season, which he’s ending on IR thanks to a torn ACL. Mills’s deal expires in 2020. Even with youngsters Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox ready for bigger roles, don’t be surprised if the Eagles go after a quality DB, particularly one with the versatility to play multiple positions, which this defense likes in its safeties and slot corners.
Potential Targets: It’s going to be a matter of taste when it comes to the top two corners in this draft: LSU’s long, ball-hawking Greedy Williams and Georgia’s cover artist Deandre Baker. Jim Schwartz has never shown much of an affinity for long corners; Baker might have the edge if Philly has their choice of the two.
13. Denver Broncos
It’s not a foregone conclusion that Denver will be looking for another quarterback this offseason. If Case Keenum is stable down the stretch (or especially if he is great, like he was late in the upset win over the Chargers), John Elway will see an opportunity to stock the team around Keenum’s affordable contract. Interior receiving would be the place to start. The Broncos don’t have a pure slot receiver, and their tight ends too often fail to make the difficult play. (Also, starter Jeff Heuerman is heading into free agency.) Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is known for shrewdly blending his running game with his passing game—that means designing plays that put linebackers in a bind. The Broncos need inside receivers who can punish those linebackers.
Potential Targets: Iowa’s Noah Fant is the best tight end in the 2019 class, long, fast and explosive in the passing game. Oklahoma WR Marquise Brown is one of the fastest players in the nation and has been nearly unstoppable playing out of the slot.
14. Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews still competes, but he no longer has the explosive pliability of an elite pass rusher. Unless he’s willing to play for just a few million a year, his career in Green Bay (or even the NFL in general) will be over. Even if Matthews returns, the Packers need more juice at outside linebacker. Nick Perry has been injured and underwhelming after signing a five-year contract this offseason and was always a better run defender than pass rusher anyway. With defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s blitz heavy scheme, pure edge rushing is not as often called upon, as the assumption is Pettine’s designs can manufacture pressure. The Packers can look for front-seven versatility over explosiveness. NOTE: Green Bay also owns the first-round pick of New Orleans (currently No. 32).
Potential Targets: Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Kentucky’s Josh Allen could step into a three-man edge rotation with Perry and Kyler Fackrell next season. If the Packers end up picking later in Round 1 (they have one of the softest remaining schedules in football), or wait to get an edge rusher with the pick acquired from the Saints last spring, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Florida’s Jachai Polite and Florida State’s Brian Burns become possibilities.
15. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts brass would acknowledge that their defense is undergoing a multiyear rebuilding effort. Year One under new coordinator Matt Eberflus has been promising. The lack of experience and talent has, as expected, carried consequences at several positions, but not nearly to the degree people expect. Indy’s defense plays with tremendous effort and fundamental soundness, which means GM Chris Ballard has more flexibility in building that part of the roster this offseason. Every position remains in play for an upgrade, but no position is badly demanding one now. Ballard can afford to be creative and even a little daring with some of his defensive moves.
Potential Targets: Among the risk/reward prospects in this draft are Mississippi State DL Jeffery Simmons, an incredible mover for a 300-pounder but a prospect who comes with red flags. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins is a similarly impressive athlete at 300-plus pounds who would thrive in Eberflus’s system, and Clemson teammate Dexter Lawrence would provide an early-down force with more pass-rush ability than you’d expect for a 350-pounder. Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat are candidates if they’re looking for edge benders.
16. Miami Dolphins
Linebacker has been the most problematic position on Miami’s wildly inconsistent defense, and it wouldn’t be surprising for the Dolphins to take a $3.5 million hit in dead cap money to dump Kiko Alonso and his $8.3 million cap number. But even then, the team may still feel that it has addressed Alonso’s position already by having drafted Jerome Baker in the third round this year and Raekwon McMillan in the second round last year. Both have been almost as up-and-down as Alonso, but they’re still early in their development. And so while the Dolphins probably should look at linebackers, don’t be surprised if their greatest efforts go into restoring an O-line that has played O.K. but could be athletically improved at every spot except left tackle.
Potential Targets: It’s not much of an O-line class, with Alabama’s Jonah Williams the best of the bunch as a right tackle or guard prospect. Miami could go with Greg Little of Ole Miss and use him as a finesse right tackle.
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