- If the Raiders, Lions, Dolphins and Giants want to make another playoff run in 2017, here are the units each must aim to improve in the draft.
In the first round of the 2016 NFL draft, the four teams eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend landed, respectively, Taylor Decker, Eli Apple, Laremy Tunsil and Karl Joseph. All of those players stepped in as rookies to play key roles.
The Lions, Giants, Dolphins and Raiders will hope to be just as successful at the 2017 draft, and they now can turn their full attention there after their postseason losses.
What do those teams need this off-season to make sure they’re back in the playoff dance again next year? An early primer, ranked in order of positional need:
Detroit Lions (pick No. 21)
1. Linebacker: Even with DeAndre Levy in the lineup, this position group did not have nearly enough athleticism or depth to keep the Lions’ defense competitive. How many times just in the final four weeks did Detroit’s LBs fail to fill a hole at the line on a run play? Levy’s contract runs through 2020, but fellow starter Tahir Whitehead could hit free agency after next season. The only other linebackers currently under contract for 2017 are Antwione Williams and Thurston Armbrister.
Possible targets at 21: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt; Raekown McMillan, Ohio State; Jarrad Davis, Florida
2. Defensive line: Cheating a bit here by combining DT and DE, but the Lions could use at least one more guy capable of handling snaps outside or sliding inside as a pass rusher. Exclusive-rights free agent Kerry Hyder gave them that during his stunning 2016 breakthrough, and he could use a little help. While the Lions will assume Ziggy Ansah can bounce back from a quiet year, Devin Taylor, a 16-game starter opposite him, is set to hit free agency. Another run-stuffer up front would be great, especially if Haloti Ngata calls it a career.
Possible targets at 21: Caleb Brantley, Florida; DeMarcus Walker, Florida State; Malik McDowell, Michigan State; Vita Vea, Washington
3. Cornerback: So, yeah, another defensive piece... There are issues on offense, too (i.e. starting RT Riley Reiff could be a free agent soon), but the most problematic holes are on the other side. Detroit’s actually in decent shape when Darius Slay is 100% and Quandre Diggs is out there manning the slot. However, they could upgrade on Nevin Lawson as their No. 2 and no matter what they have to bring in meaningful depth.
Possible targets at 21: Sidney Jones, Washington; Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State; Jalen Tabor, Florida; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
This will be just the second draft as GM for the Lions’ Bob Quinn, so shy of drafting a Matthew Stafford replacement it’s unwise to rule out any Round 1 strategy. Quinn could try to replace Reiff (if he walks) or keep adding weapons on offense—the attack was not the same without Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. But if Detroit ever has real intentions of ascending from wild-card/division contender to Super Bowl threat, it has to improve defensively. A playmaking linebacker is a must. Cunningham has to be near the top of Detroit’s board three months out from the draft.
Miami Dolphins (pick No. 22)
1. Linebacker: Kiko Alonso wasn’t an All-Pro this year by any means, but it would be hard to question the trade Miami made for him. He’s a restricted free agent, so he should return in the middle. It’s at the OLB spots where Miami’s issues lie. The Dolphins did not have enough speed or athleticism there, for starters, and Jelani Jenkins, Donald Butler and Spencer Paysinger all are on expiring contracts. With as much havoc as the Dolphins can create up front when their D-line is clicking, they should be better equipped to cause problems from their second level.
Possible targets at 22: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State; Jarrad Davis, Florida; Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee
2. Tight end: Dion Sims finished with 699 yards receiving ... over the entirety of his four-year rookie contract. If he leaves via free agency and Jordan Cameron (concussion) either does the same or retires, the Dolphins’ leading returning TE receiver would be MarQueis Gray (14 catches, 174 yards). There is no way coach Adam Gase can unlock the full potential of his offense without a mismatch-creating threat at this position. The Dolphins’ spot at No. 22 could be the first time we hear a tight end’s name called.
Possible targets at 22: O.J. Howard, Alabama; Evan Engram, Mississippi; Jake Butt, Michigan
3. Cornerback: The Dolphins have a decent stockpile of young, developing talent at this position: Xavien Howard, Tony Lippett, slot defender Bobby McCain. High-priced veteran Byron Maxwell also is under contract through 2020 (although with no dead money from ’18 on). So, maybe bringing in another rookie would not be as ideal as finding a couple cost-effective veterans. If the opportunity arises to steal a talent in the draft, though, what the Dolphins already have on their roster should not keep them from doing so.
Possible targets at 22: Jalen Tabor, Florida; Sidney Jones, Washington; Desmond King, Iowa; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
The interior of Miami’s offensive line could draw top billing in April—even if Laremy Tunsil sticks at guard and C Mike Pouncey can avoid his ever-present hip issues, the Dolphins aren’t deep enough up front. Aside from that, the goal at all three spots listed above is to become a faster, more aggressive team. Given that the Dolphins are chasing the Patriots (and their versatile offense) in the AFC East, having a well-stocked linebacking corps should be all the more a priority.
New York Giants (pick No. 23)
1. Offensive tackle: The Giants spent a 2015 first-rounder on Ereck Flowers so going back to the well this soon after would be frustrating, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Flowers isn’t cutting it at left tackle, and Bobby Hart hardly has a long-term stranglehold on the right side. Adding to the need for viable options here: Will Beatty and veteran swing lineman Marshall Newhouse are about to be unrestricted free agents, if they’re not re-signed. The Giants couldn’t run the ball this year, nor could they keep pressure away from Eli Manning on a consistent enough basis.
Possible options at 23: Cam Robinson, Alabama; Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin; Garrett Bolles, Utah
2. Linebacker: It seems to come up every year that the Giants have not used a Round 1 pick on a linebacker since 1984, mainly because the Giants have been in need of a star at linebacker for some time now. They did get a lot of mileage out of their LB unit this season, led by Jonathan Casillas—he’ll turn 30 in June and has just one year and less than $700K guaranteed left on his contract. New York badly needs a linebacker capable of matching up with opposing tight ends, be it from an ILB or OLB spot.
Possible targets at 23: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt; Raekown McMillan, Ohio State; Jarrad Davis, Florida; Anthony Walker, Northwestern
3. Tight end: While Will Tye caught 48 passes during the regular season, his 8.2 yards per-catch-average isn’t scaring any defense. Maybe 2016 fourth-rounder Jerrell Adams develops into that dangerous seam-attacking threat down the road—he did post 14.8 yards per catch in college. In lieu of waiting on Adams to make that leap, the Giants could dip into a talented tight end pool this draft. With the amount of attention defenses have to push outside for Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants should be able to take better advantage than they do of man-to-man matchups vs. linebackers and safeties inside.
Possible targets at 22: O.J. Howard, Alabama; Evan Engram, Mississippi; Jake Butt, Michigan; Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
Oakland Raiders (pick No. 24)
1. Linebacker: Sensing a theme here. It wasn’t hard to decipher the Texans’ plan early Saturday—they wanted to attack the Raiders’ LBs whenever possible. That was a recurring theme throughout the season. Oakland was not competitive enough against the run and was mediocre against the pass from this position. Both Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley made for decent stopgap options here, but neither projects as a long-term answer (Smith’s contract is up). A lot of teams are in the same boat as Oakland, in need of at least one rangy inside linebacker.
Possible targets at 24: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State; Jarrad Davis, Florida; Anthony Walker, Northwestern
2. Defensive tackle: With Mario Edwards Jr., missing 14 games due to a hip injury, any semblance of interior pass rush vanished for Oakland. Stacy McGee (2.5 sacks) was about the only one who gave them a presence in Edwards’s absence, and his contract is expiring. This focus is about helping the run game, too, but the Raiders more than anything need a DT who can push the pocket.
Possible targets at 24: Montravius Adams, Auburn; Malik McDowell, Michigan State; Elijah Qualls, Washington; Chris Wormley, Michigan
3. Offensive tackle: Cornerback and safety are positions the Raiders may address this off-season—on the latter, Nate Allen can be a free agent in March, while Reggie Nelson’s contract is up after the 2017 season. A true, bell-cow RB would be nice, too.
Now, though, would be the time to address their OT spots. Menelik Watson, after struggling badly in a playoff spot start at left tackle, could leave via free agency. Austin Howard is little more than a rotational option. And Donald Penn, 34 in April, has just one year left on his deal.
Possible options at 24: Cam Robinson, Alabama; Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin; Garrett Bolles, Utah
The Raiders have needs—every team does—but their number of pressing needs is limited. That makes a difference in the approach. Offensive tackle, running back, safety ... while any upgrades there would be welcome, the Raiders are in decent shape as is (even more so if we assume they take a couple shots via free agency). They are less well-off in their front seven, save for Khalil Mack. A three-down linebacker like Davis or a movable chip up front like McDowell would do wonders for the 2017 outlook.