As of late Sunday night, 28 of the league’s 32 teams now find themselves in off-season mode. The Texans, Seahawks, Chiefs and Cowboys were the latest to see their Super Bowl hopes fizzle out, all falling in the divisional round.
Last week, we took an early look at what needs the teams at picks 21–24 in the draft may address. Now, a check on how the four teams most recently bounced from the postseason can get over the top in 2017.
Houston Texans (pick No. 25)
1. Quarterback: May as well get right to the point. Osweiler’s entire $16 million base salary is guaranteed next season and the dead money on any move would be $25 million, so Houston likely is stuck with him. That shouldn’t keep the Texans from looking for an upgrade, and doing so through the draft is as cost-feasible an option as there will be (the 2016 No. 25 pick, Artie Burns, signed a four-year, $9.6 million contract).
Possible targets at 25: Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech; DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame; Brad Kaaya, Miami
2. Offensive tackle: Starting right tackle Derek Newton tore both patellar tendons in an awful October injury, so counting on him to be full strength for 2017 would be a gamble, at best, and Chris Clark didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in Newton’s stead. An eventual replacement plan is needed at left tackle, too—Derek Newton will turn 32 this off-season, and his contract (up in 2018) has no guaranteed money left on it.
Possible targets at 25: Cam Robinson, Alabama; Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin; Garrett Bolles, Utah; Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh
3. Safety: Corey Moore was a pleasant surprise after stepping into the starting lineup, but the Texans still could use a big-time playmaker at the position. The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain suggested sliding CB Kareem Jackson to safety next year—that would send Houston in search of a cornerback instead, especially if A.J. Bouye finds a massive free-agent contract elsewhere. S Quintin Demps also can be an unrestricted free agent.
Possible targets at 25: Budda Baker, Washington; Desmond King, Iowa (if he’s viewed as a safety prospect); Marcus Williams, Utah
The Texans are going to enter 2017 in very good shape defensively, assuming J.J. Watt returns to health. Even without him, they were formidable on that side of the ball right through the playoffs. Tweaks at linebacker and safety, or to their D-line depth would help, but they won’t have to reach out of need.
They don’t have such luxury on the offensive side of the ball. The worst thing a franchise can do after making a big-money mistake, as it appears Houston did with Osweiler, is to let that mistake linger. Keeping Osweiler penciled in as the starter because of his contract would do nothing but kick the can down the road. Maybe Tom Savage improves in the off-season, but right now, QB has to be a focus in the draft.
Seattle Seahawks (No. 26)
1. Offensive tackle: The Seahawks cannot go through another off-season without making their tackle positions a priority. Even if they wanted to roll with their in-house options, for some godforsaken reason, Bradley Sowell (nine starts) is an impending free agent and Garry Gilliam (13 starts) will be a restricted free agent. Seattle spent multiple picks last draft addressing the interior of its O-line, so now it’s time to find Russell Wilson help on the edges.
Possible targets at 26: Cam Robinson, Alabama; Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin; Garrett Bolles, Utah; Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh
2. Cornerback: If there was any doubt about the need here (and there really shouldn’t have been), DeShawn Shead’s playoff knee injury probably ended the argument. Shead, a restricted free agent, will turn 29 in June and the Seahawks may not have him available for the start of 2017 ... and that’s if they re-sign him. The depth isn’t there right now, either way. Richard Sherman is still a No. 1 cornerback, but finding a strong No. 2 to play opposite him would help make Seattle’s defense intimidating again.
Possible targets at 26: Sidney Jones, Washington; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
3. Defensive tackle: Specifically, a defensive tackle that can get to the quarterback. This is sort of like finding a true mismatch at tight end: every team wants one, but there aren’t a lot of players capable of delivering out there. While Jarran Reed has all the potential in the world inside, he’s not a pass rusher. Fellow DTs Tony McDaniel and John Jenkins are set to be free agents. Combined, all those players plus Ahtyba Rubin produced 2.5 sacks in 2016.
Possible targets at 26: Carlos Watkins, Clemson; Chris Wormley, Michigan; Elijah Qualls, Washington; Jaleel Johnson, Iowa
It’s easy to look at that DT names and dream of the possibilities. Cliff Avril, Frank Clark and Michael Bennett off the edge, with Reed and a potential star rookie inside? That’s a recipe that would keep opposing O-lines up at night. Another cornerback has to be on the list, too—the Seahawks’ D fell apart without Earl Thomas, but some of that had to do with losing matchups outside.
But... offensive tackle. That Russell Wilson made it through the 2016 season without significant injury is a minor miracle—proof of Wilson’s brilliance avoiding trouble, if nothing else. Seattle cannot continue to stand him in the pocket behind a patchwork line. And for an offense that so predicates itself on establishing the run, the lack of talent up front is painful.
Kansas City Chiefs (No. 27)
1. Linebacker: The season-ending injury to Derrick Johnson brought the Chiefs’ issues at linebacker to the forefront. Ramik Wilson might be a good option, but there is a clear lack of depth and impact players at this spot on the depth chart. Johnson still has two years left on his deal, but looking at the 35-year-old’s history of injury, it’s pretty easy to see his career finish line. One more pass rusher off the edge wouldn’t hurt, either—TambaHali is 33 and Justin Houston carries a massive cap hit next year ($25 million), although the Chiefs won’t be biding him farewell anytime soon.
Possible targets at 27: Jarrad Davis, Florida; Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt; Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
2. Wide receiver: Jeremy Maclin was a 1,300-yard receiver two years ago with Philadelphia and a 1,000-yard player in ’15, but he’s not a prototypical No. 1 receiver. Ditto for Tyreek Hill. Neither of those players, nor any Chief outside of TE Travis Kelce, hit 600 yards receiving this season. Some of those has to do with the offense itself and QB Alex Smith’s capabilities. The Chiefs still could use a true threat on the outside.
Possible targets at 27: Juju Smith-Schuster, USC; Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington; Zay Jones, East Carolina
3. Cornerback: Speaking of Smith, there’s without question an argument to be made that the Chiefs need to take a QB. Smith has just two years left on his career contract, and he’ll be 34 when it’s up. Is Nick Foles the future behind him? Tyler Bray? Now would be the time to start planning for 2018 or ’19.
A more pressing issue for next season is at defensive back. The Chiefs have young talent at CB, led by 2015 pick Marcus Peters, but there is a significant drop-off from Peters to the rest of the group. While it might not be ideal to keep throwing draft picks at the same position, that’s also a decent way to guarantee competition. If the right fit is there at 27, don’t be shocked if Kansas City keeps adding at cornerback.
Possible targets at 27: Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan; Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
As is the case with most of the teams that get bounced this time of year, the Chiefs are in the enviable position of not being all that desperate anywhere. But if Johnson can’t get all the way back, or opts for retirement, that would change at linebacker. Regardless, they have to add to their stockpile at the position, just to avoid the depth-chart meltdown that occurred sans Johnson and Justin March-Lillard late in the year.
Another dominant offensive weapon would be an intriguing way to go, though. Kelce’s the only one who fits that bill on every single down—Maclin and Hill are very dangerous in their own regard, but to some extent both have to be schemed open. They’d be even better within Andy Reid’s offense if defenses had to shift multiple bodies toward a physical receiver.
Dallas Cowboys (No. 28)
1. Defensive end: Benson Mayowa led the Cowboys with 6.0 sacks this season, and he was a healthy scratch for multiple games. A number of players flashed off the edge for Dallas; none was a consistent force. So, the Cowboys and a DE will be a natural pairing you’re bound to see linked in mock drafts from now through April, unless a big-name free agent lands in JerryWorld. David Irving, an exclusive-rights free agent, will be back, but Jack Crawford could be an unrestricted FA.
Possible targets at 28: Charles Harris, Missouri; Carl Lawson, Auburn; Taco Charlton, Michigan; Takkarist McKinley, UCLA; Ryan Anderson, Alabama
2. Cornerback: Is Morris Claiborne going to walk in free agency? It’s unlikely that the Cowboys retain both he and Brandon Carr, whose contract can be voided this off-season. Assuming one or both of the Claiborne/Carr duo is wearing a different uniform in 2017, the Cowboys will be in the market for a CB. Perhaps the preference would be to find a veteran replacement, but they’re in a good spot in Round 1 to find a rookie. Of course, they stole Anthony Brown in Round 6 last year.
Possible targets at 28: Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan; Cameron Sutton, Tennessee; Tre’Davious White, LSU
3. Wide receiver: Considering what the Cowboys get out of Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, the ageless Jason Witten and their run game, the lack of a dangerous No. 2 receiver isn’t a killer. Impending free agent Terrance Williams made 44 receptions and was serviceable in that role. This could be an opportunity, though, to really open up the offense by bringing in someone who can take heat off Bryant and spread defenses out further. Whether that’s via a wide receiver or a movable, pass-catching back like Christian McCaffrey or Curtis Samuel, the options are there.
Possible targets at 28: Juju Smith-Schuster, USC; Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington; Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech; Zay Jones, East Carolina; DeDe Westbrook, Oklahoma
The Cowboys are almost in the opposite spot of Kansas City on offense. They have the alphas in Bryant and Elliott, but can you imagine someone with Tyreek Hill’s versatility in this attack? That’s the type of move a team picking in the late 20s can make if it wants; even more so if it, say, trades down to the top of Round 2.
However, the obvious strategy for the Cowboys is to bolster their defensive, particularly up front. The first couple rounds are rife with possibilities at DE/OLB and CB, which is where Dallas’ defensive focus is likely to fall.