This story appears in the Feb. 12, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
1. NEW YORK JETS (5–11)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 6
PRIMARY NEED: BEST PLAYER AVAILABLE
The Jets wildly surpassed expectations by winning five games... which says everything about this roster. There are enough glaring needs that GM Mike Maccagnan can draft his board’s top player in the first four rounds and trust that each rookie will immediately have a major role. Quarterback is the most significant need. After that: interior O-line, tight end, linebacker, cornerback.... How each spot is filled could influence the others. Coach Todd Bowles is known for blitzing, but he’s disciplined about playing to personnel. A stud corner would allow Bowles to use more pressure packages, but if there’s a pass rusher New York loves, the coach could rework around him.
2. CLEVELAND BROWNS (0–16)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 1, 4 (VIA TEXANS)
PRIMARY NEED: SLOT RECEIVER
The Browns are more talented than their 0–16 record suggests. They could use another playmaker or two on D (what last-place team couldn’t?), but more than anything, they need to redesign their O. Part of DeShone Kizer’s struggles at QB can be attributed to coach Hue Jackson’s asking the rookie to make deep, full-field progression reads out of spread formations. It doesn’t get more challenging than that. Jackson is a shrewd offensive strategist; his unit can be better—especially if he has a true slot receiver around whom he can build shorter route combos, increasing the ways versatile receiving back Duke Johnson and nimble tight end David Njoku are used.
3. BUFFALO BILLS (9–7)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 21, 22 (VIA CHIEFS)
PRIMARY NEED: EDGE RUSHER
The Bills’ biggest need is at QB, but that’s true for just about any team without a franchise guy in that spot. Digging deeper, look to the D-line. Coach Sean McDermott is a creative, effective blitz schemer. But he more often plays traditional zone coverages, which require a potent four-man rush. Buffalo had just 27 sacks last season, tied for third fewest in the NFL, and you can see that reflected on film: Their front four rarely controlled games. This roster’s only viable pass rusher is defensive end Jerry Hughes, who can go quiet for stretches. The Bills need an edge bender opposite him, as well as a penetrator inside, especially if 34-year-old free agent Kyle Williams does not return.
4. CHICAGO BEARS (5–11)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 8
PRIMARY NEED: WIDE RECEIVER
The offense that new coach Matt Nagy coordinated under Andy Reid in K.C. prospered despite mediocre receivers. But that was a function of Reid’s passing-game creativity with running backs, plus the presence of multi-tooled tight end Travis Kelce. Nagy can employ his backs in the air (especially the electrifying Tarik Cohen), but tight ends Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen are neither dynamic nor flexible. In his second year, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will need more talented receivers. Cameron Meredith, coming off a left-ACL tear, can fill one spot—but that leaves three more. Just about any style of player will work here, as long as he’s a proficient enough route runner to aid the timing and rhythm throws that Trubisky’s success will hinge on.
5. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (4–12)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 3
PRIMARY NEED: EDGE RUSHER
Everyone derides the Colts’ offensive line, but third-year center Ryan Kelly and guards Jack Mewhort (entering year five) and Joe Haeg (three) form a solid, improving interior; and Anthony Castonzo is a quality left tackle. The real problem: Injuries have kept these guys from playing together. Chemistry can develop once they stay healthy. Instead of meddling there, expect second-year GM Chris Ballard to use his cap space ($84 million) and early draft picks to restock a defense that ranked 30th last season and needs work at every position except tackle and free safety. The fastest way to improve a defense is to add an edge rusher who can influence an opposing offense’s blocking scheme and make the quarterback play hastily.
6. CINCINNATI BENGALS (7–9)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 12
PRIMARY NEED: QUARTERBACK
This is as much about a franchise philosophy as it is about Andy Dalton in particular. The Bengals’ approach has long been to pay for a middle-tier QB and surround him with talent, investing early picks at receiver, running back, tight end and offensive tackle. With Dalton there have been ups and downs (dictated largely by how well he moves within the pocket), and all but one of his seven campaigns have ended somewhere between 6–10 and 11–5. That’s respectable but ultimately unfulfilling. If owner Mike Brown is unwilling to change leadership at the coaching level, he at least needs to evolve Cincinnati’s on-field identity. This year’s draft offers at least four first-round QBs, and Dalton would count just $2.4 million in dead money against the cap if he was released.
7. TENNESSEE TITANS (9–7)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 25
PRIMARY NEED: WIDE RECEIVER
Sure, the Titans drafted Corey Davis with the No. 5 pick last year. But he has yet to show the transitional quickness or top-end speed to stretch the field. Barring a sudden turbo boost (which we might see once he acclimates more to the NFL), Davis will most likely build his career on contested catches and possession targets. In other words: Tennessee doesn’t have anyone who can threaten a defense deep, and that makes every part of the passing game more difficult. (There’s also the matter of Eric Decker’s free agency in 2018, and Rishard Matthews’s in ’19.) Finding a speed receiver with upside to pair with Davis and fellow ’17 rookie Taywan Taylor (a quintessential slot man) would be prudent.
8. ARIZONA CARDINALS (8–8)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 15
PRIMARY NEED: OFFENSE
New coach Steve Wilks inherited the defensive talent to run his blitz-intensive scheme. On the other side of the ball, there’s barely the personnel to run any scheme. There’s no quarterback under contract; starting guards Alex Boone and Earl Watford are both free agents; so is wide receiver Jaron Brown; and Larry Fitzgerald’s return is up in the air. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, in other words, has plenty of work to do. The silver lining: New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is an adaptable play-caller with a strong grasp of modern passing concepts. Arizona can mold its system to fit just about any quarterback. If Keim can’t get in on the rookie QB action through this year’s draft, he’ll find a bridge guy and draft men to block and catch for whichever passer comes next year.
9. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7–9)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 13
PRIMARY NEEDS: WIDE RECEIVER, LINEBACKER
Alex Smith is a downgrade from Kirk Cousins, but he can be serviceable with the right weapons. The Redskins need to find those. Wide receiver is the top priority, especially if free agent Ryan Grant is not retained. If he returns, then linebacker becomes the top need. Speed demon Zach Brown was the only constant in 2017. Fans love him, but his performances are sometimes marred by misreads. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of money he’s offered in free agency. Washington, a zone-based D, has no long-term depth around Brown, so linebacker will be addressed even if he sticks around.
10. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5–11)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 7
PRIMARY NEED: PASS RUSHER
It will be tempting to pursue a replacement for disappointing running back Doug Martin, especially considering that Charles Sims is also a free agent. But it’s far more important for the Bucs to get some teeth on a D that had no bite in 2017. This season was essentially lost when second-year end Noah Spence separated his shoulder in Week 3. He was the only edge-rushing threat; without him, Tampa’s pass rush floundered and its zone coverages were exposed. The Bucs need an infusion of pass-rushing talent to ensure a single injury doesn’t scuttle their D again. Currently, Gerald McCoy and—once or twice a game—Robert Ayers are the only forces who flash up front.
11. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (6–10)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 9/10
PRIMARY NEED: OFFENSIVE LINE
For Jimmy Garoppolo to be the QB savior that so many pundits imagine, he needs to be protected. Center Daniel Kilgore and right guard Brandon Fusco are free agents (and probably backups on most teams). At left guard, Laken Tomlinson has size and strength, but maybe not the ideal agility for Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme. Something else to consider: Left tackle Joe Staley is 33. He was strong in pass protection last season, but he wasn’t impermeable. Shanahan often asks his tackles to block one-on-one, sending all five eligible receivers out in routes. That helps his QB throw quickly, which Garoppolo thrived doing in 2017. Because of this, the Niners don’t necessarily have to invest hugely in the O-line—but it wouldn’t hurt.
12. DENVER BRONCOS (5–11)
FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK: 5
PRIMARY NEED: RIGHT TACKLE
Next year’s QB is anyone’s guess. Paxton Lynch? Kirk Cousins? Some first-round prospect? Whoever lands the job will need better pass protection than the Broncos’ passers got in 2017. Right tackle is the spot of greatest concern: The talented but unrefined Menelik Watson was a turnstile, and long-armed Donald Stephenson (another nice player who has never put it all together) couldn’t stick in the starting lineup. Now: Stephenson’s a free agent and will most likely walk; Watson, who’s due $7.1 million, will probably be cut. Finding a reliable replacement would aid Denver’s undefined passing attack. (And if Watson somehow re-turns too? He could become a utility backup or guard, where he’s better suited.)