- These teams are still in it, but it’s never too early to take a look at the roster holes some of the NFL’s best teams need to fill next spring.
Potential targets written by Gary Gramling. NOTE: Order is based on standings after Week 12 games. However some teams that are currently in the top half of the league were covered in Part I of Draft Needs, which was done after Week 11.
14. Tennessee Titans
What happens over these next few weeks could dictate Marcus Mariota’s future in Tennessee. The 2015 No. 2 overall pick is slated to play under a $20.9 million fifth-year option in 2019. The Titans have until March 13 to revoke that option. If Mariota continues his subtle ascension under first-year offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, he’ll likely be brought back. That would shift the front office’s focus towards finding weapons for the QB. Corey Davis has made a quantum leap in Year Two, expanding his route tree from different alignments and pre-snap motions. He has helped fill the void left by Delanie Walker’s devastating early-season ankle injury. Perhaps Davis can develop into a true No. 1 receiver. Even so, he doesn’t have the speed to take the top off a defense. Besides the scantly-used Taywan Taylor, no Titan does. Adding a pass-catcher with vertical prowess would do wonders for Mariota and this offense.
Potential Targets: If he enters the draft, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown will be one of the fastest receivers in the 2019 draft class (which is another down year for the position).
17. Cincinnati Bengals
Let’s assume Marvin Lewis returns, since it appears he and the Bengals are determined to stay together, even if it's just for the kids. Lewis prefers a straightforward, two-deep zone-based defense. That’s fine, as long as you have a destructive defensive line. Cincy does not. Yes, individually, end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins can wreak havoc, but they alone are not enough, especially when you consider Dunlap’s inconsistency. The Bengals need a potent edge rusher on the other side. Last year it looked like they’d found a nice two-man rotation in rookies Carl Lawson (fourth round) and Jordan Willis (third round), but both have had disappointing sophomore campaigns, with Lawson’s ending early with a torn ACL. Whoever the Bengals find at edge rusher must also be at least serviceable on first and second downs, as current base 4-3 defensive end Michael Johnson has been invisible on film for several years and will turn 32 this offseason.
Potential Targets: It’s an unusually deep year for edge rushers, and the Bengals might in luck picking in the middle of the first round. Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Florida’s Jachai Polite and Florida State’s Brian Burns should be disruptive off the edge, though that trio might be better standing up as linebackers. If Cincy wants a three-down player with his hand in the dirt, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, a polarizing prospect, could be available, and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat is a fast-riser (with some character concerns, which the Bengals never seem to mind).
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19. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll wanted to get back to being a run-first offense, which better suits the unique skills of mobile quarterback Russell Wilson. So, Carroll hired Brian Schottenheimer to coordinate his offense and Mike Solari to coach its front line. Those two have scrapped Seattle’s long-established outside-zone ground game, replacing it with more man-to-man blocking designs and power concepts. The results have been outstanding, as Seattle leads the league in rushing. Almost every Seahawks blocker has looked more confident and coordinated. For this to continue, Seattle must remain stout at guard. One player who has not improved dramatically is 2017 second-round pick Ethan Pocic, who has missed five games with an ankle injury and now plays behind free agent pickup J.R. Sweezy. Sweezy has flourished since moving over to the left side, but his contract expires after this season. So does right guard D.J. Fluker’s. It’s unlikely both will be re-signed. Seattle can push this O-line over the top by finding a domineering young blocker inside.
Potential Targets: Teams hoping to find a Quenton Nelson this year are out of luck. Alabama OL Jonah Williams is a collegiate left tackle who some see as a future stud at guard, but Seattle might have to move up to get into his range. Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins, who played center this year but has experience at guard and tackle, is a name to monitor during draft season. Penn State’s Connor McGovern (not to be confused with the Denver O-lineman of the same name) and Ohio State’s Michael Jordan (not to be confused with the basketball great or the actor who portrayed Wallace on The Wire) might not enter the 2019 draft and, at this point, both would fit better in an outside zone scheme. Wisconsin’s Beau Benzschawel and Danish import Hjalte Froholdt of Arkansas seem like Day 2 options as we near the end of the college regular season.
20. Carolina Panthers
Wide receiver Devin Funchess will be one of the more interesting free agents in 2019. He has finally blossomed into a viable perimeter threat in his fourth year, yet his stats—averaging about four catches and 50 yards per game—are not quite as good as his film. With his size and improved feel for running in-breaking routes (especially dig patterns, which Cam Newton throws well), Funchess is more valuable in Carolina’s offense than he would be in others. So, what will he be offered? GM Marty Hurney might determine that four catches and 50 yards a game is not quite worth the $16-plus million that a franchise tag would cost. But Funchess and his advisors might try to leverage his unique value to this offense and demand money near that level. Knowing he can pursue another receiver could give Hurney the leverage he needs to make the most level-headed decision on Funchess. And even if Funchess is retained, it wouldn’t hurt to give Newton another weapon. Young gadget guys D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel provide long-term hope, but another big target would round out offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s receiver rotation. That weapon could be in the form of a tight end, since 33-year-old Greg Olsen, after two foot injuries in two years, might soon be ready to start his broadcasting career.
Potential Targets: It’s not a great year for wide receivers, but Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry has an enormous catch radius at 6' 4" and a history of making acrobatic plays downfield. Ole Miss receivers don’t always translate well to the pros, but A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf (the latter probably more of a Day 2 project) are options. The tight end group is even thinner, though Iowa’s Noah Fant, a lanky, explosive playmaker up the seam, could push his way into Round 1.
21. Washington Redskins
This has become a run-first offense and must remain so if it’s to flourish with either Alex Smith or whomever fills in while Smith recovers from his horrific leg injury. The run-first approach worked early in the season because Washington’s offensive line is stellar in most spots and spectacular in others. It has helped propagate Adrian Peterson’s resurgence. Redskins fans will learn just how important that O-line is now that it’s been ravaged by season-ending injuries to guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao. Journeymen Jonathan Cooper and Tony Bergstrom have filled in admirably so far, but they’re still marked downgrades, which diminishes the crux of Washington’s zone running scheme and backfield screen game. Besides, both fill-in guards are free agents in 2019. More importantly, so is Lauvao, who will be 32 next October and has missed 13 games over the last two years. Bill Callahan is maybe the best O-line instructor in football. Give him a young interior blocker to develop.
Potential Targets: As we reach the end of the college regular season it’s tough to find an interior offensive lineman who should warrant Round 1 consideration, but there are a couple of names who could emerge. Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins and Ohio State’s Michael Jordan are centers right now, but both have experience at guard and could fit at left guard for Callahan. Penn State’s Connor McGovern could work his way up as well, if he enters the draft. Washington would likely have to come up to get Alabama OL Jonah Williams, a left tackle for the Tide who some see as a future guard.
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Dallas Cowboys (traded first-rounder for Oakland for Amari Cooper)
So far, trading a 2019 first-round pick for Oakland’s Amari Cooper has paid off. If 2018 third-round pick Michael Gallup continues to climb, this wide receiving corps may not enter 2019 in the dire straits we once expected. There are still questions at tight end, however. With so much homegrown young talent blossoming on defense, the Cowboys can afford to direct the biggest chunk of their resources towards filling Jason Witten’s old spot. Whoever they get must be a serviceable blocker, since Dak Prescott and the offense are best when the designs flow through Ezekiel Elliott and the ground game.
Potential Targets: They don’t have a first-round pick, and while this whole exercise is fairly absurd, it’s even more absurd to try to peg who will be going in the mid-50s come April. Iowa’s Noah Fant is probably a fringe first rounder at the moment. Ditto Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., son of the former Saints first-round tight end.
23. Baltimore Ravens
With an aggressive, complex scheme and bevy of individual playmakers at all three levels, Baltimore’s defense is still one of football’s best. But, it will need restocking. New GM Eric DeCosta can afford to take the best player available, though the needs will be more immediate up front, as defensive linemen Terrell Suggs (who can still play), Brent Urban (who does the dirty work) and Za’Darius Smith (who has flashed an explosive get-off at times this year) all have expiring contracts. So does linebacker C.J. Mosley, though it’s hard envisioning the fifth-year pro not being locked up long-term. Securing Mosley would make defensive back the next big need. Corners Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young will be free agents after 2019, as will do-it-all safety Eric Weddle, who is already 33 years old. Decosta must prioritize defensive line, but he’s free to fall in love with the right developmental defensive back.
Potential Targets: If the Ravens want a potential game-changer off the edge, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Florida’s Jachai Polite best fit the mold. Boston College Zach Allen and Alabama’s Raekwon Davis are versatile dirty-work guys.
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24. Pittsburgh Steelers
When you’re a third-year former first-round pick and you lose your job to a journeyman cornerback like Coty Sensabaugh, you’re a bust. Such is the status of Artie Burns in Pittsburgh. If Sensabaugh, who has an expiring contract, is not retained, Burns will be given a chance to compete again in 2019, but the Steelers would be wise to pursue a new corner who can end that competition before it truly begins. With free agent pickup Jon Bostic playing surprisingly well in Ryan Shazier’s old inside linebacker spot, right corner is this team’s only real area of concern.
Potential Targets: Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but he figures to solidify the boundary spot opposite Joe Haden. Washington’s Byron Murphy is on the small side, but his competitiveness will appeal to Mike Tomlin, while Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen has the size and speed to be one of the highest-ceiling corners in this class. Notre Dame’s Julian Love is also a riser who could get first-round consideration.
25. Minnesota Vikings
If Mike Zimmer wants to run the ball, he needs to find interior linemen who can move the line of scrimmage. Left guard Tom Compton is so-so and has an expiring contract. Right guard Mike Remmers, though better than he was down the stretch last year, is not quite as consistent as he was when playing right tackle. Center Pat Elflein brings decent agility to the screen game and outside run designs, but he needs a meat-packer next to him who can deliver formidable double-team run-blocks.
Potential Targets: This is not the class for road-grading guards. Perhaps the Vikes will stick with the Scandinavian theme and go with Denmark native Hjalte Froholdt of Arkansas. Most of the interior O-linemen seem like Round 1 stretches at the moment though.
Chicago Bears (traded first-rounder to Oakland as part of Khalil Mack trade)
GM Ryan Pace has done an incredible job. Chicago’s offense is ascending behind second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Key spots around Trubisky—offensive line, wide receiver, tight end—were successfully addressed this past offseason. The defense will enter 2019 without a weakness, as long as pending free agent Bryce Callahan, who is quite possibly this year’s best slot corner, is re-signed. If you had to identify a “need” for the Bears, it’d be defensive back, as safety Adrian Amos might hit free agency and the depth at cornerback is only so-so. Any team would love to enter an offseason under these conditions. Not coincidentally, loading the roster has left the Bears bereft of high draft picks; their first pick in 2019 doesn’t come until Round 3.
Potential Targets: Welp, barring a trade, the Bears’ first pick of the 2019 draft figures to come somewhere around the 90th selection (they traded their second-rounder to New England to come get WR Anthony Miller last spring). So, cornerbacks… Mississippi State’s Jamal Peters? USC’s Iman Marshall? You? Could it be you?
27. Houston Texans
Given that Tyrann Mathieu has mostly prospered at deep safety, box safety and slot corner, it’d be wise for the Texans to re-sign him long-term. If they do, their sights can set on finding an outside corner, since it’s unlikely that shrewd 34-year-old starter Johnathan Joseph can continue to get by with such diminished speed. Even if Joseph can get by, Kareem Jackson and Shareece Wright are both free agents, and smooth but fragile 2015 first-rounder Kevin Johnson can’t stay healthy. More secondary depth is needed. Someone with ball skills would be nice, as J.J. Watt and that front seven can be expected to generate turnover opportunities.
Potential Targets: They’ll likely have some options late in the first round. Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen has a high ceiling thanks to his size and speed, but needs to improve his ball skills. Washington’s Byron Murphy could play outside or the slot.
28. Los Angeles Chargers
With Jason Verrett’s once-promising career being derailed by three straight years of major injuries, the Chargers could look for a corner to pair with star Casey Hayward. A man-to-man artist would present coordinator Gus Bradley with more options for blitzing, which is critical for capitalizing on the uncommon talent of 2018 first-round safety Derwin James. But blitzing won’t matter if your run defense can’t create 3rd-and-long scenarios. In terms of yards allowed, L.A.’s run D has jumped from 31st in 2017 to 14th in 2018, but with defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Damion Square and Darius Philon all slated for 2019 free agency, and Corey Liuget following in 2020, the interior front must be replenished.
Potential Targets: This is the year to stock up on defensive linemen, and perhaps Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence could slip to the end of the first round. He’s a massive (350 pounds) space-eater and incredible athlete for his size, but while he flashes pass-rush skills, his lack of consistent pass-rush production could lead teams elsewhere. Auburn’s Derrick Brown is another guy who could be on the board in this range, as could risk-reward pick Dre’Mont Jones of Ohio State.
29. New England Patriots
Even though Josh Gordon can be retained for a cap-friendly restricted free agent price of under $5 million in 2019, the Patriots might still need wide receiver help, as Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett will all be free agents in 2019. Julian Edelman, age 32, will also be entering the final year of his deal. Patriots history, however, says wide receiver will be less of a priority than interior defensive line, where Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton have expiring contracts. (Defensive end Trey Flowers’s deal is also up, but the master technician will almost certainly be re-signed.) Bill Belichick prefers space-cloggers over the much more expensive pass rushers.
Potential Targets: Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, a 350-pound athlete who has only flashed as a pass rusher, could fall into the late-first round in a league that prioritizes upfield players. Auburn’s Derrick Brown is another guy who can clog the line of scrimmage, and has flashed some potential to become a three-down player.
30. Los Angeles Rams
If Ndamukong Suh, who was brought in on a one-year contract, is not retained, the Rams will be in the market for a force to pair with Aaron Donald. That could come in the form of defensive tackle or defensive end (Suh has played both this season). If Suh does return, the focus shifts long-term, where the offensive line will soon need reworked. It remains one of the league’s best, but left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan next year will be 37 and 33 respectively, and playing on expiring contracts. Left guard Rodger Saffold is also in a contract year right now, though it’s hard to imagine the Rams letting him walk. Yes, Saffold will be 31 in June, but under Sean McVay and O-line coach Aaron Kromer he has flourished, coming one vote shy of First Team All-Pro in 2017 and being in contention for that honor again this season.
Potential Targets: There are some project offensive linemen who could be interesting at the end of Round 1; Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins and Ohio State’s Michael Jordan are athletic pivots who also have some versatility. If they’re looking for defensive linemen who can get upfield, there’s a chance Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat could slip due to character concerns (something the Rams haven’t shied away from), or a ‘tweener-type of defensive lineman, like Boston College’s Zach Allen or Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery could fill a short-term role on the other side of the ball.
31. Kansas City Chiefs
Mitch Morse’s rookie contract is expiring, but given the importance of protecting Patrick Mahomes, it seems unlikely the Chiefs wouldn’t spend what it takes to keep the athletic center long-term. This shifts the focus to a defense that can be almost as porous as Mahomes’s offense is prolific. Corners Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick have looked better on film than on paper, but both are playing under expiring deals. At safety, Eric Berry’s durability is a concern, and his fill-in, veteran Ron Parker, is also in an expiring contract. Kansas City’s defense under coordinator Bob Sutton has played a lot of matchup coverages. If that’s to continue, the Chiefs must find athletic defensive backs. Another area to consider: edge rusher. Don’t be shocked if looming free agent Dee Ford gets franchise tagged. But also don’t be shocked if veteran stalwart Justin Houston gets cut, as that would save the Chiefs about $14 million.
Potential Targets: There are some risk-reward prospects at both spots who could make it to the late-first, such as an edge rusher like Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat or Florida State’s Brian Burns. Clemson cornerback Trayvon Mullen has an intriguing size/speed combination and the potential to become a true No. 1 corner if coached up.
32. New Orleans Saints (traded first-round pick to Green Bay in trade up for Marcus Davenport in 2018 draft)
Cornerback P.J. Williams’s ups and downs might leave the Saints comfortable with letting him walk as a 2019 free agent. The question then is whether Patrick Robinson, who will be 31 and coming off a severe ankle injury, can still handle the slot duties that New Orleans paid him $10 million guaranteed this past offseason to fulfill. Cornerback could be an area this team examines in spring. It’s the only thing close to a pressing need for New Orleans’s otherwise resurgent defense. On offense, a dynamic flex tight end would make Drew Brees’s unit unstoppable. Current tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill both have expiring deals, so this position will be in play one way or another.
Potential Targets: They’re probably looking at a pick in the 60s, so calling this “guesswork” is an understatement. They keep on loading up on Ohio State defensive backs, so let’s blindly say Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield are possibilities if they come out. If you’re a child of the 90s, you’d get all warm and fuzzy at the thought of Alabama TE Irv Smith Jr., son of the Saints’ 1993 first-round TE.
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