On the day you become an NFL general manager and receive the handbook, you open to page one and see the first rule for executives in a media-facing position underlined and bolded: Whenever anyone asks, you insist you’re not drafting based on a need.
Of course, this is untrue. General managers say this because admitting they needed a player would be admitting a shortcoming in their roster construction process. And yet, outside of the Washington Football Team and the Packers, you could make an argument that every single team’s first-round pick last year was need-based. (Washington already had a pretty good defensive line; Chase Young just made them elite. The Packers, as you may have heard, already had an accomplished quarterback when they took Jordan Love.) The same can be said almost every year and nothing much will change in 2021.
With the league setting up for whatever issues may arise based on who will and won’t be vaccinated, the risks of more high-profile outbreaks, impending mass opt-outs from voluntary workouts and the potential for more virtual instruction, identifying such needs and nailing the picks become more important than ever. The margin for error has never been thinner.
So we’re here to aid in part of the process. In a two-part breakdown, starting with the AFC on Wednesday, we’ll identify the biggest needs on every roster and offer a little about where the team might be looking in the draft.
Throughout this piece, I routinely referenced a few designer EPA stats and defensive personnel splits which were tabulated by the wonderful folks at Sports Info Solutions.
Needs: offensive weapon, defensive line, interior offensive line, corner
After the way last season ended and after hearing rumblings of the Bills’ possibly being involved in the offseason trade market, I was surprised at the end result (so far). Matt Breida and Jacob Hollister are fine additions to the offense but are probably not the matchup nightmares that take Brian Daboll’s already diabolical absurd scheme to the next level. Maybe Buffalo will trade for a Zach Ertz at some point, but until then, there are still plenty of ways they can immediately upgrade the roster at the No. 30 pick. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Only Mario Addison had a positive net yards over average rating against the run on its defensive front last year. It’s very un-Buffalo-like to be 26th in the league in yards per attempt surrendered, and perhaps the team’s quest for a Super Bowl should start there
One random note: The Bills should absolutely trade up in this draft and nab another playmaker. I think they’ll regret it if they don’t. Sure, the ghost of Sammy Watkins (drafted fourth in 2014) will haunt them, but they’re inching ever so closely to the moment where Josh Allen costs $40 million per season and complicates their roster-building decisions. Teams will be more amenable to moving back given the relative uncertainty of 2021 picks compared to 2022 picks in a (theoretically) pandemic-free world. The Bills’ 2022 first-rounder will probably be low, anyway. Just a thought.
Needs: safety, offensive line, pass catcher, inside linebacker
The Dolphins are power brokers in this class and can sew up a roster that, depending on the development timeline of Tua Tagovailoa, could be good enough to compete for a division title this year. That said, there are some picks they’ll need to hit on, mainly at one of their anchor offensive line positions and safety. More than likely, the temptation will be to get Tagovailoa one more pass catcher who will tip the scales offensively. This is a generational receiver class and, assuming that the Bengals go with a left tackle at No. 5, Miami will have its pick of the group. Brian Flores will also shop around for some pieces to complete his defense. Miami got a serviceable three years out of Bobby McCain, but will the impending threat of the Patriots’ new weapon set, along with the possibility that Buffalo also manages to upgrade via trade or the draft for Josh Allen and the Jets find some semblance of rhythm offensively, motivate them to upgrade there as well?
Needs: quarterback, interior defensive line, linebacker
If you assume that not every free-agent addition is going to hit in New England, the Patriots’ roster still looks relatively thin heading into the 2021 draft. Yes, Bill Belichick doesn’t ever draft first-round quarterbacks. Yes, the Patriots don’t trade up Yes, hardcore Belichickian scholars would probably have him trading out of No. 15 or selecting a versatile linebacker and rolling with Cam Newton. The problem is that there aren’t likely to be many trade-up candidates, especially that late in the round. The value plateaus after a bit. And, if one of these quarterbacks slides, Belichick should—and likely would—try to capitalize. Because, above everything else, Belichick is a master at understanding the economics of professional football and getting things at the price he wants. This is a class of QBs that presents a lot of advantages for a coach good enough to maintain a versatile offense. Belichick, too, will have a great informational connection to some of the top prospects like Mac Jones (via Nick Saban) and Justin Fields (through the remnants of his Urban Meyer hotline at Ohio State).
Needs: quarterback, offensive line, edge, wide receiver, cornerback
Like the Jaguars with the first pick, the Jets will be scratching need No. 1 off their list right away. Moving on from Sam Darnold and starting over with a rookie continued the franchise’s eternal struggle to find a quarterback who will remain with the team for more than a handful of years. While some might point to the offensive line as the next item on the checklist, which makes sense given the depth of the class, an edge rusher to complete Robert Saleh’s dream defensive line is probably next on the team’s to-do list in order to make the system function. It makes sense. The Jets are one player away from a great defensive line. They are two cornerbacks and a safety away from a good secondary.
Needs: wide receiver, outside linebacker, interior offensive line
Patrick Queen was up and down during his rookie year, but that shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Inside linebacker in the NFL is an incredibly difficult transition, and he still managed to make some big plays and log a couple of sacks. On the flip side, Queen missed a good number of tackles. He and Malik Harrison were both targeted somewhat frequently in the passing game to a regular degree of success. While that is sure to improve, finding some help at outside linebacker and also a player who could come in on sub packages and handle some obvious passing downs could help. The Ravens need to replace the versatility of Matthew Judon, who was good for at least one QB knockdown a game and cut down on his missed tackles last year.
The interior of their offensive line could also use a refresh. Baltimore had a difficult time handling some situations, especially during its playoff run. If the depth of this year’s offensive line class is as good as advertised, taking a swing at a guard or center with guard flexibility could be a critical addition to its preseason camp.
Obviously, wide receiver is the white whale here. The Ravens signed Sammy Watkins, though that doesn’t get them any closer to the bona fide defense-changer that Lamar Jackson has coveted. There’s a reason this team was in on JuJu Smith-Schuster. There’s a reason Jackson openly flirted with the idea of signing Antonio Brown last year. There’s a reason they signed Dez Bryant, attempting to dust off one of the game’s former stars.
Needs: linebacker, offensive line, wide receiver
Linebacker was by far the Bengals’ weakest unit in 2021, despite an adequate showing from 2020 third-round pick Logan Wilson in spot duties. Barring a mock draft-imploding maneuver, the positional value isn’t there for them to address that need with the No. 5 pick. What they could do right away is bolster their offensive line, which outside of a decent performance in the run game, struggled to keep budding star quarterback Joe Burrow upright.
Zac Taylor operates almost exclusively out of 11-personnel (three receivers) and with a generational receiving class on tap, there will obviously be some temptation to pick at the top of that class. There are some fair arguments that the depth of the receiver class is not as wide as the depth of the tackle class, allowing Cincinnati to possibly grab someone in the second round to protect Joe Burrow. I’d argue the other way around. Burrow was good enough to elevate the receivers around him … if they can keep him upright.
Needs: cornerback, linebacker, edge
We’re grading on a curve here, of course. Cleveland has as close to a perfect roster as there is in the NFL. With the addition of run-stopping, edge-setting monster Jadeveon Clowney, this is a team good enough to compete with any roster in the NFL. John Johnson III has helped button up its secondary. The Browns’ offensive line is, essentially, a Pro-Bowl front. They have Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb at running back. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver. Clowney and Myles Garrett on the edges. At this point, it’s just a little bit of paint and trim to go for Cleveland.
What could that mean? Some flex players who can stand in at linebacker, put a workable spy on Lamar Jackson and cover some tight ends. Depth at cornerback and a developmental player on the edge (in our mock draft that was Jayson Oweh), who can rush the passer on third downs and grow into an every-down player in 2022.
Needs: quarterback, offensive line, outside linebacker, running back
Pittsburgh’s roster is not necessarily at a crisis point, but it is close. The Steelers need a quarterback to supplant Ben Roethlisberger. They need backs who can handle a heavy volume of runs into loaded boxes and assist in the passing game. They need offensive line help and they need to replenish their fleet of pass-rushing linebackers. They are not going to solve all of these problems in one draft, but it would seem that offensive line is the highest priority at the moment, given the immobility of Ben Roethlisberger and the high stakes being placed on 2021 to keep him upright (and push along the running game).
Needs: quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, tight end, defensive line, cornerback, linebacker, safety
Nick Caserio is in the midst of one of the biggest roster overhauls in NFL history. We won’t know what that actually looks like for a few years from now. At the moment, Houston is largely going to be a safe haven for culture-building veterans who took a little bit more money instead of signing with a contender. The one position the Texans seem to have a glut of are running backs. Assuming Deshaun Watson is not under center in 2021 (given both his legal situation and adamant trade request), this team will likely grade out as one of the worst in the NFL. Caserio has an uphill climb ahead of him, with most of the damage being done before his arrival. At this point, the Texans have the minor luxury of playing piñata with the roster. A blindfolded swing that makes contact is good enough.
Needs: edge, left tackle, secondary
MMQB editor Gary Gramling made a good point on the most recent episode of The MMQB Podcast: Do Frank Reich and Chris Ballard trust DC Matt Eberflus so much that it costs him in terms of draft capital? The Colts could use more help on the edge, but is the scheme good enough to cover their deficiencies? And additionally, is there a temptation to jump into the oddly deep left tackle market in order to bolster the success of the Carson Wentz trade? They can’t really go wrong. Both of the needs are glaring and likely come down to whether the Colts believe DeForest Buckner is good enough to overcome a lackluster supporting cast—or Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith are good enough to cover for Sam Tevi.
Needs: quarterback, interior defensive line, edge, safety
Unless Urban Meyer is prepared to pull the ultimate Sonny Weaver (which would, I suppose, make Trevor Lawrence Bo Callahan?), the first item on Jacksonville’s wish list will be taken care of the second Jacksonville is on the clock. The rest of the haul gets trickier from there. The Jaguars might be interested in upgrading their interior defensive line in order to unlock their talent on the edge and to see what they have in K’Lavon Chaisson. During the offseason, defensive coordinator Joe Cullen made comments about the ability to stop the run as a central tenant of his philosophy. It would be hard to imagine he’s comfortable with the unit as presently constructed after the team was gouged by a majority of its zone-running opponents in 2020. I’m not as down on Jacksonville’s receivers as most, and think that the tight end class isn’t worth spending on in the first round. Safety is also a spot where, if the value meets the pick, the Jaguars could certainly upgrade over Jarrod Wilson and Rayshawn Jenkins.
Needs: cornerback, edge, wide receiver, tight end
It feels like the Titans will go cornerback, though they could really throw a dart at the board and find a position that needs to be addressed. Despite the signing of Bud Dupree, the Titans, who were 29th in pressure rate last year, are still going to be overwhelmed by the lot of offenses. After letting go of Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Desmond King, the defensive backfield will need to get overhauled. After allowing Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith to walk in free agency, the offense needs some complementary parts. Mike Vrabel has made a living galvanizing his team to play above its heads. Indeed, Tennessee logged two more wins than its Pythagorean total in 2021. The Titans are, however, approaching a period of time where they might be running on fumes. Derrick Henry cannot reasonably be expected to carry the load to the degree that he has for another season. Without Henry, what will become of Ryan Tannehill? Vrabel may have gotten the best out of a good roster already. Now it’s time to build up assets and retool.
Needs: quarterback, wide receiver, interior offensive line
Is it odd to say that I kind of love this roster? Part of me wishes that the Broncos had given Rich Scangarello a little bit more time to install the Shanahan system so there was less of a tepid response to year three of Drew Lock. Still, this defense is loaded and gets Von Miller back into the fold. The offensive line is developing into a formidable unit, save for one or two spots that could use some rookie competition. Denver is one mobile, field-stretching quarterback away from legitimately nipping at a wild-card spot, but even if Lock is the QB1, the Broncos can still be adequate enough offensively to make a run.
At this point, it likely comes down to whether Vic Fangio would like to throw a decisive third year into the hands of a first-year passer, or if he wants to double down on a defensive unit that he has expertise in and can make dominant. The Broncos pick ninth. There will be good cornerbacks out there, and Denver is bound to lose at least one in free agency in 2022. There will be the best of the linebacker class available. Pair that strategy with a trade for Teddy Bridgewater and life would get interesting.
Needs: offensive line, wide receiver, inside linebacker, edge
It’s pretty remarkable looking back on the Chiefs’ secondary in 2021 and realizing that none of their top three corners allowed a completion percentage above 63. With Tyrann Mathieu leading the way, this unit was versatile and special, making up in part for a front that struggled to generate consistent pressure off the edge. Chris Jones led the team in sacks and QB hits. There is a decent chance a good project pick of an edge rusher will drop to them at No. 31, making that pairing one of the more likely scenarios on draft night. The offensive line is another need. After rewatching the Super Bowl, many of us walked away with a slightly different takeaway than we had watching live that night. The problem was not exclusively with the tackles, and it wouldn’t be blasphemous to give Mike Remmers another shot at the job again in 2021. But … this team has a window to win championships now and getting quality offensive line help on rookie contracts will help immensely in that push, so that they don’t have to spend on the likes of Joe Thuney in free agency again next year.
Also, it might be tempting for Andy Reid to add another pass-catching weapon. The Chiefs’ strength for so long has been daring teams to try and take away one of their premier targets, but how long will that last with a 31-year-old tight end and a now 27-year-old whose best trait is his speed? I’m not saying there’s an expiration date on Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill, but I am saying that, over the duration of Patrick Mahomes’s next decade in Kansas City, there will be different versions of this offense. The time to start planning phase 2 might be now, especially if the depth of the receiver class leads to one falling in their lap.
Needs: offensive line, edge, safety, cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver
The early returns on the Jon Gruden era are mixed. There are some absolute personnel wins, like Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs. There are also—so far—some losses. Failing to reap a foundational draft class from the Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack trades will have far-reaching ramifications for the Gruden regime. Here’s a legitimate question for Raiders fans: What is your level of confidence going into the season with a fundamentally different defensive scheme and your pillars in the secondary being Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, Karl Joseph and Johnathan Abram?
I think, at the moment, you could probably squint your eyes and talk yourself into the current defensive line as constructed. Solomon Thomas has good football left in him. Clelin Ferrell improved significantly last year. Maxx Crosby has talent. The other danger spots, however, are going to cost the Raiders games.
On offense, no matter how quickly Derek Carr gets the ball out, they’re going to need to upgrade the line. I understand the argument that the players they got rid of this offseason were, at this stage of their careers, better in name than they were in practice. However, Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson alone equated to more than a yard per play in net yards over average. That’s a lot of production to replace in a high-volume rushing offense without many gimmicky component parts.
Needs: outside linebacker, edge, offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback
The Vic Fangio defense tends to make great players into stars and good players into household names. New coach Brandon Staley, who came up under Fangio, will elevate the play of some Chargers beyond what we’ve seen, but that still leaves questions about some of their position groups. You could get by at corner with guys who allowed 60.6 and 57.9 completion percentages from opposing quarterbacks, respectively, but is there an upgrade to be had if some of the elite members of the class begin to slip?
Staley, a former quarterback, will get the chance to direct the team’s personnel focus and we’ll see how much of his prior experience benefits Justin Herbert. It would make sense that the 2020 rookie of the year get a more agreeable situation up front. (Trey Pipkins is probably the team’s leader in the clubhouse at left tackle right now.) It would also make sense to take a look at another anchor position on the edge, opposite Joey Bosa. The Chargers’ defense has been one step/player/injury away from being 2019-49ers-level dominant.
More NFL Draft Coverage:
* Breer: 20 Things to Know About the Draft
* Rosenberg: The Unrivaled Arrival of Trevor Lawrence
* Vrentas: MMQB Mock Draft 3.0; 49ers Pick Justin Fields
* Prewitt: What Happens to the Prospects Who Opted Out?