Sometimes we fail to look at the draft for what it is—a competition of imagination. On Wednesday, many of us spent a good amount of time twisting and worrying about the weight of several college kids before frantically planning a way for them to add five pounds to a frame, as if that would make all the difference in the world.
For years, teams have been adding and taking away weight, zapping players out of their biomechanical rhythm. They make little people bigger and big people smaller, all in the hopes of fitting their own vision of what a team can look like. Seldom do we hear: O.K., great, this guy played well at 166 pounds. Who cares?
Every year we list team needs, and part of the reason it’s a popular post is because teams almost always have at least one glaring hole on their rosters. This is inevitable in a competitive sport with a draft process that encourages parity. But when a roster resembles a storm-ravaged house too dilapidated to attract a buyer, one has to wonder whether this is a problem beyond parity. Maybe it’s a problem of imagination.
The Chiefs are as good as they are because they met their players halfway and created something around their unique strengths. Their best players are an Air Raid quarterback who came into the NFL with a paltry knowledge of his own protections and a wide receiver who is generously listed at 5' 10", 185 pounds. How many GMs out there (Tyreek Hill’s quite glaring off-field issues aside) would have dismissed one or both of these players based on a measurable?
When thinking about this year’s class, which, allegedly, doesn’t have enough good players, has too many opt-out players and apparently too many skinny players, there are going to be teams anonymously wringing their hands over, building themselves an excuse.
Then, there will be a team that takes advantage of what people are unwilling to see.
Without further ado, here are our NFC needs heading into the 2021 draft. You can find the AFC needs here.
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: cornerback, offensive line depth, edge, interior defensive line
The alarm over the Cowboys’ secondary isn’t as dire as you might think. Trevon Diggs wasn’t propped up by some of the grading sites after his rookie year, but he was wildly productive in a bad defensive scheme. He was also targeted quite heavily and allowed a completion percentage for opposing quarterbacks under 60. In 11 games, he picked off three passes and broke up 14. Still, if we are to believe the relatively small consensus we’ve developed as to the rhythm of the draft, a great cornerback could fall directly into their laps at pick No. 10. It is also time to begin the frantic patch-and-fill work on this once dominant offensive line, which is another position that could be addressed successfully in the top 10.
The Cowboys did some work in the secondary this offseason, bringing in former Falcon Damontae Kazee to help run Dan Quinn’s scheme. While his best years are in the past, he’s still young and could have a rebound elsewhere, especially in a division sans Michael Thomas, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.
This will be considered a good draft if Dallas is somehow able to protect itself against the run. The Cowboys were knifed against zone teams last year, and arguably their best complete run defender, Aldon Smith, is now playing elsewhere pending his arrest on a battery charge. Finding a good interior defensive lineman, or even an additional edge presence who can help diversify their four-plus man pressures, would help.
Needs: offensive line, defensive end, cornerback, wide receiver
Dave Gettleman’s yearslong offensive line rebuild, which has included a No. 4 pick, the one-time highest-paid left tackle in NFL history and the trading of a onetime premier edge rusher, is still nowhere near completion. The Giants have two significant holes up front at the guard spots and are hoping that Andrew Thomas’s development timeline accelerates on the left side. This leads us to believe that they may focus on the position again in this year’s draft, with plenty of versatile tackles with guard flexibility pouring into the top end of most rankings. Gettleman hit on a fifth-round wide receiver with Darius Slayton in 2019, but is still looking at a relatively thin unit if his new acquisition, Kenny Golladay, sustains an injury. The depth of this year’s class and the overwhelming likelihood that a receiver will fall to the Giants should also merit consideration.
Overall, the Giants have done a fine job Band-Aiding a roster with some glaring needs this offseason and should find themselves in contention for the NFC East this year. That is dependent on how well they can buoy a quarterback who is still clearly in development and a workhorse running back who, as we’ve seen, does require more than the bare minimum to operate.
Needs: wide receiver, cornerback, offensive line depth
If Jalen Hurts improves on schedule, this team could at least be a thorn in the side of the NFC East this year: good enough to maintain some legitimacy, especially if the division mucks itself up like it did a year ago (which is doubtful). The Eagles have a dire need at cornerback, which would seem to be their top priority, even above supplementing the wide receiver depth chart beyond Jalen Reagor and Travis Fulgham (this is especially true if they still decide to trade Zach Ertz at some point). It will be instructive to see which direction Howie Roseman leans, and whether he’ll acknowledge that the defensive backfield or wide receiving corps is a bigger weakness, and whether he’ll want to supply and bolster Hurts with more weapons, or whether he’s hoping to see him operate with essentially the bare minimum. Without more help at wide receiver, Hurts, it seems, will get a one-year evaluation with the worst skill-position group in the NFC East, leading into a 2022 draft where the Eagles will have enough capital to attain the No. 1 pick and replace him.
Washington Football Team
Needs: quarterback, left tackle, safety, tight end
Like Denver, I think Washington is a surprise in this exercise, given just how close it is to being a legitimate contender. This roster is one good left tackle away from being a top-five offensive line. This roster is one good safety away from being a top-two defense. This team is one franchise quarterback away from being perpetually feared, which is not something you would have expected when Ron Rivera took over the club in 2020. The team is not in an ideal location to draft a first-round quarterback, though the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick and various laws of the universe suggest he can be paired with only an ascending young player. Maybe that’ll put Washington in the mix for Kellen Mond, Ian Book or Davis Mills at various other points in the draft.
With Scott Turner in as offensive coordinator, Washington might look at henpecking some other wide receiving talent out of the middle rounds to supplement the supremely talented Terry McLaurin and newly signed Curtis Samuel. Another thought: Washington ran 12-personnel more than just one other team in the NFL last year. Pairing Logan Thomas with a weapon at the tight end position makes some sense.
Needs: quarterback, cornerback, pass rusher, wide receiver
The Bears are in a good spot to pick a cornerback of the future, just not a quarterback of the future. It will be interesting to see what Chicago does if one of the consensus top-five quarterbacks slides beyond the Patriots at pick No. 15, creating some real chaos. We’ll see then what a commitment to Andy Dalton looks like. Still, I would almost rather go into a season with Dalton under center having upgraded the cornerback spot than take a flier on a possibly marginal upgrade at the quarterback position, who could take too long to marinate, anyway. What Chicago truly needs is to sure up the back end of its defense in a division with Davante Adams, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Needs: wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker, safety
A mean person might sarcastically point out that the new coach has a lot of cleaning up to do based on what he was left behind, but that doesn’t sound like something we’d say. Instead, we’ll get to the point: The Lions are undergoing a drastic defensive identity change (assuming what they are running will resemble what the Saints looked like in 2020, meaning more of a focus on man-coverage concepts). They need a lot of help there, and could perhaps trade out of the No. 7 pick if a quarterback-hungry team is looking to inch up for a falling prospect. Wide receiver makes a lot of sense here as well, as it will make any Jared Goff evaluation seem somewhat even-handed. Anthony Lynn is a skilled offensive coordinator who can get the ball in his best players’ hands, and he did a fine job developing skill-position talent during his time with the Chargers. The good news for the Dan Campbell regime is that his arrival will be met with the understanding that this will take time. After moving on from Jim Caldwell, the Lions thought they were signing up for a full-scale culture change but instead got a weak Patriots rebrand. By hiring someone like Campbell, a starkly different presence in the locker room, Detroit has acknowledged the need for wholesale change.
Needs: inside linebacker, cornerback, edge, pass-catching weapon
This is a strange exercise in that it’s so relative. If a team had a quarterback struggling through the middle of his rookie contract and had these wide receivers, we might be pounding the table relentlessly, saying that Davante Adams wasn’t enough (while simultaneously ignoring the statistical contributions of Robert Tonyan or the offensive contributions of someone like Allen Lazard, who is doing almost everything you could ask out of a complementary wideout). But with Aaron Rodgers, there are two warring sides to the argument about his weapon set. If, say, the Packers took wide receivers in the first round each of the last two years and hit on them, would that surge in offense have negated the clear defensive deficiencies that plagued them against the 49ers and Buccaneers in their consecutive title game losses? It’s a fun question to think about. One could argue that the Packers could score close to 40 points per game with more talent, thus negating any woes they had on the other side of the ball.
But the Packers are doing the smart thing by supplementing the entire roster. One day Rodgers will be off hosting Jeopardy!, and there will need to be a complete team left in the void. Right now, that means versatile linebackers who can cover and a cornerback to pair with the wonderful Jaire Alexander (Kevin King is on only a one-year deal). This roster is good enough to waltz through the division again and maybe win another 13 games in the process. The trouble is going to be when, like the previous two years, they face teams with too many offensive weapons to counter. We could make the case that there will be more immediate success stories coming from those spots (coverage linebacker, edge rusher, cornerback) than there will be at wide receiver, especially if said wideouts would require time to get broken in by one of the most detail-oriented quarterbacks in football.
Needs: edge rusher, interior offensive line
The Vikings are primed for a comeback this year and still have a great roster foundation. The problem is that Mike Zimmer needs more help on the edge and is unusually thin at the cornerback spots despite replenishing the position plenty over the years via the draft. Minnesota could also use some interior offensive line help to hoist Dalvin Cook and the running game a year after its zone-heavy rushing attack recorded one of the higher EPA/rush ratings in the NFL. Cook faced one of the highest percentages of eight-plus man boxes last year and still managed to overproduce about 45% of the time, essentially putting him in the same realm as Derrick Henry a year ago. While the rise of Justin Jefferson will certainly alter those loaded box numbers, the Vikings are going to remain a fundamentally no-motion, under-center team. Depth on the offensive front helps keep an unlikely performance going.
Needs: cornerback, offensive line, safety, offensive weapon
The Falcons were predictable on offense last year, due in part to their dependance on players like Chris Lindstrom, who handled a majority of the pulling and thus could be keyed on by opposing defenders looking to blow the plays up. Atlanta was 22nd in expected points added via the zone run, which could pick up quickly if the team adds some heft on the offensive line and improves the positional strength as a whole. The Falcons’ willingness to trade down would suggest some comfort in taking a top tackle at No. 4 if nothing materializes or sliding a bit to address one of the glaring needs on defense.
Thomas Dimitroff had a great run, but outside of Grady Jarrett and some promise flashed by the quickly developing John Cominsky, this defensive front needs a serious upgrade. With two of their divisional counterparts starting quarterbacks in their 40s last year, it is surprising that edge rusher wasn’t more of an obsession from the previous regime.
Needs: offensive line, defensive line, cornerback, safety, tight end
Given how thin this roster looks now, it does make some of Carolina’s behavior seem strange: especially its unwillingness to rebuild during Matt Rhule’s first season and instead quickly retool in an attempt to compete right away. The team is in decent shape, but if it hopes to compete in a difficult division, it needs to make some serious upgrades across the board. For starters, this offensive line is perhaps only a slight upgrade over the one Sam Darnold struggled behind in New York. While the offensive scheme is far more conducive to success, Darnold is going to need more time not only to blossom in Carolina but to shake some of the bad habits that crept in as a result of having no time or open receivers on a given dropback.
Brian Burns helped Carolina be a middle-tier pass-rushing team last year, ranking 16th in EPA per four-man rush. But the more aggressive the Panthers tried to get (with five- or six-man pressures), the less effective they were at getting home. In Year 2, the hope is that further development from Derrick Brown and a continued ascension from surprising rookie standout Jeremy Chinn make this defense more dynamic. A good draft class that bolsters their interior pressure and helps A.J. Bouye and Donte Jackson will go a long way toward improving the product.
Needs: quarterback, wide receiver, interior defensive line, cornerback
Sean Payton is good enough to prevent this from becoming a down year by traditional standards, but the Saints need to hit on all eight of their draft picks in 2020. The pair of compensatory third-round selections were a godsend to this group, which has been stripped of most of its draft and free-agency capital. The Saints’ front office has been churning out restorative drafts for a while now, but they have some challenges ahead of them.
On the docket? Replacing Sheldon Richardson and finding an interior defensive presence who can bolster their excellent pass rush. They also need to find a way to inject some life into a secondary that is asked to play an awful lot of physical man coverage.
Loftier on the goals list would be finding a way to pair Michael Thomas with another game-breaking wide receiver and adding a developmental QB project behind Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, should either struggle to grab the starting QB mantle.
Needs: running back, wide receiver, cornerback
This is a dicey proposition, being critical of a roster that just won the Super Bowl. What works one year, especially during a pandemic-ravaged season, may not work during another. Still, given what we know about Tom Brady to this point, the Buccaneers have one of the most complete rosters in football.
What do they need? Not a ton, after hitting on Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tristan Wirfs in back-to-back rounds last year, but cornerback could always use an upgrade. Sean Murphy-Bunting allowed an opposing QB rating of 121.3 when targeted last year and was responsible for a half dozen touchdowns. Carlton Davis had an opposing passer rating near 90. Still, both are young players on very affordable contracts. It would make sense to continue experimenting with the position, though, in the absence of one true shutdown player (I’m not saying Jamel Dean can’t become that player. He may very well emerge in 2021 as a true No. 1).
It might also make sense to begin replenishing the defensive line. Tampa Bay will still be counting heavily on the likes of Ndamukong Suh, who, while he hasn’t missed a game since 2011, was asked to play almost 75% of the Buccaneers’ snaps last year. We’re nitpicking of course, as even the presence of one somewhat replacement-level player who isn’t Suh, Vita Vea, Jason Pierre-Paul or Shaq Barrett will stand out.
The last option would be to do what spoiled teams do and draft a running back or perhaps layer the offense with another wide receiver. Tom Brady was desperate to sign Antonio Brown for a reason last year, perhaps believing that the Buccaneers’ advantage was in overloading defenses at that third wide receiver spot. What if someone like Rashod Bateman slips their way?
Needs: wide receiver, cornerback, pass rusher
I will pound the table on this until the end of time: Yes, the Cardinals have DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. Yes, their third wide receiver, Christian Kirk, is probably better than most teams’ No. 2s. Still, the Cardinals’ thing is 10-personnel (four receivers). They used it on 21% of their snaps last year, which, for the second straight year, was the most in the NFL. In the past, Kliff Kingsbury has run from this and suggested they would use it less and less through the years. Why?
Arizona is in a division where it is never going to be able to score enough with a conventional offense to consistently outduel the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks. They should have a wrinkle for which teams simply do not have the defensive personnel to account. Much like the Ravens are a pain in the butt to game plan for, the Cardinals could be their polar opposite, forcing teams to carry more inexperienced defensive backs to contend with an otherworldly set of wide receivers.
Consensus has them upgrading at corner or maybe playing it safe at offensive line. I think this would be ludicrous and inconsistent with Steve Keim’s recent run of aggression. Trade up for Kyle Pitts, as one NFL.com mock draft suggested. Take DeVonta Smith, who may fall due to his recent weigh-in. Make other teams score 41 points per game to beat you. Get up on people early and turn the game over to J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones.
Needs: coverage linebacker/safety/cornerback
The Rams played more dime personnel than almost any team in football last year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them increase their dime usage if, say, the Cardinals added an additional pass-catching weapon in the draft or the Rams-inspired Seahawks’ offense begins to #LetRussCook a little more. Taylor Rapp played well before his injury and will obviously factor into that equation, but some of their linebackers, like Kenny Young (80-plus completion rate allowed) and Micah Kiser, struggled in coverage while not adding a ton to the pass rush. Finding these rangy, in-between linebackers is a yeoman task, but can be accomplished in the middle rounds with talented eyes and a good understanding of the scheme. Luckily for the Rams, they never again have to worry about blowing a first-round pick on one.
Needs: quarterback, cornerback, defensive line, interior offensive line depth
We all know where Kyle Shanahan is going with pick No. 3, but the 49ers also have a full complement of mid-round selections to find themselves some swing interior offensive line depth, maybe someone who could compete at a guard spot but also be ready to stand in for one of their more veteran counterparts in case of an injury.
The 49ers lost a lot of institutional knowledge at the cornerback position with the departure of Richard Sherman, and, while they were banged up in 2020 and got fewer than 1,000 combined snaps from Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams, they could always use more competition at the position. They could also use the middle rounds to try to hit on a more cost-effective pass rusher, knowing that at some point in the not-so-distant future, they have some easy evacuation years on the contracts of Dee Ford and Arik Armstead.
Needs: offensive line, edge, pass-catching weapon, cornerback
John Schneider has an eye out for deals and has swung some massive ones for pass catchers in the past. That instinct has not left him, and it’s important to note that the Seahawks may not be done pacifying their quarterback just yet. Without a first-round pick in 2021 thanks to the Jamal Adams trade, we could see Seattle try to rip off a veteran piece during the draft for some mid-round compensation. At the least, we’re likely to see the Seahawks dabble in their usual trouble spots of late: offensive line and cornerback.
To be clear, there are few teams we’d trust more with this kind of roster tuning. Schneider has done a fine job discovering usable offensive line talent in odd places and low rounds. He built a dynastic defense out of a middle-round secondary. The question is whether the thinness of this draft will allow him to do it again, right now, with the Seahawks stuck at a bit of a plateau.
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?