One year ago, no one thought that the Minnesota Vikings could reach the playoffs. But with a fantastic draft class -- among other things -- they surprised and did just that. As it stands today, I see the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as the top teams in the league and the NFC being much stronger than the AFC overall. In the AFC, the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots appear to be the class of the conference.
So who else could be eligible for this exercise? Obviously teams like the Green Bay Packers andAtlanta Falcons are also very strong and in my view, ineligible. The Kansas City Chiefs are a team that comes to mind; however, I just went into great detail recently about their offseason. Plus, Kansas City no longer has a second-round pick.
I am not betting my next mortgage payment that the teams listed below will end up in the playoffs, but don't be surprised if one or two can get there with a great draft class as a catalyst. Of course, there are an awful lot of really good football players who are unemployed right now and will find homes before the draft and leading up to the regular season. But keep an eye on how the teams below attack this draft.
They're listed in alphabetical order, so don't read anything into the order.
So far in free agency, the Bears really haven't lost much and they did add Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett to reinforce their offense. I am not the biggest Bushrod fan, but he is a capable starter and should help improve the bookends with J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. This signing also will allow former first-rounder Gabe Carimi to concentrate on playing guard full time, which I expect he will take to quite well. Another interior offensive lineman is really the only thing Chicago could use on the offensive side of the ball, but that isn't a position that is particularly difficult to find, whether in the mid-rounds of the draft or in the latter portions of free agency.
The Bears don't have a pick in the third round because of last year's Brandon Marshall trade, so they do not have the same draft currency as the other teams on this list, but if it were me, I would dedicate the top two rounds of this draft to a defense that absolutely must infuse some young talent. This is especially true at linebacker, though the recent addition of D.J. Williamscould pay off well for the Bears. He fits this scheme very well and could be an every-down linebacker with Brian Urlacher moving on. Chicago doesn't need much and since it added Williams, it no longer has to reach for a middle linebacker. Williams could play outside too in this 4-3, which could make Manti Te'o or Arthur Brown an option.
The Bears are in a very difficult division and in a very difficult conference, but they have been close the past couple of seasons and I expect this new coaching staff to ignite the offense. If Chicago selects the best defensive player available in the top two rounds, and includes a linebacker in the equation, it might just have enough to advance to the postseason.
When free agency opened, the Lions had a multitude of major needs. This organization was quite successful in free agency by massaging some of their current contracts, keeping quality players like Chris Houston and bringing in useful parts such as Reggie Bush, Glover Quin and Jason Jones. The Lions' dreadful secondary from a year ago now looks to be vastly improved. But two major needs remain for Detroit. The Lions have lost both starting offensive tackles from a year ago, Gosder Cherilus to Indianapolis and longtime left tackle Jeff Backus to retirement. Detroit planned for this day by selecting Riley Reiffwith its first-round pick a year ago, and Reiff will be plugged in next year as one of the starting tackles. But a big hole remains bookending Reiff.
With the fifth pick in the first round, the Lions should run to the podium if Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher is still on the board, though that seems unlikely. Possibly Detroit could move up a few spots to land one of these two franchise left tackles, but more likely I see the Lions taking the best edge pass-rusher available with that fifth overall selection. And there should be plenty of high-impact and high-upside players that fit the mold to fill in the Lions' second major need. Kyle Vanden Bosch's play dropped off noticeably andCliff Avril is now in Seattle. The Lions are apparently plugging Jones in at left defensive end, which I see as a mistake since I feel Jones is more suited to be an inside player, because it's hard to see his pass-rush skills used too effectively on the edge. Ronnell Lewis and Willie Youngare presently atop the depth chart at defensive end opposite Jones.
It also should be noted that Detroit is quite possibly the very best interior pass-rushing defense in the league, even without Jones. While these two needs are extreme and are not easy holes to fill, if the Lions can land a starting tackle and defensive end with their first two draft picks -- and there are some lesser but suitable options available here in the second round at both spots -- they could be dramatically improved from a year ago.
Another wide receiver would also go a long way, but there are some cheap free-agent options still available and the Lions might be able to land a wideout in the mid-rounds to give Matthew Stafford another weapon. That said, expect the addition of Bush to also help in this capacity quite a bit as well. Detroit has some star power for sure, but this offseason -- and a very effective draft -- should go a long way toward strengthening the middle portions of the Lions' roster. But in the NFC North, getting to the postseason will not be easy for a team that won just four games in 2012.
While it could be argued that Miami overspent on several of its free-agent signings, it cannot be argued that the Dolphins' roster is much better stocked now than when the season ended, most notably with weapons for Ryan Tannehill to throw to. But I still see four starting spots that need serious attention, especially at positions that are usually quite hard to find. On offense, one hole remains: offensive tackle. Miami could still add an established veteran tackle by signing Eric Winston or trading for Branden Albert, which would really go a long way to setting up the Dolphins for a successful draft. But in Round 1, Lane Johnson is a possibility. Johnson's stock is skyrocketing right now and many teams need help at this position. Problem is, he may not be available when Miami picks.
Miami should lock up Winston and attack defense in the draft. By trading Vontae Davis to the Colts last year, Miami now has two second-round picks. It also has an extra third from the Marshall trade with Chicago. That gives the Dolphins great resources to trade up for someone like Johnson or trade for Albert, but also gives them several shots at repairing their cornerback position and bringing in a defensive end opposite Cameron Wake. Other options include Olivier Vernon, who flashed in his rookie season. Former first-rounder Jared Odrick should also excel as a run stopper on early downs.
But the Dolphins need two starting cornerbacks. While a few free agents remain, the draft could be a great way to address this situation by picking two corners within the top three rounds. Outside of the Patriots, the AFC East looks very weak right now. And overall, the AFC is less than impressive. If the Dolphins possibly land a starting tackle before the draft or can add Johnson, it wouldn't be a major surprise if Miami ended up in the postseason with a wild-card berth.
Chip Kelly is the new coach in Philadelphia and has already put his stamp on the team in free agency. The Eagles have the fourth pick in the first round and could go in any of several directions. Gone are Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie andNnamdi Asomugha, but the Eagles added Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung at safety and Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback to totally revamp what was a terrible secondary in 2012. Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman should be very valuable safety depth, with Allen still having plenty of upside. Also, Curtis Marsh and especially Brandon Boykin as a slot cornerback could be primed to step up as well.
While this secondary is much different, and most likely much better, the Eagles still could snagDee Milliner with that fourth overall pick. Even though Philadelphia will play much more 3-4 under this new regime, adding Isaac Sopoaga and Connor Barwin should make this transition much easier. In turn, I don't see a major need in the Eagles' front seven that quite frankly has an awful lot of talent right now. Maybe Kelly loves former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smithwith the Eagles' first pick or someone like E.J. Manuel in the second round to eventually succeedMichael Vick. One more high-end offensive lineman would also be welcome. But it was injuries more than a lack of good football players that demolished the Eagles' front five last season.
While there is much change going on in Philadelphia, they have fantastic draft assets and really not many glaring needs considering where their draft position is. The Eagles should truly be able to often select the best player on their board rather than picking for positional needs. There isn't a powerhouse in the NFC East, and if the draft goes well -- which it really should -- the Eagles might just finish the 2012 season atop their division. Stranger things have happened.
The Rams' offensive line has been a mess for much of Sam Bradford's time in the league. But with the recently signed Jake Long now in tow, St. Louis has four out of five starters in place in Long, Rodger Saffold, Harvey Dahl and Scott Wells. It leaves one big hole at guard. As a result of the Robert Griffin trade, the Rams have the 16th and 22nd pick overall and could be prime candidates to pick Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper in the first round, or settle for Larry Warford or Kyle Long (Chris' brother) in Round 2. Any of these would be excellent young additions and firm up what has long been a team weakness.
Safety is also a big hole in St. Louis' starting lineup, but fortunately for the Rams, this is an extremely deep safety draft and a fine prospect like Kenny Vaccaro could be an excellent fit with one of the Rams' first-round selections. Considering the crop of safeties in this draft, selecting two players at this position might be prudent for St. Louis. Many consider wide receiver a major need as well for St. Louis, and I won't argue that adding a wideout, particularly a slot option, might be a good move. That said, I have very high hopes for Chris Givens and Brian Quick, who should mature with Bradford nicely. Also, the addition of Jared Cook, who is as much a wide receiver as he is a tight end, alleviates this need somewhat as well. Adding a power running back and help at outside linebacker in their 4-3 scheme would also be quite welcome, but both spots usually come at a value on draft day or late in free agency, as it is a buyers' market for both.
St. Louis has great draft resources, and while they are not an elite team by any standards, this team is very much on the rise. They play in a brutal division; however, St. Louis proved last year that it can compete with its NFC West rivals. To me, Seattle and San Francisco are the top two teams in the NFL right now in terms of personnel, but it wouldn't be a total surprise if this division featured three playoff teams next year. Somewhat quietly, since Jeff Fisher took over as head coach, great things are happening in St. Louis.