2012 NFL Draft Grades: Teams That Turned Themselves into Contenders

Nolan AhernContributor IIIMay 1, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  Mark Barron of Alabama greets NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was selected #7 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of during the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 26, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

The 2012 NFL draft featured one of the deepest and most talented classes in recent memory.

There are several average teams that entered this year’s draft looking for opportunities to push their team from mediocrity into contention, and a few teams seem to have been successful in doing so.

These are four teams that are in a particularly good position after their productive draft weekends, and should find themselves in contention for the playoffs in the upcoming season.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It was only two years ago that the Bucs were 10-6 under head coach Raheem Morris and barely missed a playoff berth in the NFC. Last year, however, the Bucs and their young quarterback Josh Freeman took a huge step backwards and finished the season 4-12.

Morris has been replaced as head coach by Greg Schiano, and the Bucs appear to be back on the rise after a stellar draft.

In the first round, the Bucs traded down from the fifth pick to the seventh, and selected safety Mark Barron out of Alabama. Barron is a monster athlete with decent ball skills who can cover and help stop the run, and should provide an instant upgrade in the secondary.

Schiano was also able to move into the late first-round to take running back Doug Martin out of Boise State, who should mesh well with power-runner LeGarrette Blount to form a nice one-two combination for a team that will rely heavily on the running game.

The final impact player the Bucs took was OLB Lavonte David out of Nevada. David was a steal at 58th overall, and should be an instant help in run and pass coverage with his speed and sound tackling.

Playing in the NFC South, defense and the running game will be all-important for the Bucs in 2012. This draft provided upgrades in both of those areas, and make the Bucs a contender to get back in the playoffs with a wild-card spot.


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals had an impressive year for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, finishing 9-7 and earning a playoff berth in the tough AFC North. Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green will both be looking to build off terrific rookie seasons and put the Bengals in a position to make a run in the playoffs.

The Bengals ended up taking five players in the first three rounds and were able to address several spots on defense.

In the first round, the Bengals addressed their biggest need by taking Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and were also able to bolster the offensive line with Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler.

The Bengals then upgraded their defensive line by drafting two defensive tackles—Devon Still from Penn State (53rd overall), and Brandon Thompson out of Clemson (93rd overall).

Still has looked terrific at times but also tends to disappear for stretches, while Thompson is a consistent force against the run and can push the pocket against the pass. Together, they should give the Bengals much-needed talent and depth on the D-line.

Cincinnati was ranked 20th against the pass last year, and 19th against the run. Improving the secondary and defensive line will help the defense catch up with the offense, and could make the Bengals a dangerous playoff team.


San Diego Chargers

The Chargers finished in the top six in the league in points scored, yards per game and pass defense, yet they still finished 8-8 and were left out of the playoffs in 2011.

Their run-defense was mediocre last year, but the Chargers could certainly use some improvement on the defensive line. Melvin Ingram is a talented, versatile lineman who can rush the passer from multiple defensive positions, so the Chargers were thrilled to grab him as low as 18th overall.

Defensive tackle prospect Kendall Reyes out of Connecticut was a good second-round pick who can play defensive end in their 3-4 defense and further bolster the Chargers’ line, and LSU safety Brandon Taylor should fill a need at safety.

The Chargers have a chance to make a big push for the playoffs in the wide-open AFC West, and they have drafted themselves right into contention for the division title.


Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles had a strong finish to the 2011 regular season, winning their final four games to finish the year with an 8-8 record.

There were glaring weaknesses on the defensive side that prevented their high-powered offense from carrying them into the playoffs, but the Eagles successfully addressed some of those needs in the first few rounds of the draft.

The Eagles took four players in the first three rounds, and the first three will all contribute on defense immediately—DT Fletcher Cox (12th overall), ILB Mychal Kendricks (46th) and DE Vinny Curry (59th) were all great value-picks for the defense.

Cox was a standout at Mississippi State, and was graded by nfl.com as the best defensive tackle in the draft. He combines run-stopping ability with a tenacity in pass-rush, and should be a real beast on the Eagles’ star-studded D-line. Together with Curry, the two young players will shore up both the run and pass defense for the Eagles.

Linebacker was another position that was exposed last year for the Eagles, but drafting Kendricks and trading for MLB DeMeco Ryans should shore up that position nicely.

With the abundance of talent on their roster, the Eagles need to make a run soon. Adding these strong defensive players will have an immediate impact and make them more of a playoff-caliber team.