NFL Draft 2013: Teams That Must Nail Picks to Ensure Immediate Improvement

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 18, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 09:  Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets attempts a pass during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 9, 2012 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The 2013 NFL draft class is an interesting, deep bunch, and there are plenty of flawed teams that could use an improvement. However, some teams are plagued by bad organizational structure, lackluster coaching or are simply in the midst of a down season.

There are several teams in particular that must nail their picks in this draft for different but equally critical reasons.

Here is a breakdown of why April's draft is most critical for two teams from each conference, with suggestions for what they should do with their first-round pick—or picks.



New York Jets

The brutality of the media in this massive market is well known, and the hounds will be out after falling short of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

Head coach Rex Ryan's dominant defense and boisterous bravado flew the Jets to two AFC Championship game appearances, but now the seat is warming under the entire current regime.

The success and failure of this era in New York ultimately rests on QB Mark Sanchez, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Although he seems to step it up in the postseason, Sanchez hasn't played well enough to get the Jets there as of late.

Then again, it's not all his fault. Equipped with one proven receiver in Santonio Holmes—who has missed most of the year—a lackluster set of running backs and Tim Tebowmania breathing down his neck, this hasn't been an easy 2012 campaign for the Sanchize.

Surprisingly, the Jets' pass defense continues to impress even with shutdown CB Darrelle Revis tearing his ACL early on. It's stopping the run that has been the problem, but will GM Mike Tannenbaum really use another first-round pick on a defensive lineman?

Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples have been the players of choice in the first round the past two times around. While Wilkerson is starting to emerge, Coples is echoing the pre-draft concerns about his motor and work ethic with his inconsistency.

Part of the dip in run defense may be attributable to the dire state of the offense, though.

If the offense can't stay on the field for long enough, the defense can get the ball pounded on them thoroughly due to fatigue.

Because of the heavy investment in the defensive front in the past two drafts and the heavy financial commitment to Sanchez, the Jets need to help their pedestrian quarterback out by acquiring exceptional skill players to surround him.

The problem is that the only two strong running backs are Marcus Lattimore and Giovani Bernard (h/t, both of whom have major knee injuries in their pasts. Taking a flier on one of them would be extremely risky, and may have to wait until Round 2, where both are likely to be available.

Until then, a dynamic wide receiver is necessary. That could lead to the selection of Cal's Keenan Allen, Tennessee's Justin Hunter, USC standout Robert Woods or Baylor star Terrance Williams.



Cleveland Browns

Jimmy Haslam is the new owner, and he means business. So does right-hand man and new CEO Joe Banner, who is cold and calculated in personnel decisions for the betterment of the franchise.

There is immense pressure for the Browns to succeed, especially with improved play down the stretch of this season. Pat Shurmur and his staff full of former head coaches—Brad Childress, Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes—may not be around to see the turnaround in Cleveland.

Plenty of promising young players round out the Browns' very young roster, which features 27 players with two or less years of NFL experience.

There is a definite youth movement going on in Cleveland, particularly on offense. No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson has set the Browns rookie record for rushing touchdowns, and supplemental draft choice Josh Gordon is emerging as the legitimate No. 1 receiver the team has been desperate for for years.

The biggest question mark is first-round pick Brandon Weeden, who has looked spectacular at times in 2012 and has the cannon arm to make any and every throw.

Unfortunately, Weeden pales in comparison to the rest of his draft class, which includes Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson—all of whom are rising stars guiding their teams toward the playoffs.

Weeden's supporting cast is worse than any of those aforementioned players other than Luck, who was labeled as the best quarterback since quarterbacks sliced bread coming out of Stanford. So that's not really to blame, and Luck leads the league in turnovers anyhow.

With just two games left to prove himself as the answer and a possible new-look offense coming with the firing of the coaching staff, it's too hard to evaluate Weeden as a bust yet. The heavy investment in a 29-year-old rookie would look silly if the Browns simply went out and got a different QB for 2013.

Truth be told, the defense is pretty darn good. It features solid interior line depth, a slew of young, underrated linebackers mentored by MLB D'Qwell Jackson and a secondary led by strong safety T.J. Ward and top-flight corner Joe Haden.

But what the Browns truly lack is an elite pass-rusher and depth at cornerback. With a relatively high pick likely in the top 10 and plenty of directions to go, the best-player-on-the-board strategy would serve Cleveland well here.

From a sheer needs basis, though, LSU's fearsome pass rusher Barkevious Mingo or Florida State's physical specimen of a corner in Xavier Rhodes would be excellent choices.

Cleveland must nail this draft. The franchise is on the cusp of turning the corner, and the loyal fans need to start seeing the results in the win column more consistently.



St. Louis Rams

That huge trade the team pulled off to yield the No. 2 pick to the Washington Redskins for what turned out to be Robert Griffin III is working out pretty well for both sides.

The Rams have improved this year under new head coach Jeff Fisher and the defense is emerging as one of the better all-around units in the game.

Here's the problem: they are in a division with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, both of whom have absolutely mopped up in the past two drafts and are in the midst of building dynasties. Considering the strength of the Arizona Cardinals defense, that team is a QB and offensive lineman away from likely being a playoff contender, too.

Here's the point: St. Louis must capitalize on their two first-round selections in this year's draft. The front office must absolutely nail them. Because if they don't, it could be very costly.

Although he has shown improvement in his third year and third offense, QB Sam Bradford is a former No. 1 overall pick and will be entering a critical juncture in his fourth season. Fisher said before the season that he's absolutely sold on Bradford as the future, and the Rams will need to do everything they can to help prove Fisher right.

The defense is set, and it looks like the Rams ironically hit a home run in the fourth round with speedster Chris Givens but may have missed badly on No. 33 overall pick Brian Quick.

Danny Amendola is very dependable and anchors the receiving corps, and Brandon Gibson has flashed big-play ability at times. But the Rams must be more explosive on offense, and that means adding another weapon in some regard.

Franchise-leading rusher Steven Jackson will hit that grave running back milestone of 30 years old, where most typically decline. He shows no signs of dropping off drastically now, but it's a concern.

That should lead the Rams to fortify the offensive line to protect Bradford and give Jackson better running lanes and also add a dynamic skills player that brings an element to the return game.

Michigan Wolverine Taylor Lewan or the exceptionally athletic Eric Fisher out of Central Michigan would both be stellar solutions to help the Rams after the failure of Jason Smith, who was traded to the Jets earlier this year.

If Tennessee's Hunter is off the board, West Virginia's Tavon Austin would be a bit of a reach in the first round but could serve as a valuable slot receiver, be utilized on end-around plays and help the Rams in the return game if nothing else.



Chicago Bears

Similar to the situation that St. Louis is in, the Bears are going to struggle to keep up in their division.

The Lions are as talented an offense as there is with an improving defense, and can be an extremely dangerous team in the years to come with better discipline. Green Bay looks like a perennial, Super Bowl contending staple and the Vikings are building a promising young core themselves.

Oh, and they have Adrian Peterson.

Chicago will be in trouble without a strong draft this time around. Whether it's a lack of playmakers or horrific offensive line play, the Bears only have the combination of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall to count on for consistent offense.

Cutler has continued to get hit harder than any pocket-based quarterback in the league, and could use a security blanket other than the typically double-covered Marshall to get the ball out hot to.

Speedy WR Johnny Knox should be back in 2013 and the development of Alshon Jeffery should give the Bears three decent receivers. But time must be had to get them the ball, a luxury Cutler doesn't currently enjoy.

RB Matt Forte is quietly having a solid season, but it hasn't mattered without balance from the passing game.

The only reason the Bears average in the middle of the pack in points scored per game is because the defense scored touchdowns at a staggering rate to begin the year.

Now that those points haven't been manufactured by the playmakers on D, the Bears have collapsed in the latter half of 2012. Once looking like a Super Bowl-caliber team, they are now in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

That said, the defense should have at least one more year of great football left in them as they stand right now.

Bottom line: Cutler needs more time and more explosiveness, and the Bears need to crush this first-round pick. Thankfully for them, there are two options that immediately jump out and would be great fits.

Tennessee Volunteers offensive tackle Dallas Thomas would be an ideal fit, and he ranks No. 29 in Scouts Inc.'s Top 32 (h/t ESPN).

With experience against the terrifying front lines of the SEC, Thomas could definitely fill in as a starter from Day 1. Russ Lande of National Football Post raved about him earlier this year, highlighting Thomas' exceptional pass-blocking ability and agility to get out of his stance quickly.

Another great fit: Stanford TE Zach Ertz, who Scouts Inc. rates higher than acclaimed Notre Dame prospect Tyler Eifert.

Ertz is a massive target at 6'6", 252 pounds, leading the No. 6, Rose Bowl-bound Cardinal with 66 catches, 837 yards and six touchdowns. 

Combine that with the ability to block extremely well and the success of recent Stanford grads transitioning to the NFL, and Ertz would be a wonderful fit for the Bears' organization.


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