Slam-Dunk Draft Picks Foreshadowed by Early Free-Agency Moves
In an NFL draft year where there is no clear-cut No. 1 overall selection, there are few slam-dunk selections to be had. But nearly two weeks into NFL free agency, as teams have both filled needs by signing players and had new needs emerge from players who have gone to new teams, possible selections for the 2013 NFL draft are starting to gain clarity.
Each of the following five teams has lost a key player this offseason at a specific position and has yet to add that player’s replacement in free agency. As free agency presses on, it appears more and more likely that these teams will have to turn to the draft to fill those needs. Fortunately for them, there are terrific draft choices who could potentially be available to fill their respective major needs.
Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
The Detroit Lions are going to have two new starters at offensive tackle next season. One of those offensive tackles is likely to be their 2012 first-round pick, Iowa’s Riley Reiff, but they would be smart to draft another first-round offensive tackle if Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is available at the No. 5 overall pick.
Longtime Lions left tackle Jeff Backus retired this offseason, while right tackle Gosder Cherilus left to sign with the Indianapolis Colts. Reiff is a potential fit on either side, but the Lions’ best bet would be to draft a top-tier prospect like Fisher to take over on the left side, then designating Reiff as Cherilus’ replacement.
Fisher has emerged from initially being an under-the-radar prospect, but he is worth a top-five draft choice. A skilled pass-blocker with tremendous length and very good feet, he has all the tools to be among the NFL’s best left tackles, especially when it comes to protecting the quarterback.
If Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel makes it past the top four picks, he would also be an outstanding choice at the No. 5 overall pick to give the Lions a franchise left tackle. On the other end of the equation, it is not a given that Fisher will be available at No. 5, especially if Joeckel ends up being the No. 1 overall pick.
A polished, potentially elite pass-protecting left tackle, however, would be the best choice for Detroit with its top-five draft pick. An in-state product in Fisher could be an immediate upgrade at left tackle and would proactively avoid what could otherwise be a problematic situation in pass protection for quarterback Matt Stafford.
St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
While the St. Louis Rams added one big playmaker to their offense by signing free-agent tight end Jared Cook, they lost three others in running back Steven Jackson, wide receivers Danny Amendola and wide receiver Brandon Gibson. Having already needed to become a more explosive offense, the Rams would be smart to use one of their two first-round picks on an offensive playmaker.
Specifically, the Rams need to find a replacement at slot receiver for Amendola. There is no more dynamic offensive player in the 2013 draft class than West Virginia’s Tavon Austin.
A shifty slot receiver who can cut on a dime but also has great straight-line speed, Austin can immediately add a new dimension to the Rams offense. The Rams currently lack a game-changing playmaker on their offense, but they can get that from Austin, who can turn a screen pass into a huge play with his speed and open-field quickness.
While the 5’9”, 174-pound Austin makes even Amendola look big, his consistent hands and sharp route-running make him a great fit to play in the slot. Austin adds an additional dimension as he can line up as a running back in the backfield. Whether Austin gets the ball on a handoff, catch or kickoff/punt return, he is always a threat to break away from defenders in the open field.
Austin could be in play at either the No. 16 or 22 overall selection, and is exactly the type of offensive weapon the Rams lack and need.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
The Pittsburgh Steelers already had a need to improve their pass rush before releasing starting outside linebacker James Harrison prior to the start of free agency. The Steelers have not signed anyone to replace Harrison, and even if the Steelers expect Jason Worilds to take Harrison’s role, they should be in the market for a pass-rushing upgrade at the No. 17 overall pick.
Georgia’s Jarvis Jones could very well be a top-15 draft choice, but with a significant medical red flag surrounding his spinal stenosis and coming off of a disappointing pro day, his stock is declining. If he is available at No. 17, he would be a perfect fit to take over Harrison’s role and add a much-needed spark to the Steelers pass rush.
Jones fits the Steeler mold for a pass-rushing outside linebacker that has been defined by Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense in recent years. He does not have great measurables in terms of size or athleticism, but he is a skilled power rusher who has great snap anticipation, uses his hands well and is quick in space.
Jones can be a three-down asset as both a pass-rusher and run defender, and would be an upgrade over Worilds, who has been a disappointment through his first three NFL seasons.
Jones is even drawing comparisons to Harrison, including from Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer, Matt Miller.
Jones could end up going earlier, with the New York Jets at No. 9 overall and New Orleans Saints at No. 15 being other potential fits, but if he falls to the second half of the first round, the Steelers shouldn’t pass up taking a chance on him, especially now that Harrison is no longer in the fold.
San Francisco 49ers: Eric Reid, FS, LSU
Following the first wave of free agency, the San Francisco 49ers’ greatest need is clearly at free safety, where they lost one of the league’s best players at his position in Dashon Goldson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the 49ers did sign Craig Dahl to a three-year contract as a potential replacement, he did not prove himself as a starting-caliber player with the St. Louis Rams.
The 49ers should be in the market for a free safety early in the draft, and holding both the No. 31 and No. 34 overall selections, LSU’s Eric Reid is a pick that would make a great deal of sense if he is available at either spot.
Reid’s stock has dropped to that of a fringe first-round pick after a disappointing junior season, but he remains one of the top safeties in the draft class, and the best fit as a free safety among them for the 49ers defense.
While Reid isn’t quite the playmaker or striker that Goldson is, he is a fluid and athletic safety who can be an upgrade in deep pass coverage. He needs to become a more consistent tackler, but he has good instincts and is active in run support.
Giving up big plays in pass defense cost the 49ers in the Super Bowl last season, and they need to make early draft investments to help rebuild their secondary.
Some have suggested that the 49ers should trade up for Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who could also be a great replacement for Goldson and is a bigger hitter and playmaker, but if they stay put, Reid is likely to be available with their late first-round pick, and would be a worthy replacement and coverage upgrade in their secondary.
Baltimore Ravens: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
The defending Super Bowl champions have suffered some heavy losses during this year’s free-agency period, not the least of which was trading away valued possession receiver Anquan Boldin for only a sixth-round pick in order to create cap room. Now, the Ravens will likely look to the draft to find Boldin’s lineup replacement.
Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins would be a perfect choice to replace Boldin if he is available at the end of the first round. Like Boldin, Hopkins is a receiver who may not stand out with his measurables, but does a tremendous job of tracking the football in the air and going up to make plays on the ball.
As polished as any wide receiver in the draft class, Hopkins has terrific hands, is a crisp route-runner and can work through physical coverage. He is a tremendous fit to replace Boldin in the Ravens offense as the No. 2, intermediate possession receiver opposite Torrey Smith.
The Ravens also lost star players at safety and inside linebacker, so players such as Eric Reid and Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown would also be great choices for the Ravens with the final pick of Round 1. The best fit and value selection for the Ravens, however, would be to draft Hopkins to fill the void that will be left in the offense by Boldin, a crucial component of their championship run.
Dan Hope is an NFL Draft Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.