The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and the runner-up San Francisco 49ers may have picked late in the 2013 NFL draft, but they reloaded and chose as well as anyone. Both figure to be contenders once again this season.
However, for some of the less recently thriving NFL franchises that had critical holes to fill, the draft brought some much-needed upgrades. Four teams in particular—including only one shocking playoff team from last year—stood out.
Below is a letter grade evaluation for all 32 teams, and then some more in-depth analysis on those who improved the most—and needed to.
Jacksonville Jaguars (A)
New GM Dave Caldwell is certainly getting the revamped Jaguars off to a wonderful start under his control. Rather than giving in to pressure to solve the quarterback situation right away, he didn't reach for a signal-caller in the weak class.
Instead, he drafted Luke Joeckel at No. 2 overall, which wasn't the most exciting pick, but it was indeed the safest one. The Jags now have a dominant tackle tandem with Joeckel and Eugene Monroe, which should help whoever is under center between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne.
Thereafter, the focus became improving the defense. Jacksonville kicked off Day 2 of the draft by staying in the Sunshine State in selecting Florida International safety Johnathan Cyprien.
The hard-hitting playmaker is also capable of attacking the ball effectively in the air on the back end and creating turnovers. Cyprien is an instant starter at strong safety and will improve the league's third-worst 2012 run defense.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen compared him to Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, who thrived as a Pro Bowler under the direction of Gus Bradley, the Jags' new head coach:
Jaguars discussed quarterbacks, but decided to build the identity of the team. Cyprien is a little smaller than Chancellor but brings the physicality that Chancellor did while Bradley was with the Seahawks
Dwayne Gratz went in the third round, and he will also be a fixture in Jacksonville's defensive backfield in starting on the outside as a rookie.
In the middle rounds, Caldwell took fliers on WR Ace Sanders and former Michigan star Denard Robinson, who is slated to play running back and should be an effective gadget player.
Round 6 pick and ex-Florida Gator Josh Evans brings great value, too, and could push Dwight Lowery for the starting free safety job.
Pittsburgh Steelers (A)
It seemed like everything fell apart for the Steelers last year, but for one of the best organizations in football, the result of that disaster still wound up being a respectable 8-8 record.
When stud outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was still on the board at No. 17 overall, there was no hesitation. Jones led college football in tackles for loss and sacks in 2012 at Georgia, and figures to be a force coming off the edge in Dick LeBeau's defense.
Jones drew criticism for a poor pro day, but as Tom Bradley of Steelers Broadcast Network indicated, the game tape told the story to the Pittsburgh brass and coaching staff:
The Steelers draft Jarvis Jones because he makes plays! Just talked with Kevin Colbert and he wasted no time getting that choice to podium!— Tom Bradley (@TomScrapBradley) April 26, 2013
QB Ben Roethlisberger got drilled consistently last season and desperately needed a solid running back behind him. The Steelers promptly solved that problem by drafting ex-Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell in Round 2.
Bell serves as a fresh bell-cow back—the punishing runner that Pittsburgh needs in order to reestablish a more physical, mauling identity on offense. He is also incredibly agile for sporting a 230-pound frame.
Underrated WR Markus Wheaton brings depth and speed to the Steelers' receiver corps, and Shamarko Thomas has the upside to replace Ryan Clark or Troy Polamalu as a starting safety in the future.
The pick used to acquire Thomas was obtained from AFC North rival Cleveland, who needed safety help of its own.
Plus, the choice of Landry Jones in Round 4 was a sound pick, as he has the tools to be the heir apparent to Roethlisberger and has plenty of time to develop behind him.
Minnesota Vikings (A+)
After surprisingly getting to the postseason courtesy of a monster season from RB Adrian Peterson, the Vikings had a doozy of a draft.
A bonanza of first-round picks resulted in landing DT Sharrif Floyd—who was widely considered a top-five pick—physical cornerback Xavier Rhodes and raw but immensely gifted WR Cordarrelle Patterson.
GM Rick Spielman couldn't have hoped to fare any better. Floyd may very well be the steal of the draft, and he should slide in alongside Pat Williams to fortify the interior of Minnesota's defensive line.
After the departure of veteran CB Antoine Winfield, the Vikings desperately needed a corner to fill the void, which is precisely what Rhodes does. With a sizable 6'1", 210-pound frame, he presents a physicality on the outside that should stymie even the biggest targets on opposing teams.
Finally, the league's worst passing offense needed another weapon, especially once Percy Harvin was shipped out of town. Patterson is essentially a bigger, stronger version of Harvin, who is just as dangerous in the open field and is a threat in the return game.
Marc Weiszer of the Athens-Banner Herald documented the opinion of ESPN expert Jon Gruden with regard to Patterson, implying he dominated weaker competition but disappeared against better foes:
Jon Gruden on Cordarrelle Patterson: "He dominated Georgia State, but not Georgia."— Marc Weiszer (@marcweiszer) April 26, 2013
While there might be some truth to that, the flashes of brilliance Patterson did have—against Georgia specifically—make him worthy of a first-round selection:
There are no two ways about it: Minnesota crushed this draft, and looks set up to take a bigger step in 2013.
St. Louis Rams (A+)
Which team had the best draft?
By trading up to No. 8 overall and electing electric WR Tavon Austin, the Rams have armed QB Sam Bradford with a weapon that could help him live up to the hype as a former No. 1 overall pick.
The NFC West is arguably the best division in football now, and St. Louis needed an effective draft in order to keep up. Austin is an extremely productive, durable receiver who is nearly impossible to get a hand on in space.
GM Les Snead then traded back with the team's second first-round choice, and selected ex-Georgia LB Alec Ogletree with the 30th pick.
NFL Network's Jeff Darlington noted how much the Rams like Ogletree, a dynamic, tackling machine who should thrive within an extremely talented and tough St. Louis defense:
Rams take Alec Ogletree. They really like him in this building here at the Rams' facility. Now watch Jeff Fisher turn him into an NFL stud.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) April 26, 2013
But the Rams weren't done. FS T.J. McDonald saw his stock drop due to Southern California's awful season, but he is one of the most talented safeties in this 2013 class and will start in Week 1.
Bradford then got another receiving target in Stedman Bailey, who was college teammates with Austin at West Virginia. While the days of "The Greatest Show on Turf" may not quite be returning, there is a lot more firepower on offense in St. Louis.
Another brilliant pick was versatile Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, who comes from a championship-winning program and can fill in anywhere the Rams need him in the trenches.