While most of the national headlines following the AFC and NFC Championship Games are about the Super Bowl matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, the rest of the NFL has turned its attention to the upcoming NFL draft.
You can officially add the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers to the list of squads that can officially begin developing their draft game plans.
As each round of the NFL playoffs gets put into the books, more spots in the 2014 NFL draft order are solidified. So, if there is one silver lining to losing before the Super Bowl, it is that your draft positioning is slightly better.
Here is a look at how the current draft order shapes up following the championship games:
|2||St. Louis Rams (via Washington Redskins||3||13||0||.516|
|7||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4||12||0||.574|
|12||New York Giants||7||9||0||.520|
|13||St. Louis Rams||7||9||0||.551|
|16||Baltimore Ravens or Dallas Cowboys||8||8||0||.484|
|17||Baltimore Ravens or Dallas Cowboys||8||8||0||.484|
|18||New York Jets||8||8||0||.488|
|21||Green Bay Packers||8||7||1||.553|
|23||Kansas City Chiefs||11||5||0||.445|
|25||San Diego Chargers||9||7||0||.496|
|26||Cleveland Browns (via Indianapolis Colts||11||5||0||.484|
|27||New Orleans Saints||11||5||0||.516|
|29||New England Patriots||12||4||0||.473|
|30||San Francisco 49ers||12||4||0||.494|
Keep in mind that if two squads had the same records during the regular season, the strength of schedule numbers serve as the tiebreaker. Furthermore, selections 16 and 17 between the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens will be decided by a coin toss.
It is also worth noting that the first 20 spots were decided immediately after the regular season, and the remaining spots are solidified as squads lose in the postseason.
As for the actual draft, much of the intrigue comes from where some of the highly rated quarterbacks will be chosen. With names such as Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles all expected to go early, squads such as Houston, Cleveland and Jacksonville that could really use a quarterback of the future will have some options.
There are also elite defensive playmakers who are expected to fly off the board in the early selections, including Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr.
While much of the discussion about the upcoming draft will be focused on the early picks, what about the two teams that lost on the doorstep of the Super Bowl?
Clearly, the Patriots are in the ever-capable hands of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but their season was marred by injuries and a depleted roster. The upcoming draft presents a golden opportunity to shore up some areas of need and add depth.
AFC Championship Game or not, New England’s defense was a weakness for much of the year, ranking 18th in the league against the pass and 30th in the league against the run. Considering the leaky defense and the litany of injuries, it really puts into perspective just how great Brady was this season.
Expect the Patriots to look to the defensive side of the ball in the draft. Mack, Clowney and Barr will be off the board by selection No. 29, but there will be plenty of capable options. Defensive tackle Louis Nix from Notre Dame, linebacker/defensive end Kony Ealy from Missouri and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner from Florida State all come to mind as potential additions for the Pats’ defense.
However, don’t overlook defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman from Minnesota.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports sees New England using its first selection on Hageman to help plug the middle of New England’s defense:
Bill Belichick and his defensive staff might be able to get the most out of this talented-but-inconsistent prospect who at least looks like Richard Seymour getting off the bus before…They also need a defensive tackle. Badly. The depth drops off soon after this.
Comparing Hageman to Seymour is serious praise, but if any team in the league can turn a potentially inconsistent prospect into a superstar, it is Belichick and the Patriots.
As for the NFC Championship Game loser, there are few teams in the entire league as talented across the board as San Francisco. It can go with the tried-and-true strategy of selecting the best player remaining, but if there was a weakness this season it was the passing game, at least statistically.
The 49ers ranked 30th in the league in passing yards per game in the NFL, even with the multi-talented Colin Kaepernick manning the controls at quarterback.
Clearly, San Francisco isn’t going to take a quarterback in the first round considering how young and talented Kaepernick is, but a wide receiver or tight end could help the passing game. Anquan Boldin isn't getting any younger, and you can never have too many weapons.
Potential candidates who could be around that late in the first round are Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham from LSU, Paul Richardson from Colorado or even Brandin Cooks from Oregon State.
Interestingly, Edholm projects that the NFC champion Seahawks will select Richardson as somewhat of a sleeper:
Richardson is a known prospect, but there are perhaps a few other more ballyhooed names at the position ahead of him. Still, Richardson offers the speed and downfield playmaking this offense could really use, especially with the injuries and questionable futures of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. Richardson needs some refinement, but he's a good-looking prospect who put up big numbers this season with a lot of attention paid his way.
The draft may be months away, but as soon as the Super Bowl is over, the attention of the football-loving world will be squarely focused on it.