NFL Teams That Improved the Most Through 2014 Draft
The 2014 NFL rookies won't play a snap until the preseason begins in August. But with a knowledge of all 32 teams' needs and an examination of their draft strategies, we can determine which teams have improved the most through the draft.
Each NFL team had up to four widely recognized needs heading into Round 1 on Thursday. Franchises that draft using the best-player-available strategy, not need, weren't penalized when their picks were considered for this list, but they also must have satisfied a majority of their needs without reaching or sacrificing too many future draft picks.
Naturally, franchises that had more holes to fill after free agency had more opportunity to improve through the draft, so many of the following six teams either finished near the bottom of the league in 2013 or didn't make many moves in free agency.
Thus, it was difficult for teams like the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks—which were relatively complete heading into draft weekend—to make the list.
It's also important to distinguish between most improved teams and best drafts; if this were an evaluation of the best drafts, the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers would be included.
The following six teams, ranked in ascending order, satisfied a majority of their needs with astute value selections. Many of their draft picks should be Week 1 starters and, given what we know about them now, become important contributors in 2014.
Honorable Mention: Cleveland Browns
Needs: QB, CB, WR, OL
Notable Selections: CB Justin Gilbert (Round 1), QB Johnny Manziel (Round 1), OT Joel Bitonio (Round 2), ILB Christian Kirksey (Round 3), RB Terrance West (Round 3), CB Pierre Desir (Round 4)
It's hard to fault the Cleveland Browns for sticking to their draft board despite recently added wide receiver Nate Burleson re-fracturing his arm, per ESPN's Chris Mortensen, and No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon failing another drug test and facing a season-long suspension, per ESPN's T.J. Quinn and Don Van Natta Jr., in the same day.
The Browns evidently didn't plan to select a wide receiver before the news of Burleson and Gordon's situations surfaced, and even afterward, they did not draft one. Cleveland must have felt that Burleson and Andrew Hawkins, signed in free agency, and Greg Little were enough weapons for new quarterback Johnny Manziel.
After Round 1 of the draft, Browns fans were ecstatic with the franchise's first two selections. Justin Gilbert is widely considered the best cornerback in this class, and though the Browns didn't reach for a quarterback at No. 8, they did give up a third-round pick to move to 22 to land Manziel.
Gilbert is the "prototype cornerback in today's NFL," per NFL analyst Mike Mayock. By pairing him with Joe Haden, general manager Ray Farmer created one of the NFL's strongest secondaries.
Though it's helpful to have Gilbert to pair with Haden in new head coach Mike Pettine's complex blitz packages, the selection of Desir in Round 4 felt more like a luxury than a need.
Pettine, a former defensive coordinator, will be able to get creative with Gilbert and Desir, snagged at great value at 127th overall, in the defensive backfield. Christian Kirksey, a nice pickup at 71, will play inside.
Manziel was a risky selection at 22, but no more so than Blake Bortles at No. 3, Teddy Bridgewater at 32 or Derek Carr at 36. All will need two or three years in the league before assessments of their value can be made.
Manziel may not start Week 1 if the Browns want him to sit behind Brian Hoyer, and he'll need to focus on becoming a professional quarterback—both in his play and in his off-field demeanor. The days of Johnny Football are over.
After the elation of Day 1, Day 2 began with the somewhat polarizing pickup of Bitonio. Though offensive line was a need, the Browns could have taken Marqise Lee or Jordan Matthews with that pick.
But the move improved the right side of Cleveland's offensive line, where tackle Mitchell Schwartz struggled and guard Shawn Lauvao departed in free agency. Bitonio can play either guard or tackle.
So why did Cleveland only earn an honorable mention? First of all, its trade scenarios were puzzling at times. The Browns traded the No. 4 pick to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for the No. 9 and Buffalo's first- and fourth-round picks in 2015. Then, perhaps fearing it would lose Gilbert, Cleveland moved one spot up from No. 9 to No. 8, giving up a fifth-round pick.
Later in Round 1, the Browns gave up the No. 26 pick and a third-round pick to acquire No. 22 from the Eagles to select Manziel, even though they possibly could have gotten him at 26.
Then, Cleveland gave up a fourth-round pick and a sixth-round pick to select running back Terrance West with No. 94. He's a good addition to Ben Tate in the backfield, but it's hard not to think perhaps the Browns gave up some picks they could have used at other positions (like wide receiver) to get him.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Needs: QB, WR, DE, OL
Notable Selections: QB Blake Bortles (Round 1), WR Marqise Lee (Round 2), WR Allen Robinson (Round 2), G Brandon Linder (Round 3), CB Aaron Colvin (Round 4), DE Chris Smith (Round 5)
If Blake Bortles does not develop into a franchise quarterback for the Jaguars, the 2014 draft class may be remembered in an unfavorable light, but Jacksonville put together a great draft and filled all of its needs with high-value players.
Bortles may have been a reach at No. 3; certainly Jacksonville should have been more tempted by Khalil Mack or Sammy Watkins or made a move to trade down if Bortles was the guy. Third overall is an especially high pick for a quarterback who may end up sitting behind Chad Henne for a year.
But general manager Dave Caldwell knew what he wanted. In a presser, head coach Gus Bradley stated that the Jaguars would have still taken Bortles even had Jadeveon Clowney been available.
Still, there's no denying that the Jaguars swiftly and effectively filled their most gaping holes, quarterback among them. Despite the questionable value of Bortles at No. 3, Jacksonville had some steals in later rounds.
Snapping up wide receiver Marqise Lee, a Round 1 talent, at No. 39 overall was a great move, and double-dipping in the receiver pool with Allen Robinson at 61 somewhat justified the Bortles pick by surrounding him with weapons. This is a team in rebuilding mode, and Jacksonville identified the right positions to flood with talent.
Speaking of rebuilding, even though Jacksonville signed defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to join Jason Babin, all three are over 30. Chris Smith, a Round 3 or 4 projection, was a great pickup in Round 5. He'll play left defensive end, a pass-rushing position, in Bob Babich's scheme.
Moving back to the offense, the Jaguars gave up a lot (picks 105 and 179) to move back into the third round for Brandon Linder, but he's an important addition to the offensive line.
Right guard Will Rackley finished the 2013 season ranked as the third-worst guard in the league by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Linder will compete for the starting spot there.
Caldwell gave the Jaguars a solid foundation to build on in the next season or two. The tools he added in this draft will go a long way toward helping Jacksonville improve from its 4-12 record in 2013.
4. Houston Texans
Needs: QB, OLB, T, DE
Notable Selections: DE Jadeveon Clowney (Round 1), G Xavier Su'a-Filo (Round 2), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (Round 3), NT Louis Nix (Round 3), QB Tom Savage (Round 4)
The Houston Texans walked away from the draft with the best player in this year's class in Clowney, the highest-graded guard in Su'a-Filo and a Round 1 talent in Louis Nix, snatched up after a free fall at No. 83 overall for an incredible value pick.
They got stronger and bigger on the interior on both sides of the ball and mitigated the loss of tight end Owen Daniels in free agency with Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, who will join Garrett Graham on the depth chart.
With value in mind, the Texans were content to wait until Round 4 to get their quarterback, one of their biggest needs heading into the draft. "We'd like to be able to draft quarterbacks and develop young quarterbacks and that's certainly something we'd like to do," general manager Rick Smith said, per USA Today. "But we will always do that with corresponding value."
Houston certainly has a developmental prospect in Pittsburgh's Tom Savage, but his arm strength and size, at 6'4" and 228 pounds, are physical gifts head coach Bill O'Brien, who will call plays himself, can develop.
O'Brien has a reputation as a talented quarterback developer, though it remains to be seen if Savage can beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates for the starting job.
The addition of Clowney could satisfy Houston's need at outside 'backer or defensive end, depending on how he's used. Clowney played as a 4-3 defensive end at South Carolina, but in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's two-gap 3-4 scheme, it's unclear how Clowney and Watt can be most effective.
In a traditional two-gap 3-4 scheme, Clowney and Watt would be straight-up 3-4 defensive ends, book-ending the nose tackle and freeing the linebacker to make plays. Obviously, with each of Clowney and Watt's pass-rushing skills, that won't work.
Expect Crennel to use them at outside linebacker and the elephant end position (similarly to how Green Bay will use Julius Peppers in its 3-4 scheme). Clowney will line up as an edge-rusher because that's where he excels.
Houston now has potentially the best pass-rushing duo in the league. It made up for the loss of veteran guard Wade Smith in free agency with Su'a-Filo and got a better option at nose tackle than Jerrell Powe for a steal.
3. St. Louis Rams
Needs: OT, FS, WR, CB
Notable Selections: OT Greg Robinson (Round 1), DT Aaron Donald (Round 1), CB Lamarcus Joyner (Round 2), RB Tre Mason (Round 3), S Maurice Alexander (Round 4)
Granted, they had two picks in the first round to work with, but the St. Louis Rams came out of the first day of the draft with the two best players at their positions: offensive tackle Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Robinson satisfied one of the Rams' biggest needs on offensive line. Jake Long should be the starting left tackle through at least 2016, when his contract is set to expire. St. Louis lost guard Rodger Saffold to the Oakland Raiders in free agency, only to re-sign him a day later when Saffold failed his physical with Oakland. For now, Saffold looks to play right guard.
With Joe Barksdale slotted in at right tackle, Robinson should get the chance to start in Week 1 at left guard, but considering his talent at tackle, it would not be surprising for him to earn one of the two starting spots there shortly into his career in St. Louis.
Robinson's run-blocking skills will also benefit new rookie running back and fellow Auburn teammate Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,816 yards and an incredible 23 touchdowns in 2013.
Though defensive tackle wasn't a top need for the Rams, the selection of Donald at No. 13 was one of the best in Round 1. The move gives St. Louis the most fearsome defensive line in football, as Donald will join Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers—all first-rounders.
The Rams needed to upgrade the secondary as well, and they traded up four spots to get cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, whom general manager Les Snead acknowledged "might have been the favorite football player" on the Rams' board, per Rams-News.com.
Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher indicated that Joyner will primarily be used at nickel corner and could play some snaps at safety, which could satisfy two needs in one selection. They perhaps lose some points for reaching for Maurice Alexander but then got a great value in corner E.J. Gaines, who slipped to Round 6.
The Rams upgraded the areas where they had holes with value picks—and then went ahead and upgraded areas where they were already excelling as well. Perhaps they could have added another weapon for Sam Bradford, but they spent a first-round pick on wide receiver Tavon Austin in 2013.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Needs: QB, LB, OG, DB
Notable Selections: OLB Anthony Barr (Round 1), QB Teddy Bridgewater (Round 1), DE Scott Crichton (Round 3), RB Jerick McKinnon (Round 3), OG David Yankey (Round 5), CB Antone Exum (Round 6)
Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman put together a nice draft for defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
The Vikings had a nice one-two punch in Round 1, selecting one of the best defensive prospects in the draft in Anthony Barr and their quarterback of the future in Teddy Bridgewater.
After acquiring Greg Jennings in free agency last offseason and trading up in last year's draft to select Cordarrelle Patterson in Round 1, and with Adrian Peterson under contract until 2017, a franchise quarterback was the biggest piece missing in the Vikings' offensive puzzle.
Next on Minnesota's to-do list was replacing leading pass-rusher Jared Allen. The Vikings re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen and drafted defensive end Scott Crichton in Round 3, but Anthony Barr is the big addition.
Many questioned the effectiveness of Barr, thought to be best suited as an outside 'backer in a 3-4 scheme, on the Vikings defense. But Zimmer's 4-3 scheme relies on its linebackers to pressure the quarterback, which could be a good fit for Barr, who sometimes struggles in coverage.
"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker, for instance" Zimmer said, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. "We're thinking of ways to continually try to pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position."
Barr, then, will play at strong-side linebacker, and Chad Greenway will be the weak-side linebacker. Barr can also play defensive end in blitz packages, taking over Allen's sack production duties.
Minnesota also needed to upgrade its secondary after finishing the 2013 season with the second-worst pass defense in the league. Corner Antone Exum, projected to go in Round 3 or Round 4, was a steal in Round 6. He's much needed in a division that includes opponents like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Though Minnesota re-signed Charlie Johnson, left guard was another big need for the team, and it nailed it with a steal of a pick in David Yankey in Round 5. Yankey graded as a Round 2 or 3 prospect.
With some essential upgrades on both sides of the ball, the Minnesota Vikings put themselves in the best possible position they could have to contend in the increasingly competitive NFC North.
1. Oakland Raiders
Needs: QB, OLB, OL, WR
Notable Selections: OLB Khalil Mack (Round 1), QB Derek Carr (Round 2), OG Gabe Jackson (Round 3), DT Justin Ellis (Round 4), CB Keith McGill (Round 4)
The Oakland Raiders needed a lot of help heading into the 2014 draft, and through some uncharacteristically astute drafting, they got it.
Five of Oakland's last eight first-round picks are not currently on an NFL roster, per ESPN's Thursday morning SportsCenter broadcast. Consistently striking out in the first round has hindered its chances of regular-season success.
In 2014, however, Oakland satisfied nearly all of its major needs with highly rated talent.
Having Mack fall into their laps at No. 5 started the Raiders off on the right foot. General manager Reggie McKenzie added yet another piece to his defense, having signed LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck in free agency.
In defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's 4-3 scheme, Mack will most likely be used to rush the passer in defensive sub-packages.
Mack was a can't-miss talent at No. 5, but with the Raiders' 36th overall pick, they needed to address the quarterback position. Selecting Carr there was the perfect value pick—Carr graded out as a Round 1 talent. Even though Oakland acquired Matt Schaub via a trade with Houston in free agency, Carr is its franchise quarterback of the future.
Per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, Carr was the No. 1 quarterback on Oakland's board, but the Raiders assessed the situation perfectly, didn't reach and were able to land him without having to trade up and jeopardize their future picks.
In Gabe Jackson, the Raiders took another step toward rebuilding their offensive line, which was decimated in free agency. After losing left tackle Jared Veldheer, Oakland signed left guard Kevin Boothe, right tackle Austin Howard and left tackle Donald Penn.
Presumably, Oakland can slot Jackson in at right guard in Week 1.
Oakland also added some needed depth on the defensive line with the selection of defensive tackle Justin Ellis in Round 4. Some expected the Raiders to target a wide receiver, but the addition of James Jones in free agency certainly upgraded the unit.
In the secondary, corner Keith McGill should have been off the board in Round 2 or 3, and McKenzie nabbed him in the fourth.
The Raiders haven't had a winning season since 2002, but they took a major step toward getting over .500 in 2014 with their successful draft. The Raiders earn the top spot in this list for upgrading their quarterback, front seven and offensive line with players who can start from Week 1 and around whom the team can be rebuilt.
Especially impressive is how much Oakland was able to improve despite just one first-round pick (unlike St. Louis, Cleveland and Minnesota).