2016 NFL Draft: 5 Teams That Need to Use the Draft to Rebuild
With the NFL draft quickly approaching, several teams will have an opportunity to rebuild after being largely inactive on the free-agent market.
Some teams are a few years away from being true Super Bowl contenders, but they can utilize the draft to begin rebuilding. Others are contenders at the moment and simply need to plug a few holes that were created in free agency.
The first category includes teams such as the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns. Neither team should reasonably contend for a playoff spot next season, but a strong draft can give fans optimism for 2017 and beyond.
Teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos are from the latter category. Both are good teams now but need to utilize the draft well to fill the void left by the departure of some key contributors.
Here's a look at the five teams that need to have strong drafts this year, including which positions and players would be the best fits.
Biggest draft needs: offensive line, defensive end, cornerback
In the aftermath of the Chip Kelly debacle, the Eagles need a strong draft to get back into contention for the NFC East title.
General manager Howie Roseman has been quite busy this offseason. Dealing the contracts of Bryon Maxwell and DeMarco Murray had to be done, and the injury-prone Kiko Alonso is gone as well. Philadelphia was able to move up five spots in the draft (from No. 13 to No. 8) as a result.
It will be interesting to see which needs the Eagles choose to prioritize in the draft.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will likely operate out of a 4-3 defense. Defensive end jumps out as a draft need, but the team appears confident in using Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham as defensive ends.
One of the most popular mock draft selections has been former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott to the Eagles with the No. 8 selection. Though the running back position is believed to have been somewhat devalued over the years, Roseman doesn't think so, per Nick Fierro of the Morning Call:
There's this narrative that you can get running backs in the fifth, sixth, seventh round and in undrafted free agency. But when you look back in the last 10 years of guys that really are in the top 10 in rushing, those guys are high picks. And so when you find a special talent at that position, that guy who can run the ball, can pass-protect, that can catch the ball out of the backfield, that's a unique weapon. So I don't think the position is de-valued.
Of course, the Eagles don't have to wait until the late rounds to draft another running back. Even though Philadelphia doesn't have its second-round pick this year, its two Round 3 selections would allow it to select a running back such as Utah's Devontae Booker or Arkansas' Alex Collins.
Ultimately, the No. 8 selection for the Eagles should come down to Elliott, Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley or Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Assuming all three are available, Stanley is the most logical selection. He would help shore up an ailing offensive line and serve as an eventual replacement for the aging Jason Peters (34) at left tackle.
Once that pick is made, Roseman can free up his mid-round picks for other needs—particularly cornerback. In his latest mock draft, NJ.com's Matt Lombardo has the Eagles selecting Stanley at No. 8, Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez in Round 3 and Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon in Round 4.
If the Eagles can draft effectively, they should be right in the heart of the NFC East divisional race.
Green Bay Packers
Biggest draft needs: tight end, inside/outside linebacker, offensive tackle
To say that the Packers have been inactive in free agency is an understatement.
Green Bay is the only team left that has not signed an unrestricted free agent from another squad this offseason. Instead, general manager Ted Thompson has opted to re-sign his own free agents and focus on the draft to build his team.
It's not a bad plan by any means, but he'd better hope the draft pans out.
Holding the No. 27 pick in the draft, Thompson has several positional options to consider, although mock draft analysts differ greatly on whom they think the Packers will take. According to SB Nation's mock draft tracker, Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings is the player who is most mocked to Green Bay (18.8 percent), but that frequency is tied with the "others" category.
The NFL.com six-member mock draft panel is also divided, but they've narrowed their selections to three candidates: Billings, Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry.
It's interesting how these analysts ignore the need at offensive tackle. This year's tackle class drops off after Ohio State's Taylor Decker, who could well be available at No. 27. If the Packers decide to draft a tackle to develop behind David Bakhtiari (who will be a free agent next offseason) and Bryan Bulaga, they may just wait until Round 3 or 4 to select one.
Taking Henry with the No. 27 pick would be a nice selection, especially for Aaron Rodgers. Even though Green Bay has hosted free-agent tight end Jared Cook for a visit, per Ryan Wood of PackersNews.com, Henry carries far more upside and is a matchup nightmare.
Overall, however, Ragland appears to be the most logical pick. Green Bay has a huge need at inside linebacker, and putting a thumper like Ragland next to Clay Matthews could help the Packers restore their dominant front seven.
If the Packers select Ragland in Round 1, then Rounds 2 and 3 give the team the opportunity to select an overlooked pass-rusher or a tight end. Henry has slid to the Packers in Round 2 in some mocks, and Stanford's Austin Hooper is another good option. Outside linebacker options may be limited in the middle rounds, but Ohio State's Joshua Perry is a viable option.
Biggest draft needs: quarterback, wide receiver, offensive guard
The Browns have many needs, but the most prevalent among them stand on the offensive side of the ball.
Holding the No. 2 pick in the draft, Cleveland will have its chance at any quarterback in the draft class. That almost certainly means that either California's Jared Goff or North Dakota State's Carson Wentz will have the opportunity to reverse the Browns' awful quarterback luck over the past few years.
Wentz has become the overwhelming favorite, garnering almost 64 percent of recent mock draft selections. He looks to be a true boom-or-bust prospect, as his lack of competition at the college level is largely viewed as a major liability.
But don't count Goff out of the picture just yet. New Browns head coach Hue Jackson has gushed over his potential, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot:
The guy threw the ball tremendously [at Cal's pro day]. He can make all the throws. For a big guy, he's more athletic than people think. He has quick feet. He obviously has a quick release. What I've seen on videotape to go along with the workout is he has tremendous poise in the pocket. He's a young man that can keep his eyes downfield when people are bearing at him and, to me, that's an unbelievable asset. Because a lot of people can't do that.
But Kaepernick's trade price is too high at this point, and as Jackson told Cabot, signing Griffin III is simply a move to create competition between him and whomever the drafted quarterback is.
Where things get interesting for Cleveland is with its Round 2 selection—No. 32 overall. Assuming the team does go quarterback at No. 2, it'll have a tough decision to make at No. 32.
Wide receiver appears to be the prevalent target, and that makes sense. After Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss, no receiver is a lock to be selected in Round 1. This makes Ohio State's Michael Thomas, Baylor's Corey Coleman, TCU's Josh Doctson and Notre Dame's Will Fuller all viable options.
Combined with Josh Gordon's possible reinstatement to the league, wide receiver can quickly turn from a weakness to perhaps the team's greatest strength—even with the loss of Travis Benjamin.
The offensive line is another story. Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz are now gone, and there's a decent chance that Joe Thomas could leave shortly as well. Last year's Round 1 selection Cameron Erving is expected to make a big sophomore leap, but even if he does, offensive line is still a major area of need.
Unless Cleveland decides to trade back, it will most likely address the offensive line in the middle rounds, starting with its Round 3 pick. It could select a tackle to replace Schwartz (or back up Thomas) or draft a guard to play on the interior alongside Erving and Joel Bitonio.
Should it choose the latter, Cleveland could pick up a nice steal in Round 3. LSU's Vadal Alexander, Stanford's Joshua Garnett and Arizona State's Christian Westerman are all talented guards who could slide right into Cleveland's lap.
All in all, the Browns have quite a bit of work to do on both sides of the ball, and it's possible that they decide to focus on defense throughout the draft. But the offensive-minded Jackson will surely want to infuse young talent into his offense, and there's no better time to do that than through the draft.
Biggest draft needs: quarterback, offensive guard, inside linebacker
The Broncos are still one of the NFL's best teams, but they have no shortage of holes to fill through the draft.
The primary objective for John Elway is the most obvious one: finding a new quarterback. Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler are both gone, and Elway is too savvy to actually name Mark Sanchez the starting quarterback...right?
A few weeks ago, I would have said that the Broncos should trade for (or sign) a good starting quarterback, such as Griffin III, Kaepernick or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Now, it appears drafting a quarterback is the best option.
The Niners appear to be holding onto Kaepernick for now, and Fitzpatrick is apparently out of Denver's price range, per ESPN's Adam Schefter (h/t SI.com). That leaves Griffin III, but the Browns and Jets are also hot on his trail, per Darryl Slater of NJ.com.
Mock draft experts have tied Denver to both Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch and Michigan State's Connor Cook with its No. 31 overall selection. Both would be great choices.
However, defensive line has quickly become a popular option for the Broncos in Round 1. Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones has also been mocked to Denver at No. 31 recently, and he would help fill the void left by Malik Jackson.
Offensive line has been a persistent problem for the Broncos this offseason, and they've addressed their holes at tackle. Signing Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson has given them quality starters at tackle and has made Ryan Clady and his $10.1 million cap hit, per Spotrac, expendable.
In the early rounds of the draft, the Broncos can address the issues at guard.
Much like with the Browns, they could have an excellent crop of guards to choose from in Rounds 2 and 3. Alexander, Garnett, Westerman and North Carolina's Landon Turner are all players to keep an eye on.
The final key focus in the draft for Denver is its hole at inside linebacker. Without Danny Trevathan and backup Nate Irving, Brandon Marshall is the only viable inside linebacker on the roster.
Missouri's Kentrell Brothers is an intriguing option for the Broncos at the end of Round 2, but Rounds 3 and 4 are full of overlooked linebackers—especially Temple's Tyler Matakevich, who would be a nice Round 3 snag.
All in all, the Broncos still boast a talented defense capable of shutting down just about any offense in the league. But with the AFC West becoming far more talented over the offseason and Denver losing several key parts on both sides of the ball, it needs to have a strong draft to reclaim its division crown (and Lombardi Trophy) next season.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest draft needs: quarterback, wide receiver, inside linebacker
With Chip Kelly in place as the new head coach and a league-high 12 draft picks at their disposal, the 49ers have the opportunity to change their entire fortunes around with this draft.
The priority for San Francisco hasn't changed a bit over the past several months: finding the quarterback of the future. Kaepernick should be the starter for now, but with the No. 7 pick in the draft, the 49ers should aim to change that.
It appears that between Goff and Wentz, whichever quarterback Cleveland does not take at No. 2 will become a 49er five picks later (unless Jerry Jones shocks the world with a Dallas quarterback selection at No. 4).
Goff appears to be the preferred choice for San Francisco. He's a local kid who has never played football outside California, and the 49ers have been embarrassed twice before on passing up a talented California quarterback (Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady).
But even Wentz would give the team a young, talented quarterback who can be developed under Kelly's scheme. Once they nail down the quarterback situation, the 49ers can finally address other issues.
With its Round 2 selection—No. 37 overall—San Francisco should look to draft from the top-heavy wide receiver class. Each member of the quartet of Thomas, Coleman, Doctson and Fuller could slide right into Kelly's lap for his second selection, and it would give the new quarterback (or maybe Kaepernick for next year) a fresh target to develop.
In Round 3, the 49ers can address the inside linebacker hole and free up their remaining nine selections for general manager Trent Baalke's favorite draft activity: taking the best player available.
Matakevich and Arizona's Scooby Wright III are both viable options, as is Oklahoma's Dominique Alexander. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if Baalke opts to wait until Round 4 to start looking at linebackers and instead addresses the offensive or defensive line in Round 3.
San Francisco is still a few years away from being a true contender, especially since it plays in arguably the toughest division in football. But a strong 2016 draft could be the start of good things to come in the Bay Area.