One reason the Steelers have been able to remain consistently competitive for decades is their ability to reload on the fly rather than enter total rebuilding mode. A changing of the guard has been taking place on defense for a few years now. Pittsburgh has done a nice job with the front seven, fazing out expensive, aging veterans and replacing them with talented youngsters like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Jason Worilds and Ryan Shazier. There is still work to be done in the secondary though. This might be a slight reach but there is no consensus third cornerback in this class yet and a case can be made that Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH) has as much upside as any cover guy in this class. Rollins was a four-year starter on the basketball court for the RedHawks and after his hoops eligibility ran out he decided to give the gridiron a try. Rollins was nothing short of a revelation, taking to the game like a fish to water and quickly earning an inordinate amount of respect from opposing offenses. Rollins is a smooth athlete with good size and
impressive instincts and surprisingly aggressive and physical. Rollins is also a ballhawk who would bring a playmaking dimension to the Pittsburgh secondary that they haven’t had in many years. Other than a lack of experience the only question mark with Rollins is long speed but if he runs well in pre-draft workouts don’t be surprised if some team pulls the trigger in late round one. Others corners that may be in the mix include Marcus Peters of Washington, PJ Williams of Florida St. and Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest.
Under the direction of a new coaching staff the Lions defense went from middle of the pack to one of the best in the league. With that said there is reason to be skeptical because the overall talent level on that side of the ball is still relatively average. Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly and there is a good chance at least one of those guys will have to be replaced. Texas DT Malcom Brown put together a superb junior campaign for the Longhorns, finishing with 15.0 tackles for a loss and 6.0 sacks while also using his 320 pounds to get the job done against the run. Brown is battling Eddie Goldman of Florida St. and Jordan Phillips of Oklahoma to be the third player off the board at the position. The other main area of concern for Detroit is cornerback,
where there is nothing but question marks beyond Darius Slay. Some of the cover guys who could be in the mix include Trae Waynes of Michigan St., P.J. Williams of Florida St., Marcus Peters of Washington, Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest and Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH). It wouldn’t hurt to add another pass rusher opposite Ziggy Ansah at defensive end either and there should be plenty of viable options including but certainly not limited to Vic Beasley of Clemson, Alvin Dupree of Kentucky & Nate Orchard of Utah.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: BENARDRICK MCKINNEY, LB, MISSISSIPPI ST.
The Cardinals already have one of the most intimidating defenses in the league but the addition of a playmaking linebacker could really take things to the next level. Especially with the future of Daryl Washington in doubt following another lengthy suspension for violating the leagues substance abuse policy, not to mention both John Abraham and Sam Acho hitting the open market. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi St. is his versatility since he could realistically play inside or outside and in either an even or odd front. McKinney is limited in coverage but is big and strong with the ability to plug the gaps and rush the passer. Other options at the linebacker position include Vic Beasley of Clemson, Alvin Dupree of Kentucky,
Shaq Thompson of Washington, Nate Orchard of Utah and Denzel Perryman of Miami (FL). Arizona might also have a need at nose tackle if Dan Williams leaves as a free agent so keep an eye on Eddie Goldman of Florida St., Malcom Brown of Texas and Jordan Phillips of Oklahoma as well. It may be time to start thinking about a quarterback of the future too since Carson Palmer is in his mid-thirties and coming off another major injury while Drew Stanton has proven to be merely a journeyman backup. Could they reach for the potential of UCLA's Brett Hundley?
Heading into the 2014 NFL Draft the Panthers seemed to have two glaring holes at wide receiver and offensive tackle that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Carolina opted for a pass catcher in round one and they couldn’t be happier with that decision because Kelvin Benjamin looks like the real deal. However, it was relatively shocking to see them ignore the offensive tackle position all together in light of the retirement of long-time stalwart Jordan Gross. In hindsight that was an enormous mistake as they were plagued by offensive line issues for most of the season. Look for the Panthers to make adding a blocker a top priority this offseason. Pittsburgh OT T.J. Clemmings entered his senior season with a mid-round grade but it quickly became obvious that was way off the mark. A converted defensive end, Clemmings looks every bit the part of a stud offensive tackle prospect with a large, linear frame and long arms. Despite being raw as a technician due to a lack of experience Clemmings generates movement in the run game but is also a very good
athlete with nimble feet who can protect the edge. In fact, even though Clemmings played right tackle in college his skill set might actually be better suited for the blindside. Clemmings has been one of this year’s fastest risers and may not even last this long on Draft Day. The Panthers could also use a legitimate impact presence in their overachieving secondary and when it comes to offensive playmakers the cupboard is bare beyond Greg Olsen and the aforementioned Benjamin.
Even though 35-year-old Steve Smith is still playing at a relatively high level a replacement will be needed sooner rather than later. In retrospect parting ways with Anquan Boldin for pennies on the dollar over a salary dispute might have been a mistake. Arizona St. WR Jaelen Strong isn’t particularly fast or explosive but like Boldin he compensates by being physical and doing the little things. A big, tough, aggressive pass catcher with terrific hands and ball skills, Strong would be a perfect complement to vertical threat Torrey Smith. Another intriguing option would be Devin Funchess of Michigan, who could be a factor at either wideout or tight end. Other wideouts that could be in the late first round conversation include Dorial Green-Beckham of Oklahoma, Sammie Coates of Auburn and Devin Smith of Ohio St.
Justin Forsett the Ravens could also consider a top-flight running back such as Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin or Todd Gurley of Georgia. Baltimore might also be in the market for a cornerback since Jimmy Smith is approaching free agency next offseason and the depth is shaky at best. Ozzie Newsome has put together a Hall of Fame career as a general manager by pouncing when highly rated prospects unexpectedly fall into his lap on Draft Day so that's always something to keep a close eye out for too.
Even though the Cowboys played much, much better on defense after finishing dead-last in the league the year prior there are still more questions than answers on that side of the ball. It’s one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, there probably aren’t more than a handful of current defenders that can truly be counted on long-term. Even though the defensive line is a more pressing need Washington OLB Shaq Thompson is simply too talented and too good of a fit for a Rod Marinelli defense to pass up at this point. Thompson is a linebacker / safety hybrid who also saw extensive action at running back for the Huskies. Now that is a versatile athlete! Thompson may need just the right set of circumstances in terms of scheme and role to maximize his potential at the next level but his best fit will likely come on the weakside in a 4-3 front. Think Thomas Davis without the durability concerns. Regardless of where he lines up, Thompson has proven to be a big-time playmaker with a nose for the ball.
It will be interesting to see where a true ‘tweener like Thompson ultimately comes off the board but the tape is extremely impressive and screams first round talent. Dallas could very easily opt for a defensive lineman too though and options may include Vic Beasley of Clemson, Alvin Dupree of Kentucky, Eddie Goldman of Florida St., Malcom Brown of Texas and Nate Orchard of Utah. “America’s Team” could even choose to replace free agent DeMarco Murray with Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon or Georgia RB Todd Gurley.
The Broncos window to win a Super Bowl is closing fast and it would be slammed shut if something were to happen to Peyton Manning. Needless to say keeping their franchise quarterback upright and healthy should be of the utmost importance and the organizations top priority. Florida St. C Cameron Erving is a converted defensive tackle who was named the top blocker in the ACC as a junior while protecting the blindside of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for a national championship team. Erving got off to a slow start as a senior before eventually being kicked inside to center and it looks like that will be where he makes a living at the next level. A terrific athlete with an outstanding blend of size and quickness, Erving is still mastering the nuances of his new position but offers a tremendous amount of upside.
Another possibility for the Broncos would be a middle linebacker such as Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi St. or Denzel Perryman of Miami (FL) because that's been a problem area for a while now. If pending free agent Julius Thomas is deemed too expensive to retain Denver could also opt to replace him with Michigan TE Devin Funchess or Minnesota TE Maxx Williams. If they do not feel Brock Osweiler is up to the task of eventually taking over under center don't rule out UCLA QB Brett Hundley.
It appears as though the Trent Richardson era is mercifully coming to an end and he will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history. Even if Ahmad Bradshaw is brought back he can’t be counted on to stay healthy so the Colts need to bring in a top runner to take some of the pressure off of Andrew Luck. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon is an explosive big play threat with a superb blend of size and speed but also a natural runner with nice vision and patience. Gordon would have been among the top running backs in last year’s class too but he opted to return to the Badgers and finally be the primary ball carrier after previously splitting time in the backfield with Montee Ball and James White. Gordon certainly took advantage of that opportunity, rushing for
2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns en route to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. It will be very interesting to see where Gordon and to a lesser extent the injured Todd Gurley of Georgia ultimately come off the board because in many ways it will serve as a litmus test to gauge the current value of elite running back prospects in the NFL Draft. Indianapolis could very easily opt to address the defense too though and they could use upgrades in the secondary at both cornerback and safety as well as another speedy pass rusher off the edge.
The Packers are always one of the more difficult teams to get a read on because general manager Ted Thompson is very good at masking his true intentions. It appears as though the Cheeseheads are set on offense for the time being but there are multiple areas on defense that could be addressed. The most pressing need might be on the interior of the defensive line, where they've already parted ways with Ryan Pickett and may soon lose B.J. Raji as a free agent. Oklahoma DT Jordan Phillips checks in at 6-6 and 334 pounds and is a force in the middle as a block-occupying, two-gapping run stuffer. Don’t let that rare size fool you though because he is much more athletic and mobile than you would expect. In fact, Phillips might even be able to see some action at the five-technique in an odd front. Phillips missed most of the 2013 season with a back injury so health and durability is a question mark but if he checks out medically it may be hard to keep such an impressive physical specimen out of the first round.
Green Bay could also move Clay Matthews back outside and if that is the plan they might consider Mississippi St. ILB Benardrick McKinney or Miami (FL) ILB Denzel Perryman. It may be time to bring in some reinforcements at cornerback as well, especially since Tramon Williams, Davon House and Jarrett Bush are all set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, so watch out for P.J. Williams of Florida St., Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest and Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH). With Bryan Bulaga also a free agent don’t totally rule out an offensive tackle either.
The Seahawks don’t have a ton of obvious holes but they will need to add at least one more playmaker on offense following the trade of Percy Harvin. Even if Seattle is confident in youngster Luke Willson’s ability to eventually replace Zach Miller they could still use someone like Devin Funchess of Michigan. Funchess, who began his college career as a tight end before transitioning to wide receiver this past season, is an excellent athlete with a rangy frame who is a force to be reckoned with in the redzone and a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Funchess would be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Seahawks passing attack, regardless of whether he winds up as a wideout in the mold of Kelvin Benjamin or as a dynamic, field stretching tight end. Other pass catchers that could be in the mix at this point include
Arizona St. WR Jaelen Strong, Oklahoma WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Auburn WR Sammie Coates and Ohio St. WR Devin Smith. Some reinforcements may be needed along the offensive line as well since James Carpenter is a free agent and both Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy have just one year left on their respective contracts. After suffering a number of key losses along the defensive line in recent years with more potentially to come it might be wise to start restocking their shelves up front too.
The Pats continue to cobble together an effective rushing attack by committee but it might be time to add a true lead runner. Especially since Stevan Ridley, a frequent inhabitant of Bill Belichick’s doghouse for his fumbling issues, is coming off a major knee injury and will be a free agent this offseason. New England rolled the dice on Dominique Easley in late round one last year even though he wasn’t completely healthy so perhaps they will try again with Georgia RB Todd Gurley. One of the best running back prospects to come along in years, Gurley is a dynamic playmaker whose incredible mix of size, speed and power has elicited favorable comparisons to none other than Marshawn ”Beast Mode” Lynch. In short, Gurley is capable of both running over linebackers and running away from defensive backs. Most agree that Gurley is one of the ten most talented prospects in this class but his situation is clouded not only by the devaluation of his position but by a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in mid-November. The fact that Gurley is still in the first round discussion is a testament to just how special of a player he is.
Not only would Gurley give New England a legitimate blue-chip runner but he’d be a perfect complement to Shane Vereen, who is best suited for a jack-of-all-trades role. The Patriots must also continue to beef up their defensive line, especially on the interior, and there is still a whole lot of uncertainty at wide receiver despite efforts to find long-term solutions in free agency and the draft. If Darrelle Revis or Devin McCourty bolt in free agency the secondary will become a concern too.
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