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, with Pittsburgh fazing out expensive, aging veterans and replacing them with talented youngsters. There is still plenty of work to be done though and the pass rush in particular is a major concern following the unexpected retirement of Jason Worilds. The only remaining edge rusher of note is former first rounder Jarvis Jones, who has accumulated just three sacks in two seasons. Shane Ray of Missouri emerged as one of the nations premier sack artists after stepping into a more prominent role following the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Ray doesnít have the ideal length that you prefer but compensates with terrific speed and quickness, an explosive first step, a variety of moves and counters and a non-stop motor.
Ray could very easily be gone by this point, perhaps as early as the Top 10. However, donít be shocked if Ray slides a bit on Draft Day after disappointing workouts raised questions about his ability to play on his feet and in space at the next level. The Steelers are also in serious need of reinforcements in the secondary, whether it's a safety like Landon Collins of Alabama or a top cornerback such as Marcus Peters of Washington, Jalen Collins of L.S.U., Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest or Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH).
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly both fled in free agency and even though Detroit made a deal for Haloti Nagata to help compensate for those losses in the short-term reinforcements are still needed on the interior of the defensive line. 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 Danny Shelton of Washington, Carl Davis of Iowa and Eddie Goldman of Florida St. to be the second player off the board at the position. Oregon DE / DT Arik Armstead could be a possibility as well. There are also question marks along the offensive line, especially on the interior, so keep an eye on Laíel Collins of L.S.U., Cameron Erving of Florida St. and A.J. Cann of South Carolina.
Cornerback is another area of concern for the Lions so cover guys like Marcus Peters of Washington, Jalen Collins of L.S.U., Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest and Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH) could be in the mix. It wouldnít hurt to add a pass rusher at the defensive end spot opposite Ziggy Ansah either and while the value at this point is suspect following an early run some realistic options include Owamagbe Odighizuwa of UCLA, Eli Harold of Virginia or even Mario Edwards, Jr. of Florida St.
Andre Ellington just wasnít built to shoulder a huge workload and is best suited for a complimentary role. With that being the case adding another top-shelf runner will likely be a priority for the Cardinals. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon is an explosive big play threat with a superb blend of size and speed who was a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season after rushing for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns. It will be very interesting to see where Gordon and Todd Gurley of Georgia 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 modern NFL Draft. Arizona could also look to replace nose tackle Dan Williams, who bolted as a free agent, with Danny Shelton of Washington, Malcom Brown of Texas, Carl Davis of Iowa, Eddie Goldman of Florida St. or Jordan Phillips of Oklahoma.
The addition of a dynamic, playmaking linebacker could really take this already formidable defense to another level so watch out for Shane Ray of Missouri, Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi St., Owamagbe Odighizuwa of UCLA and Eli Harold of Virginia as well. Even though the organization has a lot of confidence in Jerraud Powers some help might be needed at cornerback too following the departure of Antonio Cromartie in free agency. Donít totally rule out Florida St. C Cameron Erving as a replacement for Lyle Sendlein either.
It was relatively shocking to see Carolina completely ignore the offensive tackle position last offseason, especially in light of the retirement of long-time stalwart Jordan Gross. In hindsight that was an enormous error as they were plagued by blocking issues for most of the year. Look for the Panthers to rectify that mistake this time around. Florida OT D.J. Humphries usually isnít among the first names that people bring up when discussing the top blockers in this class. However, not only is Humphries going to be a first round pick but a case can be made that heís the top true left prospect in this class. Humphires could even be long gone by this point. A terrific athlete with a long, projectable frame, excellent feet and a feisty mindset, Humphries is still developing physically but has all the tools to be a high-end blindside protector at the next level. Other alternatives at the position include Andrus Peat of Stanford, Laíel Collins of L.S.U., T.J. Clemmings of Pittsburgh and Jake Fisher of Oregon.
The Panthers could also use a legitimate impact presence in their overachieving secondary, whether it be a cornerback such as Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest, Jalen Collins of L.S.U., Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH) or Byron Jones of UConn or a safety like Landon Collins of Alabama. When it comes to offensive playmakers the cupboard is essentially bare beyond last years first rounder Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen so a wide receiver is definitely something to watch out for as well.
Ozzie Newsome is one of the best general managers in the history of the NFL so it should come as no surprise that the Ravens donít have a ton of glaring needs. Cornerback may be an exception though because Jimmy Smith is coming off a season-ending injury and is going to be a free agent next offseason while the depth leaves much to be desired. Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson may not be particularly flashy but he is one of the best all around cover guys in this class. Johnson lacks the ideal bulk that you would prefer but he is long, fast, aggressive and polished with superb intangibles. Marcus Peters of Washington, Jalen Collins of L.S.U., Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH) and Eric Rowe of Utah could be possible alternatives at the position. Reinforcements are needed at wide receiver too following the loss of Torrey Smith in free agency so
Breshad Perriman of Central Florida, Jaelen Strong of Arizona St., Nelson Agholor of USC, Phillip Dorsett of Miami (FL) and Devin Smith of Ohio St. could be in the discussion. Donít rule out a tight end like Devin Funchess of Michigan, Maxx Williams of Minnesota or Clive Walford of Miami (FL) either. Newsome is also notorious for pouncing when highly rated prospects unexpectedly fall into his lap on Draft Day so that's always something to keep a watchful eye out for as well.
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. Itís one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, there probably arenít 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. Regardless of where he lines up, Thompson has proven to be a playmaker with a nose for the ball. It will be interesting to see where a true Ďtweener like
Thompson ultimately comes off the board but the game film is awfully impressive. UCLA LB Eric Kendricks could play a similar role in Big D. The Cowboys could very easily opt for a defensive tackle too though and options there would include Malcom Brown of Texas, Eddie Goldman of Florida St., Carl Davis of Iowa and Michael Bennett of Ohio St. ďAmericaís TeamĒ could also target Georgia RB Todd Gurley or Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon as a young, cheap replacement for DeMarco Murray. Assuming they donít trade for Adrian Peterson . . .
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 is likely the organizations top priority, especially after losing Orlando Franklin in free agency. T.J. Clemmings of Pittsburgh is a converted defensive end who 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. Clemmings will require some patience and development but in time he could be the best blocker to come out of this class. Other options at the position include Andrus Peat of Stanford, Laíel Collins of L.S.U., Jake Fisher of Oregon and Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M. Denver could also use a big body in the middle of the defensive line to help replace
Terrence Knighton so Iowa DT Carl Davis, Florida St. DT Eddie Goldman and Oklahoma DT Jordan Phillips could be in the mix too. A replacement for Rahim Moore at free safety is needed as well so keep an eye on Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH) and Damarious Randall of Arizona St. It appears the Broncos intention is to replace Julius Thomas with veterans but do not rule out Michigan TE Devin Funchess, Minnesota TE Maxx Williams or Miami (FL) TE Clive Walford either.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: CAMERON ERVING, C, FLORIDA ST.
The Colts started three different players at center last season, which probably means they donít currently have a long-term solution on the roster. Itís somewhat rare for a center to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft but Cameron Erving of Florida St. will be an exception. In fact, there is a legitimate chance he wonít even last this long. Erving is a converted defensive tackle who was named the top blocker in the ACC as a junior and senior. After protecting the blindside for much of his college career Erving was kicked inside to center late last season 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 possesses the physical tools and intangibles to eventually be one of the best pivots in the league. Indianapolis could very easily opt to address the defense too though and could really use an upgrade at safety so watch out for Quinten Rollins of Miami (OH), Damarious Randall of Arizona St. or even Shaq Thompson of Washington. A darkhorse could be a running back since newly signed Frank Gore will be 32-years-old and is undeniably nothing more than a stop - gap in the backfield.
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. Of particular concern is inside linebacker, where Green Bay recently parted ways with A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore. If that is indeed the direction they want to go there should be a plethora of interesting options available at this point. Stephone Anthony of Clemson has emerged as a legitimate late first round possibility following a standout senior campaign and terrific pre-draft process. Anthony has all of the tools to be a fantastic all-around Ďbacker at the next level, including prototypical size, deceptive speed and athleticism, superb intangibles and schematic versatility. Denzel Perryman of Miami (FL), Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi St. and Eric Kendricks of UCLA are possible alternatives. The Packers could also be in the market for a long-term solution at nose tackle since B.J. Raji is only signed to a one-year contract and targets there could include Malcom Brown of Texas, Carl Davis of Iowa,
Eddie Goldman of Florida St. and Jordan Phillips of Oklahoma. Itís been awhile since Green Bay made a significant draft pick investment at cornerback but they could consider Kevin Johnson of Wake Forest, Jalen Collins of L.S.U. or Quinten Rollins of Miami (FL) following the losses of both Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency. If Thompson wanted to upgrade on the other side of the ball Michigan TE Devin Funchess, Minnesota TE Maxx Williams and Miami (FL) TE Clive Walford are contenders.
This choice was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks along with Max Unger in exchange for Jimmy Graham so the Saints had better make it count. This decision will obviously hinge on what they do with their earlier selection but defense is probably the best bet. Even though New Orleans has already added Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson this offseason they could still use another high-end cover guy to bolster one of the leagues worst pass defenses. Marcus Peters is arguably the most talented corner in this class but his situation is clouded by character concerns after being dismissed from the Washington program in early-November. Because of that uncertainty Peters could come off the board as early as the middle of round one or slide out of the first round all together. A smooth, athletic playmaker with a nice blend of size and speed, Peters can not only match up in coverage but is also very physical and not afraid to throw his body around.
The Saints will also consider an inside linebacker such as Stephone Anthony of Clemson, Denzel Perryman of UCLA or Eric Kendricks of UCLA or perhaps a speedy vertical threat like Miami (FL) WR Phillip Dorsett to help replace Kenny Stills. If they havenít added a pass rusher by this point options include Owamagbe Odighizuwa of UCLA and Eli Harold of Virginia. Donít completely rule out Devin Funchess of Michigan, Maxx Williams of Minnesota or TE Clive Walford of Miami (FL) to replace Graham at tight end either.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: BYRON JONES, CB, CONNECTICUT
After being outbid for both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency the Patriots have a glaring need at cornerback. This might be a little early for Byron Jones of Connecticut but history has shown that Bill Belichick isnít afraid to reach for defensive backs. Jones was flying under the radar after his senior season ended prematurely due to a shoulder injury. Jones made headlines with incredible workouts but was always been considered to be a legitimate early round talent. When healthy Jones is a well-rounded cover guy with a freakish mix of size, speed and athleticism as well as some positional versatility. Other alternatives include Washington CB Marcus Peters, Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson, L.S.U. CB Jalen Collins and Miami (OH) CB Quinten Rollins. New England could also use some additional beef on the interior of the defensive line after parting ways with longtime cornerstone Vince Wilfork so
Malcom Brown of Texas, Eddie Goldman of Florida St., Carl Davis of Iowa and Jordan Phillips of Oklahoma could be options. There is a hole at running back following the free agent departures of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, especially since LeGarrette Blount canít really be counted on. Keep an eye on the interior of the offensive line and someone like South Carolina OG A.J. Cann too. The Pats could also target a wide receiver relatively early, although that probably won't be a first round priority.
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