It’s April and with free agency in the books, the 2017 NFL draft is the last real chance for teams to make significant changes to their rosters before training camp begins at the end of summer.
Of course, there are still some veterans who could be on the table to patch holes. At quarterback, Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick are still free agents capable of competing for a starting role, and players like Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo, and AJ McCarron have been subject to trade rumors.
But if a team can find a rookie quarterback it feels good about and can build around, that’s a much less costly option and comes with more upside. That’s the value of the draft — a way to cheaply build up a team with the future stars of the NFL.
Here is one position that each team can’t afford to miss out on in April:
Arizona Cardinals — Inside linebacker
The biggest concern for the Cardinals in their success is tied to players in the final stretches of their careers. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald both reportedly mulled retirement earlier in the 2016 season before electing to come back, so the team would benefit from having players they can eventually turn to at quarterback and wide receiver.
But a more immediate impact could be found if the Cardinals draft a new starting inside linebacker after Kevin Minter left to join the Bengals. Arizona lost plenty of defensive talent earlier in the 2017 offseason — with Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson also departing — and needs to find some help on that side of the ball in the draft, and the middle is a good place to start.
Atlanta Falcons — Edge rusher
Teams that make the Super Bowl typically aren’t filled with holes and that’s the case with the Falcons. Atlanta already made an effort to shore up its defensive line with Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford, and that means it has the luxury to do pretty much anything with its first-round pick.
Still, the way it could best fill out the roster for the future is to continue to find young players who can make an impact off the edge. The league’s No. 1 offense had to compensate for a defense that finished No. 27 in points allowed, and finding rushers is the best way to continue to build a foundation on that side of the ball.
Baltimore Ravens — Cornerback
Getting Brandon Carr makes the urgency to add to the cornerback depth less desperate, but Baltimore still has little it can really feel comfortable with after Jimmy Smith. The former first-round pick missed five games in 2016 and eight in 2014, and the secondary would be in trouble if Smith misses time again in 2017.
Buffalo Bills — Cornerback
Losing Stephon Gilmore leaves big shoes to fill, and the positional group only got thinner when slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman was cut in March — although his declining play warranted the move. Kevon Seymour looks like the likely starter opposite Ronald Darby, but the team could find a new starter in a class full of good defensive backs.
Carolina Panthers — Defensive end
Charles Johnson underwent back surgery, and the Panthers traded Kony Ealy away to the Patriots. The cupboard isn’t bare for Carolina with Mario Addison back on board with a contract extension, but the Panthers could certainly use some help at the position.
Chicago Bears — Defensive back
Now that the Bears have Mike Glennon, the team has a starter at quarterback for 2017. Whether he’s the future of the position for the franchise remains to be seen, but Chicago can turn its attention elsewhere on a roster that needs infusions of talent all over.
Adding Prince Amukamara gave the Bears a Band-Aid in the secondary, but the team needs more help than that. In a draft class stacked with talent at cornerback and safety, don’t be surprised if Chicago adds multiple young players to its secondary in April.
Cincinnati Bengals — Defensive end
There are a few holes for the Bengals to address as the team continues to get picked apart in free agency. It lost two starting offensive linemen this year and a running back, and cut into its linebacker depth by parting ways with Rey Maualuga.
But the team has had a need at pass rusher for a while and has really just been operating with Geno Atkins’ push from the inside and Carlos Dunlap coming off the edge. Expect the team to do its best to find a premier pass rusher early in the draft.
Cleveland Browns — Quarterback
A rebuild isn’t close to done until there’s a quarterback to build around, and that’s still the biggest hole that needs filling for the Browns. The team parted ways with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, only adding Brock Osweiler who likely won’t be with the team for much longer anyway.
Cody Kessler may have a future with the franchise, but if the Browns get a chance to take a quarterback they like, they can’t afford not to pull the trigger.
Dallas Cowboys — Edge rusher
A lacking pass rush looked like it was going to be a major problem for the Cowboys in 2016, but the lack of a double-digit sack artist didn’t slow the team down much. Still, Randy Gregory isn’t coming back in 2017, and Benson Mayowa led the team with just six sacks.
Replacing the production of DeMarcus Ware isn’t easy, but the Cowboys have to give it a shot and add another young player to the mix, if not more than one.
Denver Broncos — Offensive tackle
Donald Stephenson, Ty Sambrailo, and Menelik Watson are the leading candidates to battle for starting offensive tackle spots for the Broncos in 2017, but the team could certainly stand to find improvements. Finding a bookend left tackle could push the battle to the right tackle spot, where all three are likely better suited anyway.
Detroit Lions — Linebacker
With DeAndre Levy sidelined for the majority of the 2016 season due to an injury, the linebacker position was somewhat of a disaster for the Lions. While the team added former Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow in free agency, that isn’t quite the fix for the entire position group, and adding another starter in the draft would be a boon to the Detroit defense.
Green Bay Packers — Running back
Eddie Lacy is gone. James Starks is gone. The top rushing options for the Packers are Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael, which is hardly a comforting duo for Aaron Rodgers to work with. Green Bay hasn’t been a team to attack needs in the draft and it typically takes the best player available, but there’s a strong crop of running backs at the top and one could certainly be available at the bottom of the first round.
Houston Texans — Quarterback
The Texans are as close to having a Super Bowl roster as any team but are missing the one piece that can make them feel truly comfortable about their chances. Sure, Bill O’Brien says the team is excited to have Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden, but it’s hard to imagine Houston is going to be OK with the pair and not want to add at least one more player who can compete for a starting role.
There’s still a few veterans who could fit the bill if the Texans don’t address the position early in the draft — *cough cough* Tony Romo — but the Texans could certainly pull the trigger on a passer if one they like is on the board at No. 25 overall.
Indianapolis Colts — Edge rusher
Erik Walden led the Colts in sacks during the 2016 season with 11, but he never lived up to the $16 million contract that Ryan Grigson gave him in 2013. And Indianapolis was fine with letting Walden reach free agency, where there hasn’t been much interest from other teams. Second on the team in sacks was Robert Mathis with five, but he announced his retirement at the end of the season. Third was nose tackle David Parry who just got arrested in February.
Adding Jabaal Sheard and John Simon is a start, but the Colts need to find players who can continue to add to their nonexistent pass rush, whether that’s from a linebacker or defensive end.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Tight end
The addition of Julius Thomas didn’t live up to the five-year, $46 million contract he received from the Jaguars in 2015 that made him one of the biggest free agency additions of the offseason. After back-to-back seasons with 12 touchdowns in Denver, Thomas had just nine in two seasons in Jacksonville and was traded for cheap to the Miami Dolphins.
Marcedes Lewis is about to turn 33, and the other options at the position are relatively unproven Ben Koyack and Neal Sterling. So the Jaguars look like a likely candidate to take a stab at one of the deepest and most talented tight end draft classes ever.
Kansas City Chiefs — Quarterback
Alex Smith hasn’t been a bad quarterback since joining the Chiefs in 2013, but he hasn’t pushed the team over the hump either. With his 33rd birthday coming in May, Kansas City has to start considering a future after Smith and that could begin in 2018 when his cap hit swells over $20 million or in 2019 when he becomes a free agent.
Los Angeles Chargers — Safety
The post-Eric Weddle era hasn’t been a smooth transition for the Chargers. Jahleel Addae and Dwight Lowery left plenty to be desired, and the Chargers defense allowed the fourth-most points in the NFL in 2016. While the offensive line could use help too, the team’s No. 7 overall selection could definitely be used to shore up the back of the Chargers secondary.
Los Angeles Rams — Wide receiver
The Rams tried to pair No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff with weapons during the 2016 NFL draft, taking wide receivers and tight ends with four of the next five picks. Unfortunately, all four were third-day selections and combined for 28 receptions for 228 yards and one touchdown.
Adding Robert Woods helps, but it doesn’t do much more than fill the hole left by the departure of Kenny Britt. The team could very much benefit from finding a legitimate No. 1 receiver who can be a top threat for Goff to work with and would complement Woods and Tavon Austin, although that may be difficult for Los Angeles to find without the benefit of a first-round pick.
Miami Dolphins — Guard
After trading Branden Albert to the Jaguars, the Dolphins will move 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil from guard to left tackle — the spot he was drafted to fill. But that leaves a hole at a position the team has long struggled to fill. Finding a player to slide in between Tunsil and center Mike Pouncey would help an offense that found its rhythm during the 2016 season when it committed to a power running game centered around Jay Ajayi.
Minnesota Vikings — Offensive line
Only a handful of quarterbacks were sacked more often than Sam Bradford, but the Vikings offense was really hampered by its inability to run. Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, and Jerick McKinnon combined for just 3.2 yards per carry behind an offensive line that never made much room for them.
Signing Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers was a start but far from a complete fix. The team should look to continue to add talent up front.
New England Patriots — Defensive end
Chandler Jones was the best pass-rushing threat that the Patriots had, and the team hasn’t had much success finding a replacement since trading him to the Cardinals. The band-aids of Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long didn’t do much and are gone now.
The emergence of Trey Flowers gives the team promise at the position, but adding another threat up front will be a priority, although the Patriots currently don’t have a pick in the first two rounds to work with.
New Orleans Saints — Defensive back
Defense has been a problem for the Saints for a long time, and with some money to actually spend, New Orleans scooped up Manti Te’o, A.J. Klein, Rafael Bush, and Alex Okafor in free agency. But the team’s pass defense could use even more help after finishing No. 32 in the NFL in yards allowed.
New York Giants — Offensive tackle
The Giants invested heavily on the defense a year ago, and now it’s time to turn attention back to the offense. Quarterback, running back, and tight end could also be addressed, but the best place to start is up front.
Ereck Flowers hasn’t been the answer at left tackle, and D.J. Fluker is a patch at right tackle, at best. Still, the Giants insist they still believe in Flowers, so the team might look elsewhere for offensive upgrades.
New York Jets — Defensive back
There are plenty of reasons why the Jets struggled in 2016, and, ultimately, the team’s future will depend on its ability to identify a quarterback it can work with. But with Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, and Josh McCown now in the mix too, it seems unlikely that the Jets will dive headfirst into a class that doesn’t have a clear top passer.
Instead, the team can look to improve upon a secondary that allowed 30 touchdown passes and hauled in just eight interceptions.
Oakland Raiders — Middle linebacker
The Raiders have poured money into the roster, and it has paid off for one of the most exciting young teams in the NFL. But those big free agent acquisitions haven’t addressed the fact that the Raiders are lacking at middle linebacker and have been for a while.
Perry Riley served as the stopgap at the position in 2016, but he was allowed to reach free agency where no team has been too interested in scooping him up. Getting a better option in the middle of the defense would upgrade a defense that was near the bottom of the NFL.
Philadelphia Eagles — Cornerback
Right now the best options for the Eagles at cornerback are a pair of Jaguars and Colts castoffs — Dwayne Gratz and Patrick Robinson — and 2016 seventh-round pick Jalen Mills. It’s entirely possible that the Eagles could find both of their starting cornerbacks for the 2017 season in a draft class that is deep with talent at the position.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Outside linebacker
The Steelers have put an emphasis on upgrading the defensive side of the ball, selecting a pass rusher and a cornerback in the first round of the last two drafts. But now Pittsburgh needs to find players to pair with Bud Dupree and Artie Burns.
James Harrison won’t be around much longer, and Ross Cockrell isn’t the most reliable option opposite Burns. But the need to upgrade the pass rush looks a tad more urgent than the need at cornerback.
San Francisco 49ers — Quarterback
New offensive-minded head coach Kyle Shanahan inherited a roster with four quarterbacks all leaving in free agency. While there were reportedly pushes for Kirk Cousins and rumors will likely continue until draft day, the only patches at the quarterback position for the 49ers have been Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley.
Finding a player to build an offense around is Shanahan’s top priority for now.
Seattle Seahawks — Offensive line
Protecting Russell Wilson with a discount squad of offensive linemen proved to be a bad idea in 2016, to say the least. There’s already been an emphasis on adding players up front with Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi signing in Seattle, but there’s more work to be done.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Safety
Adding J.J. Wilcox, formerly of the Cowboys, was a help for the Buccaneers at the position, but he was mostly a special teamer for Dallas who filled in as a backup safety. Chris Conte and Keith Tandy aren’t better options at strong safety either, leaving Tampa Bay with a spot that could certainly use an upgrade before the beginning of the 2017 season.
Tennessee Titans — Wide receiver
For a while, the Titans looked like the team that would land Brandin Cooks in a trade. Instead, Cooks went to the Patriots and the Titans didn’t add a pass catcher in free agency to make up for the miss. Marcus Mariota would certainly welcome the addition of a top receiving talent to complement Rishard Matthews.
Washington — Defensive tackle
There’s been a rotating door of interior defensive linemen scooped up in free agency, but the team has struggled to find a long-term answer in the middle of its defense. Ziggy Hood is the latest patch, but Washington was close to the bottom of the NFL in run defense. For some reason, the team seems to never draft defensive linemen early, but that’s a philosophy it may want to reconsider this time around.