The San Francisco 49ers could have kept their original first-round pick, the No. 32, in the 1985 NFL Draft and gone in a more conventional direction. After all, Bill Walsh's team had just won the Super Bowl; they were obviously doing something right. Instead, the Niners pulled off a last-minute trade with the Patriots to get the No. 16 pick, jumping in front of the Cowboys to nab a 6'2, 200-pound receiver out of Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice.
Most teams at that time didn't feel like Rice was worth a first-round pick because his 40 time was slow. San Francisco saw something else: their own future.
Walsh's 49ers had already set off a revolution in pro football, a league with prolific offenses powered by the passing game. A few other teams had already embraced that approach by the time the 49ers had won their first two Super Bowls. The Dolphins had Dan Marino. The Broncos had John Elway. The game was changing, and the 49ers wanted to have the pieces to keep their place in the coming arms race.
San Francisco went on to win three more Super Bowls after drafting Rice, who went on to break a pile of records himself.
In the 30 years since the 49ers drafted Rice, prolific offenses have become commonplace in the NFL. The Niners team that won Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 was only the third team to score more than 500 points in a single season. Since then, it's been done 14 times, seven times in the last five seasons.
Every team stacks its draft board with an eye toward the future, hoping that this latest group of rookies can be the cornerstones for the next great team, one that can score at will or clamp down on the offensive proliferation that's become the hallmark of the modern NFL.
Montana, Elway, Manning, Brady, Rodgers ... it's tough to build a dynasty without the right signal caller. The Buccaneers are expected to make a quarterback the first overall pick in this year's draft, either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. That will be the sixth time in the last decade a quarterback has been the first player selected in the draft.
But picking a quarterback first overall is still no guarantee for success. Since 2000, Eli Manning is the only quarterback taken with the first pick who has won a Super Bowl.
With the investments teams make in their quarterbacks, it's essential to give them some protection from a glut of pass rushers who have flooded the league in recent years. Offensive tackles have been another popular pick for teams in the draft's early rounds. and another run on the position is likely again this year. Ju'Wuan James was the surprise entrant to the first round last year -- he was taken way, way above where he was projected, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see something like that happen again, perhaps with several players.
As many as nine tackles could go in the first round this year, and teams will scour the later rounds of the draft looking for help at what's become a cornerstone position. It also means that an early run on tackles could lead to a surplus of other positions in the later rounds.
There seems to be a superabundance of highly talented receivers entering the draft for the second season in a row. Last year, five receivers went in the first round -- Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin -- and another seven went in the second round. This year, it's not out of the realm of possibility to see eight receivers go in the first -- Alabama's Amari Cooper, West Virginia's Kevin White, Louisville's DeVante Parker, Central Florida's Breshad Perriman, Oklahoma's Dorial Green-Beckham, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, USC's Nelson Agholor, and Miami's Phillip Dorsett come to mind.
Beyond that group of players, vigilant teams will comb the later rounds for help at one of the most valuable positions in the game. You can't build for the future without top-notch skill players, and teams aren't willing to miss out on the next Jerry Rice like they were three decades ago.
The devaluation of running backs has been a hot topic over the past few years, but if 2015 is any indication it may be a little overblown. Creative coaches are finding new ways to put points on the board these days. MVP-caliber seasons from DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch mean that running backs are again part of the recipe for team-building.
The drought of first-round running backs may come to a close. It's expected that Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon will each hear their names called in the first round. Past that, there's plenty of talent in the second and third rounds, making this one of the stronger running back classes in recent memory. Is the devaluation of running backs reversing course?
Boise State's Jay Ajayi, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Miami's Duke Johnson, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon, Northern Iowa's David Johnson, South Carolina's Mike Davis, Minnesota's David Cobb, and USC's Buck Allen all seem poised to make some noise in the NFL and a few of them just might be the kind of player at the heart of a dynasty.
Plenty of teams are guided by the principle that a good defense trumps everything else. As a result, the value of cornerbacks and pass rushers has grown in response to prolific passing attacks.
The Seahawks and their Legion of Boom are the best example for the move to longer, angular cornerbacks on the outside, but there's been a slow shift to it NFL-wide with the ever-increasing prevalence of big, highly athletic receivers. How do you match up with Demaryius Thomas? Dez Bryant? Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green? Well, you need big, tall, fast, and long cornerbacks who can hang with them step-for-step while still being able to apply some muscle at the line of scrimmage.
Draft a shutdown corner, and he can be the nucleus of a stifling defense.
If teams at the top of the draft aren't picking a quarterback, you can usually expect to see a pass rusher get taken there. Last year, the Houston Texans added Jadeveon Clowney to their defensive talent base, a bookend to franchise cornerstone J.J. Watt.
Eight pass rushers went in the first round last year. The year before that, teams spent 10 picks on players who specialize in getting to the quarterback. The 2015 draft class is once again heavy on players who fit the bill for that; as many as a dozen could go in the opening round.
Smart teams can find franchise building blocks in every round of the draft. Tom Brady didn't get drafted until the sixth round in 2000. The Seahawks found Richard Sherman waiting for them in fifth round four years ago. It's not the round where a player gets picked so much as it is the player himself and the coaches and general managers who see a diamond in the rough.
It will take years before we can reasonably identify the best players to come out of the 2015 NFL Draft, when those green rookies have grown into franchise cornerstones. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that dynasties are built on draft day.
Barring a trade, the Buccaneers hold the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Any time a team finds itself in that situation, it means there are a lot of holes on the roster. Tampa Bay needs to revamp its offensive line, improve its secondary and finally land a franchise signal caller.
Tennessee was aggressive in upgrading its defense. It re-signed Derrick Morgan and Karl Klug while adding safety Da'Norris Searcy and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. With the second pick in the upcoming draft, Tennessee will have a chance to add either a franchise quarterback or another piece to the defensive puzzle.
Jacksonville has a roster with some talent in the front seven on defense, and not much else. The offensive line was horrific, allowing a league-high 71 sacks. Finding better protection for promising quarterback Blake Bortles was a must, and the signing of offensive tackle Jermey Parnell should help. The Jaguars also brought in Jared Odrick to bolster their pass rush and tight end Julius Thomas to give Bortles a top-notch receiving option.
The Raiders were expected to make huge splashes in free agency, but were relatively quiet despite their cap space. Oakland did land center Rodney Hudson from the rival Chiefs, giving him a hefty contract. Michael Crabtree could also become an impact signing.
Though head coach Jay Gruden claims that Robert Griffin III will enter the season as the starter, there's no guarantee that the embattled quarterback will remain on the roster by Opening Day. Washington has other problems on offense, including a line that gave up 58 sacks last season.
The Jets were very active in free agency, shoring up their previously porous secondary with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine. The offense also got a jolt when new general manager Mike Maccagnan traded a fifth-round pick for Brandon Marshall. New York is vastly improved, but still needs a quarterback and help along the offensive line.
The Bears fired their GM and head coach this offseason, bringing a period of massive change. The most visible transformation will take place on defense, where new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plans to implement a 3-4 scheme. Chicago's success in 2015 largely hinges on their ability to adapt the roster to the new scheme. So far Chicago's biggest additions are almost entirely on defense, with edge rusher Pernell McPhee, safety Antrel Rolle and defensive end Ray McDonald all coming on-board.
The Falcons bungled home field advantage during a division-deciding showdown with the Panthers. The loss cost Atlanta a playoff berth, and it landed head coach Mike Smith a one-way ticket out of town. Now the new staff must figure out how to better protect quarterback Matt Ryan, and reinvigorate the defense under head coach Dan Quinn.
The first year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was a mixed bag for the Giants, but it appears they're trending in the right direction. Eli Manning cut his interception total almost in half from the season prior, while completing a career-high 63.1 percent of his passes. It saved Tom Coughlin's job, but he may not have it for much longer if more progress isn't made in 2015.
The Rams are entering their fourth season under head coach Jeff Fisher. Though the team has yet to break through and reach the playoffs, it has built one of the league's better young defenses. Now, all the Rams need is an offense that can put points on the board with consistency. A trade for Nick Foles could bring some stability to the unit. At least, that's what St. Louis is hoping.
The Vikings fell below .500 for a second consecutive season, but the year was not a total loss. While Adrian Peterson's child-abuse scandal garnered unwanted headlines, Teddy Bridgewater made steady improvement throughout the season. With a long-term answer at quarterback in place, the team can address its other offensive issues. Swapping out Greg Jennings for Mike Wallace might be a net positive, but the Vikings still need more weapons on that side of the ball.
Cleveland has all types of needs at the skill positions. With Josh Gordon suspended for the year and Jordan Cameron gone in free agency, general manager Ray Farmer is lucky to have such a receiver crop to pick from. With two first-round picks at No. 12 and 19, the Browns have plenty of ammunition. Cleveland started to address some needs, signing quarterback Josh McCown, wide receiver Brian Hartline and defensive end Randy Starks, but the Browns still have plenty of holes.
The Saints turned heads with a minor roster overhaul this spring, trading away stalwarts Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills for draft picks. New Orleans addressed a leaky secondary in free agency, signing Brandon Browner, and spent big on running backs, re-signing Mark Ingram and adding C.J. Spiller. Now, they've got to fill the holes created by their offseason trades, find some help along the offensive line and shore up the defensive depth chart.
The Dolphins have gone 8-8 for two straight seasons. They've made big moves this offseason yet again by releasing a hoard of players to create cap space. Miami entered the offseason needing a ton of help at receiver and on the offensive line, but did little to address those needs in free agency. They traded for Kenny Stills, but aside from that the big splash was the signing of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Dolphins had to give him an obscene amount of money to go to Miami. We'll see if it's enough to get the Dolphins back above .500.
With the firing of Jim Harbaugh, a handful of high profile losses and the hiring of Jim Tomsula, the 49ers have to find their identity again.
The Texans need a quarterback desperately, but the market is not producing much talent. They signed Brian Hoyer and re-signed Ryan Mallet in hopes that one of them can be an average starter next season. The team cut Andre Johnson and signed Cecil Shorts in his place. Defensively Houston got more stout, signing Vince Wilfork and Rahim Moore and re-signing Derek Newton and Karreem Jackson.
The Chargers re-signed King Dunlap and Brandon Flowers, then went out and upgraded the offensive line by inking former Denver Broncos guard Orlando Franklin to a five-year deal. Reports had general manager Tom Telesco in the mix for Ndamukong Suh and Andre Johnson, but both went elsewhere. The Chargers have a nice core but need the draft to build up a weak front seven.
The Chiefs somehow went an entire season without a touchdown reception by a wide receiver. Kansas City needed to be active in acquiring a pass catcher, and they managed that by signing Jeremy Maclin. It also needed to address the safety position, and re-signed Ron Parker and Tyvon Branch to do so.
For the second consecutive season, Chip Kelly guided the Eagles to double-digit wins. That wasn't enough to earn a playoff berth, however, and now the team must find a way to bridge the gap between it and the division-winning Cowboys. Philadelphia took the first step by adding new starters at cornerback (Byron Maxwell), running back (DeMarco Murray) and quarterback (Sam Bradford).
The Bengals are in a tough spot, but Cincinnati has cap space, which is good. Cincinnati needed to address an aging secondary and beef up the defensive line with Geno Atkins struggling to return from a torn ACL in 2014. They managed to sign Michael Johnson, which helps the defensive line, but haven't done anything to help the secondary.
Pittsburgh did not add much in free agency. Strapped for cash, the Steelers chose instead to focus their attention within, signing Ben Roethlisberger to a four-year extension. By doing so, Pittsburgh got long-term stability at quarterback and all but ensured it has the remainder of Big Ben's great years. The draft is likely to be defense-heavy after losing Brett Keisel and Jason Worilds.
With a new coaching staff, the Lions found themselves in the thick of the NFC North race throughout the season. Though a Week 17 loss in Green Bay dropped them to a wildcard berth, they displayed a resolve that was rarely seen during the Jim Schwartz days. There will be an adjustment now that Ndamukong Suh has departed, but trading for Haloti Ngata will help.
Despite poor fortune with the health of their quarterbacks and front-seven defenders, the Cardinals managed to win 11 games in one of the toughest divisions in football. It won't be easy to replace defensive guru Todd Bowles, but Arizona can improve the talent in the defensive front seven to mitigate his departure. Building a better running game would go along way toward helping their quarterbacks too.
Carolina managed to win the NFC South, but got bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs thanks to a severely depleted roster. Nine picks in the draft give the Panthers the chance to find some help for Cam Newton on offense, with an eye toward finding talent and depth for the offensive line.
Going into free agency, cornerback was a huge need for the Ravens, but the team did little to address the position. They need a starting cornerback, and with wide receiver Torrey Smith leaving for the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens need a guy to start opposite Steve Smith, who turns 36 in May. Baltimore signed safety Kendrick Lewis and re-signed Justin Forsett in free agency, which took care of two of their bigger needs.
A completed catch and a defensive stop were all the Cowboys needed to advance to the conference title game for the first time since the 1990s. Now, they need to find a long-term solution for Dez Bryant's contract and locate a replacement for DeMarco Murray, who departed for division rival Philadelphia. The defense could also use a significant influx of talent, especially after the team released Henry Melton to avoid a cap hit in excess of $9 million.
The Broncos saw multiple big-name players depart in free agency, including Terrance Knighton, Julius Thomas and Orlando Franklin. Those holes were only partially addressed with the signings of Shelley Smith and Owen Daniels. Unless Denver can strike gold in the draft, it may be relying heavily on an aging Peyton Manning to hold the team together.
The Colts are a weird case. Indianapolis has made the playoffs three straight years, despite what appear to be major holes across the roster. The Colts have big needs along the offensive line and at the inside linebacker position. Unfortunately, the team didn't really address those needs in free agency outside of signing Todd Herremans to potentially man one of the guard spots.
A few poor coaching decisions and special teams gaffes were all that stood between the Packers and their second trip to the Super Bowl under Mike McCarthy. With that disappointment behind them, the team was able to retain Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga, setting up another season of championship aspirations. Holes at cornerback and inside linebacker loom large, however.
The Patriots don't have many holes, which is good considering their lack of cap space. Unfortunately, New England lost a key piece to last year's team in Darrelle Revis due to cost. New England also did little to address needs at guard and defensive tackle, letting Dan Connolly and Vince Wilfork hit free agency.
The problems the Seahawks have now are fairly similar to those they faced at this time last year. The offensive line remains a work in progress, with James Carpenter departing in free agency and Russell Okung an injury risk. Adding Jimmy Graham helps, but a receiver is still high on the team's wish list. Seattle also needs to address long-term contracts for quarterback Russell Wilson, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and others.
Buffalo has money to spend but is without its first-round pick, having dealt it to Cleveland last season in the Sammy Watkins deal. Kyle Orton retired, creating a need at the position that was partially addressed by a trade for Matt Cassel. The Bills' most pressing need comes at inside linebacker after they traded Kiko Alonso for LeSean McCoy. An upgraded offensive line to assist McCoy would be helpful, as well.