Published April 20, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – A capsule look of the major needs and a possible course of action for the AFC teams in the 2012 NFL Draft, which will take place at New York's Radio City Music Hall from April 26-28.
Top Needs: OT, WR, CB
First Three Picks: No. 10, No. 41, No. 71
Number of Selections: 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7)
With the signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, two of the top pass rushers of this year's free-agent class, the Bills turned last season's most troubling weakness into a possible strength. Questions still remain on the offensive line, however, after the team allowed starting left tackle Demetress Bell to depart in the offseason. Though 2011 fourth-round pick Chris Hairston has upside, the jury's still out as to whether he's quick and skilled enough to handle the left side, making it likely that general manager Buddy Nix will use one of Buffalo's first two selections to bring in some competition. An outside wide receiver with size and deep speed that can prevent opponents from focusing on top target Stevie Johnson also ranks high on the Bills' to-do list, as is injecting some more youth and ability to a secondary that contains four key members over the age of 30 and adding further depth at linebacker. With extra choices in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds, the opportunity to augment the overall talent base is there. Nix has shown a preference for major conference players from the Southeastern region (i.e. SEC, ACC) during the last two drafts, something to keep an eye on.
Top Needs: WR, OLB, RT, QB
First Three Picks: No. 8, No. 42, No. 72
Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
The Dolphins' primary goal for this draft is to attain a quality young quarterback that can solidify a position that's lacked stability ever since Dan Marino's retirement well over a decade ago. Miami also hasn't taken a signal-caller in the first round since striking gold with Marino all the way back in 1983, but it's believed that drought could very well end if Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill is still available at the team's No. 8 overall pick. The athletic former wide receiver already has a strong connection to the new staff, having operated offensive coordinator and ex-Aggies head coach Mike Sherman's system while in college, and the Dolphins aren't committed to veterans Matt Moore and David Garrard beyond this season. Miami's greatest offensive deficiency may be at wide receiver, however, after trading malcontent Brandon Marshall to Chicago last month, and there's also a desire for a nimble right tackle who can effectively protect whomever is taking the snaps next season. The Dolphins are in better shape on the defensive side, though an outside linebacker that can provide a pass-rushing presence opposite the disruptive Cameron Wake does qualify as a significant need.
New England (13-3)
Top Needs: OLB, S, WR
First Three Picks: No. 27, No. 31, No. 48
Number of Selections: 6 (1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4)
The Patriots are in a very unfamiliar draft position, as a franchise known for stockpiling picks comes into this year's event with just six selections total. Four of them lie in the opening two rounds, however, after extracting premium choices from New Orleans and Oakland in exchange for moving down in last season's draft, and there's a good possibility the defending AFC champs delegate most of them towards improving a defense that ranked 31st overall in both total yards allowed and passing yards surrendered in 2011. Bolstering the pass rush may be Bill Belichick's most specific objective after last year's leading sackers, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, either left via free agency or weren't re-signed, and an athletic prospect with the versatility to harass the quarterback as either a 3-4 outside linebacker or a down lineman would be hard to pass up. Though safety Steve Gregory and veteran nickel back Will Allen were brought in this offseason, a secondary that was too often exploited by enemy passers could still use some additional support. New England also loaded up on experienced receivers during the signing period, but they're mostly short-term fixes and shouldn't preclude the club from grabbing a developmental-type who offers potential down the road. And as always, expect the Pats to be active on the trade front with the intention of recouping some of their lost late-round picks.
N.Y. Jets (8-8)
Top Needs: RT, S, WR
First Three Picks: No. 16, No. 47, No. 77
Number of Selections: 10 (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7)
Rex Ryan has held off on the Super Bowl talk this offseason, maybe because the Jets' bombastic head coach is well aware that his team requires some fine- tuning in several areas in order to return to top-shelf status in the AFC. New York intends on reprising the "ground and pound" offensive philosophy that was so successful in Ryan's first two seasons at the helm, but an upgrade over returning right tackle Wayne Hunter and a big-play threat to mix in with grinder Shonn Greene at running back are necessary to make than plan work smoothly. Ryan will also be on the lookout for an every-down outside linebacker than can pressure the quarterback, with situational rusher Aaron Maybin the only defender from last year's group with more than five sacks and veterans Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas getting a bit long in the tooth. The back end of the defense is still an issue as well even after the offseason pickup of strong safety LaRon Landry, as the ex-Redskin has been injury-prone the past two years and returnee Eric Smith has range limitations, and a reliable complement to No. 1 wide receiver Santonio Holmes doesn't exist on the present roster. The Jets do currently hold 10 picks in this draft, though most of the surplus is in the latter stages and they relinquished their fourth-rounder in the trade for quarterback Tim Tebow.
Top Needs: OL, WR, DL
First Three Picks: No. 29, No. 60, No. 91
Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7)
The Ravens head into the draft with less depth than last season's squad that finished an eyelash of reaching the Super Bowl following the free-agent defections of three valued starters -- left guard Ben Grubbs, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and end Cory Redding -- as well as a few key reserves. While the team is confident that Paul Kruger and second-year find Pernell McPhee can thrive in increased roles and offset the losses of Johnson and Redding, there's little behind the regulars on the defensive line at the moment. Grubbs' spot may be tougher to fill, as 2011 third-round pick Jah Reid may be best suited to being a swing tackle than a starting guard, while stalwart center Matt Birk has hinted he may retire after this season and there isn't a viable successor currently in place. Georgia guard Cordy Glenn and Wisconsin center Peter Konz are two names often linked to Baltimore's No. 29 overall pick, and either would make sense if they're still on the board. The Ravens will also be on the lookout for a skilled young receiver than can man the slot and further open up the passing game, as well as a running back that can compete with raw sophomore Anthony Allen to fill the void left by Ricky Williams' retirement.
Top Needs: WR, S, DE
First Three Picks: No. 17, No. 21, No. 53
Number of Selections: 9 (1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6)
The midseason trade of disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer has the Bengals in excellent position to add to their impressive young talent base in this draft. With nine total picks presently in hand, including both the 17th and 21st overall choices after shrewdly obtaining Oakland's first-rounder for Palmer last October, Cincinnati has the chance to both fill its most pressing needs and continue to build on this past year's surprising success. There's a possible opening at strong safety following the recent release of nine-year pro Chris Crocker, as it's unclear if ex-49ers castoff Taylor Mays is a viable long-term solution, and at wide receiver if the team doesn't bring back the still-unsigned Jerome Simpson due to off-field concerns. The Bengals also lost two key members of their defensive line rotation in end Frostee Rucker and swingman Jonathan Fanene, so a high selection could be earmarked for that area even after the offseason additions of former first-round busts Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey. With a few age issues at cornerback and all three projected starters at linebacker slated to hit free agency at season's end, the later rounds could be used to help cover the bases at those spots.
Top Needs: RT, WR, RB, QB
First Three Picks: No. 4, No. 22, No. 37
Number of Selections: 13 (1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7)
Perhaps no one has more riding on this draft than the Browns' brain trust of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert, who are armed with an abundance of picks as the result of several trades and compensatory offerings but have a number of big decisions to make that will shape the future of the struggling franchise. The most pivotal one may come at quarterback, where Colt McCoy has been serviceable yet unspectacular in his two seasons on the job while often being handcuffed by a mediocre supporting cast. Ascending Texas A&M signal-caller Ryan Tannehill is a realistic candidate for Cleveland's fourth overall selection if Holmgren and Heckert deem him worthy of going that high, or the team may opt to wait until its other first-round choice (No. 22) or the second round (No. 37) and target a less-valued prospect like Michigan State's Kirk Cousins or Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. Since the Browns possessed arguably the league's worst receiving corps last season and let running back Peyton Hillis walk in free agency, coveted Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon or Alabama workhorse Trent Richardson are also in play at No. 4 if they pass on Tannehill. A starting-caliber right offensive tackle will also draw serious consideration in the early rounds after Cleveland let go of brittle veteran Tony Pashos. However Holmgren and Heckert determine to play it out, this will be a draft heavily geared towards boosting the NFL's 29th- ranked offense in 2011.
Top Needs: NT, ILB, OG
First Three Picks: No. 24, No. 56, No. 86
Number of Selections: 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7)
The Steelers began the necessary process of getting younger this offseason by bidding adieu to such old standbys as Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith, but there's still more work to be done to a roster where age remains a concern. Fortunately, the 10 picks Pittsburgh possesses presents an opportunity to bring in some desired new blood, particularly to a defense that has seven current starters 30 or over. Finding an eventual replacement for longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton, who's most effective in a timeshare role at this stage of his career, will be among general manager Kevin Colbert's top priorities, and the team could probably do better than the modestly-talented tandem of Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster at guard. Veteran Larry Foote is a capable substitute for Farrior at one inside linebacker slot, but the 31-year- old is merely a stopgap option and depth is thin behind the regulars. With top rusher Rashard Mendenhall's status for 2012 in question due to a torn ACL suffered in early January, Colbert may also look to bring in an impact running back as early as the second day, and a young quarterback could be of use as well with backup Charlie Batch turning 38 in December.
Top Needs: WR, OL, FB
First Three Picks: No. 26, No. 58, No. 76
Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7)
The optimism fostered from last year's breakthrough campaign has been tempered some by the significant personnel losses the Texans encountered during the offseason, with premier pass-rusher Mario Williams, offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and undervalued tight end Joel Dreessen among those no longer on the roster. The team is still confident it has players ready to step in at all those spots, though, which would allow Houston to concentrate on addressing its most pressing need -- a young wide receiver with size that can stretch the field and provide a big- play complement to All-Pro Andre Johnson. The quality of this year's wideout class shouldn't have the Texans handcuffed by picking late in the first round, as prospects that fit the club's profile such as LSU's Rueben Randle or Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill could very well be still on the board if it chooses to go in that direction. Much of Houston's draft strategy will be geared towards gathering reinforcements for those positions thinned out by the veteran depletions, however, and there's also not a true fullback or a kicker on the present payroll.
Top Needs: QB, TE, CB, NT
First Three Picks: No. 1, No. 34, No. 64
Number of Selections: 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7)
The post-Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis will be ushered in immediately at the upcoming NFL Draft, with the Colts all but certain to select either Stanford star Andrew Luck or Baylor standout Robert Griffin III with the No. 1 overall pick to become the team's new franchise quarterback. Luck still rates as the heavy favorite to be the top choice, though owner Jim Irsay continues to publicly insist that a final decision has not yet been made. Whichever rookie winds up as Manning's successor will need a few more capable targets to work with, as the departure of free agent Pierre Garcon leaves a void at the No. 2 receiver spot alongside Reggie Wayne, while Dallas Clark's release creates a sizeable hole at the tight end position. The intended switch to a 3-4 front under new head coach Chuck Pagano ensures there will be plenty of changes on the defensive side as well, so expect the Colts to use a good number of their 10 picks towards finding players suited to that scheme. The defensive line will particularly require some rearranging, and finding a starting-caliber cornerback also ranks as a high priority.
Top Needs: DE, WR, LB
First Three Picks: No. 7, No. 38, No. 70
Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
The Jaguars finished dead last in the NFL in both total offense and passing yards during their disappointing 2011 season, and young quarterback Blaine Gabbert's pronounced struggles were compounded by glaring dearth of playmakers at wide receiver. Though the team took steps to solve that problem with the signings of veterans Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans, it would surprise no one if general manager Gene Smith reels in a young pass-catcher in the first few rounds, and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon could be an especially tempting option if he's still available at Jacksonville's No. 7 overall slot. Smith's main goal figures to be landing a defensive end who can pressure the quarterback, however, as lineman Jeremy Mincey was the only member of last year's squad with more than 3 1/2 sacks, and Clint Session's injury history and Daryl Smith's looming free agency makes outside linebacker a possible target area. Gene Smith has shown a preference for small-school, off-the-radar prospects in the past, so look for that trend to continue in the later rounds.
Top Needs: CB, C, DE
First Three Picks: No. 20, No. 52, No. 82
Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
Running the football and pressuring the quarterback were major trouble spots for the Titans a year ago, with the team ranking 31st in the league in both rushing yards and sacks. While the acquisitions of seven-time Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson and defensive end Kamerion Wimbley should help improve the production in each of those categories, adding more talent to the mix still seems to be on the agenda. Tennessee unsuccessfully pursued a number of veteran centers in free agency during the offseason, so it may instead turn to the draft to obtain someone to push incumbent Eugene Amano, and little depth remains behind Wimbley and slow-developing 2010 first-round choice Derrick Morgan on the outside of the defensive line. Cornerback will also likely be a position of interest following the exodus of stalwart Cortland Finnegan, and the Titans may seek an eventual replacement for 10-year pro Will Witherspoon at weakside linebacker at some point as well.
Top Needs: DT, RB, OL
First Three Picks: No. 25, No. 57, No. 87
Number of Selections: 7 (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 6)
Despite bringing in a 36-year-old Peyton Manning to take over at quarterback, the Broncos' focus in this draft will predominantly be about getting younger. Age is a particular worry in the middle of the defensive line, where two prominent members of the rotation (Ty Warren, Justin Bannan) are on the down side of their careers and Warren has missed the last two seasons due to injuries, so most insiders expect Denver to use its No. 25 overall pick on the best interior tackle that's still standing. Leading rusher Willis McGahee enjoyed a career renaissance for the reigning AFC West champs last year, but the 30-year-old has considerable tread on his tires and 2009 first-rounder Knowshon Moreno seems to have fallen out of favor with the current coaching staff, which makes a running back with fresh legs a potential priority for the new Manning-led offense. The Broncos, who picked up a second fourth-round choice in the trade of popular quarterback Tim Tebow to the Jets, also seek a future building block at cornerback and are short on quality reserves on the offensive line, while a more talented alternative to backup quarterback Caleb Hanie also may be found out of the rookie ranks.
Kansas City (7-9)
Top Needs: NT, OL, DE
First Three Picks: No. 11, No. 44, No. 74
Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7)
General manager Scott Pioli dedicated much of the Chiefs' resources in free agency towards shoring up the league's second-worst scoring offense from last season, which could mean he'll be turning his attention to a defense that's somewhat thin in a few places during the draft. The depth issues are most prevalent along the front line, with Kansas City in need of a replacement for aging nose tackle Kelly Gregg and starting end Glenn Dorsey entering the final year of his contract, and the team could additionally use a third safety with starter's skills with young standout Eric Berry coming off a torn ACL. Pioli is also likely to spend at least one pick on an offensive lineman with veteran left guard Ryan Lilja another set to hit free agency at season's end and the absence of a swing tackle to back up regulars Branden Albert and Eric Winston on the roster. The Chiefs' public interest in both Peyton Manning and prospect Ryan Tannehill this offseason could be a sign the front office is losing confidence in quarterback Matt Cassel, so it wouldn't be a shock if that position is addressed in the draft as well.
Top Needs: TE, CB, RB
First Three Picks: No. 95, No. 129, No. 148
Number of Selections: 5 (3, 4, 5, 5, 6)
Al Davis may no longer be calling the shots, but the flamboyant late owner's impact on the Raiders will still be felt this year and beyond. New general manager Reggie McKenzie inherited quite a mess as the result of a host of short-sighted decisions by Davis, including several that involved giving away nearly all of the franchise's picks in this draft. Though Oakland did receive three compensatory selections, it still won't be on the clock until the end of the third round (No. 95 overall) and McKenzie has just five total picks to choose from. He'll also have to do so wisely, with the Silver and Black still in search of substitutes for such offseason defections as pass-rushing linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, tight end Kevin Boss and reserve quarterback Jason Campbell. The running back position was weakened as well by Michael Bush's free-agent signing with Chicago, leaving the team without an established backup to the brittle Darren McFadden. Oakland may be in decent shape at cornerback if offseason pickup Ron Bartell is over a serious neck injury and fellow newcomer Shawntae Spencer can reclaim his onetime form in San Francisco, but both have to be considered rolls of the dice.
San Diego (8-8)
Top Needs: OL, CB, S
First Three Picks: No. 18, No. 49, No. 78
Number of Selections: 8 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7)
In what's a very critical season for both he and head coach Norv Turner, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith could very well live up to his reputation for being aggressive on draft day. The overall depth of this year's crop should still allow San Diego to nab a useful player if it stays put at its present first-round slot (No. 18 overall), however, with the offensive line and secondary two areas that stand a good chance of being targeted early on. The left side of the line is a cause for concern due to the forced retirement of four-time Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman because of concussion complications and tackle Jared Gaither's inability to stay healthy in recent years, so a ready-made prospect such as Stanford guard David DeCastro being available at that spot would certainly be a welcome sight. The Chargers received subpar seasons from cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason a year ago and just lost starting strong safety Steve Gregory through free agency, therefore improving the defense's back line also should be on Smith's agenda in addition to enhancing a pass rush that was often sporadic in 2011. Multi-skilled running back Mike Tolbert's offseason departure creates a need for a third- down specialist to work with former first-round pick Ryan Mathews in the backfield.