Projecting the NFL Draft: AFC West
By Andy Benoit
With Peyton Manning coming back and Demaryius Thomas having been saddled with the franchise tag, general manager John Elway’s main focus should be finding a tight end to replace Julius Thomas, who is all but guaranteed to land elsewhere in free agency. That will mean finding someone who is flexible enough to line up anywhere in the formation and force a defense to tip its hand prior to the snap.
After that, addressing other skill positions should take a back seat to shoring up the offensive line. With Orlando Franklin headed to San Diego, there’s a need at left guard and center. Because new head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone running scheme is so specific in offensive linemen requirements—mobility tops the list—it’s feasible to fill these spots with veteran stopgaps. A center such as former Texan Chris Myers comes to mind.
Defensively, a stout middle linebacker would be nice, but it’s not mandatory given Danny Trevathan’s coming back healthy and the emergence of Brandon Marshall. Both have the agility to play in the nickel sub-package, which is the new base defense in pro football. To help keep these linebackers clean, Elway should re-sign the light-footed Terrance Knighton (though reports indicate that won’t happen). Without Knighton, nose tackle becomes the most important defensive need. Lastly, free safety is the thinnest position, as Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter are both unsigned. Given the amount of man coverage the Broncos play, their free safety must have the range and awareness to be a deft centerfielder in single-high coverages.
By Andy Staples
With Terrance Knighton probably taking all the pot roast elsewhere, the Broncos need a powerful presence at the point of attack. Washington’s Danny Shelton would be ideal, but he’ll be long gone by the time Denver selects at No. 28. Fortunately for the Broncos, Florida State’s Eddie Goldman might still be available. Goldman is 6-foot-4 and 336 pounds, but he moves like a much smaller man. He’s quick enough to split a double-team and strong enough to make an opponent regret a decision to block him with only the center. Goldman won’t merely take up space. He’ll make plays.
Should Rahim Moore walk, the Broncos will be in the market for a free safety. They might be able to pick up former Ole Miss star Cody Prewitt at No. 59. Prewitt’s 4.6-second 40 at the combine might scare some teams, but he turned in a 4.47-second 40 at his pro day last week. Another possible use for this pick is at slot receiver. There should be several quality options. The best is probably Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who rarely failed to get open even though defenses knew the Wildcats would be targeting him. Lockett also is an excellent kick returner. Other potential options are Miami’s Phillip Dorsett and East Carolina’s Justin Hardy. It’s also possible one of these guys would be available when the Broncos pick in the third round. The Broncos also might want to use a mid-round pick on Goldman’s Florida State teammate Josue Matias, who could fill a guard spot vacated by Orlando Franklin. Or they could use that pick on Lockett’s college teammate B.J. Finney, who would bring football’s best flat top to the middle of the offensive line.
By Andy Benoit
The Chiefs desperately needed a wideout last offseason but chose not to tap into arguably the best receiver draft class in NFL history. They still need a wideout, even after signing Jeremy Maclin, who will be their No. 1. Maclin can run, but another speedster who can stretch defenses even more would do wonders for an offense that has survived almost solely on Andy Reid’s shrewd play designs, which mostly feature misdirection concepts that highlight running backs and tight ends. In such a system, it’s more important that receivers be able to reach the right spots rather than consistently beat defenders one-on-one. It’s not mandatory to put a stud receiver opposite Maclin, but, of course, doing so would only expand the system’s capabilities.
Expect Reid and Dorsey to address wide receiver only after they address the offensive line. Rodney Hudson is a huge loss (especially given that he’s signing with division rival Oakland). Hudson was the fulcrum of the front five and one of the best centers in football. Now there’s a gargantuan need at the position. Guard Jeff Linkenbach and right tackle Ryan Harris are also free agents, but replaceable ones. Of the two positions, Linkenbach’s is the one more likely to be addressed in the draft.
Franchise tagging Justin Houston nullifies any need at outside linebacker. Recall that the Chiefs already planned ahead here by drafting Dee Ford in the first round last season. He had a quiet rookie season but figures to contend for Tamba Hali’s starting job in the near future. The secondary needs to be reloaded; three players (the versatile Ron Parker, slot veteran Chris Owens and backup Kurt Coleman) are now free agents, and three others (Sean Smith, Jamell Fleming and the increasingly dimensional Husain Abdullah) will be free agents in 2016.
By Andy Staples
The Chiefs need help at receiver and on the offensive line, and their place in the first round (No. 18) probably will dictate how they use that pick. Most of the elite receivers probably will be gone—though the Chiefs might be able to pick up Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong or, if they’re comfortable with his serious off-field issues, Missouri/Oklahoma’s Dorial Green-Beckham—and some very good ones will be available to take in the second and third rounds. So the Chiefs would be better off picking an offensive lineman. But which one? Pittsburgh tackle T.J. Clemmings probably has the highest ceiling, but he’s unpolished because he’s relatively new to the position. Iowa’s Brandon Scherff played tackle in college but might have a better skillset to play guard in the NFL. But in a pinch, he probably could play either. He also might be gone at this spot. Florida State’s Cam Erving might be considered a reach this high, but he could play all five positions, and, given the Chiefs’ needs, that might offer the best value and the most flexibility.
At receiver, East Carolina’s Hardy is a sure-handed playmaker who could be available in the third round. Or the Chiefs could shoot for a receiver in the second and grab Florida State’s Rashad Greene, one of college football’s most reliable playmakers for the past four seasons.
Depending on how the Chiefs handle that first-round pick, they might want to use their second or third pick on a center. At 296 pounds, Auburn’s Reese Dismukes is one of the smaller offensive linemen in the draft, but he held up well against excellent defensive line competition in the SEC West and should be available in the second. Meanwhile, Oregon glue guy Hroniss Grasu could be available in the third. In the later rounds the Chiefs could beef up their secondary depth by grabbing Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs, who played a nickel role for much of his career in Austin.
By Andy Benoit
It was wise of owner Mark Davis to retain GM Reggie McKenzie. Inheriting a club mired in salary cap problems and the repercussions of bad trades, McKenzie’s first true year on the job was 2014, when he finally had both money and a full allotment of draft picks. He hit a home run by taking Khalil Mack in the first round, and it appears he connected with the second-round selection of Derek Carr, who could become the first young, long-term QB successfully developed by this franchise since Kenny Stabler in the early 1970s. McKenzie must now find Carr better wide receivers. James Jones is really a No. 3, so any style of receiver anywhere in the draft should be up for consideration.
With new head coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders might move back to the vanilla zone-based schemes that he ran in Jacksonville. But Del Rio should consider going with the more diverse man-coverage concepts that he used in Denver. Such an approach requires good one-on-one corners. The Raiders have one in D.J. Hayden, and there’s reason for optimism with last year’s draft picks, T.J. Carrie (seventh round) and Keith McGill (fourth). But with veterans Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown both free agents, expect McKenzie to take a corner at least in the middle rounds to buttress depth.
In the early rounds, any position along the defensive line can be improved (save for Mack’s nickel defensive end spot). And the middle linebacker spot, which has been held down by Miles Burris in the wake of Nick Roach’s injuries, must be upgraded.
By Andy Staples
Al Davis is gone, so there is no chance the Raiders use the No. 4 pick on UAB receiver J.J. Nelson and his 4.28-second 40-yard dash. And while some team will get a lightning fast slot receiver and kick returner in Nelson later in the draft, Oakland needs to spend this pick on a another receiver who played his college ball in the Yellowhammer State. Even though West Virginia’s Kevin White has given teams plenty of reasons to consider making him the first receiver off the board, Alabama’s Amari Cooper is the safest bet to be a future star. Cooper is smooth, fast, deceptively strong and runs precise routes. He’ll contribute immediately.
The Raiders can cash in on a deep-at-the-top defensive line group at No. 35. Goldman might still be there, and he could be a one-technique in the Raiders’ 4-3. So might Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. Ditto for UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa or Utah edge rusher Nate Orchard. Because the Raiders pick so high in the second round, there is a chance they can fill their middle linebacker need with Miami’s Denzel Perryman. The President will be bludgeoning ballcarriers in the middle of some lucky team’s defense for years. If he’s available at No. 68, which isn’t a given, the Raiders should snap him up. Later, Oakland can go ahead and take Kevin White. That’s TCU cornerback Kevin White, who had a pretty good game against West Virginia’s Kevin White when the teams met in October.
By Andy Benoit
The retirement of center Nick Hardwick and guard Jeromey Clary left the Chargers offensive line thin inside, though the addition of Orlando Franklin ameliorates this. Franklin brings more girth to a front five that already has great size, including at left tackle, where King Dunlap was re-signed to a four-year deal after a breakout 2014 campaign. Last year’s third-round pick, Chris Watt, will get another chance to fill the center spot. At least one more body is needed inside, though, especially given that top backup Rich Ohrnberger is a free agent. An option that has been floated is moving D.J. Fluker to that spot. That would just shift the need to right tackle.
Rounding out the offense, every tight end on the roster is in the final year of his deal, including future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates. Expect GM Tom Telesco to search for a long-term prospect here. Telesco can also search for another wide receiver, especially if shifty veteran slot man Eddie Royal is not re-signed.
Defensively, re-signing Brandon Flowers was critical. San Diego’s only other viable cornerback is unproven second-year pro Jason Verrett. Which means one more corner is needed, especially given that safety Marcus Gilchrist, who slides down over the slot in nickel, is also a free agent. Lastly, an edge-rusher to accompany 2014 second-rounder Jeremiah Attaochu would punctuate the defense and fill the void left by Dwight Freeney, who is starting to show his age (35) and may not be brought back.
By Andy Staples
The Chargers find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Chiefs, picking in the middle of the first round and needing offensive linemen at two positions. But the Chargers also need a cornerback, and No. 17 is a place where the top cornerbacks should still be available. They might be able to get Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, who is the closest to a sure thing as any corner in this draft. If he’s not available, San Diego should grab Iowa’s Scherff if he’s still available.
If the Chargers take an offensive lineman in the first round, they might be able to pick up a corner in the second. Miami (Ohio) corner Quinten Rollins, who spent four years playing point guard before using his final year of eligibility to play football, is a raw but intriguing prospect. Florida State’s P.J. Williams, Florida Atlantic’s D’Joun Smith and LSU’s Jalen Collins could also be available here. At least one of them should be, and all have the tools to play quickly and help a defense.
Later, the Chargers might want to consider Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin as a 3-4 rush linebacker. Mauldin played as a 4-3 defensive end at Louisville, but his size (259 pounds) suggests a move to linebacker in a 3-4. Mauldin’s 4.85-second 40 will give some teams pause, but his college production (13 tackles for loss, 11 hurries in 2014) and his ability to beat offensive tackles should allay any fears.