The seismic shift in NFL supremacy hasn’t tweaked the Richter scale appreciably, but it’s coming.
The marathon that is the NFL draft starts Thursday in Philadelphia and fans can expect some of the usual trade-up, trade-down shenanigans of other years. There were 12 first round flips in 2016, the highlights being Tennessee getting a passel of picks from the Rams for first overall selection Jared Goff and the Eagles swapping a host of selections for the right to draft Carson Wentz.
The Rams drafting of Goff did not move the needle in the standings, as they went 4-12 after going 7-9 in 2015. The jury is out on that move. The Eagles, meanwhile, fashioned a 7-9 record for the second season in a row under Wentz and may be on the upswing.
Other than the draft, some of the pretenders in the NFL have made significant and productive moves to get better in order to de-throne perennial contenders like New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Seattle.
We’ve identified 12 teams (6 AFC and 6 NFC) whose collective moves (draft, trades and free agent signings) will impact their place in the league positively.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
Our pick of the Jags to move from pretender to contender required a leap of faith. Of the 12 teams, they have been the most miserable, record-wise, in the last three seasons, going 3-13, 4-12 and 3-13 respectively. However, this is a team that under-performed offensively and should get better production out of the likes of Blake Bortles, T.J. Yeldon, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, to name a few. Where the team made strides under new executive VP Tom Coughlin was picking up defensive help via free agency. The Jags surrendered the fifth fewest total yards last year but were 25th worst in points allowed at 400. To shore up the D, the Jags signed CB A.J. Bouye from Houston (63 tackles, sack, INT) for five years, DE Calais Campbell from Arizona (53 tackles, 8 sacks, INT) for five years and S Barry Church from Dallas (85 tackles, 2 INT) for four years. Those three signings should impact their defence appreciably. As well, Jacksonville owns the fourth pick in the draft and with Coughlin calling the shots, expect them to select a guy like Alabama DT Jonathan Allen to augment the signing of Calais Campbell.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
If the Eagles want to contend, the simple answer would be to improve on that horrible 1-7 road record in 2016. If only it were that easy. Stuck in arguably the toughest division in the NFC, the Eagles did not sit idly this post-season, making a few moves, big and small, to improve offensively, primarily getting Carson Wentz some much needed help at wideout. They plucked WR Alshon Jeffery from Chicago (821 yards, 2 TD) for a year and also signed Torrey Smith from San Francisco for three. The 7-9 Eagles ranked 22nd in total offence in Wentz first season as QB, racking 5,389 total yards and 367 points. Wentz passed for 3,782 yards and 16 TDs (against 14 INTs) and finished with a 79.3 rating. The Eagles also got Wentz some veteran back-up help with the signings of former Eagle Nick Foles from Kansas City for two years and Matt McGloin from Oakland for one year. If anything, these two should push Wentz to be even better in 2017. Philly’s 13th ranked defence got a boost, too, with the signings of DE Chris Long from New England (35 tackles, 4.0 sacks) and the trade with Baltimore for DT Timmy Jernigan (31 tackles, 5 sacks).
10. Indianapolis Colts
After three straight seasons of playoff football, including a trip to the AFC championship in 2014, the Colts have diddled for the middle in two straight seasons, posting identical 8-8 records. They have a new GM this season in Chris Ballard and it will be his job to improve the third worst defence (total yardage wise) in the NFL. Indy did get busy in free agency, in that regard, signing a host of defensive players to contracts of varying length. They include LB Jabaal Sheard (33 tackles, 5 sacks for New England); LB John Simon (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks for Houston); LB Sean Spence (54 tackles; 3 sacks for Tennessee) and DT Johnathan Hankins (43 tackles; 3 sacks for the Giants). On offence, where the Colts were 10th best last season, they did some minor tweaking to give Andrew Luck an option, signing WR Kamar Aiken from Baltimore (29 catches, 328 yards, 1 TD). With the 15th pick in the draft, it’s assumed they will pick a defender, with DE/OLB Takkarist McKinley of UCLA a likely target.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston had to be giddy with delight when the Bucs signed free agent WR DeSean Jackson to a three-year contract on March 9. Winston had a breakout year and led the Bucs to a 9-7 record after three consecutive losing seasons and with deep threat Jackson (1,005 yards, 4TDs) lining up opposite Mike Evans (1,321 yards, 12 TD), he should have a field day picking apart defences in the NFC South. All of a sudden, the Bucs look like a threat and if they are true to their re-build of the offence, they are likely to go for a running back. They pick 19th on Thursday and highly rated runner Christian McCaffrey could be available in that slot. He’s a great hybrid runner/receiver who will also help on special teams. If he’s not available, Dalvin Cook of Florida State is the next best option.
8. Houston Texans
So close, but yet so far. The defensively stout Texans went 9-7, made the playoffs and went to the divisional playoffs, despite an offence that sputtered under big 2016 free agent signing Brock Osweiler. Now, the disappointing Osweiler is gone to Cleveland and barring a trade at the draft, they are heading into the 2017 season with QBs Brandon Weeden and Tom Savage. The Texans do own the 25th pick in the draft, but it’s expected QBs Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina and Deshaun Watson of Clemson will already be off the board. Therefore, getting a NFL ready pivot is highly unlikely and plan B, according to some pundits, is pass protection for whoever it is under center. One scenario says the Texans should take OT Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin, the top left tackle available. On the free agent side, the Texans were quiet, with the exercise on DE Jadeveon Clowney’s fifth-year option the biggest news.
7. Minnesota Vikings
For the last three seasons under Mike Zimmer, the Vikes have flip-flopped between being an also ran (7-9 in 2014), to playoff bound (11-5 in 2015) and back to also-ran (8-8 in 2016). They were pretty good defensively last year, giving up the third fewest points and third fewest total yards in the NFC, so there isn’t much they need to do in free agency. On the other side of the ball, though, Minny was just so-so. They did, however, make some moves to put some oomph back into the offence, Sam Bradford’s contractual situation be damned and Teddy Bridgewater’s recovery from injury going slowly. Without an ‘A’ list running back, the Vikes went after Oakland’s third-year man Latavius Murray (788 yards, 12 TD), signing him to a three-year contract and effectively ending Adrian Peterson’s tenure. Other than Murray, a measure of insurance at quarterback came with the free agent signing of Case Keenum (2,201 yards passing, 9 TD with Rams). They also improved their O-line with the signing of four-year veteran OT Riley Rieff from Detroit.
6. Tennessee Titans
The turning point for the Titans was when they fired Ken Whisenhunt seven games into the 2015 season, replacing him with Mike Mularkey. They finished the 2015 campaign 3-13, then made a remarkable turnaround in 2016, narrowly missing the post-season with a 9-7 mark (same as Houston, lost on tie-break). And the Titans are in the enviable position of having two picks in the first round of the draft, 5th and 18th. The news today is that they are weighing offers for the 5th pick (acquired from the deal for no. 1 overall pick Jared Goff in the 2016 draft) and contemplating a trade. The Titans most glaring holes are on defence, where they finished 20th in yards conceded (30th in passing yards). A target then, at the 5th pick should they keep it, would be CB Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State. If they do decide to deal, the signing of four-year veteran Logan Ryan from New England is key. The other need is for a game-breaking wide receiver, and Washington State speedster John Ross is slotted directly into the Titans second first round pick at 18.
5. Detroit Lions
It seems like forever ago that the Lions suffered the indignity of a 0-16 season. Since that dubious 2008 campaign, the Lions have taken baby steps and then more giant strides to becoming a respectable football club. They have made the playoffs three times in the last six seasons, the most recent last year when they were 9-7 and lost 26-6 to Seattle in the NFC wild card playoffs. The Leos are good enough on offence with Matt Stafford running the show and hitting targets such as Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. The defence, on the other hand, could use a makeover and the Lions went hunting in free agency. The first order of business was signing promising young DT Akeem Spence from Detroit to a three-year deal on March 9. The Lions followed it up with the F/A signings of three-year vet DL Cornelius Washington (21 tackles, 2 sacks with Bears), CB D.J. Hayden (37 tackles, 6 PD with Oakland) and LB Nick Bellore (83 tackles, 1 sack with the 49ers). The Lions have the 24th pick in the draft and some are speculating they will take LB T.J. Watt from Wisconsin — J.J.’s youngest brother.
4. Miami Dolphins
With their first winning season since 2008, people are now taking the Miami Dolphins a little more seriously. First year coach Adam Gase turned a 6-10 team around to 10-6 and into the wild card playoffs, where they fell 30-12 to Pittsburgh. What is amazing about Miami’s 10-6 campaign in 2016 was the fact they were bottom half in yardage gained and surrendered. The offence was run very capably by Ryan Tannehill, supported by running back Jay Ajayi (1,272 yards, 8 TD) and receiver Jarvis Landry (1,136 yards, 4 TD) so they weren’t active in the free agent market there. On defence, they were more dynamic in the free agent market, plucking S Nate Allen from Oakland, LB Lawrence Timmons from Pittsburgh and S T.J. McDonald from the Rams. The Fish own the 22nd pick in the draft and some say they’ll go after OT Forrest Lamp from Western Kentucky, but the projected 22nd pick is CB Gareon Conley from Ohio State. Wait and see.
3. Atlanta Falcons
There is cause for much optimism — and just as much trepidation — as the Falcons head into a new season after that epic collapse in the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan was full value leading Atlanta’s top-ranked offence (most points at 540) and there are/were no real holes to fill. But that didn’t mean that GM Tom Dimitroff was twiddling his fingers while his confreres combed the free agent meat market. He signed young RBs Derrick Coleman (Seattle) and Soma Vainuku (Houston) to push the likes of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to maintain a high standard, while also nabbing veteran free agent wideout Andre Roberts from the Detroit Lions. Dimitroff made some minor moves to shore up his defence (and keep defensive minded coach Dan Quinn happy) by re-signing CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson and picking up DT Dontari Poe (27 tackles, 1.5 sacks) from Kansas City. The Falcons, of course, don’t pick until 31 at the draft, a position they could potentially take DE/OLB Taco Charlton from Michigan.
2. Oakland Raiders
One AFC team the rest are going to have to look out for is the Oakland Raiders. With the big news about the signing of “retired” RB Marshawn Lynch dominating the news today, they have grabbed all the buzz heading into the draft on Thursday. The ever talkative (we’re kidding) Lynch tweeted out his pleasure at moving down home to Oakland, saying, “It’s Time.” We couldn’t agree more, where the Vegas-bound Raiders and their long-suffering fans are concerned. In just two seasons, coach Jack Del Rio has taken the Raiders from laughingstock to 12-4 playoff team, with a big assist to GM Reggie McKenzie. Lynch, signed to a reported two-year deal, will be taking over the duties of departed RB Latavius Murray. He joins a pass-happy attack fronted by QB Derek Carr, who was given WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota) and TE Jared Cook (Green Bay) as further targets in a wide receiver set that includes Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. The Raiders have the 21st pick in Thursday’s draft and they have options at that spot, most likely choosing a defensive back.
1. Dallas Cowboys
The team we feel the closest to becoming the biggest contender for New England’s crown is Big D. From 12-4 team in 2014, to 4-12 squad in 2015 and then 13-3 powerhouse in 2016, Jason Garrett’s Cowboys are poised for big things, at least in the NFC (where they lost in the divisional playoffs to Green Bay). With the yoke of any Tony Romo return lifted, RoY QB Dak Prescott can take a deep breath and go about making this team his. An offence that features Prescott’s precision arm (23 TD passes, just 4 INTs), rookie Ezekiel Elliott’s running (1,631 yards, 15 TD) and the deep threats of Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant is just scary good. The Packers, however, proved in the playoffs that the Cowboys defence wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Thus, the signing of veteran CB Nolan Carroll from Philadelphia (55 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD) will help shore up the backfield. With the 28th pick in the draft, then, there will be no surprise if Big D selects SS Jabrill Peppers out of Michigan.