Third of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: Nothing would make the Texans happier than the focus shifting from their tumultuous offseason to the draft. Following the departure of OLB Mario Williams to Buffalo and a pair of surprising cost-cutting moves — ORT Eric Winston being released and ILB DeMeco Ryans being traded to the Eagles for a fourth-round draft pick — the Texans could use a strong draft class to fill holes and restore good will with their players and fan base. Houston has eight picks, starting with No. 26 overall, and while it has areas it surely would like to improve, there is really only one glaring weakness on the roster.
Need No. 1: Wide receiver
The Texans caught a glimpse of just how poor their receiving corps is without Andre Johnson in 2011. No. 2 WR Kevin Walter and No. 3 option Jacoby Jones couldn’t pick up the slack, forcing Houston to be overreliant on RB Arian Foster and TEs Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen in the passing game. A consistent and dynamic wideout who can test defenses deep is needed to take the pressure off Johnson and Schaub. It also will lighten Foster’s load. The Texans prefer big, strong wideouts, but if a smaller burner like Kendall Wright is on the board, he might be too tempting to pass up.
Need No. 2: Outside linebacker
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can never have too many pass rushers. Ideally, he would like to have a third option who stands up and comes off the edge. Even with Williams no longer on the roster, Phillips still has two very good pass rushers in Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, but they will be much more effective with a third guy who can come in and spell them. Houston likes 2011 undrafted rookie Bryan Braman and veteran Jesse Nading, but neither guy has the potential to come in and make an impact similar to the one Reed made last season.
Need No. 3: Offensive guard/offensive tackle
The Texans think OT Rashad Butler and OG Antoine Caldwell can adequately replace Winston and Mike Brisiel. The good news is that both Butler and Caldwell have the athleticism and experience to get the job done. The bad news is that with both former backups stepping into the starting lineup, the depth along the offensive line has taken a hit. Bolstering the interior could be a bit higher priority than tackle, as Houston is excited about the prospects of 2011 seventh-round OT Derek Newton. In fact, the team didn’t want to risk losing him by putting him on the practice squad last season.
Overview: Jim Irsay said at the owner’s meetings in late March that his club has not yet decided between QBs Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. That was mostly lip service, though, as Irsay has had his sights set on Luck for several months. After the former Stanford QB officially becomes the heir to Peyton Manning, the Colts have glaring holes virtually everywhere on the roster. The good news is that Indianapolis was awarded three compensatory draft picks, upping their 2012 total to 10 picks, including four in the top 100. If there is a common theme in rookie GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano’s first draft, it is likely to be all about adding bigger, stronger players on both sides of the ball after the Colts’ undersized roster broke down in recent years.
Need No. 1: Wide receiver
The Colts wisely re-signed Reggie Wayne to give Luck a consistent and dependable target, but they need to add another player who can work outside the numbers. Wayne, 33, is not a deep threat at this stage of his career and a field stretcher is sorely needed to keep defenses honest. Following the release of Dallas Clark, and the free-agency departure of Jacob Tamme to Denver, the Colts are left with just 2010 fifth-rounder Brody Eldridge at tight end. When healthy — and that hasn’t been often in his first two seasons — Eldridge can be an above-average blocker, but he has totaled just 14 catches.
Need No. 2: Nose tackle
In order for Pagano to install his 3-4 scheme, a nose tackle who can stuff the run and prevent QBs from moving up in the pocket to avoid Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis is a must. That player isn’t currently on the Colts' roster. Fili Moala and 2011 third-rounder Drake Nevis have flashed potential, but neither player has the brawn to fill out the middle of Pagano’s defensive line.
Need No. 3: Cornerback
No position last season was in greater flux for the Colts than cornerback. Jerraud Powers has been very solid, but he ended last season on injured reserve and no other players seized the opportunity to get on the field. Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker are young guys with good size and athleticism, but there is zero reason to believe either player is ready to step into the starting lineup. The Colts are likely to target aggressive, press-man covers who can force the issue.
Overview: GM Gene Smith is married to QB Blaine Gabbert, who looked completely lost while starting 14 games as a rookie. Smith put a strong support staff around Gabbert, tabbing head coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Greg Olson to develop the young signalcaller. The next step is to put better weapons around Gabbert. Smith is entering Year Four as Jacksonville’s lead decision maker and his tendency to go against conventional wisdom on Draft Day has become common, but the home runs have been too few and far between.
Need No. 1: Wide receiver
For as much criticism as Gabbert received for his wretched rookie campaign, his WR corps deserves almost as much blame. Few NFL teams were as poorly equipped at receiver as Jacksonville was last season. Thus, the Jaguars overpaid for Laurent Robinson after wide receivers began quickly flying off the free-agent board for boatloads of money. In Robinson, the Jaguars get a dynamic playmaker who can find the endzone and take the top off a defense. What they didn’t get was a guy who consistently can stay on the field. As a result, Jacksonville still covets a No. 1 wideout who can take the pressure off Robinson and help make Gabbert look good.
Need No. 2: Defensive end
Although the Jaguars re-signed Jeremy Mincey before he could escape to Chicago, they still don’t have a guy who can consistently draw and beat double-teams off the edge. Mincey is a hard-hat and lunch-pail type of player who won’t be outworked, but he is not a superior athlete. Jacksonville has been searching for a game changer at defensive end for the better part of the past decade, and with the rest of the defense taking great strides last season, such a player could put this unit over the top and help maximize Mincey’s skills.
Need No. 3: Outside linebacker
Last offseason, the Jaguars took arguably the weakest position, linebacker, and turned it into a team strength. In his first year with the club, Paul Posluszny was everything Jacksonville had hoped for and more. The same can’t be said for Clint Session, whose season ended early because of multiple concussions. Missing time is nothing new for Session — he has appeared in 16 games only once in his first five seasons — and the Jaguars would be wise to plan ahead. Re-signing the unsung and versatile Russell Allen was a good decision, but more help is needed, particularly with “Poz” requiring offseason shoulder surgery.
Overview: After serving as the right-hand man to COO Mike Reinfeldt in the Titans’ strong 2011 draft, new GM Ruston Webster steps into the driver’s seat for the first time. Webster and the Titans are armed with one pick in each round, including the 20th overall selection. Although Tennessee added DE Kamerion Wimbley and OG Steve Hutchinson during free agency, bolstering the pass rush and interior of the offensive line remain two of the club’s greatest needs. Arguably the top priority heading into the draft is adding more dynamic playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Need No. 1: Defensive end
Wimbley is a nice addition for a Titans team starved for pass rush — Tennessee finished 31st in the NFL in sacks a season ago — but he alone is not the answer. Further, most of his production in Oakland came as an outside linebacker and it remains to be seen what type of impact he will make as a full-time end. Although 2010 first-rounder Derrick Morgan began making strides late last season, he has a long way to go before reaching the lofty expectations that accompany his draft position. Other than Wimbley and Morgan, the only other end currently on the roster is Malcolm Sheppard, a hard-nosed player who is nothing more than a rotational guy.
Need No. 2: Safety/cornerback
The Titans surprisingly placed the franchise tag on FS Michael Griffin, who has been up and down during his five-year stint in Nashville. Griffin and SS Jordan Babineaux, who received a new deal after leading the club in tackles in 2011, will be the starters, but the Titans need more depth and another impact player at the safety position. With youngster Alterraun Verner stepping into the starting lineup following the departure of Cortland Finnegan, the Titans have an opening at the nickel CB position. There are a number of in-house candidates for the job, including Ryan Mouton, Chris Hawkins and Tommie Campbell, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Titans bolster the position through the draft.
Need No. 3: Offensive guard/center
With Steve Hutchinson replacing Jake Scott on the right side of the front wall, C Eugene Amano and OLG Leroy Harris have been put on notice. The Titans ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing last season, and the move for Hutchinson signals that the front office is not happy with the push it received from the interior last season. Head coach Mike Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews have both said as much, and more changes could come via the draft.