2019 NFL Draft: Questions each AFC team must answer before making their plans
These questions will shape how teams approach the early portions of next year's draft
Many teams enter the draft with a "best player available" philosophy, but needs simply can't be ignored and likely play into that plan of attack on draft weekend.
During the 2018 regular season, some needs will be addressed as clubs get contributions from unexpected players. In other instances, needs will arise due to injury or down seasons from typically consistent producers.
These are the questions each AFC team must answer before the 2019 NFL Draft.
Wide receiver is a position the Bills are almost assuredly going to address early in the 2019 draft -- and likely free agency. What about the blockers up front for Josh Allen? The young quarterback needs to be protected well. Gone are Incognito and Wood, two long-time veterans on the interior. Wood had become an overrated pivot late in his career and Incognito's play slipped in each of his three seasons in Western New York, but in 2017, he was still clearly an above-average guard.
Enter fifth-round rookie Wyatt Teller, a super-experienced Virginia Tech standout who looked like a first- or-second-round pick after the 2016 campaign but didn't play with as much twitch or energy to his game last season. He's fundamentally sound, possesses good athleticism, and a classic mean streak. Teller is slated for one of the guard spots, or at least the Bills hope he's the future inside. At center, it'll either be Ryan Groy or Russell Bodine, and after the latter's play in Cincinnati, Buffalo shouldn't expect much from their free-agent acquisition. If there are any drastic leaks at guard or center in 2018, the Bills will be looking to fill one or both of those spots in the first few rounds of the 2019 draft.
Can Ryan Tannehill come back from his injuries and play well enough for the team to pass on a QB in 2019?
Is Tannehill a true, franchise quarterback? Simple question which would yield majorly different answers. He's started 77 games and has appeared to be on the rise many times, but consistency has been a problem his entire tenure in Miami. In 2016, his first with Adam Gase, Tannehill set career highs in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and yards per attempt, so there's reason for optimism as he returns from the season-ending knee injury that disallowed him from playing last year.
If he returns to 2016 form, there's a good chance the Dolphins will stay away from a quarterback early in the 2019 draft. If he doesn't, it may be time to find a new starter under center. In 2019, Tannehill will be a $26.6 million cap hit and would save the club $13.1M if he's let go. In 2020, the final year of his contract, his hit is $25M and would repesent just $5.5M in dead cap hit if he's released.
New England Patriots
Will any young defensive backs step up?
Malcolm Butler's time in the spotlight in New England ended as surprisingly as it began. Stephon Gilmore has one outside cornerback role locked up, and safety Duron Harmon is relatively young and has proven to be a reliable contributor. But fellow safety Patrick Chung is 31, and Devin and Jason McCourty will be 31 when the regular season begins. Duke Dawson was drafted in Round 2 and has some versatility.
Looking at the future for this group, will someone like Eric Rowe or Jordan Richards make a large stride in 2018 to give the secondary more long-term viability? If not, New England would be smart to draft an impact safety early in the 2019 draft.
New York Jets
Will any consistently viable receivers emerge?
With a first-round quarterback who'll be 21 years old his entire rookie year in Sam Darnold, the Jets clearly are taking the patient route with their offense. New York has to start investing in his offensive weapons as soon as possible. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Quincy Enunwa, who flashed with 58 receptions and 857 yards in 2016 and has 4.44 speed, returns from a neck injury that kept him off the field all of last season.
Robby Anderson could be hit with a league-sanctioned suspension for an off-field incident, and he led the team in receiving a season ago. If these pass-catchers can become consistent producers, the Jets will have a nice, likely underrated No. 1 and No. 2 core going into 2019. They'd still likely want to spend an early selection or two on receiving options for Darnold's second season, particularly with Jermaine Kearse in the final year of his contract ... unless 2017 picks Ardarius Stewart or Charone Peake show signs of competency.
Will Case Keenum play well enough for the Broncos to pass on a quarterback in 2019?
Keenum was one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks last season on a loaded Vikings squad, and he landed in a somewhat similar situation in Denver ... as the Broncos still have a strong defense, boast two high-caliber receivers and have some offensive line concerns. Beyond household names Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, John Elway added Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton in the draft to go along with 2017 third-round YAC specialist Carlos Henderson, which means the receiver group is deep in Denver. Keenum is 30 and signed a two-year pact with the Broncos.
If he thrives as the starter, there'd be no reason for the Broncos to sniff around thetop quarterback prospects in next year's draft. If he doesn't, the Broncos will likely have a relatively early pick and should seriously consider a signal-caller in Round 1.
Kansas City Chiefs
The only noticeable weakness on the Chiefs roster comes along the offensive line. Morse dealt with injury last season and didn't play up to the high standard he set for himself early in his pro career. Fisher had a down year in 2017 as well. With a new quarterback set to take the reins of the offense and defenses primed to key on limiting Kareem Hunt, Kansas City could face some challenges up front if Morse and Fisher can't bounce back.
Fisher signed an extension in 2016 ... he's not going anywhere for the time being. Morse is in the final year of his rookie contract though. If he remains the liability he was in 2017 or can't stay healthy, center will be one of the biggest needs the Chiefs will look to fill in the 2019 draft.
For a few years now, the Raiders have tried to build around Mack on defense, especially opposite him on the outside. Bruce Irvin is set to represent $8.25 million in 2018 and $9.25 million in 2019, but there's no guaranteed money left on his deal. He tallied eight sacks last season to go along with four forced fumbles, but Oakland's edge-rushing group behind Mack and Irvin is severely lacking. That's where the enigma of Key factors in. If he can be the type of player he was at LSU in 2016 when he dominated the SEC with 12.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, the Raiders won't have to re-invest in their outside rushing group in the 2019 draft. If he disappoints like he did his final collegiate season, the Raiders would probably be smart to strongly consider a defensive end early in the 2019 draft.
Los Angeles Chargers
Will Philip Rivers play well enough for the team to pass on a quarterback in 2019?
There were rumors the Chargers did their due diligence on the 2018 quarterback class, but they ultimately didn't draft a signal-caller. Rivers has thrown for 4,000 yards in five-straight seasons and in seven of his last eight campaigns, and his 8.0 yards-per-attempt average in 2017 was his highest figure since 2013. Although he'll be 38 in December, the Chargers should still feel very good about what they have at quarterback, and despite the loss of Hunter Henry, they should be a blast on offense.
If Rivers continues his steady, underrated play, Los Angeles doesn't have to rush anything at the signal-caller spot in the draft next season. If he regresses, he'll be entering the last season of his current deal in 2019, and the Chargers should consider a quarterback in one of the first two rounds in 2019.
Edge-rusher Derrick Morgan is in the last year of his deal and is 29. Brian Orakpo will be 32 at the start of the season and is also in the final year of his deal. Both have been rocks on the outside for Tennessee. Harold Landry, a bendy outside rusher many believed was a first-round talent, was added in Round 2, but there's not much depth behind him. If Morgan or Orakpo maintain their strong presence on the edge for the Titans, they could be in line for another contract in Nashville and would help fortify that position in the short-term as Landry learns some pass-rushing moves.
If neither are as productive in 2018 as they've been over the past few seasons, the Titans will likely be interested in landing a Round 1 edge-rusher in the 2019 draft.
How well will the offensive line protect Deshaun Watson?
The next step in the construction around Watson is to fortify the offensive line. During the hectic, roller-coaster of a 2017 season for the rookie quarterback -- which featured more on-field highs than lows -- he was one of the most pressured signed-callers in football. Yes, he can lean on his athleticism to make plays with his legs when protection breaks down, but Houston wants to keep him clean more often, especially after he returns from major knee surgery.
Third-round pick Martinas Rankin was one of the most fundamentally sound tackles in the 2018 class and he could start at left tackle in his debut pro season, however, the right side of the line is in flux with Bills former seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson penciled in at right tackle. There's a good chance Houston will be in the offensive line market early in the 2019 draft unless it gets quality contributions from the likes of Julie'n Davenport or Kyle Fuller, two 2017 selections.
Can Blake Bortles manage the Jaguars' offense to help the team make another deep playoff run?
In February, to the surprise of many, Bortles was inked to a three-year extension by the Jaguars, kinda-sorta tying him to the Jags for at least this season and 2019. Leading up to the draft many believed Jacksonville would pick a quarterback like Lamar Jackson with eyes on the future at the position. Bortles wasn't excellent last season, but he did enough to complement the Jaguars' elite defense en route to an AFC title game appearance.
We shouldn't forget Bortles went 23 of 36 for 293 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions against the Patriots in that contest. His cap number jumps from from $10M in 2018 to $21M in 2019, yet there's an outside chance Jacksonville will be content with him sustaining the status quo at quarterback on a team built to run the football and play tremendous defense. If he's inadequate this season, quarterback will be a top priority in the draft.
How will the myriad of young, unproven cornerbacks play?
Rashaan Melvin was the only impressive cornerback on Indianapolis' roster in 2017, and he signed with the Raiders in free agency. There are high expectations for Quincy Wilson, the team's second-round pick a season ago. Other than him, the Colts cornerback contingent is barren. Some other names with amazing opportunities in the secondary include 2017 fifth-round selection Nate Hairston, former undrafted free-agents Chris Milton, Kenny Moore and Channing Stribling, and former #DraftTwitter favorite Pierre Desir.
The Colts will need at least one of those players to prove to at least be decent or they'll be a team clearly interested in drafting a high-profile cornerback prospect in the 2019 draft.
Will any of the cornerbacks selected in 2017 emerge as a viable starter?
With Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and youngster Javon Hargrave, the Steelers boast one of the AFC's most underrated defensive line trios. However, the Steelers have issues at cornerback, particularly when looking at that position over the long haul. Joe Haden performed admirably after coming over from Cleveland last year but is 29 and will represent a cap hit of $11.9M this season and next. In 2019, he'd save the team $10M if he's released.
Artie Burns rebounded well from an average rookie campaign and Mike Hilton emerged as one of the league's best nickel cornerbacks in 2017. If Burns and Hilton keep their arrows pointing upward, Pittsburgh might not feel pressure to add a first-round corner in 2019. If they regress and Haden shows signs of slowing down near 30 years old, the Steelers will want to go defensive back early in the draft.
Will Tyler Eifert return to his pre-injury form?
In 2015, Eifert scored 13 touchdowns and looked well on his way to being one of the game's best matchup nightmare tight ends. In 2016, which was cut in half by injury, he reeled in five touchdowns. Last season he appeared in just two contests and had four catches for 46 yards. He was the ideal middle-of-the-field complement to A.J. Green, and Andy Dalton has struggled with Eifert on the sidelines.
Re-signed by the Bengals to a one-year deal this offseason, Eifert is unequivocally in a "prove it" situation this season in Cincinnati. If he can't stay healthy or isn't the same player he was before the injury bug bit him, the Bengals should take a long look at the top tight ends in the 2019 draft class.
Will Damarious Randall thrive at safety, the position he played in college?
Randall is expected to move from corner to safety as a member of the Browns, which, on paper should bode well for the former Arizona State safety. As a former first-round pick, Cleveland has the power to pick up the fifth-year option on Randall's rookie deal, which would keep him on the Browns for the 2019 season at slightly more than $9 million.
However, if he doesn't succeed in the free safety role in Gregg Williams' defense, Cleveland's front office will likely prioritize adding a safety early in the 2019 draft.
Will Tim Williams take a major step in Year Two?
The seemingly ageless Terrell Suggs again led the Ravens in sacks last season with 11, and Matthew Judon chipped in with eight. No other member of Baltimore's defense had four sacks. Suggs is in the final year of his contract and turns 36 in October. The Ravens need a big sophomore season from Williams, the former Alabama star who they picked in the third round of the 2017 draft. He didn't register a sack on 125 snaps as a rookie and labored through a thigh injury in the middle of the season.
If he plays like he did in his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide when he accumulated 27.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks, the Ravens won't have a major need on the edge. If he doesn't take a huge step in 2018, Baltimore will be inclined to spend an early pick on a premier edge-rushing prospect.
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