2019 NFL Draft: Questions each NFC 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 NFC team must answer before the 2019 NFL Draft.
New York Giants
I understand why Eli Manning is still beloved by (most) G-Men fans and why Ben McAdoo's benching of him was widely criticized, particularly around New York. Eli's become a relic, and I don't know if he's been good enough to be untouchable, uncuttable, unbenchable, etc. Theoretically, he has earned to be those things, but time throttles forward at a blistering pace in today's NFL, and clinging to expensive-but-poorly-performing sentimental icons of yesteryear almost always does more damage than good. Eli already received a "franchise legend" gift when new GM (and former Giants employee) Dave Gettleman passed on the most hyped crop of first-round quarterbacks in nearly 20 years in April, which signaled job security for Eli despite the fact he's coming off a season in which he averaged the lowest net yards per attempt since he became the full-time starter in 2005.
Lauletta was a #DraftTwitter favorite, and while it may take time for him to acclimate to the speed of the NFL compared to what he experienced at Richmond, he does have a host of refined skills. It should not be off limits for Lauletta to see time during the regular season. Much of the same goes for 2017 third-round selection Davis Webb. If either plays in 2018, can they show anything resembling what Jimmy Garoppolo demonstrated in New England? If so, the Giants very well may already have Eli's heir on the roster. If not, the team's future at quarterback will be a total mystery, and the front office will likely pick a signal-caller early in the 2019 draft.
Will an edge-rushing complement to DeMarcus Lawrence emerge?
Lawrence's 14.5 sack 2017 helped mask deficiencies on a Cowboys defense that finished 25th in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA. After Lawrence, David Irving was second on the team with four sacks. Per Sports Info Solutions, Lawrence registered 70 quarterback pressures. Tyrone Crawford accumulated 35. No one else eclipsed the 30-pressure mark. The Cowboys can't solely lean on Lawrence in 2018 and beyond.
Defensive end Taco Charlton, the team's first-round pick last year, only recorded 17 pressures as a rookie. In short, Dallas desperately needs another serious edge presence.
Can Charlton, who had 22.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks during his final two seasons at Michigan, become a productive complement to Lawrence? If so, Dallas will boast two young, quality defensive ends at the foundation of its defense. If not, while they likely wouldn't give up on Charlton altogether, the Cowboys should start to to plan for the future on the outside of their defensive line in the 2019 draft.
Can anyone beyond Zach Brown provide quality production from the off-ball linebacker spot?
After a strong season in 2017, speedy linebacker Zach Brown received a well-deserved three-year contract extension from the club's front office. Mason Foster has proven to be capable of flashes of high-caliber play, yet his career has been marred with inconsistency and injuries. Like Brown, he's 29.
Martell Spaight, the team's fifth-round pick in 2015, didn't play poorly last year and should be in line to be third in the linebacker rotation in 2018. Shaun Dion Hamilton, who can get sideline-to-sideline quickly and can cover, was picked in the sixth round. Unfortunately, he suffered two major knee injuries while at Alabama.
If either of those two make a jump, the Redskins may stay away from linebacker early in the 2019 draft.
If they don't, even with the noticeably athletic Brown in the middle of the defense, the Redskins may have to use a first- or- second-round selection on a play-making, coverage-specialist linebacker in the 2019 draft.
Will anyone step up at left guard?
If Jason Peters is healthy, he's the team's starting left tackle, so it's unlikely the Eagles will (or want) to spend valuable regular season games grooming his heir apparent during a "win-now" year and with Carson Wentz returning from a serious knee injury. Therefore, I'm focused inside along Philadelphia's offense line, most specifically at the left guard position. Since the criminally underrated Evan Mathis called it quits, that's the one spot which has been in flux on the Eagles' blocking unit.
Stefan Wisniewski manned it admirably albeit unspectacularly in 2017, and former first-round pick Chance Warmack was again a disappointment in that role as he stepped in as an injury replacement often. Isaac Seumalo wasn't much better inside either.
One of those three players needs to improve to give the Eagles stability opposite stellar right guard Brandon Brooks up front while the club's Super Bowl window is wide open. If no one is up to the task, guard will be a priority early in the 2019 draft.
Los Angeles Rams
Can the franchise feel good about the future of the offensive line?
Star left tackle Andrew Whitworth will be 37 in December. Unheralded center John Sullivan is 33 in August. Left guard mainstay Rodger Safford is 30. At right guard, Jamon Brown has been a clear-cut weak link.
If there's one issue with this now loaded Rams roster ... it's the future of the offensive line. Of course, as long as Whitworth and Sullivan are healthy, they'll be on the field. As they should be. During the preseason or during any fill-in opportunities will any of the offensive linemen picked in the 2018 draft -- tackle Joe Noteboom, center Brian Allen, and guard Jamil Demby -- display any promise?
For an upstart team with a former No. 1 overall pick at quarterback on his rookie deal for a few more seasons, Los Angeles undoubtedly doesn't want to hit a wall after this year if Whitworth and Sullivan either retire or the quality of their play dips in the twilight of their careers.
San Francisco 49ers
How will Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo feel about the receiver group at season's end?
Shanahan got the absolute most out of his group of pass-catchers in 2017. Marquise Goodwin set career highs in catches and receiving yards. George Kittle's 515 yards were the third-most among rookie tight ends since 2013. Before injury struck, Pierre Garcon was on pace for the second-highest reception total in a single season of his NFL career.
Newly minted Jimmy G should help to tap into the potential of San Francisco's receiver group, which now includes 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis, one of the most fluid wideouts in his class. But as the 49ers move into the Garoppolo era, no one will fault them for aiming higher at the receiver position. Trent Taylor and Richie James are young, talented slot wideouts, but given Garcon's age -- he'll be 32 in August, there's a good chance more wideouts will need to be added early in the 2019 draft. That is unless the current pass-catching contingent impresses once again. It does seem like this crew needs a true alpha on the outside, similar to what Shanahan had in Atlanta with Julio Jones or early in his career in Houston with Andre Johnson.
Who can the Cardinals rely on along the offensive line?
This is the put up or shut up year for former first-round pick D.J. Humphries. He flashed in limited action a season ago, but his NFL career to date has been altogether inconsistent. The talented left tackle had his fifth-year option picked up, yet it's not guaranteed until the first day of the league year in 2019. With Sam Bradford and potentially Josh Rosen under center in 2018, the Cardinals desperately need Humphries to become the type of high-caliber blocker they believed they were getting when they drafted him No. 24 overall in 2015.
Mike Iupati, now 31, returns from a triceps injury that curtailed his season after one game. Center A.Q. Shipley was a big liability in 2017. There's hope newcomers Justin Pugh and Andre Smith can patch the right side of the line, but the latter is also 31.
Third-round pick Mason Cole could slot somewhere on the inside --potentially at center -- and Arizona does have two younger blockers in Will Holden (2017, Round 5) and Evan Boehm (2016, Round 4) who have some time to prove their worth.
Quite clearly, the Cardinals have question marks up front, and Steve Keim and Co. need to ascertain which offensive linemen will be assets in 2019 and beyond based on their play this upcoming season.
Who will emerge as a viable pass-rusher (outside of Frank Clark)?
For as much as the (now Richard Sherman-less) Legion of Boom was deservedly praised in its prime, the Seahawks defensive line was integral in the creation of that elite secondary unit due to the constant heat it generated on opposing quarterbacks. But now Cliff Avril's gone. So is Michael Bennett. And from last year's squad -- which per Sports Info Solutions finished 11th in the NFL with 192 quarterback pressures -- Sheldon Richardson and Dwight Freeney are no longer in Seattle. Frank Clark, a 2015 second-rounder, has been a reliable pass-rusher for a few years now -- 19 sacks over the past two seasons -- but who's behind him?
Rasheem Green, picked in the third round of 2018, has immense pass-rushing ability but really struggles to not get washed out against the run. Nazair Jones had impressive moments last year a rookie and will need to display similar positive play in what'll likely be an expanded role in 2017.
Much of the same goes for Jarran Reed. If Seattle's new-look defensive front can't replicate much of the same production from the Bennett and Avril-led group, the Seahawks will likely be in the market for one of the top pass-rushers in the 2019 draft.
Will the defensive tackles not named Grady Jarrett be impactful rotational players?
Deadrin Senat, Atlanta's third-round pick in 2018, is in line to see the field often as a rookie. The Falcons have slowly but surely built a unique, speed-predicated defense, but their interior up front is lacking depth behind Jarrett.
Along with Senat there's Jack Crawford, Garrison Smith and Justin Zimmer at defensive tackle. Though loaded on the edge with Vic Beasley, Tak McKinley, Derrick Shelby, and Brooks Reed, Dan Quinn should be slightly concerned with his club's ability to get after quarterbacks up the middle.
If Senat proves to be a productive complement to Jarrett on the inside and the Falcons get decently consistent contributions from the remaining players on their defensive tackle depth chart, they could stay away from that position early in the 2019 draft. If not, that will likely be priority No. 1 next offseason for Atlanta.
Will a young edge-rusher emerge as a reliable producer?
Julius Peppers is 38. Mario Addison is more of a movable blitzer than a pure edge-rusher. The days of Charles Johnson's giving Carolina double-digit sacks are long gone. The rest of the defensive group features many unknowns and undrafted free agents, except for 2017 third-round selection Daeshon Hall, a 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end who quietly had a monster combine and raked up 27.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Texas A&M. For an idea of what type of physical ability Hall has, on MockDraftable.com his top two athletic comparables are Chandler Jones and Aldon Smith.
For years now, the Panthers have boasted one of the best and most underrated defensive fronts in the NFC, and they'll need Hall to take a large step forward in his sophomore NFL season. Dontari Poe's presence on the inside should help Peppers, Hall and others. If Carolina can't reliably crumble the opposition's offensive line from the outside, GM Marty Hurney will likely address the edge-rusher spot in one of the first two rounds of the 2019 draft.
New Orleans Saints
Will Alex Anzalone take a big step forward in 2018?
The Saints have methodically built a rather strong defense, but it's been a while since they've had a game-changer at the linebacker position. Limited by injury to just 158 snaps as a rookie, Anzalone wasn't on track to win rookie of the year yet did flash some ability in coverage. A.J. Klein proved to be a flop of a free-agent addition, and the rest of the off-ball linebacker contingent consists of solid but unspectacular Manti Te'o and Demario Davis, 30-year-old Craig Robertson, and undrafted free agent KeShun Freeman.
Sure, the NFL is trending toward more defensive backs and fewer linebackers on the field, but the Saints don't have to look far to observe the impact a top-level off-ball linebacker can have on a defense and team as a whole with Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David, and Deion Jones in their division.
Two big "ifs" here ... if Anzalone can stay healthy, and if he asserts himself as a young playmaker on one of the better defenses in the NFC, the Saints won't have to use their second-round selection in 2019 on a linebacker. If he doesn't do either, that spot will be one of the biggest needs for New Orleans next year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Is Donovan Smith the answer at left tackle?
The Buccaneers invested a second-round pick in the former Penn State standout in 2015, and they've stood by him ever since despite three-straight sub-par seasons at a vital position. With Jameis Winston under center and still on his rookie contract, Tampa Bay needs to set higher expectations for its left tackle in his fourth season.
Winston's sack rate has increased in each of his three seasons -- from 4.8 percent to 5.8 to 6.9 in 2017, and Smith's been responsible for a relatively decent chunk of the times his quarterback has been taken to the turf.
The rest of the line is sound, led by right tackle DeMar Dotson, right guard Ali Marpet and prized free-agent add Ryan Jensen at center. The club's 2018 third-round pick Alex Cappa will battle with Evan Smith for the left guard gig.
But this is a crucial year for Smith and the Buccaneers offense. If he remains a matador on the edge, the Buccaneers will need to use a high pick on another left tackle in the 2019 draft.
Green Bay Packers
Can Mike Pettine scheme pressure or do the Packers need more talented pass-rushers?
The Packers generated the fourth-fewest quarterback pressures last season (166) according to Sports Info Solutions and got the biggest contributions from Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and now 32-year-old Clay Matthews.
That quartet is one of the better groups in the NFC North, yet there's a sizable production drop off after them. With blitz-heavy defensive coordinator Mike Pettine replacing the often-tentative Dom Capers, can Green Bay create pressure on a more consistent basis in 2018?
Even if Pettine's scheme does prove to be an upgrade over what Capers ran during his long tenure in Wisconsin, the Packers should probably peek at the premier edge-rushers in the 2019 draft class, especially with Matthews in the final year of his contract.
Will poor play from one or two positions on the offensive line outweigh strong performances elsewhere?
Charles Leno Jr. looks like the Bears' franchise left tackle, and he's already locked up through the 2021 season. Right guard Kyle Long isn't an elite blocker but is one of the more reliable players Chicago has up front. Then there's 2018 second-round selection James Daniels, who thrived as a center at Iowa but could slide over the left guard with Cody Whitehair (likely) manning the pivot in the Windy City.
How about right tackle Bobby Massie? He's in the last season of his contract with the Bears and was a liability in 2017. Will he stick out like a sore thumb on the edge of Chicago's offensive line and hinder the development of Mitchell Trubisky? Although the Bears haven't been shy about adding quality blockers early in the draft, if Massie continues to struggle at right tackle, finding his replacement should probably be near the top of the priority list for Ryan Pace and Co. in the 2019 draft.
After Ziggy Ansah, who will provide pass rush?
The Lions know what they'll get from the franchise-tagged Ansah, as he's been one of football's most consistent defensive ends in his five-year NFL career. But in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and an upstart Bears club, Detroit knows it can't solely rely on one player to get after the quarterback. Da'Shawn Hand was selected out of Alabama in the fourth round of 2018, yet he was mainly known for his run-stopping prowess, just like his former and now current teammate A'Shawn Robinson.
Two players will play a major role in what the Lions ultimately do early in the 2019 draft -- Anthony Zettel and Cornelius Washington. The former turned in a 6.5 sack season last year and Washington had 2.5 sacks as a rotational defensive end. If either (or both) of those defenders take a noticeable step forward, Detroit will have quality depth up front for the future. If not, coupled with the uncertain future of Ansah, the Lions will be forced to go defensive line -- with an emphasis on pass-rushing ability -- on Day One or Day Two of the 2019 draft.
Can any young blockers help to patch a shaky offensive line?
The lone weakness on last year's NFC North championship Vikings team was its offensive line. In the second round of the 2018 draft, Rick Spielman drafted the highly athletic Brian O'Neil. In the sixth round, Colby Gossett was added out of Appalachian State. Typically, rookie offensive linemen would have a hard time cracking the starting lineup on a team that won its division and made a deep playoff run the year before, but that's not the case with this Vikings team.
Guard Nick Eason didn't play well last season. Neither did 2017 third-round pick Pat Elflein. To go along with Gossett and O'Neil, there's second-year blocker Danny Isidora on the roster. With Minnesota absolutely in "win-now" mode with Kirk Cousins behind center, the Vikings need (at least) one of their young offensive linemen to step up and become a force. If that doesn't happen, Minnesota will need to extend its Super Bowl window by taking a highly sought after offensive lineman early in the 2019 draft.
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