First 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: The Bills enter April’s draft in much better shape after making the biggest move of free agency in acquiring DE Mario Williams, the best pass rusher on the market, who fills Buffalo’s biggest need. By adding DE Mark Anderson as well, the need for edge rushers suddenly goes way down the Bills’ priority list. Buffalo has 10 picks in the draft and plenty of opportunities to upgrade its personnel. With a 5-2 start to the 2011 season, the Bills showed promise and brought hope to a starved fan base. GM Buddy Nix has mentioned that, in recent years, the team needed to simply add more players, but it is at a point now where it can add more depth and fill specific needs.
Need No. 1: Offensive tackle
The Bills have yet to re-sign OLT Demetrius Bell and may not be able to. Chris Hairston showed plenty of growing pains as a rookie. The Clemson product could be better-suited as a right tackle down the line. Nix has often discussed never having enough tackles, and the lack of depth showed last season when Bell and Hairston suffered injuries. Erik Pears played well on the right side and got a contract extension, but Ryan Fitzpatrick needs a legitimate blind-side tackle. Even if the Bills can re-sign Bell, the franchise clearly doesn’t think he is the long-term answer. Riley Reiff out of Iowa is a distinct possibility at No. 10.
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
It was crucial for the Bills to re-sign WR Stevie Johnson, Fitzpatrick’s No. 1 receiver, but last year proved the team needs more weapons on offense. When Johnson wasn’t 100 percent or was covered, Fitzpatrick didn’t have enough receivers to get open. David Nelson had some moments in the slot, and the team is high on Donald Jones and Marcus Easley, but this draft has a deep receiving class, and the Bills haven’t found a legitimate No. 2 threat. They could use a big receiver who can get open on the outside.
Need No. 3: Cornerback
The pass defense took a big step backward last season. Part of that was because of the poor pass rush, but the Bills’ corners were a big part of the problem. Terrence McGee and Aaron Williams battled injuries, Leodis McKelvin was relegated to special teams by the end of the season and Drayton Florence had his struggles. Williams showed lots of promise, but the Bills need help on the outside and more overall depth at the position. There are a lot of corners with second- to third-round grades in the draft that the Bills could consider. Buffalo is fortunate enough to have the division’s best pair at safety, but a playmaking corner should be a priority.
Overview: The Dolphins struck out in their attempt to land a franchise quarterback in free agency, failing to sign Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn. All eyes are on that position heading into the draft for a Dolphins team that has fallen out of favor with its fan base after three consecutive losing seasons and, more recently, a disappointing start to free agency. Jeff Ireland fared well last April in his first draft without his mentor, Bill Parcells, and the team has eight picks, starting with the eighth overall selection. Miami also has back-to-back picks in the third round. They won’t say they're rebuilding, but the Dolphins have an opportunity to do so with ample picks in the draft.
Need No. 1: Quarterback
Matt Moore played well last season, and David Garrard, though he missed last season, is a fine backup, but this team is still desperate to find a franchise quarterback. Even if it means spending their first pick on someone who will initially be the third-string quarterback, the Dolphins need to address the position. Ryan Tannehill, who played for current Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman in college, is their best chance at a quarterback in the top 10 picks. Miami could also trade down and pick Brandon Weeden or Kirk Cousins. Joe Philbin will be looking for a good decision maker for his West Coast system.
Need No. 2: Safety
Safety was a big need for the Dolphins heading into the offseason, and cutting SS Yeremiah Bell makes it an even bigger priority. Bell had lost some range as he has become older, and the Dolphins didn’t want to pay him what he was due to make, but he had been a leader in the back end, vocally and in tackles. Reshad Jones has shown potential but is still young, and Chris Clemons battled injuries last season. The team also has Tyrone Culver and CB-S Jimmy Wilson, but having to play the high-octane Patriots attack with the two tight ends twice a year, Miami needs to upgrade the safety position with some playmakers. A big problem last year was making plays in the secondary, whether it was interceptions or simply batted balls.
Need No. 3: Wide receiver
With Brandon Marshall now a Bear, the team is without a No. 1 wide receiver. Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and Clyde Gates are fine as complementary receivers, and each has a solid skill set, but the Dolphins need a big outside receiver who can stretch the field. Philbin’s offense may be able to survive without a true No. 1 wideout, and it’s possible that the Dolphins have high hopes for either Marlon Moore or Roberto Wallace, a pair of special-teamers, but more depth certainly is needed. Marshall put up more than 1,000 receiving yards the last two seasons in an inconsistent offense, and that production needs to get replaced.
New England Patriots
Overview: Thanks to multiple trades in the past year, the Pats don’t have the stockpile of picks we’re used to seeing — they only have six picks this year, but all are in the first four rounds. And it would come as no surprise should the Pats pick up a couple of later-round picks. The focus is expected to be on defense, where New England ranked 31st last season. The Patriots have made it a habit of drafting a cornerback, and that tradition should continue. Bill Belichick’s drafts have been blasted in the past, but the last two years have shown positive returns.
Need No. 1: Safety
Anyone who watched the Patriots last season knew that the team had a revolving door at the safety position after it parted ways with Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders. There is hope for Josh Barrett to become a contributor, and the team did sign Steve Gregory to pair with Patrick Chung, but the Patriots are still lacking the center-field-type safety desired to shore up the pass defense. Teams picked the Patriots apart over the middle of the field, and the corners could not rely on safety help over the top. Don’t expect New England to go after a safety in the first round, as it is a weak class, but it remains a top need.
Need No. 2: Edge rusher (outside linebacker or defensive end)
It’s not entirely clear what kind of defense we’ll see more from the Patriots in 2012 — a 4-3 or a 3-4 — but either way, they need a pass rusher. Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks last season, is now a Bill, and Andre Carter, who also tallied 10 sacks, is unsigned and coming off an injury. The team added ex-Raider Trevor Scott but is very thin in that category, especially considering the team’s struggles getting after the passer and keeping opponents from moving the ball with ease. Looking at the pass rushers on the roster, outside Scott, the Pats have Rob Ninkovich and Markell Carter, who did not play as a rookie. Look for Belichick to add a versatile player who can function in multiple fronts, like Ninkovich can.
Need No. 3: Cornerback
Under the assumption that Ras-I Dowling, last year’s second-round pick, will win back the starting spot he had for two games before going on injured reserve, the Patriots don’t appear that thin at corner. Devin McCourty is a big wild card, coming off a sophomore slump of a season. Kyle Arrington had a nose for the ball last season but is not an ideal top corner. The Patriots have shuffled corners over the last several seasons and have relied on the draft to continue to add depth to the position. With so many struggles last season defending the pass and stopping teams on third downs, another boundary corner who can lock down physical receivers would boost Belichick’s defense.
New York Jets
Overview: The Jets have some positions solidified that would make other teams envious — they don’t need a cornerback and are pretty deep at defensive line and on the interior O-line. And although there may not be a whole lot of confidence in the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow QB tandem, the team does not need a signalcaller. However, the Jets do have clear needs at multiple positions in a crucial season for Rex Ryan, Mike Tannenbaum and the entire organization after a disappointing finish to the 2011 season. The Jets, like the Bills, have 10 picks, giving them plenty of opportunities to improve the roster. The focus on defense will be on adding playmakers, with an offensive focus at the skill positions.
Need No. 1: Outside linebacker
The Jets have been absent a consistent pass rusher since John Abraham left. Calvin Pace is their top edge rusher on the roster, but he is getting up in years and his production is not what you’d expect out of an aggressive, Ryan-coached defense. Aaron Maybin showed some promise last season getting into the backfield, but he is not an every-down player. Jamaal Westerman was thought to be an option, but he was not tendered and is now a Dolphin. The Jets need a pass-rushing outside linebacker who can get into the backfield and make plays. Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw is certainly a possibility for them at No. 16.
Need No. 2: Safety
Signing LaRon Landry was the first step in addressing what was originally the team’s biggest need. Jim Leonhard has not been re-signed and is coming off a second straight season-ending leg injury. Eric Smith had a host of struggles last season, and with the Jets playing the Patriots’ TE tandem twice a year, it’s important for the team to shore things up in center field. Landry’s health will be a question mark, and the Jets could still use a rangy player who can excel in coverage, which would help put Landry in position to make big plays.
Need No. 3: Running back
With LaDainian Tomlinson’s days as a Jet, and likely as an NFL player, over, the Gang Green could gain from adding another body in the backfield. Shonn Greene is coming off a career year, but he is not one of the league’s elite backs. Joe McKnight has not proven he can be any more than a change-of-pace back, and Bilal Powell, last year’s fourth-rounder, didn’t get an opportunity. Sparano’s offense will have a run-first mentality and can use a speedy back to complement Greene, especially if new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is not sold on McKnight’s skills.