Thu Mar 25 07:43pm EDT
Every year, it's the same – only one team does not end its season with regret. For all the teams who don't win the Super Bowl and must spend the offseason wondering what could have been, the draft is the time to fill the holes that prevented the ultimate victory. Of the 2009 runners-up, here are perhaps the 10 most likely to succeed in 2010, and the positions (and players) that might bridge the gap in the draft.
Indianapolis Colts – Offensive line: After Indy's loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, team president Bill Polian singled out the efforts of his offense's front five, claiming that New Orleans' defensive line "outplayed" his players. Changes have already been made – guard Ryan Lilja(notes) is gone, and left tackle Tony Ugoh(notes) has been an unequivocal disappointment. Most of the heavy hitters will be gone by the time the Colts pick at 31, but there are some sleepers in a deep draft for tackles. USC left tackle Charles Brown has the experience with a pro-style offense necessary to pick up the Colts' hyper-complex schemes. And Indiana's Rodger Saffold, an underrated tackle, started 41 games in college and wouldn't get lost on his way to Lucas Oil Stadium. Both are projected at the end of the first round.
Minnesota Vikings – Cornerback: Since they acquired Jared Allen(notes) to add demonic pass pressure to the best run-stopping front four in the game, the Vikings have been an unholy terror up front (just ask Aaron Rodgers(notes)). Problem is, they've been below-average against the pass, and that's not good when your offense forces other teams into shootouts. Injuries to Cedric Griffin(notes) and Antoine Winfield(notes) left Benny Sapp(notes) and Asher Allen(notes) as the point men too often for their levels of talent and experience. Allen has potential, but the Vikings need to start thinking about getting a lockdown corner, and there may be one even when they pick at 30. Devin McCourty of Rutgers is a possibility, as is Kyle Wilson of Boise State if he slides down the board a bit.
New York Jets – Wide receiver: They've upgraded their secondary with Antonio Cromartie(notes) and will continue to look to build a front seven as tough as any in the game, but the Jets' inability to keep pace with the Colts' dynamic offense in the AFC championship game proved fatal. Quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) looks like the real deal, but he needs targets he can count on, and the words "Braylon Edwards" and "consistency" have never been used together. Two guys spring to mind as potential favorite targets for Sanchez, should they be there when the Jets pick at 29: Notre Dame's Golden Tate, a tough guy who is fearless in traffic, and Demaryius Thomas of Georgia Tech, whose ability to be physical downfield would be a nightmare for defenses forced to monitor the Jets' rushing attack as well.
Baltimore Ravens – Defensive line: For a team always proud of its defense, there are concerns along the front seven. The Ravens were average in their pass rush, which overtaxed a secondary that may be better than it looks. Dwan Edwards(notes) signed with the Bills, Trevor Pryce(notes) is getting up in years, and Terrell Suggs(notes) can't get to the quarterback all the time without help (reporting to camp 20 pounds overweight didn't help, either). Signing Cory Redding(notes) is a decent patch-job, but Redding is an end-tackle tweener, and Baltimore needs real reinforcements. The question is, where might they find the best value with the 25th pick? Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody is starting to be thought of as a first-round pick, and he's already familiar with the 3-4 front. Maybe that's all the Ravens need to get everyone else flying around.
New England Patriots – Pass rusher: As Bill Belichick has had to rebuild his defense over the last few seasons, the lack of a consistent pass rush has plagued the team. Young defensive backs like Patrick Chung(notes) and Darius Butler(notes) had a steeper learning curve because nobody was getting to the quarterback consistently. Tully Banta-Cain(notes) led the team with 9½ sacks, but five of those came against Buffalo's entry-level offensive line. Texas outside linebacker Sergio Kindle has the burst and versatility to make him a perfect fit in Belichick's new defense.
Green Bay Packers – Offensive tackle: The Packers are trying to wring everything they can out of Chad Clifton(notes) and Mark Tauscher(notes), but the message is clear: If Green Bay's potentially dominant offense is to get the team to a Super Bowl, quarterback protection must be a more consistent element. The good news is that Aaron Rodgers has learned that he can't hold onto the ball forever, which certainly helps. The bad news: As efficient as Ryan Grant(notes) may be, he's no great shakes as a blocking back. If the Pack could score one of the second-level tackles with the 23rd pick – USC's Charles Brown and Maryland's Bruce Campbell come to mind – it would certainly help.
Cincinnati Bengals – Safety: There will be needs along the Bengals' offensive line, but that unit was one of the NFL's most underrated in 2009. The real issue is pass coverage between Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), the best cornerback duo in the business. Fortunately, there are three potential star safeties in this draft, and the Bengals might be able to grab one of two with the 21st overall pick. Texas' Earl Thomas is all over draft boards, perhaps because teams aren't certain about where he best fits between cornerback and safety, but he would be the kind of range safety desperately needed by this defense.
Philadelphia Eagles – Interior offensive line: With center Jamaal Jackson(notes) recovering from a torn ACL and the team severing ties with disappointing guard Stacy Andrews(notes), the Eagles need help inside for an offense that may well be without Donovan McNabb(notes) in 2010. Nick Cole(notes) has some potential at center, and Max Jean-Gilles(notes) might be okay at guard, but if the Eagles could get Florida's Maurkice Pouncey or Idaho's Mike Iupati, they'd be wise to jump.
Dallas Cowboys – Left tackle: Any doubt where the Cowboys need to turn in the draft were probably erased by what the Vikings' defense did to Tony Romo(notes), and by proxy Romo's offensive line, in the 34-3 divisional playoff beatdown. Romo was shellshocked almost from the start of the game, took six sacks, and amassed a 20.8 passer rating in the second half. Jerry Jones seems to be convinced that Doug Free(notes) could start at left tackle, but Free may be a better swing tackle in the end. With the 27th pick, the 'Boys might look at Maryland's Bruce Campbell – he's got the size and agility needed, though he'll need experience before his game tape matches his 40 time.
San Diego Chargers – Running back: Norv Turner believes that Antoine Cason(notes) can take the place of Antonio Cromartie. We're not entirely sure about that, and the lack of a definite replacement for nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes) is a major concern. But until and unless the Chargers get the kind of franchise running back they once had in LaDanian Tomlinson, this will remain their biggest need. It's possible that Fresno State's Ryan Mathews will be available when San Diego makes the 28th pick, and Mathews has everything it takes to be that guy. He's got sprinter's speed at 220 pounds, is a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield, and doesn't shy away from blocking. San Diego's offensive line isn't what the team wants it to be, but the fact that the rushing attack couldn't get out of the gate was as much about who was getting the ball.
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