Smart teams build through the draft, but they don’t box themselves into having to fix holes with their rookies. Ideal roster construction fixes the major holes before the draft rolls around, allowing you the freedom to draft the best players available to add depth, contingency or a succession plan for the future. There are several NFL teams that haven’t done that, however, and roll into the 2020 NFL Draft needing to hit on at least one, maybe several, picks to be competitive this season. It’s far from ideal, but it’s a gamble that could pay off — if they can get it right.
Let’s take a look at some teams that are under more pressure than most and need to nail this draft to repair the mistakes of the past.
The Vikings have several glaring needs on their roster, and the extension of Kirk Cousins means they’re never going to have much money in free agency to address them. Their biggest move this offseason was retaining safety Anthony Harris, who had an overall PFF grade of 91.1 last season, the best among all safeties. They added to the defensive line Michael Pierce, a player who is coming off a down season but previously had three consecutive seasons with a PFF run-defense grade above 80.
They traded away Stefon Diggs for a first-round pick and some change, but now they have a receiving corps that outside of Adam Thielen looks disastrous. They likely need to spend that first-round pick on Diggs’ direct replacement. This offseason also saw them cut ties with their top three cornerbacks from last season. None of the three played particularly well, but finding an entire contributing group of corners is no easy task.
One of the team’s two first-round picks likely has to go on a corner, leaving Minnesota hoping players like LSU’s Kristian Fulton fall to them, or they are confident enough in TCU’s Jeff Gladney, Clemson’s AJ Terrell or Utah’s Jaylon Johnson to draft them that high. As if that wasn’t enough of a headache, the Vikings also have a huge hole where an interior pass rusher should reside, with nobody on the roster who topped 11 total pressures last season. Their offensive line is still a major weakness and could use multiple starters to upgrade it and help the passing game.
The Vikings are in a position where they need to come out of this draft with at least two, probably three, quality starters just to maintain parity with where they were in 2019. They are a significant step behind the best teams in the league.
The Raiders traded away their best player in Khalil Mack — a move applauded by those analytically inclined — but in order to back it up they need to make enough use of the haul of draft capital it brought. So far, they haven’t, and with last year’s draft an incomplete grade at best, the Raiders need to capitalize on multiple first rounders this year.
Though the offense was better than people expected last year — aided hugely by the shock emergence of TE Darren Waller (83.2 overall PFF grade) — they still have a huge need at wide receiver. Picking at 12, the Raiders will likely have eyes on one of the top two in this class — Ceedee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy — still being available when they pick.
Cornerback is also a glaring hole, with the move to acquire Eli Apple in free agency falling through. The team has some options at safety, but at cornerback any top draft pick should immediately come in and start from day one. Utah’s Jaylon Johnson is a perfect fit for what the Raiders do on defense, and he will very likely still be there when their second first round pick comes up. But, critically, the Raiders don’t have a pick in the second round, so they either need to parlay their back-to-back third round selections at 80 and 81 into the second, or go two for two when it comes to strike rate on their first-round picks.
Indianapolis has had a good roster on paper for a couple of years now. While Andrew Luck’s retirement changed everything, this offseason they gave themselves a chance to contend again when they signed Philip Rivers, an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett. Rivers is coming off an overall PFF grade of 74.3, the lowest he has had for a couple of seasons. At 38, there’s no guarantee that wasn’t evidence of his inevitable decline, which is why the team gave him just a one-year contract. That one-year deal, though, means this team is in win-now mode and is down to only the draft to patch over any holes that remain on the roster. They made that even tougher by trading away their first-round pick — No. 13 overall — for DeForest Buckner, meaning the first time the team will get a chance to draft (absent trades) will be No. 34 overall.
At receiver, Rivers is used to throwing to one of the best groups in the league, but the Colts have T.Y. Hilton and not a lot else in the way of proven threats. This is an outstanding receiver draft, hailed as the best for years, so if ever there was a time to wait a round and still emerge with a player that can play right away, it’s this one — but it dramatically shrinks the window to get this right.
Clemson’s Tee Higgins is a player being passed on a lot of draft boards because of concerns when it comes to separation, and in a strong draft he could end up available where the Colts pick. His overall PFF grade got better each year of his college career, peaking above 90 this past season. He could be a dream scenario for a team that will be watching the board hoping things fall their way.
This is another team that made an aggressive move that the data would support: The Jets went after their quarterback of the future in Sam Darnold in 2018, trading two second-round picks that season and another second in 2019 to jump three spots. Darnold remains something of a question mark as a player, in no small part because the Jets haven’t been able to surround him with any kind of supporting cast. They attacked the offensive line in a major way in free agency, bringing in quantity over quality. The hope is that enough of them will pan out that one of the worst offensive lines in the league creeps back towards average enough that their young quarterback has some time to operate, but they now need to provide him with weapons.
Breshad Perriman was a smart gamble in free agency given what he showed late last season, but a top trio of Perriman, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder isn’t putting Darnold in the best position to succeed. No. 11 overall likely gives the team a good shot at one of the two best receivers in the draft — Lamb or Jeudy — but they also have a second-round pick and two selections in the third with which to add talent to an offense badly in need of it. The Jets are reaching a critical time for Darnold and have a very limited chance to provide him with the support needed to flourish.
Like the Jets, the Browns also now have questions about their young quarterback. Baker Mayfield hit the ground running as a rookie, earning an overall PFF grade of 83.7, but he took a huge step backwards in year two, with his grade losing more than 10 grading points on the season. The Browns made significant changes in the organization and now have the task of eliminating variables so they can judge Mayfield fairly on his own merits, not as simply a symptom of a different problem.
The biggest hole they have is at left tackle, where Greg Robinson’s legal woes complicated an already big problem area. They brought over Jack Conklin in free agency — he's has had four solid to good seasons to begin his career — but they likely need to find a starting left tackle with their top pick.
This, in and of itself, is a tough spot to be in. Tackles do not have a great history of outstanding play from day one — even those who become good players down the line — so the Browns have put a lot of pressure on picking the right player among a good crop of tackles this season. Georgia’s Andrew Thomas is the top tackle on PFF’s Big Board and had an overall grade of 92.5 last season, but he is followed closely by Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Houston’s Josh Jones. Those players all fall within a six-spot range on the board and are very difficult to separate, but the chances that more than one of them are high-quality starters from the get-go are minimal.
The Browns need to get that call right to eliminate the pressure coming from the blindside that Mayfield was feeling constantly in 2019 (whether it was always there or not).