NFL Draft Recap: Finding teams that improved by division

The 2017 NFL Draft brings opportunity for both teams and new players. (credit: Matt Loede via NFL Gridiron Grab) The 2017 NFL Draft brings opportunity for both teams and new players. (credit: Matt Loede via NFL Gridiron Grab)

From Thursday to Saturday, thousands gathered in Philadelphia for the annual NFL Draft. On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was greeted with customary boos from the fans, even seeming to dare the crowd to get louder before officially putting the Cleveland Browns on the clock for the first pick of the night. Now that the draft is over, it’s time to make horribly wrong predictions about which team in each division improved their chances of winning most in the near and long term.

AFC North

Discipline seems to be the new focus in Cleveland, as the Browns looked like they might have actually done something right in the draft. Granted, they’re almost guaranteed to have a losing season next year, since they haven’t really addressed the future of the quarterback position. What players the Browns did pick up in the draft look to be building blocks for a better future. Rather than be swayed by the temptation of picking up another quarterback at a high draft spot, the Browns instead used the first overall pick to select Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, putting a strong presence on the front line who eagerly anticipates the challenge of taking down quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers could serve as a positive presence in the secondary, and Miami tight end David Njoku might end up as a playmaker once the Browns secure the quarterback position. Getting an additional first-round pick in 2018 was the icing on the cake of a strong Day One, and the pieces seem to be in place for the foundation of a competitive team.

Except it’s Cleveland, and they’ll probably screw up somewhere along the line.

AFC East

I hate the Patriots. I hate the Patriots. I HATE THE PATRIOTS! Did I mention I hate the New England Patriots? I really do, and I hate to write anything good about them, but I think they had a pretty good draft despite their two first picks coming from late in the third round. How in the world does a team without a first or second-round pick have a good draft that improves their chances of winning? Well, they’re the Patriots, which means it’s almost guaranteed that they’re going to win the division unless quarterback Tom Brady is injured for the whole year. The other reason is that they traded their early picks for players that have already shown promise in the league. The Patriots traded their first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth round pick, probably the best use for the 32nd overall pick as they could have gotten. They traded their second round pick to the Carolina Panthers for defensive end Kony Ealy, a pass rusher who will continue making it difficult for teams who need to play catch-up with the Patriots’ offense. Much like the Browns are consistently bad, the Patriots have been consistently good in the era of head coach Bill Belichick. Though most experts grade their division rivals higher than the Patriots, these post-draft grades are completely meaningless, especially when said teams inevitably fall short of the expectation of challenging the Patriots.

AFC South

Despite losing defensive end J.J. Watt to injury for the year, the Houston Texans ended up winning their division and won their Wild Card Weekend matchup against the Oakland Raiders before getting destroyed by the Patriots in the second round of the playoffs. The key component hampering the Texans was the play at quarterback, having committed a lot of money for the mediocre play of Brock Osweiler. Trading up to get Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson might have cost the team a future first-round pick, but it would be entirely worth it if Watson becomes the offensive leader that Houston needs to rise above its rivals.

AFC West

The Raiders put up strong efforts throughout the 2016 season, but the injury to quarterback Derek Carr late in the season cost the team the division win and their playoff game against Houston. While the division-winning Kansas City Chiefs commanded the most attention in the division by trading up to pick Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Raiders steadily pushed forward with the team-building strategy that transformed Oakland from the perennial laughing stock back into a legitimate playoff contender. Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley and Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu add to a secondary that looks more ready to counter the passing attacks the Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers will attempt to develop and use against them.

NFC North

The Green Bay Packers operate differently from most teams in the league. Rather than trying to make big splashes in free agency, the Packers instead build their team through the draft the old-fashioned way, and this year seems to be no different. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, a slew of receiving options, and a good enough offensive line, the Packers prioritized defense this year, starting with Washington cornerback Kevin King off a trade down with the Browns. Green Bay then took North Carolina State safety Josh Jones to further strengthen the secondary before nabbing Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams in the third round to help with the defensive line. When the Detroit Lions are the only current threat to the division crown, you know you’re in a good position.

NFC East

In contrast to the relatively clear NFC North, the NFC East is a perennial free-for-all in which all the teams could end up winning the division or otherwise make the playoffs. With no clear winner, I’ll give a slight edge to the Dallas Cowboys since they won the division last year after striking big offensively with running back Ezekiel Elliot and quarterback Dak Prescott. This year, the priority was defense, starting with Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton. Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis solidify the secondary against the passing threats present from the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins. It’s always tough to repeat in the NFC East, but the Cowboys still appear to be in a strong position going forward with a strong offensive line and a young quarterback and running back duo. Defense is a concern, but an average defense could still be good enough for Dallas.

NFC South

I’m a huge Saints fan, but I hesitate to say good things about their draft since general manager Mickey Loomis has not inspired me with his personnel decisions over the past three consecutive 7–9 seasons. That being said, six picks in the first three rounds certainly brings the opportunity to break past the past few years of mediocrity. With an absolutely horrendous defense over the past few years, it’s no surprise that the Saints addressed each piece of the defense in the draft, but they also couldn’t help taking some offensive players. Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore was considered the best cover corner available in the draft, so his slide to eleventh overall seems to be a perfect selection for New Orleans, assuming he stays healthy. Utah safety Marcus Williams could be a strong asset in the secondary while Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone could be a versatile presence. With the pick from trading away Cooks, the Saints added Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, hopefully someone who can both protect quarterback Drew Brees and help open lanes for running backs Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and the newly drafted Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee. If the Saints’ offense stays as strong as it has been and the defense transforms into even an average NFL defense, this year could be different for New Orleans in Brees’s twilight years.

NFC West

The Seattle Seahawks remain favorites to win the division going forward. The Seahawks’ six picks between the second and third rounds could result in a strong presence to integrate into the team. Either that, or this is a poor attempt to compensate for the universally criticized 2012 draft class that experts had predicted would be terrible. Anyways, the Seahawks managed to pick up Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell after trading out of the first round, picking up a sixth rounder in the process. LSU center Ethan Pocic could become a nice addition to the offensive line, and Michigan wide receiver Amara Darboh could be a good new weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson. With these and other players in the Seahawks’ draft class, it is hard to see any of the other teams in the division stealing the crown outside of any devastating injuries to the Seahawks’ key players.