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Know your Enemy, Part 2: AFC Contenders

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In a three part series, Know your Enemy will take a look at the possible draft strategy of some rivals/contenders that the Patriots should be on the lookout for this coming year. In part 2, we take a look at the AFC contenders looking to dethrone the Patriots.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL Draft is 4 days away as of this writing, and at this point if you’ve been following along with the Pats Pulpit draft coverage, you should have a pretty good idea of what positions the Patriots are looking at, and some particular prospects they could be interested in.

Although it is easy to forget sometimes, the Patriots actually do have competition in the NFL. Somehow the NFL hasn’t decided to just give them an auto-bye to the Super Bowl, so they have to play 13 other teams in the regular season, plus at least 2 playoff match-ups before getting there. It’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of some of these other key teams that could impact the Patriots attempt to be the first repeat champions since—well—the Patriots.

With a good draft that adds some key contributors, these teams could contribute to the Patriots downfall. In the second installment of a three part series, the AFC contenders looking to keep the Patriots from grabbing their third Lamar Hunt trophy in four years will be broken down.

Denver Broncos

Picks (Round.Overall selection): 1.20/2.51/3.82/3.101/4.127/5.177/6.203/7.238/7.252/7.253

Needs: OT, TE, QB, IDL

Overview: The Broncos are in an interesting spot. Just one year removed from being Super Bowl Champions, they simultaneously have a lot of spots to improve on, but little true needs. They definitely need at least one—and probably two—tackles. After that, it’s a bit cloudy. They could definitely stand to upgrade their QB situation for the immediate year, but after spending a first round pick on Paxton Lynch last year, that’s not going to happen in the draft. They could use a better tight end, or another EDGE guy, or a better nose tackle, but they could also get by with what they have.

Ultimately, the Broncos need to attack the offensive line early and often in the draft, and history says they will. Michael Kist of breakingfootball.com created the BANE (Best Available Need Evaluation), which takes the consensus needs for every team in a given draft, and tracks how often each team took a player at a position of consensus need that year. Per Michael’s evaluation, which you can read here, the Broncos have the highest percentage of need picks over the past three drafts, including 3/3 in the first round. You can almost lock them into an offensive tackle with their first pick, the trick is figuring out who will be there.

Offensive tackles have a tendency to rise up boards, so even in a year where the consensus is the OL class is bad, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Cam Robinson and Garett Bolles both gone by the time the Broncos pick at 20th overall. Trading up is something John Elway has proven very willing to do, and in such a deep class with similar value all around—and given the abundance of Broncos picks—if his guy is there between 10-15, it wouldn’t shock me to see him trade up with a team like Indianapolis.

First Three Picks Prediction: Garett Bolles, OT, Utah/JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC/Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA

Oakland Raiders

Picks: 1.24/2.56/3.88/4.129/5.168/6.208/7.242/7.244

Needs: CB, Off-ball LB, IDL, RB

Overview: The Raiders are going to be very interesting to watch this year. On the one hand, they were 8-1 in one score games last year. That type of success in close games almost always regresses back to the mean in future seasons, indicating the Raiders should be primed for a regression. On the other hand, they have a young, ascending QB and a defense that’s starting to bud with young talent. Any outcome from 7-13 wins shouldn’t be shocking for the Raiders, but I lean towards the 11-13 range if I had to place bets.

The offense should be in a similar—if not better—position than they were last year. Derek Carr will be fully healed from his broken leg that cost him the end of his season, and the rest of the offense returns, minus Latavius Murray. Murray is a solid back who doesn’t possess anything they can’t replace in the draft, even if they wait until the middle rounds. Defensively, Oakland needs to continue adding talent around Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. If Mario Edwards can stay healthy and continue to build on the flashes he showed two seasons ago he could be a key piece to the defense. Karl Joseph is versatile enough that they can target any type of safety and pair him with Joseph to form a good young safety pairing.

First Three Picks Prediction: Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama/Sidney Jones, CB, Washington/Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Charlotte

Houston Texans

Picks: 1.25/2.57/3.89/4.1315/4.142/5.169/7.243

Needs: QB, S, Weakside LB, OT, OG

Overview: It’s weird to see a team with such a horrible QB situation be considered a contender, but that just speaks to how truly talented the Texans are everywhere else. If they had competent QB play, they were walking out of Foxboro with a win and the greatest comeback in NFL history never happens. They don’t have any glaring needs outside of the position. Their safeties can be upgraded, but aren’t bad, and they could use a weakside linebacker or a depth ILB.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see them target OL, as they have a combination of guys that are starting to clear their prime, guys with injury history, and guys that aren’t moving the needle. Overall, however, the line is more than serviceable, and shouldn’t be considered a priority.

QB in the first round is almost universally mocked to the Texans, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see them pass there and take someone like Nate Peterman in round 2. Someone who can step in and compete with Tom Savage and simply manage the offense and do enough to allow the defense to win games. Ultimately, however, I think a franchise QB could fall right into their laps in the first round, and if he does they have to jump on it. Just don’t be shocked if they go elsewhere round 1.

First Three Picks Prediction: DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame/Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy/Blair Brown, LB, Ohio

Pittsburgh Steelers

Picks: 1.30/2.62/3.94/3.105/4.135/5.173/6.213/7.248

Needs: Defense (minus interior DL), TE

Overview: When identifying AFC contenders, it would be foolish to leave out the team that got waxed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers are returning the majority of their team, with the only notable free agents lost being LB Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins and WR Markus Wheaton to the Bears. The Steelers needs haven’t changed: they need to get younger on the EDGE, they need at least one more linebacker who can play in space, and they need to continue adding talent to their secondary.

The offensive side of the ball is pretty much set, although a tight end isn’t out of the question. Ladarius Green can’t stay healthy, and can’t be relied on. Jesse James is a solid player with an awesome name, but he’s not going to prevent Pittsburgh from adding a weapon at the position if one like David Njoku or Evan Engram fall to them, or someone like Jordan Leggett was available in the middle of the draft.

The Steelers don’t have any glaring holes on the roster, but they need a playmaker or two to be added to the defense to finally get back to the Super Bowl. Look for them to target defense early, and then attempt to find a mid-round defender who can contribute immediately, like they did with NT Javon Hargrave in the 3rd last year.

First Three Picks Prediction: Derek Rivers, EDGE, Youngstown State/Desmond King, DB, Iowa/Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson