When assessing which NFL teams have a lot riding on the 2014 NFL Draft, the obvious answer would seem to be, well, all of them. The chance to add key pieces at relatively low cost is hugely important to each squad. That said, it can be argued that it's more important for some than others.
Everyone knows this draft is crucial for teams like the Houston Texans, who must decide what to do with the No. 1 overall pick, and the Cleveland Browns, who have two first-round selections and some pretty good talent already on the roster. But what about the rest of the league? For which other teams will the stakes be especially high come May?
Below you'll find a list of five teams that, for a variety of reasons, have tons riding on this draft. Of course, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list; again, one could reasonably argue that the draft is critical for every team. This is merely an attempt to highlight some of the squads -- presented in no particular order -- staring at a potential make-or-break weekend in Radio City Music Hall.
Note: Click on team names to see a list of each squad's draft picks this year.
Ben Roethlisberger is 32. Troy Polamalu is about to turn 33. Ike Taylor will be 34 in May. Heath Miller is 31. Pittsburgh's core players are clearly getting up there in age -- and unfortunately for the Steelers, they don't have a ton of young talent waiting in the wings. Aside from Le'Veon Bell, a second-round pick last year, Pittsburgh hasn't drafted especially well recently, with top picks like Jarvis Jones (first round, 2013) and Cameron Heyward (first round, 2011) failing to provide needed production. The Steelers have become an old team beset with salary-cap issues. If they want to reverse their decline, they have to find prospects who will improve several areas of the roster, specifically on defense.
Recent history aside, the Steelers, who have the 15th overall pick, work very hard on the draft. Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert go to many pro days; their scouts are capable and well-taught by Colbert. Pittsburgh needs to find three or four guys who can help, like a defensive back who could step in and play right away or maybe an additional receiver.
Of course, whatever the team does with its first pick this year, I wouldn't expect it to trade out of the first round. Prior to the 1970 NFL Draft, when I was working with the Dallas Cowboys, I tried to engineer a swap with the Steelers for the No. 1 overall pick, with the intent of drafting quarterback Terry Bradshaw to play for us. I was turned down by Art Rooney Sr. himself, who said if my interest in the pick was so high, it might be in his best interest to keep it. The Steelers kept the choice and used it on Bradshaw, who went on to win four Super Bowls with the team -- and they haven't gone without a first-round pick since.
After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2013, the Bears are poised to seriously challenge for the NFC North crown. They have almost all the necessary pieces to be a true force in 2014, from the quarterback position (Jay Cutler) to running back (Matt Forte) and receiver (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery). They also helped themselves greatly in free agency, bringing aboard defensive linemen Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen. It's imperative that the Bears make good on this window of opportunity, which won't be closing immediately but also won't be open forever. Finding the right prospects to draft -- specifically, a defensive lineman and a safety -- could put them over the top.
GM Phil Emery has done a great job rebuilding this organization, really cleaning up in last year's draft. First-round pick Kyle Long played every down on the offensive line en route to earning a spot at the Pro Bowl. Fifth-round selection Jordan Mills also started every game on the offensive line. Meanwhile, seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson has potential. In 2012, Emery scooped up Jeffery in the second round, though the first-round pick that year, Shea McClellin, has been something of a disappointment. Emery will have to hit this May -- particularly when it comes to landing a defensive lineman, which is a tough position to fill -- to compete with the Packers and Lions in the division.
By the way, the success of Long -- whose selection in the first round was questioned by some last April, given the prospect's relative lack of football experience at the time -- should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone eager to rush to judgment about the moves made at this year's draft. It's also a reminder that outside observers obviously don't know or see everything the teams do.
The Cowboys have been stuck at 8-8 for three years. They're facing what promises to be a tough NFC East. And their salary-cap picture is not looking good, which means they desperately need to have a banner draft.
Dallas must land some young players who can really contribute -- preferably on defense -- for the comparatively palatable price that rookies draw. This has not always been an area of success for the Cowboys; consider that none of the players they picked in the first round from 2005 to 2008 are still with the team (though Anthony Spencer, who is still a free agent at the moment, could change that if he re-signs with Dallas). For that matter, all but one of the six players drafted by the team in 2008 -- Orlando Scandrick is the exception -- are gone.
In 2012, the Cowboys traded up to land cornerback Morris Claiborne, who has struggled to make an impact. In 2013, the Cowboys traded down, and it paid off; they were still able to upgrade the offensive line by picking center Travis Frederick at No. 31 overall, and they used the third-round pick they received in the swap with San Francisco to snare a promising receiver in Terrance Williams. Next month, Dallas needs to have a dynamite draft -- like the class we landed back in 1975, when we had 12 rookies make a team that went on to reach the Super Bowl.
The Rams are a pretty good team -- but they're in one of the most fearsome divisions in the NFL. If they're going to make any headway in the NFC West, they need to draft players who can step in and help immediately.
The good thing for St. Louis is that the team is still reaping the rewards of 2012's Robert Griffin III trade, in which the Rams extracted three first-round picks, including this year's No. 2 overall selection, from the Washington Redskins -- the equivalent of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. With two picks in the first round this year, the Rams would do well to consider trading down, especially given all the depth in the draft. Let's say the Rams were to swap the No. 2 overall pick for Atlanta's sixth overall pick plus the Falcons' second-rounder (No. 37 overall). St. Louis would then have three picks -- No. 6, No. 13 and No. 37 -- within the first 40 selections, giving the franchise an excellent chance to land three potential starters in one fell swoop. It's important that the Rams maximize this golden opportunity to add big-time talent, especially if they are to have any kind of chance in the NFC West.
Rex Ryan seemingly dodged a bullet last year, defying the expectationsof many by hanging on to his job with an 8-8 season, and even landing a contract extension in January. That said, I think he's still under pressure to perform in New York, and he still has a roster that needs to be upgraded in many places, specifically on offense. The Jets averaged just 18.1 points per game last season, 29th in the NFL; if they're ever going to make a move in the AFC East -- and there might be a slight opening this season, as I think the New England Patriots are descending a bit -- they're going to have to score more than that. The Jets should look to draft a receiver, even after the addition of former Broncos pass catcher Eric Decker. They have very little depth at the position, with Stephen Hill failing to live up to expectations.
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Speaking of Hill, the second-round pick from 2012 is one of several recent draft disappointments for the Jets. Their two first-round picks from 2008 (Vernon Gholston and Dustin Keller) and their entire 2009 draft class (Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene and Matt Slauson) are no longer with the team. Of the Jets players drafted from 2008 to 2012, only Muhammad Wilkerson (first round, 2011) really stands out.
Of course, GM John Idzik -- whose first draft with the team included the selection of reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson -- is putting his stamp on the Jets, as evidenced by his presence at pre-draft workouts. In fact, Idzik's attendance at several quarterback workouts makes me wonder about the organization's faith in second-year signal-caller Geno Smith.