The NFL Draft is rarely dominated by teams in contention to lift the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the upcoming season.
Though trades regularly shuffle the pack, more often than not the draft headlines are made by teams who finished at the wrong end of the regular-season standings in the previous campaign. Such is the nature of league’s annual selection meeting.
While those franchises with rosters capable of contending to go all the way to the Super Bowl may not be as reliant on the draft as those rebuilding, the selections they make can be critical in providing the potential final piece of what they hope will be a championship-winning puzzle.
Inevitably, not every team expected to contend in April will do so once the season gets under way in September. Yet we can make educated guesses as to which teams will be in the mix to go deep into the postseason in each conference.
We’ve identified four such teams from each conference, with the Cleveland Browns omitted from the list due to the threat of a possible suspension for new starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.
With help from some advanced metrics, let’s look at what each of these eight teams need to add in the draft to maximize their hopes of standing underneath the confetti in Arizona next February.
Los Angeles Rams
Areas of Need: OL, EDGE
Identifying draft needs for the Rams is a difficult task not because they don’t have any, but because they so often fill their holes by trading away their picks to land superstars.
This year, the Rams don’t pick until 104th overall in the third round, not that the Super Bowl champions will mind skipping the first two rounds.
When it finally comes to their turn, the interior of the offensive line stands out as an area of weakness, while the Rams might also be eyeing an edge rusher to help fill the void left by Von Miller, whose stunt-adjusted pass rush win percentage of 43.4 was fifth among edge rushers with at least 100 one-on-one matchups last year.
San Francisco 49ers
Areas of Need: EDGE, S, RG, C
The Niners are in a similar position to the Rams in that they don’t have a lot of needs, though the urgency is greater for a team that let a fourth-quarter lead slip against Los Angeles in the NFC championship game.
Right guard has been a long-standing issue and the Niners will also need to find a developmental center to replace Alex Mack when he eventually retires. Nebraska’s Cam Jurgens is a name to watch there.
San Francisco does not pick until 61st overall in the second round, having traded this year’s first-rounder in the package that landed Trey Lance. A defense that ranked first in pass rush win rate could be stacked further by another edge rusher to pair with Nick Bosa and there is a clear need next to Jimmie Ward at safety.
Of course, what would really make it a successful draft for the Niners would be finally trading Jimmy Garoppolo to secure more picks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Areas of Need: DL, S
There’s a theme here that trying to find needs for NFC contenders is tough. That’s especially true in the case of the Bucs, who brought back Tom Brady after he quickly got bored with retirement and re-signed a host of free agents many expected to depart.
With Todd Bowles assuming the head coaching duties from Bruce Arians, it’s fair to anticipate a focus on defense. The Bucs own the 27th pick in the first round as well as two other top-100 selections.
More beef on the interior of the defensive line is required with Ndamukong Suh not yet re-signed and though Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal have signed as safety help to atone for Jordan Whitehead’s departure, a rookie who can make a difference down in the box and in coverage would be a welcome addition to the defense.
Green Bay Packers
Areas of Need: WR, CB/S, OL
Now this is more like it. The Packers have one glaring, obvious need and there’s no way they can fail to address it, right?
Brian Gutekunst may have a history of eschewing first-round wide receivers, but after trading Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, it would be an extremely bemusing move to risk Aaron Rodgers’ wrath and do so again.
Chris Olave, Jameson Williams, Treylon Burks, Jahan Dotson…they all must be in the mix here and with two selections in the first round, the Packers could even double up at the position.
There are other holes. The secondary could use some more quality depth and an offensive line that ranked 28th in run-block win rate could also be improved, but the Packers’ hopes of getting over the hump in 2022 likely rest on their ability to give Rodgers weapons that mitigate the impact of Adams’ stunning departure.
Kansas City Chiefs
Areas of Need: WR, S, CB
After Patrick Mahomes faced the most pressures in a Super Bowl since 2006 in consecutive years (28 in SB LIV, 34 in SB LV), the Chiefs overhauled their offensive line heading into 2021 and were confident they were on course for the title game once again – only for Mahomes’ own stunning playoff collapse to end both the team’s season and Tyreek Hill’s run in Kansas City.
Hill’s departure in a trade to the Miami Dolphins leaves a gaping hole.
New signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling at least offers a downfield option, but that was his sole responsibility with the Packers in 2021. He recorded a league-high average depth of target of 17.6 yards, but made just 26 catches. Valdes-Scantling and fellow recruit JuJu Smith-Schuster, who’s coming off shoulder surgery, have just one 1,000-yard season between them (Hill has four).
Thankfully, the Hill deal means the Chiefs have plenty of draft picks – two in each of the first three rounds – and plenty of options at wide receiver, but safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Charvarius Ward must also be replaced just to get Kansas City back to where it started.
Areas of Need: OL, EDGE, TE, CB
The Bengals are a year behind the Chiefs, beaten in the Super Bowl after leaving their quarterback horribly exposed. Joe Burrow faced 23 pressures against the Rams – tied for the third most since 2006.
Like the Chiefs, they quickly set about bolstering their offensive line in free agency, though there remains a pressing need at left guard. Ted Karras played there for the New England Patriots last year, but is set to move back to center after Trey Hopkins was cut.
That versatility at least gives the Bengals options at either position depending on how the draft plays out, with their first pick not until the end of the first round (31). In fact, given competition at cornerback, edge and/or tight end could also be sought, the Bengals may be flexible throughout.
Areas of Need: CB, RB
The Bills are the Super Bowl favorites – and with good reason. They were a coin flip away from beating the Chiefs and stood a good chance against the Bengals, which might have quelled some of the optimism in Cincinnati. Buffalo has also added Super Bowl champion Von Miller to a defense that gave up a league-low 4.57 yards per play.
That’s not to say there don’t remain areas for improvement, with cornerback an obvious place to start. Tre’Davious White is returning from an ACL tear and the Bills need a new man opposite him, given the loss of Levi Wallace.
The Bills might also be advised to ease the burden on all-action quarterback Josh Allen with the addition of a reliable running back. Allen ranked third among QBs for rushing yards in 2021 (763), but accounted for 34.5% of his team’s total – far and away the greatest share at his position.
Second on the list was former MVP Lamar Jackson (767 yards, 30.9%), who’s already showing signs of wear and tear as a result of being tasked with running the Baltimore Ravens’ offense.
Los Angeles Chargers
Area of Need: RT
Outside of the Packers, the up-and-coming Chargers perhaps have the most obvious positional need of any contender – right tackle.
Left tackle Rashawn Slater was their first-round pick in 2021 and earned Pro Bowl recognition in his rookie season. Among offensive tackles with 200 or more pass protection snaps, Slater’s stunt-adjusted win percentage of 90.5 ranked third. However, that stood in complete contrast to right tackle Storm Norton, whose 63.0% ranked third from the bottom.
Norton was brought in to play 15 games after a back injury put Bryan Bulaga on injured reserve. Bulaga has now been cut and the Chargers surely cannot run it back with Norton.
The very best offensive tackles in the draft are unlikely to still be available when the Chargers get to work in the middle of the first round, but it’s no surprise to see them widely linked with Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.