*» Brooks' look at the next wave of potential Pro Bowl TEs
» Three undersized CBs that could provide high value after Round 1 *
But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Jeremiah's take on the missing piece that could put five 2017 playoff teams over the top.
For teams like the Browns, the 2018 NFL Draft is an opportunity to overhaul their roster and plant the seeds for a playoff run down the line. However, there are a handful of clubs searching for that one missing piece that can help bring home a championship. I have some good news for the following five playoff teams from last season: I have found your missing piece! For each of the squads listed below, I've listed one prospect who could put them over the top next season.
New England Patriots
First-round pick: No. 31 overall
The missing piece: The Patriots came within one win of securing their sixth Super Bowl title last season. Despite some attrition during the free-agency period this year with the departure of OT Nate Solder and others, this roster is still in good shape. However, they could use another playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. I believe Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch would be the perfect addition. He has an ideal blend of size, speed and versatility. Bill Belichick is the right coach to unlock his vast potential. He would team up with Dont'a Hightower to give the Patriots two flexible, explosive assets at the second level of their defense.
First-round pick: No. 30 overall
The missing piece: The Vikings were one win away from a Super Bowl appearance last season and last month they signed Kirk Cousins, the crown jewel of free agency. Now they need to add the finishing touches to a championship-caliber roster. The offensive line was vastly improved last season, but there is still a need for an upgrade at the guard position. UTEP OG Will Hernandez is a mauling run blocker and he's surprisingly nimble in pass protection. His physicality is a perfect fit for a team looking to close out wins with the running game.
First-round pick: No. 29 overall
The missing piece: The Jaguars have arguably the most talented young roster in the NFL. However, in order to overtake the Patriots in the AFC, they need to add more firepower to their offense. While Blake Bortles has his detractors, I believe he's capable of leading this team to the promised land if the Jags can find him one more weapon in the passing game. I'm a huge fan of Maryland WR D.J. Moore. His combination of toughness, speed and playmaking ability would fit beautifully in the Jacksonville offense. The Jaguars' running game can be dominant, and that presents plenty of big-play opportunities in the passing game. That's exactly where Moore can help. He could lead the league in yards per catch in the Jaguars offense.
First-round pick: No. 28 overall
The missing piece: The Steelers already possess a Super Bowl-caliber offense, but they need to add more punch to the defensive side of the ball. They couldn't overcome the loss of Ryan Shazier to injury last season and they are in desperate need of an impact player at the linebacker position with Shazier out for 2018. When I studied Alabama LB Rashaan Evans, I immediately thought of the Steelers. He fits the profile of what they look for at that position. He's extremely strong, aggressive and explosive. He plays with the hunter's mentality that we've seen from all of the great Pittsburgh linebackers over the years. It's possible that Evans will be picked before the Steelers are on the clock at No. 28, but if he's available, Pittsburgh should turn in the card for him.
New Orleans Saints
First-round pick: No. 27 overall
The missing piece: The Saints hit a home run in last year's draft, selecting both the offensive (Alvin Kamara) and defensive (Marshon Lattimore) rookies of the year. This roster is in great shape and might be a single piece away from capturing a Super Bowl title. By all accounts, they attempted to bring back tight end Jimmy Graham in free agency, but he chose to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers instead of Drew Brees. I've been told the Saints have been doing a lot of homework on the tight ends in this year's draft, and it wouldn't surprise me if they went in that direction with their first-round pick. I have South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst as my top player at the position and I think he'd be a perfect fit in New Orleans' system. He has the speed to make plays down the field and his toughness after the catch is outstanding. He even has experience as a ball carrier, which would afford a creative mind like Sean Payton plenty of options. This is an ideal match. -- Daniel Jeremiah
2018 DRAFT COULD OFFER NEXT TRAVIS KELCE, ZACH ERTZ
The NFL's transformation into a passing league has made tight end one of the game's marquee positions. Offensive coordinators covet big, athletic pass catchers with basketball-like movement skills at the position. Over the past several years, we've seen the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed and others dominate between the hashes as "jumbo" wide receivers with spectacular playmaking ability.
With that in mind, general managers have increasingly looked for dynamic pass-catching tight ends in the draft to give their quarterbacks legitimate options over the middle. Last year, three tight ends came off the board in the first round (O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, and David Njoku) -- the most since 2002 -- with each possessing skills that are better suited to the "H" position (move tight end) in most offenses. The same could be said of each of the first-round candidates (South Carolina's Hayden Hurst, South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert, and Penn State's Mike Gesicki) at TE in this year's draft based on how they were used as collegians and how their skills translate the pro game.
Hurst is a former professional baseball player with a game that's more refined than you might expect based on his limited playing experience. Measuring 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Hurst can split the seams on vertical routes or take it the distance on "catch-and-run" concepts (screens, jet sweeps, and shallow crossers) that are typically reserved for wide receivers. Although he flashes some skills that could make him a functional "Y" (traditional tight end) in some schemes, he is such a unique talent that it's easy to envision him playing as a flex tight end as a pro.
Goedert is a former small-school standout with a big-time game and great potential. He's a crafty route runner with a bag of tricks that keeps defenders guessing down the field. From his carefully choreographed stutter-steps at the top of routes to his natural ability to turn the corner on speed cuts, Goedert creates problems for linebackers and safeties in space. He plays the game like an oversized wideout with a mix of athleticism, skill and body control, giving him a significant advantage in most one-on-one battles. If a creative NFL offensive coordinator uses him like he was featured at South Dakota State, you could see another big-bodied tight end tallying up production on an assortment of verticals, screens and reverses over the next few seasons.
Gesicki hasn't received as much fanfare, but he is just as dangerous as the aforementioned tight end prospects. The Penn State standout is a red-zone weapon with a unique combination of size (6-foot-5, 247 pounds), speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash) and "bounce" (41.5-inch vertical) at the position. The former high school basketball and volleyball player is a jump-ball specialist with outstanding hand-eye coordination and body control. He uses those skills to wrestle the ball away from defenders along the boundary, particularly near the end zone on fades or back-shoulder throws. Gesicki expands the strike zone for his quarterback, providing the passer with a reliable option to target in critical situations. Although he played as a more traditional tight end as a collegian, Gesicki's frame and athleticism make him a perfect candidate to move to the "H" position as a pro.
Overall, the top TE prospects in the 2018 class possess the skills and versatility that match the talents of the perennial Pro Bowl players that we see in the NFL at the position. In fact, given my NFL comp for each of these guys (Hurst/Travis Kelce; Goedert/Zach Ertz; Gesicki/Jordan Reed), more NFL play-callers should be encouraged to expand their playbooks to make the "H" the focal point of the passing game. -- Bucky Brooks
THREE UNDERSIZED CORNERBACKS WHO WILL PROVIDE BIG VALUE
I'm excited about the handful of first-round prospects at the cornerback position in this year's draft, but I am even more bullish on the overall depth of the group. Every team covets size at corner, and there are some big, talented players in this year's class. However, here are three undersized CBs that I believe will end up being tremendous value picks.
Parry Nickerson, Tulane: Nickerson measured 5-foot-10 3/8, but he plays much bigger than his size when the ball is in the air. He's always in the right position and tied for the fastest 40-yard dash at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (4.32 seconds). He has an uncanny ability to locate and play the ball when it's in the air. Nickerson lines up primarily outside, but I think he has the right skill set to play inside or outside at the next level. He reminds me a lot of 2014 first-round pick Jason Verrett when he was a draft prospect. I believe Nickerson is worth a second-round pick.
Duke Dawson, Florida: Dawson measured at 5-10 5/8 at the combine. I love his game. He splits his time between playing outside and in the slot. I think he'll be an ideal nickel cornerback in the NFL. He's physical in press coverage and has the short-area quickness to redirect and mirror easily. He's one of the few cornerbacks I saw run stride for stride with LSU speedster D.J. Chark when I studied Chark's tape. He will be ready to start in the slot from Day One. I think he's worthy of a late second- or early third-round pick.
Avonte Maddox, Pittsburgh: Maddox is the smallest of this group, measuring at 5-9 1/8. He primarily played outside for the Panthers. He's twitched up and competitive. He received very little help in Pitt's scheme, and is rarely out of position down the field. There are some instances where he is walled off by bigger opponents, but there are plenty of examples of his playmaking skills. He had a flashy, high-point interception against Oklahoma State last season and he's been a very effective blitzer, notching 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in the fall. I think he's worth a third-round pick, and he would be a steal if he's still available on Day 3 of the draft (Rounds 4-7). -- Daniel Jeremiah