The NFL has been drafting college players since 1936. Nothing has changed over the years, except almost everything. Yet, there is one certainty: General managers are staring down some tough draft decisions, with no sure answers revealed until the dominoes start falling on April 25 in Nashville, Tennessee.
There isn't a GM in the league who isn't confronted with pressing issues, conundrums and, ultimately, organizational questions in the weeks, then days, then hours leading up to the opening of the great college marketplace. It's during those three days of the draft, with the first one (Round 1) playing a disproportionately large role, when the guys running a team could decide its fate, and their own, for the next 10 years.
This is not to suggest that each question carries the same weight for every club. With 32 teams, there are a variety of challenges.
Different teams, different questions. The endeavor to sort through all 32 squads was ambitious, and 6,000 words later, I don't have all the answers. You'll have to wait until after the picks start rolling in for those, just like the GMs.
So take a gander below and see which choices each AFC team must parse out in the next few weeks. Send your take while you're at it: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Baltimore Ravens: Which playmaking receivers will be available at No. 22?
The Ravens are certainly on the lookout for available pass rushers, seeing how they just lost two of them in free agency. C.J. Mosley also flew the coup. So the previously formidable defense, a unit that finished first in total D and second in points allowed last season, must be restocked at the end of this month. Meanwhile, the strength of the offense is clearly the ground game, mostly because of the conundrum defenses confront when playing against a quarterback who is more dangerous running the football than the actual running backs. Neither of those factors should deter Baltimore from going after a wide receiver early -- potentially in the first round. At No. 22 overall, the Ravens might have one of the top players at that position fall to them. More importantly: At some point, Lamar Jackson is going to have to beat teams downfield. Not just occasionally, but on the reg. This group went after three WRs in free agency last year. Willie Snead is the only one left. It's time to inject that spot with youth ... and top-shelf talent. How about a freakish athletic specimen like D.K. Metcalf? Or a playmaking dynamo like Marquise Brown? It's not hard to imagine the board falling in a way where Baltimore has its pick of the WR litter.
The Bills still have holes to fill across the roster, which provides them the luxury of basically taking the top prospect on their board at No. 9. More good news: They aren't in the market for a quarterback. Many of our NFL.com draftniks project Buffalo using the top-10 pick on either an offensive tackle or edge rusher. Sean McDermott would certainly enjoy the latter, as that side of the ball is his discipline. But drafting an OT like Jawaan Taylor could represent the perfect confluence of need and value. All that said, shouldn't the Bills continue adding to Josh Allen's options in the skill area? It doesn't necessarily have to be in Round 1, but sometime in the first couple days of the draft. The WR corps should fare decidedly better in the short term, with the additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley, but it wouldn't hurt to add a young weapon for the franchise QB to grow with. Free-agent signee Tyler Kroft flashed in 2017, but the tight end missed most of last season in Cincy. At running back, LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore make for an accomplished combo, but how much do they have left? Buffalo has already significantly improved the offense this offseason, but adding, say, an exciting tight end in the early rounds would be the cherry on top.
Cincinnati Bengals: Fixing the O-line would be nice, but what's the plan for this dismal D?
Zac Taylor's first head-coaching job won't be easy, not in an AFC North where the longtime doormat is suddenly the strongest team in the division, the Ravens have reinvented themselves behind a dynamic young quarterback, and the Steelers are always competitive (with or without Antonio Brown). Mike Brown, Duke Tobin and the personnel department must retool the defense, for starters -- like, finding some starters on the defense. Quickly. Cincinnati finished last season at 30th in scoring defense and 32nd in total D. The Bengals need to boost their sack (28th) and takeaway (21st) totals with impact players, the kind that you find in the early rounds. Surf the internet for a while, though, and you will see O-line routinely listed as the Bengals' top void. Fine. With better health for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, though, the offense should improve by default. But there is no way this group can compete without an influx of talent on the other side of the ball. Cincy cannot give up 28.4 points per game again.
Cleveland Browns: Will the offensive line allow all the skill players to flourish?
Everyone who follows football is excited about the Browns. But while they don't own a first-round pick, they do carry a sizable wish list into the NFL draft. Defensive tackle, linebacker and safety -- all three levels of the defense -- are areas to consider. On the other hand, the progression of Baker Mayfield and acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr. won't be so momentous if the offensive line isn't strengthened. Pass protection improved as last season wore on, but the aerial attack can't be all about 5-yard slants to Jarvis Landry that allow Mayfield to get the ball out quickly. Trading for OBJ won't amount to diddly poo if Baker doesn't enjoy the required time to push the ball vertically. While the tackle position is far from infallible, the trade of OG Kevin Zeitler makes the interior part of the line a greater concern.
Denver Broncos: Defensive centerpiece or offensive weapon at No. 10?
Are the Broncos better than anyone is giving them credit for? Probably. Quarterback is set for now with Joe Flacco in place. Two advanced second-year guys -- RB Phillip Lindsay and WR Courtland Sutton -- provide offensive upside for this franchise going forward. Ja'Wuan James has migrated from Miami to beef up what was a mediocre offensive line last season. Not saying the offense as a whole is optimal, but it's probably better off than most think. So the main focus for John Elway's group come draft time could be the defense, always thought to be the mainstay in Denver. NFL.com draftnik Chad Reuter predicts the Broncos will select linebacker Devin White out of LSU. Sounds fine. Yet, if there's an area on offense that could use a premier talent, it's tight end. T.J. Hockenson isn't going to wait very long to hear his name called on draft weekend. Some team is going to take him in a pretty lofty slot. Tenth is not too early for the signature tight end in this draft. (Just ask Charley Casserly.) And Elway did quite enjoy Shannon Sharpe's presence on two Lombardi-hoisting teams.
Houston's defense is playoff-ready (although corner could use some retooling). The main issue at hand for these Texans is sprucing up the offense. An argument can be made to draft another wide receiver to complement DeAndre Hopkins. Running back could be upgraded -- or at least finding someone to pair with Lamar Miller. Yet there can be no getting around the fact that Houston MUST fix the offensive line. Deshaun Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times last season. He took a pummeling not seen since the David Carr days. OK, nothing will ever be that bad again, but you get the point. Watson was hit more than 100 times. Think how much more effective (and consistent) the offense would be if Watson weren't running for his life every snap. No matter where else the organization focuses its draft resources, the offensive line requires an infusion of talent, potentially starting in the first round.
Indianapolis Colts: Draft for need or take the best players available?
The Colts are coming off not only a successful season, but a verifiable draft bonanza. No personnel department knocked its 2018 selections as far out of the park as Chris Ballard and Co., who netted the Defensive Rookie of the Year (Darius Leonard), a first-team All-Pro guard (Quenton Nelson) and a starting offensive tackle (Braden Smith). Do the Colts follow up that brilliant scouting performance by simply following their board, or do they draft for need? Perhaps for more than any other team in the league, this is an appropriate question. THE question. The Colts might have surprised folks (or even themselves) last season, but now little doubt lingers that they are ready to contend, with a huge reason being the young nucleus they've built. Andrew Luck still has yet to turn 30, which makes him practically a baby for a quarterback. When you have a group ready to win now, you have to go for it now, because the salary cap demands it. These factors point to Ballard at least contemplating needs far more than he has appeared to do before. Some of those needs: a WR2, another pass rusher and a corner.
Nick Foles is in house. Leonard Fournette is on board. The defense remains on the A-list. What do the Jaguars require now to make it back to the AFC Championship Game -- and out of the AFC South cellar? Start with another target for Foles. The receiving corps carries a couple of young players with upside in Dede Westbrook and D.J. Chark, although the latter barely made a peep as a rookie last season. Picking seventh overall, and not needing a quarterback, the Jags could trade down and still scoop up a receiver from the top of their board. Or, depending on how the Kyler Murray dominoes fall, trade with a QB-starved team like the Dolphins, then use that opening to select one of the Iowa tight ends, T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant. Signing Geoff Swaim was a nice under-the-radar market grab, but his raw ability does not preclude the Jaguars from taking a TE in the first round. While Marcedes Lewis performed capably for years, when did Jacksonville ever enjoy an All-Pro at that position? Don't say Kyle Brady, either. While we're here: Sure wouldn't mind the Jags selecting a safety in the second round.
Kansas City Chiefs: Trade up for an elite pass rusher?
Can the Chiefs afford to come out of this draft without a serious helping of pass-rushing juice? No, not really. In fact, the Chiefs really need to snatch up multiple pass rushers. Why? Because they recently lost 22 sacks from a year ago, due to the exits of Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Not to mention (but we'll mention), very few draft picks actually develop their craft enough to become prolific sack artists -- heck, viable sack artists -- in the NFL. So it never hurts to double down. Having said all that, though, the No. 29 overall pick is not high enough for the Chiefs to grab one of the elite edge rushers. So, might they trade up? Who knows, but the defense won't elevate this team to the Super Bowl without enough guys who can pressure the quarterback. If Kansas City stays put, it's quite possible the franchise tries to fill the void left by center Mitch Morse's departure, perhaps snagging Garrett Bradbury out of N.C. State. It was in fact the bottom of the first round back in 2013 where the Cowboys found Travis Frederick, the top center in the game when healthy. Of course, if you watched the Chiefs' corners last year, then you know The Force was not exactly strong with those ones. And CB's a position that could offer some intriguing prospects near the end of the first round.
Los Angeles Chargers: If it's Super Bowl or bust, will the Bolts still exhibit patience in the draft?
Every year, some hyped skill player or NFL Scouting Combine revelation is available at the end of the first round. Young GMs have been molded by their mentors on the personnel side of the business to never pass up premium talent at a draft spot not commensurate with their value. Also worth noting is that drafting a lineman is never an excitement generator. That's why running a draft requires discernment above all else, and not just of the does-this-player-deserve-to-be-chosen-higher-than-that-guy variety. The Bolts must bulk up both their offensive and defensive fronts. This is not to suggest that they are strikingly weak in either. But protecting Philip Rivers is a necessity, not a luxury (though he has stayed remarkably healthy). And selecting one of the D-line gems high in this draft would only serve to make the pass-rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram that much more disruptive. Yes, this is a franchise that could certainly use a flashy draft pick to build the buzz. And no, drafting a guard will not achieve that. But that's the ticket. And winning sells tickets, even in Los Angeles.
Miami Dolphins: How far will Chris Grier and Co. go to obtain their QB of the future?
Miami's pick does not reside in the top 10, and call it conceivable that three QBs could go before the Dolphins are on the clock at No. 13. The Cardinals and Giants could certainly pick QBs before Miami gets a chance to do so. So who else could take a QB that early? Don't overlook the Packers, who will make their first choice one pick ahead of Miami. Sure, it might be a long shot, but at some point, Green Bay must think about life after Aaron Rodgers. It was at this exact point in Brett Favre's career that Green Bay drafted Rodgers. Are the Broncos, who hold the 10th pick, content with Joe Flacco for the next three seasons? Then there's a team that could leap Miami via trade, like the Redskins, who hold the 15th pick. It wouldn't take that much to move from 15 to, say, 11. It's possible the Dolphins will see Drew Lock or Dwayne Haskins fall to them. Yet, if Kyler Murray goes to the Cards at No. 1, Miami might have to trade into the top five to have the choice between Lock and Haskins. That's because the Giants pick sixth. Confused yet?
New England Patriots: Trade up to select one of the draft's premier tight ends?
The timing of Rob Gronkowski's retirement decision -- announced on March 24 -- was not optimal for New England, given that the first couple waves of free agency were already in the books. Although Gronk is certainly entitled to defy organizational planning after a Hall of Fame career. With the Pats left in a lurch in terms of trying to add a TE1 via free agency, the only way to acquire a player even close to Gronk's level requires high draft capital. T.J. Hockenson is probably the closest thing to Gronkowski in this year's draft, but the former Iowa standout might go in the top 10. Noah Fant, also from Iowa, could (not should) last until the Pats make their pick at the end of the first round. If Fant doesn't remain on the board, New England holds enough picks (12 total; tied for the league high) to trade up. Unless they like Alabama's Irv Smith Jr., who could also be sitting there when the Patriots pick at 32. All this banter and draft fodder comes down to how badly Bill Belichick feels his team needs a star-caliber player at the position, and how much he and director of player personnel Nick Caserio want to wheel and deal to land one. The answer: Probably not much.
New York Jets: Stay put at No. 3 or trade down?
Like many teams that posted losing records in 2018, the Jets have plenty of holes to fill. The further the speculation and mock drafting presses on, the more it seems that some combination of Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams and Josh Allen will go 2-3-4. New York could use any of those fellas. However, what if the Jets trade down, so a team like the Dolphins could move ahead of the Giants (who hold Pick No. 6) and obtain the quarterback they desire? That would provide Adam Gase more toys to play with and give the Fins a chance to obtain the franchise quarterback Gase never benefited from while in Miami. So, with the draft capital Gang Green owns right now, what should they do? With no second-round pick, but two third-rounders (Nos. 68 and 93), the Jets could still take a swing at an edge rusher later if they went with Williams, a defensive tackle, in the opening round. Now that Le'Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder are in house, and tight end Chris Herndon (a rookie last year) came on late in the season, they could also look to further support the offensive line. But if they were to add more picks by maneuvering out of that third spot, they could fill DT, edge rusher, O-line and strengthen the secondary, too.
Oakland Raiders: How will Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden go about fixing a front seven desperate for help?
If the Raiders don't plunder from the deep defensive line talent in this draft, their entire fan base might dye their mustaches blonde. Not that you would ever see them underneath the silver face paint and Darth Vader masks that allow a single air bubble at a time. No amount of oxygen pumped into the offense is going to obscure the glaring holes in the front seven, though. Oakland couldn't get anywhere near the other team's quarterback last year, and Raider fans aren't forgetting about Khalil Mack no matter how many draft picks the team received in return. Unless, of course, Gruden and Mayock find a new guy who can collapse the pocket. Or push the pocket. Or identify the pocket. Anything. The Raiders found their way to almost a sack per game last year. A whole sack. Oakland owns three picks in the first round -- Nos. 4, 24 and 27 -- to accomplish this task of creating pressure on defense. On that note, I love my colleague Lance Zierlein's latest mock, where he jots down DT Quinnen Williams and edge rusher Clelin Ferrell as the Raiders' first two selections, then has them drafting an offensive lineman with their last first-round pick. Although I am with Chad Reuter, another colleague, in thinking Iowa TE Noah Fant would make for a wonderful addition at No. 27. That is, if Fant lasts that long. If Gruden and Mayock want a replacement for TE Jared Cook, they own the draft capital to buy him. Just procure a few sacks on the way.
So much has been made about the departures of Brown and Le'Veon Bell that some fans envision the Steelers as a 6-10 train wreck. Considering that Bell didn't even play last year, such negative speculation seems a bit fringe. Pittsburgh still has a potential WR1 in JuJu Smith-Schuster and an up-and-comer at the position in James Washington. However, even with the re-signing of Eli Rogers and addition of Donte Moncrief, don't be surprised if Pittsburgh drafts another wideout, especially if a receiver is the best player available when they pick at No. 20. The guess here is that the Steelers will go for a corner in the first round, although they might not if the top corners are surprisingly no longer available at that point. Adding another edge rusher makes sense, too, although they could, in theory, wait to address that need. The organization found Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, so they don't need to spend a first-round pick in an effort to replace him. That doesn't mean they are complete at the position, either. The question remains: What will the Steelers do if the top wide receiver on their board is sitting there when they're on the clock?
Tennessee Titans: Who's the player that gets this organization over the hump?
The Titans are not far off from returning to the playoffs. They almost made the January dance last season, and after a productive free agency period that saw them add offensive line help, a steady slot receiver and pass rusher, their pressing needs aren't many. So which direction will Tennessee go in when the draft gets here? Can they spackle without betraying the big board that the scouting department so carefully put together? I think so. The Titans should be searching for a tight end, interior offensive lineman and another edge rusher. Defensive tackle and defensive back are in the mix, as well. While that sure sounds like a lot of wants, none of these areas should be deemed as dire straits for Tennessee. The most glaring need is probably the offensive line, although the Titans are picking 19th, which might seem a bit rich for someone like center Garrett Bradbury, who still could be a nice investment with Ben Jones in the final year of his contract. Well worth noting is that 49ers legend Bill Walsh used to say it wasn't reaching or drafting too high if the player you take helps your football team. Correct. But the guess here is that the Titans could take one of the supremely talented pass rushers instead. Drafting a tight end at No. 19 would be appropriate, given Delanie Walker's age (34) -- and even with Jonnu Smith in tow, the opportunity for this run-heavy offense to use two-TE and three-TE sets could be appealing. Is that position a first-round priority for GM Jon Robinson? Not in the view of Titans Online's Jim Wyatt, who follows this organization closely (and whom your friendly writer follows, too). If Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson were to fall, Robinson could discover his Gronk, get value and fix what could be a weakness in the near future.