The 2015 NFL season is in the books -- and now it's time to turn toward the 2016 NFL Draft. Before the NFL Scouting Combine shines the spotlight on the next crop of incoming talent, Bucky Brooks is taking a division-by-division look back at each NFL team's 2015 rookie class, providing grades and highlighting what teams should be focusing on when they head to Indianapolis.
Despite a disappointing debut season under Rex Ryan, the Bills are heading in the right direction due to the rapid development of their young players on both sides of the ball. Ronald Darby was a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate after impressing observers with his sticky cover skills and nasty disposition on the perimeter. The scrappy corner registered 21 passes defensed as a first-year starter, including a pair of interceptions, while displaying an uncanny feel for route recognition. Most impressive: Darby was a punishing tackler capable of stopping ball carriers in their tracks. Tony Steward didn't crack the starting lineup, but carved out a role as a special teams contributor down the stretch. Offensively, Karlos Williams and John Miller exceeded expectations with their strong play. Williams, in particular, flashed outstanding promise as a change-of-pace back. He rushed for over 500 yards and scored nine total touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving) as LeSean McCoy's primary backup. Miller started 12 games for a Bills offensive line that grew into a solid unit over the course of the season. Grade: A
Combine focus: The Bills, who hold the No. 19 pick, are likely in the market for a defensive end, as Buffalo reportedly plans to release temperamental pass rusher Mario Williams in a salary-cap maneuver. The team could take a long look at Clemson's Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, based on Ryan's affinity for Tigers (his son is on the team). In addition, the team will evaluate Oregon's DeForest Buckner, Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah and Brigham Young's Bronson Kaufusi to determine if they are ideal fits for a hybrid 3-4 scheme. The Bills also could look at the offensive tackle class, to assess the potential of Michigan State's Jack Conklin, Ohio State's Taylor Decker and Indiana's Jason Spriggs as blind-side protectors.
The Dolphins were expected to contend for the division crown behind a talented rookie class that was supposed to add some sizzle to the lineup. However, Joe Philbin didn't appear to have a solid plan for assimilating the first-year group into the lineup -- and their negligible contributions played a role in his dismissal. DeVante Parker finished the season with 26 receptions and three touchdowns, but didn't make the impact that most anticipated from the team's top pick. Although he closed the season strong (22 of his 26 reception came in Miami's last six games), Parker should've played a much bigger role for the Dolphins as a rookie. Jay Ajayi, who missed time with a chest injury, showed flashes of talent and potential in minimal action. He could take on a bigger role under a new regime as a big back with a physical running style (especially if Lamar Miller leaves in free agency). Jordan Phillips is an impressive talent with a wide array of skills, but he needs more seasoning to become a steady contributor in the NFL. Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain are untapped commodities as perky cornerbacks with intriguing instincts and athleticism. Lastly, the Dolphins received solid contributions in the kicking game from undrafted free agents Matt Darr (punter) and Andrew Franks (placekicker). It's uncommon for a pair of rookies to man significant roles on special teams, but Miami's young duo played well in Year 1. Grade: C
Combine focus: The Dolphins, who pick eighth overall, desperately need an alpha dog in the linebacking corps to take the defense to the next level. UCLA's Myles Jack and Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith should be in the team's crosshairs as ultra-talented playmakers with superb instincts and awareness. (Though the Dolphins' medical team needs to get a better feel for their respective recoveries from serious injuries in this past college season.) The team also could use a legitimate CB1 to anchor one side of the field. Thus, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander could garner serious attention from the Miami brass in Indy.
New England is a team that typically relies on veterans to spark success, but Bill Belichick isn't opposed to giving his young players chances throughout the season. Malcom Brown emerged as a solid fixture in the middle of the defense. He is a power player adept at playing on the other side of the line as a run stopper and opportunistic pass rusher. Jordan Richards and Geneo Grissom earned time as "spot" players in Year 1 -- their continued develop will be critical for the defense. Joe Cardona made a solid contribution as the team's long snapper. Injuries limited Trey Flowers' contributions, but the long, rangy defensive end certainly has potential to make an impact as a situational edge defender. Fourth-rounder Tre' Jackson and undrafted free-agent signee David Andrews played key roles on a patchwork offensive line that constantly reshuffled personnel. Grade: C+
Combine focus: New England lost its first-round pick in the fallout from Deflategate, so that's a key thing to keep in mind during pre-draft evaluations. It is hard to pinpoint the Patriots' offseason focus based on their annual reshuffling of personnel. But the team needs to acquire another dynamic receiver at some point to alleviate the pressure on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to anchor the passing game. Notre Dame's Will Fuller, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper should get a look. The team also should investigate the running back market to see if there is a young RB1 available to handle duties as an early-down grinder in the offense. Arkansas' Alex Collins and Utah's Devontae Booker possess the diverse skills to take on the job. How well they interview at the combine could determine a potential fit in New England. Defensively, the Patriots could take a flyer on another cornerback to pair opposite Malcolm Butler. LSU's Jalen Mills, Houston's William Jackson III and Oklahoma's Zack Sanchez could garner interest from Belichick.
Credit Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan for fortifying Gang Green's biggest strength (defense) with their draft moves. The Jets' brain trust added a franchise defender in Leonard Williams and a solid complementary playmaker in Lorenzo Mauldin. Williams is a star in the making as a destructive interior defender with explosive first-step quickness and superb body control in tight quarters. He registered 63 total stops and three sacks as a hybrid playmaker along the Jets' front line. Maudlin didn't start a game, but made key contributions as a situational pass rusher. He finished the season with four sacks and showed promise as an attack player off the edge. Injuries prevented Devin Smith from making an immediate impact as a deep-ball specialist. He needs to make a major leap in Year 2 to bolster an aerial attack that leaned heavily on Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Grade: B
Combine focus: The declining play of D'Brickashaw Ferguson should prompt the Jets, who possess the No. 20 pick, to investigate the offensive tackle class to see if they can uncover a franchise tackle. Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil, Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley, Michigan State's Jack Conklin and Ohio State's Taylor Decker could be under the microscope. On defense, the Jets need a dynamic edge rusher capable of collapsing the pocket off the corner. Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Boise State's Kamalei Correa and Utah State's Kyler Fackrell are intriguing candidates with athleticism and natural rush skills. The team also could investigate the cornerback class, with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie starting to show signs of slippage in coverage.