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.
The Texans' defense blossomed into a dominant unit around midseason, thanks, in part, to the solid play of two rookies (Kevin Johnson and Benardrick McKinney) thrust into the lineup in key roles. Johnson shined as the team's nickel corner, exhibiting outstanding technique and ball skills on the perimeter. He notched nine passes defensed and snagged a pick while spending time on the outside and in the slot. McKinney shows promise as a tackling machine between the tackles. The downhill thumper finished the season with 63 total stops (third-most on the team) and an interception as the traffic cop in the middle of the defense. Christian Covington cracked the rotation to add size and strength to the front line as a reserve. Offensively, Jaelen Strong didn't make an immediate impact as a WR3, but he flashed potential as a red-zone threat (three touchdowns). If he can continue to progress as a route runner, he should develop into a strong complement to DeAndre Hopkins on the perimeter. Grade: B
Combine focus: The Texans, who hold the 22nd selection in Round 1, are a quarterback away from owning the AFC South. Thus, Bill O'Brien and his staff will spend much of their time at the combine studying a quarterback class that's full of intriguing -- though certainly not perfect -- prospects. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg surely will garner significant attention, based on his previous relationship with O'Brien (the coach at Penn State during Hackenberg's promising freshman season). The wily coach will attempt to uncover what hindered the QB's development over the past two seasons. Michigan State's Connor Cook, Ohio State's Cardale Jones and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott also will merit looks as intriguing candidates at the position. The Texans will scour the running back market to see if they can find a franchise guy to build around, given Arian Foster's advancing age and health issues. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Arkansas' Alex Collins and Alabama's Derrick Henry will get plenty of attention from Texans officials based on their collegiate success as workhorse runners.
The Colts were one of the NFL's biggest disappointments in 2015, failing to make the playoffs despite fielding a roster that initially appeared ready to contend for the AFC title. Andrew Luck's scattershot play and injury woes certainly contributed to the team's underachievement, but the lack of production from the rookie class also played a part in the Colts' regression. Phillip Dorsett failed to make an impact as a big-play specialist on the perimeter. He finished with just 18 receptions and didn't post the explosive plays (only four catches of 20-plus yards) many expected from a speedster with home-run ability. Josh Robinson didn't add sizzle to the Colts' running game. He averaged a measly 2.3 yards per carry and didn't flash at all during limited opportunities. Defensively, Henry Anderson played well at the point of attack (31 tackles and one sack), but he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 9. Clayton Geathers impressed coaches with his play as a fill-in for Mike Adams in Weeks 11 and 12. He displayed solid instincts and stood out as a big hitter in the box. David Parry quietly anchored the middle of the Colts' defensive line as a rookie starter at nose tackle. Grade: C+
Combine focus: The Colts, who pick 18th in the first round, must address the offensive line to keep the franchise quarterback upright and healthy for the 2016 campaign. The team appears solid at left tackle with Anthony Castonzo in place, but Indy must find a rock-solid pass protector on the right. Thus, the team will take a long, hard look at Michigan State's Jack Conklin, Ohio State's Taylor Decker and Indiana's Jason Spriggs to see if they have the potential to solidify the spot. The Colts also will take a look at the running back class to see if they can find a versatile workhorse to alleviate some of the pressure on Luck to carry the offense. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott could entice officials with a strong performance in Indianapolis, but expect the team to take an extended look at Utah's Devontae Booker and Alabama's Kenyan Drake as possible sleeper prospects. Defensively, the need for a dynamic pass rusher will force Chuck Pagano to keep an eye on Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Georgia's Leonard Floyd and Boise State's Kamalei Correa as potential fits.
Despite losing Dante Fowler in rookie minicamp, the Jaguars showed promise in 2015 due to the impressive play of their youngsters. Although the stellar 2014 class (Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns) is largely responsible for Jacksonville's uptick, the team should be encouraged by the performance of the 2015 rookies. T.J. Yeldon is a potential star as a versatile workhorse with exceptional skills as a runner and receiver. He quietly amassed over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage (740 rushing, 279 receiving) despite logging just 12 starts. If he remains healthy in 2016, Yeldon should be a household name by season's end. Rashad Greene looks like a keeper as a receiver/returner. Although the Jaguars' deep WR corps limited his opportunities as a pass catcher, Greene flashed explosive talent as a catch-and-run specialist on the perimeter -- and he added 18 punt returns for 301 yards and a score. On defense, the Jaguars have an intriguing set of guys to develop with James Sample, Michael Bennett and undrafted free-agent signee Nick Marshall earning minutes as backups throughout the season. Marshall, in particular, shows potential as a cover corner and kick returner (26.6 yard average). With more reps on the island, Marshall -- who was a star quarterback at Auburn -- should be able to carve out a role as a nickel corner down the road. Grade: B
Combine focus: The Jaguars, who'll pick fifth on draft day, desperately need a dynamic playmaker on the perimeter to solidify a secondary that must create more turnovers. Thus, Gus Bradley will encourage his coaches to closely monitor Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, Ohio State's Vonn Bell and Boise State's Darian Thompson to see if they can make immediate contributions as ball swipers in the back end. Despite Fowler's impending return as a pass-rush specialist, the Jaguars could consider adding another quarterback hunter like Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Oregon's DeForest Buckner, Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence and Georgia's Leonard Floyd. With athleticism coveted at a premium, their workouts will attract interest from Jacksonville officials.
The Titans have completely revamped their front office, but the previous regime left behind a star quarterback with immense talent and potential. Marcus Mariota showed impressive poise and confidence as a dual-threat playmaker with a unique combination of skills as a passer and runner. He posted a 91.5 passer rating and a 19:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio directing a hybrid offense that effectively blended the spread attack with traditional concepts. Dorial Green-Beckham shows promise as a potential WR1 on the perimeter. The big-bodied pass catcher posted a pair of 100-yard games and flashed dominant skills as a jump-ball specialist. After those first two picks, though, this draft class leaves something to be desired. David Cobb and Jalston Fowler made minor contributions as first-year players, but both need to take another step in Year 2 to alleviate some of the pressure on Mariota in the backfield. Jeremiah Poutasi appeared overwhelmed as a rookie starter on the offensive line. He struggled badly against speedy rushers and eventually was replaced due to his poor performance. Grade: B-
Combine focus: The Titans must solidify their offensive line to make sure Mariota is properly protected in the pocket. Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil, Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley and Indiana's Jason Spriggs should garner consideration as edge protectors with the potential to step in as Day 1 starters at right or left tackle. The lack of a consistent pass rush could prompt the Titans to closely examine Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Oregon's DeForest Buckner, while the suspect coverage in the secondary will force scouts to study Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves and Ohio State's Vonn Bell.