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 Broncos' veteran-laden roster fueled the team's Super Bowl 50 triumph, but general manager John Elway will need his rookie class to bounce back in Year 2 to sustain the momentum. While injuries prevented the Broncos' top picks from making key contributions, the team should remain optimistic about the class, based on the flashes shown by Shane Ray and Ty Sambrailo in limited action. Ray, in particular, looks like a natural pass rusher off the edge. He blows past defenders with an explosive first step, but he has added some moves to his arsenal after serving as an apprentice to DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Although Ray missed time with a sprained knee, he looks like the Broncos' next great pass rusher. Sambrailo was expected to make an immediate impact as a starter until a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Jeff Heuerman missed the entire season after suffering a torn ACL in rookie minicamp. With the Broncs getting minimal contributions from the rest of the rookie class, it's a testament to their veterans that the team claimed the title. Grade: C+
Combine focus: Despite snagging a third Lombardi Trophy, the Broncos have plenty of work to do to repeat as champs. The offensive line needs some attention, with Ryan Clady coming off another major injury and the unit becoming more athletic to better fit Gary Kubiak's zone-based scheme. Thus, the Broncos, who hold the No. 31 pick in Round 1, will take extended looks at Michigan State's Jack Conklin, Ohio State's Taylor Decker and Indiana's Jason Spriggs to see if they're capable of stepping in as blind-side protectors. Kansas State's Cody Whitehair and Stanford's Joshua Garnett could be in the crosshairs as potential guard candidates.
Credit GM John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid for building a deep and talented roster capable of earning a playoff berth despite losing one of the NFL's most explosive players (Jamaal Charles) early in the season. With the bulk of the credit for the team's success going to the defense, Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters deserves kudos for his spectacular play as the Chiefs' CB1. The rookie ballhawk swiped a league-high eight interceptions and defended 26 passes as a suffocating playmaker on the perimeter. Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander not only upgraded the team's depth at linebacker, but they played a major role on the Chiefs' special teams units. Offensively, Mitch Morse looks like a keeper as a heady player with exceptional instincts and awareness. He anchored the offensive line with his steady play on the interior. Chris Conley flashed potential as a WR4. He is an electric athlete with the tools to grow into a solid starter down the road. James O'Shaughnessy is still learning the ropes as a young tight end, but appears to be a nice complement to Travis Kelce. Grade: A
Combine focus: The Chiefs' extraordinary defense could lose several notable free agents, which will force Dorsey and Reid to spend extra time researching the linebackers and defensive backs in Indianapolis. Kansas City picks 28th in the first round. The immediate excellence of Peters could encourage the Chiefs to dip back into the cornerback market to see if Clemson's Mackensie Alexander, Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller or Ohio State's Eli Apple have the skills to make a similar impact. At safety, Ohio State's Vonn Bell, West Virginia's Karl Joseph and Boise State's Darian Thompson could get extended looks. Despite having a set of young pass rushers in the stable, the Chiefs could investigate the market to see if an underrated specialist like Utah State's Kyler Fackrell or Appalachian State's Ronald Blair is capable of carving out a role in the NFL.
GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio have the Raiders headed in the right direction behind a solid young nucleus that's brimming with talent and potential. Amari Cooper is a dynamic WR1, having made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He quickly developed a rapport with Derek Carr to give the Raiders one of the top passing connections in the NFL. Clive Walford shows promise as a big-bodied tight end with speed and quickness. He balances out the Raiders' passing game by providing a strong presence between the hashes. Defensively, Mario Edwards Jr. didn't receive national attention for his stellar play, but his ability to wreck shop on the interior helped Khalil Mack create chaos on the edges. Ben Heeney quietly cracked the lineup and displayed intriguing potential as a playmaker on the second level. Grade: A-
Combine focus: The Raiders, who own the 14th overall pick, have a solid foundation in place on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense needs tweaking for the team to become a serious playoff contender. Del Rio needs to find a few ballhawks and headhunters in the secondary to help the defense create turnovers. Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves and Houston's William Jackson could garner interest at cornerback. Meanwhile, the team should investigate Duke's Jeremy Cash, Southern Utah's Miles Killebrew and West Virginia's Karl Joseph to determine if the hard-hitting safeties possess the athleticism to cover the deep middle. The Raiders also will peek at the D-line prospects to see if a guy like Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche could enhance a front line that shows promise.
The Chargers' disappointing season partially stems from the lack of production from their rookie class. Melvin Gordon failed to play up to the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival as a top pick. He didn't post a single 100-yard game as a rookie and looked tentative running between the tackles early in the season. With Gordon failing to add sizzle as a dynamic RB1, the Chargers' offense was forced to lean on a pass-happy approach throughout the season. On defense, though, Denzel Perryman did make an immediate impact as a tackling machine between the hashes. He led the team in solo stops and emerged as a disruptive playmaker in the middle of the Chargers' defense. Kyle Emmanuel was a bit of a surprise as a situational pass rusher off the edge. The first-year player registered one sack, grabbed an interception and flashed intriguing skills as a disruptor from the corner. Craig Mager finally cracked the rotation at the end of the season after battling through a hamstring injury (six missed games). The rookie needed some time to acclimate to the pro game, but his versatility stood out when he was given more opportunities. Undrafted free-agent Josh Lambo provided a pretty solid season as the Bolts' kicker, making 26 of his 32 field-goal attempts (with all six misses coming from 40-plus yards out). Grade: C+
Combine focus: The Chargers need to add juice to the offense in what is a "make or break" year for head coach Mike McCoy. The lack of speed on the perimeter could encourage the team to take an extended look at Baylor's Corey Coleman, Notre Dame's Will Fuller and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. The leaky protection around Philip Rivers could prompt the Chargers, who pick third overall, to search for a franchise tackle like Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil or Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley. On defense, the Chargers will study the defensive-line prospects to see if Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Oregon's DeForest Buckner or Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche can give the unit some juice with playmaking ability.