Team builders frequently discuss how the draft and free-agent markets are gauged at the beginning of the year to help an organization plot its course. Evaluators determine where the high- and low-water marks are in each market and plan accordingly to give themselves the best chance to fortify the weak areas of their respective rosters during the offseason. Although the "Free Agent Frenzy" just kicked off Thursday afternoon, we can already see how some teams' draft plans are shaping up, based on their approach to free agency.
Here are a few observations that I gleaned from the flurry of activity:
Are the 49ers primed to take a quarterback at No. 2?
After signing Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley -- presumably QB1 and QB2 on the depth chart -- the 49ers are probably looking elsewhere with the No. 2 overall pick. The four quarterbacks mentioned as first-round candidates (Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and Patrick Mahomes) aren't widely viewed as top-five overall talents in an extremely strong defensive draft class. Thus, if San Francisco keeps the pick, the franchise is more likely to set its sights on finding a blue-chip prospect with immediate impact potential. Based on the depth and talent of the 2017 class, the 49ers would be wise to focus their efforts on finding a defender with the potential to disrupt the play of the quarterback. Whether it's an impact pass rusher like Solomon Thomas or a dynamic safety with game-changing skills (see: Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker), the 49ers could add another piece to a young defense to compete in the NFC West.
As far as the quarterback situation goes, San Francisco can patiently wait out the chaos in Washington to swipe Kirk Cousins via trade in 2017 or as their marquee free-agent pickup in 2018. If the veteran elects to sign a long-term deal with the Redskins to remain their QB1, the 49ers could select one of the aforementioned "Big Four" at the top of the second round (No. 34 overall) or target a "value" prospect like Davis Webb or Nathan Peterman down the line. The team also could sit out the quarterback derby completely and focus its efforts on identifying the crown jewel of a promising 2018 quarterback class.
Could the Jaguars be poised to go offense at No. 4? Leonard Fournette?
When Jacksonville committed big bucks to DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouyeand S Barry Church, the team not only addressed its biggest defensive needs, but the Jags put themselves in position to grab a franchise running back at the top of the board to potentially spark a rise in 2017. With that veteran trio joining a unit that finished sixth in total defense, Jacksonville boasts a championship-caliber D -- at least on paper. That said, the offense -- particularly Blake Bortles -- needs to improve dramatically to make a serious run at a playoff spot. To foster their QB1's development, the Jaguars could add a franchise running back to alleviate some of the burden on Bortles to carry the team. After all, a strong running game is a young quarterback's best friend.
Leonard Fournette is viewed as the premier workhorse back in the 2017 draft class. The LSU standout is a rugged runner with an old-school game that mixes strength, power, explosiveness and violence. He excels at grinding out the tough yards between the tackles, yet also offers some home-run potential as a runner on the edges.
If Fournette is aligned in the "dot" position behind Bortles, defenses will be forced to commit extra defenders to the box, leaving one-on-one coverage against Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns on the outside. Considering how easy it is for quarterbacks to complete throws against soft coverage on the perimeter, the addition of a dynamic back could help the Jaguars rise from the cellar to playoff contention.
Will the Buccaneers be in the mix for one of the top RBs at No. 19?
The Buccaneers clearly are fortifying the offense around Jameis Winston to help the third-year pro take his game up a notch in 2017. The team added speedster DeSean Jackson to give the offense a legitimate deep threat on the outside. The diminutive playmaker has a whopping 57 career receptions of 40-plus yards and his presence will create opportunities for Winston on the long ball. Not to mention, Jackson's big-play potential will lift some of the coverage on Mike Evans, which will allow him to work freely between the numbers.
With a passing game that looks like one of the scariest in football, the Buccaneers could target a versatile running back with juice to complete the offense. Sure, the team could wait on Doug Martin to return from suspension, but that route could be rife with uncertainty. On the other hand, the team could add a multi-faceted runner in the first round to add some spice to the lineup. Dalvin Cook would be an ideal fit as an inside/outside runner with speed, quickness and pitter-pat. He is a slippery runner between the tackles but also capable of taking it around the edge on sweeps and stretch plays from the shotgun or I-formation. In addition, Winston's former teammate at Florida State is a natural playmaker in the passing game, particularly on screens or swings from the backfield.
If Cook isn't available at No. 19, the Bucs could turn their attention to Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara to fill the void in the backfield. As multi-faceted playmakers with triple-threat potential (runner, receiver and returner), they could enhance the Buccaneers' offense with their unique games. As slot receivers, in particular, they could exploit mismatches on the perimeter and become primary targets for Winston on critical downs.
Might the Giants use the 23rd pick on a game-changing tight end?
The Giants haven't expended a first-round pick on a tight end since they selected Jeremy Shockey with the 14th overall pick in the 2002 draft. Considering how well it turned out for Shockey and the team (Shockey notched four Pro Bowl berths in his first five seasons), it might be time for the Giants to invest another high pick in the position to complement a WR corps that's considered one of the best in football, with Brandon Marshall now joining Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard.
Surveying the tight end class, the Giants should have plenty of options available. O.J. Howard and David Njoku are the headliners, as big-bodied pass catchers with rare size-speed dimensions and polished route-running skills. Howard, in particular, is a bit of a Shockey clone -- a dynamic athlete with natural receiving skills and feisty blocking ability. Not to be outdone, Njoku overwhelms defenders with his size and athleticism. He is terrific after the catch and his size makes him a dangerous red-zone weapon. Keep an eye on Evan Engram as a dark-horse candidate at the bottom of the first round. He is a clean route runner with blazing speed (4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine), strong hands and outstanding ball skills.
Could Jay Cutler prevent the Jets from drafting another quarterback?
The Jets seemingly drafted their quarterback of the future when they selected Christian Hackenberg with the No. 51 overall pick in last year's draft. While we don't really know if he can play or not -- considering he didn't take the field at all in 2016 -- it doesn't look like the Jets are ready to hand him the keys to the car at this time, based on various reports of dismal practice performances throughout the season. If Hackenberg has practiced as poorly as many reports indicate, might New York be willing to consider other options at the position via draft or free agency?
Looking at the available quarterbacks on both markets, it's quite obvious that Cutler would be the best option for the team at this time. Despite his flaws as a field general, it is hard to deny his impressive natural talents as a pocket passer. Cutler not only has one of the best pure strokes in football, but he has played at a Pro Bowl level at times during his career, exhibiting big-play ability as a fearless gunslinger from the pocket. Although he sports a 68-71 record as a starter -- including a 51-51 mark with the Chicago Bears -- the veteran is a much better 2017 option than any of the other guys available on either market. And NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport said Friday on "Good Morning Football" that there is mutual interest between Cutler and the Jets.
Think of it this way: Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan's futures might be tied to the performance of their quarterback in 2017. If the QB1 shows promise and helps the team win some games, the duo could have a better chance to stick around to complete the rebuilding process. If that is the case, then I'm certainly going to cast my lot with a veteran quarterback who at least has the talent and experience to play well enough to win. With a supporting cast that's in shambles, I need a "bridge" quarterback with enough talent to elevate those around him in the short term. While Cutler is far from perfect, he is naturally gifted -- and that might be enough to convince the Jets to ride with a veteran instead of a rookie/youngster this fall.
By the way, I still believe the Jets could roll with Cutler and select one of the "Big Four" quarterbacks early in the draft. Watson, Trubisky, Kizer and Mahomes are terrific talents with the potential to develop into quality starters -- but they will need some time and seasoning before reaching that potential. If Cutler can hold down the fort for a year or two, the Jets could transition the young quarterback into the starting role down the road.
Yep, it appears Myles Garrett will indeed go No. 1 to the Browns.
"Book 'em, Danno!"
Pardon my "Hawaii Five-0" reference, but Garrett to the Browns is a done deal. The Texas A&M star sealed his fate with a scintillating performance at the combine that confirmed his status as the no-doubt top prospect in the class. Garrett checks off all the boxes as a spectacular athlete (size, speed, agility, strength, power and explosiveness) and grades out well as a player (motor, disruption and impact). While there are certainly some concerns about his sack production and dominance relative to his athletic potential, it is impossible to bypass a freakish athlete with high character and disruptive potential at the top of the charts.
At the outset of free agency, Cleveland significantly strengthened the offensive line by adding Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter, while also extending Joel Bitonio. That's how you rebuild through the trenches -- something the Browns can continue to do by making the no-brainer selection at No. 1 overall.
On the quarterback front, Cleveland appears to have a plan in place to address the biggest hole on its roster following the trade for Brock Osweiler. While the free-agent disappointment doesn't appear to be in the team's plans, the move netted Cleveland another second-round pick in 2018. Now, with eight first/second-round picks over the next two drafts, The Browns have enough ammunition to either go after Jimmy Garoppolo (something Rapoport reports that they'd like to do) or draft a high-profile quarterback in 2017 or 2018 (the latter of which is expected to be a banner draft year for signal callers).