Your average free agent might be much older and more experienced than your average draft pick -- but they often have a direct impact on each other via the personnel shuffling that tends to mark the NFL offseason.
Now that some of the pressing free-agency questions have been answered (emphatically, in some cases), teams can move forward with their draft plans knowing exactly which departed players they'll have to replace with young blood. Below -- listed in alphabetical order -- are five teams whose draft plans have been seriously impacted by what's transpired during the free agency period:
The glaring hole to fill is at running back. After weeks of uncertainty, DeMarco Murray is gone, and the positional depth chart -- especially with Joseph Randlebeing investigated for a recent off-the-field incident -- is suddenly looking very shaky. Even with the addition of veteran backDarren McFadden, I'm expecting Dallas to cast a careful eye toward the crop of running back prospects that will be available on draft day.
Of course, that's not the Cowboys' only problem. They were also wiped out at linebacker, with Bruce Carter and Justin Durant heading out the door -- though, the team could use plenty of defensive help, period. In addition, Dallas lost receiver Dwayne Harris to the Giants. Harris is probably as good a special teamer as there is in the league, one of those relatively rare assets who can play fourth receiver, return kicks and punts, and also be a special teams maven.
Over the past couple of drafts, Dallas has demonstrated an interest in taking the best player available, and it's paid off handsomely. This year, I think that strategy will land the Cowboys a defensive asset, which will likely give a boost to a unit that, though it was not nearly as bad as advertised last season, could still stand to get better.
The Lions will nominally be attempting to replace Ndamukong Suh, but frankly, that's an impossible task. A guy like Suh is really a once-in-a-generation type talent. Veteran trade acquisition Haloti Ngata will help fill Suh's shoes in the short term, but Ngata is 31 and entering his 10th season. So it would behoove Detroit to scan the prospect ranks for defensive line talent, especially with Nick Fairley also likely bound for a new home. (UPDATE:Fairley signed with the St. Louis Rams on Friday.)
Again, you're probably not going to find someone who can give you eight sacks from the defensive tackle position, but you do want someone who can be adequate, and maybe produce something like four sacks a season. The Lions could look at someone like Danny Shelton, Eddie Goldman or Malcom Brown. Jordan Phillips is another guy, an unbelievable athlete, that could work.
New England Patriots
The reigning Super Bowl champs have some key pieces to replace when it comes time to infuse their roster with fresh rookie talent. The Patriots will want to find a running back who can function like Shane Vereen (now of the New York Giants) and catch balls out of the backfield, even if they do sign a veteran like Reggie Bush to help fill that role in the immediate future. (UPDATE:Bush is no longer an option for New England, as he agreed to terms with the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday.) And then there were the big departures at cornerback, with Darrelle Revis heading back to the New York Jets and Brandon Browner bolting for the New Orleans Saints. Revis especially played a huge role in New England's playoff run.
Of course, teams sometimes have a player or two stashed deep on their roster who is primed to step up into a bigger role, someone they know about but who remains hidden to most outside observers. Consider unlikely Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, who emerged seemingly out of nowhere to grab that game-clinching pick (and who could help fill in for Revis and Browner). But barring the presence of another Butler-type unknown, the Patriots will want to look at cornerbacks, running backs and potentially big defensive linemen (to help replace veteran Vince Wilfork) in the draft.
Chip Kelly's organization has been one of the toughest to pin down this offseason, especially after the whirlwind courtship of free agent running backs that ended with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathewsboth signing on in the wake of LeSean McCoy being shipped out to Buffalo. It looks to me like what Kelly really wants to do is make his defense better, as evidenced by some of the other moves Philly made, like adding Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond, and retaining Brandon Graham.
Of course, the Eagles could still use someone to replace receiver Jeremy Maclin, who departed for the Chiefs, and that's where I think the draft comes in. Philly would do well to pick up another speedy, lights-out pass catcher to add to a receiver group that already includes promising youngsters Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.
What I don't think the Eagles will do is try to figure out a way to draft quarterback Marcus Mariota. Sure, Mariota would be able to contribute more quickly in Philly than he likely would elsewhere, given how familiar the Oregon product should be with Kelly's system, but I don't think Philly will want to surrender the kind of draft capital it'll take to move up and get him. If someone like Brett Hundley or Bryce Petty, on the other hand, were to be available in the right spot, it might make sense for the Eagles to grab a young signal-caller.
San Francisco 49ers
A tumultuous offseason has left the Niners with plenty of questions. First, they're going to miss veteran linebacker Patrick Willis, who surprised everyone by announcing his retirement this week. And if defensive end Justin Smith follows him out the door, they'll miss him, too. San Francisco also lost two key pieces on offense in running back Frank Gore and guard Mike Iupati.
The Niners did take care of two needs by picking up defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and receiver Torrey Smith. (UPDATE: They also added Reggie Bush on Saturday.) And there are people on the roster who can step up next season, starting with rising young linebacker Chris Borland, who played very well as a rookie last season. Then there's guard Brandon Thomas, a third-round pick last year. He didn't play at all in 2014, but he looked like a pretty good prospect at Clemson, where he was able to hold his own against none other than Jadeveon Clowney. If Thomas can step up, that changes your situation a little bit.
That said, it's imperative San Francisco aces this draft. Even with Thomas in the fold, I'd look hard at offensive linemen first and running backs second, and then maybe try to buttress that defensive line.