5 teams that could make huge strides in 2017 with a good draft class

Movie quote of the day:

“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”

– The Joker, “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now officially draft week! I’m happy to say that I will be in attendance in Philadelphia for the first round Thursday – something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m going with some of my friends from college that I haven’t seen in over a year. I couldn’t be more excited to leave tomorrow. Anyway, with the draft now in sight, here are five teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season that I think could make huge strides this season with a good draft class:

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks to free safety Terrence Brooks during the first quarter of their game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens
2016 record: 8-8
Number of draft picks: 7 (No. 16, No. 47, No. 74, No. 78, No. 122, No. 159, and No. 186)

Baltimore has always been at its best as an organization when the Ravens have had a dominating defense. However, ever since Ray Lewis retired four years ago, that defense hasn’t been nearly as dominant and Baltimore has missed the postseason three of the last four years because of it. The good news for the Ravens is that this is a very deep and defensive-heavy draft class. The Ravens should be able to find plenty of quality defensive players this weekend. Another big need for Baltimore is wide receiver now that Steve Smith Sr. is retired and Breshad Perriman hasn’t panned out since the Ravens took him in the first round two years ago. If they can address edge rusher, cornerback, and wide receiver early in the draft, I could easily see Baltimore getting back to the postseason – and potentially back to being one of the top dogs in the AFC.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess (17) and quarterback Cam Newton (1) and quarterback Derek Anderson (3) before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers:
2016 record: 6-10
Number of draft picks: 8 (No. 8, No. 40, No. 64, No. 98, No. 115, No. 152, No. 192, and No. 233)

People seem to forget that this time last year the Panthers were coming off a season where they won 15 regular season games, competed in Super Bowl 50, and Cam Newton won league MVP. The Panthers took a step back last year – mostly due to injuries, some new faces defensively, and Newton not having enough weapons offensively. Carolina has the picks to fix their issues – five in the first four rounds – and return to the postseason. Since the Panthers play in the pass-happy NFC South, finding an edge rusher early should be a top priority – especially after trading Kony Ealy to New England in exchange for the No. 64 pick. Other than that, Carolina needs to “feed the beast” and get Newton as many offensive weapons as possible – particularly along the offensive line because Newton was sacked 36 times last season. The Panthers could also use upgrades at running back (Jonathan Stewart isn’t getting any younger) and wide receiver (that unit is very mediocre outside of Kelvin Benjamin). Addressing those needs and a healthy roster could really make a difference for Carolina this season.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees talks to head coach Sean Payton during their game against the Detroit Lions in the fourth quarter of the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints
2016 record: 7-9
Number of draft picks: 7 (No. 11, No. 32, No. 42, No. 76, No. 103, No. 196, and No. 229)

The clock is ticking in New Orleans. Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger and the Saints have only made the postseason three times since winning the Super Bowl back in 2009 – the last appearance being 2013. The way New Orleans gets back to the playoffs this year is if the Saints can fix their defense. New Orleans’ defense has ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per game four of the last five years – and the Saints have needs almost everywhere defensively. Like I said above, this is a very deep defensive draft class and New Orleans has five picks in the first three rounds. The Saints should have no problem finding playmakers on the defensive side of the ball this weekend. If that happens and New Orleans can manage to field a top 15 defense this year, watch out, because Sean Payton and Drew Brees are always going to light up the scoreboard – although finding a wide receiver to replace Brandin Cooks early in the draft would help do that even more.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston looks on against the Carolina Panthers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Carolina Panthers 17-16. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 record: 9-7
Number of draft picks: 7 (No. 19, No. 50, No. 84, No. 125, No. 162, No. 204, and No. 237)

I feel like Tampa Bay is close to becoming the best team in the NFC South – like, really close. The Buccaneers have a good quarterback, a decent offensive line, sufficient weapons in the passing game, and a defense that ranked in the top half of the league in scoring last year. Tampa Bay has improved, but the Buccaneers still have plenty of needs to fill if they’re going to take that next step and become a playoff team. The top need offensively is probably running back because Doug Martin has problems staying healthy, and Tampa Bay needs a consistent run game to take the pressure off Jameis Winston. Defensively, they have to address the secondary. Tampa Bay’s secondary is the team’s weak link. Vernon Hargreaves III has a bright future, but there’s no other playmakers in the back end of that defense. Also, outside of Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers lack a consistent pass rush on the defensive line. Not having a consistent pass rush and quality players in the secondary won’t get you very far against the high octane offenses in the NFC. There’s plenty of great players at each of those positions in this draft class. If the Buccaneers fill those needs, I fully expect them to take that next step and make the playoffs, and compete for the NFC South division title.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (right) talks with teammate Titans running back DeMarco Murray (left) during the first half against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Titans
2016 record: 9-7
Number of draft picks: 8 (No. 5, No. 18, No. 83, No. 100, No. 125, No. 164, No. 214, and No. 236)

Tennessee has built itself a solid foundation for the future since drafting Marcus Mariota with the second pick in 2015, trading for DeMarco Murray, and trading the first overall pick last year to the Rams in exchange for several draft picks – the Titans had five picks in the first three rounds last year, and they’ll have four picks in the first three rounds this weekend. Tennessee has done an excellent job of getting talented players with those picks too, and should be able to really improve this year with two first-round picks again. The best way for the Titans to improve is to make some upgrades on the perimeter. They have to get Mariota some weapons at wide receiver or tight end, and some quality cornerbacks defensively. If the Titans can fill those needs, this team becomes very intriguing, and could be considered the favorite to win the AFC South division this season.

Thanks for reading

Shane Price
Follow me on Twitter – @priceisright53


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