Although loaded with defensive-line talent, this NFL draft class is not considered strong. It includes a record 56 underclassmen, many of whom are difficult to evaluate because of their limited college experience. There is no clear-cut No. 1 pick because of quarterback Andrew Luck’s decision to remain at Stanford and because of the uncertainty about what the Carolina Panthers will do. There is a dearth of NFL-ready quarterbacks, but Auburn’s Cam Newton may rise to the first overall spot if his extraordinary athletic ability outweighs concerns about how quickly he can learn a pro-style offense and questions about his character. There are so many questions about players projected to be picked in the first round that Charley Casserly, the former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager, said, “There’s a lot of guys that are kind of scary.”
“Quarterback is the highlight of the draft because you’ve got so many teams that would have filled quarterback needs in the off-season,” Casserly said. “Now that they don’t have it, do they become more aggressive trading up? I don’t see the conviction by people with these quarterbacks.”
With teams unable to sign free agents, and therefore unable to fill holes before the draft, Michael Lombardi, a former personnel executive in Cleveland and Oakland and now an NFL Network analyst, said he expected fewer reaches in the first round.
Here is a team-by-team look at possible draft strategies, with the position of first-round picks in parentheses:e_SClBAFC East
Buffalo Bills (3) — Another year, another need for immediate contributors all over the field. A franchise quarterback may be the most obvious. But with few, if any, of those in this draft, the Bills could veer toward another huge need, outside linebacker, where Von Miller awaits.
Miami Dolphins (15) — It’s difficult to discern the direction of a team whose owner flies cross-country to try to woo a head coach while still employing another one. Tony Sparano kept his job, but his offense needs a lot of work. If an attractive quarterback is available in the first round, this might be the end of the Chad Henne era. The interior of the offensive line also needs to be improved for the running game to be effective.
New England Patriots (17, from Oakland; and 28) — With two picks in each of the first three rounds, including three in the top 33, the Patriots will wield enormous influence. Pass rusher is their most obvious need, but trades — and the unexpected (they drafted two tight ends last year when nobody thought they used tight ends) — are always part of Bill Belichick’s draft-day arsenal. And what was all that chatter about running back Mark Ingram? Real or a smokescreen?
New York Jets (30) — A team that wins with its defense suddenly needs an infusion on the defensive line — at nose tackle and defensive end — and at outside linebacker. The uncertain futures of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes make wide receiver a position to watch.
Baltimore Ravens (26) — Same as last year, the Ravens need a deep threat at wide receiver to stretch the offense and give Joe Flacco room for growth.
Cincinnati Bengals (4) — It would help to know the resolution to the Carson Palmer situation. If he really retires, or is traded, the Bengals have to get a quarterback. If he sticks around, they could make him happier by picking a top-flight wide receiver.
Cleveland Browns (6) — It’s rebuilding time for the Browns, who need defensive linemen to fit their new 4-3 system and a No. 1 wide receiver to give the offense some punch.
Pittsburgh Steelers (31) — A team that went to the Super Bowl and has consistently productive drafts has few holes. But an injury-riddled offensive line and an aging defensive line could use help, as could a secondary that shows frailty when Troy Polamalu is out.
Houston Texans (11) — This team, desperate to make the playoffs, has to have better play from the defense, particularly from the secondary and from pass rushers.
Indianapolis Colts (22) — Everybody wondered what was wrong with Peyton Manning last season. The answer, in part, was the offensive line. It has to be improved, not just to protect Manning, who is 35, but also to give the Colts some semblance of a running game. The tackles are paramount, but the rest of the line is not in much better shape.
Jacksonville Jaguars (16) — This should be easy. The Jaguars must improve in the secondary, particularly at safety, which was terrible last year. The unit would be helped by a better pass rush. And don’t discount the possibility that the Jaguars will take a quarterback. They haven’t drafted one since 2003.
Tennessee Titans (8) — One of the teams in need of a quarterback. Although the defensive front seven needs to be improved, Kenny Britt’s run-ins with the law also put the receiving corps in question.
Denver Broncos (2) — Maybe Tim Tebow isn’t the answer and they should look for a quarterback. But the Broncos have a lot more critical needs, and what they really need is more picks. Don’t be surprised if they trade down to get more, but no matter when they pick, they’ll load up on defense.
Kansas City Chiefs (21) — They were run-heavy last year and struggled to score points down the stretch. Quarterback Matt Cassel can be helped with better protection and a receiver who can make an immediate impact.
Oakland Raiders (none) — No longer a laughingstock, the Raiders could be contenders if they improve the offensive line to protect Jason Campbell and find a replacement for cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. They have to do it without a first-round pick, which they traded to New England for Richard Seymour in 2009. Their first pick will be 48th overall, the 16th selection in the second round.
San Diego Chargers (18) — The Chargers have five picks in the first three rounds. Look for them to use some of them on the defensive front seven.
Dallas Cowboys (9) — Please, Jerry Jones, do something about the offensive line. And at defensive end, which will be badly weakened by free agency.
New York Giants (19) — No need is glaring, but the offensive line — where age and injury are taking a toll — needs shoring up. Another possibility is outside linebacker.
Philadelphia Eagles (23) — With a powerhouse offense in place, the Eagles are likely to focus on defense. Their more intriguing off-season question is what they will get in a trade for Kevin Kolb when the NFL allows it.
Washington Redskins (10) — With two picks in the first four rounds, the Redskins can’t afford a mistake, especially because they need a quarterback again. They also have pressing needs at cornerback and on the defensive line.
Chicago Bears (29) — Jay Cutler was knocked around by the Giants and others last season. It’s past time for the Bears to fix their offensive line, then give him a No. 1 receiver. The defense has a hole in the line.
Detroit Lions (13) — Their real needs are outside linebacker and offensive line, but coach Jim Schwartz may not be able to resist a pass-rushing defensive end.
Green Bay Packers (32) — With so many players returning from injured reserve to a young, ascending championship team, the Packers have the luxury of drafting for the future. So perhaps an outside linebacker to play opposite Clay Matthews would be appealing, or a defensive end, because Cullen Jenkins is likely to leave as a free agent. Or maybe some offensive line depth. None will have to make an immediate impact.
Minnesota Vikings (12) — The draft would be a lot simpler if free agency had allowed them a chance to get Donovan McNabb. Instead, they still need a franchise quarterback. And right after that, they need a wide receiver, because Sidney Rice is likely to leave through free agency.
Atlanta Falcons (27) — A talented team needs explosiveness, at wide receiver to help Matt Ryan and at pass rusher to complement John Abraham.
Carolina Panthers (1) — They have a new coach in Ron Rivera and could use a franchise quarterback after Jimmy Clausen’s first year turned into a mess. That would seem to put pressure on the Panthers to take Cam Newton. But when a team wins just two games, it has a lot of other needs, too, and a defensive tackle might be even more important.
New Orleans Saints (24) — They are loaded with free agents, so there will be turnover when the league year begins. They need contributors at defensive end and outside linebacker and on the offensive line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (20) — They got interior defensive linemen last year; now they need defensive ends and linebackers to solidify a unit that could become younger on a very young team.
Arizona Cardinals (5) — They knew they would miss Kurt Warner, but this much? They have to land a quarterback early in the draft or eventually through free agency.
St. Louis Rams (14) — They have an edge in the division because they have a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford. Now they have to find him some wide receivers. But would anybody be surprised if Steve Spagnuolo loaded up on defenders, too?
San Francisco 49ers (7) — Jim Harbaugh’s coaching staff has said a lot of nice things about Alex Smith, but the Niners need to start over with a quarterback. Their other pressing need is an outside linebacker who can improve a pass rush that hasn’t had a breakout sacker in a decade.
Seattle Seahawks (25) — They need a quarterback, too, but they are one of the teams thought to be interested in Kevin Kolb, so they might not pick one here. The pass defense was a disaster, so count on a cornerback at some point.