Going into this draft, certain teams have glaring needs. Some of these deficiencies have existed for several years, with multiple prior efforts to address them failing. Here are the positions around the NFL that have become the most difficult to fill.
Jermichael Finley played a key role on a historically deep Packers aerial arsenal in the early 2010s, but an injury ended his career at 26. In the eight years since continuity has proven elusive. The Packers have tried a few veterans -- Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Martellus Bennett, Jimmy Graham -- with little success, and while Richard Rodgers is responsible for one of Aaron Rodgers' signature plays, he was not the answer, either. While Green Bay likes Marcedes Lewis' blocking, the team that has avoided notable receiver investments recently needs ex-undrafted free agent Robert Tonyan to sustain his 2020 breakout.
The Super Bowl champion Eagles' corps was the outlier in a frustrating decade for the franchise at receiver. The Eagles have been unable to rely on their pass-catchers since Jeremy Maclin's 2013 ACL tear broke up a years-long tandem, with Maclin's 2014 return coming after DeSean Jackson's release. First-rounder Nelson Agholor was inconsistent; second-rounder J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is plunging toward bust status from a loaded wideout draft. Jackson's malady-marred return and Alshon Jeffery's injuries hamstrung the Eagles financially, and despite taking Jalen Reagor in last year's first-round, they still have a noticeable need here.
Since the Dolphins' then-record Ndamukong Suh contract moved the imposing defensive tackle out of Detroit, the Lions' replacement efforts have faltered. The Lions have brought in big names (Haloti Ngata and Damon Harrison). Both were past their prime, and neither lasted too long. Second-round pick A'Shawn Robinson could only crack full-time status in one season, and Matt Patricia funneled in multiple ex-Patriots (Ricky Jean-Francois, Danny Shelton) for one-and-done stays. Detroit's defense ranked either 28th or 32nd in DVOA in four of the past five years.
The Browns suddenly have an intriguing safety duo, with second-round pick Grant Delpit returning from injury to team with ex-Rams standout John Johnson. These two will attempt to stall a steady shuffle. The Browns have used a host of safeties since their aggressive rebuild project launched in 2016. The bigger investments -- first-rounder Jabrill Peppers and ex-first-rounder/trade get Damarious Randall -- lasted two years apiece. Morgan Burnett, Karl Joseph, and Andrew Sendejo passed through as one-and-dones during this stretch, which did not include any competent pass defenses.
Seattle's trade for Duane Brown addressed its left tackle need, but Russell Wilson has a point re: the rest of the group. Since the James Carpenter-J.R. Sweezy duo's 2015 breakup, guard instability has been the norm. Two high picks (Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi) cycled through, only to end up at other positions, and the team tried journeymen and a former No. 2 overall tackle convert (Luke Joeckel) in one-offs. Sweezy came back for a year, and Mike Iupati finished an injury-prone career in Seattle. The team cut Mark Glowinski, who later became a quality Colts guard, in this span. However, the current Damien Lewis-Gabe Jackson pair has promise.
Nick Hardwick made sure this was not a need area for the Chargers for nearly 10 seasons. But an early-season neck injury in 2014 injected instability onto the Bolts' O-line. The Chargers have used a different primary center in each of the past seven seasons, bandaging the spot with veterans (most notably Matt Slauson in 2016) and uninspiring young players. The Bolts signed Mike Pouncey in 2018, but after a Pro Bowl season and a Chargers playoff berth, injuries intervened soon after. After Pouncey's retirement, the team threw big money at the problem by signing Corey Linsley to a center-record contract.
Yes, the Buccaneers may have finally found a kicker. Ryan Succop rebounded after an injury-filled 2019 to kick in every game for the Super Bowl champions. But the past decade should not make Bucs fans comfortable here. Prior to the 34-year-old Succop's arrival, the Bucs used 10 kickers from 2013-19. Although Succop's new contract places him on track to end this streak, the Bucs have somehow not seen a kicker play consecutive full seasons since Connor Barth from 2011-12. The bottom obviously came when Tampa Bay took Roberto Aguayo in the second round and cut him after one season.
GM Dave Gettleman has consistently expressed a desire to bolster the Giants' offensive line. Right tackle has provided persistent trouble. The Giants have not enjoyed consistency here since Super Bowl starter David Diehl's 2014 retirement. The team has tried veterans (Mike Remmers, Cameron Fleming), overmatched youngsters (Bobby Hart, Chad Wheeler), and multiple first-round picks here (Justin Pugh, who is better as a guard and left tackle bust Ereck Flowers) to little avail. Displaced left tackle Nate Solder, who opted out in 2020, and third-rounder Matt Peart reside as 2021 options.
Laremy Tunsil has (expensively) stabilized Houston's left tackle spot, and Nick Martin spent four seasons at center. While acquiring those pieces, the Texans have used many guards. Different GMs attempted to fill the spot with middling Chiefs blockers, with Rick Smith signing Jeff Allen in 2015 and Brian Gaine adding Zach Fulton to replace an injury-plagued Allen in 2018. That season, the Texans allowed Deshaun Watson to take 62 sacks -- most of any QB since 2006. The team also tried journeyman Xavier Su-a-filo and second-rounder Max Scharping. While this is not an A-list Texans issue at present, the guard need remains.
Richie Incognito and John Jerry worked as multiyear Dolphin starters in the early 2010s, but their Bullygate scandal set the franchise adrift at guard for the rest of the decade. Both were gone by 2014. While some memorable one-season stop-offs took place, with Mike Pouncey and Laremy Tunsil spending time here briefly, the Dolphins have not found stability. Ted Larsen camped here for a bit, and Jesse Davis has shuttled between guard and tackle. This week brought more uncertainty, with the team trading 2020 signing Ereck Flowers back to Washington. Miami appears to be turning to young talent here in 2021.
An arbitrary distinction, yes, but this problem illustrates why the Cardinals' offensive line has struggled for years. The issues date back longer at right guard. After five-year starter Deuce Lutui's 2011 demotion, the team used three primary starters over the next four seasons. None were Jonathan Cooper. The No. 7 overall pick did log 11 starts as a Cardinal but became a bust. The team has used several charges since, including 2019-20 occupant J.R. Sweezy, whom Brian Winters has replaced. Since Bobby Massie's 2016 free agency exit, the Cards have used five primary right tackle starters in five seasons. No. 5, Kelvin Beachum, has at least been asked to stay.
Known more for its quarterback problems, the Ryan Pace regime has struggled to plug tight ends into the passing attack. The Bears had Martellus Bennett in 2015, but after trading the Phil Emery-era signing to the Patriots in 2016, they have cycled through replacement options. Chicago has used two second-round picks (Adam Shaheen, Cole Kmet) on tight ends and made three veteran signings -- Dion Sims, Trey Burton, and Jimmy Graham -- in hopes of filling the post. While the jury is out on Kmet, the Bears' turnover at this post has flown off the national radar.
A chicken-and-egg situation, the Ravens' Lamar Jackson-based run offense constrains wide receivers. But the team's issues at this position predate the running QB's arrival. Baltimore has lacked receiver stability since disbanding its Super Bowl XLVII tandem by trading Anquan Boldin in 2013. Steve Smith and Mike Wallace provided short-term fixes; Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin did not. Whiffing on first-rounder Breshad Perriman changed the Ravens' plan, and Jackson held back Crabtree and John Brown. This year, JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton passed taking the Ravens' money, leading them to injury-prone Sammy Watkins.
Marcedes Lewis refuses to end his career, continuing to sign one-year Packers deals. His old job has devolved into one of the NFL's least productive spots. Lewis, however, was not giving the Jaguars much passing-game volume in 2013 and '14, leading the team to give Julius Thomas a five-year, $46 million deal to pry him away from Peyton Manning. It turned out Thomas was not the same as a solo act. After the Jags traded him in 2017, yikes. Save for players in 20-team fantasy leagues, good luck naming Jags tight ends. Tyler Eifert was unremarkably involved in 2020, and the need persists into Urban Meyer's reign.
Although the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, Tom Brady had a field day targeting wide-open receivers in a 505-yard outing. Dating back to their 2011 "Dream Team" offseason, the Eagles have lacked reliability here. Their Nnamdi Asomugha/Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie tag team failed, as did Chip Kelly's big-ticket Byron Maxwell signing in 2015. Even ex-Bills first-rounder/kick returner Leodis McKelvin got a starter turn. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills could not stay healthy, and impact trade piece Darius Slay allowed a 77% completion rate last season. Philly's coach and QB areas are receiving more press, but corner is a big need.
From 2013-20, the Broncos used a different Week 1 right tackle each season. After three-year starter Orlando Franklin's rough Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos moved him to guard. It destabilized a position that has seen numerous veterans and rookie experiments fail to hold it down. Even Denver's Super Bowl 50 team featured a backup (Michael Schofield) here. After low-cost veteran signings and a trade for Jared Veldheer kept the role in flux, the Broncos gave finally decided to go big here by giving Dolphins first-rounder Ja'Wuan James a monster contract. Due to injuries and a 2020 opt-out, James has played 63 snaps in two years.
Solid 2020 signing Blake Martinez is on track to solving part of this problem, but the Giants have struggled to fill outside and inside linebacker slots for many years. Ranking in the bottom half defensively for most of this stretch, the Giants tried other teams' first-rounders (Jon Beason and Keith Rivers) for a bit before neglecting the position in Jerry Reese's final GM years. Devon Kennard notwithstanding, this has been a continuity wasteland since 2013. The team has since punted on using notable resources on the more important outside 'backer jobs and enters the draft desperate for edge pressure.
The 2013 offseason changed the Jets' trajectory here. Passing on a Darrelle Revis extension, the Jets dealt him to the Buccaneers. Revis' replacement -- No. 9 overall pick Dee Milliner -- became a quick bust. But the Jets doubled down in Mike Maccagnan's first GM offseason, providing a glimpse into a rough era. Reunions with Revis and Antonio Cromartie combusted; Revis' five-year, $70 million deal left huge dead money on the team's books. In 2018, Maccagnan gave zero-time Pro Bowler Trumaine Johnson top-five corner money. Johnson was a Milliner-level bomb. The team has not really attempted to fix the position since.
Depending on one's view of Jay Cutler, this has either been a red-light need for four years or 24. The Bears somehow could not coax a 4,000-yard season from the cannon-armed Cutler, who cost two first-rounders and change in 2009. But he at least started for most of eight years. Cutler gave the Bears off-radar QB blandness. GM Ryan Pace's 2017 effort -- signing Mike Glennon before trading up for one-year college starter Mitchell Trubisky, thus passing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson -- lives in infamy. The Bears have Nick Foles and Andy Dalton on their roster without a clear path to a long-term fix. No team is more desperate.
Since Barry Sanders' 1999 retirement, the Lions have not ranked as a top-16 rushing offense in any season. They did get 1,100 yards from first-round pick Kevin Jones as a rookie in 2004. Jones and successor Kevin Smith fizzled, and concussions doomed first-rounder Jahvid Best. Reggie Bush could not sustain his 2013 momentum and subsequent attempts at a long-term cog -- second-rounders Mikel Leshoure, Ameer Abdullah, and Kerryon Johnson -- failed. The most recent plan involved another Round 2 pick -- D'Andre Swift -- but Adrian Peterson siphoned much of his work last year. A fourth post-Sanders regime will now try to generate a run game.
Over the past 50 years, only one team -- the Baltimore Colts -- used top-five picks on multiple QBs in a four-draft span. The Colts famously traded one of those. By Thursday, the Jets will have used three top-five picks on passers since 2009, with the fodder in between Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold not lasting long. Two second-round picks (Geno Smith, Christian Hackenberg) failed, the latter never playing a down. Ryan Fitzpatrick's 2015 was the best Jets passing season in this bloc, and they are now the only team to miss the playoffs in each of the past 10 seasons. Post-Chad Pennington, problems have arisen. Can Zach Wilson stop the bleeding?
Though this has only been a problem since 2016, the volume here created national attention. Since Peyton Manning became the second Broncos QB to retire on top, the team has used an NFL-high 10 starting QBs. (The Broncos would still lead the way even if the Kendall Hinton game did not occur.) Paxton Lynch will go down as an all-time bust; that pick threw John Elway's GM tenure off-axis. Case Keenum and Joe Flacco could not patch the issue, and Drew Lock is battling uphill. A new regime now faces a seminal decision, with the Broncos potentially set to add a new chapter to this saga: top-10 QB pick. The franchise has never tried that.
Over the past 14 seasons, the Jets have received one 10-sack year from an edge rusher. Calvin Pace got to 10 in 2013. Otherwise, this problem dates all the way back to 2006's three-way John Abraham trade. The Jets have failed with high-value picks -- first-rounders Vernon Gholston (zero career sacks) and Quinton Coples -- and come up short in free agency and trade pursuits, finishing second for Khalil Mack in 2018. The Jets used Jordan Jenkins as their top edge rusher for the past three years, barely trying to find a true edge anchor. The team now has Carl Lawson, who will attempt to reverse a lengthy way of Big Apple life.
The Raiders have now gone 18 seasons without ranking in the NFL's top half in scoring defense. This problem became particularly dire after Nnamdi Asomugha's 2011 exit, but the Raiders blew first-round picks before (Fabian Washington) and after (D.J. Hayden, who improved post-Oakland) on corners. Early-2010s Raiders lineups included numerous corners, and promising additions David Amerson and Sean Smith did not last. Lamarcus Joyner, bizarrely not used at safety, is gone after two years. And the football world deemed 2020 first-rounder Damon Arnette a reach. Many mock drafts have the Raiders taking another Round 1 corner.
Over the past 36 years, the Cardinals have not seen a 600-yard receiving season from a tight end. Jay Novacek, of Cowboys fame, leads the pack with 569 in 1988. Since moving to Arizona that year, the Cards have used five second- or third-round picks on tight ends -- most recently Rob Housler and Troy Niklas -- and signed the likes of Todd Heap, Jermaine Gresham, and Maxx Williams. But the franchise has long displayed apathy for this post and now employs a coach not big on tight end usage. Dan Arnold did show promise last season but became a Panther for two years and $6 million. A fascinating, half-committed search continues.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.