Kiper: Draft needs of NFC teams

Kiper: Draft notebook

Kiper: Projecting the NFL draft's first round

Kiper: Sizing up defensive free agents

Kiper: Sizing up offensive free agents

Mel Kiper's story archive

Thursday, March 29

Major draft needs of AFC teams

At this point in the free-agent signing process, the look of some teams -- and their corresponding needs in the upcoming draft -- have changed dramatically. What teams have done, or not done, will affect the selections they make.

Some teams are still looking to deal, and that would change their outlook even further. But as things stand today, this is what the AFC squads need most heading into April's draft.

I'll examine who needs what in the NFC in my next report.

Miami Dolphins
Offensive Tackle -- Starting LT Richmond Webb is a free agent, and the Dolphins appear to be in no rush to re-sign him. Looking to fill that void is fifth-year pro Brent Smith. Should he fail to impress, they could move Mark Dixon over from LG. An insurance policy is definitely needed.

Outside Linebacker -- The Dolphins are very happy to have weakside LB Derrick Rodgers back in the fold. With Robert Jones becoming a cap casualty, the next order of business is to find a starter on the strongside.

Running Back -- With Thurman Thomas no longer in the picture, the Dolphins are without a quality third-down back. And should Lamar Smith go down with an injury, J.J. Johnson has given no indication that he can be a viable replacement.

Indianapolis Colts
Defensive Tackle -- They can live with DE Chad Bratzke and DT Ellis Johnson on the right side. But on the left side, there's definite cause for concern at both spots. Of the two, I think their focus will be more inside. The return of Shawn King (he missed the entire 2000 season due to a league-imposed suspension) gives them some reason for optimism at left DE.

Cornerback -- While Jeff Burris is a decent veteran performer, I wouldn't consider him to be a top-flight cover corner. At the other starting spot, you have Mustafah Muhammad and David Macklin. I wouldn't feel comfortable with either as a No. 2 cornerback.

New York Jets
Wide Receiver -- With Keyshawn Johnson no longer in the picture, the Jets really missed having a big, physical wide-out to work opposite Wayne Chrebet. The Jets hope they addressed this need on Monday when they signed ex-Vikings receiver Matthew Hatchette to a two-year contract.

Defensive Line -- What we know at this point is John Abraham will start at DE and Jason Ferguson at DT. Shaun Ellis also will be in the starting lineup. The unknown is whether that will be at end or tackle. A large part of this will be determined by what transpires in the draft.

Buffalo Bills
Offensive Line -- Both starters on the right side (RG Jamie Nails and RT Marcus Spriggs) are free agents. The latter is the better of the two, but the Bills can do better at both positions.

Cornerback -- Antoine Winfield holds his own on one side, but Ken Irvin is best suited to be a backup. And speaking of backups, when the only one of consequence is former Bronco Chris Watson, you have major problems.

Defensive Line -- Suffered two major blows in the offseason with the release of Pro Bowl NT Ted Washington due to the salary cap, and free agent DE Marcellus Wiley being lured away by San Diego. The replacements at those respective positions will be Pat Williams and last year's first-round pick, Erik Flowers. Reinforcements are definitely needed.

New England Patriots
Running Back -- Since losing Robert Edwards to a serious knee injury, the Patriots have struggled to find a capable replacement. In the past two drafts, they've used a second- and third-round pick on Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond, respectively. Both are better all-purpose types than they are feature backs. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Defensive Tackle -- The Patriots don't have any of consequence. Chad Eaton has signed with Seattle, Henry Thomas has been released and Brandon Mitchell, who did little to impress last season, is a free agent.

Offensive Line -- As a whole, this unit performed woefully in 2000. The biggest concern is left tackle. If the season were to begin today, the starter likely would be last year's second-round pick, Adrian Klemm. After suffering a knee injury in training camp, his rookie year was a washout. And now he's going to be asked to protect the blind side of Drew Bledsoe? Needless to say, this is a very risky proposition.

Baltimore Ravens
Offensive Guard -- If Leon Searcy returns to old form, he'll team up with Jonathan Ogden to give the Ravens the best pair of bookend tackles in the league. There is concern, however, with the interior of the line. Mike Flynn is being switched from right guard to center to help compensate for the free-agent loss of Jeff Mitchell. They have to find his replacement; and on the left side, Edwin Mulitalo tends to struggle in pass protection.

Outside Linebacker -- There's a possibility that this will go from being the best LB corps in the NFL to a team need. Starting weakside LB Jamie Sharper is a free agent, and his top backup, Cornell Brown, also is testing the market.

Tennessee Titans
Defensive End -- Became a top priority the minute starting right DE Kenny Holmes signed with the Giants. Without a replacement, the Titans must find someone who can keep defenses from focusing all their attention on left DE Jevon Kearse.

Wide Receiver -- Coming off a breakout year (63 receptions for a 14.2-yard average and five touchdowns), management made sure that free agent Derrick Mason would be wearing a Titans uniform for the foreseeable future. After him, however, there are more questions than answers.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Defensive End -- I liked what I saw from second-year left DE Aaron Smith in his first season as a starter. But there is a hole to fill on the right side. Kevin Henry has been released, and no one on the current roster does much to excite. For that matter, neither did Henry.

Inside Linebacker -- Very strong at three of the four positions with Jason Gildon and Joey Porter outside and Earl Holmes inside. What the Steelers need to find is a replacement for cap casualty Levon Kirkland.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Offensive Line -- The Jags are set on the left side with LT Tony Boselli and LG Brad Meester. Free agency and salary-cap problems, however, have taken their toll on the other three starting spots. As of this writing, John Wade will anchor the line, with former Ram Zach Wiegert at either guard or tackle. The other spot is unaccounted for.

Defensive End -- Overall, the front four looks to be in good shape. But other than right DE Tony Brackens (7.5 sacks), the Jags lack big-play ability off the edge. The starter on the left side, Renaldo Wynn, is much more noted for his run-stuffing ability, while pass-rushing specialist Joel Smeenge (6.0 sacks) has been released.

Cincinnati Bengals
Defensive End -- Projected starters Vaughn Booker and John Copeland are steady against the run, but non-factors when it comes to generating heat on the opposing QB. Proof can be found in the fact that they combined for only one sack this past season.

Offensive Tackle -- One of the teams reported to be in the hunt for former Viking Todd Steussie. If the Bengals are unsuccessful in their attempts to sign him, they will have to look long and hard at a LT with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Thirteen-year veteran John Jackson could turn out to be the answer for this season, but he's certainly not the answer much beyond that.

Cornerback -- The past three drafts have seen the Bengals invest three second-round picks to address this need. Three years into his pro career, we're still waiting for Artrell Hawkins to prove that he can be a solid starter. Last year's second-round pick, Mark Roman, is a converted safety. And '99 second-round pick Charles Fisher is a medical question mark after spending his first two seasons in the league on the sideline.

Cleveland Browns
Running Back -- To alleviate some pressure from QB Tim Couch, the Browns must develop a consistent ground game. Leading rusher Travis Prentice gained just 512 yards, averaging 3.0 yards per carry.

Offensive Line -- The only positions they can feel good about are left tackle (Roman Oben) and center (Dave Wohlabaugh). If the Browns want to get better results from their skill positions, they must have more than two guys who are capable of excelling in the trenches.

Wide Receiver -- Second-year pro Kevin Johnson has the look of a good No. 2 wide-out and JaJuan Dawson and Dennis Northcutt showed promise as rookies. What the Browns lack is a true feature wide-out.

Oakland Raiders
Outside Linebacker -- There's no way the Raiders can afford to go into this upcoming season with Elijah Alexander and Eric Barton as their starters. If they re-sign William Thomas, part of the problem will be resolved. The next objective would be to find a younger/better upgrade for Alexander.

Tight End -- The one major concern on offense is who the starter will be at this position. After failing to develop into the player they envisioned when he came out of Ohio State, free agent Rickey Dudley is not expected to return. Jeremy Brigham has been solid in a backup capacity, but you're asking an awful lot for the same to be said about him as a starter.

Denver Broncos
Defensive End -- After releasing Keith Traylor, the Broncos are willing to take a chance on former Cowboy DT Leon Lett. The next order of business is to find a difference-maker at DE. Starters Kavika Pittman and Maa Tanuvasa combined for just 11.0 sacks.

Cornerback -- The Broncos went a long way toward upgrading this position when they came to terms with free agent Denard Walker on Monday. The starters would have been last year's first-round pick, Deltha O'Neal, and former Charger Jimmy Spencer. O'Neal remains a better returner than cover corner. Spencer will turn 32 later this month, and has never been ideal starting material.

Kansas City Chiefs
Quarterback -- With negotiations between the Chiefs and Rams for the rights to Trent Green at a standstill, this ongoing saga figures to drag on a little longer. If things cannot be worked out, for a short-term fix they could look to someone like Carolina's Steve Beuerlein. It will not come from this year's draft.

Cornerback -- Other than QB, this is clearly their biggest need. The release of James Hasty leaves them without a corner capable of shutting down the opposition's top receiver. Last year's fifth-round pick, Pat Dennis, had his moments as a rookie, but he's strictly No. 2 material. And it remains to be seen what William Bartee amounts to.

Running Back -- Tony Richardson averaged a very respectable 4.7 yards per carry and hauled in 58 receptions. But he's best suited to be their starting FB/short-yardage threat. Reserves Frank Moreau and Mike Cloud averaged just 2.7 and 2.8 yards per carry, respectively.

Seattle Seahawks
Wide Receiver -- The Seahawks have parted ways with Sean Dawkins and Derrick Mayes. The former led the team in receptions this past season; the latter did so in '99. Last year's third-round pick, Darrell Jackson, has a chance to be a good one. But they need to find a feature wide-out to work opposite him. Depth is nonexistent.

Cornerback -- With starting right CB Willie Williams becoming a free agent, the Seahawks are without a proven performer opposite Shawn Springs. Last year's second-round pick, Ike Charlton, remains very green.

Middle Linebacker -- The Seahawks have improved the interior of the defense with the signings of DTs John Randle and Chad Eaton. The search is now on for the ideal candidate to operate behind these two.

San Diego Chargers
Running Back -- Their leading rusher was Terrell Fletcher with 384 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Enough said. Everyone is focusing their attention on the quarterback position, but the Chargers' most pressing need is right here.

Quarterback -- Addressed their immediate need for a starter by signing Buffalo's Doug Flutie. He's a good fill-in until the long-term fix is ready to take over the reins.

Offensive Tackle -- Penciled in as the starter at LT is inexperienced Damion McIntosh. A third-round pick in last year's draft, he's a converted DT who will be asked to neutralize the charge of the game's premier pass rushers. Good luck!

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