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Draft priorities for NFC teams

Texas A&M's Jake Matthews will be coveted by teams needing help at left tackle. Cal Sports Media

It's never too early to talk about the draft.

Some teams have obvious positions of need, such as the struggling Vikings and Giants and winless Tampa Bay. But even the mighty Seahawks have areas of vulnerability and salary-cap ramifications to consider.

With half of the 2013 season as a sample size, we tap each of ESPN's 32 team reporters and draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay to assess the greatest need for each franchise and possible draft remedies.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest area of need: Left tackle

The offensive line has to be addressed as a whole, but protecting Matt Ryan's blind side is crucial moving forward. Left tackle Sam Baker did a solid job last season but has taken a step back this year, partly due to injury. The organization still believes Lamar Holmes has Pro Bowl potential. The Falcons will need to address the position via free agency or the draft. They've selected one offensive tackle in the first round over the past 20 years -- Baker in 2008.

-- Vaughn McClure

Top prospects:
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M | Taylor Lewan, Michigan | Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama

Scouts evaluations: MatthewsInsider | LewanInsider | KouandjioInsider

Draft analysis: Matthews is the top offensive tackle prospect on our board, but in the event that he's gone by the time Atlanta is drafting, I think Lewan could be a fit. He's a notch below Matthews as a prospect, and he doesn't earn a ton of style points or resemble a prototypical left tackle in the Tony Boselli mold, but he has become even stronger and more consistent this season. He is simply very effective as a blocker in both the running and passing games.

-- Todd McShay


Arizona Cardinals

Biggest area of need: Quarterback

There are other needs that are equally pressing, but the Cardinals have watched their division become dominated by good, young quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. He's under contract through 2014, but Arizona needs to draft for the future instead of signing free-agent signal-callers. The Cardinals haven't had consistency or stability under center since the days of Kurt Warner, and they've drafted a quarterback (Matt Leinert) in the first round just once since moving to Arizona in 1988. Arizona has learned winning revolves around a quarterback.

-- Josh Weinfuss

Top prospects:
Marcus Mariota, Oregon | Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville | Brett Hundley, UCLA

Scouts evaluations: MariotaInsider | BridgewaterInsider | HundleyInsider

Draft analysis: If the Cardinals end up in the middle of Round 1, they can count themselves out of the picture to take either Bridgewater or Mariota. Both of those guys very possibly could be gone before pick No. 5 (assuming they enter the draft). Hundley could be a name to watch as a player to draft in the first round and develop for a year behind Palmer. But Hundley is only a redshirt sophomore and could opt to stay in school. One redshirt soph who likely will come out is Johnny Manziel, and he could be in Arizona's draft range. With a talent like Manziel, it's really a matter of fit. That's not a pick I'd be comfortable saying is or isn't ideal for this team. Tajh Boyd is also someone to watch for the Cardinals. He has the experience and arm and will be ready to play early.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Carolina Panthers

Biggest area of need: Left tackle

Barring a change of heart, this will be the last season for left tackle Jordan Gross, the eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft. If Cam Newton is to remain the franchise quarterback -- and there's no reason to think he won't -- the first pick of the 2014 draft will need to be someone to protect his blind side. General manager Dave Gettleman believes in building from the inside out, as he helped do with the New York Giants. His first two picks last year for the Panthers were defensive tackles.

-- David Newton

Top prospects:
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M | Taylor Lewan, Michigan | Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama

Scouts evaluations: MatthewsInsider | LewanInsider | KouandjioInsider

Draft analysis: As we've mentioned for a few of these teams, it's possible that all of the tackles with first-round grades will be gone by the time the Panthers pick. Their choices could then be between taking a guy such as Tennessee's Antonio Richardson whom we've graded as a second-rounder, or filling another need in the first round. However, if Kouandjio is available when Carolina is selecting, I think he'd be a good fit. He is still developing in terms of his balance and awareness, but he has prototypical measurables and physical tools for the position.

-- Todd McShay


Chicago Bears

Biggest area of need: Defensive line/secondary

The Bears took steps in recent drafts and free agency toward becoming more of an offensive-oriented team, but general manager Phil Emery surely is learning this season the defense needs attention, too -- especially the front four. Given the team's issues rushing the passer and stopping the run, the Bears need to add depth first at defensive tackle and defensive end. But Emery will also need to replenish other areas on defense. Contracts for cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings expire after the season, as do deals for linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson and safety Major Wright.

-- Michael C. Wright

Top prospects:
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina | Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon | Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida

Scouts evaluations: ClowneyInsider | Ekpre-OlomuInsider | PurifoyInsider

Draft analysis: The Bears have had to get creative on the defensive line because of injuries, and I certainly think they could be drafting to bolster that group. Timmy Jernigan of Florida State is a player who could fit. Jernigan is athletic for his size and can both disrupt the pocket and scrape down the line to make plays against the run. Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame could be someone to watch, because he's another player who offers versatility, with a combination of size and speed to move around. A first-round sleeper to watch would be athletically gifted Ra'Shede Hageman of Minnesota.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Dallas Cowboys

Biggest area of need: Defensive line

The Cowboys knew they needed to address the offensive line in 2013 and took center Travis Frederick in the first round. In 2014, the defensive line has to be at the top of the chart. The Cowboys have been beset by injuries at the position this year and have been getting by with no-name linemen. Second-year DE Tyrone Crawford will be coming back from a torn Achilles next year, but Jason Hatcher will be a free agent in 2014 and DeMarcus Ware turns 32 next July. Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme only works with pressure from the front four, and the Cowboys need to upgrade the talent there -- like they did on the offensive line in 2013.

-- Todd Archer

Top prospects:
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina | Louis Nix III, Notre Dame | Timmy Jernigan, Florida State

Scouts evaluations: ClowneyInsider | NixInsider | JerniganInsider

Draft analysis: Prior to his season-ending knee injury this season, I thought Florida's Dominique Easley was the most dominant defensive player in college football. His explosive initial quickness and violent hands really stood out. Making him an even better fit for the Cowboys is that he has an ideal skill set to play the three-technique in the Tampa 2 defense, because it places such a premium on getting up the field and disrupting opponents' backfields. Obviously, he'll have to check out medically as he returns from injury, but his game tape from this season is really impressive.

-- Todd McShay


Detroit Lions

Biggest area of need: Linebacker

The Lions drafted well last season, identifying good players at the top (Ziggy Ansah) and middle (Larry Warford) and after the draft (Joseph Fauria, LaAdrian Waddle) who have all made a difference this year. This season, Detroit will likely have to focus on linebackers pretty early in the draft. While starters DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are both under contract the next two seasons, the Lions have no depth at the position beyond those two and could use a new linebacker to place with Levy and Tulloch behind Detroit's defensive line. Cornerback, wide receiver and tight end could be other areas of need.

-- Michael Rothstein

Top prospects:
Anthony Barr, UCLA | C.J. Mosley, Alabama | Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Scouts evaluations: BarrInsider | MosleyInsider | MackInsider

Draft analysis: If he somehow fell to them, Mosley would be an ideal fit for the Lions, given his ability as a playmaker and because he's so adept in coverage he never has to come off the field. But I think Yawin Smallwood could also be a fit and an immediate starter. If the Lions do go with a cornerback, I'd keep an eye on players such as Loucheiz Purifoy of Florida and Bradley Roby of Ohio State. These are the kind of guys who can turn that effective Detroit pass rush into big plays because of their ability to lock up wide receivers and make plays on the ball.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Green Bay Packers

Biggest area of need: Tight end

In 1999, the Packers had an impact tight end in Mark Chmura, who sustained a career-ending neck injury. The next April, they used their first-round pick on tight end Bubba Franks. They could be in the same position again depending on the severity of Jermichael Finley's neck injury. Even if Finley is cleared to return -- and that's a big if -- he's in the final season of a two-year, $14 million contract, and it's far from a lock that he would be re-signed. If the Packers can't develop one of their backup tight ends into the playmaker that Finley was, they'll have to draft one come May.

-- Rob Demovsky

Top prospects:
Eric Ebron, North Carolina | Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington | Jace Amaro, Texas Tech

Scouts evaluations: EbronInsider | Seferian-JenkinsInsider | AmaroInsider

Draft analysis: The Packers, like the Ravens, could be picking in the mid- to late first round, and both teams have a clear need at tight end. Like Baltimore, I think Green Bay would take a hard look at Ebron or Amaro. Both are guys who can be split out to create matchup headaches downfield, combining the size of a tight end with the skills of a wide receiver. Seferian-Jenkins also could be a possibility. The junior at Washington is a massive player who can really run. Seferian-Jenkins offers good hands and a big catch radius, because he can really move even with the big frame.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Minnesota Vikings

Biggest area of need: Quarterback

The Vikings' biggest need -- if it isn't obvious due to the fact that the team has used three different signal-callers in its last four games -- is at quarterback. Christian Ponder doesn't look like the long-term answer, and if Josh Freeman is, then the Vikings could use what appears will be a high pick on one of their many defensive needs (cornerback, linebacker and possibly defensive line). But in what's projected to be a deep quarterback draft, the Vikings could jump at the chance to take a highly regarded prospect three years after they apparently missed on their selection of Ponder (12th overall).

-- Ben Goessling

Top prospects:
Marcus Mariota, Oregon | Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville | Brett Hundley, UCLA

Scouts evaluations: MariotaInsider | BridgewaterInsider | HundleyInsider

Draft analysis: Given where they stand now, the Vikings are definitely one of the teams that could be in play for Bridgewater or Mariota. If they work out one of those two guys and feel they have a player ready to play immediately and upgrade their passing attack, they could make the move. That said, if they are drafting in one of the first three spots, they could also be in play to take Jadeveon Clowney as the replacement to Jared Allen who could be playing elsewhere next year given his age and contract status. If the Vikings do pick Clowney, they could take another name from this deep QB class in Round 2 and still have a player who could compete to start.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


New Orleans Saints

Biggest area of need: Cornerback

A strong case could be made for another pass-rushing outside linebacker, which has ranked among New Orleans' top draft needs for years. But the Saints have shown an ability to generate a disruptive pass rush this year with an emerging young defensive line under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. So they might be better served to keep adding reinforcements to the back end in today's pass-happy NFL. A young corner could work into the mix as a nickelback right away and be groomed as an eventual successor to veteran starter Jabari Greer.

-- Mike Triplett

Top prospects:
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon | Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida | Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

Scouts evaluations: Ekpre-OlomuInsider | PurifoyInsider | GilbertInsider

Draft analysis: Florida's Marcus Roberson is an option here, but I think that Gilbert might be the better fit. He lost his edge a little bit last season, and his play suffered as a result, but he has been back playing at a very high level in 2013. He is good both in run support and coverage, and he flashes playmaking instincts. Gilbert also has good size for the position at 6-foot, 199 pounds, meaning he can hold up against bigger NFC South receivers such as Vincent Jackson and Julio Jones.

-- Todd McShay


New York Giants

Biggest area of need: Offensive tackle

You could argue defensive end and you might be right because the Giants have a lot of needs. But going 13 years (2000-12) without taking an offensive lineman in the first round caught up with them, and the decay on the line is crippling. Taking a top tackle would give the Giants the flexibility to move 2013 first-rounder Justin Pugh to the interior, where he might be a star, and would give them an instant right tackle and a long-term hedge against Will Beatty not working out as a franchise left tackle.

-- Dan Graziano

Top prospects:
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M | Taylor Lewan, Michigan | Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama

Scouts evaluations: MatthewsInsider | LewanInsider | KouandjioInsider

Draft analysis: If he's available at the time the Giants are drafting, Matthews would be a great pick. His versatility (he started at right tackle last season when Luke Joeckel was still on campus and moved over to left tackle this season) is a real asset, and he is a hard worker who is good as both a run-blocker and pass-protector. Lewan is the next-best tackle prospect, and there's a bit of a drop off after that, so if the Giants are picking in the top 10 and neither is available, they would be wise to address another need and look to take a tackle later.

-- Todd McShay


Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest area of need: Quarterback

Chip Kelly has ridden the quarterback-go-round all season, and the suspicion is that he doesn't have the true franchise quarterback to run his offense the way he envisions running it. Nick Foles' record-tying seven-touchdown day earned him an opportunity to make a strong case for himself. Michael Vick has the mobility Foles lacks, but he has lived up to his reputation for being inconsistent and injury-prone. Foles could change the thinking, shifting the Eagles toward adding a defensive playmaker in the first round, but right now the No. 1 priority must be at quarterback.

-- Phil Sheridan

Top prospects:
Marcus Mariota, Oregon | Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville | Brett Hundley, UCLA

Scouts evaluations: MariotaInsider | BridgewaterInsider | HundleyInsider

Draft analysis: If the Eagles were likely to be drafting in a position where Mariota would be available, he would be my choice here because of his dynamic skill set and Kelly's familiarity with him. But given the need for a quarterback among teams likely to be picking at the top of the draft (i.e. Tampa Bay and Jacksonville), it's possible that Mariota and Bridgewater won't last past the top two picks. Kelly also has a history with Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel however, as Manziel was verbally committed to the Ducks before flipping to A&M. Not only is Manziel a really good fit for what Kelly likes to do on offense, but he has made significant strides as a passer this season in improving his arm strength and consistency with ball placement.

-- Todd McShay


San Francisco 49ers

Biggest area of need: Wide receiver

Injuries to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham created a need for the 49ers at WR this season, and it's likely to be the biggest area to be addressed via the draft. Crabtree is a free agent after next season, Anquan Boldin is 33 and Manningham is best suited as a No. 3 receiver. The 49ers drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round in 2012, but he was traded to Kansas City this summer after failing to make an impact. The 49ers may have to try it again. The 49ers are set to have 13-14 draft picks in 2014 without a ton of needs. Perhaps they can trade up to get a top-tier receiver similar to how Atlanta acquired Julio Jones in 2011.

-- Bill Williamson

Top prospects:
Sammy Watkins, Clemson | Marqise Lee, USC | Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

Scouts evaluations: WatkinsInsider | LeeInsider | MatthewsInsider

Draft analysis: The 49ers are probably going to be out of the market for the top two wide receivers in the draft, given their likely board position, but there are prospects to be found late in Round 1. One name I'm going to watch closely is Matthews. I thought his speed would hold him back and make him more of a midround prospect, but he looks to have added explosiveness and is a good route runner with excellent hands who seems capable of contributing early. But he might be more of a second-rounder. DeVante Parker of Louisville is another receiver to watch with late first- or second-round potential.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Seattle Seahawks

Biggest area of need: Offensive tackle

This season exposed the Seahawks' lack of quality depth at tackle, as starters Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini both went down with injuries. Left tackle Okung is a Pro Bowler, but he has been injury prone. And right tackle Giacomini is a free agent after this season. Regardless of that fact, Seattle will look to upgrade that spot. The Seahawks believe they have two rookie tackles -- Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey -- who could become quality players, but neither is a long-term solution. Truthfully, the Seahawks need to upgrade at the guard spots as well, but tackle depth is the weakest link on an otherwise excellent team.

-- Terry Blount

Top prospects:
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M | Taylor Lewan, Michigan | Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama

Scouts evaluations: MatthewsInsider | LewanInsider | KouandjioInsider

Draft analysis: Even if Okung comes back healthy and stays that way, I agree the Seahawks need to get better up front. Also, they can't assume Okung will stay healthy. Given their likely draft position, the Seahawks might not pick until the top four or five offensive tackles are off the board, which could have them considering two strategies. If you want the highest ceiling, you could take a player such as Cameron Erving of Florida State or Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M. But both could return to school. A safer early pick might be Zack Martin of Notre Dame.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


St. Louis Rams

Biggest area of need: Safety

The Rams' defense has regressed this season in no small part because they parted ways with a pair of veteran safeties who weren't All-Pros but lined up correctly and handled their assignments routinely. They drafted T.J. McDonald last year, and while he figures in the team's long-term plans, a broken leg landed him on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Still, the Rams could use a ball hawk in the secondary to complement McDonald and make some big plays on the back end. In addition to safety, there are plenty of other areas the Rams could fortify -- most notably on the offensive line.

-- Nick Wagoner

Top prospects:
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama | Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State | Craig Loston, LSU

Scouts evaluations: Clinton-DixInsider | JoynerInsider | LostonInsider

Draft analysis: I thought McDonald was playing really well before the injury, so I do think he has a chance to come back and be good next to whomever they draft, if that's the route they take. In the middle of Round 1, the Rams would have a chance to get the best safety on my board right now, Clinton-Dix, who excels in coverage. Clinton-Dix is a ball-hawking safety who can play center field and cover sideline to sideline, using both his speed and length to make plays on the ball. Remember, with an extra first-round pick acquired from Washington, the Rams could fill a need and then go best player available at the other spot.

-- Mel Kiper Jr.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest area of need: Quarterback

The offense was dreadful with Josh Freeman, and things haven't gotten much better since rookie Mike Glennon inherited the starting gig. The Bucs appear destined for a top-five pick, and that will give them a shot at landing a franchise quarterback. Glennon looks like he can be a game manager at best. The Bucs have a lot of talent with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Doug Martin at the skill positions, but that talent is going to waste because the Bucs haven't had good play from their quarterbacks.

-- Pat Yasinskas

Top prospects:
Marcus Mariota, Oregon | Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville | Brett Hundley, UCLA

Scouts evaluations: MariotaInsider | BridgewaterInsider | HundleyInsider

Draft analysis: The Bucs' situation is essentially the same as that of the Jaguars: If they wind up with a top-two pick, they're likely selecting between Mariota and Bridgewater. Mariota is a true dual-threat QB with his combination of running ability and arm talent, while Bridgewater is the best pocket passer in college football. Bridgewater would seem to be the better fit for Greg Schiano's style of play, but if Tampa Bay is picking in the top two, there's a chance the Bucs could be in the midst of a coaching and scheme change, anyway.

-- Todd McShay


Washington Redskins

Biggest area of need: Secondary

The Redskins have a big need at safety, though they will get 2013 fourth-rounder Phillip Thomas back from an injury. And perhaps rookie Bacarri Rambo will develop into a player. But there's no proof yet that either will be a quality starter, and it's difficult to see current starters Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty back in these roles. At corner, starters DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson both are pending free agents. Washington does have rookie David Amerson, so if the Redskins re-sign one of the two, this need may lessen. But with so much unknown -- at both safety and corner -- they'd be wise to strengthen this unit with good, young talent.

-- John Keim

Top prospects:
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon | Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida | Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

Scouts evaluations: Ekpre-OlomuInsider | PurifoyInsider | Clinton-DixInsider

Draft analysis: The Redskins owe their 2014 first-round pick to the Rams as the last piece of the trade that landed Robert Griffin III in Washington, so barring a trade they'd need to wait until the second round to address their issues in the secondary. Two cornerbacks they could look at are TCU's Jason Verrett and Ohio State's Bradley Roby, but an intriguing option could be Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner He has played both corner and safety for the Seminoles, so his versatility is an asset. He is very instinctive, a ball hawk, and more physical than you'd expect from an undersized player (5-foot-9, 190 pounds).

-- Todd McShay