Super Bowl LI put a bow on the 2016 NFL season and in the process nailed down the final two slots of the 2017 draft’s opening round: The Falcons will have the 31st choice, the Patriots will pick at No. 32.
Here’s an early primer on what the reigning conference champs may need come April 27:
1. Guard: Andy Levitre and Chris Chester were nice finds for the Falcons in free agency two years ago, the latter on the relative cheap. But Chester, 34, can become a free agent again next month, and Levitre will be 32 when his contract becomes very expendable in 2018. Even if the Falcons try to retain Chester for another year, now’s the time to start thinking about the future inside.
Converted defensive lineman Ben Garland provided a boost to Atlanta’s interior depth, but that’s probably his best role, as opposed to taking over as a starter. The Falcons’ spot in the draft is right around where the top guards/centers become viable values.
Possible targets at 31: Dan Feeney, Indiana; Pat Elflein, Ohio State; Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky.
2. Defensive tackle: If anyone didn’t know what the Falcons had in rising star Grady Jarrett, the Super Bowl ought to have taken care of that. It’s next to Jarrett that the Falcons will look for help, mainly because 35-year-old franchise lifer Jonathan Babineaux has an expiring contract.
Atlanta has to like what it saw from third-year DL Ra’Shede Hageman in the playoffs—if he plays consistently as he did in January and February, he can occupy enough O-line space to free up Jarrett. But Hageman also might be better off in a rotational role, with another youngster taking Babineaux’s spot.
Possible targets at 31: Caleb Brantley, Florida; Carlos Watkins, Clemson; Jaleel Johnson, Iowa.
3. Safety: Keanu Neal was a rookie standout for the Falcons. He is a part of the plans for the next several years. Fellow starting safety Ricardo Allen might be, too, but Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff also could be on the hunt for an upgrade. Allen was drafted as a cornerback, and at 5' 9", he’s not exactly an imposing figure in the deep secondary.
More than that, what the Falcons really need is a true ball-hawking safety to pair with Neal. The more dangerous the defense is at the free safety spot, the more it can turn Neal loose in other ways.
Possible targets at 31: Marcus Williams, Utah; Marcus Maye, Florida; Desmond King, Iowa.
Perhaps the Falcons can take a little solace following their Super Bowl collapse in how well-stocked they are for the future. A handful of recognizable names can hit free agency off their roster—Chester, Babineaux, Dwight Freeney—but there is a boatload of youth in place.
So, the 2017 draft will be all about minor tweaks and depth. The interior O-line is the one spot where the situation could be a little more dire, depending on whether or not Chester re-signs or the Falcons replace him with another veteran. Regardless, assuming Atlanta maintains a scheme similar to Kyle Shanahan’s despite his departure, another quick guard would be a boost.
1. Edge rusher: Trey Flowers sure looks like he’s going to be a double-digit sack producer sooner rather than later, but who else is helping him? Veterans Jabaal Sheard (5.0 sacks) and Chris Long (4.0) are impending free agents, while Rob Ninkovich (4.0) is entering his mid-30s. Long is the only one of that group who qualifies as a pure pass rusher, and he is more of a bit player than a star at this point of his career.
With the way teams may have to start focusing extra attention on Flowers, there’s an opening for another player to step in and excel in one-on-one matchups on the other edge. It just doesn’t look like that player exists on the roster yet.
Possible targets at 32: Ryan Anderson, Alabama; Chris Wormley, Michigan; Taco Charlton, Michigan; Carl Lawson, Auburn; Charles Harris, Missouri.
2. Tight end: This is very contingent on what happens with Martellus Bennett, whose contract is up. But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Bill Belichick decides that he already got all he needed out of a player. Bennett turns 30 in March, and while he played every game, he wasn’t exactly a picture of health. New England has enough injury concerns when it comes to Rob Gronkowski.
A reuniting of the Gronkowski-Bennett pairing doesn’t rule out a tight end draft choice, either. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels love to create mismatches with two-TE looks, but they didn’t have the numbers to do so often in 2017.
Possible targets at 32: Evan Engram, Ole Miss; Jake Butt, Michigan; David Njoku, Miami; Jordan Leggett, Clemson.
3. Offensive tackle: While the Patriots have Marcus Cannon signed through 2021, the future is less certain for fellow veterans Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. The former has struggled to stay healthy and has just one year left on his current deal, which could put him in Belichick’s crosshairs; the latter turns 32 in July, hasn’t played a full 16-game regular season since 2010 and may even consider retirement, according to the Boston Herald.
Usually, this franchise is proactive about addressing its needs. Tackle may not wind up a major issue in 2017, but it certainly looks like an ’18 headache at the moment.
Possible targets at 32: Garrett Bolles, Utah; Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky; Antonio Garcia, Troy; Dion Dawkins, Temple.
This will be a busy off-season for the Patriots, who face important financial decisions on the likes of Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler. (New England letting Blount walk and replacing him with a bruising back in the draft is a definite possibility.)
The 2017 draft could see New England dabble in the skill positions often. Outside of Blount and the tight end mysteries, wide receiver still has room for talent—Danny Amendola could be a cap casualty, for starters, and the Michael Floyd experiment may have run its course.
That said, the Patriots will have a diverse choice of defensive options late in Round 1, provided they don’t trade back. They currently do not have a lot of depth off the edge.