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The Panthers Want to Build Around Versatility, While the Browns and 49ers Want to Build Around X-Men

What did the 2017 NFL draft teach us? For starters, how a handful of GMs see their rosters — and what they want their teams to be.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

For all the prognosticating and hand-wringing that happens on NFL draft weekend, we actually learn little. Some of the players drafted over the past few days will turn into stars, but most — including a significant chunk of the ones taken in the first round — will be duds. Reaching those verdicts, though, is a process that takes years.

What can be gleaned in the immediate aftermath of the draft are the plans for many teams around the league. Based on the selections they make, franchises can tip their hands as to the future direction of their roster, providing a glimpse into how general managers feel about their teams and where they want to go. Now that all the dust has settled, let’s take stock of a handful of teams that gave everyone a peek into what they’re trying to become in 2017 and beyond.

1. The Panthers are hungry for versatility and flexibility on offense. By last week, many mock drafts were predicting that former Stanford standout Christian McCaffrey would go to Carolina at no. 8 overall. The marriage just made too much sense. With 30-year-old Jonathan Stewart accounting for their only reliable option in the backfield, the Panthers had a defined need at running back, and McCaffrey’s fit was about more than filling an empty space on the depth chart.

For Cam Newton’s entire six-year tenure in Carolina, the offense has lacked a true space receiver who can create matchup problems in the middle of the field, whether as a running back picking on linebackers or as a slot receiver separating at the line of scrimmage. Steve Smith and Kelvin Benjamin couldn’t be built more differently, but both have done a majority of their work outside the numbers.

Christian McCaffrey (AP Images)
Christian McCaffrey (AP Images)

In McCaffrey, the Panthers now have a player who can catch passes all over the field (as well as a back comfortable running out of the shotgun, from which Carolina lines up a disproportionate amount of the time). And even after landing the Stanford star, the Panthers remained focused on increasing their versatility. By taking Ohio State receiver/running back/general problem for defensive coordinators Curtis Samuel in the second round, Carolina doubled down on the idea of diversifying the skill sets of its pass catchers while adding a dynamic element to its rushing attack that doesn’t rely on Newton toting the rock and taking a pounding. With McCaffrey and Samuel now aboard, the Panthers have a pair of versatile pieces who can attack defenses in a variety of ways — and differently than either Benjamin (who reportedly arrived at OTAs significantly overweight) and tight end Greg Olsen can.

The weekend brought a new direction for general manager Dave Gettleman — but not a new strategy. This is the third draft since he took over as GM in 2013 in which he’s hammered a position of need multiple times. During his first draft, he landed both Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short to solidify the interior of Carolina’s defensive line. Last spring, he grabbed cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley with second- and third-round picks. Gettleman has never shied away from committing plenty of resources to shore up a single area of his roster. This time, that meant targeting the offensive flexibility that the Panthers have lacked for years.

2. Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht is intent on providing Jameis Winston with every chance to shine in his third pro season. Over the past two months, the Buccaneers have thrown just about everything they could at acquiring new toys for Winston and head coach/play-caller Dirk Koetter. After handing DeSean Jackson a three-year, $33.5 million deal at the start of free agency — and pairing him with fellow wideout Mike Evans to lock down what might be the most dangerous pair of outside receivers in football — Licht used two of his first three picks in this draft on pass catchers.

Licht said on Thursday that landing former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th overall pick was “a little bit of a pipe dream” in the lead-up to the draft. Umm … yeah, I’d say it was. Some projections had the 6-foot-6 251-pounder going in the top five, and I’m still not sure how a guy with Howard’s frame and speed (4.51 in the 40) lasted until the back half of the first round. At this point, though, the Bucs don’t care. They now feature a ridiculous middle-of-the-field receiving threat who just so happens to be a willing and able in-line blocker. Those don’t come around often.

After adding Texas A&M safety Justin Evans to fill a need on defense, Tampa Bay selected former Penn State receiver Chris Godwin in the third round. Using the 84th pick on a wideout might seem like a luxury given all the talent the Bucs have at the position. Yet outside of Mike Evans, this team lacked youth among its receiving corps.

Before spending the seventh overall pick on Evans in 2014, Tampa Bay last took a receiver before the fifth round in 2010, when the team picked Illinois product Arrelious Benn 39th. And beyond its top two options, this roster was largely devoid of depth on the outside. Godwin provides that while adding a terrific deep-ball receiver to go along with the two that Winston already has at his disposal. Only Carolina’s Newton averaged more air yards per target than Winston’s 10.2 last fall. The Bucs love going deep, and now they have an arsenal of guys who have that listed as their specialty.

3. The Ravens could be terrifying with a few tweaks to their pass defense, and they know it. Baltimore finished last season ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA, allowing just 3.7 yards per carry and 10 rushing touchdowns. General manager Ozzie Newsome made a commitment to building on that success, handing immovable object and run-defense centerpiece Brandon Williams a five-year deal with $33.8 million in guarantees in March. For the most part, though, the Ravens’ offseason plan has emphasized slowing opposing passing games.

Baltimore’s other big-money, free-agent signing was former Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson, who’s still just 25 and an excellent counterpart to Eric Weddle in the back half of coordinator Dean Pees’s defense. The team also brought in former Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr on a four-year, $23.5 million deal. Even more so than with most NFL contracts, the total figure of Carr’s deal is misleading. The final three years are option years for Baltimore, meaning that the 30-year-old has what’s essentially a one-year agreement with a cap hit of $3 million.

That lack of a long-term commitment meant the Ravens weren’t dissuaded from taking Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey 16th overall. In a shocking turn of events, Newsome wanted to draft an absurdly productive defender from a big-time school. The pick almost made too much sense.

Marlon Humphrey (AP Images)
Marlon Humphrey (AP Images)

With former first-round pick Jimmy Smith on the shelf for nearly half of last year’s snaps, cornerback depth haunted Baltimore in 2016. Adding Humphrey and Carr gives the Ravens two more options to go along with Smith and 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young, who was a pleasant surprise during his debut campaign.

Throwing highly valued bodies at the pass-defense problem was only part of the Ravens’ solution, though. Few things lift a secondary like a frightening pass rush, and after this week Baltimore has the makings of one. Beginning in the second round, Newsome grabbed three straight front-seven players, including two explosive edge options who should give this unit an infusion of talent.

Second-round pick Tyus Bowser had one of the better combine performances for a player at any position; even when Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee were wreaking havoc two seasons ago, the Ravens were still missing someone with the fast-twitch element that Bowser should bring to this group. Third-round pick Tim Williams isn’t far behind in that regard. Once considered a potential first-round pick, Williams — who totaled 18.5 sacks over his final two years at Alabama — has the chance to be a steal after falling to the middle of the third round.

4. Los Angeles’s newest team is pleased with its defensive talent — and is going all in for Philip Rivers’s final few seasons under center. Many thought that Ohio State safety Malik Hooker would be a good fit for the Chargers at no. 7, but rather than targeting defenders early in the draft, GM Tom Telesco waited until the fourth and fifth rounds to add pieces to his secondary. The start of this weekend was reserved for stocking the offense around the 35-year-old quarterback.

In former Clemson receiver Mike Williams, Rivers gets a big-bodied target who is open even when he’s not. Not since the days of Vincent Jackson has Rivers had a 6-foot-4, outside-the-numbers option who can bully defensive backs on 50–50 balls. He’s got one now, as well as a player who should be a great complement to Keenan Allen — a wideout who chews up the middle of the field but doesn’t present much of a vertical threat. By grabbing a receiver in the top seven, Telesco also did more than just make his QB happy. He signaled to everyone that his staff believes the surprising performance of his young defense last year (eighth in defensive DVOA) was no fluke.

Williams may have been a splashy pick, but Telesco’s next two selections were ones the Chargers desperately needed. Their offensive line was a mess last fall, and the hope is that guards Forrest Lamp (38th overall) and Dan Feeney (71st) can provide upgrades along the interior. A former college tackle, Lamp was viewed by some as one of the best plug-and-play options in this draft. He’ll step in as a starting guard from day one. Feeney’s fate as a rookie is less certain; big-ticket 2015 free agent Orlando Franklin is slated to make a hefty $7.6 million this season, but he’s been a considerable disappointment during his time in Southern California. With only $3.2 million in dead money left on Franklin’s deal after 2017, Feeney should get every chance to step into a starting role next year — and maybe even earlier.

5. Working with blank slates, the Browns and 49ers are building around the best athletes they can. Cleveland GM Sashi Brown and 49ers first-year personnel man John Lynch are tasked with restocking the most barren rosters in the league (although the Browns’ offensive line spending spree in March struck at least one area of need from Cleveland’s list). Without many reliable options lining the depth chart, both figured the best draft approach was to target players who would make worthy additions to the X-Men.

That started with Cleveland taking Myles Garrett first overall, but it went far beyond that. In Garrett and fellow first-round picks Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku, the Browns added three guys with hard-to-process physical gifts. Peppers may not have a defined position, but he has no shortage of speed and movement skills. And while Njoku is considered a raw tight end prospect, he’s 6-foot-4, ran the 40 in 4.64 seconds, and posted explosion numbers at the combine that look like a miscalculation. Oh, and Njoku is still 20 years old. July 10 will be the first day he can legally crack a beer to celebrate his entry into the NFL.

Even the Browns’ annual quarterback dice roll was the biggest swing they could make. Former Notre Dame star DeShone Kizer has obvious faults, but with an NFL frame and more arm talent than he knows what to do with, the cleaned-up version of the 52nd overall pick could end up becoming the best QB in this class.

San Francisco waited until late in the third round to add a quarterback, but its three picks before that were spent on scary athletes who should give the Niners a massive influx of defensive athleticism. Stanford’s Solomon Thomas destroyed the combine with a 126-inch broad jump and a 6.95-second three-cone drill that places him in the 88th percentile among all defensive ends. New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is bringing the Seahawks’ style of 4–3 defense with him to the Bay Area, and now San Francisco has an explosive, movable piece in the mold of Michael Bennett.

The Niners were apparently shocked that inside linebacker Reuben Foster — the third-ranked player on their board, reportedly — was available in the bottom half of the first round. His fall was San Francisco’s gain. And after taking Foster 31st, Lynch snagged 6-foot-3 Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who ripped off a 40.5-inch vertical at the combine, and Iowa tight end George Kittle, who put on a show that week in Indianapolis by recording a broad jump that ranked in the 98th percentile at his position and running a 4.52 40. Without much of a foundation with which to work, the NFL’s two worst teams stockpiled all the elite athletes they could find.