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Three NFL Teams That Are One Great Draft Class Away From Contention

Last year’s Saints used a stellar draft haul to vault from the middle of the pack toward the top of the NFC. Who could follow that model and emerge as a force with a strong showing over the next few days?

AT&T Stadium Michael Ainsworth/AP Images

When the 2017 NFL draft began, few pundits looked at the Saints and thought, “This team is one good class away from contention.” New Orleans was coming off its third straight 7-9 season despite playing with a future Hall of Fame quarterback who hadn’t lost a step, and its defense was mired in a historically awful run. The Saints were 32nd and 31st in points allowed in 2015 and 2016, respectively, with the reverse ranks in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. In 2015, quarterbacks playing New Orleans completed 68 percent of their passes, averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, and combined to throw for 4,544 yards with 45 touchdowns. If those figures belonged to a single player, they’d represent one of the best QB seasons in NFL history.

The Saints’ crushing mediocrity kept them from being billed as a team on the cusp, but a nearly perfect draft transformed them into NFC contenders. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (no. 11 overall) instantly emerged as one of the best players at his position. Offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (no. 32) solidified the line through a handful of injuries. Safety Marcus Williams (no. 42) shored up the back end of the defense for the first time in years. And by now we all know what Alvin Kamara (no. 67) did as a rookie.

A single team hitting on a string of picks that impactful is unlikely to happen again in 2018, but in an era when the CBA affords rookies plenty of opportunities and when so many teams are bunched in the league’s middle class, one draft can go a long way in reversing a franchise’s fortunes. So let’s pinpoint some of the factors that affected last year’s Saints to identify three teams that could make a similar jump with a stellar draft haul of their own.

Los Angeles Chargers

The key to New Orleans righting the ship so quickly was the presence of Drew Brees. Few NFL entities have been more reliable than the Saints finishing among the league’s top five in every offensive metric available. Philip Rivers isn’t Brees, but he’s still one heck of a quarterback. And while the Chargers’ needs aren’t limited to one side of the ball, they also have no glaring flaws. Head coach Anthony Lynn’s team boasts solid units on both offense and defense. Getting over the hump is mostly a matter of injecting a couple of useful contributors to each group.

On defense, the Chargers are strongest at the most important positions. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram form arguably the top pass-rushing tandem in the sport, and if Jason Verrett can stay healthy (I’m allowed to dream, folks), the foursome of Verrett, Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King is an embarrassment of riches at cornerback. Where the Chargers could use help is in the middle of the field, at virtually every level.

Last season’s starting free safety, Tre Boston, remains a free agent. The team has discussed using some of its cornerback surplus in that spot, but the position could be addressed during the first few rounds of the draft. And for what seems like the 10th year in a row, the interior of the defensive line is an area of need. A tackle could tie the front four together nicely, and an athletic linebacker to pair with Denzel Perryman wouldn’t hurt.

There are fewer obvious holes on offense. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler complement each other nicely in the backfield. With Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams, and Travis Benjamin in the fold, Rivers has plenty of options in the passing game. And with the signing of center Mike Pouncey and the return of 2016 second-rounder Forrest Lamp, the Chargers now feature five capable starters along the line.

Still, there are places to upgrade. Another dynamic receiving tight end to replace Antonio Gates and pair with Henry would make L.A.’s passing game fun as hell. Right tackle Joe Barksdale struggled last season, and adding a rookie to provide depth would make sense. As we learned with Kamara, there’s always a chance that a Day 3 afterthought could jump-start a unit without many clear weaknesses at the playmaking positions.

The Chargers aren’t lacking for talent. With a string of draft hits (and better health), they could make some noise in the AFC.

Green Bay Packers

This almost feels like cheating. Yet while it may seem cheap to say that a team with Aaron Rodgers is only a few players away, it’s similar to the case surrounding Brees and last year’s Saints. Green Bay’s franchise is entering an unfamiliar period, regardless of what you think about Ted Thompson’s reign as general manager. Thompson was shuffled out of his longtime role in January, replaced by in-house disciples, and considerably younger ones.

Those disciples immediately shook things up. The contract that the Packers handed Jimmy Graham is arguably the team’s third-most significant deal in the 25-year history of NFL free agency. Maybe that’s more coincidence than the sign of a sea change in organizational philosophy, but as someone who’s never seen coincidence as a convincing explanation for anything, let alone high-level personnel decisions, forgive me for thinking otherwise.

On top of splurging for a big-name free agent, the Packers’ other recent departure from the norm is their lack of stability in several position groups. For years, the offensive line was an area of strength in Green Bay. Folks marveled at the team’s ability to find receivers. At times, it felt as if the roster had 17 useful cornerbacks. Those days are a distant memory.

The line is now filled with unlikely contributors, including one-time undrafted free-agent guard Lane Taylor, who deftly stepped in for the departed Josh Sitton last season. But the other guard position remains a question mark; no one would scoff at the Packers trying to find an answer there during the draft. Meanwhile, there are no established receiving contributors behind Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. If the Packers don’t chase an outside receiver in the draft, it’ll be the most overt “We have Aaron Rodgers, fuck it” statement of the Mike McCarthy era.

On defense, cornerback is the biggest need. The Packers brought back Tramon Williams this offseason. For context, Williams was born 14 years before prized draft prospect Saquon Barkley. This team is clamoring for additions to the secondary, as the defense is ill-equipped to stop increasingly creative passing games.

The tone of everything above may seem overly fatalistic (or the work of a bitter Bears fan). That isn’t the case. Such is the power of Rodgers. If Green Bay is truly contemplating its first trade up in years, as was reported earlier this week, and can land a player like Derwin James to invigorate its defense, the excitement in Wisconsin will be warranted.

Like New Orleans with Brees, the floor for a Rodgers-led offense can dip only so low. Green Bay is going to score points. If it can put together a class of strong defensive players while stumbling upon an unlikely playmaking force, no one would blink if it challenged for the NFC North and possibly more.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

My Bucs optimism became a punch line years ago, but I don’t feel off-base thinking that a single stellar haul could do wonders. With the no. 7 overall pick, Tampa Bay is arguably in the best spot of any team in the 2018 draft. The Colts could easily stand pat at no. 6 after previously trading down in a deal with the Jets, but that spot feels like a prime candidate for a team like Buffalo—or another QB-needy squad we haven’t even considered—to move up and snag their man. If the Giants take an Eli Manning replacement at no. 2, it’s possible that Tampa Bay could be in place to select Barkley or Bradley Chubb, thus landing one of this class’s most talented players toward the back end of the top 10. Either of those picks would be welcome additions to the Bucs’ existing roster.

Edge rusher has seemingly been a need for Tampa Bay since Jon Gruden was the head coach. The Bucs traded for Jason Pierre-Paul and signed Eagles cap-casualty Vinny Curry earlier this offseason, but Curry has considerable experience sliding inside on nickel downs and has no guaranteed money left on his deal after this season. If Chubb is available at no. 7, the team’s previous allocation of resources shouldn’t deter it from grabbing him.

Beyond pass-rushing help, Tampa Bay’s defense is all but crying for help in the secondary. Two cornerback spots should be occupied by Vernon Hargreaves III and Brent Grimes, but the rest of that unit is up for grabs. If the Bucs love Alabama product Minkah Fitzpatrick and believe he can double as a slot corner and a big-nickel safety, he should warrant consideration. If the team also lands an interior back-seven pass defender, a second- or third-day edge rusher, and a running back who has value in the passing game, suddenly it’d become intriguing on paper.

The reasons for trepidation are everywhere (Dirk Koetter, full stop; Jameis Winston’s apparent affinity for turnovers; the defense’s systemic lack of talent up front or in the back end since Simeon Rice and John Lynch left town), but this roster has plenty of enviable pieces. A home run draft class could put the Bucs in position to turn some heads this fall.