How do you build a Super Bowl contender? The simple answer: Ace the NFL Draft.
Philadelphia Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman drafted more than 12 players who contributed to the team’s Super Bowl run, including two All-Pros in Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz and a Super Bowl MVP in Nick Foles. The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, all perineal Super Bowl contenders, are known for developing talent they’ve drafted.
Teams will likely fight to follow Philadelphia’s mold, but before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes the podium Thursday, here are some things to know leading up to Round 1:
Any draft in which six quarterbacks could go in the first round is going to garner interest. From the Bay Area perspective, the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders will be drafting back to back with needs at similar positions, ensuring drama by the Bay. Both teams have been linked to linebackers, defensive backs and recievers during the pre-draft process. The 49ers have also shown interest in edge-rushers, while the Raiders have looked at interior defensive linemen and offensive tackles. There’s no doubt both will be competing for similar players.
The linebacker position is a serious need for Oakland and San Francisco. Luckily, this class has a solid group of prospects that should be available when each team is on the clock.
Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, a name known by any draft junkie, is considered one of the best options and a target for both Oakland and San Francisco. Smith shined in college football’s biggest spotlight, the National Championship Game, where he racked up 13.5 tackles against Alabama. Smith’s elite speed gives him the ability to track the football from sideline to sideline while being a menace in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith didn’t miss one tackle last season at Georgia; considering his competition in the SEC, makes that stat more impressive.
Outside of Smith’s athleticism and fierce tackling skills, his instincts might be his most impressive skill. He has a Luke Kuechly-esqe nose for the football and, whether it’s in coverage or in the run, he never seems to be out of place or wasting steps. Smith would have an immediate impact on any team in the NFL with his best fit being in the middle of Paul Guenther’s Oakland defense.
Alabama’s Rahaan Evans, Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Virginia Tech’s Trumaine Edmunds are all expected to be first-round picks. Each of these linebackers have incredible athleticism for the position. (These are not Brian Urlacher/Zach Thomas types of the past.) Ohio State’s Jerome Baker, Texas’ Malik Jefferson and Brigham Young’s Fred Warner are talented linebackers expected to be available day two and beyond.
The deepest position in this year’s draft class is defensive back. Six or more corners could go in Round 1, along with potentially four safeties. With pass-happy NFL offenses, no unit is set at defensive back, making it always a position of need.
With all the talent at the position, Ohio State’s pestering corner Denzel Ward is the point of this class. Ward can play inside and out with some of the best footwork you’ll see from a corner. Ward’s biggest negative — his size at 5-foot-11, 191 pounds — actually played into his favor last season when teams tested him with bigger receivers; he was able to show his insane leaping ability, consistently dominating guys far bigger than him.
Louisville’s feisty corner Jaire Alexander and Iowa ballhawk Josh Jackson could both go top-15 with Central Florida’s Mike Hughes and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver rounding out the first round. Alexander or Oliver could be Richard Sherman’s protege in San Francisco, while Ward could link up with former teammate Gareon Conley and provide a spark to the Raiders defensive backfield.
Another name to watch at safety is Stanford’s Justin Reid. He could be a target for the 49ers for several reasons. He fits a position of need and has ties to the 49ers. His brother, Eric, was their first round pick in 2013, and John Lynch has several ties to Stanford, from his playing days to drafting Solomon Thomas third overall last season. Lynch recently mentioned the 49ers haven’t closed the door on bringing back Eric Reid in free agency. (How cool would it be to see a brother safety combo?)
Lastly, defensive tackle is a position Raiders fans should keep an eye on. Several guys show potential that could fall to the mid rounds, like NC State’s BJ Hill, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne and Stanford product