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NFL draft 2020: Dolphins, Giants among teams with most at stake – USA TODAY

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Though intended to promote parity, the NFL draft is hardly an egalitarian enterprise.

Given its format of allotting first choice of top talent to teams with the worst records from the previous year, the draft can seem like an evenhanded affair. But trades completed over the course of multiple years always shift the balance of power, sometimes widening the disparity between the teams with the most draft capital and those with the least. With this year’s event just weeks away, six first-round picks have already changed hands.

The dynamic can further be complicated by teams entering the draft with a wide range of incentives. While some general managers can rest easy knowing they have the freedom to build for the long term, others face more pressure to fill a void — or merely to identify the right player for an early pick.

With that in mind, here are the 11 teams with the most at stake in the 2020 NFL draft:

11. Carolina Panthers

Though not turning a rebuilding project into a full teardown, first-year coach Matt Rhule is nevertheless embracing upheaval as he takes the helm, most notably by cutting former NFL MVP Cam Newton and bringing on Teddy Bridgewater as the new starting quarterback. Those moves and Rhule’s seven-year contract suggest that Carolina has a degree of patience that’s lacking for other teams on this list. Still, using the No. 7 pick and other selections to refurbish the roster will be crucial, especially with significant problems along both of the lines.

10. New York Jets

General manager Joe Douglas vowed last year to better equip Sam Darnold with “protection and playmakers.” Mission only marginally accomplished. After free agency, an offensive line that surrendered 52 sacks in 2019 still looks vulnerable, and there’s no go-to receiver in sight. With the No. 11 selection, the Jets could have their choice of the top pass-catchers or nab one of the remaining highly rated offensive tackles (Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas are considered the first-tier options). Given how the poor picks of his predecessors weighed down the franchise, Douglas won’t be afforded much leeway in his inaugural draft for Gang Green.

9. Cleveland Browns

As the youngest GM in the NFL, Andrew Berry will be challenged with the task so many others have failed to accomplish: building the Browns into a contender and ending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. Before that, though, he and new coach Kevin Stefanski have to get quarterback Baker Mayfield back on track after the 2018 No. 1 pick’s erratic sophomore campaign. Adding right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper in free agency will help, but Cleveland still has not afforded Mayfield sufficient blindside protection. That might change this year, however, as a starting-caliber left tackle looks like a reasonable bet for the No. 10 selection.

8. Cincinnati Bengals

The lack of drama and discord surrounding Joe Burrow’s widely expected coronation eases some of the burden that typically follows a team with the No. 1 pick. Still, even with A.J. Green set to return and 2019 first-round offensive tackle Jonah Williams expected to make his debut after missing his entire rookie season, the Bengals will need to do a better job of unearthing impact players throughout the draft after whiffing on several selections in recent years. The current outlook along the offensive line is particularly troublesome, and an early pick at linebacker might also be wise.

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7. Las Vegas Raiders

Sin City’s drafting host dreams were dashed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the Silver and Black could still make a significant splash at the event even without the boats on the fountains of the Bellagio Hotel. GM Mike Mayock once again has a significant haul to work with, highlighted by selections at No. 12 and 19. The very first Las Vegas draft pick might be the top-flight receiver missing since the failed Antonio Brown experiment. And after landing several instant-impact contributors in last year’s class, Mayock will once again face the task of rounding out the defense with players selected on Day 2 and beyond.

6. Minnesota Vikings

With quarterback Kirk Cousins having received an extension in March and running back Dalvin Cook seemingly bound to follow, the Vikings appear to be making their push as an aspiring NFC contender. Yet significant holes at cornerback and wide receiver, which became an integral point to address after Stefon Diggs’ trade to the Buffalo Bills, leave plenty of uncertainty about just how competitive this team can be in its current form. Fortunately for Minnesota, deep groups at both positions could provide a number options at the No. 22 and 25 slots in the first round. But with further issues at defensive end and along the offensive line, the Vikings might be forced to work several rookies into meaningful roles early on. 

5. New York Giants

Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones are in place as the backfield of the foreseeable future. And then … there’s not much else. If that doesn’t change by next season, a hot seat might be awaiting GM Dave Gettleman, who might be facing the first true inflection point in the draft with the No. 4 pick. Gettleman could be drawn to scooping up one of his beloved “hog mollies” along the offensive line, but a defense still short on playmakers after the arrivals of cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez still could stand for an infusion of talent.

4. Los Angeles Chargers

As they prepare to move into their new stadium, the Chargers appear set to make their first substantial draft move for a quarterback since securing Philip Rivers in 2004. But will the Bolts merely let the board fall as it may until they pick at No. 6, or would they leapfrog the quarterback-hungry Miami Dolphins to grab the passer of their choice? That decision might ultimately determine whether Los Angeles ends up with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert, though Utah State’s Jordan Love could be a wild card. Whichever signal-caller the Chargers select might determine the course of the franchise for years to come, so GM Tom Telesco and Co. should make sure they’re extremely comfortable with whoever ends up behind center.

3. Detroit Lions

Before the Lions closed out a 3-12-1 campaign that stood as the franchise’s worst finish in a decade, owner Martha Ford announced last December that GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia would return under the expectation that the team would be a playoff contender in 2020. Maybe that falls short of a mandate, but it’s a tough spot for a duo headed the wrong way since Quinn fired Jim Caldwell after consecutive 9-7 seasons. If the current regime had more flexibility, the Lions might be a prime candidate to collect future assets by trading back from the No. 3 slot. Yet with the last-ranked pass defense still having a sizable hole at cornerback after three-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit might have a hard time passing on Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah as an immediate answer. The offensive and defensive lines could also be in line to be upgraded on Day 2.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

At some point, the shedding has to end and the construction must begin. Jacksonville’s last year has been defined by discarding, whether that’s marquee players (Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell), the front office (Tom Coughlin) or a bad contract (Nick Foles). While coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell were granted a reprieve, the Jaguars rank last in USA TODAY Sports’ latest power rankings and don’t have many short-term solutions beyond the draft. Armed with two first-round selections and 12 picks overall, the Jaguars will be under pressure to address their many defensive deficiencies. The scrutiny will only ramp up if a top quarterback slides, prompting the question of whether the team should make a significant investment to bring in competition for second-year passer Gardner Minshew.

1. Miami Dolphins

When it comes to draft capital, no one else comes close to the Dolphins, whose league-high 14 selections include three first-rounders and six picks in the top 70. The setup gives Miami unparalleled control in maneuvering around the board, but this isn’t house money. The Dolphins made a concerted effort to load up on assets in this and next year’s drafts, so a significant payoff is the baseline expectation. Beyond the massive quarterback decision to be made, there are also pressing concerns at offensive tackle, edge rusher and safety. At the very least, Miami should emerge with a couple of cornerstones along with some solid starters.

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

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