Much of the discussion around the 2023 NFL Draft is focused on the teams selecting in the top 10, and for good reason — the draft’s top players will inevitably land with clubs picking near the top of the board. But we might not spend enough addressing draft strategies for the four teams that made it to last season’s Conference Championship Games: the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, and San Francisco 49ers.
While those squads have four of the best rosters in football, championship-level teams don’t stay competitive by sitting idle. Let’s run through the major needs of each of last year’s final four teams, beginning with the reigning Super Bowl champions.
2023 NFL Draft Strategies for Last Year’s Final Four
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have knocked it out of the park in each of the last two drafts. In 2021, Kansas City completed its offensive line overhaul by selecting center Creed Humphrey in the second round before landing a steal of a guard in sixth-rounder Trey Smith. In 2022, they found eight regular contributors, including an all-new cornerback triumvirate of Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, and Jaylen Watson.
General manager Brett Veach holds the final pick of the first round, and there’s a good chance the Chiefs will either use that selection or trade up. Since Veach became K.C.’s GM after the 2017 draft, he has never traded down in Round 1.
Veach has moved up the board just once on Day 1, acquiring McDuffie last year after giving third- and fourth-rounders to the Patriots to slide up nine spots. The Chiefs have also traded their first-round choice for veterans on multiple occasions during Veach’s tenure, adding edge rusher Frank Clark in 2019 and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in 2021.
The most obvious place for the Chiefs to look in Round 1 might be wide receiver, where they have a void after losing JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Patriots. Patrick Mahomes has proven he doesn’t need an all-star cast at receiver to put MVP numbers, and he could get by with a trio of Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
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But Toney and Moore haven’t proven much at the NFL level, and MVS could be off Kansas City’s roster by next season. As such, the Chiefs could consider whichever wideout slips to the end of the first round. That probably won’t be Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but Quentin Johnson, Jordan Addison, and Zay Flowers — all of whom rank between 19th and 28th on PFN’s Industry Consensus Board — could be in K.C.’s range.
If the Chiefs don’t target a receiver, they could look at right tackle. Free agent addition Jawaan Taylor will move to the left side and take over for Orlando Brown Jr., but Kansas City still has a hole on the right. They might be willing to stage a competition between 2020 third-rounder Lucas Niang and last year’s fifth-round pick, Darian Kinnard, but adding another big body in front of Mahomes wouldn’t be the worst idea.
No other position on the Chiefs’ roster stands out as an immediate need area, but Kansas City can begin planning for the future. While Travis Kelce is still the best tight end in the NFL, he’s entering his age-34 campaign.
The Chiefs used 12 personnel on 32% of their first-down plays in 2022, so they might look to upgrade behind Kelce even if they believe the future Hall of Famer still has several productive seasons left in him. In a historically great tight end class, Kansas City should be able to find a playmaker on Day 2.
After falling just short of winning their second Lombardi Trophy in six years, the Eagles will bring back one of the NFL’s best rosters in 2023. While their offense will look largely the same sans running back Miles Sanders and guard Isaac Seumalo, Philadelphia will see significant turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
Key contributors like defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps, and linebackers TJ Edwards and Kyzir White are gone. While the Eagles have papered over some of those absences by signing free agents like Nicholas Morrow, Terrell Edmunds, and Justin Evans, there’s still work to be done.
Luckily for the Eagles, general manager Howie Roseman bet against the Saints in 2022 and now owns New Orleans’ No. 10 overall pick in addition to his club’s organic No. 30 selection.
I’d expect at least one of those choices to be used in the trenches. Roseman famously believes in building through the lines, and he’s used at least one top-100 pick on an offensive or defensive lineman in five of the previous seven drafts. The Eagles could target another OL to prepare for Jason Kelce or Lane Johnson’s eventual departure or keep a strength a strength by reinforcing their defensive front.
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A dream scenario might involve a prospect like Jalen Carter falling to pick No. 10, followed by another team getting desperate to trade back into the end of the first round. It might be difficult for the Eagles to land a premium for the 30th pick if none of the top-five quarterbacks remain on the board, but Roseman could bet against another club by acquiring a future first-round choice and hoping it lands in the top 10 in 2024.
Meanwhile, rival executives might be worried about running back Bijan Robinson landing in Philadelphia’s offense, but I doubt Roseman would consider the Texas product at No. 10. Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated recently reported that the Eagles would have drafted Christian McCaffrey had he fallen to them in 2017, but Robinson isn’t the pass catcher that CMC is.
I’d expect Philadelphia to stick with premium positions in the first round. With quarterback and wide receiver likely not in consideration, that leaves the trenches and potentially cornerback as options for the Eagles on Day 1.
The Bengals don’t have a ton of pressing needs following free agency. They shored up left tackle by signing Orlando Brown Jr., replaced tight end Hayden Hurst with Irv Smith Jr., found a new starting safety in Nick Scott, and found a new CB4 in Sidney Jones.
However, Cincinnati is still dealing with a few uncertain roster situations which could affect their draft class. That starts at right tackle, where Jonah Williams has requested a trade after being moved off the left side, and La’el Collins has no timetable for return after learning his ACL in December.
The Bengals won’t trade Williams unless another team meets their asking price (believed to be a third-round pick). But if Williams gets moved and Collins gets cut, Cincinnati could be in range to land a prospect like Ohio State’s Dawand Jones or Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison near the end of the first round.
Joe Mixon’s murky status with the Bengals might also force them to address running back early on in the draft. Mixon, already viewed as a cap casualty based on production alone, is facing aggravated menacing charges after allegedly pointing a gun at a woman in January. Cincinnati’s front office has refused to commit to Mixon as a member of the club’s 2024 roster.
With Mixon potentially on the outs, the Bengals could be set up for another patented second-round running back selection. Over the past 15 years, Cincinnati has drafted four second-round RBs, more than any team in the NFL during that span. Usually, that type of factoid doesn’t mean much, given NFL front office turnover rates, but the Bengals have had the same decision-makers in place for multiple decades.
Running back prospects such as Zach Charbonnet and Devon Achane could interest Cincinnati at the end of Round 2. If they wait until Round 3, Texas’ Roschon Johnson — overshadowed by Robinson in college but a solid prospect in his own right — might make sense.
Elsewhere on the roster, a first-round tight end could come into play, with Michael Mayer, Dalton Kincaid, and Darnell Washington all theoretical options at pick No. 28. A first-round cornerback can’t be ruled out, either. Chidobe Awuzie is coming off a torn ACL and entering the final year of his deal, and third contracts are anathema to the Bengals.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers might be the most interesting final-four team in the 2023 draft, if only because they’ll be forced to do more with fewer draft picks. San Francisco doesn’t have a first-rounder (thanks to the Trey Lance trade) or a second-rounder (thanks to the McCaffrey trade), but they do have 11 total choices, including three at the tail end of the third round.
If the 49ers have a specific player they like at the end of Round 2, they could use those three third-rounders to move up. The Jimmy Johnson trade chart, which still drives many draft pick swaps, says San Francisco could trade their three thirds for something like the No. 61 pick. If a right tackle, cornerback, or edge rusher starts to slip, it could make sense for the 49ers to trade up.
MORE: 2023 NFL Draft Team Needs
But volume shooting is probably the right path for the 49ers. Even with two rookie quarterback contracts on the books and no extension for Nick Bosa in place, San Francisco is still projected to have the seventh-least cap space in 2024. This is an organization that currently ranks top 10 in cash spending in each of the next three seasons — they need young, affordable players to fill out their roster.
Identifying potential third-round targets for the 49ers is inherently more difficult than finding possible first-round choices, but right tackle stands out as a potential target area. Prospects like Oklahoma’s Wanya Morris or Pittsburgh’s Carter Warren could have the length San Francisco looks for in its offensive lineman and give the club an option to compete with incumbent Colton McKivitz.
Elsewhere, the 49ers could look to shore up their secondary by adding a new cornerback or safety (or both). A CB with inside/outside versatility could compete with new nickelback Myles Hartsfield, who is on a one-year deal. Tashaun Gipson was surprisingly effective as a 17-game 49ers starter in 2022, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old safety has to retire at some point, and San Francisco could find his successor in this year’s draft.
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