The uncertainty surrounding the future of Malcolm Butler makes cornerback a draft need for the Patriots. (Rick Guy/The Clarion-Ledger, via AP)

Drafting for needs versus drafting the best player available is a refrain you hear often this time of year, and while often the distinction between the two can be exaggerated, it is still very instructive to be able to know the areas in which each team is weakest entering the selection process.

Here are the three biggest needs for each of the AFC teams heading into the 2017 NFL draft:

(Jump to AFC North, AFC South or AFC West.)

AFC East

New England Patriots
Key additions:
CB Stephon Gilmore
WR Brandin Cooks
RB Rex Burkhead
DE Kony Ealy
TE Dwayne Allen

Key losses:
T Sebastian Vollmer
DE Chris Long
CB Logan Ryan
TE Martellus Bennett
DE Jabaal Sheard

Needs
Pass rusher: The Patriots added Ealy and experienced the growth of Trey Flowers in 2016. Regardless, there still aren’t many Patriots who can threaten the edge and get to the passer without the scheme getting them there.

Cornerback: Logan Ryan left in free agency for the Tennessee Titans, so the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore. The drama, though, concerns what happens to No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler. This is a draft in which the Patriots can, and should, find a future starter to soften the blow if Butler departs this offseason or later.

A first- and second-down running back: If LeGarrette Blount doesn’t re-sign in New England or the Patriots look in a different direction, it’s necessary to add a back with size to pound the rock on first and second downs and late in games in the team’s four-minute offense.

Miami Dolphins
Key additions:
S T.J. McDonald
S Nate Allen
DE William Hayes
LB Lawrence Timmons

Key losses:
LT Branden Albert
NT Earl Mitchell
DE Mario Williams
S Isa Abdul-Quddus
G Jermon Bushrod

Needs
Guard: When the Dolphins traded Branden Albert to the Jaguars, that allowed Laremy Tunsil to move over to his natural position, left tackle. That opened a hole at Tunsil’s old position, left guard,. The Dolphins signed Jermon Bushrod to play the right side and Ted Larsen to play the left side, but that shouldn’t be the duo who plays those positions in 2017 and beyond.

Outside linebacker: Lawrence Timmons may need to move outside given the lack of linebacker depth, especially on the outside. Koa Misi is in his eighth year at one outside position, but there’s little to speak of on the roster at the other outside spot.

Defensive end: Cameron Wake is 35 years old. William Hayes is 31. Those two are projected to start at defensive end this season. Suffice to say, they need major help on the edge and there’s no one on the roster with that potential.

Buffalo Bills
Key additions:
QB T.J. Yates
WR Andre Holmes
WR Corey “Philly” Brown
FB Mike Tolbert
FB Patrick DiMarco
T Jordan Mills
CB/S Micah Hyde

Key losses:
CB Stephon Gilmore
WR Robert Woods
S Aaron Williams

Needs
OLB: The Bills return a middle linebacker coming off an anterior cruciate ligament tear in Reggie Ragland, the team’s 2016 second-round pick, and a 33-year old strong-side linebacker coming off a Pro Bowl season in Lorenzo Alexander. They have a huge hole at the other linebacker spot.

Wide receiver: The loss of Woods was cushioned a bit by the signings of Brown and Holmes, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the depth needed alongside Sammy Watkins.

CB: If Hyde plays safety, as new head coach Sean McDermott indicated, the Bills will need some serious help at cornerback following the loss of Gilmore in free agency.

New York Jets
Key additions:
QB Josh McCown
CB Morris Claiborne
T Kelvin Beachum
WR Quinton Patton
C Jonotthan Harrison

Key losses:
C Nick Mangold
CB Darrelle Revis
OT Breno Giacomini
WR Brandon Marshall

Needs
Pass-catchers: Wide receiver Eric Decker returns, as does Robby Anderson, who made some plays late in the season as an undrafted rookie. Sadly, there isn’t much else at wideout or tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins has tremendous talent, but off-field issues have disrupted his development.

CB: Claiborne will start at one corner but the other spot is wide open for competition and depth is lacking as well. Buster Skrine is the best option if the season started today. Luckily for the Jets, it doesn’t and adding a cornerback from this class is a must, even as early as No. 6  overall.

Tackle: The Jets signed Beachum after he spent one year in Jacksonville, and he wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive there. The hope is that he can regain some of his form two years after his 2015 anterior cruciate ligament tear. There’s nothing at the other spot but Brent Qvale.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers
Key additions:
DE Tyson Alualu
CB Coty Sensabaugh
RB Knile Davis
WR Justin Hunter

Key losses:
LB Lawrence Timmons
LB Jarvis Jones

Needs
Wide receiver: The addition of Hunter doesn’t do a ton for the Steelers. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton have all had a moment or two the past few years, but there isn’t one guy in that group that provides relief for No. 1 target Antonio Brown.

Pass rusher: If Bud Dupree is ready to take the next step in his development, then pass rusher is not as pertinent a need. If nothing else, there’s not a ton of depth on the edge, and James Harrison can’t play for the next decade.

Nickel CB: 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns will become a solid corner in due time, and Ross Cockrell had a modicum of success last year. They could use a multidimensional nickel corner with some safety size and skills, perhaps a player such as Iowa’s Desmond King or Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie.

Baltimore Ravens
Key additions:
S Tony Jefferson
CB Brandon Carr
RB Danny Woodhead

Key losses:
WR Kamar Aiken
DT Timmy Jernigan
OLB Elvis Dumervil
S Kendrick Lewis
CB Shareece Wright
CB/S Lardarius Webb
T Ricky Wagner
FB Kyle Juszczyk
ILB Zach Orr

Needs
WR: The Ravens have been waiting for Breshad Perriman to become THE guy in the receiving corps, but he hasn’t. The Ravens must come out of this draft with a few options at that position.

T: The loss of Ricky Wagner is severe, even more so because this is draft is not loaded with talent and depth at the position.

RB: Kenneth Dixon will miss the first four games of the 2017 season. Recently signed Danny Woodhead isn’t a true three-down back. Terrance West led the Ravens in rushing last year, but he’s better as a complement to a starter.

Cincinnati Bengals
Key additions:
G Andre Smith
ILB Kevin Minter

Key losses:
ILB Rey Maualuga
RB Rex Burkhead
DT Domata Peko
ILB Karlos Dansby
LT Andrew Whitworth
G Kevin Zeitler

Needs
LB: Maualuga was waived and Vontaze Burfict is the poster boy for erratic behavior. Former Cardinal Minter was signed to man the middle, but this group could use a player (or two) to account for Maualuga’s loss and Burfict’s potential explosive moments.

T: Andrew Whitworth left for the sunshine of Los Angeles, which leaves youngsters Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbeuehi at the tackle position. That is not an optimal situation for quarterback Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati offense.


The Bengals’ free agent departures on the offensive line should concern Andy Dalton. (Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

G: Kevin Zeitler left for the sunshine of … Cleveland?!? Okay, well, he got paid handsomely to jump to a division rival. His departure opens a gaping hole at guard, however, where there isn’t much depth to speak of on the roster.

Cleveland Browns
Key additions:
G Kevin Zeitler
WR Kenny Britt
C J.C. Tretter

Key losses:
WR Terrelle Pryor
WR Andrew Hawkins
DT Stephen Paea

Needs
Myles Garrett: Okay, so this isn’t a positional need. But the Browns have a shot at the No. 1 overall pick again, for the third time since 1999. The first two — QB Tim Couch and DE Courtney Brown — didn’t work out, and this franchise could use a shot in the arm in the worst way. Garrett isn’t a sure thing, but he would generate some excitement.

WR: The losses of Andrew Hawkins and Terrelle Pryor opened up an opportunity to add a quality third piece to the duo of Britt and last year’s first-rounder, Corey Coleman.

QB: A Cody Kessler/Kevin Hogan depth chart isn’t going to scare anyone on the Browns’ schedule. And, before you think “well, they did trade for Brock Osweiler,” remember that they did that for strategic money and cap reasons, not for the player.

AFC South

Houston Texans
Key additions:
None

Key losses:
CB A.J. Bouye
OLB John Simon
QB Brock Osweiler
G Oday Aboushi
ST/S Don Jones

Needs
QB: The trade of Osweiler didn’t precipitate this need; the play of Osweiler in 2016 did. Tony Romo, a potential free agent target, chose broadcasting instead. That leaves Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden. Savage had some solid moments as a starter late in the season, but not enough to win over the city of Houston.

RT: There’s no guarantee that starting right tackle Derek Newton can make it back from suffering not one, but two knee injuries on the same play. Kendall Lamm could be a young player to watch at this position, but right tackle is still a need.

CB: People in Houston panicked when Bouye took the money and ran to Jacksonville, but 2015 first-round selection Kevin Johnson returns, as does Johnathan Joseph. That said, the Texans play a ton of nickel and dime. As such, there are three corners, or two corners and a nickel, on the field a majority of the time.


Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota could use another pass-catcher or two. (Jonathan Dyer/USA Today)

Tennessee Titans
Key additions:
CB Logan Ryan
S Jonathan Cyprien
DT Sylvester Williams
S Brynden Trawick

Key losses:
RT Byron Bell
G Chance Warmack
TE Anthony Fasano
DT Al Woods
LB Sean Spence

Needs
WR: The “exotic smash-mouth” running game can only take this offense so far, and the passing game must improve. QB Marcus Mariota did find solace in throwing to 2016 signee Rishard Matthews and 2016 rookie Tajae Sharpe, but this position needs a true No. 1 receiver, which neither Matthews nor Sharpe is.

CB: Even with Ryan now in the fold, the Titans have pressing issues at cornerback. That’s not a horrible problem to have in this draft, however, given this talented and deep cornerback class.

TE: A Delanie Walker-O. J. Howard combination at tight end would be the envy of many teams. Perhaps a Walker-Evan Engram duo? Walker is 32, so he won’t play much longer, and finding his successor is certainly an option with this deep and talented tight end class.

Indianapolis Colts
Key additions:
OLB Jabaal Sheard
OLB John Simon
WR Kamar Aiken
ILB Sean Spence
DT Al Woods
DE Margus Hunt

Key losses:
C Jonotthan Harrison
DT Arthur Jones
S Mike Adams
DT Zach Kerr
TE Dwayne Allen
G Joe Reitz
ILB D’Qwell Jackson
P Pat McAfee

Needs
Defensive line: New GM Chris Ballard is a firm believer in building teams from the inside out and he needs to add a game-changer on the interior.

ILB: Jackson was released after a stellar stint in Indianapolis. When he was out of the lineup late in the season, teams were not afraid to run at Antonio Morrison and company. In fact, teams chose to run right at them, daring the Colts to stop them. The Colts typically didn’t.

Defensive back: Every single secondary member aside from Vontae Davis will be in a fight for a roster spot. 2016 second-round selection T.J. Green must take over a starting position at either corner or safety (Green, who was drafted as a safety, has every measurable to play cornerback, and his new GM likes long and fast players at the position). Regardless, there’s one bona fide starter here, and a bunch of question marks.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Key additions:
CB A.J. Bouye
LT Branden Albert
DE Calais Campbell
RT Earl Watford

Key losses:
S Jonathan Cyprien
DT Tyson Alualu
CB Davon House
DT Roy Miller
CB Prince Amukamara
DT Sen’Derrick Marks

Needs
TE: Mercedes Lewis has been in Jacksonville longer than any player in its history, but he doesn’t have a ton left in the tank. He hasn’t had more than 25 catches in the last four seasons. Mychal Rivera is an adequate stopgap, but quarterback Blake Bortles needs a more effective weapon at that position. Speaking of Bortles …

QB: The Jaguars are as talented, across the board, as any team in the AFC, but Bortles had his worst season in 2016, leading to a 5-11 record. When he finally put it all together, the Jaguars blew out 9-7 Tennessee in the last home game of the season. There’s no guarantee, though, that he can repeat that performance throughout all 16 games.

RB: T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory have the potential to be a potent 1-2 combination, but health is a major concern for both. Plenty of Jaguars fans are clamoring for Leonard Fournette at No. 4 overall, in large part because they don’t believe Yeldon and Ivory will play all 16 games.


Quarterback Alex Smith may have hit his ceiling with the Kansas City Chiefs. (Joe Mahoney/Associated Press)

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs
Key additions:
TE Gavin Escobar
DT Bennie Logan
DT Montori Hughes
RB C.J. Spiller

Key losses:
DT Dontari Poe
RB Jamaal Charles

Needs
CB: Marcus Peters has one spot locked down, but while Phillip Gaines and Steven Nelson have shown some promise, this is a loaded class at the position and there’s a distinct opportunity to upgrade.

ILB: Derrick Johnson will return after restructuring his contract and rehabbing an Achilles injury late in the 2016 season. Ramik Wilson had a solid season next to Johnson, but there are inside linebackers in this draft that could step into that spot and thrive.

QB: Alex Smith is one of the most underappreciated signal-callers in the NFL, but can he get the Chiefs beyond the divisional round of the playoffs? He’s steady, and his completion percentage increased every year. But he might have hit his ceiling in Kansas City. This isn’t the draft to find a signal-caller for the future, but they’ve got to consider a quarterback to push Smith and, at worst, back him up.

Oakland Raiders
Key additions:
TE Jared Cook
WR Cordarrelle Patterson
QB EJ Manuel

Key losses:
RT Menelik Watson
S Nate Allen
DT Stacy McGee
ILB Malcolm Smith
S Brynden Trawick
ILB Perry Riley Jr. (still a free agent)

Needs
ILB: I stood near the Raiders’ linebackers during pregame of the Texans-Raiders wild card playoff game. I couldn’t believe how small that group was, and the lack of size showed up on the field, too. If the Raiders could add Reuben Foster (Alabama) or Jarrad Davis (Florida), that defense would be flat-out scary in due time.

DT: Stacy McGee moved on to Washington and this wasn’t a loaded position with him in the lineup. This isn’t a strong interior defensive line class, so the Raiders may have to reach a bit to find a capable contributor.

RB: If the Raiders can work out a deal for Marshawn Lynch, take this priority off the board and replace it with cornerback. The Raiders’ duo from the 2016 draft class — Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington — is excellent out of the backfield in the receiving game and on third down situations. A healthy Lynch, though, can handle first and second down. If the Raiders can’t make it happen with Lynch, they need to highlight a back in Lynch’s mold, tough though that may be to find.

Denver Broncos
Key additions:
DT Zach Kerr
DT Domata Peko
RT Menelik Watson
CB Kayvon Webster
G Ron Leary
OLB Dekoda Watson

Key losses:
LT Russell Okung
DT Sylvester Williams

Needs
T: The last time Menelik Watson took the field, he was getting run over and around by multiple Houston Texans pass rushers. He’s going to need to be much better in 2017, and the same can be said for Donald Stephenson. There aren’t a ton of quality tackles in this draft, but the best of the bunch, Garett Bolles (Utah), did his mission in Colorado Springs and said at the combine that he’d love a return to the state.

Offensive weapon: The Broncos could use one that’s a little bit running back, a little bit receiver and scary as can be to opposing defenses. It’s a copycat league, right? The Broncos couldn’t have forgotten what Chiefs star rookie Tyreek Hill did to them in Denver on a Sunday night. A player such as Christian McCaffrey (Stanford), although he more than likely won’t be available at No. 20, or Curtis Samuel (Ohio State) would fit well.

TE: Virgil Green had only 22 catches last year, and Jeff Heuerman had nine. This is an outstanding class of tight ends, and there are a half-dozen or more that would compete for the starting job immediately upon arrival.

Los Angeles Chargers
Key additions:
LT Russell Okung

Key losses:
ILB Manti Te’o
T King Dunlap
G D.J. Fluker
RB Danny Woodhead
CB Brandon Flowers

Needs
G: The Chargers cut Fluker for salary cap reasons, which took the Chargers’ guard situation from questionable to porous.

S: When longtime Chargers star Eric Weddle moved on to Baltimore, the Chargers were left with a gaping hole at safety that they didn’t fill in 2016. Weddle, on the other hand, went on to play in his fourth Pro Bowl. The hole can finally be filled by a safety from this outstanding draft class.

WR: Keenan Allen should make his way back to the field, and the supporting class had some memorable moments in 2016. But a trustworthy go-to threat opposite Allen could open things up for this entire offense.

John Harris contributes to The Washington Post’s NFL draft coverage. He is the sideline reporter and football analyst for the Houston Texans and owner of footballtakeover.com.