Draft Preview April 14, 2008

While many sports’ fans keep their eyes on the basketball each spring, we true football faithful know that the NFL has its own special brand of March Madness. And we call it – Free Agency: otherwise known as, “Where did my favorite player go?”

We who think WAY too much about the game pour over stat sheets and Combine scores, scour the waiver wires with crossed fingers that the Coach and GM will FINALLY get that run stuffer our team needs and generally lose our minds trying to get ready for that best of useless spring holidays: NFL draft weekend. What? You have a life? You didn’t buy every sports magazine at Barnes and Noble while sipping your latte? You don’t plan your day around the NFL Network?

No need to panic. As Draft Day approaches, look no further for your breakdown of all 32 teams: their needs, their blind spots and their likely insane choices. This is a time when testosterone runs rampant as dozens of Alpha Male owners and executives jockey for position and the chance to put their personal brand on this year’s BIG PICK. Frankly, I wouldn’t pay 20-30 million for Joe Namath, much less some kid with three “baby mamas” and fast feet. How many times do we need to see a Ryan Leaf or Pacman Jones to know that high round draft picking is a very expensive form of Russian Roulette?

Michael Vick, David Carr, Courtney Brown, Tim Couch, Ki-Jana Carter, Steve Emtman, Jeff George, Aundray Bruce, Kenneth Sims etc, etc. All first overall picks that were at best disappointments and at worst felons. To be fair, John Elway, Bo Jackson, Bruce Smith, Peyton Manning and Irving Fryar are also on that list. But these days the money is so astronomical that I guess you have to turn on the testosterone pump just to cope!

Here’s a breakdown from your female football guru:
a perspective from the ther side of football

NFC East:

New York Giants: Not for me this alphabetical listing of teams. I say, you won the Super Bowl – you’re first in my lists all next season! So I’m starting in the Big Apple, which suffered the Super Bowl Champs’ usual attrition of many players to greener ($) pastures.

Where they stand: Big Blue lost DB Wilson but signed Sammy Knight. Knight’s skills seem to have eroded the last few years, so we’ll see how much action he gets. New York also lost two solid linebackers. They signed David Carr as a backup, presumably to be more of a similar-style signal called to Eli than Hefty Left Lorenzen. I’m not sure that was a good move: Carr has never recovered from his first year’s playing without benefit of a discernible Oline. GM Jerry Reese appears to have made certain that key veterans were re-signed to multiple year contracts, which bodes well for a team that had a GREAT draft last season and looks forward to reaping the benefits of all those guys in their sophomore seasons.

The team has the makings of a big-time controversy at TE after Rookie backup Kevin Boss not only filled Jeremy Shockey’s shoes, but also quickly connected with QB Manning in a way that Shockey never has. Now that Eli is all grown up and a Super Bowl winning signal caller, it will be up to Shockey to adjust his role. IF his ego can handle it, Big Blue could have the mother of all two TE-sets.

If it can’t, he should ask for a trade – now.

What they should do: Secondary and more secondary. Madison and Knight are both in the last flickers of twilight. Second year Aaron Ross was a find last draft, but we still don’t know if his draft-mate Michael Johnson can start fulltime at safety. Get three more DB’s of his caliber and the Dline won’t have to work quite so hard. And you always need a deep linebacking corps in this defensive scheme: they run around A LOT and you need to be able to rotate both the line and the LB’s. Offensively you can always use more bodies on the Oline and then there’s that backup QB question. With two in the fold right now, they won’t draft a QB unless there are some backroom trades for Carr or Lorenzen.

Washington Redskins: Since I’m a Redskins’ fan they will always be near the top of any list! My ‘Skins rallied after Sean Taylor’s death to make an unlikely playoff run behind a very unlikely leader in Todd Collins, who subbed for the injured Jason Taylor.

Where they stand: Frankly it’s hard to tell since Washington has yet another new coaching staff. I’ve been a Jim Zorn fan since he was the very first Seattle Seahawks’ QB and am hoping that he will be a success as a neophyte head coach. He’s installing the Walsh/Holmgren/Hasselbeck version of the West Coast offense, which should be interesting since Campbell is known as a deep ball man. The late addition of speedster Jerome Mathis at WR should help.

Let’s face it – Joe Gibbs is going to be VERY involved in all of these off-season decisions. As will Dan Snyder of course. Thus far, Mr. Moneybags has been uncharacteristically restrained in the free agent bidding. Mostly, it’s been a housecleaning in the Capitol: Brunell wisely left for New Orleans when he saw that Collins would clearly be the number 2 QB, FOUR WR’s were handed their walking papers, kicker Novak was cut and a backup corner also hit the road. As a result of trades and Snyder deals the ‘Skins have a slew of draft picks – and very little cap space. Big surprise.
What they should do: Make better draft decisions for one thing. Three of last year’s draft picks were cut in pre-season. Ouch. Even more painful is the harsh truth that this team needs help everywhere except kicking, QB and running back(s). The once again injured Oline was frankly a mess and specialized in allowing injuries to their QB. How Portis and Betts managed to run as well as they did is a mystery. West Coast is going to require more size and speed from the WR’s, which probably accounts for the mass exodus at that position.

Defensively, Gregg Williams might have left after looking at his roster if he hadn’t been passed over by Snyder and Gibbs for the Head Coaching job. It’s not that the Dline is bad (some of them are top notch); they are just old and limited in terms of agility. Last year’s rookie H.B. Blades made it over from Special Teams due to injuries at linebacker – and the kid played pretty well. But again, new coordinator Blache is going to want a bit more flexibility out of his LB’s, so my boys could use a fast backer in the draft. The secondary still has a huge hole in it after Taylor’s death, even though the pass defenders played remarkably well down the stretch. Second year Landry is a keeper at Safety and Doughty impressed also. But Carlos Rogers and Shawn Springs are too injury-prone to count on for 16 games. All, in all this may not be the first priority – but considering that we play the Giants and Cowboys twice a season (not counting the playoffs), I certainly wouldn’t neglect pass coverage in the draft.

Dallas Cowboys: Boo, Hiss. Oh, sorry – I forgot I’m supposed to be objective. Frankly, we Washington fans are thrilled that former Scouting Boss Jeff Ireland has departed to be the Dolphins (and Parcells’) GM. That guy was entirely too good at his job. Unless Jerry Jones throws it all away because he just HAS to have Darren McFadden of his alma mater Arkansas, this team is in pretty good shape. Jones is seconds away from signing Pacman Jones as of this writing and was even rumored to be considering giving up Marion Barber (also to Parcells). Rumors abound also that Romo has run off and married Jessica Simspon (I hope not for his sake) and all of Dallas is going to be out in a lynching party if their playboy QB chokes for the third straight year in the playoffs.

Where they stand: Jacques Reeves was fired at CB after being badly beaten repeatedly (hence the Pacman hunt). Jerry let second RB Julius Jones head off to Seattle, so he may hang on to Barber after all. For some reason, the team also paid $3 million dollars to Zach Thomas for a one-year deal. I sure hope they expect him to be mentoring young linebackers, because Zach has been either concussed or injured frequently the past couple of years. The kicking game is in great shape: rookie PK Nick folk went to the Pro-Bowl this February.

What they should do: The ‘Boys have two first round picks courtesy of the Brady Quinn deal last April. They need a WR, a CB and some depth at Oline. Terrell Owens will be 35 this coming season, Terry Glenn is old enough to be having injury-plagued years and TE Witten can’t do it all. Although he certainly CAN do a lot! I’d say cornerback is by far the most critical need. Unless they sign Pacman, and even then, some depth wouldn’t hurt. But you know Barbara loves those Olinemen!

Philadelphia Eagles: Please set Donovan free! Your city doesn’t appreciate him and he’s never been the right fit there. Frankly, if you don’t get a power runner and at least PRETEND to rush the ball, you could have Jaws back under center and it wouldn’t help.

Where they stand: Well, they stole DT/WR Dan Klecko from the Colts. The ‘Iggles could certainly use him in BOTH capacities! Quick, name the starting WR’s for Philly – can’t do it can you? And no, Marshall Faulk-like Brian Westbrook doesn’t count – although he’s usually the reception leader in the season. I’d say, “What is WRONG with this team?” Except that, unfortunately we think we know. Why does Andy Reid have a job? Why is he not trying to clean up his own house instead of continuing to drive the Eagles further into the ground? Let the man go take care of his family, for Pete’s sake. And if he’s too caught up in the monster of the NFL industry to see it – show him the door. Andy has final say on any moves during the draft – and that isn’t helping the team much.

Until someone in the Eagles management realizes that you have to have some wide receivers and a power runner in this decade they are never going to win it all. At least someone in the front office did something about the defense: Philly opened their wallets and brought in Boiman, Chris Clemons and former Patriot Asante Samuel on D. Good move. Upgrades all.

What they should do: Send Donovan to Chicago, draft a young QB to be second string behind Kevin Kolb (last year’s QB pick) and GET a runner!! But don’t hold your breath Philly fans. Reid and company have shown no willingness, past the T.O. debacle, to improve the pass catching or rushing game. And now they have holes on the Dline. The “real” Jim Johnson’s defense is blitz-heavy, but he can’t do it without blitzers! He has three and could use a heavier and faster DE or two to hassle Romo, Manning and Campbell in the division. Some folks are calling for a new TE, but with LJ Smith re-signed and sophomore Celek gaining experience I think there are bigger fish to fry. And smaller ones too: DB is talented but thin and both safeties were hurt almost all of last year and the team must get some kind of action going in the punting game. Reid pulled Reno Mahe back out of waiver purgatory last season because none of the other return men could hang on to the ball. Now that’s not a good sign.

Frankly, we don’t expect much from this management group in Philly. They stick stubbornly to a slippery philosophy of “draft the best talent available” when there are clear needs year after year. Sorry, Philly.

NFC South:

Carolina Panthers: I guess Vinny decided that being a backup QB is a better gig when the starter DOESN’T get hurt and you actually have to play. The 40-something long ball expert still looked strong in the pocket. Problem was, there wasn’t much of a pocket. So Mr. Testaverde decided to sit this season out in his own private gym. He says he’s retired. Uh-huh. That’ll last until some team has gone through three QB’s being carted off the field. In the meantime:

Where they stand: The cats have a slew of unrestricted free agents, most of whom they frankly should not re-sign. The offensive staff finally got rid of Drew Carter and Keary Colbert who couldn’t hang onto the football and brought back Mushin Muhammad to anchor the WR’s with speedster Steve Smith. D. J. Hackett came over to help out (we’ll see about that one) and hopefully the younger ball-catchers can step it up (particularly last year’s supposedly big Wide Receiver pick Dwayne Jarrett). Carolina did re-sign FB Brad Hoover, two of the best young Olinemen and a couple of other defenders who show promise (particularly linebacker Beason). Tory’s brother Terrence Holt came over to the secondary, as did Ricardo Colclough from New England. Sadly Kris Jenkins had to move on, but that was a good business decision, as were the departures of other “grown-up” players on the O and Dlines and the probable retirement of Mike Rucker. One surprise was the release of DeShaun Foster, who will now back up Frank Gore in San Fran.

What they should do: Trade Jarrett away to someone who still believes in his potential and get themselves a helping of this year’s rich linemen class (O and D). Carolina plays the 4-3 so they must have athletic Dlinemen. Beyond that, the safety position is not quite where it should be and the two good corners can’t do it all. A lot will depend on how well second year Center Ryan Kalil can fill Hartwig’s shoes and leadership – and how fast the line and rehabbing Delhomme can gel. The only reason to go after any of this year’s QB’s would be as a building block if they think Moore can’t cut it as the backup. I do think Moore is a real alternative as the No. 2 passer, but only if the Oline can build a wall around Delhomme.

Fox and GM Hurney have worked in lock-step over the past few seasons in acquisitions. Last year, their decisions were somewhat non-existent and the same old strategy did not work too well. John Fox is a defensive mind; I hope that he brings second year Offensive Coordinator Davidson along on the decision express this April to evaluate some of those much-needed offensive “opportunities.”

Atlanta Falcons: I’m not a pessimist but I’ve learned never to say, “It can’t get any worse.” Still, one is tempted to think that’s certainly the case in Hotlanta.

Where they stand: Whether Arthur Blank over-reacts and does something rash– like pick Darren McFadden – remains to be seen. He really should talk to Parcells about trading that first pick so that he can take QB Matt Ryan – or at least come to some sort of gentleman’s agreement about the QB. I simply cannot see Parcells wanting a rookie QB, and the Falcons are downright desperate for a winner at that position. Ryan might make sense for them, with Harrington as a backup. However, Redman is still on the roster as of today, so unless they plan to maintain 3 QB’s, team Atlanta may be planning to build around a run. And my gut tells me that, after jettisoning both Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, Blank will try for an instant home run with RB McFAdden. It’s his money, but there are far too many personal problems with this young man for me to take that kind of risk. Speaking of money, Mr. Blank has sure spent a lot of it this month, signing Jason Elam (another indication that the staff isn’t anticipating a lot of home run scores), a big-name Center in Stepanovich (pardon the pun), three defensive linemen, a TE to replace Crumpler, safety Eric Coleman and outstanding running back Michael Turner. There’s another reason they shouldn’t draft McFadden – Turner only left San Diego to start. No matter who is running or passing, the Oline is a shambles that must be addressed or the ONLY scoring will come from Elam – if he can still kick that 63-yarder.

Defensively, Atlanta just traded their best DB to Al Davis. The remnants of their former winning D are there in Brooking and Babineaux but everyone else is pretty much a cast-off or pre-retiree.

What they should do: Trade down. There are way too many holes to fill with one first round pick and two second rounders. The Oline’s biggest hole is at left tackle, especially critical if they do select right-handed Ryan at QB. Left Guard got filled last year in one of their few strokes of luck with Justin Blalock. Regardless of the McFadden pick, the birds will need a workhorse back to spell Norwood in ball-toting duties. Defensively they pretty much need something at every level. This entire mess falls on the shoulders of new GM Thomas Dimitroff, former scouting exec with the Patriots (of course). Second in command is Rich McKay – who was fired from player evaluation after last season. Now THAT ought to make for a cozy decision-making trio.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints had a slide back into embarrassment in 07 after a stellar post-Katrina season.

Where they stand: Once again, New Orleans has a chance to fix their biggest problem – the secondary. So far, signing Patriot Randall Gay is a step in the right direction. But, as is the usual question with raids on championship teams, can he perform at the same level without his stellar teammates? We’ll see. The team resigned DB Aaron Glenn to defend the pass, but I’m not sure he’s the player he used to be. The Saints also re-signed two of their better defensive players and added Jets’ LB Vilma, Carolina’s Dan Morgan and DE Bobby McCray. Mark Brunell is a good addition since his style is similar to that of Drew Brees, but somehow they let Center Jeff Faine go – to Tampa Bay of all places. The team also traded place kickers Olindo Mare for Martin Grammatica. Call me crazy, but aren’t they practically the same guy with the same range? Guess they didn’t have the same salaries.

What they should do: That Center issue is the only big problem on offense. Unless the Saints manage to land a good one in free agency between now and the draft. And, last time I checked, good centers weren’t allowed to just roam around the league. Most teams have the sense to lock theirs up. A rookie at Center will give a QB sleepless nights, but they have to fill the positions. Recently there has been a spate of excellent offensive linemen coming out of college – so perhaps there’s a good center in the mix. We wouldn’t be surprised if they opt for Fernando Velasco out of Georgia. The only other offensive need would be perhaps WR or TE since Bush isn’t impressing as a receiving back. Colston has the most experience and he’s in his third year! Check out Meachem to see if he can grow after watching from the sidelines most of the season due to a lack of discipline. That’s about it offensively. Deuce MacAllister agreed to hold off on contract demands until he’s further along in his rehab, Bush should bounce back from a subpar sophomore slump and the team re-signed Aaron Stecker so RB is in good shape.

Again, New Orleans MUST go after a Corner (or 2 or 3). Oh, and then there is the Dline, which was downright embarrassing against the run and the linebackers could use a star.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Don’t you just love it when a guy comes out of nowhere? Special Teams Player Earnest Graham stepped up big time as a real contender at running back. Isn’t it even better when a guy who got a raw deal has a great year? I’m a real Jeff Garcia fan and Philly should NEVER have gotten rid of him. So, take that – Eagles: the guy led his new team to the playoffs!

Where they stand: I’m a bit mystified at the Bucs’ free agency period. You have to love Warrick Dunn, Galloway and Garcia, but they’re all a little over the hill in football years. Granted, Gruden (also of the Walsh/Holmgren tree) runs a complicated offense that was perfect for Garcia and other smart veterans, but you have to have youth somewhere. Jeff Faine’s signing was the Saints’ loss and the Bucs’ gain unless there’s a lurking injury somewhere we don’t know about. Incidentally, aside from that lingering return game weakness, I think Matt Bryant has cemented his job after last year’s impressive kicking performances and Special Teams is in decent shape.

What they should do: Defensive line seems to be an odd specialty for a former WR coach, but Gruden has now turned around the careers of two castoffs: Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye who were both picked up for song as draft busts. Now, they need to make sure they resign Haye. Still, in the Tampa 2 D, which relies on the line to pressure QB’s, you can never have enough fresh, fast bodies up front. A reality check would be good in the secondary as well: TB lost Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber is 33 years old. I mean, I’d still throw away from Barber whenever possible, but it’s time to look ahead. Keep your eyes on second year man Tanard Jackson who plays both FS and CB, implying that he’s a heck of an athlete. Their biggest free agency pickup was Safety Eugene Wilson, so help is on the way!

Offensively, Gruden has GOT to get serious about landing some younger WR’s. In my opinion Michael Clayton was a one-hit wonder in 2004 and a major disappointment since. Several folks are recommending that Tampa Bay go for another running back, but I think that depends upon Cadillac Williams’ health.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers: I just do not know what to say about the 49ers. Their coach SEEMS to know what he’s doing; he’s been in football his whole life and he has great respect for the game. But this team is a mess and has been for Nolan’s entire tenure. Is Alex Smith a total bust? Or did he get hurt in his third season just as he was starting to turn the QB corner? I don’t know. I do know that whoever plays QB will get his bell rung frequently since Mike Martz is the new Offensive Coordinator. Better work on that quick release, dude. Of course, with all those deep routes, that will be difficult. Smith may have to go it alone with Martz since he and Nolan are apparently not soul mates, to put it mildly.

Where they stand: Again – it’s hard to even really know specifically. There is no cohesion on this team anywhere except in the running game. Bringing in DeShaun Foster was a good move; he can keep Frank Gore fresh and hopefully healthy. Actually, Foster may be a better “Marshall Faulk” type than Gore, unless Gore’s hands are softer than I have observed thus far. There are some cases in which age is OK. For instance, I still think Dilfer was a better backup than JT O’Sullivan and I don’t care how old Isaac Bruce is – I want him on my team. Not that youth is a bad thing: I’d go with young QB Shaun Hill over both Smith and O’Sullivan. But the Oline is going to get somebody killed if they don’t get a serious upgrade.

Defensively, I haven’t noticed Allan Rossom burning up the INT’s as a DB, but he’s fast as hell in the return game. Patrick Willis is a legit draft success at LB. However, considering that this team concentrated on defense in both free agency and the draft in ’07 – I was not impressed.

What they should do: Nolan won’t get much of a chance to redeem himself this year since he was stripped of personnel duties. Ouch. New GM McCoughan will get the top vote on picks.

Considering that they traded their first round pick to the Pats (now THAT’s how effective punishing spygate was), San Francisco won’t be doing much of anything for the first few hours. They’ll get one first rounder since they own Indy’s pick. Rumor has it that it’s the offense’s turn to get the new blood this year. I guess considering how just gosh-awful they were last year, this is inevitable. Look for them to concentrate on speed at WR and Oline.

Seattle Seahawks: Mike Holmgren says this is his last year; Jim Mora is the Crown Prince; Jim Zorn is gone to Washington. I don’t expect much to change in philosophy this season for the ‘Hawks.

Where they stand: The team locked up Tatupu and re-signed Locklear and Trufant – good moves. But they let PK Josh Brown go; and they let him go within the division! Bad, Bad move in my opinion. This guy has been as close to a lock as any kicker could be in the frequently soggy conditions. And I certainly don’t think Olindo Mare is the replacement they need. Of course, the biggest buzz in the Emerald City is the acquisition of both Julius Jones and TJ Duckett at RB. Hmmm. If I were Shaun Alexander I’d be packing. The team also picked up Guard Mike Wahle and TE Putzier – not exactly young lions, but solid players. And last year’s backup TE proved to be able to catch touchdowns when Pollard was hurt. Don’t expect Pollard back in the fold, so hopefully the kid can step it up.

What they should do: All-Decade Pro OT Walter Jones is 34 years old – need I say more? He’s not done yet, but they need to start looking for depth on the Oline. Ditto with 16 year vet OG Chris Gray. But they probably won’t do that in the first round. What they probably will do is try for one of the few WR’s. That group has never been the strong suit for the ‘Hawks and is now in desperate straits. The three they drafted last year were virtually useless.

Defensively, the ‘Hawks have bulked up the past couple of off-seasons. But they could still use more Dline depth – and this is a line-heavy year, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their picks were all about lines and a WR or two.

St. Louis Rams: If you had any doubts about whether or not Linehan has replaced Martz’s high-flying offense with a run-based attach, just look at the Rams’ off-season moves. The team is now stacked to rush the ball. Oddly enough, the team brought back Martz protégée Al Saunders to be the new offensive coordinator. I hope for the sake of Rams’ fans that there isn’t a big disconnect between coaching philosophy and personnel. Don’t forget that this is a team in transition at the very top with the death of Georgia Frontiere. That’s never good for stability and is probably the reason that Linehan wasn’t fired. If things don’t go well, both coordinators could be in line as successors (Al Saunders and Jim Haslett).

Where they stand: Linehan and GM Softli re-signed two Olinemen and traded for another. They pulled in one of the best PK’s in the league (stealing him in the process from Seattle), brought home accurate but oft-concussed Trent Green at QB, and let go of Isaac Bruce. Now, why you would choose to sign Reche Caldwell instead of Bruce is somewhat of a mystery. Caldwell at this point is supposed to be a possession WR, but this is the guy who dropped how many passes two years ago in the AFC Championship game? Uh-huh. Considering the lame (oh sorry, rebuilding) status of the defense, concentrating on the run is a really good idea. Their only hope is ball control: keep it AWAY from the other team!

What they should do: Well, better than the last two drafts for a start. One of the best picks, DT Carriker is playing Nose Tackle when he’s truly a DE. So, let’s start with a real nose tackle and then do something about the linebackers – especially if they switch to the 3-4 D. Since there are some good and big D-guys out there, look for a few to land in St Louie. Offensively, I’d look for another big RB to backup Jackson. Steven is awesome, but he’s getting too beat up and the last two drafted backs are not really up and coming stars. A couple of young Olinemen couldn’t hurt either. And it’s about those WR’s………

Arizona Cardinals: You just have to love this team’s spirit. I will NEVER forget watching Kurt Warner finish the season wearing a huge brace on his left arm. It reminded me entirely too much of the Black Knight Monty Python sketch. With a bum ankle, damaged thumb and one arm, Warner’s still in there slinging! I know Leinart is the starter, but that kind of toughness is contagious. Under new coaches Whisenhunt and Grimm, this group has gone from perennial doormats to contenders.

Where they stand: Every desert fan ought to be on their knees in gratitude for the re-signing of WR star Larry Fitzgerald. Credit former coach Denny Green with this incredible receiving duo and the presence of Warner. Sometimes I think I never want to meet Kurt Warner. If he isn’t one of the most decent and gracious guys in the world I’d be SO disappointed! Leinart could learn a little grace from his mentor and backup.

The Cards re-signed quite a few guys, including some young WR’s and two Olinemen (probably the two Russ liked, ya think?) and LB presence Karlos Dansby. They also have a large number of unrestricted free agents and guys who went elsewhere: typical of a team still under new management.

What they should do: Pass Defense! And more Pass Defense! Unfortunately it’s not a great draft for safeties – and so far they haven’t gotten one through trade or free agency. But there are a few corners, so look for the Cardinals to pick one up. Help pressuring the passer would also help and the team did sign Travis LaBoy at that position. Not exactly a household name, but they could easily know something I don’t. They also re-signed DE’s Schobel and Tafoya, both of whom have shown flare on the line. I think their only offensive need is a real deal backup RB. Edge has been admirable carrying the load all alone in Arizona but this every down man will slow down soon.

NFC North:

Green Bay Packers: Across the league, the off-season is a time of hope and renewal. A time when anything is possible for the season ahead. Except in Green Bay.

Where they stand: Unless you have been in a cave (or sequestered with a non-football fan) you know that the Pack will be without Brett Favre for the first time in, well, a very VERY long time. I’m one of the people who think that Aaron Rogers is a capable successor as far as QB skills. Frankly, I pity him more in the personality department. Charm does not seem to be Aaron’s long suit. But I digress: the guy can play, he’s just injury prone. IF he can stay healthy I think he’ll be fine. He has a tremendous supporting cast. If he is hurt, right now backup Nall is a free agent while my sources say that Aaron Brooks might be on the way to Packerland now that his shoulder is finally healed. I think he’s a pretty good fit in Wisconsin. Incidentally, rookie kicker Mason Crosby actually made me rethink my condemnation of the Ryan Longwell trade last season.

What they should do: The only hole really is at TE. Donald Lee is good, but there’s no backup now that Bubba Franks has moved on. Otherwise the perennial and ubiquitous need at Oline applies here as well: the guards played well, but they were in too much of a shuffling game. I don’t know if the team would be willing to pay big for a guard but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Defensively, a strong side linebacker would make these three a fearsome group for opposing offenses and some youth to grow into CB is due. No offense intended to Woodson and Harris. Those guys are terrific, but they can’t go on forever. The Dline can always use depth in a climate where energy is used up just maintaining a survival level body temp through the game.

Minnesota Vikings: This is another one of those mystery teams. Jackson is so uneven when healthy that no one can tell if he’s the real deal at QB– and he was hurt half the time. His next season will be telling if he can stay on the field. The team released Kelly Holcomb and signed Gus Frerotte, sending clear signals that the job belongs solely to Jackson.

Where they stand: The Vikes did a major housecleaning in March. FB Richardson (who’s, what? 98 in football years?), talented but too often injured safety Mike Doss, troubled Tank Williams, speedy but small Mewelde Moore, disappointing WR Troy Williamson, linebacker Dontarious Thomas and Safety Dwight Smith all got the axe (or the trade). They kept rising star WR Sydney Rice and of course struck gold with Adrian Peterson, who spent most of last season taking over the NFL highlight reels. There are a few other quite promising young players sprinkled throughout the last couple of drafts. They picked up a #1 WR in Bernard Berrian (stolen from the Bears) and Maurice Hicks to help with the RB duties.

What they should do: Pass rush please. Any kind of pass rush. No wonder Favre broke Dan Marino’s TD record in the dome – not one Viking could chase down a 37-year-old QB. (The Purple People Eaters are putting bags on their heads.) I’m a big fan of the Tampa 2, but it won’t succeed without smart and athletic corners and a strong rush. Minnesota could use help on both those levels.

Offensively, I think they must replace Richardson with a younger version of himself at Fullback (much easier said than done when you’re talking about the vanishing art of FB) or there might not be so many holes for Adrian. We all know he’s a star, let’s keep him a star. Try spelling him a bit more often with Chester Taylor – or whoever ends up as the bigger back behind Peterson. Then they should maybe get a slot receiver and/or pass-catching TE since Shiancoe isn’t exactly Dallas Clark.

Detroit Lions: Aiy yai yai. Another new offensive scheme is incoming. Just between us, Jon Kitna may live longer in a different system – although Detroit does seem to have FINALLY (about 100 first round WR picks later) found a complement for Roy Williams. #11 did re-sign by the way, which should be a relief to the Motown faithful.

Where they stand: Whenever there’s a change in leadership you’ll see a lot of personnel shifting for a few seasons and the Lions are no different this March. Kevin Jones led the releases and has yet to be signed as of this writing, although we’re sure somebody will pick him up. Former Pat tackle Damien Woody left for the Jets, Shaun Rogers departed to Cleveland and JT O’Sullivan signed with San Francisco. The rest of the clean sweep is on defense, perhaps reflecting Marinelli’s desire for more toughness.

Keepers included what looks like the new RB tandem of Tatum Bell and Aveion Cason and CB Keith Smith. The cats picked up TE Michael Gaines to add toughness there, plus three new defenders who should help tremendously: LB Gilbert Gardner, serious DB Brian Kelly from Tampa Bay and Chatric Darby and Dwight Smith at line and safety respectively.

What they should do: Stop changing $%#&*^ ! Matt Millen (much as it pains me to criticize a former HOG) really needs to stick with a coach, a system and some veterans in Motor City. Give the guys a chance. I’m concerned about new Ocoordinator Colletto’s stated desire to play ball control and not the deep pass. Well, that would be great if you hadn’t spent five years building a passing machine and didn’t have Jon Kitna, Roy Williams and Calvin Johnston on your team. Are they supposed to block, for pity’s sake?

One hopes with this kind of active free agency that the team will focus on a few needs and not go nuts in the draft as in previous years. But Millen is still in charge so hold onto your seats, folks.
I would think those needs are pass rushers (yet another Tampa 2 team without the front four pressure needed to make it work – kinda defeats the purpose, boys), CB (yes, Kelly is a help, but more is better in a secondary that was this weak), they could use a linebacker in a draft not heavy with linebackers so don’t be surprised if there are more trades to come. (BTW – the Lions are, or were, $25 million under the cap) And, OF COURSE, Oline. I speak here on behalf of Mrs. Kitna – who probably likes her clean-cut husband enough to want him around another few years.

Speaking of QB – I’m not at all sure that a guy drafted by Martz for his system (Drew Stanton) will survive the purges of a new coordinator who wants ball control. There are quite a few QB’s in this draft who will go lower than huge money. Detroit might want one of them.

Chicago Bears: I am a big Lovie Smith fan. BUT…Da Bears are hands down the winners of the “What were you thinking?” award for free agency.
Where they stand: I understand letting Griese go – Orton has proven himself to be pretty respectable at backup QB. But to keep Grossman? AND to get rid of his deep threat (Berrian) and his safety blanket (Muhammad)? THEN they sign two guys with athletic ability but who are either old (Marty Booker) or in a serious slump (Brandon Lloyd)? Meanwhile speedster and return guy Rasheed Davis is a free agent? Huh??? And where’s the admission that Cedric Benson is a bust? Get rid of the guy – he’s either under achieving or hurt. TE is a little better with both Clark and last year’s rookie Greg Olsen in the fold.

At least they re-signed Lance Briggs. That’s about all I can say for a Bears’ D that fell to 28th in the league. (I can hear Buddy Ryan and Mike Singletary grinding their teeth now.)

What they should do: For a team with not a single viable safety, there wasn’t much help there from free agency. And this isn’t a deep draft at that position. I would hope that more trading would come for this hole in the secondary.

Otherwise this team will undoubtedly draft more than one Olineman. At least I hope they do. They have both Guard and Tackle problems. I mentioned both the running back and quarterback weaknesses didn’t I?
Yes, perhaps I did.

AFC East:

New England Patriots: I can’t help it – this team gets on my last nerve. Of course, it’s only because they win so much and I don’t live there so I don’t cheer for them. Do you think the fact that I’m a huge Yankee fan ever since I lived in New York makes this statement just a bit hypocritical?
Oh well, too bad.

Where they stand: As loaded as the Pats are with talent and (much as “it pleasures me none to say it”) exemplary coaching, their biggest question mark going into 2008 is morale. Losing game #19 had to be a HUGE blow and we’ll have to wait and see how bad the hangover is. Swirling in the middle of that headache has to be heartbroken free agent Junior Seau. He’ll either retire or hang on for one more year. It certainly looks as if he can still play, but does he believe the Patriots can imitate the Buffalo Bills and come right back to the Super Bowl after losing it? Depending upon the team mindset – they might. Troy Brown will probably retire, unless Craft is smart enough to beg him to join the coaching staff. How many men can play WR AND DB in this league for this long? Not many. I’d sign him up in a minute to mentor the youngsters. Besides, New England owes it to him – not that this means much in business.

The AFC Champs were quite busy in free agency – re-signing a lot of both stars and staples. Yes, Randy Moss will be back for more fireworks with Brady. Italian stallion Tedy Bruschi can play on the field before games with his sons for one more year and Larry Izzo will continue to anchor the Special Teams. The team did some inter-divisional raiding by stealing defender Victor Hobson from the Jets.

New England both lost and gained secondary players, trading Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay for Fernando Bryant, Tank Williams and Jason Webster. Not to offend the gentlemen, but that’s a step down. I haven’t heard yet whether hard-hitting Rodney Harrison will keep playing: Mr. Push-the-Rules is 35. But this is yet another team that needs safety depth, if not actual safety help.

What they should do: Oline. What, you say? Everyone except right tackle Kaczure went to the Pro Bowl last year! Yeah, and none of them could keep the Giants’ Dline out of Brady’s face after having similar troubles versus the Eagles and the Ravens. ‘Nuff said.

Otherwise, this is obviously an outstanding offense. But I for one have questions about Maroney’s status. He seems a solid running back, but is certainly not beloved by his bosses. And he is not a power back. Both before and after Corey Dillon, this team’s only offensive weakness has been the lack of an up the middle rusher. I would expect the Pats to go for one of the 10 or so good young backs in this draft. Except that, since the power back is not in vogue, there aren’t too many Brandon Jacobs out there for the picking.

Linebacker. I feel somewhat sacrilegious saying this about a team sporting Seau, Bruschi and Vrabel. But I think their combined age is like 190. Not the wave of the future there. Out of 9 draft picks last year, only two played for the team and might have a future: Oscar Lua at ILB and Meriweather at Safety. Lua was hurt and Meriweather is not a proven commodity – a somewhat disappointing ‘07 draft.

Special Teams is in great shape so other than the aforementioned secondary issues, the Patriots could do well with their lower round picks. Dour as he is, Belichick is apparently open to input from respected GM Pioli. Robert Craft didn’t build this empire by being a fool: he has top leaders and he lets them do their job without interference.

Miami Dolphins: Ordinarily a 1-15 team wouldn’t follow the Conference Champs in my breakdown. Ah, but Parcells’ latest reclamation project holds the biggest and brightest key to this draft: the number one pick. Not known as a fan of rookies, the Tuna finds himself faced with the prospect of paying WAY too much money for one. The worst part is that not a single team has yet shown interest in trading for the first pick. I hate to applaud Jerry Jones, but he’s right – no one WANTS a top five pick anymore. They are too expensive for the risk. What used to be a tool designed to increase parity is now a hot potato with franchise financial ruin written all over it. (And why, exactly, did the owners’ meeting just spend a week discussing player hair length instead of a rookie salary cap? Yeah, I know, it’s an exaggeration – but STILL!)

Where they stand. Ironically for a team with this record, the Fins have drafted well over the past several years. So there is some talent – just not a team’s worth. Fortunately, at least some of the talent may fit the new coaches, which is not always the case. Ronnie Brown is a keeper when healthy and Cam Cameron at least did one thing right when he picked PR/WR Ginn last April. More amazingly, Miami landed a second round Center who started from Day 1 for the team! But the “quarterback of the future” probably doesn’t have a future in Southern Florida: John Beck not only struggled after Green went out, he is also not a Parcells’ guy. Is your house on the market yet, John?

The team is old on D and too spotty on offense. Not a good combo as reflected in their record. Parcells will do what he always does: bring in big, physical guys and muscle the team out of the cellar. He’s already started by raiding as many Cowboys’ coaches and players as he can get his hands on. In total, Big Bill has added 13 veterans split pretty evenly between offense and defense. Fourteen players received pink slips, including former defensive cornerstone Zach Thomas and both backup QB’s.

What they should do: Frankly it’s hard to say. Parcells may not be someone I want to work for (I’m honestly afraid of the guy – although I LOVE to listen to him talk about football; he’s the single most illuminating analyst I’ve ever heard), but he is not someone whose football decisions I’m likely to second-guess.

Here’s the key dilemma. The defense has been eviscerated and the best player remaining is making Bill cringe as he jitterbugs on “Dancing with the Stars.” The Oline is a mess, the RB is frequently injured, and the best WR was traded away last season. Oh – and there’s no QB. Ahhh, but they did trade for Josh McCown who still wants to be a starter and didn’t look bad in Oakland last season. Could Parcells and new head coach Sporano really think he’s the franchise QB? Somehow I doubt it. But will they gamble everything on Matt Ryan from Boston College with the number one overall? Just doesn’t feel like a Tuna kind of move. But what’s the alternative? Outside of some backroom dealing (which we think likely), will they really give that kind of money to Jake Long for the Oline or Chris Long for the Dline – or take a risk that a guy like RB Darren McFadden can stay on the straight and narrow in MIAMI of all places? Hmmmm.

If I have to guess, I say Parcells and GM Jeff Ireland will find some owner or GM or Executive with more juice than brains who will take that pick off their hands. They’ll trade down and end up with at least two more picks (don’t forget they still have a top pick from San Diego as a result of the Chambers’ trade last year). My bet is either they’ll convince Jerry Jones to give up Marion Barber for speedy but chancy McFadden OR will pawn either the RB or QB Ryan off on Atlanta’s Arthur Blank. Unless Jerry J. has lost his mind I think it will be the latter.

Miami is more likely to take one of the lower-ranked QB’s that they’ve thoroughly dissected. Some analysts favor strong-armed pocket passer Andre Woodson from Kentucky. If, and only if, Parcells, Ireland and Sporano ALL love Matt Ryan the team MIGHT go with the QB who is reputedly talented, smart and a Boy Scout. But he’d better be Peyton Manning if they do that. Or at least Eli.

Since writing the above, the hot news out of South Beach is that the Dolphins have opened negotiations with Olineman Jake Long. They are careful to point out that the Dolphins, “May have similar conversations with several players.” I guess if you’re forced to use that number 1 pick, you might as well take a page out of Charlie Casserley’s book (he of the infamous Mario Williams Houston draft) and make a deal early. Now, see THIS seems like something Coach, excuse me – Executive, Parcells would do. If we’re all really lucky, he and Ireland will break this ridiculous rookie salary nonsense all to you know where. Stay tuned.

New York Jets: I love Gang Green. They’re the scrappy and unpolished runt brother of the New York Giants. Even the NEW arena still goes by Giants Stadium! Talk about a slap in the face. Their fans are blue-collar and take no prisoners. And the team plays with heart and abandon. In fact, last year they even abandoned winning.

Where they stand. I’m also a Pennington fan. He’s classy, remarkably hard-working, one of the most accurate passers in the NFL – and he does not belong in a Jets’ uniform. Too refined. These guys need a brawler. (Where’s Jim Kelly when southern New York needs him?) Oh, and here’s a clue, Kellen Clemens isn’t it either. Neither one has the arm strength to play 8 games a year in New York wind. Trade Chad to St. Louis or Seattle – where he can back up someone who plays the game he plays, which is West Coast accuracy. Pick up one of the less polished freshman QB’s and let him sling it. Won’t happen though. The team has spent a fortune on a “win now” squad that resembles one of Dan Snyder’s spending excesses. With probably about as much chance of immediate success.

Mangini has secured his lines around three VERY experienced free agent acquisitions: Olinemen Damien Woody and Alan Faneca and DT Kris Jenkins. If these guys stay healthy they’ll whip the whole unit into shape. IF. The biggest loss is linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Speaking of lines, Mangini may be about to unload DeWayne Robertson (who is a borderline bust on the Dline) onto Denver. Mangini has thus far refused to change his defensive scheme so it’s about time they at least changed the personnel to fit the system.

What they should do: The biggest problems are Dline and QB. WR and RB are in pretty good shape, as is special teams. The last two drafts have landed some good young Olinemen to fit in with the above vets, and the secondary is respectable. Vilma is a loss, so they could also use a linebacker in a draft class not loaded with them. Or perhaps one of those cigar-smoking deals with a team loaded at LB who wants a RB?

Fantasy scenarios. Character issues might derail McFadden long enough for him to end up a Jet (in New York City – gee you can’t get in trouble THERE can you?) But with Thomas Jones and Leon Washington in the backfield I’ll be disappointed if they bite.

The Big Apple with positively ROCK if either Howie Long’s son Chris or BC QB Ryan is still available when the J-E-T-S pick at # 6. Both are a long shot and both would be a home run for the team – not to mix sports metaphors, but you get the point. Unless Atlanta eschews quick improvement with McFadden and goes to the future with a QB – the Rams, Raiders and Chiefs all theoretically HAVE their QB’s. The Dolphins, the Chiefs and the Rams all need Oline more than Dline, but either Miami or the Raiders could pick the junior Long at DE from Virginia. However it is possible. Expect LOTS of Green and White Jerseys at Radio City Music Hall hoping for either scenario. But if the team bites on Ryan (remember they passed on Matt Leinart 2 years ago), hope he’s got the arm-strength he’s reported to have and mental toughness to go with his football nerve. It’s rough playing QB in the Big City – just as Elijah M.

Buffalo Bills: Now here’s a nice safe place for Darren McFadden. Almost as safe as Green Bay. Unfortunately neither team really needs a runner. What Buffalo needs is an infusion of Jim Kelly attitude and a return to winning. Last year’s surprise breakout QB Trent Edwards is a definite step in the right direction. His decision-making as a rookie was downright striking. I’m not saying he’s Peyton Manning, but he was smooth and confident (which can be hard to do in a blizzard). Let’s not forget that this team dominated Dallas in Week #5 last season, so they aren’t as weak as people tend to think. In fact, I believe they are only a couple of pieces short on the gridiron chessboard.

Where they stand. No less than NINE defenders were free agents as of April 7th. Five more had already been traded or released. And the three biggest acquisitions were also defenders: Marcus Stroud, Kawika Mitchell and William James. Wow. Some serious shifting happening by Lake Erie.

If the Bills do not one other thing offensively this April, they MUST find a top notch WR to play opposite deep threat Lee Evans. Without this, Evans faces the same triple coverage that Carolina’s Steve Smith has seen for the past few years.

The rest of the draft will probably go toward the D given both the mass exodus and that fact that they ranked 27th against the run last season – in a division that HAS to run the ball. Not good. There are quite a few excellent Dlinemen behind Chris Long (who will be gone by the time the Bills are on the clock). They really should try to get two! In 2006 the Bills took DT McCargo, who gets mixed reviews even when healthy. I think he has potential, but must have help.

A couple of notes on Special Teams. One of my favorite NFL players is Bills punter Brian Moorman. He’s smart, accurate and unflappable. He makes great decisions when things go wrong in the snow – and he’s funny as can be in an interview or at the Pro Bowl. Terrence McGee is a great return man and sophomore John Wendling defies anyone to get past him on the opposing team’s punt and kick returns. In 2007, this unit was one of the team’s strengths and should be so again.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts: As a Dungy, Manning and just general Colts’ fan, I truly want to believe that it was injuries which sidelined our favorite blue horses last January. I don’t want to think that Harrison is past his prime and that the lack of an experienced slot receiver to replace Stokely was enough to derail this offense – well, as much as it can be derailed.

Where they stand. The only real contender still at free agent is up and coming WR Aaron Moorehead. I hope they re-sign the kid; he had potential. I’m sure Manning breathed a sigh of relief the moment Dallas Clark “John Hancocked” his new 6-year deal. Indy added 9 new players no one has ever heard of. The two most significant are QB Josh Betts (who?) and kicker Shane Andrus. I guess Tom Moore finally admitted that whatever that weird experiment at backup QB known as Jim Sorgi was – it hadn’t worked. Sorgi must be a truly great guy and breathtaking with the headset and clipboard, because for years every Colts fan has lived in abject terror that he be forced into the game. I will have to do some serious research into Betts – now that he is a snap away from replacing #18. The real question is: can he do that finger wagging/arm-flapping thing before the snap?

As usual, this top team lost a plethora of prime players: LB’s Boiman and Morris, DT’s Klecko and MacFarland, and TE Utecht. All will be missed. The D struggled frequently up front without Freeney and Bob Saunders IS after all a Safety and not a linebacker (something that’s easy to forget as he flies around the field tackling runners). Utecht was a solid blocker and a terrific secret weapon when Moore and Manning needed a surprise WR.

What they should do. It seems odd to think that the Colts must have a solid draft, but I think they have to get very lucky. Fortunately, it’s a deep year for Oline and Dline and I’m sure they’ll start with a big guy to replace MacFarland, trying yet again to acquire a prototypical run stuffer. Pass blocking is always a must when Peyton is the king on your chessboard. I expect the Colts to land one of the lower ranked running backs to spell Addai and maybe be more of a typical third down guy. And then there’s that slot receiver issue…….

There is no reason not to expect to see Manning gesticulating well into January 2009. Now that Brett has ridden his tractor off into the sunset (sniff, sniff, sob), Manning is the best show in town. Don’t miss it.

Tennessee Titans: Jeff Fisher has gone from brunette to salt-and-pepper during his 13 years in Tennessee. Just in case you men wonder, yes, we notice who the intriguingly attractive coaches are – and Fisher definitely qualifies, beard or no beard. But back to football. His teams are no-nonsense, fundamentalist, never give up type guys and this year’s group is no exception.

Where they stand. Yes, the team did manage to re-sign monster in the middle DT Haynesworth – but they lost both Odom and LaBoy so Dline remains a significant need. I’m sorry, but bringing back Jevon Kearse had better be intended as a teaching tool and not as an expectation of past performance, to quote our financial brethren. The linebackers are in good shape and Fisher and GM Reinfeldt replaced Pacman with Chris Carr from the Raiders. Carr is not only a decent DB, he is a stellar return specialist. DB is always an issue in a division featuring Manning, Wayne, Harrison and company so they might still be shopping. Luckily, the Titans scored last season by drafting Safety Michael Griffin, who is a young man to be watched.

Offensively, the team added TE Alge Crumpler, who should fit right in as a Titan. I think if Crumpler can keep his weight down and his mobility up he will be the same safety valve for Young that he was for Vick in Atlanta. I like this trade. With Chris Brown gone, RB LenDale White is the man. He needs a backup.

Did you know that Tennessee’s number one WR is Roydell Williams? No kidding —- WHO??? Exactly. Need I say more?

What they should do: We’ve established that the team needs help across the Dline – they also lost OLG Jacob Bell and therefore need some help on that side of the trenches. Then there is the little matter of surrounding their young QB with just a few more weapons – like at least one ball-catcher someone has heard of.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Del Rio was just rewarded with a long-term contract. Good for him – Jack’s fiery ex-linebacker style has really infused passion into this formerly finesse group. Garrard’s elevation to starter also helped. Now can we please find someone who can consistently get down the field and catch the ball? (I’m sorry, ex-Viking WR Troy Williamson doesn’t count unless Coordinator Koetter sees something I don’t.) Jerry Porter MIGHT help, but he’s got a little too many T.O. tendencies if you ask me. WR’s wanted in the AFC South!! Come on guys, you’ve got good defenses, good weather, good coaches – and teams that HAVE to pass to keep up with Indy! Where better to play?

Where they stand. To be fair, last year’s WR pick is coming back from a knee injury. But that is balanced out by the loss of Ernest Wilford. RB is a lock with Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor and this team has one of the few rock-solid FB’s in Greg Jones. Let’s just do some work on someone for Garrard to throw it up for and someone to make sure no one throws him down. TE Marcedes Lewis showed flashes of potential and then sputtered, so an upgrade there through free agency or the draft is in order.

Defensively, they remain strong but are aging, especially at passrusher in this traditional 4-3 D.

What they should do: In general a little creativity on the offense is in order now that the team has its first real QB since Brunell was young. Don’t hold your breath, though.

Defensively let’s inculcate some youth and speed. If you’re going to play the 4-3 these days, the line has GOT to be fast enough to get around the corner and sack (or at least pressure) Manning, Young, Schaub twice a year. Then the LB’s have to be fast and versatile – there’s only three of them back there! Middle Linebacker Mike Peterson is/was one of the best at captaining this unit, but he has become a serious injury risk and at least needs an understudy. This is still a fearsome bunch, but they can’t carry the team alone. Nor do they have to if the offense gets upgraded.

Houston Texans: Competing in this division is tough, but Kubiak is slowly building his squad into, well, ALMOST a contender. In the NFC, the Texans would be wild card material. In the AFC South they are the ugly stepsister.

Where they stand. Offensively, Kubiak has spent his first couple of campaigns adding Oline and a (probably) viable QB. As an interesting subplot, Houston stole backup Jags’ QB Quinn Gray, who showed real flashes of the right stuff last season when Garrard missed some time. This situation will bear watching, especially if Schaub gets hurt again. But all attempts to land a WR who can complement Andre Johnson have failed. OK, #80 is probably impossible to match – but you know what we mean. Someone who can make a defense believe you MIGHT not be throwing the ball to Andre every third down. Jerome Mathis is the closest they’ve come – and he just became a Washington Redskin. Andre Davis showed promise, but is still really a #3. This is a team who released their Center and their 2 backup Centers. What was the thinking there? Kubiak and newly pilfered (from Denver) Oline master Alex Gibbs must have been totally unimpressed at that position. But I don’t see where a replacement has been found and that’s a little frightening if their intention is to start a rookie.

Defensively, the team is building an impressive group but really needs help in the secondary – again, remember whom they play in their own division. A couple of last year’s rookies are promising, but still green. Sophomore Fred Bennett and re-signed Will Demps are the strength of the unit – and that’s not nearly enough. The team is totally vindicated for having chosen Mario Williams number one overall two years ago, but what about Left DE? Uh-huh.

I must note that PK Kris Brown is one of the absolute best at his job and that could win them at least a couple of close ones every year.

What they should do. It’s time to get serious about running back(s) guys. There’s been a parade of has-beens and frequently injured two-set backs trying to carry the load. There are quite a few good RB’s in this year’s class – BUY ONE! Follow that up with an OT or two and a DE. Then do the best you can with some secondary picks. Then hope Manning decides to take a week off, LenDale White gets turf toe and that the Jags don’t bother to pick up any WR’s. That might get you over .500 – finally.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers: There’s no doubt that the Steelers are the team to beat here. They just haven’t quite found their complete stride under Tomlin. Of course, the loss of Willie Parker turned out to be a mortal wound for the 2007 season. I’m of the mind that this is why Steel Town picked up scatback Mewelde Moore from Minnesota this off-season.

Where they stand. Alan Faneca bolted in free agency as expected. Lack of surprise doesn’t mitigate the hole this leaves on the Oline and on Roethlisberger’s blind side. The entire line has gone downhill since winning it all in Super Bowl XL, and Faneca’s departure makes it official – the line needs to be overhauled. And fast. Despite Big Ben’s “I want one too, Mommy” overtures (about getting one of those bright, shiny, tall, thin WR’s), this offense is in good shape as long as the line can be solidified. This is probably why Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert brought in veteran Center Justin Hartwig, which will undoubtedly pay off. The question is, how quickly. Steel Town is in the zenith of their talent arc and should be one of those teams that are “winning now.”

Few defensive coordinators are as beloved by players and fans as blitz architect Dick LeBeau. Take a look at this guy sometime – he’s in his 70’s and looks like a 55 year old who works out! As long as he has athletic safeties, LeBeau will continue to prey on opposing QB’s. But he definitely needs some young guns at DE to execute his passer pursuits.

What they should do. No mystery really surrounds the Steelers since their key skill positions are in such good shape. As a Dungy Tampa 2 protégée, I think Tomlin will try for a better athlete or two at CB. Beyond that, expect to see several LARGE men of both persuasions (as in offensive and defensive lines, folks) holding up those gold and black jerseys as this perennial powerhouse beefs up both sides of the trenches. Note to Radio City draft staff –stock up on XXXXXLarge!

Cleveland Browns: Welcome back to the NFL, Cleveland! The resurgent Browns were the feel good story of the AFC in 2007.

Where they stand. Ironically, the QB who emerged to lead Rod Chudzinski’s pass-happy offense wasn’t pretty boy Brady Quinn, but journeyman Derek Anderson. GM Phil Savage wisely wasted no time re-signing the man who led them ALMOST to the playoff promised land. Quinn won’t sit on the bench for more than one more year. Cleveland could easily find itself in a Drew Brees/Phillip Rivers situation at the end of this coming season. One of them will move on. But in the meantime, the offense is in good hands with Anderson. Romeo Crennel and Savage also re-signed RB Jamal Lewis, who enjoyed a Renaissance season by the lake. The Rust Belt city hit pay dirt with first pick OLT Joe Thomas, who was no small (ha ha) factor in Anderson’s success in the pocket.

Defensively, Savage and Crennel scored two HUGE DT’s in Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. Opposing running backs beware. Coach Romeo got rid of several DB’s so he should be on the hunt in the secondary – just like everyone else in 2007. The difference this year is that players may actually WANT to come to Cleveland. For a coach whom we all expected to be fired, Crennel is well on his way to turning it all around in Cleveland.

What they should do. Romeo wants to stay with the 3-4 D, so Rogers and Williams should see plenty of action, probably in rotation with the older Robaire Smith and Orpheus Roye. Or perhaps Crennel would prefer his OLB’s to rush the passer and might go for one of those later in the draft (he has a good old one in McGinnest and a good young one in Wimbley). One of the reasons that Cleveland was so aggressive defensively in the off-season is that, due to the Brady Quinn trade, they do not pick until #53. Sometime in day 2, the Browns really should look at a young RB or two to work behind Lewis.

Cincinnati Bengals: If the Browns were a feel-good story – the Bengals were nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. The defense continued to be practically an embarrassment while, even with their myriad weapons, the offense couldn’t keep up with the competition – which is shocking in a team that was a legit AFC Championship candidate two short years ago.

Where they stand. I don’t know if signing WR Doug Gabriel on April 8th was designed to replace (finally) cut criminal Chris Henry or to remind certain other discontented WR’s in their clubhouse that everyone is replaceable. (See Ocho On No! in Catch the Buzz: Commentaries.) Either way it was a good move. Gabriel has been somewhat overlooked as a legit talent and this new start may be just what he needs – of course, having a legit QB to throw him the ball won’t hurt either!

To say that the Bengals’ D has been non-existent is hyperbole by only the barest bit. I fail to understand why, when a team has a glaring weakness that has hobbled them for a season, the management doesn’t take drastic off-season action. This unit hasn’t stopped a running back in SEVERAL seasons and the issue remains securely in the forefront of Cincy’s needs. Last year, Marvin Lewis and deeply involved owner Mike Brown landed two good DB’s: Leon Hall and Nedu Ndukwe. Both young men contributed significantly. Now it’s about stopping the run. Frankly I’d settle for tackling the runner occasionally, just on the basis that if you hit them and put your arms around them, they’re going down at least SOME of the time.

What they should do: It should come as no shock that I think the most glaring need is Dline and linebackers. In the midst of the rubble, the team can’t seem to make up it’s mind whether to play a 4-3 or a 3-4 next season. Whatever – just get somebody who can tackle. Highly touted pass rusher Vernon Gholston is an Ohio State guy who might improve fan relations as both a local hero and someone who can play.
Otherwise, the striped cats still need another WR. Even with Gabriel, that’s still only two ballcatchers if #85 does leave town – on a team built to throw the ball. Speaking of which, it’s time to make sure you have a backup for Rudi Johnson. Last year’s RB pick tore his ACL and is still on the mend. There is a longshot scenario in which Darren McFadden might fall to the Bengals. What the heck – he’ll fit right in with THIS group. A little youth on the Oline wouldn’t hurt either, unless you want to lose Palmer again. Willie Anderson is a career all-Pro, but he can’t last forever and their Center has been hurt too often. So, that’s what? 16 draft picks needed? Hmmmm.

Pull out the checkbook Mr. Brown. Your team needs help.

Baltimore Ravens. Ozzie Newsome had an awesome draft in ’07: all of the picks stayed with the Ravens and most worked their way into major or starting roles. That is the best record I’ve seen since starting to research this preview! Mr. Newsome seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to first round draft picks. Good thing Ozzie has a handle on life in Baltimore, because the coaching choice was a bit of a shock. John Harbaugh, brother of Jim and former Philly assistant????? Wow.

Where they stand. Troy Smith threw for 370 yards, 2 TD’s and O INT’s in his two outings as a starter last season (1 of which was a win). I think that’s good enough to make him the #2 – at least or a while. McNair is one of my favorite all-time QB’s, but the injuries are catching up with him and he will undoubtedly miss at least some time again in 2008. However, the team could probably use a second choice since the jury is still out on Smith. I expect them to pick up one of the lower round QB’s – unless Ozzie’s crystal ball tells him one of the top 5 is the next Steve McNair. Remember, not just any QB will do here: they must be tough enough to help the offense pull even with the D in respect. It might be worth noting that one of Newsome’s few misses in the draft was named Kyle Boller.
Defensively, this is a group of superstars in the waning light of their careers. The good news is that the team did manage to re-sign Terrell Suggs so pass-rusher isn’t as necessary as it might have been.
Kicker Matt Stover carries entirely too much of the scoring load in the Harbor City, but at least he carries it REALLY well.

What they should do: Find the Fountain of Youth – or pick up some younger defenders. McAlister, Rolle, Lewis, Reed – all getting up there. Say what you want about the Bears and Tampa Bay – this unit was a cornucopia of intimidation and sheer athletic brilliance and their inevitable “maturation” is unfortunate. Also unfortunate is the amount of money currently tied up in the group. The black birds need some cornerbacks desperately. The passrush got a lifeline now that Suggs is back; they only need to get some backups unless Trevor Pryce can’t be 100% after his injuries. Left Outside LB Johnson hasn’t performed up to the standard of the unit and if a LB falls at the right place in the draft board don’t be surprised to see a young gun fall into a vat of crab cakes.

Another stud nearing retirement is OLT Jonathan Ogden. At least get someone to understudy – or McNair won’t make it to week 3. With a horse of Willis McGahee’s caliber and a QB needing protection, you HAVE to be serious about your Oline. And let’s face it, the Ravens have GOT to upgrade at WR or this team will continue to be a run, run, toss it to Todd Heap and pray offense. Which doesn’t cut it in the big leagues folks.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: Remember when the Broncos and the Raiders used to Duke it out for playoff berths? Remember when the Broncos had Elway and the Raiders had Stabler? The Orange Crush? Matuzak and Alzedo? What? You’re under 40? Then you won’t remember. Sadly, it’s been 10 years since the Horses were in the Super Bowl and 20 since the Silver and Black were perennial powerhouses. How sad.

Where they stand. The Denver faithful are cautiously optimistic that Jay Cutler MAY be the next great QB in the Mile High City. Maybe. If they’d give the guy a defense we might find out. Shanahan just landed another reclamation project in DeWayne Robertson from the Jets. Think he got tired of rotating ex-Browns through his defense?

The Broncos have taken a surgical approach to the off-season thus far. They released WR Javon Walker and brought in speedy but less than sure-handed Keary Colbert. They released Safety Ferguson and brought in CB Marion McCree and Safety Marquand Manuel. Do you see the pattern here? Actually, with this much overall talent, I think it’s a wise approach. Or perhaps Mike is just tired of paying a fortune to high-tag free agents only to have them fizzle in the Rockies. One does wonder what Shanahan saw to make him get rid of Bronco legend PK Jack Elam – but Elam has to be getting close to the end of his outstanding and game-saving career so I am surprised but not too shocked. Right now Matt Prater out of Stanford is on the roster as the kicker, so either Shanahan thinks the kid is the next Gostowski – or he’ll go shopping the second day of the draft.

Offensively, the famous Denver cut, oops – zone-blocking scheme continues to grind out the yards and they show no signs of messing with success. Travis Henry and surprise success Selvin Young proved to be an excellent combo and TE Daniel Graham and Brandon Marshall are keepers. But they MUST do something about depth at WR and TE. For a team that likes to run two TE and three wideout sets you need two TE’s and three wideouts, right?

After the much-publicized firing of their General Manager (the website currently lists no GM – but the phantom GM does have an assistant named Pam) so Executive Vice President of Football Operations/Head Coach Mike Shanahan will be making the decisions on draft weekend. Personally I think the Denver has gone downhill ever since Coordinator Greg Robinson left.

What they should do. This team has a new D coordinator in Bob Slowik. Despite taking THREE Dlinemen last season in the draft – all of whom are still with the team. DT Marcus Thomas is the one to watch in this group. Now that they’ve added Robertson from the Jets, Denver may lay off this position – but in a draft this line rich I sure would pick up whomever I could on this rebuilding unit. If Slowik wants to beef up the linebacker factor, the Broncs might look for one or two of these also, but the team did score a couple in free agency. Otherwise, this is one of the few teams that doesn’t need a CB (Bly, Bailey and Foxworth are a pretty impressive bunch). If McCree and Manuel look like they’ll work out, Shanahan may pass on Safety as well, since Lynch is still in the fold – though he is 36 years old.

Offensively, free agency added depth to the Oline so it’s about those wideouts?????

San Diego Chargers: Phillip Rivers officially qualifies as a stud. Did you SEE him playing on a torn ACL in that AFC Playoff? Very impressive indeed. I cannot even begin to imagine how much that must have hurt. In one painful day, Mr. Rivers justified his fourth overall pick status, his salary and his position as leader of the franchise. Good for you, Phillip. Now keep your mouth shut and play like that again.

Where they stand. Rivers will have the same coordinator this year instead of changing systems again. The entire offense struggled under Norv for the first few games, but by playoff time they had put it all together. Frankly, I think that if LT hadn’t gotten hurt, they might have knocked the Pats off a week early. But that’s ancient history here in April.

Seriously, aside from some useful depth I think this offense is built to score big. They FINALLY found a couple of top-notch wide receivers so that Achilles heel is gone.

Time for one of my Special Teams special notes: this squad is in VERY good shape. Kaeding survived Marty screaming at him to become one of the best in the business at PK and sparkplug Sproles is a heck of a return specialist. Except I’m sorry – the guy is so tiny in comparison to his teammates that he looks like a cartoon Hobbit out there with wheels spinning where his legs should be!

What they should do. Michael Turner was the most serious loss in the off-season, although replacing FB Lorenzo Neal here is going to be as tough as replacing Tony Richardson or Mike Alstott. They just don’t make Fullbacks like this anymore. I expect the running game to suffer a little in the early going until a new scheme emerges that can open those holes that Neal used to bulldoze. This team MUST replace both Turner and Neal in the draft to help LT and keep him fresh because, when fresh and healthy – there is no one better.

Defensively, the only real weakness is at safety. Clinton Hart just got a shiny new deal so he’ll need to step it up a bit and Marlon McCree is gone. Unless some free agent suddenly appears, expect SD to be joining the long line in front of the few safeties available. Otherwise, they should pick up one or more of the Dlinemen falling from the trees this spring.

Kansas City Chiefs: This is the last of my mystery teams for April 2008. The Chiefs’ early decade window of opportunity didn’t just close – it SLAMMED shut. Not with a whimper but a bang.

Where they stand. Does Herm think that Brodie Croyle is his QB or not? I can’t really tell. Perhaps neither can Herm. So, who knows if they decide to take one of the mid-range QB’s later in the draft. If this is where KC goes – look out for a big-time battle at QB this summer.

And here’s another special teams’ mention: the Chiefs brought in both kickers Novak and Billy Cundiff to try for the PK job. Neither is exactly Vinatieri. With punter sewn up by Colquitt, the PAT and FG guy needs to be a winner – especially on an offense struggling to find a new identity.

What they should do. None of that will matter unless this team gets some fresh blood on what used to be the best Oline in football. Neither QB nor Larry Johnson can survive without young and VERY GOOD Guards and Tackles in front of them. Fortunately for the Chiefs – this is the “Year of the Linemen” in the NFL draft. I expect the Chiefs to take two. (Unfortunately their Center retired without leaving a clear heir. Maybe the Chiefs should take THREE!)

The team is pretty set at running back and Gonzalez is still a class TE, but let’s talk about WR. Eddie Kennison (last of the old guard) was jettisoned in March, Samie Parker is a free agent so the folks at Arrowhead could really use#2 and #3 receivers to play with last year’s standout acquisition Dwayne Bowe. The team did sign Devard Darling (free agent WR) who has shown some flashes but…..
Defensively – really it’s yet another team where it’s going to be all about Cornerback. Ty Law is gone; Surtain is a senior citizen. The kids backing them up are, well – kids. Yikes. If I were GM Carl Peterson I’d be seriously looking for trade room to lure some CB’s to KC. The good news is that the team did re-sign outstanding young DE Jared Allen.

The kicking situation is a big deal; so don’t be flabbergasted if the team tries to find a strong leg among the rookies. Several rookie kickers have had quite a bit of success recently and that might add faith to the need.

Oakland Raiders: We began this draft preview with the sublime upset in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants and we end it with the disappointingly ridiculous situation by the Bay. Much as I often question Al Davis’ remaining sanity – I have to admit he’s great for the game (unless of course you happen to live in Los Angeles – but let’s not go there). Let’s just leave it that he adds a very high entertainment factor to everything he touches – from uprooting his team to hiring a coach barely over 30 and then telling him to resign to stepping personally into player acquisitions by negotiating face to face in a private meeting. Actually, I love that last part: if more owners were to ban agents from the process, everything could be a lot more reasonable in this league. Davis’ signing of DeAngelo Hall mirrors what just happened in baseball with ARod and the Yankees. One can only hope these deals are harbingers of things to come. I can dream, can’t I?

Oh, but back to the draft—–
Where they stand. Surprisingly – the player talent isn’t bad and Al’s off-season moves may have been maverick as usual, but they made sense. What I don’t get is leaving the coach out of the loop. Can you imagine how badly you want to be a Head Coach to take the Oakland Raiders’ position? Gives me shudders just thinking about it. Talk about not getting to shop for the groceries – Lane Kiffin doesn’t get to drive to the store!

If Russell is the real deal, the team could be on the right track. He’s certainly got a Raider-like arm. But is it Stabler’s arm or Jeff George’s arm? And who is the backup? McCown was traded to Miami and who knows where Duante Culpepper will end up. I think they should keep Culpepper – he’s the same type of QB as Russell and that’s always a plus in a starter/backup situation. The catch would be whether or not Duante will accept being the backup. Russell needs one year unchallenged as the starter.

Inexplicably Al let loud-mouthed but talented WR Jerry Porter go only to sign loud-mouthed and never-the-same-after-his-injury Javon Walker to replace him! This truly leaves injury-prone but brilliantly talented Ronald Curry as the best WR on the team. Scary.

But Davis did re-sign stellar CB Asomugha and bring in Hall to complement him. He also locked up RB Justin Fargas who had a great year rushing in this zone blocking offense after Lamont Jordan was hurt last season.

What they should do. If Davis does absolutely nothing else to help his team he HAS TO land some Dlinemen. Several in fact. (While you’re at it, you might consider giving Derrick Burgess that new contract he wants – he IS the only decent Dlinemen currently residing with the Silver and Black.) The Raiders did sign William Joseph away from the Jets, but I’ve been disappointed in Joseph the past couple of years – something is missing there, despite the hype that still remains.

Following closely behind Dline is Oline. Free agent Kwame Harris will help and Robert Gallery is finally working out at Guard. Build from there in this rich draft. The Silver and Black is another team that could use a couple of these on April 26th and 27th or sophomore QB Russell may not have time to develop.

If they have anything left, Oakland should address that WR shortage, get a TE backup – oh and their safeties don’t hold a candle to their corners in terms of talent.

The rumor mill is spinning madly trying to figure out what on earth mad monk Al will do this draft weekend. One fantasy scenario has him taking a risk on Darren McFadden if the RB isn’t snatched up by Atlanta. I think this fantasy has a very high likelihood of coming true. Come on, you know Al wouldn’t be able to help himself – I can see his checkwriting hand twitching now!

So go out there and share your new draft day knowledge, sharpen your pencils, pay down your cell minutes and…

Getcha Popcorn Ready!

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Using Gravatars in the comments - get your own and be recognized!

XHTML: These are some of the tags you can use: <a href=""> <b> <blockquote> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>