Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
17 May 2005
By Russell Levine
Also check out the pre-draft edition of Four Downs: NFC South.
Nobody will confuse them with the Detroit Lions anytime soon, but the Falcons did use a first-round pick on a receiver for the second straight year. Roddy White of UAB was taken with the 27th pick to join last year's selection, Michael Jenkins. Certainly, receiver was still a "need" position for Atlanta, which received less production from its wideouts last year than just about any team not named "Giants."
After the White selection, the Falcons turned their attention to the other side of the ball, selecting defensive players with their next four picks. Second-round defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux fits the mold of small, quick linemen the team prefers; he'll probably be worked into the rotation much as Chad Lavalais was last year.
The main defensive needs were not addressed through the draft, however. Atlanta could use an upgrade to the secondary, where second-year corner DeAngelo Hall is surrounded by players of no better than average talent, but the Falcons did not select a safety or corner in this year's draft.
A sixth-round selection netted Michigan State running back DeAndra Cobb, who has a decent chance to make the roster as a kick returner and upgrade Atlanta's already outstanding special teams.
Atlanta signed 15 undrafted, or "street," free agents following the draft, including a couple of productive college players of note: quarterback Bryan Randall (Virginia Tech) and running back T.A. McClendon (North Carolina State). Perhaps Michael Vick can ask Randall how he managed to keep Vick's little brother mostly on the Hokie bench (at least when the local authorities weren't responsible) during their one season as teammates.
McClendon is a very talented back, but he simply could not stay healthy with the Wolfpack, suffering from an endless succession of hamstring troubles. If he can somehow put those problems behind him, he has a chance to stick on the roster. He certainly had more talent than most of the late-round backs that where selected.
Carolina's first-round pick was an interesting one: linebacker/safety Thomas Davis of Georgia, taken with the 14th choice overall. Some may complain that No. 14 is too high a pick to spend on a "'tweener," but Davis has the kind of sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability that all teams covet, and has even drawn comparisons to another first-round college safety who has become a standout NFL linebacker: Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks. It has yet to be determined where Davis will line up for the Panthers, but the recent announcement that Mark Fields will miss the upcoming season with a recurrence of Hodgkin's Disease may push Davis to linebacker.
The Panthers had a smart draft overall. Second-round running back Eric Shelton of Louisville is a huge, bruising back with tremendous speed for his size. He could certainly be a contributor as a rookie, and could end up the long-term (or short-term, depending on how he returns from last year's knee injury) replacement for Stephen Davis.
The fourth-round brought Shelton's Louisville teammate, quarterback Stefan LeFors, potentially the successor to Jake Delhomme in a few years. LeFors completed a ridiculous 73.5% of his passes for 11-1 Lousville last year, and led the Cardinals up and down the field in their only loss, a near-upset of Miami at the Orange Bowl. Only his height kept him from being selected higher.
Carolina signed seven rookie free agents immediately after the draft, the most notable being wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield of Purdue. Stubblefield set an NCAA record for career receptions playing in Joe Tiller's "basketball on grass" attack, but a lack of size of speed kept him from being drafted.
Defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander of Cal is another name that college fans might recognize.
If not for the Cleveland Browns, the Saints might be the team most people name as having the poorest overall draft record of recent seasons, and New Orleans made another questionable move in 2005, moving up three spots in the first round to select Oklahoma offensive tackle Jammal Brown at the cost of a third-rounder next year. It's not that Brown is a bad player, he might turn out to be an all-pro and is already penciled in as the starter at right tackle.
Rather, the problem is that a team that can't escape the shadow of .500 has to many needs to be trading valuable picks to move up a slot or two. The Saints are not one player away from contending, especially not with so much dead weight from recent draft busts clogging the roster. Why not stay put and select the best player available? Of course, I reserve the right to take that comment back if Brown turns into the second coming of William Roaf.
New Orleans' most intriguing pick was quarterback Adrian McPherson of Florida State and, more recently, the Arena League's Indiana Firebirds, taken in the fifth round. McPherson comes with equal amounts of talent and baggage. He was a high school legend in Florida, but was kicked off the Seminole team after allegations of gambling (including on his own team) and check stealing surfaced. He landed in the AFL, where he was the rookie of the year in 2004, and by all accounts was a model citizen. Some may call this a risky pick, and it would be if McPherson was taken in the second or third round. But by waiting until round five, a risky selection becomes a value selection.
The Saints suffered some unfortunate news when fourth-round receiver Chase Lyman, who tore his right ACL last year at Cal, tore the ACL in his left knee during his first mini-camp workout.
The Saints signed 10 rookie free agents, none of who is a household name even to serious college football junkies (a.k.a., me). Three of the 10 were wide receivers, a position where the Saints need to add depth after the departure of Jerome Pathon and Lyman's injury, so Scott Beveridge (Penn State), Tramissian Davis (Louisiana Tech), and Keron Henry (Connecticut) all have a chance compete for a roster spot.
If nothing else, you have to give the Saints credit for making a strong play for the All-Name team with Beveridge and Tramissian.
Another player who could stick is defensive end L.P. La Douceur of Cal, because he's also a long snapper.
The Buccaneers drafted miserably during the final years of the Rich McKay regime, wasting too many high-round picks (when they held on to them at all) to mention here. Things showed signs of turning around last season, Bruce Allen's first draft as the team's GM. Michael Clayton appears well on his way to stardom and safety Will Allen looks ready to step in for the departed Dwight Smith.
Tampa Bay had an interesting 2005 draft, one in which they were armed with 12 picks overall, including extra selections in the third and fifth rounds. A day two trade of a sixth-round pick also brought in quarterback Luke McCown from the Browns, who will probably be the third-stringer behind Brian Griese and Chris Simms. With the franchise clearly in a rebuilding mode, many of this year's picks will be counted on to contribute immediately.
The first-round pick, running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn, was a no-brainer. Jon Gruden floated the idea of trading up to take Alex Smith, but the reality is that he fell for Williams after coaching him at the Senior Bowl. Williams should become the immediate 20-25 carry-per-game starter at tailback, pushing Michael Pittman to a reserve role.
The second round netted linebacker Barrett Ruud of Nebraska. Tampa Bay is projected to start three 30-something players at linebacker, so this was a need selection. Third-round tight end, the "other" Alex Smith, of Stanford is a polished downfield threat who should see plenty of balls as a rookie.
The other third-rounder, tackle Chris Colmer of North Carolina State, was a player who slipped in the draft due to medical concerns, but could be an immediate starter if he's healthy. Tampa Bay selected another linemen, Dan Buenning of Wisconsin (fourth round), who could also compete for time as a rookie. Safety Donte Nicholson, a big hitter from Oklahoma, could get a shot at Smith's spot if Allen falters. In the later rounds, Tampa Bay went for some extremely productive college receivers, Paris Warren of Utah and J.R. Russell of Louisville, as well as fifth-rounder Larry Brackins, a junior college player who was good enough to earn scholarships offers to USC and Florida State before opting to turn pro. With Tampa Bay's receiver depth decimated (recently signed Ike Hilliard immediately becomes No. 3 on the depth chart) all three of the drafted receivers will get a chance to make the club.
Following the draft, Tampa Bay swooped up undrafted free agents the way Malcom Glazer has been buying shares of Manchester United, signing 14 in all. Most notable were a pair of defenders from USC, linebacker Matt Grootegoed and corner Kevin Arbet, as well running back Derek Watson of South Carolina.
Quarterback Jared Allen, out of Howard Schnellenberger's startup Florida Atlantic program, is an interesting prospect who is probably headed for the practice squad.
Coming Thursday: AFC West by Mike Tanier