Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
02 May 2007
by Doug Farrar
The Cardinals fielded a consistently horrible series of offensive lines during the Dennis Green era, and this offseason, they "lost" underachieving left tackle Leonard Davis (in the same way that you're now willing to "lose" that copy of the Elastica album you so cherished during that regrettable Brit-pop phase in the mid-90's). But new head coach Ken Whisenhunt brought assistant Russ Grimm with him from the Steelers, and Grimm has forgotten more about O-line play than most people will ever know. Davis will be replaced by the fifth overall pick, Penn State's Levi Brown. Brown was rated by most as the best offensive tackle after Joe Thomas, and his ability to decimate in run-blocking may make him a better fit at left tackle to start, though Matt Leinart's blind side is the right.
Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch, once regarded as a top ten prospect, slid all the way down to the first pick in the second round, where Arizona traded with the Raiders to land him. Branch could be physically dominant, but as with Gabe Watson last year, the Cardinals could be saddling themselves with a player who is more potential than production.
Florida State ILB Buster Davis was selected in the third round to augment the linebacker corps in the team's new 3-4 schemes, though his height (5-foot-8) might be a concern. Michigan receiver/return man Steve Breaston went in the fifth round. This would seem to be a pick for special teams, as Arizona's already fairly set at receiver with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The seventh round may produce a steal in Delaware tight end Ben Patrick. Patrick is an unfinished player with intriguing possibilities. Like fellow tight end Leomard Pope, he'll try to use his physical gifts to make a mark as he learns the nuances.
Though the Cardinals signed former Eagles cornerback Roderick Hood in the offseason, the depth chart is still iffy, and Antrel Rolle collects penalty flags like they were baseball cards. Another defensive end would be nice, since Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry are both 31, and Berry has missed 14 games over the last two seasons. There may still be deficiencies on that offensive line, but Grimm's coaching is a better fix than any one player would be.
Hampton cornerback Travarous Bain was buried in the Miami depth chart for three years behind Rolle and Kelly Jennings but showed his great speed and coverage ability when he had the chance at a smaller school. Bain will have to overcome the reputation as a liability in tackling and run support that comes with a 6-foot, 182-pound frame.
Alabama fullback Tim Castille, son of former Denver Broncos cornerback Jeremiah, was a coach's favorite and red zone impact player for the Crimson Tide. He rang up 21 touchdowns on his 161 collegiate carries. He's a good pass receiver who might be viewed as a tweener from a size perspective at 5-foot-11 and 232 pounds.
6-foot-6 receiver Matt Trannon of Michigan State, a cousin of Cardinals scout Lonnie Young, is a raw but physically gifted prospect who could shine after some practice squad time.
Penn State running back BranDon Snow is a larger, lower-rated fullback than Castille, but judging from this video clip of his "discussion" with former Nittany Lions teammate Levi Brown, Whisenhunt will want to have a full-time negotiator on the sidelines if Snow makes the squad.
The most aggressive team in free agency, the 49ers kept the spirit going in the 2007 draft. They came into the weekend with eight picks in the first four rounds, and gave up one of their three fourth-rounders for Seattle receiver Darrell Jackson. The wisdom of this move for the Seahawks is best left to the vagaries of time, but it's generally not a great idea to hand your most productive receiver to the one team that's growing ever larger in your divisional rearview mirror, thus filling their most glaring need and allowing them to go Best Player Available with abandon.
Mike Nolan and company chose Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis with the 11th overall pick. Willis impressed Nolan greatly at the Senior Bowl, and this columnist called the selection in at least one previous article. Willis will play inside weakside in the Niners' new full-time 3-4 defense. San Francisco then traded their 2008 first-round pick and another of those fourths for New England's first-round slot, which they used to get Central Michigan tackle Joe Staley. Another player who impressed Nolan at the Senior Bowl, Staley will probably begin his NFL career with a competition at right tackle before moving left as he learns the ropes and puts on a few more pounds. The team then traded their 2007 second-round pick to the Colts for Indy's 2008 first-rounder.
The third round brought Washington State's Jason Hill, a burner who ran a sub-4.4 40 at the Combine and will most likely see time as a third receiver behind Jackson and Ashley Lelie. A compensatory third-round pick was used for Florida defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who played end and tackle in college. McDonald fell in the draft due to some knee problems. Nebraska OLB Jay Moore, yet another Senior Bowl workout warrior (he recorded three sacks in the game) was selected in the fourth round. Florida defensive tackle Joe Cohen, Texas cornerback Tarell Brown, and Kansas State running back Thomas Clayton rounded out one of the most remarkable drafts -- and most productive offseasons -- in franchise history.
For the 49ers, the big need is for all the new pieces to come together. There's been so much movement, and so many improvements, but the great unknown is whether everything meshes right off the bat. If it does, this is a potentially dangerous team. Guards Justin Smiley and Larry Allen are in the last years of their contracts, so if David Baas and Tony Wragge have to move up the depth chart, some developmental help at the position would be good. Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer has been an exceptional mentor to Alex Smith, but it's not known how much Dilfer has left in the tank as a quarterback, should Smith miss time for any reason.
Akron quarterback Luke Getsy, one of two Pitt-to-Akron transfers after the 2003 season (guard Andy Alleman being the other), starred for the Zips after the Cleveland Browns selected Charlie Frye in 2005. Getsy, who broke Frye's school record for passing yards in 2006, is a student of the game and a good fit in a West Coast offense where the deep ball isn't as much of a factor. Jeff Garcia was once an undrafted, underrated San Francisco acquisition from a small school, and the 49ers are certainly hoping Getsy has that kind of potential.
Zac Herold, a tight end from Nebraska-Omaha, has good size and marginal speed. Compared to Minnesota's Jim Kleinsasser by some for his ability to grab yardage in zones. Herold is just a decent blocker, but a very hard worker who could impress on intangibles.
Outside linebacker Mickey Pimentel of Cal started most of his senior season, proved an ability to get behind the lines with multiple tackles for loss, and was the star of his Pro Day. Listed at six feet tall at the Combine, Pimentel comes to the NFL with a chip on his shoulder. "I could have sworn I was six-foot, but they said I'm not and that may not be tall enough," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I guess I should have worn high heels ... I hope that I opened some eyes and shined enough that my name will get out there." Now, he's got his chance -- hopefully without the heels.
In 2006, only the regular-season version of the Colts was worse up the middle defensively than the Rams were. Indianapolis obviously righted the ship just enough to win a Super Bowl, leaving St. Louis as the team with the most glaring defensive tackle issues. With their first- and fifth-round picks, they hope to have solved the problem for the next few years. The Rams selected Nebraska end Adam Carriker 13th overall, and Carriker will take more than one comparison to an embryonic Richard Seymour and move inside to the 3-technique. Michigan State tackle Cliff Ryan will man the nose tackle position on the recommendation of new defensive assistant Mike Cox, who coached Ryan with the Spartans.
Picked in the second round, Rutgers fullback Brian Leonard will compete with Madison Hedgecock to open up holes for Steven Jackson. Third-round cornerback Jonathan Wade from Tennessee will impress with his speed as he improves his somewhat raw coverage skills. On the second day, the Rams went with Ryan in the fifth, enormous Georgia run-blasting offensive tackle Ken Shackleford in the sixth, and two picks in the seventh round -- Arkansas defensive tackle Keith ("Whoa, Nellie!") Jackson, the son of the ex-Eagles/Dolphins/Packers tight end, and Wisconsin-Whitewater receiver Derek Stanley, who could be of help on any returns that Dante Hall doesn't want.
Carriker moving inside means that there's still a hole in production at defensive end opposite Leonard Little. Stephen Davis, the veteran running back who mentored Steven Jackson to such a great season, has serious knee problems and may be done. There isn't much behind Jackson at this point, though Leonard might show potential as an NFL running back. St. Louis started seven different combinations along the offensive line last season, so consistency is the primary need there.
Quinton Culberson, an outside linebacker from Mississippi State, moved from cornerback to safety to inside to outside linebacker in his collegiate career. He's still raw at his new position, but you have to wonder if there isn't the potential for a lesser version of the "do-it-all" factor that Adalius Thomas or Julian Peterson brings to the table.
Wake Forest receiver Nate Morton was rated as one of the ACC's best possession receivers, which the Rams could use after losing Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
Kent State strong safety Andre Kirkland was Second Team All-MAC in his senior year after posting 104 tackles, four interceptions and three sacks. He could crack a secondary lineup that's looking for a lot of talent, and he might win a backup spot behind Corey Chavous.
By the time their playoff run began, the Seahawks were so banged up in the secondary, team president Tim Ruskell was auditioning street free agents just to fill out the roster. And while former Dallas starting cornerback Pete Hunter impressed enough to get a chance in 2007, it has become obvious that to get anywhere near another Super Bowl, the Seahawks must improve their last line of defense in both depth and starting quality. Seattle, the only team without a first-round draft pick thanks to the Deion Branch trade, selected Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson with the 55th overall pick. Wilson ran a 4.39 40 at the Combine, and it's not just "track speed"; he's got the fluid hips and short-area burst of a potential elite defender. He's also a surprisingly big hitter for his 5-foot-9, 182-pound frame.
Speaking of hitters, Cal defensive tackle Brandon Mebane will help restore an interior line rotation that was gashed by just about any running back with a pulse during the eleven games that Marcus Tubbs missed with a knee injury. Mebane flashed pass rush ability in college, but the Seahawks already have that covered. What Mebane can do is soak up offensive linemen, allowing other defenders to flow through. The defensive line was further augmented by Miami end Baraka Atkins, Seattle's first of two fourth-round picks. Atkins played end and tackle as a Hurricane, and he's athletic enough to rush the passer and back up in a zone blitz. The second fourth-round pick, Georgia Tech tackle Mansfield Wrotto, is an intriguing case -- he played defensive tackle his first three years, switched to offensive tackle in his senior year, and will play guard for the Seahawks, who like his mean streak and athletic ability.
Fifth-round pick Will Herring from Auburn is listed as an outside linebacker, but he played a lot of free safety in school and he weighs 221 pounds. Such players often play on special teams until they find their way, and this appears to be Herring's fate. The Seahawks then picked another Auburn product, receiver Courtney Taylor, whose productivity should make up for his lack of a deep threat. Plus, he was awesome in the Dandy Warhols. Oregon receiver Jordan Kent had only played college football for one season, but his athleticism had Seattle taking a flyer in the sixth round. Kent was the third college player in the last 20 years to letter in three major sports at the NCAA level (football, basketball, and track, in his case), and one of the others was Deion Sanders. Wake Forest offensive lineman Steve Vallos rounded out Seattle's 2007 draft. He might stick as a guard on the practice squad.
Wrotto is a potential starter at guard when he learns the position, but the Seahawks still have questions on the right side in the short term. A backup center would be nice. Right now, the tight end position is filled by 35-year-old Marcus Pollard and blocking specialist Will Heller. Mike Holmgren's offense benefits from a productive tight end as a red zone target.
Cal cornerback Tim Mixon had two debits against him when draft weekend came around: his size (5-foot-8, 188 pounds) and the torn ACL which caused him to miss his entire senior season. Mixon comes to the NFL with a reputation for great intelligence and a capacity for making plays based as much on mental ability as physical agility. The Seahawks, who are used to working with shorter cornerbacks, could have a steal on their hands if Mixon is fully recovered from the knee injury.
Oregon State's Joe Newton was lost in the late-round run on tight ends in the draft, but he is a huge (6-foot-7, 257) and surprisingly agile player who returned full strength from a foot tendon injury in 2005. His 36 receptions for 466 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season, coupled with his stellar blocking skills, make him seemingly a sure thing for a Seattle team that's thin at the tight end position.
Georgia center Nick Jones was named second-team All-SEC in his senior year and started his final 31 games for the Bulldogs. Switching from guard for the 2006 season, Jones could stick with a Seattle team that has precious little for backup behind Chris Spencer. He was given the "Junkyard Dog Award" in Georgia's 2006 spring drills, and you'd think that would be an appealing thing for a lineman. Woof!
Next week: AFC West and NFC South.
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