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?
05 May 2008
by Vince Verhei
Going into the draft, the Arizona Cardinals knew they needed help in the secondary. Their pass defense ranked 21st in 2007,and their 2008 schedule includes Matt Hasselbeck twice, plus Tony Romo, Tom Brady, and Donovan McNabb, not to mention Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. They responded by spending their first pick on a cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and their second-round pick on a defensive end, Calais Campbell out of Miami.
The pick of Rodgers-Cromartie will help the Cardinals shuffle up their secondary. Last year's free safety, Terrence Holt, moved on to Carolina. The plan is to fill Holt's spot with former cornerback Antrel Rolle, with Eric Green, Roderick Hood and Rodgers-Cromartie manning the corners. Green will be a free agent in 2009, so the team obviously plans to plug Rodgers-Cromartie into a starting role next season, if not sooner. His physical numbers indicate he'll do well; the former Tennessee State Tiger has the size (6-foot-2, 182 pounds) and speed (4.33 40-yard dash) that scouts are looking for. In the middle of all this, of course, will be FO binky Adrian Wilson, busting up runners and covering tight ends -- one of the few things the Cardinals were good at last season.
Campbell, a defensive end in a power forward's body (6-8, 282 pounds) will rotate with starters Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith. There have also been suggestions that he'll line up at tackle in passing situations, as the Cardinals, like most NFL teams, search for their version of Justin Tuck.
In the third round, the Cards nabbed a wide receiver, Early Doucet out of LSU. Doucet's draft status was hurt by his injury-marred senior season; he missed four games and most of a fifth with a pulled groin muscle. If that injury doesn't recur, the Cardinals will have gotten a bargain at a valuable position, considering that Larry Fitzgerald's long-term status with the team is far from certain, and Anquan Boldin has made noise about wanting out too. On the other hand, Doucet lasted so long partly because teams deemed him to be an injury risk, so the Cardinals could see their third-round pick spending plenty of time on the sidelines.
In later rounds, the Cards went with two more pass-rushers: Kenny Iwebema of Iowa in the fourth and Chris Harrington of Texas A&M in the sixth. They also grabbed running back Tim Hightower of Richmond in the fifth. Their last pick was an offensive tackle, 6-5, 345-pound Brandon Keith out of Northern Iowa, who NFL.com describes like so: "A very large guy."
The Cardinals did little to shore up their porous run defense (20th overall against the run, dead last in power situations last season). They could have used a mammoth defensive tackle or dominant inside linebacker. They also failed to draft a replacement at outside linebacker for Calvin Pace, who moved on to the Jets. Finally, they still plan to start the aging Edgerrin James at running back. Their offensive line was surprisingly effective last season, ranking ninth in run blocking, but the team was dead last in yards gained on big plays.
Looking for depth on the offensive line, Arizona grabbed guard Hercules Satele of Hawaii (6-2, 308). If that name sounds familiar, his cousin Samson is the center for the Dolphins. (Yes, the Satele family includes cousins named Hercules and Samson. The Verhei family, for comparison's sake, includes myself, plus Tony, Ricky, Mike and Joe. Advantage: Sateles.) The Cardinals signed several other big bodies: tackle Peter Clifford of Michigan State (6-7, 312); tackle Thaddeus Coleman of Mississippi Valley State (6-8, 308); and guard Carlton Medder of Florida (6-5, 319). Quarterback Anthony Morelli started 26 games and completed 58.2 percent of his passes at Penn State. The former Punt, Pass & Kick champion will compete with Brian St. Pierre for the third quarterback spot.
Everyone saw the Rams' first-round draft choice coming from a mile away. Their second pick, however, caught everybody off guard.
Word that the Rams were going to select defensive end Chris Long from Virginia with the second overall pick slipped out just before the draft started, but many speculators had matched that player with the team for months. The need was obvious; St. Louis defensive ends combined for only 5 1/2 sacks in 2007. (That does not count the two sacks of Clifton Ryan whose position, according to ESPN.com, is "DL.") Long had 14 sacks last season. He started 37 games at Virginia, and will likely be starting for the Rams by the end of the year, pairing with 2006's first-round pick, Adam Carriker, as the cornerstones of the St. Louis defensive line. BONUS TRIVIA FACT: He's Howie Long's kid.
The Rams followed the script in Round One, then did some serious ad libbing in Round Two. When their pick at No. 33 came around, not a single wide receiver had been taken off the board. The team had their pick of every wideout available. Most draft boards had Texas' Limas Sweed as the top receiver, while a few liked Michigan State's Devin Thomas or Indiana's James Hardy. The Rams, on the other hand, didn't like any of those guys, and went with Houston's Donnie Avery, who blew them away with his speed. An injury hurt Avery's 40-yard time at the Combine, but he recovered by Houston's Pro Day and posted a 4.34. He's not particularly big (just 5-11, 186 pounds), but he is explosive. Just ask Rice: Avery burned them for 346 yards receiving last season. His 112 yards per game ranked fourth in the country. He's currently listed as a third-stringer in Rams' depth chart, but it will be a huge disappointment if he can't beat out Dane Looker (2007 DVOA: -57.6%) and Dante' Hall (2007 DVOA: -56.3%) for the third receiver spot behind Torry Holt and Drew Bennett.
The only other draft pick likely to see substantial playing time in 2008 is fourth-round cornerback Justin King out of Penn State. King was picked for his blazing speed; his 4.31 40-yard dash tied him with Connecticut's Tyvon Branch as the fastest among cornerbacks at the Combine. He's got a chance to play nickelback this season for the Rams.
No other player drafted by the Rams is likely to start this year. In the third round they picked an offensive tackle, John Greco of Toledo, who made a name for himself with a fine performance at the Senior Bowl. Fourth-rounder Kenny Burton from Kentucky will add depth to the wide receiving corps. He shined in several drills at the Combine, most notably the vertical jump, where his 38 1/2-inch leap paced the field. Oregon State guard Roy Schuening, taken in the fifth round, started 50 games in college despite a bout of pneumonia during his senior season. In the seventh-round, the Rams drafted Chris Chamberlain out of Tulsa. Chamberlain played at linebacker in college, but at just 226 pounds, he'll be limited to safety and special teams in the NFL. Idaho linebacker David Vobora is 10 pounds bigger and might be able to stick at linebacker, but like Chamberlain, his destiny likely lies in kick coverage.
The Rams were drafting second overall for a good reason: They have holes all over their roster, starting at quarterback. Marc Bulger's best days are behind him, and top backup Gus Frerotte signed with the Vikings. Bulger has only started 16 games in a season once, so when the inevitable happens and he gets hurt, the Rams will trot out TRENT GREEN at quarterback. With his history of head injuries, the thought of Green playing behind the Rams offensive line would be funny if it weren't so sad. The line was a shambles last season. Orlando Pace missed eight games in 2006 and virtually all of 2007 with triceps injuries. While he's expected to be back for training camp, it's clearly time to find his replacement. Corey Chavous, the projected starter at strong safety, is 32 years old and draft analysis will soon be his full-time gig, not just a hobby.
Running back Yvenson Bernard broke Stephen Jackson's rushing record at Oregon State, and now has followed him to the Rams. Between Jackson, Bernard and Schuening, the potential for Beaver jokes in St. Louis this season is high. And in case Avery and Burton don't work out at wide receiver, the Rams picked up two more: Matt Caddell out of Alabama and Joshua Hyman out of Virginia Tech. The Rams signed 13 undrafted free agents in all, and given the state of their roster, any one of them has a decent shot of making the club.
The 49ers' five-win campaign in 2007, their fifth consecutive losing season, left them seventh in line in the 2008 draft, perfect position to pick a superstar player to change their fortune around -- if they hadn't traded the pick to New England a year prior. Oops. New England would go on to trade the pick to New Orleans, who would select USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, a player who surely would have improved a defense that ranked 26th defending runs up the middle in 2007.
That's bad on the surface, but there are two sides to every trade. In exchange for the pick that turned into Ellis, the 49ers got the Patriots' 2007 first-round choice, which was used to select tackle Joe Staley. (The 49ers also sent a 2007 fourth-round pick to the Pats, who later traded it to the Raiders, who spent it on John Bowie, a defensive back from Cincinnati who will spend the rest of his life not being Randy Moss.) Staley started every game at right tackle for the 49ers last season, and runs to right tackle improved from 23rd in 2006 to ninth in 2007. Considering the damage that Staley's predecessor Kwame Harris was doing to the psyche of the 49ers' fanbase (tragically, the Harris "highlight" video set to Simply Red's "Holding Back The Years" has been removed from YouTube), the trade seems like at least a wash for San Francisco. Of course, we'll be able to evaluate it better in a year's time when Ellis has actually played an NFL game.
The loss of the Ellis pick was mitigated somewhat by a trade with the Colts, who gave their first-round pick to San Francisco during the 2007 draft to select Tony Ugoh. That pick, the 29th overall, and the 49ers' own second-rounder, the 39th overall, were used to solidify the interior of the line on both sides of the ball. This is the same strategy the Kansas City Chiefs used to set everyone's hearts aflutter, but the 49ers received much less fanfare. They spent the 29th pick on Kentwan Balmer, a defensive lineman from North Carolina. Balmer played both end and tackle in college, but at 6-5, 298 pounds, he will likely play at end in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme, replacing the retired Bryant Young. Some scouts were concerned about his lower-body strength, which will be crucial in the 3-4, but they also think his frame can hold another 20 pounds without sacrificing any quickness or explosiveness.
In the second round, the 49ers drafted Chilo Rachal, a guard with a high ceiling and a low floor. Rachal's coaches at USC urged him to return to school, but he shunned their advice and skipped his senior season to enter the draft. This is not the stereotypical case, however, of instant gratification and a young player's ego luring him into the big leagues before he's ready. Rachal's mother is suffering from stomach cancer, and an NFL benchwarmer will be able to pay a lot of medical bills that a college student could not. At 6-5, 315 pounds, Rachal obviously has NFL size, but he will likely spend at least a year on the sidelines before he's ready to start for San Francisco.
In the third round, the 49ers went with Reggie Smith, a versatile corner/safety out of Oklahoma. The 49ers would like to see him as the nickelback, and his experience at safety should serve him well there. They added Cody Wallace, who started 36 consecutive games at center for Texas A&M, in the fourth round. Wallace cleaned up at the Combine, leading all offensive linemen in vertical jump and broad jump. Jokes about the rarity of centers bouncing around a football field aside, that shows great explosive power in the legs; if he can launch his own body through the air, he should have no problem popping defenders backwards at the snap. The sixth round brought wide receiver Josh Morgan of Virginia Tech to the Bay Area. NFL.com's bio of Morgan is awfully frank, saying he has "a rare combination of size and speed," but "he's also plagued by rounded-off routes, weak effort as a blocker and ugly drops." In the seventh round, the 49ers chose linebacker Larry Grant of Ohio State. Grant is somewhat undersized at 235 pounds, but has great agility, placing third in the 3-cone drill and fourth in the 20-yard shuttle at the Combine. That athleticism should come in handy on passing downs and on special teams.
The 49ers didn't do anything to upgrade the reeking hole at their quarterback position. How bad were things for San Francisco? Alex Smith was next to last in both DPAR and DVOA last season. The only player worse by either measure was his own teammate, Trent Dilfer. Things got so bad that Chris Weinke, who is 35 and has never been any good, threw 22 passes for San Francisco last season. Of course, it takes two players to complete a pass, and the receiving corps for the 49ers was just as dreadful. Their leading wide receiver in DPAR was Taylor Jacobs, with a whopping 0.0 DPAR and a catch percentage of 33 percent. Every other wide receiver came in below replacement level. The 49ers are hoping that Smith or Shaun Hill (who played well in the final three games of last season) can turn things around at the quarterback position, and that Isaac Bruce, who will turn 36 during the season, can save the receiving corps. This is madness. This is San Francisco.
PFP 2008 contributor Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle notes that "At first blush, 11 rookie free agents signed by the 49ers might be more intriguing than the six-player draft class." Lynch is mostly intrigued by the local products, such as 162-pound Cal receiver Robert Jordan. Jordan is noted for his physical and mental toughness, but the durability of this thin frame must be questioned; he broke his ankle in high school, and his collarbone in college. Another interesting prospect is Louis Holmes out of Arizona, a monster of a man at 6-6, 270 pounds, who would play an enormous outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4. He has also had "brushes with the law," so he may be terrorizing on and off the field.
As Ben Riley noted in our Audibles at the Draft, Seahawks President of Football Operations Tim Ruskell is very consistent: "In the first round, he's taking a defensive player from a major program. It's just that simple." That's not 100 percent true -- the team picked center Chris Spencer out of Mississippi with their first pick in 2005 -- but the trend is certainly there. Since Ruskell took over in 2005, early draft picks have included USC linebacker Lofa Tatupu, Miami cornerback Kelly Jennings, Virginia Tech defensive end Darryl Tapp, Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson and California defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.
The latest big-school defender is end Lawrence Jackson of USC, picked 28th overall in the 2008 draft. Jackson has strength, explosion and agility; he was among the top linemen in bench press, vertical jump, 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle at the Combine. He'll be ready to take over at defensive end when Patrick Kerney's Seahawks tenure comes to an end. Until then, he should see immediate playing time as a pass rusher; Coach Mike Holmgren has already suggested that Jackson will move inside to tackle on third downs a la Justin Tuck. (On a completely unrelated but irresistible note, Holmgren has also discussed the new hobby he and wife Kathy have found: Guitar Hero. Holmgren says his high score is 88, while Kathy has reached 94.)
At the time the Seahawks picked Jackson, the Seahawks had the option of any tight end or any wide receiver in the draft, two definite spots of need. They admitted as much when they traded their second- and third-round picks to move up in the second for Notre Dame tight end John Carlson. The selection came as something of a surprise with USC tight end Fred Davis still available, but the Seahawks apparently think Carlson's blocking makes him a more complete player. He should be in the starting lineup when the Seahawks kick off their season in Buffalo on Sept. 7.
The Seahawks went for a wide-body in Round Four, tabbing 6-5, 328-pound defensive tackle Red Bryant out of Texas A&M. The pick filled a definite need, as Chartric Darby left for Detroit and Rocky Bernard's arrest on domestic violence charges leave his availability questionable.
West Virginia's Owen Schmitt, a fullback selected in Round Five, also has a chance to start for Seattle. Mack Strong retired in the middle of last season after injuring his neck against Pittsburgh, and Leonard Weaver was an inconsistent replacement. The media is pulling for Schmitt; between his mohawk, his coaster-eating record, and his nickname ("The Runaway Beer Truck," already one of the league's best), and his appearance at an EA Sports predraft party (where Outsider Bill Barnwell says Schmitt was "double-fisting Coronas literally all night"), he's a walking, breathing headline.
The Seahawks' 2008 draft was full of Schmitt. They took long-snapper Tyler Schmitt of San Diego State in Round Six. Yes, they grabbed a long snapper. In the Draft. In the sixth round. If you're wondering why, you weren't watching the Seahawks in 2007, when the team tried Derek Rackley, Boone Stutz, and Jeff Robinson at the position, with disastrous results; the Seahawks' horrible punt numbers said more about the snappers than about Ryan Plackemeier. Although Schmitt fills a definite need, the pick still left onlookers scratching their heads. Was Seattle worried that another team would snag Schmitt before Round Seven? Was there no other option at long snapper coming into the league?
California running back Justin Forsett, taken by Seattle in Round Six, has a Warrick Dunn-like physique at 5-8, 190 pounds. Seattle has a crowded backfield with Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett and Maurice Morris, but Forsett may stick if he can prove to be an effective receiver out of the backfield, something the Seahawks have lacked since John L. Williams left town.
Seattle closed their draft with another special teamer, kicker Brandon Coutu out of Georgia. The pick filled the hole left when Josh Brown moved to St. Louis, and the sixth and seventh rounds are the right time to draft specialists.
Wide receiver, wide receiver, wide receiver. With Deion Branch likely to miss the start of the season after ACL surgery, the Seahawks' top three receivers are 35-year-old Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and second-year pro Courtney Taylor. Their top two offensive players, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and tackle Walter Jones, are 32 and 34, respectively, but the Seahawks have no apparent heirs to those thrones, unless they have faith in Seneca Wallace to develop into an NFL passer.
One of the more intriguing prospects in Seahawks camp will be North Dakota corner Donovan Alexander, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. In an interview with the Winnipeg Sun, he admitted that he is very raw: "A scout from the Green Bay Packers watched me backpedal for two seconds before he told me to stop. He said that is not how you backpedal in the NFL." The Seahawks also looked close to home for receiving depth, signing Washington wideout Anthony Russo.
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