"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
07 May 2010
by Doug Farrar
In this year's draft, the Cardinals did an admirable job of filling holes created by a tumultuous offseason. And when Tennessee defensive tackle Dan Williams fell to Arizona at the 26th pick, the team finally got the every-down gap-plugger its defense has been missing for the past few seasons. However, there was no opportunity in the draft or free agency to replace inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Replacing Dansby, a rare every-down 3-4 inside linebacker, was the team's most glaring pre-draft need.
Hard-pressed to recreate Dansby's versatility, Cardinals defensive coordinator Bill Davis may look to different types of athletes. TCU's Daryl Washington, taken in the second round, is a 6-2, 230-pound athlete with great speed and range. We've seen linebackers used as center fielders in this defense before, and that could increase with Washington as he bulks up a bit and gets the hang of things. In the short term, with the back seven getting that much lighter, more will be expected of Williams on that front line.
Ole Miss’ Marshay Green is an undersized (5-9, 180) cornerback with the most SEC return potential this side of Javier Arenas. BYU quarterback Max Hall, the nephew of ex-Cowboys signal-caller Danny White, has below-average arm strength but a great grasp of the game. Kentucky running back Alfonso Smith is a big back who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day but missed time in 2009 with various injuries.
When you have needs all over the roster as the Rams do, roster construction is the real issue -- anyone with a blindfold and a dartboard can pick players who will do better than those on a series of teams that have won a total of six games in three years. That said, St. Louis GM Billy Devaney had one glaring need to fill, and he addressed it with the first overall pick, getting hyper-accurate quarterback Sam Bradford. Devaney also filled out the offensive line with Indiana tackle Rodger Saffold (who might put an end to the painful Alex Barron experiment), and gave Bradford a couple of desperately needed playmakers in Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard and Houston tight end/basketball player Fendi Onobun.
The Rams can now put a respectable offense on paper. The question is, Where are they after investing so much draft currency in their defensive line? They traded Adam Carriker -- always a better fit in a 3-4 defense -- to the Redskins, Leonard Little is thinking about retirement, Chris Long could use a complementary edge-rusher, and James Hall and Fred Robbins may be merely rotational players at this point in their careers. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo had the benefit of a seemingly endless string of linemen when he was the Giants' defensive coordinator, but the draft provided only developmental talent at defensive end: fifth-rounder Hall Davis, sixth-rounder Eugene Sims, and seventh-rounder George Selvie. "Spags" will have to coach the kids well or do without the defensive line depth for now.
The Rams weren’t just ogling Bradford when they traveled through Oklahoma on their Pro Day tour; they saw and subsequently signed two Central Oklahoma players who worked out for NFL teams nearby. Linebacker Freddie Harris led his defense in sacks in more than one season, and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo was a four-year starter who starred in the Cactus Bowl (the Division II All-Star game). Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis played two seasons under coach David Cutcliffe, who said that Lewis’ performance against North Carolina State last October was the finest he’d seen from any of his quarterbacks. Pretty fast company there. As I detailed in one of this year’s Combine reports, Cutcliffe was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee and the man who recruited Eli Manning to Ole Miss.
Having addressed their abysmal return game with a pre-draft trade for Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers turned to the matter of their offensive identity in the draft. In 2009, San Francisco operated out of the shotgun formation 44 percent of the time, ninth-highest in the league. That may have been good for Alex Smith's comfort level, born as he was in Urban Meyer's power spread offense at Utah, but Mike Singletary wants more smashmouth on the field. To that end, he took Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis and Idaho guard Mike Iupati with the team's two first-round picks. Both players fit into an offense projected to be as subtle as the proverbial punch in the mouth.
On the other side of the ball, there's still one issue preventing an effective and underrated defense from reaching its full potential -- depth in the secondary. USC safety Taylor Mays, a ridiculous athlete but somewhat undeveloped football player, was taken in the second round and will serve as an in-the-box player. The problem is in coverage. Cornerbacks Dre' Bly and Walt Harris have seen their best days, and while the team would like better options, it may be forced to rely on those, or other, second-tier players. Nate Clements, who will earn $6 million in base salary in 2010 and was benched for a time in 2009 in favor of Tarell Brown, returns as the elite name in a very shaky group. How shaky? Brown was also benched at one point -- in favor of Bly. Only Philip Adams, a seventh-round pick from South Carolina State, was added through the draft.
You may remember former Oklahoma linebacker Mike Balogun as the guy who sued the NCAA for ruling him ineligible because Balogun allegedly played one year of semi-pro football after his 21st birthday. After losing his final appeal, the now 26-year-old worked out on his own and participated in Oklahoma’s 2010 Pro Day. He had six tackles in the 2008 BCS Championship game against Florida. The Niners are evidently predisposed to the otherwise unwanted -- Belhaven University free safety Tramaine Brock was booted off the Minnesota team for academic reasons. Quarterback Jarrett Brown is another from West Virginia’s spread offense, but he isn’t doomed to Wildcat purgatory -- he’s got a strong arm and may be NFL material at the position after sorting out some mechanical issues.
The Seahawks hit a number of home runs in one of the best 2010 drafts. They filled desperate needs at left tackle (Russell Okung) and deep safety (Earl Thomas) in the first round. They also added slot receiver Golden Tate with the 60th overall pick -- most mock drafts had Tate going early in the second round. Later trades for LenDale White and Leon Washington could fix longtime liabilities in the running game.
However, one defensive need remains. Despite the previous administration's focus on the front seven, Pete Carroll's crew go into 2010 without anything resembling an elite edge-rusher. Veteran Patrick Kerney retired after leading the Seahawks with just five sacks in 2009. End Lawrence Jackson, a former first-round pick who played under Carroll at USC, has been essentially invisible at the pro level. Trading Darryl Tapp to the Eagles for Chris Clemons was a wash. In finding the right kind of pass pressure in Carroll's preferred 4-3 sets, creativity will be key. The "elephant" position, filled by a hybrid end/linebacker who will line up without his hand on the ground, is a longtime staple of Carroll defenses. Clemons could fill this role, as could linebacker Aaron Curry.
USC guard/center Jeff Byers was a Carroll favorite -- he has a bachelor's degree in business administration, and in 2008, Carroll had him give a lecture to the entire team on the subprime mortgage crisis. Byers is also the kind of downfield blocker who could stick and stay in Alex Gibbs' scheme. Carroll didn't take Taylor Mays in the draft as many suspected he would, but he did pick up backup safety Will Harris, who was an All-Pac 10 Honorable Mention in 2009. Carroll took a flyer on another USC safety, Josh Pinkard, who would have enjoyed a mid-round projection (at the very least) were it not for three different ACL injuries during his college career.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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